Ridin' the rails with kids
It can be a bumpy ride even when the terrain is flat
Friday, July 21, 2006
Our children, Jack, almost 3, and Grace, nearly 7, turned the train into an emotional roller coaster, loving things one minute, hating everything the next.
Still, the trip was a victory of sorts for this train buff. I have been riding Amtrak for 21 years, converted my wife (sort of) and now hope my children will love the train as well. I figured the 24-hour trip to Fort Worth from Chicago would be a good first excursion for the four of us. I was right. Despite a few glitches, I was glad we took the train-and equally glad we weren't taking it any farther.
Before you leave
Spend some time on Amtrak's Web site or on the phone with an agent to explore your options. If an overnight trip seems like too much, consider a shorter trip to St. Louis or Minneapolis.
Our trip started inside the Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago's Union Station. Reserved for sleeping car passengers only, it is the first of several sleeper benefits. It offers free soft drinks, coffee and goldfish crackers and pretzels for the kids.
I tipped a red cap $8 to tote our bags from the curb and right to our sleeper car. It was well worth it.
On Amtrak, children under 2 ride free and up to two children ages 2 to 15 are half-price with each paying adult, with additional fees for sleeper space. Our coach fares from Chicago to Fort Worth were $275.40; $91.80 each for my wife and me, and $45.90 each for the children. The sleeper more than doubled the price, adding another $294 for all of us.
You can save money by foregoing the sleeper. Coach is tolerable for a night. The reclining seats are wide and well padded. But they are in pairs; if your family has an odd number, one of you may end up sleeping next to a stranger.
If you go coach, bring along some warm clothes and a good blanket. The trains can be chilly. The pillows issued in coach aren't much. An inflatable travel pillow helps.
Most routes leaving Chicago use double-decker Superliner cars, and most sleepers on those trains are bedrooms or "roomettes." Bedrooms sleep up to two adults and a child and have their own sink, shower and toilet. Roomettes have two cot-sized bunks.
We booked a family bedroom. There's only one in each sleeping car, so book early. We reserved six months ahead. The family room holds two adults and two children comfortably in four bunks. The shower and toilet are down the hall. Bathrooms have diaper-changing tables, though we had space to change diapers in our room. The family bedroom, wide as the entire car, had ample floor space. We packed wooden tracks and train cars for Jack, who spent hours playing in the room.
Sleeping car passengers eat free in the dining car. Our three meals would have cost about $140, so that's nearly half our sleeper fare right there. Dinner entrees weren't as good as I remembered, but my lunch pizza was excellent (or would have been, had it arrived hot) and my French toast at breakfast was good, but a little dry.
There are some child-friendly items-hot dogs, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese and cheese pizza-but the "children's chicken" wasn't. Described as breaded strips, it arrived as a single grilled breast. Jack would have none of it.
Booths seat two adults on each side. Parents could fit a small child between them. The dining car attendant usually fills all available seats, so you may be seated with someone you don't know. Treat this as a chance for the kids to get over their shyness.
Your attendant will bring meals to your room, if you wish, which came in handy when Jack slept in. Four bottles of water came with our room (bottled water is $2 at the snack bar in the lounge car, though there are drinking water dispensers and cups in every car). A pot of coffee was always on in the upstairs hallway, which beat paying $1.75 a cup in the lounge. In the morning, there was free juice, and a newspaper slipped under our door.
We brought our own snacks to save money. Food in the dining car can be a little steep (cheese tortellini, $11; braised beef, $19) but dinners include salad, rolls and coffee, tea or milk. Grace loved the $5 chocolate cake. Prices in the lounge car range from pizza at $3.50 to cold fried chicken and slaw for $7.
Jack loved looking out the window, though the Eagle's Chicago to Texas run isn't Amtrak's most scenic route. He counted trucks on the highway and cars on passing trains and looked for bulldozers on construction sites.
Most long-distance trains show movies in the lounge cars at night, but Amtrak is phasing that out as the VCR-based equipment wears out. So consider bringing a portable DVD player or rent a digital player at Union Station. The rate, based on distance, includes return shipping. Each comes loaded with 12 movies, 10 TV shows, cartoons and travel information. We paid $35, which I thought was a little steep.
We also killed time with regular walks to the lounge car. This is a nice place to hang out, with large windows wrapping into the ceiling. The snack bar is downstairs, along with a few booths with larger tables if you're looking for a place to play a board game. Smoking is no longer allowed, which has improved the atmosphere in the lounge car.
When I told Grace she'd be grading the train, she said (in a non-bored moment) it was an "M-plus," with M standing for magnificent. Later, she said she wished there had been a pool.
Cowgirls get their due at Fort Worth museum The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth calls itself "the only museum in the world dedicated to honoring women of the American West who have displayed extraordinary courage and pioneer spirit."
At first glance it seemed too much like an art gallery to be kid-friendly. Seconds later, however, my children found the Discovery Corral, a play area with plenty to do.
This area has a full-size chuck wagon next to a fake campfire and is stocked with metal plates and pots, plastic vegetables and burlap sacks of provisions. (My daughter was adding the bag of buffalo chips to her "stew" until I explained to her what they were. This alone made the visit.)
Next to that, there's a child-sized table with paper and crayons in "Don't mess with Texas" lunch boxes. There's also dress-up Western wear.
I had to drag them away to see the rest of the museum. I needn't have bothered. Only a couple of things held my daughter's interest: the statue of Sacajawea and the chance to create a short rodeo film on a mechanical horse. Visitors are given a code to see the finished product on the museum Web site, but when I tried to download the video several days later, my code didn't work.
I would have liked to spend more time in a gallery that examined the impact of cowgirls on pop culture. Visitors could listen to music, pose for a movie poster or check out old TV shows.
Most of the first-floor exhibits were of the do-not-touch variety-hardly the place to spend time with a younger child.
I left the museum wishing I had gone alone, or perhaps with an older child. The exhibits could spark some great discussions about being strong, independent and following your dreams. What girl-or boy-doesn't need to hear that?
But all was not lost. Across the street is the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. A ticket to the either gets you into both. We walked in a side door directly to the children's area, Kidscape, which includes a pretend grocery, a small wooden train set and a water table. We were there for about 90 minutes and never went upstairs.
We also loved the Fort Worth Zoo. The layout is long and narrow. Just keep walking and you should see most everything. By the time you walk all the way to the end of the zoo on a hot day, the $2 train fare to ride back to the front seems a bargain.