PARRISH, Fla. - For anyone who loves the nostalgia and romance of riding a train, the Florida Railroad Museum is a treat for the senses.
The museum in Manatee County is dedicated to preserving the history and mystery of rail travel for future generations.
Traveling by rail is not the most popular mode of transport in the U.S., but the sounds are still familiar to almost every American.
The ringing bell of a railroad crossing and the clicking of heavy wheels along a metal rail can be heard blocks away from a passing train. But if you don’t live near the tracks, you can experience it all at the Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish.
Stan Kotas fell in love with toy trains as a kid. Now he enjoys a career preserving their history at the Florida Railroad Museum.
“Earliest memories of Christmastime activities with the family. My dad, in particular, always helped me build a train display and that stayed up oftentimes well beyond Christmas because even though the tree had lost some needles, the train still ran,” Kotas recalled.
When he and his wife moved to Florida and were looking for something to do, they found the museum.
“Somebody grabbed us and said, ‘Hey, if you guys have some spare time why don’t you come out and volunteer?’” Kotas said. “I started working with the train crew. I enjoyed that a great deal and went through the certification process and became a conductor and saw opportunities to perhaps serve the board more.”
He’s now the president of that board and still loves playing with trains.
“When we have the opportunity to work with the big stuff, the real stuff, oh my gosh. The opportunities abound,” Kotas said.
The Florida Railroad Museum was started almost 40 years ago, in 1982. Kotas said there were even men who found a common interest in the railroad, so they started a fund that allowed them to buy items for preservation.
Eventually, they leased 6.5 miles of track, owned by Florida Power & Light, between Parrish and the old lumbering town of Willow in Hillsborough County.
The piece of track now gives museum visitors the chance to experience the railroad on a round trip to yesteryear.
“So many of the kids today have never had that opportunity, grandparents may, and even the parents in between may not have had, so it’s an experience that the whole family can enjoy,” said Kotas.
The train runs on the weekends, and during the month of December, it becomes the North Pole Express.
The town of Willow is the perfect setting for a little trip back in time and for a holiday fantasy land.
You will be able to spend a little time in the North Pole, do some shopping, grab a snack, and even visit with Santa. But when you hear “all aboard,” you better get back to your train car for the trip back to Parrish.
LINK: Tickets for the North Pole Express go fast. For information, visit www.frrm.org.