Thanks to the Essex Steam Train & Riverboat for providing my family with complimentary admission to Day Out With Thomas: The Ready, Set, Go Tour 2016! All opinions are 100% my own.
I can hardly believe that we have been lucky enough to attend the Day Out With Thomas event at the Essex Steam Train & Riverboat in Essex, CT for FOUR years in a row now. And every year, we seem to love it more and more.
Of course, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a wonderful time when you have two tiny Thomas fans in tow (say that five times fast!). But I also think that after 4 years I can safely say that I’ve learned a few tricks about making the experience even more amazing.
So today, rather than just give a general overview of the event (which you can find in my posts from 2013, 2014 & 2015), I thought I’d present my TOP TEN TIPS for spending your best day ever with everyone’s favorite #1 engine!
Tip #1: Park In The Remote Lot
There are two main parking areas for Day Out With Thomas: a large lot right there at the Essex Steam Train’s location, and then another one a couple miles down the road. Under most circumstances, parental instinct will tell you to park in the area closest to your destination, but I’m here to tell you to ignore that little voice in your head and drive right by the Essex Steam Train’s onsite parking area. That’s right! Just drive right on by and follow the easy-to-spot signs to the remote parking area.
I know you may think this sounds crazy, but if you don’t go to the remote parking area, you won’t be able to ride the shuttle. And why would you want to take a shuttle, you ask? Because it’s another train ride! Yes! The kiddos will love getting this bonus train ride both to and from the Essex Steam Train station.
The train to the station runs back and forth, approximately every 15-20 minutes, but there is a tent set up with chairs so it’s a comfortable spot to wait. There is also a school bus shuttle that runs back and forth a bit more frequently, so if you are running late you can always hop on the bus one way and take the train back again later.
Tip #2: Get There Early
You may have had an inkling that this tip would follow after I sent you out to the remote parking area where there’s a potential 15-minute wait for the train shuttle 🙂
But seriously, I cannot stress this enough: get there AT LEAST A FULL HOUR before your scheduled train ride time. So that means, if you have a 2:15 ticket like we did, you should plan to be pulling into that remote parking lot AT LEAST an hour before the time on your ticket (in this case by 1:15 AT THE LATEST). I do apologize for all these capital letters (I promise I’m not screaming at you), but this is really important.
Every year as we wait for the shuttle, we overhear some distraught families who are missing their ride on Thomas right that very minute (or who are biting their nails hoping that they can make it to the train in 15 minutes). Oh the stress! This is no way to spend a day out with Thomas. (Just FYI, if you do miss your Thomas train ride time, I believe they can put you on standby for a later train ride–no guarantees though, of course–so if you meet with some unforeseen and unavoidable catastrophe that delays your arrival, don’t totally throw in the towel; there is still hope!)
Once you arrive at the main grounds, you’ll need to show your tickets to enter the event (if your tickets are being held for you at Will Call, you can pick them up right outside the entrance. There may be a little bit of a line there too– another reason to arrive early!
Another tip: don’t lose track of your tickets after you enter the event (I forget this every year!). You will need to show them again when you go to board the Thomas train. So just put them back in a safe place (and not stuffed down into the depths of your diaper bag like I do accidentally every time).
Another great reason to get there early is because then you can take your kiddos to actually SEE THOMAS at the head of the train BEFORE you take a ride with him. Once you are actually on board the train, you won’t really be able to see the little blue engine, so I always think it’s fun to take my kiddos up to the front of the train to say “hi” to Thomas before we go for a ride so they can see that he is actually “pulling” them. Thomas also talks (for real! mouth moves and everything!), so it’s a hoot 🙂
The train ride begins to board about 15 minutes before the departure time, so you’ll want to head over to the boarding area (a big, white, clearly marked tent) accordingly. Don’t worry if you see a mass of people before you. Everyone with a ticket WILL get on the train and ALL the seats are good ones! The ride is about 25 minutes long. NEW this year, the boarding area has moved to the other side of Essex Station (basically, it’s swapped spots with the food tent location from previous years). That’s actually great because it’s a much more central location. There is still a stroller parking area.
So to recap, it could take you 20 minutes to catch and ride the train shuttle to the event grounds, another few minutes to wait in line to enter, another few minutes to walk around to where the Thomas train boards, plus extra time if you want to visit with the #1 engine ahead of time (just keep walking past the boarding area all the way to the end of the track where the Thomas photo area is located), and then about 15 minutes to wait and board the train. So that there is almost an hour of time just to get to your train ride without having to feel rushed!
But there is SO MUCH MORE to do at Day Out With Thomas than the train ride!
Which brings me to really useful tip #3…
Tip #3: Plan To Stay The Whole Day
The other reason you’ll want to arrive early, is that the ride on Thomas is just one, 25-minute part of a whole day’s worth of Thomas-themed fun. You should plan on spending at least 3-4 hours at Day Out With Thomas and depending on your train ride time, you may choose to do that before the ride, after the ride, or both before and after the ride!
