Flemington, New Jersey
Northlandz revels in its excess. This self-proclaimed "world's largest miniature railway" is a relative newcomer to the congested field of scale model railroad attractions. While classic train-o-ramas have chugged along for half a century, Northlandz appeared, fully formed, in 1996, "...a culmination of 25 years of dedication to art and creativity," according to the brochure.
It's an X-treme sports landscape view of the world, straight out of the head of designer/owner Bruce Williams Zaccagnino. We first visited Northlandz in 1997, then went back for tours in 2002 and 2005....
William's construction is impressive: Eight miles of track, hundreds of bridges (made of millions of tiny pieces of wood), over 4,000 buildings and a half-million lichen trees. Northlandz's massive substructure required enough lumber to build 42 large houses. Several hundred tons of plaster went into the construction of its multiple-story mountains.
Northlandz calls itself "The Great American Railway," though nowhere in America will you find these vistas. The extreme topography reminds us of a Roger Dean Yes album cover more than anything you'd find in Kansas or California. Rocky cliffs, canyons and gorges are everywhere; and villages teeter on pinnacles of rock, houses stand on spindly sticks clinging to thousand-foot precipices. Tiny plastic cows graze on 75-degree hillsides; horse paddocks are surrounded by sheer cliffs. Mortality among the tiny inhabitants of Northlandz must be tragically high.
Tunnels and bridges -- absurdly enormous, intricate bridges -- are everywhere, crossing each other on multiple levels (often above or beneath you) like freeway interchanges, growing ever more outlandish as the tour progresses. Eventually you find yourself wondering: Why would people in a vertical world use the railroad for transportation, which can operate on a five percent grade, maximum?
Little paper signs taped along Northlandz's crisscrossing walkways constantly remind you of its vastness. Twenty minutes from the entrance one announces: "You are only 2% through Northlandz!" Old people shake their heads in disbelief; those who can increase their walking speed.
Muffled organ music reverberates along the viewing passageways, an eerie accompaniment unexplained even after you reach the central chamber containing a five organs, one with 2,000 pipes. Williams, an accomplished concert organist, sits with his back to rows of seats and tootles on his mighty Wurlitzer. You can stop and savor for a few moments, but a sign warns you will enter this chamber four more times before you complete your tour....
It's at this point you decide whether you really like Northlandz. Some visitors complain about the admission price (not cheap, but it costs money to build a World's Largest miniature), and there's a thin air of commercialism, embodied in the product displays of local businesses stuffed into niches along the way. But that organ playing wins us over, in the fashion only an insane-but-likable attraction can.
There are little notations of comedy -- "World's Tallest Outhouse" and other things for the kids to pick out. Unlike other American miniature worlds, where you can push buttons to light up buildings, Northlandz doesn't offer interactivity. Over 100 freight and passenger trains dutifully make their way along river beds and through tunnels, unaffected by whether anyone looks at them.
We notice other modes of miniature transportation are occasionally portrayed in less adoring fashion -- a plane crashed into a mountain (though the passengers exit unharmed and climb down ladders), and dusty little cars in traffic jams or packed into parking lots. Williams gets a little steamed at the suggestion. "No, no, you're wrong. There are thousands of cars in Northlandz...."
Around one corner, a huge model of a city appears, its 8-ft. tall skyscrapers incongruous and out of scale with the railroads (most of the trains are HO gauge, but there are also some O-gauge Lionels and the bulky G-gauge). Though no trains run in the metropolis, it can be glimpsed as distant backdrop from other parts of the tour.
Towards the end, visitors walk through the main control room, where mechanical consoles keep the trains running and the lights on.
After we've passed through the organ room the fifth and final time, we find ourselves in the snack bar. The organ music has stopped, and Williams notifies visitors that the "last train is leaving." He's referring to a 2/3rd scale steam replica that carries passengers around the 16-acre landscape behind the Northlandz building. We hurry outside to catch up and take the ten minute trip through completely natural New Jersey woods. Zaccagnino is conductor and engineer.
The ride acts like a decompression chamber. After the astounding sights in Northlandz, we are reminded how dull travel by train really is.
But Bruce astounds one last time. He claims he has never ridden in a real train.