Review: Thomas Wooden Railway Pirates Cove Set

Alternate title: How to maximize the wooden railway experience

Photo of Thomas moving on an elevated track toward Skull Mountain. A variety of toy blocks fill the scene, with Greek colors bordering the causeway and other blocks built up around the track in the background.

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.

So I jumped at a recent offer by to review the new Thomas Wooden Railway Pirates Cove Set by Learning Curve [Amazon link].

Photo of the Thomas Pirates Cove Set in its intended configuration showing all of the pieces on our train table.

There she is. The Pirates Cove is based upon the Thomas & Friends TV episodes ‘Thomas and the Storyteller‘ and ‘Thomas and the Treasure.’ The latter show involves Thomas hunting for pirate booty.

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.

Components

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.

Photo of the Treasure Tunnel with a secret door open revealing a treasure map.

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.

Photo of Thomas traveling over the top of Skull Mountain, triggering a pressure plate that opens a secret compartment that reveals a gold treasure box.

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.’

Photo of the Pirate Shipwreck and Salty traveling out of the wreck.

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.

Random Points

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.

Final Thoughts

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 — diversity. If pirates aren’t your thing, there are a multitude of Thomas set
variations to consider.

You’ll find a wide array of buildings and other structures, either as sets or sold individually, such as a fire station, hospital, even a castle, and their sets offer a variety of options.

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.

Photo of two battery-powered Thomas cars traveling on wooden track underneath a variety of colorful blocks that have been set up as small overpasses.

Photo of my daughter placing a block on top of another block to create a bridge over the track track.

Photo of a battery-powered Thomas pulling Salty up into the Pirates Shipwreck. A bunch of green pillars have been piled width-wise on top of the ship.

Another photo of my daughter placing a block on top of another block to create a bridge over the track track.

Photo of Thomas turning a curve with various blocks visible in the background.

Photo of Thomas coming out of the bottom of Skull Mountain.

Comments

16 Responses to “Review: Thomas Wooden Railway Pirates Cove Set”

  1. Kathleen says:

    Wow…Thanks for a very informative review. I just found a big Thomas set on clearance for $20 and was worried that it wouldn’t be worth the money…..but now we are looking forward to setting it up for DS3 and feel like we may have gotten a steal :)

    August 1st, 2008 at 6:55 pm

  2. Mary says:

    Thank you for the advice and review. My son loves playing with his generic train set, but we unfortunately live in small apartment. We don’t have the room, or the cash, to purchase a table for him. We just break out the tracks and play on the floor. Because we do have a pet, we have to put all the pieces back after we’re done. Although, I haven’t though about using his other blocks to enhance his building experience. It is something we’ll definitely have to try!

    August 2nd, 2008 at 9:14 am

  3. Sara says:

    For our 2.5 year old, we have a combination of Thomas, Brio, and generic (found used at goodwill) trains and track. They all work great together. I always ogle the various themed sets out there, this one looks especially cool. We opted not to buy a train table, and I am glad. 90% of the tracks we build would be too big for a table. We just keep all the trains and track in a large under-bed bid, and keep it either under the bed or under our coffee table. We have battery Brio trains, and push Thomas characters. I love train sets because everyone in the family enjoys playing with them. My experience with the off-brand stuff is that it is okay for plain ol’ track pieces, but for the bridges, tunnels, and other “fancy” stuff, you want to go with Brio or Thomas, they are made much better, and withstand the clumsy playing of a toddler w/o falling apart much better than the others.

    August 2nd, 2008 at 12:47 pm

  4. MoJo says:

    We also have a mash of different brand trains and accessories. Ikea, Thomas, Brio, etc…We found a table that rolls under the bed and has a pull out drawer. The drawer doesn’t hold everything, but even so, it works. The table is too heavy for my 3 year old to pull out from his bunk bed, but it sure is nice when it gets cleaned up and pushed back under!

    August 2nd, 2008 at 9:26 pm

  5. Ashley says:

    We are Thomas aficionados at our home and I can tell you that Thomas does not drive through a shipwreck to get to his treasure. I can also tell you that the rock on treasure tunnel is more likely than not, Eagle mountain, which is one of the clues Thomas follows to find the treasure.

    August 3rd, 2008 at 7:36 am

  6. STL Mom says:

    I think the train set we bought 4 years ago is the most-used toy we’ve ever purchased. The Thomas brand tracks and accessories are quite durable, so you might get a great deal buying secondhand at yard sales or on EBay. Just make sure to check the recall lists.
    Also, I just have to mention that the Whittle Shortline Railroad makes wooden trains and tracks here in the USA, and have always been lead-free. They make more realistic trains, like my son’s favorite combo of a Santa Fe deisel engine and an Amtrak passenger car. They also make Little Engine That Could trains.

    August 3rd, 2008 at 4:32 pm

  7. Jeremiah says:

    Great photos.

    August 4th, 2008 at 7:20 am

  8. JMo says:

    So do you think this would be a good first train set for a 2 year old? Or is this too advanced?

    I was thinking about the Whittle Shortline Railroad you reviewed in Dec.

    Would love some advice…

    August 4th, 2008 at 9:23 am

  9. Tiffany says:

    Another question- my son is not almost 2 and a half, and loves the little (circle track only) Brio train his great-aunt gave him. So, we’re planning on buying (and having grandmas & grandpas buy) train sets for Christmas. BUT, we were thinking about going for the Geotrax. He has no idea who Thomas is, since we don’t let him watch any TV but Sesame Street, so that’s a non-issue. What we liked about the Geotrax track snaps together, which eliminates the falling apart problem we have with the wooden track. It’s also bigger, which would be better for him to play with, since it’s about the same size as his favorite Playskool/Tonka cars. And it comes in some neat sets, as well as having the ability to make it move- he is fascinated by mechanical anything. Must be the boy thing… anyway, any perspective on wooden railway vs. Geotrax?

