One of the presents Arlo received for his first birthday was a Thomas and Friends wooden train set.
It was a simple starter set, just a small circular track and two trains – Thomas and Rosie. The gift was from his great grandad. We held it back for a couple of months, giving it to Arlo when he was around 14 months old. From then on, Thomas and Rosie were rarely out of his hands. This was the start of his first great obsession.
Arlo’s wooden train track, and, more specifically, his love of Thomas trains, has been such a central part of his life, that it feels strange to look back at a time before all of this. Before his inseparable love for his Thomas trains, before his love of building intricate track designs, before his train collection expanded to an enviable size, before the daily requests for “Thomas songs” and “Accidents Happen on YouTube”. Before we ALL came to know every single Thomas episode and character like the back of our hands.
For a good few years, not a day would go by without featuring something Thomas-related. But in the last year or two especially, Arlo’s interests have expanded. He still has his little obsessional loves – he loves to delve into the categorisation of a topic, so any subject matter with a large amount of facts or types to explore usually does well with Arlo – vehicles, dinosaurs, architecture, space, etc. Slowly, Thomas has become less of a focal point as new interests are discovered, dissected, and devoured. Yet, an episode of Thomas will still captivate him, his wooden train set is still the most played-with toy of all, and he still retains his encyclopedic knowledge for Thomas facts and character names.
And then there is his little brother, who, along the way, has become equally enamored with the Thomas series, at the moment perhaps even more so than his big brother, who is currently keeping himself busy with the Walking With Dinosaurs series.
For our family, it was never a matter of “Should we take them to Thomas Land?” It was always a matter of “When shall we take them to Thomas Land?”
Drayton Manor is a 2.5 hour drive away, in a direction we don’t often find ourselves near. And yet, I knew I really wanted to take the boys before they became “too old” for Thomas. Their current ages (5 and almost 3) were probably as good as it was going to get. So, when we were invited to a press day at Thomas Land, during a period of time when we knew we would be actively looking for places to stay and things to occupy the children whilst the builders did their thing at our new house, it was the perfect opportunity.
Eager to give them something to look forward to, after being entirely uprooted for the last three weeks, without their usual toys and routines, and yet nobly taking it all in their stride, we made the mistake of telling the boys a tad early about our upcoming trip to Thomas Land. We hadn’t realised how excited Rory would be about the idea, and how little concept of time he actually has – hence the same hourly question for an entire week. “Is it time to go to Thomas Land yet??”
Finally, when we arrived at Drayton Manor and started walking towards the park entrance, there were actual squeals from Rory as he spotted Cranky, and then Harold, and then Thomas. Arlo played it a little more cool, but you could tell he was equally as engaged and excited.
I wish I could put myself in a young Thomas-fan’s shoes and experience what it feels like to see your absolute favourite characters, larger than life and moving around in a whole “land” dedicated to them. I bet it feels entirely magical.
For us hardened unimaginative adults, though, Sam and I thought most of the rides in Thomas Land were not much more than glorified fairground rides – sit in a carriage and go round in a circle type rides. Although it was fun to see some unexpected favourites represented – Rheneas, Luke, and the other Blue Mountain Quarry trains have their own ride at Thomas Land. The rides with a little more of a story were the most popular with our gang, the Sodor cars ride and the engine tours were the children’s favourites, and we felt that weaving more of a story into the Thomas Land rides would make for an improvement. However, when you are five or three years old, just the mere act of sitting in Harold the Helicopter or Fiery Flynn seemed to be more than enough.
Without a doubt, Arlo and Rory’s favourite ride of all at Thomas Land was the engine tours with Thomas and Rosie. This ride is the centrepiece of Thomas Land – Thomas and Rosie spin around on a turntable before coupling up to their carriages (Annie and Clarabel feature here too), pulling passengers along the line to and from Knapford Station. Percy is another engine that features on the engine tours, but I think we was resting in the engine shed on the day we visited Thomas Land.
We rode the train ride three times, and when it was time to leave, the children were still clamouring for “one more ride”. I think they would have been happy riding Thomas and Rosie all day.
Alighting at the other end of the engine tours was one of our favourite parts of the park. We found this end much quieter and the pace rather peaceful. (tip: If there is a sizeable queue for Thomas or Rosie at the Thomas Land end, walk through the zoo and get on the ride at the other end – there are generally far less queues from that side, and it makes things MUCH easier to time it if your children desperately want to ride one engine over the other).
In the far corner of the park, you will find Farmer McColl’s Farm and Terence the Tractor’s driving school. Children can have a go at steering and operating the pedals as they drive around a track.
Rory was DESPERATE to ride Terence, but unfortunately he was under the height limit, plus his feet simply would not have reached the pedals. However, this part of the park was so quiet when we were there (11ish), that Arlo was actually the only one on the ride, and so the ride operator kindly suggested that Rory could sit in Terence with Arlo once the ride had stopped. Look at his happy little face:
The attitude of the staff at Thomas Land was another highlight of our visit for me. We found every ride operator to be friendly, cheerful, and they all made kind efforts to engage the children.
