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All Aboard McWane Center’s Annual Holiday Train Tradition

Hayes Boyd from Memphis looks over a train display at The Magic of Model Trains exhibit at the McWane center will be on display until January 13, 2020. Family activities to do over the holidays in downtown Birmingham. (Frank Couch - For the Birmingham Times)
By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

Housed on the third floor of the McWane Science Center in downtown Birmingham is the Magic of Model Trains exhibit, which features about eight to 10 enclosed glass cases with model trains and sets.

In the center of the room is the “star train,” an 18-foot-long train that winds through a miniature 1950s Alabama town complete with handcrafted lakes, marshes, a drive-in theater, a gas station, and grocery, clothing, and shoe stores.

Magic of Model Trains, which began on November 23 and runs through the beginning of January, serves as the Holidays at McWane’s signature exhibit; other displays and events include Santa’s Gingerbread Workshop, showings of “The Polar Express” movie, and holiday camps.

Heralding the Season

For many, the McWane Center exhibits herald the start of the holiday season.

“It’s very comforting to have the McWane train exhibit come back every year because it lets me know it’s holiday time and time for my family to share in this wonderful tradition,” said Sam Friedman, a Birmingham resident who was at McWane on a recent Sunday afternoon with his two daughters.

According to Amy Templeton, McWane Center President and CEO, the exhibit, which has attracted more than 100,000 visitors since it’s been on display the past 12 seasons, is more than a holiday tradition: “It is a great family activity. There is something for everyone,” she said.

“If you’re a little bitty baby, you like to watch those trains go around. If you’re 10 years old and looking at all of the little intricate things, you enjoy it. … We are constantly striving for those family experiences. … [The model train exhibit] is absolutely for every single person in the family. That’s important all of the time, but during the holidays that family experience is crucial.”

Friedman said his family comes every year.

“My kids love it, and I love it, too,” he said. “I just love looking at all of the detail, all of the stories that are going on, and the scenes. I feel like every time I look at it, even though I’ve seen it a hundred times, I find something new.”

Tanya Brancato, a Birmingham resident who was at the exhibit with her four children, agreed.

“My family and I come once a year,” she said. “I enjoy looking at the little towns and seeing the trains go through them, but I also enjoy how much my kids enjoy it and how they look forward to it every year.

“We try to come as often as we can because we just love it so much. It’s become a family tradition for us. Even though my kids are getting a little older, they still love coming and they’re still interested, as if it’s their first time seeing it.”

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Wrecking Crew Railroad Club

One of the appealing aspects of the annual exhibit is the variety of train-set sizes on display, said Templeton: “There’s an O, an N, and an L, and those are the different sizes of trains and tracks. There’s a wide variety, so you can see all the different kinds.”

Magic of Model Trains is possible through the McWane Center’s partnership with the Wrecking Crew Model Railroad Club, a group of railroad enthusiasts based at the center; they make the sets and trains for the exhibit.

“[The group meets] here every Monday all year round to build model trains and sets, … then they help us put on our model train exhibit every year during the holidays,” said Templeton, who has been with the McWane Center since 2012. “They make this one star train, which is about 18 feet long. It’s huge, and you walk all around it. It’s kind of like a ‘Where’s Waldo’ [type of exercise] because while you’re looking at the set, we [may] ask you to spot the cat in the tree or the couple coming out of the movie theater. You can spend hours at that train alone.”

The one downside: “It’s always heartbreaking in March or April when some child goes to the third floor and says, ‘Let’s go see the trains,’ and we’re like, ‘They’re not here anymore,’” Templeton said.

Busiest Time of the Year

December is easily one of the busiest months of the year for McWane Center, with more than 20,000 people visiting during the holiday season.

“Thousands of people come in here all the time, but we have a big place,” said Templeton. “I don’t want people to think they’ll come in here with thousands of people, and it’s shoulder to shoulder and there’s no room. It’s not like that here. We can have 3,000 people in this building, and it will be active, lively, and loud, but we still have plenty of space and room [to] accommodate that.”

Templeton is happy that the McWane Center can be a part of the holiday traditions for so many families: “From the model trains to ‘The Polar Express’ to the gingerbread workshops, it’s all a great tie-in for families. … I love that we are making those lasting memories.”


In addition to Magic of Model Trains, visitors can enjoy a broad range of activities during Holidays at McWane. Here’s a look at some seasonal favorites.

Santa’s Gingerbread Workshop. At this holiday event, now in its second year, visitors can make their own gingerbread houses.

“We provide the components of the house, as well as the candy, icing, and materials used to make it,” said Templeton. “There is no extra admission to do that; you just buy however many houses you plan to make. It’s great fun and people love to do it. The good thing is whatever mess is made, we clean it up for them.”

Santa’s Gingerbread Workshop runs from December 14 through 21 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; houses are for $10 for members and $15 for nonmembers.

“The Polar Express.” Every year, McWane does a special showing of the classic holiday film.

“People love ‘The Polar Express,’ … and it’s become a family tradition,” Templeton said. “This year, we have a really fun Polar Express Overnight Adventure. Visitors can watch the movie, bring their pajamas, spend the night … [and enjoy] fun holiday activities. If you don’t want to spend the night, we’re also showing ‘The Polar Express’ two more weekends.”

The Polar Express Overnight Adventure is December 6; other weekend showings of the film are December 14, 15, 21, and 22 at 3 p.m.

Craft Day. McWane Center visitors can make their own holiday crafts or Christmas presents.

“We provide the supplies and some guidance, but people can make their own things,” said Templeton. “It’s an opportunity to make your own Christmas presents or little keepsakes, like ornaments.”

Craft Day is on December 7.

Indoor Zip Line. “Our indoor zip line and our slide [from the third floor down to the second] is open, and it’s is wildly popular,” said Templeton. “Kids love it, and their parents really, really love it. That’s what I love: You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy it. … Everyone enjoys it.”

The McWane Center zip line, on the third floor near the model train exhibit, stretches from one corner of the room to the other. It’s great fun for visitors.

Winter Camp. The McWane Center hosts a weeklong winter camp for students during Christmas break.

“Parents really care about the winter camps because it gives their children something to do those few days between Christmas and New Year’s Day,” said Templeton. “We have a camp every day except New Year’s, so kids can come … and do fun science activities. … The [students] like it because it doesn’t feel like they are going to a babysitter, and parents tell us it is a great service because a lot of places that [have] summer camps don’t [have] holiday camps during the winter.”

The winter camp is offered Dec. 30, 2019, through Jan. 3, 2020, except New Year’s Day. Pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first- through sixth-grade students are invited to attend; the camp is a half day for pre-K and kindergarten students and all day for first- through sixth-grade students.

Noon Year’s Eve. On New Year’s Eve, the McWane Center hosts the kid-friendly Noon Year’s Eve.

“Kids can’t all stay up until midnight, and a lot of times parents have events they go to and kids stay home with the babysitter, so we have our Noon Year’s Eve party on December 31,” said Templeton. “We do the streamers, noisemakers, and confetti at noon instead of at midnight. We do a countdown, fun activities, and all of that, but it’s just during the day. It’s kind of the culmination of our holidays at McWane.”

Noon Year’s Eve is December 31, from noon to 5 p.m.

To learn more about the McWane Center’s programs during the holidays and year-round, visit www.mcwane.org.

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