I’ve not an entrepreneurial bone in my body but I can fully appreciate when someone has come up with a gem of a money-spinner. Welcome to Track Play. Simple premise: book a school/village hall; fill it with interactive train track; display super-charged Thomas & Friends trains on a table; unleash up to 30 children; charge parents £5 an hour upwards. Oh, and stick a few dinosaurs around because, well… because why not?
We discovered these events when a friend showed they were attending on Facebook. I jumped on it like a rabid beast. We’ve exhausted every Thomas the Tank Engine movie (how can there only be 14 of them), we’ve got the Brio, we’ve got the cuddly Thomas, we’ve got the spaghetti shapes, we’ve got the t-shirt, the slippers, the entire book set… I was booked on before he could say “‘Misty Island Rescue’ again Mummy.”
Upon arrival I wish I’d managed to capture Harry’s face. It was like a thing of wonder – every train fantasy come true. Train porn for toddlers. I first attended a summer Saturday session in the afternoon. There’s only one way to describe it – Stepford Children. They were all silently taking trains, coupling them up (get me with my proper train speak) and following them through tunnels, up mountains and navigating loops. You could hear a pin drop. Every child had an intense misty-eyed look of concentration on their Thomas-obsessed face. Harry was sprawled on the floor, commando dragging himself after Gordon and his Troublesome Trucks. All the while parents were sat around the edge, letting them get on with it. I was surplus to requirements!
Such a simple idea but such a winner. There was no real interaction with other children (even when we attended our second session with great friends) but the opportunities for fine motor skill development and problem-solving were all there. The train couplings are fiddly and Harry did need some help attaching them but then he was away, flicking railroad switches to change direction and giving Percy a helpful shunt up the mountain track. He had all the friends he needed in James, Spencer, Thomas and even Diesel 10!
The half term session – an extended ninety minute bout – was a lot busier and noisier. This did cause a few more Thomas pile-ups and tears but it was none-the-less £9 well spent!
My caveat: as fantastic as the sessions are, be prepared with an exit strategy. I tried the usual and frankly pointless parent time count-down. “Harry, we are going in ten minutes.” “Harry, you need to say goodbye to Thomas in five minutes.” “Harry, we are going.” Like toddlers have any concept of time and pay-by-the-hour.
On both occasions we have had a meltdown of biblical proportions. It was like I told him he was never to see or speak of Thomas or his infernal friends again. Car keys were at the ready, under the arm he went and flailing and wailing, he was shoe-horned in to the car seat. “Another screening of ‘King of the Railway’ Harry?” Peace was resumed as Amazon Prime rescued the day on the iPad. Cinders and ashes – all was calm and a wonderful hour was had.
Currently Track Play put on events in Essex, Northamptonshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Kent, Berkshire, Lincolnshire, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, London, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. It is easy to book online (follow the link above) and I can assure you, we will be busting our buffers back again soon.
We’ve exhausted most train-orientated toddlers entertainment in Essex. We would love any other suggestions of places for a train-geek-toddler to visit in the UK for when we book our next UK adventure.