I recently had the opportunity to tack a relatively short visit to Northlandz onto a business trip. The following is my review of this attraction.
This really is HUGE. Nothing that I read really prepared me for the sheer scale of the thing. For that reason alone, it is worth a visit by any model rail fan. Having said that, for the reasons I indicate below, in the terms of the Michelin or Mobil travel guides, Northlandz is worth a detour of an hour or even a bit more, but not a special trip.
I visited on a Wednesday mid-day, mid-September i.e. the schools were all in session. When I arrived, I was the only visitor. While I was there, a train enthusiast arrived and started dragging his young daughter, young wife and their newborn through the exhibit. I have no personal experience to support the following statement, but I imagine that weekends and holidays definitely, and even summer and vacation days to a lesser extent, see a lot of children. I have nothing against children and we have raised some ourselves, but I believe their presence in any numbers would have an impact on my enjoyment.
I would allow 2.5 to 3 hours for a thorough tour of the railroad. I didn’t have that much time, and I knew that I didn’t have the time that I needed to do justice to it. But – the 1.25 hours I did have was better than nothing. I do hope to return someday when I can carve out enough time.
Given the amount of time needed, and the weekday hours (10:30 to 4), it is likely that you will want lunch, or at least a snack, while you are there. I regret to say that unless candy, cookies and other sweeties are your thing, I HIGHLY recommend that you bring your own food. Aside from the deficiencies of the in-house snack bar, there is NOTHING in the immediate vicinity.
It was interesting to see the control area. The whole thing is powered by a huge rank (100? More? Had I had time I would have counted them) of basic Tech II MRC power packs. Very little in the way of monitor lights etc. Understandable for a set of loops, but personally I would want a bit more electronics telling me what is working and what is not (don’t tell me that on a set-up of this scale, everything is always working). Maybe these exist but down in the entry area; if so, it would be interesting to see them. This display also reminded me of the investment. Individual items may be inexpensive but so many are needed – if he got a great price, say $15 – it still represents an investment of well over $1,000.
One thing to understand before deciding to visit: for the most part this is not a “serious” model railroad. While a number of the structures themselves are “serious” HO scale models (a highlight – see below), there is no theme or set time. In particular, the set-up is highly whimsical. Buildings are from all over North America and Europe (e.g. at least two castles), although to be fair, North America predominates. Many buildings are in impossibly whimsical physical locations. The number of wrecks was very much overdone and the wreck scenes themselves were unrealistic. Many of the bridges are hopelessly unrealistic (while a few are terrific models) and would never support the scale loads. Rolling stock also has numerous whimsical touches. Most industrial structures don’t have rail connections (see below). Cutesy stuff such as the world’s highest and narrow air landing strip, the toothpick farm, numerous “Grandma” jokes, the Star Trek landing scene, etc. are just not at all to my taste. I’m not at all sure, by the way, that this stuff necessarily appeals to children either. I know that my son would have found it appallingly hokey. From a very young age he has always looked for realism and has been my own sternest critic in that regard on our home pike.
The following are in order of my receiving the impression, not in order of importance.
• The proprietor just couldn’t be a nicer or more helpful fellow. For his sake I sure hope that my visit was not indicative of his traffic, and that he is doing OK financially.
• Once again the sheer scale of the thing just has to impress. There are numerous scenes in which there is at least 25 feet from the bottom of the scene to the highest point. That’s over 2,000 scale feet!
• The close-to-scale model of the famous Firth of Forth rail bridge in Scotland is truly spectacular, I would have to say arguably worth the price of admission in itself. They also have done an excellent job of giving visitors a number of views of this magnificent model from various perspectives – above, below, eye level, etc.
• The general level of quality of the hundreds of buildings, many of them scratch-built and many more kit-bashed, is surprisingly high. All had at least basic weathering. A small percentage were finished to a very high standard indeed, and although I say “a small percentage”, in absolute terms this must have been at least 100, maybe even 200 structures. If the fellow were, heaven forbid, have to liquidate, I would definitely make a special trip for the auction! Also, I felt like there was at least one of just about every structure in the Walthers catalog, and one of the things I enjoyed was seeing a number of these models, some of which I have considered buying, in the 3-D flesh so to speak. Overall, the structures were the most interesting thing for me. Had I more time, I would have liked to take some notes, but I got some ideas for my own modeling even without such notes.
• Given the number of square feet, the terrain is pretty good. Many of the views are from some distance, and from a few feet and further the terrain impression is very favorable. When close up, it sometimes disappoints. An exception is many of the water scenes, see below.
• In many of the scenes, the scale figures were realistically arranged so that they had a purpose and fit into the scene.
