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Throw Mama On The Train

Yes! Getting There Can Be All The Fun

1304_TrainMama_FI’m an older mom. Meaning, these days I don’t hear my mom coming out of my mouth nearly as often as I hear my grandma – Do you need a light to read, dear? You see, truly novel experiences don’t tend to arrive out of the blue for me anymore, so boy was I surprised when I found myself whooshed back to little-kid-land.

Let me back up. My family of four was preparing to venture from our beautiful new state of Virginia to an Orlando theme park. Flying didn’t appeal because my husband isn’t exactly tolerant of the current TSA situation. Driving was a drag for both my husband and myself because he doesn’t appreciate the invaluable driving advice I contribute from the passenger side of the car.

Amtrak seemed a brilliant compromise. That is, until we saw the prices. An overnight trip for four with two roomettes (two adults per room) was a whopping $1700 round-trip. Just to give you an idea, airfare from Richmond to Orlando is – give or take – about $200 per person. Hmmm. I wondered where Amtrak got off. But after weighing the price against my husband’s lead foot, I decided to climb aboard.

Seventeen big ones later we figured that for the price we’d eat three squares on the train, get a good night’s sleep, and be plunked in Orlando. If we’d taken the plane, we’d need to calculate airfare, extra costs for checking luggage, three meals for four people, and one hotel night. There’s also the general booking angst that comes with flying. You never really know if you got the best price. The people sitting behind you could be traveling buy-one-get-one because Dad was on the right site at the right time.

So one fall afternoon we parked in the Amtrak lot and made the short walk to the clean Staples Mills Road station. On the dot, an old-timey whistle hailed us from a distance as an iron giant roared into view. Impressed, we boarded and went in search of our roomettes.

Now, the word “roomette” should give pause. You know what a room is and you know what an ette is from your Smurfette years. Put the two together and your roomette is just big enough for a Smurf. Possibly two. But not if they chatter incessantly. As my overly excited boys, Matt and Josh, both nine, insisted upon doing.

Is this our potty for the next two days? What if someone watches? Can we brush our teeth in the sink? Where does the potty’s water come from? Can we play UNO on the table? Can we play right now? Where are the beds?

1304_TrainMama_2The seats convert into bunk beds, but after dinner, we explained. Can we open the beds now? It was three-thirty in the afternoon. Can we open them at four? My dear husband finally ushered the kids out in search of the other roomette. (Larger families will love to know that some roomettes connect, but we’d reserved too late in the game for that.)

When signing up for the roomettes, I hadn’t known what to expect. Was a luxury experience in store or what? But once onboard nothing screamed opulent per se. Yes, each room came with dining car meals, bed linens, bottles of water, and a newspaper in the morning, but other than that the roomette had a camping vibe to it. Put it this way. Have you heard of glamping? That’s glamour and camping blended – cushy camping for the Mosquito-challenged. Well, our roomette was glamorous camping, but on a train. Do the math. It equals tramping.

However, if a roomette feels too claustrophobic, options abound. Our Amtrak Viewliner (a one-level train) offers the roomette, a bedroom for two, and a bedroom suite for four. The Superliner (a double-decker that doesn’t make it to Richmond, but can be connected to) offers the same array of rooms, but also a family suite for four. Some rooms even have their own shower. Friendly note: Reserve insanely early because sleeping quarters are in short supply and, of course, come at a higher price than the cheapest option, the roomette.

So, howler monkeys gone, I plopped into a chair and opened my laptop, only to be mesmerized by the view through the wide piece of glass beside me. Wow. I sat back and watched as the James slipped beneath. Adorable country towns with clotheslines and old cars and dogs and kids playing zipped past. A brilliant blurred leaf ballet danced by. My grown-up self fell away and a seven-year-old was back, marveling at the show.

Soon, like any seven-year-old I wanted to see the potty. So I locked the roomette’s door, pulled closed the curtains to the outside and the hallway and had a look. The toilet’s Ahead and gave it a go (if you get my drift). The flush factor was powerful. Everything was pulled swiftly into goodness-knows-where leaving, uh, no scent in our roomette. Or anywhere on the train for that matter. What had worried me most about tramping was a cinch.

1304_TrainMama_3Soon my chimps were back with the patient husband. Still talking. Mama? Did you see that cow? Guess how fast the GPS says we’re going? Can we pull the bunk bed down?No? Can we now? A minute later. Can we pull it down in a minute? Note to self: Kids are really happy on a train, which is good. But they’re also annoying. Because you can’t escape. And it’s not legal to toss them overboard.

Earlier, staff had left out a slip of paper asking when we’d like to dine because, as you can imagine, the train’s kitchen is tiny and staff can’t be stormed by passengers running away from their kids, I mean, arriving at dinner simultaneously. So when our dinner hour arrived I was more than ready for a breather from our close quarters.

The dining car itself impressed with white tablecloths. The menu offered steak and vegetarian pasta, among other entrees, to pair with rolls and salad. While dining I noticed an older couple enjoying a bottle of Merlot and quiet conversation. A few families dined nearby, but generally all was rather hushed. The kids’ menu was stocked with the usual: pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches, and chicken fingers. Desserts were large slices of calories like chocolate torte, cheesecake, and Haagen-Dazs ice cream.

