Eight Dazzling Toy Train Displays to Get You in the Holiday Spirit

From Dallas to New York City, these mighty miniatures will delight even the biggest Scrooge

The New York Botanical Garden in New York City is just one of many places across the country to see holiday-themed model train shows. (Robert Benson Photography)
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With the holidays chugging into full swing, what better way to get into the spirit than by seeing a display of model trains decked out for Christmas? Ever since Lionel introduced its first electronic train set in the early 1900s, model trains have become a ubiquitous part of the holidays, circling shop windows and Christmas trees in households nationwide. Here are eight displays across the United States that take this beloved holiday tradition to the next level.

Holiday Train Show, New York Botanical Garden, New York City

Housed inside the New York Botanical Garden’s 116-year-old Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, the largest Victorian glasshouse in the United States, the Holiday Train Show has been a holiday must luring locals and visitors alike to the Bronx since 1992. Now in its 26th year, the annual event serves as a miniature approximation of New York City, with pint-sized replicas of iconic structures such as the Brooklyn Bridge, One World Trade Center, Yankee Stadium and the conservatory itself, each built by hand using natural materials like twigs and tree bark. Adding to the wonder of the cityscape is nearly a half-mile of railroad tracks circumnavigating the display. This year’s event runs through January 21 and includes concerts by local a capella groups, ice carving, poetry readings and more.

Also in NYC is the 17th-annual Holiday Train Show at Grand Central Terminal located in midtown Manhattan. On view now through February 4 and designed by the New York Transit Museum, this year’s free display features Lionel model train replicas of the Metro-North line, one of the city’s commuter rail services, running alongside vintage subway train sets, all centered around a backdrop of original artwork by local artist Ebony Bolt.

Holiday Garden Railway, Morris Arboretum, Philadelphia

On Friday and Saturday evenings throughout the month of December, the Morris Arboretum at the University of Pennsylvania transforms into the Holiday Garden Railway. This year’s display features a quarter mile of garden-scale train tracks comprised of—wait for it—seven loops and tunnels, 15 different rail lines, two cable cars, and nine bridges, including one trestle bridge you can walk under. The jury is still out on whether or not there will be a partridge in a pear tree.

And not to be outdone, the Reading Terminal Market, located about 15 miles south of the university, brings together five different dioramas focused on scenes both local and far off, including the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside, a 1930s-era depiction of the market and—in keeping with the season—the North Pole. The best part: The entire space is completely interactive and visitors can control the trains and lights. This year’s event is open daily through Christmas Eve.

Wonderland Express, Chicago Botanic Garden

Every winter, the Chicago Botanic Garden morphs into a world of wonder during Wonderland Express, the garden’s annual holiday model-train show. Located inside Nichols Hall, this year’s event—on view now through January 6—features pieces from the garden’s growing collection of nearly 400 train cars and engines as they chug past miniature replicas of more than 80 of the city’s most recognizable buildings and landmarks, including Cloud Gate, Millennium Park and Centennial Wheel, all designed by Paul Busse of Applied Imagination (he’s also the mastermind behind the displays at the New York Botanical Garden and Morris Arboretum.) A variety of dwarf and pint-sized conifers punctuated throughout the display and a gentle shower of indoor snow help bring the scaled-down city to life.

Holiday Junction Featuring the Duke Energy Holiday Trains, Cincinnati Museum Center

Since 1946, people of all ages have made it a tradition to see the Duke Energy Holiday Trains in Cincinnati, and this year is no different. Featuring hundreds of model trains that the museum has acquired over the years, some of which date back to the early 1900s, the 9,000-square-foot display is easily one of the country’s oldest. This year’s event is in a new and updated space inside the museum, and features stylized replicas of the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky skylines designed in Art Deco—a nod to the museum’s architectural roots. This year’s event will run through January 27.

Magical Holiday Express, B&O Railroad Museum, Baltimore

Located inside the museum’s cavernous roundhouse, which once served as a working passenger train car shop for the B&O Railroad, the Magical Holiday Express celebrates trains of all shapes and sizes. Climb onboard a working train and meet Frosty the Snowman, or simply marvel at the many different model trains on display. On view every weekend, now through December 31 with something different each weekend.

Trains at NorthPark Center, Dallas

Taking a break from the hustle and bustle of shopping is a necessity, especially during the holidays. At NorthPark Center, a high-end shopping mall in Dallas, The Trains at NorthPark have been giving weary shoppers a dose of holiday spirit since 1987. Presented by the Bank of Texas, the sprawling display of 1,600-feet of train track includes miniature replicas of iconic buildings and sites found across the United States, from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the Washington, D.C. skyline. Open daily through January 6.

About Jennifer Nalewicki

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, United Hemispheres and more. You can find more of her work at her website.

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