NOT NEGATIVES, BUT SOME ISSUES
• Although it was September, as luck would have it I went on the hottest day of 2013 in central New Jersey. At least the top quarter, maybe even as much as the top third, of the display (by top, I mean in terms of proximity to the roof) was intolerably hot. The proprietor proactively warned me of this (see above – nice guy, helpful), but that didn’t change the situation. To be fair, I’m sure that while he may have taken a shortcut on the A/C, he still faces HUGE utility bills in the summer months. If I am able to return as I hope, it will be on a crisp but not cold day – I fear that on a really cold day, too much hot air will rise to the upper regions. The direct result was that, pressed for time anyway, I pretty much rushed through this part of the exhibit.
• Older people and / those with foot or leg problems should be advised that the tour is pretty long. I’d be interested to know how long, but it’s far from trivial. I don’t think this fact is appropriately presented. But my real point is, on the whole tour I saw only one place –approximately midway – where we old geezers can sit down and have a rest. Especially had I had more time, a few strategically placed chairs would be much appreciated. On the other hand, to be fair, the gradients are very well planned and shouldn’t cause problems for anybody who is physically able to walk.
• This fellow needs to make a profit, for which I grudge him not, and in fact wish him well. But a number of the display cases scattered throughout the tour path were full of what in my opinion is just bric-a-brac. For me, the experience would be improved by their removal.
• On a similar note, there also are a lot of dolls, and dolls-house stuff in these exhibit cases. I am assuming that they are there to provide something of interest to the poor little girls being dragged through this exhibit; if I’m right, I fully understand, but they do still blur the focus.
• First and foremost – the trains. Nearly all of the loops are really long by model rail standards. It begs for long trains. My own layout is by no means small, but 15 cars is about the most I can do without looking out of proportion. Northlandz has one long coal train which is awesome! But nearly all of the trains are dinky – as few as one car (and these frankly look stupid on such a huge exhibit) and never (other than the one coal train) more than five or six cars. This is an opportunity wasted. I don’t mind that, unlike the buildings, the cars are cheap and unweathered; if he had multiple trains of 25 or 30 cars, it would be awesome. He also lacks passenger trains and none of the passenger trains I saw had a realistic number of cars.
• One of the biggest negatives is the very first scene, at the start of the tour. The proprietor should understand that this scene does much to set expectations. In my case, that scene left me wondering very seriously if I had made a big mistake. A number of the structures in this first section needed repair – and trust me, I’m not talking about structures modeled to be in disrepair, I’m talking about missing parts, fallen-off parts, broken parts, fallen-over trees, fallen-over telephone poles, etc. There were “roads to nowhere” and places without roads. Placed between the viewer and that section of the running main was just a jumble of essentially randomly placed track that went nowhere and made no sense at all.
• This comment is a good segue to another issue. I understand that display layouts like this one can’t have working turnouts. However, better planning could have easily made it look more like a model railroad and less like a bunch of disconnected scenes with loop tracks running through them. Most of the commercial and industrial buildings have no track connection. As I said, I don’t expect a working siding, but I believe that non-working sidings could have easily been included. The turnouts could have been soldered to straight-line only on a workbench, and insulated rail joiners would ensure that the sidings cause no electrical problems.
• Curiously, I felt that on the whole, there were insufficient station buildings. This comment goes back to the overall feel that the whole thing is a jumble of building kits with errant train loops. It appeared to me that, rather like the industrial buildings, a number of the towns and villages did not have direct rail connection.
• While I am positive about the terrain as a whole, the water is poorly done. A number of the waterways did not have even roughly realistic banks. Waterfalls were very unrealistic. Coloring was also unrealistic. I don’t think it would have been difficult or costly to do a better job in this area. Another terrain issue is the ballasting of the track, or rather the lack thereof. Ballast is kind of “simulated” and this is probably good enough for visitors with no model railroad experience, but it is a deficiency in the eyes of myself and, I think, most other model railroaders. I guess this would have been just too costly even for a superficial effort.
• There is a large urban scene with a number of high rise buildings. The overall effect is powerful, but – (1) there is no train connection! At all! This is begging for an impressive Union Station. (2) There are NO people! Especially given the “population” of most of the exhibit, it looks like a neutron bomb must have gone off.
• The prior bullet is a segue to this one: there aren’t enough scale figures. Even though I’m sure that there a zillion of them on the exhibit, it needs more.
• Maybe this was because of the light foot traffic, but during my visit a number of the train loops were inactive.
• I’m not sure how long Northlandz has been open, but it is well overdue for some serious maintenance. A number of items visibly need repair. The water effects in particular look tired, have lost their gloss, have chips, etc.
• I read several articles about the construction phase. I’m a businessman myself, and I fully understand the need to get the exhibit open as soon as possible. But there are some things that could / should have been rectified later. Of the few places where there are simulated sidings, there are no bumpers at the end of the tracks. The telephone poles are unweathered and the insulators are not painted. Many of the “roads” are unrealistically modeled and could be improved. More figures and more trees are needed.
• There are G scale and O scale sections that are just an eyesore. They should be removed and the space used either for more HO or for rest areas.