When a Model Train Hobby Gets a Little Bit Out of Hand…

If there is one thing that most kids love, it’s a model train display. And, hey, let’s face it, many adults still get a bit of joy out of seeing model trains, too, especially around the holidays. I happen to be one of those adults, so you’ll understand my level of joy when I discovered that the largest model train display in America (the world?) was just under two hours away from New York City in Flemington, NJ. And let me just say, this place is absolutely bonkers! After I tell you about it, I really hope you’ll go check it out because it will blow your mind.

This amazing display is called Northlandz, and it’s basically the living example of what happens when you have too much free time on your hands and an imagination that never ends. AND I LOVE IT. Northlandz is the brainchild of Bruce Williams Zaccagnino, who has been building model train displays since the 1970s.  When his hobby started to get a bit out of control and required him to build several additions onto his house to accommodate all his creations, Bruce and his wife decided to buy some property where his display could properly expand and be made accessible to the public as well. And thus…Northlandz came to be!

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Northlandz is a 16-acre, 3-story building featuring not only Bruce’s model trains but a huge pipe organ and a large collection of dolls as well. (Personally, I find the dolls to be pretty creepy, but Northlandz is totally quirky and the dolls seem to only add to the delightful quirkiness of it all.) But let’s talk about the train display because it’s really unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, mostly due to its insane size and the incredible amount of detail he’s put into the design of his display. If you do visit, you definitely need to plan to spend at least a couple hours because there is SO much detail and you’re going to want to be sure you have enough time to look at it all.

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You start your tour on the ground floor, and as you work your way through the display, you’ll see little cards that tell you what percentage you have seen so far. You’re going to be surprised when you see that first card that tells you that you’ve only completed 5%!  As you wind your way through the display, you’ll actually be working your way up a ramp (which is built into the 30-foot mountain Bruce has built inside the building) to the top level of the display before you cross a hallway (through the room with the pipe organ) and discover there is another whole side of the building with even MORE to see.  

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The scenery and backgrounds you’ll see are ever-changing.  There are city scenes and rural scenes. Some parts covered in snow and some are summer scenes complete with a carnival and drive-in movie theater. There are bridges overhead and bridges below you. And all throughout, there are clever little cards describing what you’re seeing, all according to the story of what Bruce wants you to believe is going on in this imaginary world he has created.  The cards are hilarious, so definitely take time to read them because they add a lot of fun and creativity to the experience.

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You will also get a chance to check out the control room where Bruce manages all the comings and goings of the hundreds of trains zipping throughout the massive display’s 8 miles of track, more than 1,000 miniature buildings, and almost 400 bridges. And if you have kids, there is also a little train they run outside that you can ride yourself if you’d like (though if you’re not taking a kid along, I’d recommend saving the time and stick with the model trains inside instead.) 

I’ve been to Northlandz a couple times now, once with my husband and a second time with my parents and sister when they were in town for a visit, and all of us have loved and marveled at the sheer size of Northlandz and the endless amount of time and creativity that have gone into its creation. Bruce had spent 4+ years putting Northlandz together before he initially opened the place, and to this day, he still continues to repair old sections of the display while creating and adding even more new sections.

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But despite all of Bruce’s care and effort, Northlandz is starting to show its age and it’s uncertain how much longer Bruce will be able to continue to maintain his magnificent creation.  As such, I encourage you to make a plan to visit soon because you don’t want to miss the opportunity to see this fantastic place! When you do go, I encourage you to wear comfy shoes, and bring a stroller if you have smaller kids who tire easily because it’s not a place you can just rush through. And after you visit, please check back and tell me all about it!

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Have you already been to Northlandz?  If so, let me know what you thought the first time YOU visited.

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