A Trip to the Florida Railroad Museum

Where you get to ride the exhibits!

Just when you thought rail travel in the Tampa Bay region was restricted to either a day trip on Amtrak to Winter Haven or Sebring (depending on the timeliness of Amtrak's southbound Silver Star, Train 91) or a ride on the TECO Streetcar Line linking Ybor City with downtown Tampa, you're wrong.

If you head south of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge on Interstate 275 and go to the end of Interstate 275 at Interstate 75, you will find yourself in a little town in Manatee County called Parrish. If you follow the road that leads off Interstate 75 just north of Interstate 275, you will find yourself on US 301. A turn to the right and then a left at the Post Office will lead you to a museum for you railfans and rail history buffs out there: The Florida Railroad Museum.

The Florida Railroad Museum is a step back in time to the days when taking the train was the standard when traveling long distances - and before the age of Interstates 75 and 275 and air travel such as Southwest Airlines and Tampa International Airport. What makes the Florida Railroad Museum stand out from the rest is that you get to ride the exhibits!

The museum is operational year round with a break around the Christmas and Easter holidays. In addition to the standard railroad ride fare offered on the weekends, the museum also offers themed event rides at various times throughout the year, from train robberies, cookouts and historic themes to the annual Day Out with Thomas, a favorite among children as well as a Christmas themed train event, the North Pole Express, which is a holiday tradition. Additionally, a murder mystery dinner train is offered where attendees solve a murder mystery whodunit and enjoy an Italian style dinner.

A typical weekend train ride at the Florida Railroad Museum

The ride is on six miles of an old railroad line between Parrish and the town of Willow, located on the Hillsborough-Manatee county line. However, there's a great history behind the railroad line that the Florida Railroad Museum runs on.

A History of the Railroad Line

The railroad line that the museum runs on for their weekend excursions was an ex-Seaboard Air Line track that basically paralleled US 301, which basically paralleled the Atlantic Coast Line track next to US 41. The line was laid in 1903 as the Florida and West Indies Steamship Company, which was a subsidiary of Seaboard Air Line; several years later Seaboard Air Line assumed all operations of the Florida & West Indies Steamship Company.

The railroad line that the Florida Railroad Museum runs on used to have passenger trains, especially Seaboard Air Line's Silver Meteor Tampa to Venice section. Passenger service dwindled after the Seaboard Coast Line merger in 1967 and discontinued in 1971 when Amtrak - America's national passenger railroad - came into operation.

When the Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Air Line railroads merged in 1967 to form the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, the merger resulted in so many duplicate rail lines serving the same destinations. It was decided that the line between Tampa and Bradenton/Sarasota would be the ACL track paralleling US 41 as it was a shorter route.

By the time Interstate 75 opened to traffic in southern Hillsborough County and Manatee County as part of the southern extension of Interstate 75 to Miami from Tampa as well as Interstate 275 completed over the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Seaboard Coast Line was in the process of abandoning the railroad track which is known as the Parrish Subdivision due to less customer demand, not to mention being a duplicate line as mentioned previously. In 1986 another railroad merger happened involving Seaboard Coast Line as well as several other railroads which would evolve into what we know as CSX Transportation today.

In its full glory, the Parrish Subdivision - which was the ex-SAL track and today called the SW line in CSX line speak - ran from a point on the Valrico Subdivision in the Hillsborough County community of Durant in a general southwest direction past Wimauma and across the Little Manatee River featuring a through truss bridge to Willow and Parrish. At Parrish the line turns west, going under Interstate 75 and leading into Palmetto where it goes under US 41 and the line ends at the junction of the AZA line (the ex-ACL line) just south of 10th Street and east of Business US 41.

By the way, the AZA line - the CSX line that connects Tampa with Bradenton and Sarasota - is mainly used by CSX's Tropicana Juice Train (Q742 and Q744) as Tropicana's headquarters and plant are located in Bradenton and a distribution center is located somewhere in New Jersey. If you happen to be in Plant City - the intersection of CSX's A and S Lines - chances are you probably seen the Tropicana Juice Train come through on the S Line.

