We kept it a surprise for him, cause it's just more fun that way. The museum is about 45 minutes west of the city so surrounded by farms and very close to Donley's Wild West Town which we'll probably go back and do another time, as I've heard good things about it.
As we got close he noticed a bunch of old trains lined up and asked why they were there. I told him it was a train museum and today they had a very special train that we would get to ride. Just then Thomas started going down a track not far from us. I pointed it out and he got all excited, " Thomas! Thomas! Thomas!"
We had purchased our tickets on line as I've been told that they sell out (they only do this 2 weekends a year). We picked up our tickets and had an hour until our train ride, so wandered around at the other exhibits. This is apparently the largest railway museum in the US and has over 400 different engines/train cars on display. We saw the steam locomotives first and they were huge. I tried to get pictures of the kids with them but the locomotives are so big and in fairly dimly lit sheds, it was tough.
Each shed has a different kind of train so there were others for urban trains (like the L), streetcars, passenger trains etc. There was one train from the 50s that had sleeper cars - where you could climb into the bunks, a dining car. The kids all thought that was pretty cool, and wanted to know if we could take a train on our next vacation. My husband and I have Eurailed twice, but never taken an overnight train in the US. Could be fun.
Finally it was time for our ride on the #1 Engine - Thomas. In reality, Thomas is just there for show, they have another locomotive in the back that pushes the cars - but we didn't tell the kids that. The train cars are not Annie and Clarabell, but in this case were passenger cars from the '20s. We sat in the last car which worked out well as we were able to actually see Thomas "pulling" us when we went around a curve. The ride itself is nothing special 10 minutes out of the museum grounds and then 10 minutes back, but of course the whole point is to ride Thomas.
There is a streetcar that does a loop around the museum grounds (with 4 stops). The whole loop took about 15 minutes and the driver lets kids wear a conductors hat and take turns driving the train.
There is also a bigger train that takes a 45 minute ride out into the cornfields, but we skipped that one.
I had brought lunch for the kids, but my husband and I got lunch from the restaurant - basic burgers/chicken fingers/pizza. Not bad, and reasonably priced but you can easily bring your own food, there are tons of picnic tables. We sat right along the tracks where Thomas went by so we could see him while we were eating.
As people are getting on and off Thomas they let you get your picture taken with him. They have professional photographers there who will take your picture and you can pay for it, but they do let you take your own which is what we did. You can also get your picture with Sir Topham Hatt but we skipped that as that line was longer than the line for Thomas.
There was other entertainment as well - magicians, live music etc, but we skipped that stuff.
We ended spending about 4 hours there. The kids all enjoyed it, and it is definitely a must do if you have a Thomas fan in the house. Little Reader doesn't really play with the trains anymore but she liked seeing the old locomotives, and watching her brother get super excited about Thomas. Little Hugger still helps her brother build tracks at home, so she got into it a little more.
It is a little pricey - $19 per ticket for anyone over 2 years old (plus the "convenience fees" for ordering online brought it to $115 for the 5 of us), but we were there for over 4 hours and it was a nice sunny but not too hot day, and once school starts we won't have much time for these excursions due to other weekend activities (soccer, dance etc).