When we went to the Day Out with Thomas last year, our boy was just about to turn two, so he definitely liked seeing the trains and he really loved the train ride, but he didn’t get into the carnival rides, or the face painting, or many of the other activities. We had a great time regardless and it made us want to go back again this year!
This was our second year going, and while it was just as wonderful as the last year, we had a lot more fun since he was older and could really enjoy all the activities!
And while this event has “been and gone, Percy, been and gone” (as Gordon the Train would say), I wanted to share our experience so as to help you plan your trip next year! I also have a few tips that I learned over the last two years that will make your experience so much better!
In previous years, you could buy tickets for Day Out with Thomas at the gate; but this year, they only sold tickets online. If you want to have the tickets mailed to your house, you’ll need to act fast and buy tickets early. Otherwise, if you buy closer to the date of your train ride, you’ll have to pick them up at Essex on the day of the event.
The tickets are delivered rather quickly, so you’ll want to keep them in a safe spot, that you won’t forget about! Because you need to bring those tickets with you! They are not only your admission to the event, but they are also your train ride ticket and ensure that you can get on the train at your scheduled time.
Day Out with Thomas is held on three weekends, usually at the end of April and into May. We chose the last weekend of the event, in hopes that we would have nice weather. And it actually worked out. This event is rain or shine. On the day of our train ride, we actually had rain in the forecast, but by some small miracle, the clouds broke and by noon we had a perfect day!
When you buy your ticket, you not only pick the date you wish to attend, but you also need to pick a time for your train ride. The rides occur every 45 minutes. Some people like to take their train ride early in the morning, and then stay for a while to enjoy the other activities. Other people take their train ride mid-day, and either arrive early to enjoy the activities, or arrive right before the train ride and then stay for awhile afterwards. And of course, there is the option of taking the last train of the day. We are not morning people, and since we still deal with naps, we book our train ride mid-day. There is no “less busy” train ride. They only sell as many seats as they can handle, and no more than that. So you won’t have to worry about struggling to find a seat.
ARRIVAL & PARKING
Essex Steam Train recommends that you arrive AT LEAST ONE HOUR before your scheduled train ride on board Thomas. And I cannot stress this enough.
Normally, when you attend an event at Essex Steam Train, there is parking on site. However, because of the size and attendance at Day Out with Thomas, that is just not possible. They offer handicapped parking on the lot; otherwise, you are directed to park in two other areas off site.
Both lots are found on Bokum Street, which is where the signs will lead you.
The first lot is a smaller lot, and they offer a school bus to transport you to the main event. Sure, it’s closer and probably faster, BUT here is why I suggest that you continue driving to the Lee lot.
The Lee lot is a much bigger lot, and there is some walking involved. This year, we arrived a little later than the previous year, and they parked us WAY in the back of the lot. We had a lot of walking to do (fortunately we can still get away with a stroller for this little guy). If you arrive later in the day to the event, you probably will have to park in the Lee Lot anyway.
But the reason I emphasize driving to this lot? The shuttle to the main event is a TRAIN! That’s right, a second train ride! The train only goes to the Lee Lot, and runs every 20 or so minutes. And this brings me to why I emphasize getting to the event early. You will want to allow time to walk from your car to the train, possibly wait for the train, and then ride it to the main site. It takes a little bit of time but it’s totally worth it!
Plus, the conductor assigned to this train shuttle is awesome! We have had the pleasure to ride with him both years! All of the people working at this event are fabulous, but this conductor is one of my favorite parts of the whole day!
We had a stroller with us for the event, and they absolutely have no issue with you bringing a stroller with you. It’s a lot of walking for little feet! If you ride the train shuttle, they have space for you to fold up the stroller and tuck it aside. I have never ridden the bus before, but I would imagine they make space for your stroller on that as well!
Whether you arrive via the train or the school bus shuttle, both will drop you off right in front of the main entrance for your Day Out with Thomas.
There is small ticket booth where you can pick up your “will call” tickets (in case you ordered them too late for regular mail).
They check your ticket at arrival, but they do not take it. You’ll want to hold on to the ticket for your train ride.
This year’s Day Out with Thomas was the “Friendship Tour”!
Once you are through the entrance, you’ll see just how much there is to do at this event! There is a lot going on, and there’s a lot of people! So, then, where do you start first?
Here is a great map that Essex Steam Train provides for all its visitors at the Day Out with Thomas! You can approach these activities in any order you would like; depending on your train departure time!
(from the Essex Steam Train Facebook Page)
Well, you really won’t be able to miss him when you enter the gates, so you might as well get in line right away. The first thing we did both years was stop for our visit with Percy. Percy is a special visitor from the Island of Sodor. Essex is lucky to have him as part of their Day Out With Thomas, as he does not appear at every nationwide event. He is not set upon the rails, and is just easing his axles on the side of the tracks. He is pretty tired from all the mail he delivers. Just a warning, he talks. Like full on mouth opens and moves, eyes roll and wonder. If you don’t expect it, it kind of freaks you out!
Someone was really happy to see his friend!
