A holiday season without model train shows is like the North Pole without elves. Don’t let this jolly time of year pass you by without seeing one! The following four miniature trains are chugging and choo-choo’ing near you — and each have something different to offer.
photo: Chicago Botanic Garden
Wonderland Express at Chicago Botanic Garden
Outdoors at the North Shore’s garden paradise, you can walk meandering pathways and soak up more than 750,000 outdoor lights. Indoors, things are just as magical. In Nichols Hall, watch garden-scale trains wind past miniature replicas of more than 80 Chicago-area landmarks, including Navy Pier, Soldier Field and Millennium Park. These landmarks are no ordinary tchotchkes — they’ve been crafted from natural materials like moss, leaves, bark and acorns. Another model train will weave by more landmarks set around the North Pool of Krehbiel Gallery, transformed into an English country train platform. If all this chugging around has made you hungry, you can whet your whistle at the Caboose Café and Wonderland Express Shoppe, which offers refreshments and souvenirs, including a memory book detailing how the replicas were created by Applied Imagination Studio.
Held thru Jan. 3
Tickets: $12/adults; $10/ages 3-12; Free for ages 2 & under. Members receive $2 off each ticket. Prices are half price on Tuesdays.
1000 Lake-Cook Rd.
photo: LEGO Train Show
LEGO Train Show at Cantigny Park
This blink-and-you’ll-miss-it show transforms the entire Cantigny Visitors Center into a brick lover’s dream. Produced by the Northern Illinois LEGO Train Club, it last two days only and takes an entire day to set up. You’ll get up close to cabooses, engines, cargo and mini conductors made entirely of LEGOs. The public is invited to an opening night party on Sat., Dec. 12, from 6-8 p.m. It’s your chance to enjoy the show without lines and meet the builders. Snacks, desserts and hot chocolate will be served and a cash bar will be available. This year, visitors to the show are encouraged to bring a new and unwrapped toy for the Marine Toys for Tots drop boxes inside the Cantigny Visitors Center. Those bringing a toy will receive FREE parking.
Held Dec. 12 & 13, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Admission is free (parking is $5)
1s151 Winfield Rd.
photo: Chicago Park District
Winter Flower & Train Show at Lincoln Park Conservatory
This is a train show Santa himself would be proud of. In the Show House, an old-fashioned steam engine and freight trains wind their way through a pint-sized village nestled amid poinsettias and princettias. In fact, it’s the beautiful winter blooms (Luv U Pink, Merlot, Ice Punch and Infinity Polar) that make this show so alluring. The village is comprised entirely of natural materials, including willow, spruce and birch woods. Imagine yourself in the conductor’s seat as the train passes by a variety of Chicago-style homes and famous buildings like The Chicago Theatre and Chicago Water Tower Place.
Held Nov. 27-Jan 3; 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Admission is free
2391 N. Stockton Dr.
photo: Morton Arboretum
Enchanted Railroad at Morton Arboretum
This one usually pulls into the station over the holidays. But this year, because of the wildly popular “Illumination” light show happening at the Arboretum, the 13th annual mini train exhibit will be on view in January. Expect an intricate model railroad winding through a new four-seasons-themed display. Good news for toddlers: The display is designed to be easily seen from two feet off the ground. In fact, there are two levels of trains to ogle.
Held Jan. 15-Feb. 21; Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sat. & Sun., 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Included in Arboretum general admission ($9/adults; $6 youth; free for ages 2 & under)
4100 Illinois Route 53
Do you have a favorite train exhibit? Shout about it in the Comments!
— Amy Bizzarri and Kelly Aiglon