No matter how old some people get, trains have the ability to awaken in them a childlike delight.
At least, that's the experience of the Arizona Big Train Operators, a group of model railroad hobbyists who build scaled-down trestles, tunnels and switchyards in their backyards.
"They're for kids of all ages, I like to say," says Ginny Morris, a Gilbert model train enthusiast who belongs to the group. "I have a small modular (train layout) that I take around, and kids just run around and around, following the trains."
Members of the club will open their intricate railroad layouts to the public 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (and Dec. 18-19, 2010) for their annual Christmas open house. A railroad display inside Cardon Children's Medical Center in Mesa will also be part of the tour for the first time this year.
The realistic G-scale trains, which are 1/22.5 the size of a real train, are so detailed they even have authentic sounding names, such as the A & T Express or the Corona & Southern Railroad and Mining Co. They travel through elaborately constructed fantasy worlds that contain everything from tiny people and animals to 1800s-style Western towns and Disney characters.
"The great thing is that they're all different; every operator builds their own layout to reflect a particular theme or place or time period in history. And we're open for four nights, so you can always go to one area one night and go to a different area another night," says Morris, who greeted visitors the past two holiday seasons at Dennis Sirrine's "Palo Verde & Southwestern Railroad" in Mesa.
Believed by the club to be one of the largest garden railroad layouts in the country, Sirrine's layout features nearly 6,000 feet of track, where as many as eight trains at a time run through tunnels, over bridges and around lakes, mountains, forests and deserts. About 6,000 people came to see them during last year's open house.
This year, Sirrine's open house will feature Santa Claus and seasonal refreshments.
The self-guided tour is free, but donations accepted at each site will fund the upkeep of model railroad displays at Cardon and at Phoenix Children's Hospital. Go to azbigtrains.org to print maps to each site.