Other activities that you can enjoy (FREE of any additional charge!) include…
Kiddie amusement rides
You can ride them as many times as you like! Perennial favorites include a carousel, tiny trains and tugboats, and a fun house. A new addition this year is a giant slide that my older son (age 5) adored.
A petting zoo (NEW this year!)
You can feed and pet the animals (bring cash that attendants can change for quarters for the feed machines) and there’s even a place to wash up afterwards.
Indoor activities at Imagination Station
These include train tables galore, live music and magic shows, a video viewing area, temporary tattoos, face-painting and more!
Photo ops with Thomas’ bestie.
Touch-A-Truck with the Deep River Fire Department.
Try on the gear and climb on board!
Like balloon animals…
And an awesome gift shop (more on that later!)
Tip #4: Check Out The Map
We’ve been blogging about kids’ activities for almost five years now, and we still think that Day Out With Thomas at the Essex Steam Train is one of the most organized, well-run and generally stress-free events out there. And one of the things that makes it run so smoothly is actually a simple piece of paper that a friendly staff member will hand you as you enter the event: the map.
Not only does this map tell you where to find all of the attractions and activities, it also tells you the showtimes for the live music and magic shows. So be sure to check the map when you enter so you can plan out your day and make sure not to miss a thing.
Also, on the back of your map you’ll find a fun game for the kiddos– they can collect stamps at various locations around the event and then show their completed worksheet for a prize at the end (spoiler alert: everyone will get the prize regardless of how many stamps they receive–but it’s still fun to play!)
Tip #5: Know Where To Find The (Really Useful) Facilities
Okay, let’s just admit it. We have a bit of a reputation at Out and About Mom for being restroom-obsessed. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but we definitely scout “the facilities” wherever we go because let’s face it, when you’ve got little kids sometimes the difference between an easy outing and an exhausting excursion is as simple as a diaper changing station, am I right?? 🙂
While that map above may show several restroom options, we are here to tell you that the only real restroom can be found at Essex Station (the rest are porta-potties). It’s fairly large, it’s clean, and it has…wait for it…a changing station!
Another NEWLY UPDATED addition is an indoor nursing area located in the quiet back corner of the gift shop. (I don’t remember seeing this set-up in previous years–I remember seeing it in a tent outdoors once or twice and also in Essex Station once.) Located to the left of the train layout, this private room has curtains separating two nursing areas with comfy chairs where moms can nurse in (relative) peace and quiet.
Tip #6: Bring Your Camera
Sure, this may sound like a no-brainer, but this event is truly camera-friendly. Yes, there are professional photographers there to help you capture those really special moments whether with Thomas, Percy, Sir Topham Hatt or on the train ride, but you are also welcome to take all those pictures with your own camera too. It’s always nice to have the option to get a professional photo (especially since then you can capture the whole family in the shot as no one needs to be behind the camera!), but not everyone wants to have to buy all those photo memories. There’s also no obligation to purchase the professional photos, so you can always take one of each and pick the best of them later. At Day Out With Thomas, you can choose the photo approach that works best for you.
Tip #7: Dress Appropriately (And Festively!)
Although many of the activities at Day Out With Thomas happen inside (trains, buildings or tents), you will be spending a large portion of your time outside getting to and from those activities (not to mention all the outdoor kiddie rides and the picnic areas). And Day Out With Thomas goes on rain or shine. This means that you should dress as if you are going to be attending an outdoor event. If it’s chilly, bring a jacket (you’ll thank us as you’re waiting in line for the shuttle). If it’s rainy, wear your rubber boots (the dusty ground turns to mud in a flash). If it’s sunny, pack the sunblock and hats (don’t let that cool April air fool you– that sun is blazing!). And above all, make sure your footwear is comfortable as you will be spending a lot of time walking from one place to another and standing in those places.
Also, many little ones come to the event decked out in Thomas-themed gear or dressed up like little engineers with overalls and caps. So definitely feel free to let your kiddos be creative with their apparel– just be sure you don’t mind if it gets a little dirty 🙂
Tip #8: Wave Often
That’s pretty much an unwritten requirement at Day Out With Thomas. Wave to every train as it goes by…and everyone will wave back 🙂
Tip #9: Take Advantage Of The Food For Sale
I’m always of the mindset that if I’m going to an all-day event, the last thing I want to do is cart around a bag full of lunches with me. So while you can bring food with you, I highly recommend taking advantage of the onsite food options. They are kid-friendly (hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken strips, fries, juice boxes, fruit squeeze pouches, etc.) and reasonably priced (most items are under $5.)
Things are a little different this year when it comes to food. For one thing, there are no more food stands over in the kiddie ride area. All the food is served up by the Essex Lions Club, and it’s located down near the end of the track (near the Thomas photo area). There is also a large covered picnic area nearby, and lots of other picnic tables scattered around the grounds.
Secondly, you need to purchase food tickets to pay for the food. You can do this at one of a couple little well-marked huts or inside the gift shop. One ticket equals one dollar, and you can purchase your food tickets with either cash or a credit/debit card.
