6 gorgeous miniature railroads in Pittsburgh to visit during the holidays
This article first appeared at NEXTpittsburgh.com, a media partner of Kidsburgh. Sign up here for NEXTpittsburgh’s free newsletter filled with all the latest news about the people driving change in our city and the innovative and cool things happening here. Photo above by Sally Quinn.
The best holiday moments are filled with wonder. You can spark that sense of wonder in little kids (and big ones, too!) by exploring the many miniature railroads in Pittsburgh. Here are six of our favorites.
The Miniature Railroad & Village at the Carnegie Science Center
The iconic Gus & YiaYia’s Ice Balls enterprise started in 1934 when Gus Kalaris was a baby. He grew up along with the family business and by the age of 8, was scraping ice alongside his dad. Not quite 20, he took over the ice cart in 1951 after his father passed away.
Over the past 80-some years, Gus & YiaYia’s has grown into a North Side destination for generations of Pittsburghers. The ice ball stand is a favored stop before a Pirates game, a sweet first date and a popular summer evening treat.
Gus & YiaYia’s Ice Balls is now part of another cherished tradition, the Miniature Railroad & Village at Carnegie Science Center. The annual updates to the exhibit draw more than 40,000 visitors each year.
“It’s a little too much for me,” says Gus, 89, about the acclaim. “It’s like my Lombardi trophy.”
On the display, between Mister Rogers’ house and the Crawford Grill, a tiny dark-haired Gus stands next to the familiar orange cart and rainbow umbrella, surrounded by customers. The cart includes a block of ice, popcorn and peanuts, along with a few bottles of flavored syrup. And that’s his wife Stella in the black skirt, working alongside him.
The original YiaYia in the name — Greek for grandma — was Gus’s mother Pauline. Later, the honorific went to Stella, who died in 2016.
So, how does mini-Gus compare with the real thing?
“He looks younger, that’s for sure,” says Gus with a laugh.
From the beginning, the family made it a point to keep prices affordable for their customers.
“We used to sell them for 3 cents because Isaly’s Ice Cream, the Skyscraper, was a nickel,” says Gus, who lives in Brighton Heights. “My dad figured if a family had 15 cents, they could buy five ice balls.”
The famed ice balls are flavored with his top-secret syrup recipe — and a splash of nostalgia for the parents and grandparents who continue to flock to the cart with excited kiddos in hand. It’s a perfect combination to draw visitors to the train layout, too.
Other updates to the 83-foot-by-30-foot exhibit include:
- A frozen pond with ice skaters;
- The two-headed cow in The Show of Living Wonders;
- The dance hall in Luna Park;
- A circus parade through town with camels, elephants and giraffes;
- Motion-activated digital text panels
Five O-gauge trains and more than 115 animatronics add interest for kids, who can view them all at eye level. Look for the dog raising his leg on a tree, the spinning barber pole and a man bathing in a backyard tub. You’re likely to spy more details on every visit. The Miniature Railroad & Village is included with general admission ($11.95 for ages 3-12, $19.95 for grownups and $14.95 for seniors).
Phipps Conservatory Garden Railroad: Bridges and Tunnels
The Garden Railroad at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens undergoes a transformation each year. This season’s theme, Bridges and Tunnels, recognizes the distinctive geography of Pittsburgh.
Trains go clickety-clack across a familiar yellow suspension bridge and through a wooden covered bridge. Touchless, interactive stations give kids the chance to navigate a city bus through Downtown, operate the Duquesne Incline and open a drawbridge. There is a bit of humor, too, with the miniature Liberty Tunnels being closed for construction and a tiny Sinkhole Bus in all its viral glory. Be sure to look for a masked Dippy wrapped in his black-and-gold scarf.
Unlike the handmade trees and bushes found in other miniature railroad exhibits, the landscape comes alive at the Garden Railroad with more than 3,500 plants.
