Think you’ve seen the strangest sight in North Jersey? If you’ve never taken a trip to Northlandz in Flemington, NJ, think again.
The basic description doesn’t really prepare you for what’s inside this innocuous building off of a local exurban highway: “The wonders of Northlandz, home of the great American railway, doll museum and art gallery.” The museum, which is about a half hour from Baristaville, claims to have 8 miles of model-train track, with 100 scale trains moving through minutely detailed constructions of real and imagined towns from American history.
To be honest, when Bruce Williams Zaccagnino, the owner and creator of Northlandz, told us at the ticket booth that it would take around 3 hours to see the exhibit, I thought he was selling me a line of hokum. But as we found ourselves more than 2 hours into our Northlandz visit, my 2-year-old son was still making his way, wide-eyed, through what the museum had to offer.
Which is this: Around each bend, Northlandz alternates between small model-train scenes and story-high, expansive vistas of Industrial Age America, with trains criss-crossing through mining towns, impossibly long trellis bridges, made-up vacation spots, and little rural villages that may or may not have once been stops along the Union Pacific Railroad lines. All to scale, and all at a level of detail and craftsmanship that sends the mind reeling off the rails.
The scenes at Northlandz keep changing, and the ramps keep visitors going up, down, and around bends so that you lose all sense of time and place (after a few hours in the museum, I’m still not entirely clear how big the building is or how it’s laid out). Every few yards has a little one-step-up platform so that young Northlanderz can see a train making its way across a bridge or through a tunnel—the 100+ trains never stop running, so there’s always something in motion, somewhere—and after a little while, my son didn’t even seem to mind that this was a place for looking and not touching.
There are plenty of little visual jokes, like a lone outhouse perched high atop a wooden platform, and detailed scenes like a fire engine extending its ladder to help passengers off of a crashed plane.
And just when it seems like Northlandz can’t get any odder…every now and then there’s a whimsically constructed doll-house scene. Or a bunch of Cabbage Patch Kids figurines doing a little dance. Or a collection of Jazz Age dolls. Or a half-dozen Star Wars models. Or a big hall filled with vintage organs. There is, quite literally, a surprise around every corner.
The admission to Northlandz is not cheap, but the $13.75 per adult and $9.75 per child (seniors are $12.50 and babies are free) does get you several hours of wildly entertaining sights and sounds. (There’s also a short train ride to be had on the grounds, for an extra $2.75 per person—but to be honest I found it didn’t live up to the standard of the train at the Turtle Back Zoo.) The museum is one giant act of love and dedication that Williams has been working on continually since the mid-1970s, and it’s a day trip destination thoroughly unlike any other on offer in the area.
Get more info, photos, and history on the museum at northlandz.com.