There is something about a model train set that brings out the children in people of almost any age.
For some, the creation and execution of these big—yet little—worlds appeals to side that still has a fondness for Tonka trucks and digging mountains among the molehills. For others, it is the attention to detail and the sheer craft of it all, not just the machinery but the displays that surround them, that offers landscapes you want to just fall into and live in for a while.
Model train sets remind people of simpler times, quite often of Christmas, and of feeling big in tiny worlds when, more often than not, you were the smallest part of your own.
There is, however, very little of Northlandz in Flemington that could be considered small.
Recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest model railroad, this elaborate display began in the basement of Bruce Zaccagnino, the creator and owner of the attraction.
Zaccagnino did not see it as a form of childhood regression though—more as a sprawling art project that grew as any township, landscape or country might over time. His miniature land masses, trees, shrubs, buildings and monuments all have a careful precision about them. This is more than a hobby, but to Zaccagnino, it always was.
The display grew out of those modest basement beginnings and is now a part of a 16-acre panorama developed by Zacaggnino and his wife Jean. Included in this complex is a doll museum, La Peep Doll House, a 2,000-pipe theater organ and art galleries.
In other words, there is a whole lot to see at Northlandz.
DAY TRIPPER DIGEST
Estimated Travel Time: About 15 minutes.
Why it’s Worth the Trip: Day Tripper is all about delivering some of the most unique experiences New Jersey has to offer, and there’s nothing quite like Northlandz—a place bound to make you feel like a kid again.
How to Get There from Here: Detailed driving directions
You’ll Probably Get Hungry: Try Flemington’s Great Wall Chinese and Thai cuisine, Matt’s Red Rooster Grill serving American food in a decorative bistro atmosphere, Alfonso’s 202 Trattoria for a little upscale Italian, Luna Pizza for a slice on the go, Perkins for pancakes and The Fudge Shoppe. Now what exactly do they sell there?
While You’re in the Area: If you plan out your trip carefully, you can make it just in time to catch a performance at the . Or if you’re a daredevil on skateboard, make like Stacy Peralta at Shields Skatepark [don’t forget your helmet].
Zaccagnino is justly proud of his work at Northlandz.
“We’ve been at this for 15 years,” he said. “It really has evolved since it all began in my basement in 1972. We have 90 different trains that run throughout, and some are specifically long, thirty to forty cars long.”
Of course, when you are speaking of mechanical items like model trains, you are also speaking of a degree of devotion to maintenance. Things break.
“We spend three to five hours a day every day on maintaining the trains, the equipment, having the displays just right,” Zaccagnino said.
Speaking of the range of people interested in the displays at Northlandz, Zaccagnino said that the demographics are all over the map.
“There’s something for everybody," he said, "from 2 to 92, and you know, kids see it different than the adults. Our landscapes have a ton of detail and humor as you go through the tour.”
There is so much to see in among the varied panoramas, Zaccagnino said it might be a good idea to bring a handy set of binoculars to fully experience the fine touches added to the works.
“The scenery is spectacular and you don’t need binoculars to appreciate them," he said, "but we encourage people to bring them anyway.”
If the train sets are not your thing, however, Northlandz also features the La Peep Doll House, recognized as the world’s largest dollhouse, and a collection of several hundred dolls as well.
After days and weeks in the adult world of work, bills and commuting doesn’t a few hours in a complex devoted to rekindling those feelings of childhood sound good?
Bruce Zaccagnino believes so.
“Each and every person that comes sees it in a different way,” he said.
For more information about Northlandz, visit its website. Call 908-782-4022 for times and directions.