The line for Percy can sometimes be long. One of the special features of the Day Out with Thomas is the opportunity to have professional photos taken by JED Photography. They are located at all of the character photo ops, as well as aboard the train ride, to take photos for you. You have no obligation to take the photos, nor do you have to buy them. I will say that there is something wonderful about a professional photo that includes your whole group. Usually when we go to these events, I take the photo, so I am not in many of them. It’s nice to be able to take a picture that includes our whole family! I’ll provide more details regarding the photographers later in this post.
The Carnival Rides
Included with your admission to Day Out with Thomas are five kiddie rides, including a carousel, a fun house and the big slide! These line were pretty long throughout the whole day. Unlimited free carnival rides are always a hit with the kids!
This year was great because he was actually tall enough to go on the rides! Daddy took him on the carousel!
We skipped the big slide, because momma was traumatized by one of those as a child. But we loved the fun house! Okay, maybe I loved it a little more than he did…
The Petting Zoo
The Petting Zoo is located right next to the carnival rides, and is also part of the Day Out with Thomas.
The petting zoo is put on my Circle Farm of East Hampton, Connecticut.
They had goats, sheep (and baby sheep), alpacas and more. You could pet all the animals, and they even had feed for purchase (a handful cost a quarter).
Of course, they had a handwashing station set up right outside the petting zoo, which I definitely appreciated!!
Crossing the tracks, you’ll find yourself heading towards Essex Station, a train boarding area, River Valley Junction, the food tents, and much more.
Inside River Valley Junction
The large building on the other side of the train tracks is River Valley Junction. It is important to know that there are TWO FLOORS of activities in this building.
On the upper level you will find the gift shop, with lots of fun Thomas themed items, including trains, train sets, and more. Our child thought he was in a toy wonderland, and wanted to buy every train in sight. We settled on the Day Out with Thomas commemorative train only.
Also on the upper level, you’ll find a diesel train simulator (devious diesels!) and a model train exhibit.
Tucked near the model train exhibit is the nursing lounge. It’s a great spot to get away from the noise and crowds and feed your baby in peace!
Meeting Sir Topham Hatt
Of course the highlight of the River Valley Junction is meeting this big, important guy! Sir Topham Hatt! He rode in on Thomas, and he was there to make sure that all his engineers had been really useful! Our child was so excited to meet his boss!
On the lower level of River Valley Junction is the Imagination Station. The entrance is in the back of the building. It is not accessible from the upper floor, so make sure to go around to the back to find it!
Down in this area you will find train tables (oh, lots of train tables), lego tables, coloring stations, storytelling, music shows and magic shows. They also have motorized Thomas ride-on toys, but when we visited, they were changing out the batteries. So we missed that opportunity!
We never plan our time well and always miss the magic show and the music show! They are held roughly every half hour (the schedule is usually included on the map). I am hoping next year we can catch one; and honestly, by that point, he may even sit through it!
There is even more to do around the whole Day Out with Thomas site, all of which is included with the price of your admission.
There are temporary tattoos. He chose Emily. He still has the tattoo days later, and he tells me that Emily is in his sleeve. They also have face painting but he is a little too small for that, and would not sit still.
There are two different balloon animal makers, one near the main entrance and one near the Essex Station. We like that the balloon man makes us Harold the Helicopter!
If you plan to spend most of the day with Thomas, you’ll want to stop for lunch. I have to say, I am always really impressed with their menu selection and the prices. They are extremely reasonable for an event like this. There are two food tents, one run by Essex Steam Train and the other by the Lions Club.
We chose to buy lunch, but I saw many moms whip out the PB&J for their picky eaters, or food for the babies. We brought in an apple for our guy, as well as waters and juices. I just stored them in the stroller.
If you do buy food, an important thing to note is that the food tents DO NOT ACCEPT CASH. They only take food tickets. You have to go to a food ticket booth, buy tickets and then you can go redeem those tickets for food. This means that when you get up to the ticket booth, you have to know what food you are ordering. They do not offer refunds of the tickets. They have the menu hanging on the outside of the ticket booth to help you figure out how many tickets you’ll need. Those line can get long, especially if you don’t plan out your tickets in advance! The food ticket booths take cash and credit card!
They offer a covered picnic area for lunch, as well as picnic tables in the open sun. There is a lot of seating but during peak lunch hour, it can be hard to find a group of seats. I’d recommend either eating during the off peak times; or if it’s not too sunny (or rainy), sit on the lawn.
The Main Attraction: The Train Ride
Of course, our main attraction at the Day Out with Thomas was the train ride! The ride is about 25 minutes, pulled by a steam engine.
Clattering carriages, that doesn’t look right! That’s the back of the engine… because the train is actually pulled by this guy!
It’s Thomas! Direct from Sodor, the number one steam engine was here to give us all the thrills and spills of a great steamy train ride. He borrowed Gordon’s fancy express coaches, and took us on a special tour of Essex!
There are plenty of signs that point you in the direction of the boarding area.
