Friday, August 1st, 2008
Review: Thomas Wooden Railway Pirates Cove Set
Alternate title: How to maximize the wooden railway experience
The above photo is part cool-new-train-set product review and part homebrew real-world Dr. Frankenstein train play.
What follows is my review followed by the sum knowledge of what I’ve learned having trains in my home for more than two years.
We’ve enjoyed wooden train sets since a little after my daughter’s second birthday (she’s now 4-years-old). I was sold the moment she entered her first toy store and was enthralled with an overflowing hands-on train table.
My daughter doesn’t watch TV, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the set (or any Thomas-themed set for that matter). The major pieces are easily recognizable as pirate-related.
1. Thirty pieces of wooden track, including 2 risers and 3 elevated slopes.
2. Push trains: 1 Thomas, 1 Salty and 1 cargo hauler-thingie-car. One ‘Admiral’ and 1 ‘Sir Topham Hatt’ figure, 1 tree and 1 railroad crossing sign.
3. Treasure Tunnel: This is a mountainous tunnel for the train to pass through. A plastic boulder on top can be turned by hand to pop open a secret door revealing a treasure map. My daughter likes a swinging door (think pet door) that flips up and back again as the train passes through the tunnel.
4. Skull Mountain: This is a bridge stylized as if it’s hewn out of a mountain. One track runs through the skull sideways and the other through its mouth. When an older boy saw it, he immediately associated the train set with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
A pressure sensitive switch on the overpass triggers the opening of a secret door on the side of the mountain, revealing a pirate’s chest. The treasure can be removed and placed inside the cargo car that comes with the set. The activation switch is sensitive enough to be triggered by a battery-powered train or manual push trains.
As if an unofficial Indiana Jones connection wasn’t strong enough, an expansion pack is shown on the Pirate Cove box: Boulder Adventure. Yep, a boulder rolls down a hill, a little reminiscent of a certain movie we know. This expansion is based on a the Thomas TV episode ‘Rusty and the Boulder.’
5. Pirate Shipwreck: This is an elevated ramp slide stylized to look like a decrepit pirate ship. If pushing a train by hand, the ship should be approached from the top so the trains slide down and through the flip door. If battery-operated, Thomas can take either approach. A train’s progress through the ship is visible from above.
A crow’s nest is on top to hold either the Admiral or Sir Topham Hatt figures.
I’m itching to watch the Thomas & Friends episode to see whether Thomas actually drives through a shipwreck. Something tells me no.
That’s the Pirate Cove in a nutshell. If your kid likes pirates (or you’ll be instilling such a love in him or her), this set is an obvious choice.
Lessons Learned from Wooden Railways
When planning to enter the world of wooden trains, there are two ways to go…
The Buy Lots Method, also known as Push Me, Pull Me: Buy a couple train sets and plenty of accessories giving you a good number of buildings, bridges and track. Get a train table and store everything underneath, thus containing the spread of train gear throughout your home. Your kids and their friends will have buckets of fun pushing and pulling trains around the table.
Whatever you do, never glue or screw track down on a train table. Doing so only makes sense in a daycare facility or toy store. Building is part of the fun and when you eliminate it, you’ll realize that it’s boring to push trains in the exact same arrangement every time.
The Buy Little Method, also known as Turn Me On: Buy one track set, assuring that it has at least a couple bridges. Another fun variation is raised track that sits on top of blocks. Buy additional track pieces as needed. But for good measure, cross your fingers and hint to grandparents how
nice it would be for Junior to have X accessory for his trains.
A problem will arise though. My daughter loved the robust mini-city train table she played with at a toy store, but Dad’s first plain figure-eight track got old fast.
You must adapt, adapt, adapt using your child’s toy box. Building blocks become tunnels and houses. Figurines of people and animals become scenery. Maybe a tyrannosaurus attacks today, but Thomas narrowly escapes.
As your tunnel building gets underway, you’ll realize little hands have trouble pushing trains through without knocking the blocks down. So, buy a battery-powered Thomas engine (read that review, it talks about this adaptive play).
The battery train dramatically changes the nature of play. Instead of focusing on pushing trains around, the fun is focused on building the track. Once built and your kid sits back to watch Thomas do his thing, trust me, your kid will find a million things to adjust. The building never ceases.
1. Buy a couple male-male and female-female track connectors. Chances are one of your train accessories (a bridge, for example) has an odd male-female arrangement, or you just connected the track oddly, and now you need a gender-bending stopgap measure so that you can nail the golden spike.
2. Compatibility is a loaded term. Every company producing train sets advertises its compatibility with Thomas and other wooden railways. Through my journeys I have accrued track from at least 5 different companies.
Here’s a secret. While every track is likely compatible with the Thomas railway, not every off-brand is compatible with the others. If you supplement Thomas track with generic track, only use one off-brand. Our worst compatibility issues were with IKEA track. For our family, Thomas track remains the gold standard.
3. If you have pets, a train table makes sense even on hardwood floors.
You and your child won’t want to dismantle a track layout after every
use. If you let it sit for a few days, pet hair and other grime will
work its way into your unsweepable play area.
Now, if your cat likes to jump on your train table, well, you’re screwed. Fire up that battery-driven Thomas as an anti-cat device.
About the Recall
Some parents undoubtedly have last year’s lead paint recall in their minds. I have two thoughts. First, the best time to fly an airline is after a crash because the airline is on its toes about safety.
Second, the company has released a statement about a new multi-check safety system for product safety. I tested a few pieces of the Pirates Cove with a home-based test, which, while not perfect, is a legitimate test according to Consumer Reports. And if that’s not good enough, well, you have plenty of off-brand train sets to choose from, but I’m betting the safest product is from the company feeling the most heat.
With any train set you buy, you should look for as many buildings or
structures as possible because you can always buy extra track. Pirates
Cove has a good combination of three structures that provide two
elevated segments and three tunnels, which goes a long way toward an
engaging track setup.
Pirates Cove is a perfect example of what the Thomas line of wooden railways offers over competing products â€” diversity. If pirates aren’t your thing, there are a multitude of Thomas set
variations to consider.
For my daughter, the train experience is all
about the process of creating the track layout and related structures. If she roleplays pirates, great, but it’s the creative building outlet she enjoys today.
And now, some photos of Pirates Cove integrated with our existing track and accessories and various block sets. All of this was way too big for our train table, so we covered the family room floor.
And for those of you who recall my battery-powered Thomas review, yes, I finally did get a second one in order to do some racing. Although you can buy other battery-powered characters, I opted for a second Thomas because when my daughter’s friends visit, it’s like no other character exists. Everyone wants to play with the iconic blue train.