An attraction enjoyed by our whole family in this section of the park was the Discover Thomas Exhibition. Tucked away in a shed in the far corner of the park, you will find an expansive model railway set, featuring Thomas, Rosie and Edward chugging round the tracks. Arlo and Rory had great fun following the trains on their journey around the circuit, squealing as they emerged through tunnels. This was another attraction that I think the boys would have been happy to base themselves by for HOURS. The exhibition features some of the original set models used in the earlier stop motion Thomas series (before the switch to CGI that we see in the current episodes of Thomas and Friends). Having seen these episodes thousands of times, it was pretty cool to see in person.
From the back of the park, you can access Spencer’s outdoor play area, the zoo, and the Dino Trail. All three attractions were big hits with our boys, and we actually spent an equal amount of time here as we did in the Thomas Land section of Drayton Manor. For the first time ever, both children were captivated by the zoo animals, which pleased Sam no end (there were either actual tears in his eyes, or it was just a bit cold). He’s been trying to engage them in wildlife ever since they were tiny – many an eager trip to the zoo has been taken, ever since Arlo was a disinterested baby. Dino-obsessive Arlo also really enjoyed the little quiz questions dotted around the Dino Trail.
Rory is a little short for his age. He was just under the 0.9m height restriction for a couple of the rides that he REALLY wanted to go on – Terence’s Driving School and Captain’s Sea Adventure. There were some really big tears shed when he realised that Dada and Arlo would be going on, but not Rory. Had I done my research and given it some thought in advance, it would have been a FAR better idea had we split up at that point and one of us taken Rory off to distract him with other rides or play areas.
There were also a couple of rides where younger children needed to be accompanied by an adult, and only two people could fit in a row (one adult and one child). This was fine for us as we are currently a two adult, two child family. But had we visited in a couple of months when baby number three is here, we would have had a bit more of a juggling act as one adult stayed with the baby and the other queued up twice in order that each older child got their turn on the ride. It would involve a bit more thinking and careful planning for sure.
All the info on height restrictions can be found here.
OTHER THINGS TO NOTE
A visit to Thomas Land isn’t do-able in a day for us because of the long drive, but there are plenty of budget-friendly options nearby for an overnight stay. We found our family room and breakfast at Tamworth Premier Inn did the job perfectly, and put us at just a 5 minute drive to Drayton Manor so we were ready to explore the park as soon as it opened.
We did attend a press event, and as a result, had an hour’s early entry to the park before gates opened to the general public. This meant we were able to do pretty much every ride in Thomas Land in our first hour, and makes it a bit tricky for me to assess how long you’d usually need to allow on an average day at the park. Friends have told me that four hours is a good marker (I would add on another hour or two if you want to do the zoo and have lunch), and I did note that during peak hours between 11 – 3pm, queues for most rides were still pretty favourable. Our visit was in February, a week after half term, and before the main theme park season starts, so I think the park was probably a bit quieter than usual standards.
We covered a lot of ground during our day, but we didn’t do absolutely everything (Emily’s play area and The Thomas Show were missed entirely), leaving enough to make a repeat visit to Thomas Land worthwhile and not too “samey” as our first visit.
We brought a pushchair along for Rory, but actually ended up parking it up in Thomas Land and barely returning to it until later in the day. Thomas Land is small enough for toddlers to easily walk around, and even the walk through the zoo is not too long. Compared to other theme parks we have visited, it is easy enough to do away with a pushchair if your toddler generally prefers to walk and doesn’t need to nap during your visit.
So, what is the verdict on Thomas Land from a Thomas super fan and his long-suffering family?
The thing about Thomas super fans, is that they are REALLY into trains. Train tracks and train rides are THE most ultimate thing in their eyes. Arlo and Rory liked seeing all the different characters, but the thing they loved above all else at Thomas Land, were the few attractions where they could see their beloved characters just as they see them on TV – on actual train tracks, pulling carriages. More actual train rides or model trains would have made Arlo and Rory’s day at Thomas Land even better, and provide an experience that, for our little train obsessives, simply could not be rivaled by any other theme park.
It was a privilege to be able to take our two Thomas super-fans to Thomas Land at Drayton Manor. I loved watching them as they spotted all the different characters, and it was a trip down memory lane for Sam and I to hear such familiar Thomas songs played from the park’s speakers all day. Literally, as soon as we started the car and drove out of the car park, the children were asking when we could go back.
If you have little Thomas fanatics in your family, a trip to Thomas Land is an absolute must at some point whilst they are young.
We attended a press event at Drayton Manor and received complimentary entry to Thomas Land and the rest of the park. Our stay at Premier Inn was paid for by ourselves in the usual way.