“There’s James – he’s coming around the corner!” my son exclaimed, pointing to a tiny tunnel constructed of pebbles and twigs. At the U.S Botanical Gardens’ Seasons Greenings, the trains held obvious interest for the kids, but there was no shortage of wonder for the adults either.
This was our second attempt to get in. We first attempted to see the train display on Black Friday. “Everyone’s at the Mall!” I thought. As we emerged from the arches of the outside garden, it dawned on me how wrong I was. The line started inside, wrapped around a few aisles, proceeded out the doors, around the building, down the steps and almost into the street. At the very end of the line, someone passed on that it was a 45 minute wait – once you got inside! With the prospect of an hour and a half wait before us, we ditched that idea.
Instead, we went into the “non-train” main entrance of the Botanic Gardens, which was also decorated festively. A tremendous Christmas tree towered above us, festooned with ornaments representing national parks and monuments. And around the tree? A special consolation prize – Thomas the Tank Engine himself, chugging along in all his glory. Sprout positioned himself carefully for maximum viewing pleasure when Thomas made his way around the bend in the tracks. Right before he came by, Sprout would ask, “Is he coming?”
Moving on, we explored the rest of the Botanic Garden, which is quite spectacular all year round. Even though it is in quite a prominent place – right next to the Capital – most people just wander on by the giant greenhouse on the Mall.
The Garden’s Conservatory has nine sections, many of them focused on different ecosystems. Although we hustled through some quickly due to the crowds, we lingered a bit more on the desert section, with its fuzzily dangerous cactuses.
But we spent the most time in the real heart of the gardens – the jungle section. Rising up two stories, it immerses you in lush greenery, even when there’s a foot of snow outside. Strangler vines wrap around huge trees, just like in the Amazon. Giant-leaved plants flop into the walkways. Ferns hang over little streams of water and mossy rocks. Sprout loved looking at all of the plants, paying attention and asking endless questions. Thankfully, he didn’t ask me to read every single placard like he was in the outside gardens. We would have never left!
While we enjoyed the gardens, we did want to fulfill our promise to see the trains. We didn’t want to take our chances on the weekend again, so Chris brought them back the following Thursday. (One of the perks of being a stay-at-home parent is that you can go on day trips.) I took a long lunch and met them up there.
The display probably wasn’t worth an hour and a half wait, but it was pretty damn cool. All of the decorations (except the model trains) were made out of natural materials. The trains rambled over a landscape that included a variety of monuments, from Martin Luther King’s house to a teeny tiny Hawaiian volcano. The Las Vegas sign glowed slightly, just below a rocky Mount Rushmore. A child-sized tunnel housed shadow boxes of the Paul Bunyon statue and the Wawona Tree in Yosemite. Sprout especially loved that he fit through the space perfectly, but we had to lean down to see the little displays. Each one had the smallest of details crafted out of moss, twigs, and pebbles. The trains chugged along steadily, from cartoonish James to a much more traditional model train, complete with faded freight cars.
We quickly discovered the other advantage of coming on a weekday – the ability to wander freely. Sprout ran back and forth between the sections, looking at one, moving on, and then returning to his favorites again and again. That would have been impossible if we had to shuffle through in line. We lifted Little Bird out of his stroller so he could see and he watched everything with wide eyes and waving arms.
My long lunch was over, so I headed back to work, leaving them to linger over the trains for as long as Chris could stand. If we can get there on a weekday, the Botanical Garden train display might just become a new holiday tradition.
If you have a train-loving kid, check out my posts on the Gaithersburg, Maryland community museum (which is literally inside a train) or the Polar Express (our trip was in upstate New York, but there are similar ones around the country). Or for more on our adventures, follow me on Facebook and Instagram!