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‘Thomas and Friends: Explore the Rails’ Arrives at Please Touch Museum

Thomas the Tank Engine and friends roll into Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum! Here's what to expect from the new exhibit.

All aboard to the Island of Sodor! A brand new interactive exhibit based on the ever-popular series, “Thomas and Friends: Explore the Rails” opens at the Please Touch Museum on Saturday, September 22. The exhibit runs through January 6, 2019, and brings plenty of train-themed fun, photo ops, imaginative play, and valuable STEM lessons along the way! You and your little Thomas fans are sure to be back again and again to this long-awaited special exhibit. Here’s all you can look forward to on your visit.

Pretend Play and STEM Problem Solving

While kids will initially be so excited to walk in and see a giant Thomas and other landmarks from the show, they will quickly find themselves engaged in a more thoughtful and complex type of play.

Please Touch Museum President and CEO Patricia D. Wellenbach remarked, “The goal of Thomas and Friends is to remind children of how ‘useful’ we all are, and to empower kids to find ways to overcome obstacles through critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity.”


From the ticket counter, to changing the arrival times on giant clocks, to sorting the luggage in Knapford Station, kids learn simple math and spatial relations while they imagine themselves a part of the action. In Sodor Steamworks, kids work together to fix Percy and load coal on a conveyor belt to get him moving again. Even the train table has prompts to encourage problem solving along the way.

The Train Table

Speaking of that train table, this massive playscape is sure to be a very popular attraction, and rightfully has its own room. Turn left as you enter the main exhibit walk past the giant Thomas, and you’ll find a room taken up by an expansive Sodor table—with plenty of engines, tracks, and landmarks to go around. Luckily, there are also benches around the perimeter, because parents will want to set aside a lot of time to explore this part of the exhibit—probably more time than you had planned!


For the littlest visitors, there is also a Sodor Tot Spot in that room—while self-contained and closer to the ground—where babies can get in on the fun as they open doors, turn knobs, and slide colorful trains along a track.

Photo Ops with Thomas and Friends

While the exhibit offers plenty of learning opportunities, it also celebrates the beloved history and iconography of Thomas and Friends. Upon entering, kids can climb aboard a giant Thomas the Tank Engine model, and explore the train’s controls. They can even don a conductor’s uniform to complete the picture-perfect moment. In Sodor Steamworks, a similarly large Percy model offers another photo opportunity.


There is a section of the exhibit dedicated to the history of the Thomas franchise from the 1940s to today. Books, old train models, manuscripts, framed photos of past conductors, and other memorabilia line the walls. Kids will like pressing the buttons to change the TV show clips on the big screen, and also taking a quiet break to read a Thomas book.


Finally, there is a Thomas and Sir Topham Hatt photo setup, where you can stand at the backdrop and email yourself the photos, giving you a nice little keepsake from your visit.


Thomas is a traveling exhibit that originated at the Minnesota Children’s Museum, but when the Please Touch Museum planned for its arrival, they worked to make it more accessible for kids on the autism spectrum. They added a designated quiet space to the exhibit, and will also offer on-site sensory-accommodating items, such as noise cancelling headphones and weighted vests to make the experience more comfortable.


The museum worked to create a “social story” that kids can read before they come, telling them in simple words what they can expect from the exhibit; as well as a sensory map detailing how various attractions could engage the senses.

In their research, the museum discovered that Thomas is particularly appealing to children on the spectrum. Elements like the engines’ easy-to-read expressions, and the focus on schedule, routine, and classification are cited as why the series is engaging and soothing. So it was even more important to make this particular exhibit the most accessible the museum has ever hosted.


“We’re delighted,” said Wellenbach. “Thomas is beloved by so many, and to be able to create a more welcoming environment for all kids is a good thing for us.”


The museum will host a special after-hours Play Without Boundaries event on Friday, October 19 from 5—7 pm. The event is free to children on the spectrum and their families; pre-registration is required. “We will modulate the sensory experience in the exhibit, and we will also create some quiet spaces for children and their families if they need to have some reflective time and recalibrate,” Wellenbach told us. During the event, visitors will experience the exhibit in a sensory-friendly atmosphere with fewer crowds, lower noise effects, and dimmed lights.

Special Events

In addition the special Play Without Boundaries event, the museum has other programming planned to coincide with the Thomas exhibit.


The museum’s new show “All Aboard!” will be keeping with the train travel theme, and begins on November 3 in the downstairs theater. There will be a relaxed showing for children with sensory needs on November 5.


Finally, since the exhibit runs through New Year’s, the museum is planning a special “Polar Express” Family Festival on December 15, bringing together the fun of Thomas and Friends with the joy of the holiday season.


“Thomas and Friends: Explore the Rails” will run from September 22, 2018 through January 6, 2019 at the Please Touch Museum, and is free with museum admission and for museum members. The Please Touch Museum is located at 4231 Avenue of the Republic in Philadelphia, and is open from 9 am — 5 pm Monday — Saturday, and 11 am — 5 pm on Sundays.


Photographs by Laura Swartz.



Contributing Writer