A visit to the Garden Railroad is included with general admission ($11.95 for ages 2-18, $19.95 for grownups and $17.95 for seniors). It’s a cool stop that the whole family will enjoy while visiting the Holiday Magic! Winter Flower Show and Light Garden.
Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum
Founded in 1938, this club is one of the oldest in the country. Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum volunteers are dedicated to the preservation of railroad history. The display covers 4,000 square feet with 6,500 feet of track running from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, in the year 1952. The HO-scale display includes familiar landmarks (some from the past), like J&L Steel, Fallingwater and Cox’s Department Store. The 100 steam locomotives and 250 diesel engines pull more than 2,000 cars through the landscape.
Located at 5507 Lakeside Dr. in Gibsonia, the holiday show runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Jan. 16, except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Requested donations are $5 for ages 12 and younger and $10 for grownups. Return for the Friday night Steam at Twilight event, when the clock is turned to 1942, the lights are dimmed, and all the steam locomotives let loose.
Younger kids will get a kick out of the interactive toy train display, an O-gauge Lionel layout. They can push buttons to activate the tracks and keep the trains running. A scavenger hunt of sorts helps kids point out cool features like a candy car train, giraffes traveling with the circus and bandits on a handcart trying to rob a train.
Ohio Valley Lines
Railroad enthusiasts who chug north to Ambridge can find a model railroad, museum and library at Ohio Valley Lines at 1225 Merchant St.
The club launches its annual open house and holiday show on Nov. 27 with a train layout that includes HO-scale and N-scale tracks and trains. Visitors are welcome from noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Jan. 8, except Christmas Day, with a requested donation of $2 for ages 3-12 and $6 for their grownups. Kids ages 2 and younger are free.
Along with sharing their love of all things train, club members promote the hobby for a new generation. They collect and repair trains for donations through the Trains for Tots program that began in 2010. Three starter sets are given away at random every day of the holiday show. Each starter set includes a transformer, terminal track, engine, caboose and four cars — all the pieces needed to get started. So far, more than 170 train sets have found new homes with junior engineers.
McKeesport Model Railroad Club
The McKeesport Model Railroad Club was founded more than 70 years ago, but train excitement has not diminished for longtime members who remain young at heart. The club’s annual open house gives visitors a chance to admire the 2,200-square-foot layout. The club’s holiday open house kicks off on Nov. 27 for weekend hours through Dec. 19 at 2209 Walnut St. Santa will be there on Dec. 18 and 19 for added excitement.
The club’s permanent display of HO-scale trains, people and buildings is set in the time between 1950 and 1960. The fictitious Mon Yough Valley Railroad trains roll through rural countryside, past Steelton city life and across mountain bridges. The best part of any miniature railroad visit is looking for the details, peeking into store windows and observing the inhabitants in their tiny poses. This display does not disappoint.
Requested donations are $3 for ages 5-17 and $5 for grownups. It’s free for children younger than 5, members of the military, first responders and uniformed scouts.
Pennsylvania Trolley Museum
The Trolleys and Toy Trains exhibit at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum (1 Museum Road in Washington, PA) runs Fridays from Dec. 3 to 17. Admission, which includes the Trolley Museum, is $10 for ages 3-15, $12 for grownups and $11 for seniors.
The Lionel trains run through a lovely Victorian-style village that’s all dressed up for the holidays, with lights peeking out through the snow. Kids will want to stop and admire the LEGO layout built by Steel City LUG members.
Or you can splurge on tickets to the Santa Trolley that clangs along a 2-mile track and stars the Jolly Old Elf himself. The train display and museum are part of your visit. Kids can work on a take-home holiday craft. And the whole family can sip free hot chocolate and munch on cookies.
The Santa Trolley runs on weekends from Nov. 26 to Dec. 19. Advance tickets, priced at $14 for ages 3-15 and $15 for grownups, are required. Little ones younger than 3 need a free ticket but must ride on their grownup’s lap.
Along with this guide to holiday miniature railroad displays in Pittsburgh, check out our guide to 32 holiday events you won’t want to miss (many of them free!).