Ticket to Whimsy: What’s Behind the Popular Seasonal Train Show

NEW YORK (NWN) — Many holiday season train shows were canceled or limited to fewer visitors last year because of the pandemic, but this year popular attractions are back at botanical gardens, conservatories and elsewhere across the country.

The shows, now a tradition in many cities, feature a combination of model trains and painstakingly detailed models of historic buildings made from leaves, twigs and other dried plant materials.

“It’s magical because people love to portray themselves in these little landscapes, where greenery surrounding models of carriages and ornate structures hides whimsical elements,” says Karen Dubman, vice president of exhibitions and public engagement at the New York Botanical Garden. displays.” The tradition began in 1992.

This year’s show features more than 175 models of the New York landmark and over 25 different model trains passing in front of them.

Although model trains and holiday greens have long been intertwined in the popular imagination, the history of this particular style is as accurate as it is surprising.

Nearly 40 years ago, Ohio landscape architect Paul Busse took his quirky passion for trains, architecture, and gardens to life, setting up a garden railway exhibit at the 1982 Ohio State Fair. During the 1980s, Busse developed his now-famous fictional structure decorated with dried plant material. His “botanical architecture”, as he called it, along with his model train set-up, were featured primarily at major garden shows in the Midwest.

In 1992, the New York Botanical Garden, impressed by the concept and looking for a way to attract visitors in the winter, invited Busse and his team to create a “holiday train show”.

“That first year it only included a few train tracks and a handful of models of New York landmarks. But it was such a success that it became an annual tradition, with a few new models added each year,” Daubman says.

The idea soon spread.

Similar holiday-themed train shows featuring the work of the Busse family and their team appear at the Botanical Gardens and other locations around the country, including the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus, Ohio; United States Botanic Garden in Washington, DC; Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Crohn’s Conservatory in Cincinnati; Nichols Conservatory and Gardens in Rockford, Illinois; and the Eiteljörg Museum in Indianapolis.

Busse’s company, Applied Imagination, Ltd.—started in 1991 in a small basement in Cincinnati—soon ran out of space and moved to Alexandria, Kentucky, where it is now based. It has a dozen or so full-time employees who build models in the studio with plant materials.

“We’ve got everything from sticks of different colors and textures to a huge range of pinecones, from shelf fungus. You can’t imagine how many types of pinecones there are,” says Busey’s daughter Laura Busey Dolan, who took over the company five years ago.

To set up all the show, the teams at Applied Imagination — some working with model building and others working on small bridges and tunnels — pack their suitcases and travel “straight until Thanksgiving” in October. This year, they are hosting nine holiday shows, most of them in the botanical gardens.

“It takes every person in this company to pull this thing off,” Dolan says.

Over the years, the company has learned a thing or two.

“We now avoid using dried berries or acorns in our structures because they are too edible. Small creatures nibble on them while the pieces are in storage,” Dolan says. ate one of the lampposts, so we learned the hard way.”

Standout models on show at The New York Botanical Garden include One World Trade Center (built using an upward-branching pattern to symbolize the spirit of rebirth after 9/11); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (largely composed of shelf fungi); the statue of Liberty; Apollo Theatre; New York Amusement Park; several brownstones; and some typical buildings of the Botanical Garden.

“On average, we build about 50 structures a year for different locations,” Dolan says. “I’d say we’ve made 2,000 to 3,000 total during our existence.”

“The smaller ones take about 250 hours. Our largest, 11-foot replica of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, took nearly 3,000 hours. It is on display at the Biltmore Estate during the holidays this year,” says Dolan.

The New York show runs from November 20 to January 23. Visitors are asked to show proof of vaccination and a photo ID, and a mask is mandatory in indoor spaces of the garden. Tickets are timed, and available in advance.