Dash of Holiday Magic at Morris Arboretum

 In Holidays

Model trains whiz past historic buildings all decked out for the holidays

I’ve said it once (probably) and I’ll say it again (definitely.) If you stick trains and little boys in the same vicinity you have a winning toddler attraction. You put those trains in a beautiful garden and you have won this mama’s heart. You throw in some grandparents to enjoy the experience with you, well, needless to say everyone is over the moon at this point.

Dek and his grandpa explore the trains at Morris Arboretum

I knew nothing about raising little boys until I had Dek. I come from a family of girls, but even I knew that the Morris Arboretum Holiday Garden Railway would be a must see when we headed back east this past Christmas. It was a short drive from my parents and an easy morning excursion for the whole family. Apparently I wasn’t the only one to think this. Every other mom with a toddler was there. Quite a few grandparents too. We were all sneaking in one last outing before older kids got out of school and the holidays went into full swing.

Cable cars rise above the trains in the miniature exhibit

Watch out for little conductors as they dart in and out of the 15 train lines on display

My parents are members of the garden and had a few free passes that we took full advantage of. Dek is under 3 so he got in free. I’m sure the garden administration didn’t realize just how huge this train exhibit would be for Dek. If they did, we would have been charged full price for sure.

A short walk down a hill brought us to the permanent train installation. The “conductor” was there to greet us with a map of the trains and buildings. The trains run year round but gets all dressed up for the holidays. Natural materials like bark, leaves, mosses and acorns are used to build and decorate every element that you see. A group of volunteers maintains the exhibit with a lot of love and care that shines through in every detail.

Philadelphia’s own mini-Independence Hall sparkles with holiday cheer

Betsy Ross’s house shows off some of Philly’s architectural splendor

As we wandered the 15 different train lines on over a quarter mile of track I spotted some easily recognizable Philadelphia sights. An engine whizzed by Betsy Ross’s house. Another shot past Independence Hall. Not only did we have trains, but we had a history lesson built in as well. One day we can bring Dek back for his grand tour of historic Philadelphia and pop back to the arboretum for a look at the tiny replicas. He might appreciate the buildings more then. For now, he only had eyes for the choo-choos racing down the track.

Percy and Thomas were all Dek required for a morning of train watching fun

Of course no train exhibit would be complete without a peek at Thomas the Tank Engine and his pal Percy. We have none of these trains at home and never watch the show but still Dek knew who they were. I think it’s built into little boy DNA. Either that or his little friends teach him more than I think when we go to their houses.

The Swan Pond

The Fernery gives a quick respite from the cold along with fish and small paths for kids to explore

While the Mike, my dad and Dek sat on a bench pointing out every train and choo-choo track, my mom and I snuck off for a quick walk. I got a quick glimpse of some of the other attractions offered in the gardens. There was a very cool tree house along with a refurbished 1908 log cabin where the original owners spent hours gazing at the stream that trickled by. Everything was open for kids to explore. The cabin even had Lincoln Logs available inside so kids could build their own cabin.

A renovated log cabin makes for some great kid explorations

Even more family friendly activities are available throughout the year. Story hours, kid concerts, a plant sale, wetland tours and a cherry blossom festival are just a few events planned for visitors. With so much to do, and grandparents with an annual pass, we will be sure to check out the garden on a future visit. Hopefully next time I will get to see the rose garden in full bloom.

WXPN Kid Concerts (left) and the Tree Adventure in the Snow (images ©Mark Wilkins (left) and Paul Meyer for Morris Arboretum)

A Little History Lesson

Over a hundred years ago John Morris and his sister Lydia built their summer home, which they named Compton, in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia. As avid travelers throughout America, Asia and Europe they brought ideas, artwork and plants back to their home. The Morris siblings, who were from a wealthy iron manufacturing family, laid the groundwork for a school and laboratory of botany and horticulture. In 1932 the property became the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. It is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. I’d like to think that the Morris siblings dreamed of a day that their efforts would bring smiles to so many families. Small children have an open space to run, explore and discover what the natural world has to offer all thanks to a vision laid out so many years ago.

John and Lydia Morris in the garden (image ©Morris Arboretum)

Know Before You Go

  • Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, 100 E. Northwestern Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19118 · 215-247-5777
  • Open year round except New Years Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
  • Hours:  Daily 10am-4pm, April-October weekends open until 5pm, June-August Thursdays open until 8:30pm
  • Cost: Adults $16, Youth (3-17) $7, Children under 3 are free
  • Picnics are allowed only behind the Visitors Center in the dining area
  • The Compton Café offers a nice variety of food at reasonable prices
  • The staff asks that you not climb the trees, sculptures or wade through the fountains.
  • The Holiday Garden Railway runs from about Thanksgiving until New Years. Check the website for exact dates. If you are visiting outside of the holidays, call ahead to make sure the trains will be running. They do go offline for a period in the winter.
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Showing 9 comments
  • cravesadventure

    My dad would love this – he acts child like some days:) Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply

      Dek, my dad and the hubby would have been perfectly happy to hang out there all day. If they delivered pizza on site they probably would have 😉 It’s fun to be surrounded by big and little kids all the time.

  • Lisa

    What a great display – I love the miniature buildings and all the details!

  • Mom

    Just a note that the garden railway doesn’t run all year. I believe it is April-October. It reopens only for the holiday season before closing again until the Spring. The website will have details. So glad we could reintroduce you to the Arboretum and share the day with your family!

  • More Kids Than Suitcases

    Very cool. I’m guessing Dek now wants Dad to build him something similar?

    • Reply

      I don’t think dek needs to do any convincing for Dad to build him a mega railroad. It’s mom that will need the convincing. A bigger house would help too. They will have to build it outside if they want one right now. We are busting at the seems as is.

  • Family Trek (@famtrek)

    Ok, my kids officially love your blog because of this post!

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