April 22nd, 2009 by Stinkhead
We have just immersed ourselves in the world of Thomas the Tank Engine (Island of Sodor… see I’m getting it) and his wooden railway. The new line being introduced by Learning Curve is called Talking Railway. Using RFID technology, the Talking Railway stations recognize different engines with specific messages and sound effects. Check out the video above and be sure to read my review and load of pics below, including the custom trains I’ve made.
[singlepic id=54 w=150 h=113 float=right]The Talking Railway is the new line, but we got to review the Great Discovery playset. (Based on the new DVD). This set includes two Talking Railway destinations (Great Waterton Station, and Morgan’s Mine), two specially outfitted Talking Railway engines (Thomas and Stanley) and a good amount of track. I’ll touch on the talking/sounds in a bit, I want to tell you about what you get. This is our very first Thomas Wooden railway set. My 20 month old son loves watching Thomas & Friends on Sprout, and will play with train tables at the toy store. I can’t tell you how excited he was when we set this up. I actually have his first impression on the above video.
[singlepic id=57 w=150 h=113 float=right]The Pieces
You get two stations and enough track to make a few different layouts. This was a perfect starter set for us. I can make a little track for a small clear space of floor (a rare commodity with a toddler), or something a little larger (yes, yes, I did buy a train table… it’s a full on addiction). Speaking of space, when we set up a small layout on the dining room floor, my son kept trying to sit right in the middle to have the track go around him, so I had to keep expanding around him. But all in all, it’s not overwhelming. We’re just getting started. We got one tree and one conductor figure as well, but these are like the parsley on your steak platter. Now I have gotten a little addicted. I purchased a few cars (Thomas and Stanley have to be able to pull something/someone) and I’ve started shopping around for more track so we can do more layouts.
[singlepic id=30 w=150 h=113 float=right]The Talking Features
The Great Discovery set featured here has two destinations that recognize Talking Railway engines. You can easily tell these special engines because of the special icon on the engine’s underside (haha, that’s so close to how you tell a boy puppy from a girl puppy) and their connecting magnets are gold in color (as are their names). If you roll a Talking Railway car through a Talking Railway station, the station recognizes the engine, and Sir Topham Hatt addresses them by name and give a bit of random encouragement (Great job Thomas! Stanley, you must be careful.) If you roll a non-Talking Railway (TR) engine or car through, you get random encouragement without the specific name (You’re a very useful engine!)
[singlepic id=34 w=150 h=113 float=right]Actually, there’s more to it than that. Sir Topham Hatt (Did you know he’s called Fat Controller in the British version? Thanks Catmatjess) Sir Topham Hatt is hiding behind a rotating door. Press the chimney and the door flips around revealing Hatt. (My toddler picked up on this very quickly) Hatt addresses the engines if he’s visible, however if the door is closed, then it plays a sound effect when the engine rolls by. The TR engines get a specific sound effect (Thomas’ whistle blows, Stanley makes a hissing sound) But if you roll a non-TR engine or car through, you get a different sound effect. There are more TR enabled engines and stations you can pick up and seamlessly incorporate with this set, but I love that your non-TR trains and stations also work well.
[singlepic id=31 w=150 h=113 float=right]I have to take a moment and point out that as an action figure enthusiast, I am very familiar with the concept of talking action figures. Remember the CommTech™ chips that came with the Phantom Menace action figures? There was a little bit more success with the World of Springfield Simpson‘s figures. The execution here with the RFID chips is absolutely perfect. The addition of the technology does not hinder the child’s play at all. The child also gets the intended reaction without having to alter the typical play (rolling the train along the tracks). I’m very impressed. There is a switch on the underside that changes between loud and quiet. I do wish there was a battery saving Off button… but I don’t mind all that much.
[singlepic id=33 w=150 h=113 float=right]Cost and Value
You should know by now that Thomas the Tank Engine anything is slightly on the pricey side. The set I reviewed is typically $130. Now that I’ve been shopping around, and your standard Thomas engine is $12, and the destinations vary from $40 -60 (or higher) depending on size, this fits well within the Thomas price arena. The quality is definitely there. These wooden tracks take a lot of abuse, and won’t wear out over time. In fact you can do pretty well buying gently used track on eBay and yard sales. This is a great indication of how long it lasts. Yes, I wish it were a bit cheaper so I could go crazy buying up track and engines and destinations, but you are getting a good quality, and you’re paying for that lovable Thomas face. I do want to point out to the uninitiated that there are 3 major Thomas the Tank Engine lines, and they’re not all compatible. This is part of the Wooden Railway series. The tracks and part of the trains are made of “Real Wood!” (so much better than fake wood). There’s the Track Master system which uses plastic track that the motorized trains can run on. The engines are all a bit bigger, but they are motorized. They will not operate on Wooden Railway track. Then there’s Take Along which is die-cast metal, and rolls a bit better without track. You can find most of your favorite characters in each of those divisions, however I have found a lot more compatibility (with Brio and other lines) with the wooden tracks.
I want to point out that Toys R Us had an interactive display where you could run any of the Talking Railway engines over a test platform to hear some of the phrases. I thought this was a great demonstration of how well the technology works, first hand before you buy.
[singlepic id=46 w=150 h=113 float=right]Customized Trains
I am a graphic designer, so guess my joy when I found you can buy unpainted wooden trains that go with the Wooden Railway. I use the MARC train(pic) to commute into DC every day, so I picked up a few unpainted trains and decorated them to look like my beloved/reviled MARC train cars. I’m hoping that in a few years my son will come to visit me at the station, and get excited that I’m riding on a huge version of his toy trains. I’ve also made labels (featuring my logos of my favorite beverages) for the unpainted tanker trains you can get. One end looks like our train, but I included some goofy faces on the reverse.
Be sure to check out the video above to see and hear these talking sets in action, and see my toddler son have a blast playing with his new set. I know some of my videos are aimed squarely at Dads, however I’m proud to say this video is very “clean” and appropriate for viewers of all ages.
[singlepic id=50 w=150 h=113 float=right]Check out Learning Curve‘s official Thomas the Tank Engine site for more demos and information on the Talking Railway series, and other engines and stations you can find. I like that they have track layouts you can download for ideas. Check out my pics below for some of the unique cars I’ve since picked up. And I’ll work on an upcoming primer for parents just getting started with the whole world of Thomas the Tank engine.