At first we were a little skeptical about this extra step that seemed like a nuisance, but actually, it turned out to be a massive time-saver. Once we got the food tickets, getting through the food line was a breeze! Plus, now you can buy food using a credit card–it used to be cash only. You may find it helpful to look at the menu quickly before you buy your food tickets, just so you know how many to buy. We also purchased a few extra so we could go back for snacks later.
Tip #10: Save Time For The Gift Shop
Yes, it is massive Thomas merchandising, but for your little fanatics it will be such a thrill! There are so many items there that you can’t easily find anywhere else– from Thomas trains and train sets to apparel and accessories.
In here is also where you’ll find Sir Topham Hatt.
And a Power Wheels course for the toddler crowd.
Plus the model train layout.
And some other fun things to explore.
And the most useful tip of all?
Enjoy yourself! Because this event just flies by (that’s what they say about having fun, right?!). I still cannot believe that we have just attended our fourth Day Out With Thomas. The first time we went, this little guy was still hanging out in my tummy, and now look at him! About to turn 3 this summer–I can’t stand it!
This really is one of those special moments in time that you will always remember 🙂
Essex Steam Train’s Day Out With Thomas: The Ready, Set, Go Tour 2016
Essex Steam Train
Phone: (860) 767-0103
Main website: http://www.essexsteamtrain.com/
- Day Out With Thomas is being held on three weekends in 2016: April 16-17, April 23-24, and April 30-May 1. The event will be held from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Please note that you need to purchase tickets for a specific departure time.
- $24/person (ages 2 and up)
- Tickets are for specific ride times (9:00 a.m. through 4:30 p.m., every 45 minutes; train ride is approximately 25 minutes), and also include all the other attractions at the event (and parking).
Tickets are on sale now. You can purchase them online or by calling toll-free 866.468.7630.Tickets to the 2016 event are sold out online! For more information and directions, contact the Essex Steam Train & Riverboat at 1-800-377-3987 or www.essexsteamtrain.com
- Advance ticket purchase is highly recommended as they often sell out the day of.
- No refunds or exchanges.
- Stroller Friendly: YES, but be prepared to leave your stroller outside of the buildings and, obviously, you can’t bring it on the Thomas train (though you can bring it on the train shuttle to and from the parking areas). There is a designated “Stroller Parking” area, but just be aware that it’s not secured in any way. You may find it handy to bring a wearable baby carrier either instead of or in addition to your stroller to tote your littlest one around in places where it doesn’t make sense to bring a stroller.
- Coffee Mug Friendly: YES. Hubby brought in his Dunkin Donuts coffee and no one seemed to mind 🙂
- Baby Changing Station: YES! There is a changing station in the restroom (but it can be hard to access it when the restroom is crowded because it is in the same area with the sinks and the hand dryers). The nursing station inside the gift shop is also a nice, roomy, out-of-the-way space for diaper-changing if you need it.
- Restrooms: YES! There are real restrooms located in the yellow station building (Essex Station) that is between the tracks and the larger building where the gift shop and indoor activities are housed. There is a ramp up to the restroom and a big-ish handicapped accessible stall, so you could take a small stroller in there with you if you really need to (although I would not encourage it; it’s tight in there!). Porter-potties are located in various other areas, including in the parking lots.
- Parking: FREE parking in a satellite parking lot includes a free train ride from the parking lot to the event site (one of the best parts!); onsite handicapped-accessible parking available. If needed, you can also drop off people at the event site and then go park your car. If the event is really not crowded, there might be some spots at the event site; plentiful signage and a parking attendant will point you in the right direction. Also, in past years we’ve noticed some non-affiliated businesses offering nearby parking on their grounds for a (exorbitant!) fee (so not worth it! ride the train!).
- Food for Sale: YES. There is a tent run by a local organization selling burgers, fries, etc. There are also healthier snacks available for purchase like fruit squeeze pouches, crackers, fruit juice boxes, pretzels, etc.
- Outside Food Allowed: YES. We have brought in snacks, etc for the kids both years and no one seemed to mind. I’ve heard of folks brining a picnic lunch with them too. Of course, my motto is usually: if I don’t have to bring food, I don’t bother–my diaper bag is filled to the brim already! 🙂 Plenty of food options for the kids there; not terribly over-priced. Just sayin’.
- Cash Required: NOT REALLY. Major credit cards are accepted at the gift shop and can also be used to purchase food tickets. The only thing you may need cash for is to buy food to feed the animals in the petting zoo. But there is an ATM located in the gift shop, so don’t worry if you forget.
- Dress Code: Just make sure you wear comfortable shoes that you are not going to cry over if they get a little dirty because there is a lot of ground to cover and it’s not paved. If it’s rained recently, rubber boots are not a bad choice. The ground is dirt and gravel, so it can get a little squishy when wet. Lots of kids come in train-themed gear (engineer hats, etc.).
- Evening/Weekend Hours: YES. This event takes place over 3 weekends in April/May.
- Click here to see some other FAQ’s about the Day Out with Thomas event.
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