"Imagination Springs... Magic by Design"

The Design Approach

How you approach your design determines everything! In this first article I will attempt to empower you with some of the secrets YOU ALREADY HOLD! These simple secrets can guarantee an enchanting and magical experience for every visitor to your railroad empire, including YOU!

Railroad as Theme Park!

When I say "magical experience"...what do you picture?

"OK Walt Disney, its 1955 and you've just opened The Magic Kingdom... NOW what are you going to do!?"

Among other things, he went home and built The Carolwood Pacific in his back yard, a scale model railroad!

"Hold on Jim, we're not building a theme park... are we?!"

Well our layouts certainly should be magical and entertaining, so I submit to you that the answer might just be "More than most model railroaders realize!".

Honestly, I understand the the gravity of the suggestion here, yet there are many similarities between the parks and our pikes! After all, our railroads are little "vacation destinations", we go there to get away from it all (for "scale vacations"). If our pikes are entertaining they will provide us with fun long after the major work is complete. If we approach them properly they should never be "finished". We should create our layouts with future visitors in mind...and we should certainly have a theme around which we design! Shared aspects of both disciplines include stimulating the imagination, turning dreams into reality, a fascination with animation, and entertaining the audience (a theatrical approach).

And then again, it may just be that theme parks are more like model railroads than most people realize! All theme park attractions are modeled in scale, often in several scales while mistakes still carry scale price tags. Where did that idea come from? Walt Disney and many of the original Imagineers were model railroaders, "live steamers", or at least radical rail fans. The locomotives on the railroad at "The Park" still carry some of their names. By the way, all of the railroads at The Park are scale model railroads (very large scale, but scale models none-the-less).

Having worked on both I can tell you that except for the commercial price tag, there is virtually no difference in proper design of model railroads and theme park attractions. The approach that the Imagineers take is one where the visitor is all important! The approach from the outset was to create a Magic Kingdom, where the visitor is King! In order to make it a magical place, they had to make it fun,... on purpose. Walt wouldn't take chances before he dubbed it "the happiest place on earth!". The Park had to be entertaining and FUN for the visitor. And that which is entertaining and fun,... is entertaining and fun in any scale!

Its traditional, amusement parks and railroads do go together. They were meant for each other! Our pikes should benefit from theme park design approach, a design approach which was at least partially inspired by model railroading in the first place!

And the point of all this is... ???

Your railroad IS a theme park! You might as well enjoy that fact, starting right NOW! Armed with the knowledge of this simple fact, you can approach every aspect of design with the same potential for fun, entertainment, and MAGIC,... as the "big" guys. You really can, and we're here to help.

Ahead, hidden in the waters of "Imagination Springs" you will find some of the practical applications of this design approach...


The FUNdamentals of a Magic Show


Suspension of Disbelief - With a model railroad this is easy, if the railroad itself is fun! People are more than willing to forget their skepticism (reality), in order to participate in something that is entertaining and enjoyable! Always remember, no matter how hard you work, no matter how much money, time and imagination you put into your model, regardless of your modeling skills, you can NEVER make anyone believe that they are witnessing the actual full scale prototype... NEVER! And you should not try to. But what you can ALWAYS do, and should always strive for, is to create a model that is so much fun to view that people will get caught up and become involved in it, and forget that it is a scale model. This is a worthy endeavor and the correct design approach. It is also the difference between an unappreciated model and an enchanting one. Both will likely take a lot of effort, but only one will be worth the effort.

Illusion - Again, this can be easily accomplished by adding fun. For instance, a model of a steam powered locomotive creates the illusion that it actually runs on live steam, if it sounds like it runs on live steam (no boiling necessary). The sound of activity in a building creates the illusion of that activity without actually modeling any interior at all. When we apply sound in a model, we are creating illusion in the mind. We are stimulating the imagination, and create a mental picture of the activity portrayed in the sound. Likewise, the apparent movement of light in a structure can allude to movement without actually having to build any animation mechanism. A mirror can create the illusion of depth and distance where there is none (and hide a multitude of modeling sins). When you think about it, modeling is simply creating scale illusions of the real thing... model railroaders ARE illusionists!

Misdirection - This is not as mischievous as it may seem at first (unless of course, you would have more fun thinking of it that way). The magician makes dramatic gestures with one hand while pulling the next prop out of his pocket with the other. Perhaps a more appropriate word is distraction, which is not actually cheating because it entails the extra effort of modeling the distraction, in order to capture the visitors attention away from the illusion they were just about to figure out. For instance, super detailing is a form of distraction. The visitor is encouraged by the promise of surprise to look for the next detail, without taking the time to dissect and analyze the modeling technique of the last detail. A terrific distraction can be as simple as the occasional cricket (or any sound) appearing out of nowhere, as long as nowhere is somewhere else.

