If you want to take your child on a realistic railway like in the old days, you don’t have to travel far. The Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish provides the perfect experience. The six-mile track takes riders back to a simpler time, with pumpkin patches, cowboys, and even The Polar Express.
I was introduced to the museum through the Manatee County Historical Society. After taking a hiatus during the pandemic, the non-profit decided to hold its annual gathering in a reserved railway car, instead of its traditional community picnic. I happily attended, bringing with me two sons, two nieces (ages 3, 5, and 7), and my sister-in-law.
When I told the boys we were going for a train ride, the oldest asked me very seriously, “Hang on, is it a high-speed rail or just a regular one?”
I tried to stifle a chuckle, where does he think we live, Europe!? Then I explained that this was a regular train, there was a museum, and that we were likely going to learn some of the histories of trains in Florida. That seemed to spark his interest.
We arrived early on a Saturday, taking a look around the museum and gift shop before the locomotive arrived. The two buildings are set up inside actual railcars. The museum features a miniature model of a working train track behind plexiglass, which delighted my 5-year-old. It wasn’t long before the two buildings quickly filled up with people waiting to catch the train. The small space felt a little claustrophobic, but the museum has partnered with the Manatee County Development Council and Bradenton Visitors and Conventions Bureau to build a new 5,000-square-foot depot for $4.5 million, with the organizations pledging $1.5 million towards the new structure. The bones and windows are already in place, but it still lacks a roof and anything inside.
The kids were delighted to give their tickets to the conductor, who was all dressed up in a black hat and vest. We boarded the train and found our rail car. The kids were happy to be sitting in the dining car, something my oldest had expressed a desire to do before we left. After the conductor called out his signature departure phrase “All aboard,” we took off with a jolt, headed for the town of Willow.
At first, I thought Willow was a fictional place set up as a destination for the train, but after a little research, I found that it was originally a logging town built around a sawmill and later abandoned. It is now considered a Florida ghost town.
During the Great Depression, the Robbins family went bankrupt and the town was abandoned. Some families remained. Perhaps it’s their descendants living in the few rural houses scattered along the train tracks. In the 1960s, the track was no longer in use and served as a storage area for railcars as well as access to the nearby power plant. This is a stretch that is now operated by The Florida Railroad Museum.
Willow serves a more wholesome and entertaining purpose these days. For children, there is a pumpkin patch in the fall, a Polar Express at Christmastime, and Thomas comes to town in the spring. For adults, there are mock train robberies, murder mysteries, and much more. We went on a regular day, so Willow served as a place to stretch our legs, explore the depot and have a potty break.
The kids were determined to see some wildlife from the windows of the railcar. They were looking for foxes and monkeys, which they never got to see. However, they did learn about elephants from the Ringling Circus and actually spotted an alligator on the return trip.
The whole experience took over two hours, so I was happy there was a concession aboard. The kids were scared to walk between the cars while the train was in motion, but in the end, their desire for junk food outweighed their fear of falling out! Overall, it was a fantastic experience and I can’t wait to go back!