Train Activities for Families in St. Paul, Minnesota
About the Author: Brandi Ryan is raising train enthusiasts. She has enthusiastically said "Chugga Chugga" and "Choo Choo" in places she didn't know existed four years ago.
Choo Choo Bob's
2050 Marshall Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55104
If there's a young train enthusiast in your family the odds are high you've already found Choo Choo Bob's. This train shop in the MacGroveland neighborhood is dedicated to train fans young and old. Model train cars and supplies are sold side by side with playsets for young children. The real draw though is the running model trains, the six train tables for open play at the back of the store, and the kind and knowledgeable staff. Bob's does not charge a fee to use their play tables but they do have a box for donations to "keep the lights on." A variety of tempting items are available for sale and easily browsed while simultaneously supervising playtime. Choo Choo Bob's also offers an onsite party service.
Twin Cities Model Railroad Museum
1021 Bandana Blvd, St. Paul, MN 55108
The Model Railroad Museum is all about motion in miniatures. The intricate set-ups are on the move and a wonder to behold. In one building a room size layout replicating parts of Twin Cities snakes over bridges and through hills. In another a tiny fairground keeps company with a recreated 1950s town and many other small model villages. There are some trains the children can operate themselves and an assortment of hands on activities.
Beware however that this is not a great spot for a mobile but uninhibited child. While not a strict "no touch" museum many of the set ups are exhibit like and surrounded on all four sides by plexiglass. It's a practical and understandable choice but it's not appealing to everyone. You'll also want to check the hours before you go. The museum is spread over two buildings. Currently the room size set up is open more hours than the more diverse toy train division. To get the best value for your dollar go when both sections are open.
Thomas' Shed. Tidier than the Jackson Street Roundhouse but harder to climb.
Minnesota Transportation Muesum
193 Pennsylvania Ave. E, St. Paul, MN 55130
The Jackson Street Roundhouse is the hub of this museum. While it may seem like little more than a warehouse to the modern observer, the roundhouse is the point at the end of the rail line where engines could ride a giant wheel to make an about face on the tracks. Today museum visitors are permitted to ride the wheel during regularly scheduled turnings. Those with small children might want to keep a firm hand on them or keep the little ones buckled in a stroller. The round house platform is high with widely spaced rails. The center point turns more slowly while the ends have a bit of speed to them.
The roundhouse itself is a train car museum. Engines, a caboose, and other cars are displayed in various states of restoration. Visitors can climb inside and explore at their own pace. Many exhibits have detailed explanations posted. The museum also has a souvenier shop and train tables available for free play.
Please note that this is not a fancy museum. Trains are large and the historic space that holds them is difficult to insulate. Temperatures are managed for practicality rather than museum levels of indoor comfort. The museum does not have a restaurant or even a snack machine. Bathrooms and parking are both convenient and well maintained. The majority of the museum is stroller accessible but close up views of the outdoor warehouse behind the museum and cars beside the building can be difficult for the less mobile.
Chris and Rob's (grill and fry restaurant on West 7th)
603 West 7th St, St. Paul, MN 55402
Chris and Rob's Chicago Taste Authority does not run a series of train themed restaurants. They do, however, have a spectacular location on West 7th. The exterior still looks like a train. Most of the interior seating area has the look of a vintage dining car. The manager said he had no information on the history of the car; it was already a restaurant when Chris and Rob's took over. If it isn't authentic it's a very good replica.
For the young train enthusiast there's not a better restaurant in Saint Paul. In addition to hotdogs the menu includes sandwiches, pizza, burgers, and a number of a la carte sides. For the older members of your party they serve beer and usually have at least one TV playing sports.
Saint Paul Union Depot
214 E 4th St, St. Paul, MN 55101
As of today (February 1, 2012) there's not much to say about Union Depot. It will eventually be the end of the light rail line connecting St. Paul and Minneapolis. It's a beautiful historic building and judging by the pictures on the internet it's being lovingly restored to its former glory and updated to include the shops, offices, and condos that serve a modern population. Currently though it's more than a construction site. If you're interested in watching the progress Lowertown Landing and Saint Paul Spot are following the project on Facebook.
Union Depot Playground
Java Train Cafe
1341 Pascal St N, St. Paul, MN 55108
It's a coffee shop with a train theme. The drinks are priced about about like you'd expect and the food items are kid friendlier than some other places. Inside there is a large climbing play structure styled after a train. Outside there is a second play structure and a sandbox.
While a great overall concept it can be a challenge when the inside play area gets crowded. Parents can't see from the tables what sort of mischief is going on inside the engine and the stairs are steep enough that some find them worrying.
Indian Mounds Park
Mounds Park, 10 Mounds Blvd, St. Paul, MN 55106
Indian Mounds Park overlooks the switching yard along the Mississippi River and the regional airport. It features a playground, picnic tables, tennis courts, open mowed field areas and yes, actual Indian mounds. There are official lookout points and several unfenced overlooks with spectacular views of the still active train yard. Because of safety concerns (ie unfenced bluffs) parents with rambunctious children and groups are strongly urged to use caution. The playground is across the park road from the bluffs (and the view).
10 Rosedale Center, Roseville, MN 55113
A child size indoor train drives throughout the mall. There's a fee and the ride can seem too brief but it can be a nice respite. Current online information on the hours for the train is scant (it runs more around Christmas) but the business is called Loco-Motives and lists it's phone number as 703.627.6152
Rosedale also has an indoor play area. There's no train theme here but plenty to climb on for free and riding toys that move for quarters.
Maplewood Mall also has a train. Hours, cost, and tips are provided here.