Manipulation (slight of hand tools?) - Manipulation here refers to dexterity with things. The magician may manipulate a deck of cards, coins, or a handkerchief to create illusion. We may use something else altogether, but the mechanics are the same. It takes skill acquired through practice, failure, patience, and more practice to create believable illusion in any medium.

Magic tricks, not dirty tricks - Outright trickery is fine as long as it is up front and for the right reasons. Remember, it is impossible to make someone believe our models are real, but it is perfectly acceptable (and our goal) to create an illusion that is so realistic that it suspends disbelief! If it defies ones ability to discover the secret of how it is done, all the better (You will probably be asked "How did you do that?" ...and wind up telling them anyway). I must admit to being pleased when my cricket loops have, on several occasions, actually attracted real crickets! It was not my intention to fool the crickets involved, or raise their hopes unfairly,...nor was it the cricket's intention to pay my work a compliment. But the illusion worked and that is always magical (it seems both parties were pleased). If you have any qualms about being deceptive, just tell people up front that you have gone out of your way to hide the fun from them... challenge them to discover as many gags as they can. A magic show is one of the few times when it is fair, fun, and socially acceptable for you to deliberately try to baffle people. Its even expected of you! That's why they are called magic TRICKS!


Why Make Things Any More Difficult?


The values of model railroading are inherent. It is quite possible to complete a layout without ever thinking about the values of model railroading, and many modelers do. Most of the time we benefit from the values of model railroading without really being consciously aware of them, so why make a conscious effort here? I can only tell you this, the values of model railroading embody some of the best that model railroading has to offer. They are inherent to the fun and magic of model railroading, as I have come to know it. I would be remiss if I tried to write about the magic of model railroading without acknowledging them.

These values are as practical as track or circuitry in creating a pike that is fun. There are references to various values of model railroading here and there throughout the literature, but I have never seen an attempt at a complete list, before. These are just observations. As you read them, they will likely seem obvious to you. You should not let this high degree of obviousness fool you! If it is beneficial to you, you should want to know all about it (Wells' First Law, fun on purpose and all).

You may already know ALL of this, and a high degree of obviousness notwithstanding, perhaps a quick "refresher" would prove helpful...?


Entertainment Value

All forms of entertainment are some form of escape! We need these little vacations periodically. Aware that the real world problems will be waiting patiently for us when we return, we crave a chance to get away (even if it is only to the basement or in our minds) and think about something else. But just any old distraction won't do... that is one reason why we invented hobbies that are fun.

Some of us are endlessly entertained by building kits, or in the construction of the layout, or in operating sessions, or in scratch building every last detail of one specific piece or area. Some of us are entertained just watching the train go round and round and round (although the value here is probably more therapeutic in nature). But for most of us it will be some combination of these, and other things, and all of them can be more entertaining...if we simply wish them to be so, from the outset.

It's a classic situation, the layout on which you have spent too much time and money languishes, unable to hold your interest once the construction is finished, and it is only uncovered on the occasion of the semi-interested visitor. Spending more time and money won't necessarily help. We need only to be a little more imaginative in the application of our "allotted" time and money in order to create a pike that will provide endless entertainment long after the construction is finished!


Play Value

Ask yourself, just how valuable is fun in your life!? Cars, planes, boats, trains, tanks, dollhouses or dinosaurs, if you are bitten by the modeling bug you are likely to be perceived by those around you as a big kid who never quite grew up ("After all, he still PLAYS with models!"). We all tend to minimize the importance of play to our well being. If indeed you are blessed with a kid or two, I can think of no better excuse to spend some quality play time together, than a model railroad. Imagine together. Work together. Reach goals together. These are some of the benefits inherent in "playing with trains". Big or little, time spent having FUN together, is valuable!


Therapeutic Value

Model railroaders come from every walk of life. Yet there is one thing that is universal about us, one characteristic we all seem to share. In a world that we all perceive on some level to be out of control, we can exhibit some small amount of direct influence over our scale microcosms. Set a scale goal, and you just might reach it! The therapeutic value of this cannot be denied. Time focused on creating something positive is time not spent worrying something negative. If you spend several hours making trees, you will derive the same kind of stress reduction as, say, chanting a mantra for several hours... except you will have a forest to show for your effort! For those type A personalities who thrive under pressure, one CAN model and worry at the same time, if one really wants to.


Educational Value

Are you still in school? Big or little, your run at building a model railroad will be a learning experience! In the course of building a layout you will learn about electronics or at least electricity, carpentry, sculpture, hand tools, eye-hand coordination, color, patience, determination and likely a little bit of history. If you are lucky, you may learn something about human nature, and even something about yourself. If you are REALLY lucky, you may have a small kid upon whom you can heap the blame for the whole thing, and with whom you will likely spend quality time. The education is inherent for all involved.

