Thomas the Tank Engine chugs along 6.5 miles of track. 

All Aboard!

The Florida Railroad Museum Train is one of the hottest tickets in town for family fun.

Fifteen years ago, the Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish was close to shutting down. Revenue had flatlined, and the nonprofit had begun selling off some its vintage train equipment. In chugged a grinning blue savior: Thomas the Tank Engine.

In March 2003, the museum was able to secure an appearance by an engine built to resemble Thomas, the iconic children’s TV character, that would pull kids and their parents back and forth along the museum’s 6.5-mile stretch of track. It was a colossal hit. Over the course of two weekends that spring, the special Thomas rides brought 22,000 riders to the museum. That’s more than the museum usually sees in a full year with its general admission rides, which take place at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays.

That infusion of cash saved the museum, and inspired staff and volunteers to come up with an array of new, popular special events. Today, the museum runs a “pumpkin patch” Halloween-themed train in the fall, and around Christmas offers a North Pole Express-themed trip, and also plans Easter events, Wild West-themed rides and historical re-enactments that cover the Civil War and World War I. In the museum’s 1999 fiscal year, income was just $99,000; last year, it totaled $1.7 million.

The museum has plowed the revenue generated by those events into acquiring historic train engines, cars and equipment from around the country, and is in the midst of building a large new building that will house train artifacts and traveling displays. The museum operates with just a handful of staffers and a core group of two dozen volunteers.

Even on a weekend when no special ride is planned, the museum delivers thrills. Riders can sit in either an open-air passenger car (cover your ears when the whistle blows!) or in an air-conditioned coach. The train putters from a large grassy field to a reconstructed depot down the tracks and then back, with a pause that allows the enormous engine to decouple and move from the front of the train to the back. When you go, be sure to thank Thomas. Florida Railroad Museum, 12210 83rd St. E., Parrish, (941) 776-0906, frrm.org

 

12 Fun Things for Families

Bounce Down Under For those inevitable rainy summer days, this 11,000-square-foot facility has a giant inflatable play area where kids can bounce out their pent-up energy. A popular birthday party spot, but walk-ins are welcome any time, and there’s even a section for toddlers. 935 N. Beneva Road, Suite 802, Sarasota, (941) 366-0123; bouncedownunder.com

Captain Kathe Kathe Fannon leads hands-on eco-tours, fishing charters and trips to nearby sandbars that depart from Cortez’s popular Star Fish Company dockside restaurant. Along for the ride is her cuddly cocker spaniel first mate, Skipper—always a hit with the young ones. 12306 46th Ave. W., Cortez, (941) 812-3241; captkathe.com

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens With its kid-sized caves, waterfall, rope bridges and more, Selby Gardens’ rainforest-themed children’s space is a hit with kids of all ages. Don’t miss the Kids Corner in the nearby Selby House; it’s filled with nature-themed games, books, puzzles, toys and hands-on arts and crafts projects. 900 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota, (941) 366-5731; selby.org

Mini-golf An oldie-but-goodie family outing that leaves everyone happy, and Sarasota has two nice options for Smuggler’s Cove Adventure Golf at 3815 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 351-6220; smugglersgolf.com, and Evie’s at 4725 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota (941) 377-0990; eviesgolf.com

Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium Wonder at more than 100 species of marine life—everything from seahorses to manatees, sharks and sea turtles. Two touch tanks allow the kids to feel stingrays, starfish and crabs. Special exhibits and events throughout the year, too. 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, (941) 388-4441; mote.org

Music Compound This kid-friendly music collective offers family jam sessions, music movie nights, parent-child beginning guitar classes and even a summertime rock band camp. 1751 Cattlemen Road, Sarasota, (941) 379-9100; musiccompound.com

The Ringling Kids love The Ringling circus museum and the nearby playground, blessed with a towering slide and plenty of swings and climbing structures. Don’t get too muddy, though, because you’ll also want to browse the art museum’s exceptional permanent collection and visiting exhibitions. The art museum is free on Mondays; the playground’s always free. 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, (941) 359-5700; ringling.org

Sailor Circus The nation’s longest-running youth circus, with more than 100 talented local youngsters, the Sailor Circus presents spring and winter performances under the auspices of the professional Circus Arts Conservatory. 2075 Bahia Vista St., Sarasota, (941) 355-9335; circusarts.org

Sarasota Children’s Garden This leafy oasis is great for exploring at a pint-sized pace. Time your visit for its daily organized art and gardening classes, with a different theme each morning, like Magic Nature Box and Art Rocks. They’re 11 a.m. Fridays; it’s a gentle way to introduce the wonders of Mother Nature to your little ones. 1670 10th Way, Sarasota, (941) 330-1711; sarasotachildrensgarden.com

Save Our Seabirds This wild bird learning center offers fascinating face-to-face encounters with pelicans, blue herons, owls and other injured birds that have been rehabilitated but are unable to be returned to the wild. It’s adjacent to Mote Aquarium; show your Mote ticket and get half off the admission fee. 1708 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, (941) 388-3010; saveourseabirds.org

Sun n Fun An Olympic-sized pool, a kids’ splash zone, hot tubs and more are all yours to enjoy with a summer family fun pass to this mammoth RV resort just east of I-75 off Fruitville Road. You can purchase a day pass, too, from May through Labor Day. 7125 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, (844) 728-8729; sunrvresorts.com

TreeUmph! Climb, glide, scramble and zipline through 86 wild and crazy treetop obstacles at this 14-acre adventure park in east Manatee County. Different courses depending on your age and “reach height,” and parents are welcome to watch from the ground at no charge. Not for the faint of heart, but don’t be intimidated; we’ve talked to grandparents who enthusiastically recommend it. 21805 E. S.R. 70, Bradenton, (941) 322-2130; treeumph.com

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