Located under a tent, you’ll find everyone lined up to board the train. As I mentioned above, the train departs every 45 minutes. They recommend you be at the boarding area at least 20 minutes before departure time. The lines do get crowded as the train departure approaches, but if you have a ticket for that departure time, you will get a seat. They ask that you enter the boarding area with all of your party so they can keep you together. Seating is not assigned, but honestly, there are no bad seats aboard Thomas.
If you have a stroller, they offer a stroller parking area.
We waited in line for to board for just a few minutes, and then we were loaded onto Car 6.
Once onboard, we had plenty of room to spread out with the three of us on two knee-to-knee seats. We also had a great window view. The ride length is perfect for this age. Even last year, it was pretty good. Around the end of the ride, just as we pulled into the station and had to wait for the okay to disembark, is when he got restless. Honestly though, 25 minutes is a great length. You see lots of sights in the woods, and you also pass through parts of the Town of Essex. The people in town are probably used to seeing Thomas going down the tracks, but they are delighted to wave at all the happy children!
Another great Day Out with Thomas with momma and daddy! Can you sense his excitement? He kept telling me “no more take a big cheese!” My child hates living his life under the camera…. Tough luck buddy!
At the end of the train ride, every child earns their Junior Engineer Certificate!
We had a noon train ride, which worked out pretty well for us. We arrived just before 11 a.m., and had some time to get to the main event, visit with Percy, and then board our train. Once we were off the train, we spent the rest of our time touring the sights of our Day Out with Thomas. Which brings us to the OTHER most important part of the day…
Fizzling Fireboxes, did you really think we would leave our Day Out with Thomas without saying hello to him?
Not once, but twice! Cinders and ashes, you’re crazy! The visits with Thomas can be rushed, and crowded, since he is basically only available for photos in between train rides. The window of time is approximately 20 minutes. They offer a platform for everyone to stand on so you can get a great shot with Thomas.
Oh, and Thomas talks too. And his eyes move. Just warning you.
He was so very happy to see Thomas!! It was the highlight of this little man’s day!
Of course, our visit would not be complete without a few trips to the bathroom, a necessity with a toddler. There are many port-a-potties on site, and an actual bathroom located at Essex Station. Several of the port-a-potties also had changing tables inside them. There is also a changing table in Essex Station.
As I mentioned earlier, at each character meet and greet, there are photographers from JED Photography. You’ll find them at the Thomas, Percy and Sir Toppham Hatt; as well as on board the train ride. They are happy to take your photos; however, you can refuse. If you do get your photos taken, they will hand you a little business card that has a password and bar code on it. Save those cards!
When you go to leave the event for the day, there is a JED Photo Pickup Tent. In there, you will scan your plethora of cards, and you can buy a single photo, multiple photos, digital images, or a package. They are pricey. Digital prints alone are $40. However, if you had a lot of pictures taken, like we did, it can be worth it. I also like getting the photos since we had no opportunities to take a family picture together. This is a great way to preserve the memory. If you do not want to buy anything while at the event, you can go on their website for a short time afterwards and still buy photos. Remember, don’t lose those cards!
We spent over four hours at our Day Out with Thomas. Of course, our visit was not complete without a stop for ice cream from the World’s Best Sundae.
On our way out the exit, we were handed a special parting gift: Thomas wristbands! Every child receives a gift upon exit, which is such a great gesture!
We caught our train shuttle back to the car, and it was perfect timing since the battery on my phone died!! And this little guy was exhausted!
We had a wonderful Day Out with Thomas, as always. Essex Steam Train puts on a great day for the children, and the adults! We love that this is becoming our annual family tradition, and we hope to keep it going for as long as this child loves Thomas!
If you have never been to this event, consider checking it out next year! Make sure to follow Essex Steam Train on Facebook for early notifications as to when tickets will be on sale for 2018!
This about sums it up…
The Valley Railroad Company- One Railroad Avenue -Essex, Connecticut
Hours: Annual Event – Held in late April/early May for three weekends in a row.
Train operates every 45 minutes from 9 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.
The first shuttle picks up at 8:15 a.m., and the event closes at 6 p.m.
2017 Prices: Adults and Children 2 and up: $24; Children under 2 are free
Tickets must be purchased online in advance (this year tickets were not available at the gate, so make sure to buy them before they sell out).
- Stroller friendly overall (cannot be brought on the train, but there is a stroller parking area). The ground cover is rocky but you can manuever pretty easily.
- Large parking lots availble but they are far away, and require either a train or school bus shuttle to get to and from. (So don’t leave anything in your car, because it will be really difficult to go back to your car!)
- Bathroom facilities (port a potties) are found all over – the only actual restroom facility is located at Essex Station
- Nursing Mothers Lounge found in River Valley Junction.
- Cash and Credit accepted for food, souvenir shop and photo booth. Quarters are needed if you want to feed the animals in the petting zoo.
- Food for purchase
- Wear comfortable shoes!! There is a lot of walking, especially from the parking lots
- Pack your bags/stroller wisely, since it can be a challenge to go back to the car
- You’ll want to spend the day – or at least half a day; so come prepared with diapers, snacks, etc. for the littlest ones.