Those words “Hey, come back!” were yelled by a young visitor this morning as the Thomas Train passed the “A” gate going south to Mapes, before it returned back to the platform to pick up another load of passengers. Those words amused me at the time, but they really reflect quite a bit about this year’s Day Out With Thomas railfest at Orange Empire Railway Museum (don’t worry if you missed it this weekend–you can still get tickets for tomorrow (11/12) or next weekend to visit my best bud Tommy).
- Hey, Come Back! One thing a Day Out with Tommy makes you realize is how real Thomas the Tank Engine is for really young children. As adults, we forget how real these programs can be, and these kids love these characters. That said, they forget about these characters without exposure, and attendance sure seemed down this weekend from the first years of Thomas. I forget if Thomas the Tank Engine is still on local stations. If it is, I’m wondering if HIT Entertainment is pricing themselves out of the market in this economy.
- Hey, Come Back! Of course, the best way to cement an image is a child’s mind is marketing, and HIT knows that well. In fact, they know it better than well since they have been bought by Mattel, and are now a division of Fisher Price. Our young patrons were wandering around with loads of Thomas-branded stuff… and I began to wonder what will happen to it all. Will the third-world countries that end up with the Thomas stuff after the kids outgrow and donate it know anything about an imaginary train engine on an English island? Are we just creating more and more stuff to fill landfills… and what message is that teaching our children?
- Hey, Come Back! As a museum, one thing we hope is that these children… and their parents… come back to the museum. Yet surprisingly the museum gift shop was closed this weekend. I heard two different reasons: one was lack of staff; the other was objections from HIT to selling non-Thomas merch. Irrespective of the reason, there was no place for visitors to pick up material to remind them of their visit to Orange Empire, and to encourage them to come back and visit when Tommy isn’t there. It also upset me because I wanted to pick up my Red Cars/Yellow Cars calendar (which is supposedly available, but doesn’t appear to be anywhere on the Museum website). If we want to get people to come back to OERM, we need to show them that OERM is more than just Thomas.
- Hey, Come Back! One thing that needs to come back is the family feeling that used to be at Railfest. Thomas is a family event, but it doesn’t strengthen the museum family. The current Thomas event depends on a diverse group of volunteers from museum members to local ROTC and military school students. I’m grateful for them, but I miss the old days. In the old days (pre-Thomas) we had railfests where the collection of the museum was the point of the celebration. We drew in those in the community that loved trains for being trains, not for being entertainment. We also drew in our members to volunteer — year after year. We built community in Town Hall, sharing the numbers, going out to dinner afterwards. Members that are part of a family want to support that family through thick and thin. We’re not building that — and we need to build it. I’m not sure what the answer is–there is a Spring Railfest, but it doesn’t get the advance publicity, it doesn’t draw in the crowds, nor does it depend on the membership to run it. It also isn’t the big affair, with the track running to capacity and then some, with the museum’s trains. Perhaps restoring the Spring Railfest to its former glory might help a lot. Something is needed to get the members coming back.
- Hey, Come Back–Not! I should note that I’m not asking everything from the past to come back. I understand completely the new business focus of the museum. In order to succeed long term, the museum must have the proper focus, must protect the grounds, and protect itself. It must watch expenditures and ensure efficient and safe operations. However, in doing this, the museum most also preserve what makes it special–and that’s more than just the equipment sitting in the yard. It is the people that make OERM special.
I still treasure the friends I have at the museum, and I come back because of those people. But I want to make new friends, and to have the visit with them make it worth the gas and hotel room to get out there. I encourage everyone to go out to Perris and visit the museum–whether or not Thomas is there. I hope you’ll find it a special place.