Back in our roomette our chair and table Combo had morphed into a comfy bunk bed nest meaning all monkey behavior resumed: the boys climbed to the top bunk; looked out the window; jumped to the bottom bunk; turned on the sink; and climbed back to the top. You see why I’d looked longingly at the Merlot.

We spent the rest of the evening playing UNO and reading picture books. Unlike planes, trains don’t hook passengers up to the television drip. No headphones for music either, but you will find an outlet for electronics. We could have popped a DVD into the laptop, but that would have felt like cheating given that we were riding transport from the eighteen hundreds.

After everyone donned jammies and brushed teeth, my husband and one son left to sleep in the first roomette and the other boy and I bunked in the second. We peeked out the window for a long look at Raleigh (we’d stopped to unload guests), drew our curtains and turned off the lights.

And yet the boy I was bunking with was still talking. Mama, this is so fun! You know what? This feels like a big, giant rocking chair! Do you feel yourself rocking? I’m rocking! Finally, we both fell asleep.

And one of us woke up. And you know what for. Having no choice, I took stock. My son was wrapped in blankets and breathing deeply. It was now or never. I crept to the potty, lifted the trap door, handled business (which somehow is designed to be silent) and shot back under the covers. Pleased with my stealth, I peeked out the curtains. The bright lights of Raleigh were gone. The world was fast asleep. We were chugging by more trees, sleepy houses,And quiet yards. I couldn’t stop smiling. What a beautiful moment. I wanted to stay up all night. I mean, how often do you wake up in the middle of the night on a train? But the swaying motion of the car was too much of a soothing pull. Rocking – Yes, sweetie, I do feel the rocking – I fell back to sleep.

Our train morning dawned with gorgeous Florida weather and my husband – who’d been up for an hour and had showered – handing me a cup of coffee. The boys had graduated to orangutan excitement at this point (awakening on a train was simply too much), but managed to mellow for French toast in the dining car.

After breakfast we freshened up, packed, and ate another huge meal at lunch. Before dessert made it to the table we were deposited in Orlando. My husband walked the half-mile to pick up the rental car and voila! Our train ride was a roaring success. (It occurred to me that if we had taken Amtrak to some big city we’d detrain right in the middle of the action most likely, with no need to even shell out for a car. Sweet.)

The rest of this trip was summer temps, roller coasters, and chilling poolside. But theme parks and lazy rivers aside, it was our train-ride that turned my kids into primates. And me back into a kid.


Forewarned and All That

Is Amtrak punctual?

In the airplane world, for the most part, planes arrive and depart on time – and if your plane doesn’t come in on time you can always catch a later flight or try a different airline. Trains, on the other hand, have one carrier (Amtrak) and it can be more iffy. Amtrak explains, “Trains can be delayed due to train interference, equipment issues, or track and signal problems.” That’s code for bring a book. Also keep in mind that if you’re trying to connect to, say, a cruise ship you could run into t i m i n g issues.

When should you arrive at the station?

It’s suggested that you arrive a minimum of 30 minutes before your train is scheduled to depart, but I recommend getting into the station about an hour before departure.

Amtrak parking:

We paid $5 a day at the Staples M i l l station lot, but prices vary by each station. Check Amtrak’s site and click Station to find individual price information.

How to save?

If you’re traveling spur of the moment, room prices w i l l be steeper than if you plan far in advance.


Sixty percent of Amtrak trains have access to WiFi. And it’s free. How cool is that? Still many trains do not have WiFi, so research before you ride.


Unlike w h e n we rode Amtrak, TSA n ow has a presence at stations and on trains. According to Amtrak you can expect to see “heightened station and right-of-way patrols, increased security presence on-board trains, explosives detection canine sweeps, random passenger screening for explosives, and counter-surveillance to enhance protection.” The take-away for us: no sock-lines or scanners, plus the kids might score and see a bomb-sniffing dog.

Auto Train:

The Auto Train allows families to take their car (or over sized vehicle) with them on vacation. Catch the Auto Train in Lorton (outside of DC) and drive off just outside of Orlando.

Amtrak jokes that you can “stuff your stuff” meaning you can pack your vehicle with as many bathing suits and flip flops for sunny Orlando as you want.

Amtrak California Zephyr:

The route the California Zephyr takes f r om Chicago through the Rocky Mountains is considered one of the most beautiful train routes in America. And w h a t makes the ride even more spectacular? The California Zephyr boasts a domed car meaning you can see in all directions.

Great getaways:

Amtrak travels to 500 cities in 46 states in America offering amazing once-in-a-lifetime trips that include New England fall foliage, the Rockies, Glacier National Park in Montana, the Grand Canyon, or even an Atlantic to Pacific trip.

For more info, visit or Both sites will assist in planning your adventure.

Wendy irvine is a family travel writer who recently relocated to the East Coast and a regular contributor to Trip Advisor and Expedia online, as well as local and national magazines. She homeschools her twin boys and lives with one foot in RVA and the other in Atlanta. Visit for more from Wendy on the reality of family travel.
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