Kids have been fascinated with trains for generations. Since 1945, many of those kids have focused on a blue engine named Thomas.
The brand was conceived by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, an English railway enthusiast and children’s author who introduced Thomas the Tank Engine as a character in the “Railway Series” books he wrote for his son, Christopher.
Over the past 70 years, Thomas and his pals have appeared in countless books and spinoff toys, but their enduring appeal can be chalked up to timeless lessons about perseverance and compassion. Along the way, Thomas adapted to changing technologies and trends, from spots on the live-action “Shining Time Station” to the CGI animation style of “Thomas & Friends.”
If your child is loco for this particular locomotive, you’re in luck: Thomas stars in two Pittsburgh attractions this summer.
“Thomas & Friends: Explore the Rails” runs through Sept. 9 at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Designed and developed by Minnesota Children’s Museum, the 1,500-square-foot exhibit brings the beloved characters to life through a variety of interactive features. Each element is designed to encourage imaginative play among kids ages 2 to 7.
Education is a big part of the fun. Included in the play are STEM concepts like mathematical thinking, comparison, problem-solving and experimentation. In the All Aboard Thomas component, for example, kids can examine the inner workings of Thomas and his pals by flipping levers and investigating other moving parts to trigger brakes, whistles and steam.
Kids will have ample opportunity to play together, too. They can load luggage and livestock onto train cars, role play as train conductor and passengers, or repair Percy’s wobbly wheel. On an oversized train table, they can explore Island of Sodor destinations, including Tidmouth Sheds, Brendam Docks and the Sodor Search & Rescue Station.
With each activity and challenge, kids will be greeted by the smiling faces of Thomas, Percy and Victor, who remind kids how “really useful” they are and encourage their success.
Other features include a retrospective with model engines from the original, London-based, live-action series; copies of Awdry’s original drawings and manuscripts; plus memorabilia documenting the history and evolution of Thomas through books, television shows and toys.
Thomas at Kennywood
Just in time for its 120th anniversary, Kennywood Park will open Thomas Town this summer. Once complete, it will be the second-largest permanent Thomas & Friends attraction in North America.
Set on a bluff overlooking the Monongahela River and Braddock’s historic Edgar Thompson Steel Works, the site of Thomas Town is an ideal counterpart to the Island of Sodor.
The area will feature five rides — including a train ride placed around the existing footprint of the train that has operated in Kennywood since 1945. A new live stage show is in the works, along with indoor soft-play and entertainment areas. The new features mark the first addition to Kiddieland in more than 10 years.
Amusement rides and attractions will be based on characters above and beyond Thomas. Kids will recognize Diesel, Iron Bert, Cranky the Crane and Harold the Helicopter along with Island of Sodor locations such as Tidmouth Sheds and Knapford Station. Railway Controller Sir Topham Hatt will greet and take photos with guests.
The idea behind the new attraction is that Thomas Town will make the park more accessible for even the tiniest tykes.
Both attractions will give parents who loved Thomas in their childhoods a chance to introduce their kids to the Island of Sodor and its colorful cast of characters.