But Heaven holds a special padded cell for model railroaders. You almost never hear of a car person building a scale representation of a prototype freeway, or a boat person building a harbor, or an airplane person spending years on a historically accurate model of LAX. Yet railroader after railroader blissfully ventures into the commitment of building an operating representation of, oh say the Union Pacific of the 40's! Not satisfied with building a loco or two, or even just one train, the model railroader researches the era, then painstakingly lays track, places the appropriate cars on roads, planes in airfields, or boats on waterfronts, AND models all the geography that connects them! But the point is this; a commitment to model trains often carries with it a commitment to modeling the world around, and the railroad under those trains. Building a model railroad is an education in itself.


Aesthetic Value

What is art? It has always bothered me that a three dimensional model of a mining or logging operation historically complete in every detail can be virtually worthless. Yet, if I were to paint a two-dimensional watercolor of the exact same scene it would be universally considered art, appraisers easily affixing a dollar value to my work! When competently executed, a model railroad can be a work of art, a wonderful thing to behold. It can capture the imagination, provide escape to a magical miniature place, and evoke predictable specific emotion in anyone experiencing it. Put that in your pipe, Piccaso!


Asset Value

Most railroads would be irreplaceable at any price, and it would be expensive, if possible at all, to ascertain the replacement value of a completed layout for insurance purposes. Like any other offspring, every pike is priceless to its parents...but will it ever move out and make it on its own someday? Like any offspring, not unless the parents instill the proper values from the beginning.

If the Gorre & Dephitied had been created in a way where it could have been donated and relocated to a museum it might still be directly inspiring modelers and operators today. Of course, through photographs and articles it still ignites imaginations and will continue to do so forever. My hero, John Whitby Allen is still sharing, encouraging and challenging us long after his passing...now that's show & tell! Still, one cannot help but wonder what the layout itself would be worth today if it were still intact, still in operation! Long after the creative design and development has amortized, and when the material nuts and bolts have depreciated beyond any tax relief, the legacy of a truly creative work as asset, endures. What would be the collector value of such a body of work, or the cash value of a lifetime portfolio by this contemporary artist over time? What will become of your layout? A railroad created to become an asset... can!


Estate Value

Our families and friends, even if they are not directly involved in the building process, sacrifice and support the investment of time and money we shovel into our little empires. Afterwards we stop neglecting those close to us, and it is our layouts that too often become neglected, collecting dust in storage or destroyed in the dismantling after the fun wears off. Dollhouses, on the other hand, are often created with an eye to creating a family heirloom, to be handed down from one generation to the next. Why not trains?

A collection of livery and rolling stock may be auctioned off from time to time, or a stash of unbuilt kits may be placed on consignment in a hobby shop, but generally a pike is simply scraped. The odd box of miscellaneous parts and leftover pieces may be a real treasure to an aspiring young modeler, but what kind of inspiration could the gift of a working railroad be to that same young person? With little, if any, additional planing and work an entire layout can be valuable beyond the immediate benefits to its creator...especially with the portability of the construction and scenery techniques described here. A railroad created to become an heirloom... will!


Prestige Value

No two railroads are alike, yet most are by definition, average. Still, even the average layout is a lot of work. One of the greatest rewards for all of the time, patience and cash we put into our models comes at that point when we can take pride in our achievements (the victory in a series of scale successes). If someone else appreciates our work, all the better! Hopefully that time comes! The time to "build-in" potential prestige value is right from the beginning!

A railroad created to become a showpiece... just might!


Patience (OK, technically this is a Virtue, but a valuable one!)

In the course of building a model railroad, you will learn, usually the hard way, the practical value of patience. Actually completing the simplest layout will challenge the most patient and/or determined among us. You have to try to think things through (build it once in your mind), you have to try new materials and techniques out before you commit them to your layout. These things TRY your patience

In all honesty (another Virtue), belligerence, pig-headedness, stubbornness, and obstinacy might be words better used to describe my experience during especially tedious tasks, but the results of determination seem to look like patience to everyone else! No matter how fast I get, or how much I simplify and streamline the processes involved, nothing ever seems to go fast enough, at the time. Invariably people say, "I could never have the patience to do that"! I want to tell them the truth, that in all these years I have never once felt the least bit patient! Indeed, I have been impatient right from the beginning! Yet, after the fact, the results are the same. Maybe, in hindsight... well, who am I to argue with everyone else?

For some people, simply finishing a pike is an accomplishment, and of course, it always IS an accomplishment. However, my criteria for accomplishment in any model is realized after the construction, when someone is so tickled that they must laugh out loud... especially when that's exactly how I designed it right from the start! That, more than anything else, is what keeps me going. Evoking the sound of laughter (or even a quiet smile) is the carrot at the end of the stick! A railroad created to be fun... just might be completed!


The most important Value of all!

FUN! If your railroad makes you happy, nothing else matters! NOTHING!!! If it is fun it will be worthy, it will be completed, and the sacrifice that you and those around you make, will be justified. This alone is the only true Intrinsic Value of model railroading. It really does work that way! A railroad created to be fun... will be!