Ahem...My name is Danielle and I love toys. There, I said it.
Our older son was a bit of a late-bloomer in the area of speech and one of his first words, right around the age of two, was "choo-choo." He knew what they were, he knew what they sounded like, and he was fond of pointing them out to us. Whether because of our excitement over his notice of trains or because they helped him find his voice, he has loved trains ever since. This is not a mild like, this is a love affair, an obsession. For his second birthday, a little over a year ago, we got him a train set and a table to put it on. Here is the picture I took of it all pristinely set up the day we got it, before he had even seen it. I love how the sun shines on it and it looks uncluttered, my carpet looks a little cleaner. This was the set-up that was featured on the box it came in. Sigh...I am remembering carrying the coffee table box up from the car when I was 7 months pregnant. Memories.
Anyway, we decided to get an Ikea Lack coffee table (the bigger one) to make into our train table instead of the traditional train tables out there on the market. The table and the train set were actually a little cheaper, and I think a little better looking (this thing had to reside in the middle of our living room, after all). This would also mean we could store all the trains in the bins under the table and put them away when we wanted to.
Our system has worked fantastically. It has allowed my son and I to bond while I build really complex train track layouts and he tells me which bridges and pieces he wants included in the current scheme. The only problem we've had is that our younger son loves to play "Bro-zilla" and trash the train track layouts. This devastates the train-lover. I found the perfect solution. They are little track-locks. They hold two pieces together and make it much more difficult to pull tracks apart. They are genius. Sadly I can't find a link for them, but I found them at a local toy store (Izilla, if you are local). This is what they look like:Moving right along...here are a few of my favorite layouts, the last of the three is what is currently on the table:Sometimes my son does not like my layouts and insists that I "make a new one." Yesterday, for example, he did not like my handiwork, so today I had the task of starting over again with his direction. It's great fun for me, actually, and I love the challenge of seeing exactly how complicated I can make it. It's more challenging than you might think since the sizes of pieces and the various curves offer quite a few structured limitations.
If you're considering investing in some trains, here's what I know (from experience) about all the different brands (the brand name is hyperlinked for your convenience):
~~Nuchi: Our very first little set was a Nuchi. They have very cute little trains and are compatible with the other brands. Price-wise, they are equivalent to Melissa & Doug, etc. At our local toy store (Top Ten Toys) they sell Nuchi by the single-piece which is fantastic. It's a good brand if you want specialty pieces. They have limited accessories and limited trains to choose from. It's a very basic brand.
~~Melissa & Doug: Our big, basic set featured in that first picture is a Melissa & Doug. They make very good quality, nondescript trains and their sets come with great beginner-accessories. Our set came with a roundhouse, a bridge, a crane and some people, etc. I like the roundhouse because it is smaller than the Thomas one (also not as fancy, though) and fits better in layouts on our table without taking over the whole thing. Very form-follows-function. Melissa & Doug is a great place to start. Our local consignment store actually sells it by the piece - also fantastic. It is also very reasonably priced.
~~Imaginarium: This is the ToysRUs brand. I love some things about it, not others. The wood is inferior quality and sometimes the pieces have compatibility issues. However, they make fantastic accessories and most are about half the price of Thomas ones and way more interesting, in my opinion. Imaginarium also makes GREAT trains. They come in three-packs and are cheaper than an individual Thomas train. The reason my son likes them so much is that they are very realistic-looking. They have actual diesel engines that LOOK like modern diesel engines, realistic-looking boxcars and tank cars. They are his favorite trains.
~~Brio: Brio stuff is amazing and wonderful but nearly impossible to find and therefore very expensive. I have scored a couple of brio stations off of ebay and I found a set of brio trains at a garage sale. Otherwise, they are sort of off the map. If you can find a set at a garage sale or on craigslist or ebay or consignment, definitely jump on it.
Plan City Toys: I. Love. This. Stuff. My son doesn't care all that much. He likes his plan city trains, he likes the roads that are compatible with the tracks, but he does not share my complete and total love affair. Were I rich, I would buy every piece of the Plan City (including the super-awesome doll house). They even make a bullet train which you can bet is going to find its way into my son's stocking. My favorite piece is this station. I have been trying to think of a way to justify it for almost a year now, but in truth, my son is just not that impressed. I think I could talk him into the parking garage, which is also cool. Sometimes they run these awesome accessories on Amazon for half price (!) but I still have managed to exercise self-control.
~~Ikea: The little trains are cute but the tracks are terrible and not very compatible to the other brands even though they claim to be. I am not a fan, even though they are cheap. In this case, there is a reason. My boys DO love the road-rug that goes with this train set, though.
~~Thomas: ...sigh...Thomas. Sometimes I wish Thomas didn't exist. Truly my son isn't a huge Thomas fan. He likes the cartoons but really can take or leave them. Last Christmas, I scouted ebay and bought him one-by-one a fairly thorough collection of the main characters. I later found out that I was buying knock-offs from Hong Kong, but hey, $3 for a train vs. $16 for a train? You decide. I'll take the risk. Thomas accessories are great. They are usually interactive, make realistic train sounds, and are interesting and fun BUT they are ridiculously expensive. Whew! They also rarely if ever go on sale. My advice regarding Thomas is that if you have a little one who likes trains but maybe doesn't know about Thomas, keep it that way. Save your money and steer him/her towards the more interesting, realistic-looking stuff.
...and recently I found what I very much want to get my son for Christmas (or, ahem, what Santa wants to get him). They are called Whittle Trains and they are tiny replicas of real modern trains. I'll have to see if we can swing a couple because I know he would go crazy to have his OWN Santa Fe engine. I can hear the excitement now...it makes me smile. Why? Because I love toys.