Strasburg, PA, is most well known for the Strasburg Railroad, but just across the street from the Strasburg Railroad is a great train-filled treat for all families, especially families with children: the Choo Choo Barn. Strasburg’s Choo Choo Barn began in 1945, in the basement of the Groff family’s home. George Groff presented his then two year old son, Gary, with a Lionel train set, and it wasn’t long before the basement was overtaken by trains, railroad tracks, and all sorts of train accessories. In 1961 The Choo Choo Barn officially opened in its present location along Route 741 in Strasburg, and to this day the model trains, the railroads they run on, and the many gorgeous and innovative landscapes that the tracks weave in, around, and under are still on display to see, with new additions being added quite frequently. And the Groff family is still very much involved in the Choo Choo Barn, with the youngest son, Thomas, and his wife, Linda, overseeing the barn’s operations.
We have visited the Choo Choo Barn several times, and while we have enjoyed checking out the huge display of model trains, and picking out miniature replicas of actual landmarks in and around Strasburg and Lancaster county, due to Ryan’s autism and subsequent sensory issues, our visits have been a little stressful on all of us. Ryan, who just turned seven, enjoys trains and likes looking at them, but the usual display of the trains, which involves a lot of lights and sounds, plus a wall mirror that runs the entire length of one end of the room where the display is located, all prove to be a little too much for him to handle. More often than not we’ve had to rush through the last half of the display, and then take him outside to calm him down and get him focused on a quiet activity.
Recently the Choo Choo Barn partnered with Schreiber Pediatric Center to create a calmer, quieter environment for special-needs children and their families. Together the Choo Choo Barn and Schreiber quieted the displays, removed some of the lights and shortened the length of the display’s nighttime feature, turned off fire engine sirens, and most notably, covered the mirror on the wall. The resulting display of trains is visibly and audibly subdued, but just as impressive, interesting, and engaging. Additionally, picture-based scavenger hunts are offered to children. Pictures are easier to follow for younger children, and for special-needs children who may find written directions and statements to be too overwhelming to comprehend, the pictures are a great alternative, and they ensure that no child is left out of the fun.
Alyssa, Ryan, and I had the opportunity to experience the Choo Choo Barn’s Sensory-Friendly event during one of their morning events. We wound up being the only people in attendance, which worked out even better for Ryan, as it gave him the opportunity to not be distracted by or worried about bumping into other people, or other people bumping into him. We took our time going around the display, and he had a wonderful time finding all of the items listed on the picture scavenger hunt. When he and Alyssa finished with the picture scavenger hunt, we went around the display a second time, and the kids made up their own scavenger hunt along the way. Never before were we able to make it through the entire display once without Ryan displaying anxiety, but this time, thanks to the quieter, calmer environment, we went around not once, but twice! And we even lingered a bit after that.
Here’s a video showing the Choo Choo Barn and our visit there:
The Choo Choo Barn is a must-visit. Admission is just $7 for adults and $ for children ages 3+ (children under the age of 3 are free). The Choo Choo Barn is open 7 days a week, from 10:00am until 5:00pm, and for the Sensory-Friendly Event, be sure to visit on the second Tuesday of each month between the hours of 5:30pm and 7:00pm.
Disclosure: We received free tickets in exchange for our honest opinion about our experience at this venue.