In real life, the islands just off the English mainland near Barrow in Furness, in Cumbria, has been home to the engines of industry — submarine manufacturing plant, undersea coal mining, petrochemicals and a hotly contested nuclear energy plant.
But for generations — baby boomers who read the Railroad Series books of Rev. Wilbert Awdry, and the children of the 80s who experienced those stories too, on a popular television series — the only island that counts in the gleaming distances of the Irish Sea, is Sodor.
Sodor, home to Thomas the Tank Engine, that is.
Thanks to the Long Island Children’s Museum (LICM) in Garden City, today’s kids can extend America’s decades-young love affair with the friendly train engine that is viewed across digital platforms worldwide. On YouTube alone, the Thomas & Friends channel has had over 1.16 billion lifetime views, over 909,000 subscribers and 2.6 million engagements.
“Thomas & Friends: Explore the Rails,” an exhibit created by the acclaimed Minnesota Children’s Museum, rolled into the museum in late January and will continue to charm families through May 10.
Specifically, visitors step onto the reimagined Island of Sodor where they can climb aboard a large model of Thomas the Tank Engine, race trains along a giant track, visit iconic locations — like Knapford Station, Tidmouth Sheds, Brendam Docks, and the Sodor Steamworks — and work together to sort and load cargo and maintain engines.
Sound like fun? It is, say LICM staff. “All of our exhibits are hands on, and that’s fun, you get to be an active learner, the way you play with it, manipulate it,” says Aimee Terzulli, the museum’s Director of Education and Visitor Experience. “And this one is incredibly hands on. There’s tons to do.”
Exhibits that feature familiar faces are particularly popular, notes Terzulli. “We’ve had Wizard of Oz, Cyberchase, which is a popular cartoon show, and now this one,” she says. “That helps in part because it is a built-in audience. But we are looking for an exhibition that hits all the boxes — family learning, multiple entry points to different stages of learners, and a little physical activity.”
All the boxes means just that — everything from stimulating the imagination to creative problem solving — and there is a decidedly educational element at work with the exhibit, aligned with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) literacy for kids ages two through seven — thinking mathematically, making comparisons, experimenting to solve problems, thinking creatively and reflecting on actions and results.
“Thomas and Friends” does all this as visitors find themselves surrounded by the Island of Sodor’s iconic locations — Knapford Station, Sodor Steamworks and much more. Kids help Thomas and his friends solve a variety of challenges, from a simple sorting and shape identification to more complex engineering obstacles, such as completing a train track using track pieces with different levels of elevation.
The museum puts on three visiting exhibits a year, and has found that especially during winter months a physically active exhibition is welcomed by families. “In the winter when you feel you’re cooped up and don’t feel there are a lot of experiences to offer your children, a show like this is a wonderful thing,” says Terzulli.
“The exhibit is intergenerational for a number of reasons, she notes. “Trains resonate, for parents and for grandparents. As in all our shows, parents become active in their children’s learning.”
“They also get to step back a little and watch with other parents as their children become engaged in the activities. Sometimes parents need these social connections too,” she adds.
And that fits in with the inter-generational way in which these stories were created, it seems. Anyone who knows the Railroad Series books will recall that Rev. Awdry included a touching ‘pass the torch’ note to his own son, Christopher, at the beginning of the second book. It read:
“Here is your friend Thomas, the Tank Engine. He wanted to come out of his station-yard and see the world. These stories tell you how he did it. I hope you will like them because you helped me to make them.
Your Loving Daddy”
Not only can a new generation of kids get their first introduction to the world’s most beloved #1 blue engine — but more than a few grown ups will now have a chance to follow in Rev. Awdry’s own footsteps as well, passing on to a new generation their genuine affection for Thomas the Tank Engine.
Thomas & Friends: Explore the Rails
When: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. $14 adults and children, $13 seniors, free to museum members and children under 1. Additional fees for theater and special programs apply. View the LICM events calendar at www.licm.org for additional information or call(516) 224-5800.
Where: Long Island Children’s Museum, Museum Row, Garden City.