big trains

Children will be fascinated and adults will be reminded of their own childhood when they visit Arizona Big Trains Operators member’s holiday displays the next two weekends. (Special to GSN)

Model trains remind many people of Christmas as a child and for one local organization, that nostalgia lasts year-round.

The Arizona Big Trains Operators will hold its annual Christmas Open House tour 4-8 p.m. Dec. 10 and 11 and Dec. 17 and 18 with 14 homes across the Valley firing up their festive layouts that help keep the history of locomotives alive and keeps these grown adults kids at heart.

While their pastime can be expensive, the one thing these operators enjoy more than tinkering with the trains is the joy their displays bring to visitors.

“A lot of people still enjoy the history of railroads,” said Don Sorenson. 

 Sorenson joined the organization in 2006 but had an interest in trains long before that because his dad worked as a brakeman for Union-Pacific Railroad for five years. 

He said some of the members have mechanical and engineering backgrounds and this keeps their minds occupied with something familiar.

Amtrak said it has seen a 5% decrease in its Arizona station usage between fiscal year 2018 and 2019. 

“People don’t ride the trains anymore,” ABTO President Darrell Woolfolk said. “There’s not many of the youth that have been on a train.”

That’s why sharing their hobby – especially with children – represents an integral part of the organization’s purpose “to promote and advance the interest in and educate the general public about Railroads and large-scale model railroading,” according to their bylaws. 

Much to his surprise, Woolfolk said the nonprofit’s membership has seen an uptick in the last two years with 19 new members, bringing their Valley-wide total to 77.

Woolfolk joined the organization in 2013 and has served as its president for the last five years.

He said that while only half of their members have layouts, they all meet to help each other collaborate and build “extremely elaborate” holiday villages.

“It’s not like setting up on a card table when you were a kid,” Woolfolk said.

The individual cars measure approximately 4-1/2 inches tall by 24 inches long with a handful of cars connected that run on tracks up to 500 linear feet winding through a festive holiday


The villages can take up a person’s entire backyard and some include railyards, tunnels, ponds, and functioning lights on the buildings with the appearance of snow throughout the setup for the holidays.

The layouts can have multiple zones and take anywhere from two to four weeks to get up and running, but prep work and layout begins as early as June.

The nonprofit holds seven public events throughout the year including one in the spring, but the Christmas Open House is the group’s biggest.

Besides the two open houses, ABTO maintains train layouts at Banner Children’s at Desert and Hospice of the Valley at Ryan House. 

Woolfolk said those layouts remain restricted to patients at the medical facilities due to COVID-19 protocols, but members will still maintains the tracks weekly for the patient’s enjoyment.

“With COVID, everything’s been pretty much locked down,” he said.

Woolfolk said Christmas event draws hundreds of people per weekend to member’s backyards to watch the layouts light up at night.

Woolfolk said trains have “gone by the wayside” with younger generations and the nonprofit helps rekindle that


Sorenson said it’s an important part of our nation that young people should remember.

“I find that people are very enamored by railroad,” he said. “They’re part of our history.”