I first met Thomas the Tank Engine on a summer afternoon. I was hanging out at my little sister’s house while she dug to the bottom of boxes, sorting her children’s outgrown clothes and toys. Most of the stuff she pulled out went into the big garbage bag destined for her church’s giveaway program. But then she opened a huge RubberMaid bin, reached into it, and picked up a happy, smiling train engine. It had a round magnet on its back. “This was Tommy’s,” she said. “We’re keeping this.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s Thomas,” she said. “He loved it, and when he has kids I can pull it out and they can play with it.” Tommy was around ten at the time. She was going to have a long wait.
When The Boy learned to walk he had one favorite stop at the mall–the teachers’ store, where in a back corner there was a Thomas the Tank Engine table, complete with tracks, buildings, cars, scenery, and people. I learned to find a corner and sit down when we got to that store; we were going to be there for a while.
That Christmas I got him his very first Thomas. I invested in one of the starter sets–wooden tracks, Thomas the Tank Engine and his passenger cars Annie and Clarabel, and one arching bridge. My son’s first word was Mom. His second word was Thomas.
Over time, of course, the Thomas collection expanded to include more buildings, more track, more bridges, and then books, videos, a backpack, an engineer doll, dishes… We did love Thomas.
And then The Boy grew up. Now, like my sister–and like many mothers I know–I have a large RubberMaid bin, full of Thomas stuff. And I’m saving it. Because someday, there may be grandchildren. And if there aren’t, I still have my second childhood, during which Thomas and I can again ride the rails.
As you’ve probably deduced, finding used sets of Thomas the Tank Engine is not easy, not because they don’t exist, but because everybody’s saving them for the grandchildren. Here’s why:
1. Quality construction. While it’s now possible to get plastic Thomas tracks and cars, the sets are traditionally made of wood. And they’re guaranteed. For life. A Thomas track is a bit of an investment, but once you’ve got it, you can count on it being around for a long, long time.
2. Thomas builds memories. I’m not quite certain why it is, but Thomas sets become more than just train sets. They seem to catch and hold bits of childhood. I know it sounds crazy, but there it is. I can’t tell you how many moms I’ve seen get gooey-eyed at the sight of their sons’ old Thomas sets.
3. You can buy them piecemeal. And that’s why they’ve made my list of great gifts you can get for not so much money. You’ll have a hard time finding them used, and you can pay upwards of $150 for some of the larger sets–but you can also find a single engine for around $5 on Amazon, and at the moment Trains Galore has a decent overstock sale going on. If you have a young Thomas fan, why not suggest to family members that they each purchase a piece, or even team up to buy one of the larger pieces?
Here’s the nice thing–even though Thomas the Tank Engine trains are hard to find second hand, the same can’t be said of Thomas books, DVDs, and accessories. Amazon has them for prices to fit even the tiniest budget. For example, “Thomas the the Magic Railroad,” the feature length movie released in 2000, can be had for .01. Yes, children, that’s right–you can get a movie your child will love, and you can get it for a penny, plus shipping.
Thomas the Tank Engine books can likewise be had for pennies. But here’s something to consider: Preview the original Thomas stories before you buy. The stories were written in the early part of the 20th century, and there’s a fair amount of shaming and belittling going on. I bought the books. And then I donated them. I simply didn’t feel comfortable reading stories where an engine responds to failure by saying, “I’m so ashamed. I feel so ashamed,” and where Mr. Conductor says severely, “You should be ashamed.” The books produced in the last twenty years don’t reflect this unfortunate attitude, but then again, neither do they have the charming original illustrations. The books come in an amazing array of styles, sets, and sizes.
This isn’t exactly Christmas-related, but no discussion of Thomas the Tank Engine would be complete without mentioning the “Day Out With Thomas” events held around the country. It’s a too-well-kept secret that Thomas the Tank Engine tours the U.S., stopping in towns and offering rides in old-fashioned passenger cars. There is an entrance fee, but it’s well worth it, because a “Day Out With Thomas” is far more than just a train ride–when I took The Boy years ago it involved a plethora of kid-friendly events and activities, a petting zoo, costumed characters from the Thomas stories (one of which took us aside and wangled us seats not inside the passenger cars but in the premium Observation Car right behind Thomas himself), picnic and fast food, and a Thomas shop stuffed with a bewildering array of Thomas products, many of which I’ve never seen anywhere else. Check the listing on the Thomas the Tank Engine website, and buy your ticket ahead.
You should also be aware that the Thomas the Tank Engine website has a number of free games and activities designed for small kids and their parents.
Bottom line: Thomas the Tank Engine train sets are high-quality, guaranteed, and sold in packages that range the cost spectrum. By working with friends and relatives a family can build a very nice set in one or two holidays. Or, if cost is a significant factor an engine or two can be purchased without the tracks (I see kids carrying them around all the time), and the gift augmented with some of the huge range of Thomas books, movies, and items available for mere pennies, in some cases.