BY LORAINE ANDERSON
TRAVERSE CITY — The annual Festival of Trains is expected to pull more than 8,600 people from northern Michigan into the History Center of Traverse City over the next two weeks.
And toy trains will clatter an estimated 600 miles around the tracks before the show ends on New Year's Day.
The Northern Michigan Railroad Club exhibit, now in its 10th year, is open Saturday and Sunday this weekend in the center's museum and community room.
More than a dozen antique and modern trains can run on the various gauge tracks at one time, but club members will run hundreds over the two-week stretch to keep engines from wearing out, center director Bill Kennis said.
"Six hundred miles is a long way for a model train to run," said Bill Parrish, one of about 20 railroad club members who have spent the last two weeks hauling in, assembling and wiring the show in the old Carnegie Library Building at 322 Sixth St.
Some trains are interactive to give kids and adults a chance to play engineer.
The festival again will feature the wooden Lionel Thomas the Tank Engine, an interactive replica built two years ago by club members. It measures about 7 feet long and 5 feet tall and will be set up near the main museum entrance.
"Kids can get in, ring the bell, blow the whistle and have their photo taken," club president Rick Vandenberg said. "Last year, we had to put a timer in it because kids don't want to get out of it."
The show is open daily except Christmas and runs through New Year's Day.
Santa Claus will visit between 5 and 7 p.m. from Dec. 17 through 21.
The exhibit is wheelchair accessible. School and disabled groups may contact the History Center at 995-0313, Ext. 106 to schedule a time to visit the festival during the week of Dec. 17-21.
Club members also will hold "swap meets" this Saturday and Sunday to sell extra model trains, transformers, tracks and other equipment.
Meet hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
The popular holiday tradition is on of the History Center's major money makers. Last year it topped 8,600 visitors and raised $38,000. Kennis expects it to pull in more people and $45,000 this year.
Admission is $5 per person or $30 for a family pass, valid for unlimited visits during the run of the show. Children 4 and under are admitted free.
"Attendance increases every year," Vandenberg said. "Don't forget, we're pulling in people from as far away as Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
"Most train exhibits are displayed behind plastic walls and don't have dozens of switches for the guests to throw. Ours is more hands-on and interactive. Kids, and adults, too, love it."
Planning for this year's festival began as soon as last year's exhibit was over, Vandenberg said.
"No one likes to see the same things year after year," he said. "The tracks, which are laid out on about 70 modular table boards, stay the same, but we like to change the scenery."
Beverages, baked goods and homemade soups will be available during most of the show at the "Choo Choo Cafe" in the History Center basement.
The "Conductor's Gift Shop" features holiday and railroad-themed gifts for the entire family, museum staff said.
For more information, go to www.festivaloftrains.org or call 995-0313.