Sometimes, when my mom friends talk about what we need, the discussion ends up like this: we need a place we can take our kids that is inside with a lot of air conditioning, or outside with lots of shade and completely fenced in (none of this “there’s a fence around part of the playground” nonsense); it needs to be free or almost-free, with coffee and wifi available, and it needs to be extremely welcoming of children with a playground to play on or something for them to do — a place where moms can go and sit down and relax for a minute and maybe connect with a friend or find a kindred spirit. Sometimes the bouncy house places seem like they would work, because they are inside and you can basically stay there all day if you want … but I personally can’t take much more than an hour of the whining fans. They tend to be noisy enough that you can’t really carry on a conversation with anyone while you are there. We’ve tried the children’s museum, but that is too much on the bonkers side of things. Too many things to look at and do, too many cubby-holes for kids to disappear in, and not what you would call relaxing. Or, let’s face it, free.
Well, mamas, listen up because I found The place while we were on vacation. It just lacks a coffee machine, but we could fix that.
It is called Choo-Choo Bob’s, and yes, I realize it only exists in Minnesota — but I bet we could franchise this thing.
Choo Choo Bob’s is a train store. It’s the best train store. The best store, period? Maybe.
In the front windows are two large model train set-ups that feature Thomas the Tank Engine. So, I’m sure if you have a train enthusiast in your family, this would win them over immediately. The genius part: they put benches behind these model trains, so you can just sit there and watch them for as long as you want. And if you are me, you can set down your stupid diaper bag and chill out while your children are fascinated for minutes and minutes.
Behind the benches are aisles of toy trains to buy. Some of them are the old-school model trains, some are the expensive Thomas-brand trains, but there is also a great mix of other train toys and wooden tracks that are less expensive. There is even a piece-by-piece section. I saw it and for a moment, I thought I heard choirs of angels singing. We got some new bridge pieces without having to buy a set! Also for sale were books and engineer hats and other wooden toys. In the middle was a giant bargain bin where we found Thomas’s friend Den at 50% off.
So. Trains to look at, benches to sit on, toys to buy ON SALE. What more could anyone want? Well, just take yourself all the way to the back of the store and you will find the jackpot. In front of two party rooms where you can, yes, have probably the best birthday party a 3 or 4 year old could imagine, are 8(!) train tables. And benches, so the grownups can park themselves for a while. If the model trains occupied my children for minutes upon minutes, the train tables took up all the rest of the time we had, and Finn was dragged from this store very much against his will.
Someone with a brilliant brain made these train tables. Because they are all the same. Well, there were two wooden trainscapes set up, and there were four tables of each one. This meant no fighting for the “good” one. On the day we went, there were three or four other families there, which meant plenty of train table for everyone. Even my little niece who was hardly a year old had fun pulling up on the tables and zooming an engine around. On a shelf near the tables was a little box for donations. You could leave some change if you came to play and didn’t want to buy anything — again, a sign that someone gave this place a lot of thought.
When it was time to go, Finn was not interested. Sometimes, when you have a young child, this is the dilemma: if you go somewhere awesome and have a great time, going home often means A Crazy Meltdown. Well, here again Choo Choo Bob’s has it going on, because it is next door to an ice cream shop and a short drive away from the Amtrak station. If you need something else awesome to do, you have some options. We chose both ice cream and a trip to the Amtrak station, it being vacation and all. The drive there involved lots of railroad crossings, lots of boxcar sightings, and even a beautiful streamlined train sitting at the station. Who gave us directions on how to find the station? Why the guy at Choo Choo Bob’s, of course.