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Toddler-approved Xmas tree accessory
on December 11, 2013
(This is the first train set I've ever used in my nearly forty years on this planet, so take this review with that frame of reference.)
Feeling shortchanged by our own upbringings, my wife and I had been talking about creating some Christmas traditions for our toddler and, in the back and forth, we wondered if people really did put trains around their Christmas trees (clearly our families did not and, apparently, neither did our friends' families). There was something that felt a little too Norman Rockwell/Saturday Evening Post about it, but when I saw this set pop up on a Gold Box deal I decided to pull the trigger. I'm glad I did.
Setup was quite painless, taking about 15-20 minutes from unpacking to the maiden voyage around the tree. All the instructions were straightforward and, if you've got the patience I didn't have, the Lionel site has a 20-minute video about the set. Size-wise, it fit pretty perfectly around the base and skirt of our 7-foot tree with the track in square formation; oval would've presented more problems. Operating via the remote was easy and even my 20-month-old was able to 'drive' the train and make noises with the buttons (though he got a little too vigorous with the speed dial and made me nervous that his quick spins were going to break something since the remote does feel more fragile than I'd like).
What makes this a great purchase for me is just how much my little one enjoys it. I figured it would be a nice novelty that would zip around a few times during the holidays, then go back in the box for 11 months since, really, how many times can you watch a few cars go in a circle? A lot, it turns out, if you're an excited toddler. Since I've set it up, my kid is pointing to the room with the tree and repeating "Train! Train!" and "Choo-choo!" fairly frequently. It's one of the few things that can get him to sit quietly and watch for several minutes and he's fascinated when I start pointing out details like the little people in the engine. What I'm worried about now is that I've introduced him to some kind of gateway drug to a very expensive hobby.
To be fair, I guess the above could apply to any train set, so here are some specific thoughts on this one:
The boxcar and caboose are both darker than they appear in the product picture, much more maroon than the orange/rust color shown.
Similar sets I've seen (including the older model of this one, I think) have shown features like an illuminated caboose and scenery like billboards or rail crossings. This set has none of that. The light on the front of the engine is always on, however.
As I mentioned, the remote feels more fragile than it might actually be. It's that whole thing about heft=better sense of quality, whether it's true or not.
The sounds on the train are a mixed bag. My kid loves the horn, but he also loves the conductor sounds, which are a small collection of phrases that are generated based on the train's movement or idling. Apart from the redundancy of them, the most bothersome element is just how loud they are. I may end up having to tape over the speaker on the bottom of the tender car to muffle it a bit. Some kind of volume control would be welcome, even if it were just a low-high option (if there already is one, I haven't found it). Same could be said for the chuff function which, when engaged, is so loud to me it overwhelms everything else.
Bottom line is that this set looks nice around the base of the tree and it makes my toddler happy, which is enough to make it a good purchase (though I don't know that I would've bitten at full price). I'm taking off a star for the noises, however, because they're something that's going to be a natural appeal for kids, but can easily become grating for adults at their set volumes.