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From Trains to Historic Tours: Holiday Fun for the Whole Family

The holidays are fast approaching, bringing with them some cool displays and other outings suitable for the entire family. From train displays to holiday light extravaganzas, there is something for everyone to enjoy this holiday season.

Holiday Train Displays

When November rolls around each year and western Pennsylvanians start hankering for fall fun, most think about pumpkin patches and apple picking. While those certainly are fun activities, did you know that November is also National Model Railroad Month? The Pittsburgh region has some amazing model railroad museums and displays that are fun for both train enthusiasts and those just looking for something different to do.

The Carnegie Science Center is home to one of the oldest train displays in the Pittsburgh area. This year the display celebrates its 101st year in the city, said Patty Everly, curator of historic exhibits. Started in 1919, the iconic holiday display was exhibited on the second floor of the home of Brookville resident Charles Bowdish. In 1954, Bowdish donated his train display to the Buhl Planetarium. When the planetarium became the Carnegie Science Center in 1992, the train display found its permanent home.

Every year, the display goes on a brief hiatus while museum staff refreshes and refurbishes it for a new season. When the train exhibit reopens to the public on Nov. 18, Everly said visitors can enjoy an updated version of the amusement park feature. Keen observers also may notice the addition of a new set on the display: Gus and Yiayia’s food cart. The stand sells ice balls, peanuts, and popcorn and has been a Pittsburgh staple since 1934. It is owned by Gus Kalaris, who regularly parks the cart on Pittsburgh’s North Side.

Despite misconceptions, the museum’s train display is not decorated for the winter holidays. “I’m not sure why people think that, but they do,” said Everly. “Our display is not dressed up for the holidays, but we’re still so much a part of Pittsburgh’s holiday traditions. People bring their families to see the display because it’s one of the most popular exhibits in Pittsburgh.”

Pittsburghers feel a connection to the train display, she said, because it’s an important part of local history. “We have visitors who may have seen the exhibit when they were children who are now bringing their own grandchildren back to see it. It is an amazing way for families to share Pittsburgh history. We hope people are pleasantly amazed by our commitment to this display and the preservation of Pittsburgh history.”

Another popular train display in the North Hills can be found at the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum in Gibsonia. The display opens annually to the public during the holiday season only. This year, opening day is Saturday, Nov. 13 at 11 a.m. Hours for public visitation vary, according to Bill Humphrey, chairman of the holiday train show. Complete dates and times can be found on their website at

Over the last year, museum volunteers have been busy at work adding new features to the display. “There’s probably 35 to 40 new buildings, including a replica of the Hazelwood Library,” said Humphrey. “The details we’ve added are magnificent. If you look inside the windows of the library, you’ll see books on the shelves. Little things like that are what we’ve been doing to get things ready for this year’s opening.”

Some of the amazing details that have been added over the last year are thanks to a new 3D printer and laser cutter the museum purchased. “Things look much more realistic now that we can cut the wood and plastic better,” Humphrey said. “You can see the change in the level of detail from 10 years ago to today.”

Visitors can participate in a scavenger hunt while viewing the display. Museum staff will place cards with hints around the display, asking guests to find specific things. This year, visitors also can use their smartphones to scan QR codes on the scavenger clues to learn more about the history of the buildings and landmarks they are viewing in the display, said Humphrey.

As always, the youngest train enthusiasts can enjoy the Christmas tree and Thomas the Train displays on the lower level of the museum. Humphrey said the museum is working toward an expansion that will add some “touch a train” features and make the museum more accessible for those with disabilities.

A Christmas Market and Open House

Chapel Valley Estate in Ellwood City, in collaboration with Stray Cat Studio in Beaver Falls, will host a two-day Christmas Market and Open House event featuring local artisans. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 20, and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 21, guests can tour the estate while perusing one-of-a-kind artistic vendors featuring quality craftsmanship and handmade artwork.

Renee Suhr, the owner of Stray Cat Studio, has organized similar events in the past. This year, she opted to host the holiday market at Chapel Valley Estate to add some Victorian-era flair to the event. The estate, although recently built, is modeled after the style and craftsmanship of the Victorian era. “The beauty of the building lends itself well to showcasing artisans,” she said.

The market will feature 20 local artisans, including Earth Angel Jewelry, Tiger Lily Dress Shop and Windy Hill Bakery. Suhr said she still is accepting applications for quality artisans who wish to exhibit their handcrafted items at the event. Interested artisans can contact her at Stray Cat Studio or visit her website at

Holiday Lights and Tours

If holiday light displays are your favorite way to enjoy the season, there are several options in and around the Pittsburgh area.

Kennywood is hosting its annual Holiday Lights event, promising a bigger and better holiday light extravaganza in honor of its 10th anniversary. Visitors can enjoy more than a million lights and the tallest Christmas tree in the state of Pennsylvania. The light show begins on Friday, Nov. 19, with a sneak peek for season passholders. On Saturday, Nov. 20, the holiday light display opens to the general public. The holiday extravaganza continues every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Christmas Eve, before switching to nightly shows from Dec. 26 through Jan. 2.

“We can’t wait to welcome our valued passholders and guests back this winter to enjoy everything Holiday Lights has to offer,” said Mark Pauls, Kennywood general manager. “In addition to seeing the park transformed into a winter wonderland, guests can also anticipate all-new experiences and a delicious seasonal menu for a one-of-a-kind event you can only experience at Kennywood.”

In northern Butler County, Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland is on full display at the Big Butler Fairgrounds. Guests can enjoy the amazing light show from the comfort of their cars as they drive through the fairgrounds. The holiday light display opens in mid-November and runs through the first few days of January. For exact dates and times, check Shadrack’s website at

Interested in learning some local history for the holidays? Enjoy an evening in downtown Pittsburgh hearing about the history of the city while enjoying festive holiday lights and decorations with the Holiday Lights Tour. This 15-minute walking tour starts at 1049 Penn Avenue downtown and ends at the Holiday Market on Market Square. For tour times and pricing, go to

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