    August 4th, 2008 at 9:45 am

  10. AJ says:

    Mary, as MoJo mentioned, consider an under-bed train table. There are a number on the market. Here’s the Thomas version:
    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00008CQMG/thingamababy-20

    Ashley, Eagle Mountain, eh? I went by the names on the box, but if a Thomas fan sees it as something more specific, great.

    JMo, a correction… I *profiled* the Whittle Shortline Railroad based on the company’s website. Reviews contain the word “Review” in the title and discuss my family’s use of the product. I can’t recommend Whittle because I haven’t seen and used it, but I can say it looks interesting from afar.

    As for your 2-year-old, I’d begin with basic track and building blocks like I did. My start-slow situation was influenced by my wife not caring for train toys, but another issue is whether a 2-year-old can handle the toys responsibly without banging them up. If it’s OK, then you can look at buying a large set from the start and then supervising play (the common age guideline is 3 years). But also, visit a toy store that has a train table first and see how your kid responds.

    Tiffany, wooden railways and plastic Playskool trains are a world apart. I’d guess that many parents who invest in wooden railways have a visceral reaction to Playskool. If you don’t mind Playskool, then stay in that universe. As for the falling-apart problem, I’ve not experienced that. If you pick up the track, sure, it falls apart. If you bump elevated track, sure it falls apart, but fixing it is part of the fun and responsibility of building a train set.

    STL Mom, I’ve a devout garage saler and I’ve seen wooden trains perhaps three times in four years. Maybe it’s my community, but the train sets seem to pass through other channels as prized possessions, having a higher resale value than *cough* Playskool and other plastic toys. In the previous paragraph I wrote “invest” instead of “buy” because wooden trains cost more than plastic and parents seem to hold onto them much longer and then sell them for more than their plastic counterparts. Visiting garage sales every week can quickly turn you off the glut of plastic everything out there.

    August 4th, 2008 at 10:53 am

  11. K G S says:

    For a different perspective: we have a Geotrax train. We like it a lot. Our daughter’s favorite feature is its ability to carry a driver, passengers, and cargo, and we also really enjoy the remote control with its forward/backup functions. She tends to play using the passengers as actors rather than the train as a sentient being, which is slightly different from using the wooden train at Grandma’s but not necessarily better or worse. Geotrax is obviously plastic, but it feels like good-quality plastic rather than tacky dime-store plastic so I don’t mind.

    Unfortunately, the snapping track is quite a bit harder for small toddler hands to put together than the wooden Thomas/Brio at Grandma’s. At 2.5, my daughter still needs a little help with a few of the Geotrax pieces (and she’s had it since she turned 2), but within a few months I think she’ll be able to do it all solo. This hasn’t stopped her from enjoying it, but the combination of this issue and the presence of passengers has meant we spend less time on track layout, and more time shuttling between various destinations to load, unload, and have discussions among passengers about where to go next.

    August 5th, 2008 at 10:33 am

  12. Mary says:

    Thank you for the under the bed suggestion. It won’t work for us for a while as our son’s new bed will be sitting on the floor (mattress and boxspring). We still have fun playing on the floor with his train set, but Christmas is just around the corner! :)

    August 5th, 2008 at 7:13 pm

  13. Mark says:

    AJ — I’m curious, where does Thomas fit in your anti-themed toys stance? Like you, we have a bit of a mix and match philosophy for our train stuff, but given the chance I usually go with Brio over Thomas because there is just as much of a marketing overdrive push to slap him on as many different products as possible as any other series or character out there. (And mind you, I ask this having just bought a Thomas themed bath set that was on clearance, lol…can’t pass up a deal!)

    August 8th, 2008 at 9:58 am

  14. AJ says:

    Mark, my general rules are: #1 Don’t buy products containing licensed characters. #2 When I break rule #1, don’t break it for off-topic products.

    I’ve mostly succeeded. We own Thomas the Train railways, but it is a train set, not a bath set. That’s an important distinction for me. Also, Brio isn’t sold in any local stores. The few train cars I’ve picked up via garage sales have been plastic and that negates any affinity I might have had for the brand.

    I don’t mind Thomas train sets because it stops there. We don’t own any other Thomas merchandise. My daughter has never expressed a desire for more.

    I think the danger is in creating a snowball effect. We own Winnie the Pooh books (the originals plus some nice older Disney-made stories), and a plush Pooh. If I bought my daughter more plush characters from the Hundred Acre Wood and cemented an overriding interest in one set of characters, she would want them wherever she saw them in stores. That’s just a guess. It’s not a matter of moderation, but of being more guarded and having absolute limits.

    August 8th, 2008 at 12:11 pm

  15. Train Wall Stickers says:

    I have been virtually amazed at the comeback that Thomas the Train has made after the lead paint fiasco. I just finished decorating a Thomas the Train style room that I have to say that I was moderately surprised that I got the request for (had this soon to be mom not heard Thomas’s manufacturers had committed a major faux pas?) and even more surprised when I found more than enough officially licensed products to fill the space.

    It just goes to show that if kids love a character, no obstacle is too great.

    August 18th, 2008 at 10:01 am

  16. Michelle says:

    I am always looking for good wooden block sets. Do you remember where you got any of yours? Thanks! And, I love the review!

    November 7th, 2008 at 3:43 pm