Today the SW Line is still owned by CSX from its junction at the AZA Line in Palmetto to a point east of US 41. From that point ownership of the track belongs to Florida Power and Light. It is Florida Power and Light that leases the track to the Florida Railroad Museum so that it can conduct its weekend regular and themed trips. During the week, CSX locomotives will pay a visit to the power plant whenever it has any rail based pickups and/or deliveries.

A Typical Train Ride at the Florida Railroad Museum

Now here's how a typical train ride on a regular ride weekend plays out at the museum:

After you purchase your tickets at the gift shop, if you have time before the train begins boarding for the next departure take a look around at the gift shop and check out all the rail related items the museum has to offer. Additionally, take a walk through the sleeping car that is adjacent to the model railroad car and you'll see what sleeping cars used to look like back in the old days before the era of Amtrak's Viewliner class sleepers, which run on The Silver Star. The sleeping car is old, but hopefully the museum can restore it somehow and maybe someday be in the rolling display.

When it comes time to board, you walk up a ramp right onto the train - no steep steps to climb. Once the conductor takes your ticket you have a choice of cars to choose from. Cars may vary from one weekend to the next; this is a representative list of passenger railroad cars featured at the museum:

The New Georgia 5416 coach: This 1950's era coach has seen service on the Alaska Railroad as well as the Union Pacific Railroad before the coach was retired. This coach was not in Amtrak service. Today the New Georgia is used as an air conditioned coach car for charter and was used as the museum's concession stand until the arrival of the museum's latest acquisition, the ACL 250 lounge car.

The Seaboard Air Line 821 coach:This coach dates back to the 1920's and there is a little civil rights history to it. Look closely in the coach and you will notice that there is a divider that sections off a small section from a large section. Back in the days of Jim Crow, the large section was the white section of the coach while the small section was the colored section of the coach.

The Atlantic Coast Line 250 Lounge Car: The Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) 250 lounge car saw service as a lounge car on the Atlantic Coast Line railroad, then it saw the same service when it was on Amtrak. The Florida Railroad Museum acquired this car in 2013 and it was placed in service in time for North Pole Express 2013. Like the New Georgia car the ACL 250 car is air conditioned and it is the popular car to be during the summer months when Florida's oppressive heat and humidity are in full swing. The ACL 250 car has a well defined concession stand where passengers can enjoy light food and drink during the trip. After all,the ACL 250 car can be compared to Amtrak's Cafe Car on the Silver Star (Trains 91 and 92) where you can get something you want and seat yourself in any of the open booths and watch the scenery go by.

The open air observation car: This car used to be a gondola in freight service. When the museum took delivery of this car, it was repurposed into passenger seating with a canopy on top to protect the passengers from the elements. On a great day you can see everything up close and personal.

The open air coach car, 6324: This car was acquired from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 2012 and was repurposed for passenger seating together with a satellite concession stand. The 6324 is mainly used for most of the Florida Railroad Museum's events and its satellite concession stand is used during North Pole Express. Like the open air gondola and the SAL 821 cars this car is not climate controlled but on a great day you can see everything up close and personal too.

The 6203 coach car: One of the Florida Railroad Museum's latest acquisitions, the 6203 coach car is an air conditioned climate controlled car and was placed in service in 2017. This car came from the Orrville Railroad Heritage Society in Ohio and was featured in the movie Unstoppable, in the part where the children are riding the train as part of the rail safety campaign and the engineer of this train narrowly escapes the runaway freight train just in time by going into the siding. The 6203 features a restroom and a conductor's office and is also the place to be during the summer months when Florida's oppressive heat and humidity are in full swing. Part of the 6203 is also used as a main concession stand when the ACL 250 lounge car is taken out of service for maintenance.

The 3155 coach car: Another of the Florida Railroad Museum's latest acquisitions, the 3155 coach car is an air conditioned climate controlled car and was placed in service in 2017 along with the 6203. Like the 6203, this car also came from the Orrville Railroad in Ohio and was also featured in the movie Unstoppable as well. The 3155 features sectioned coach seating and has its own restroom on board, albeit smaller than its 6203 counterpart. The 3155 is mainly used for the museum's high profile events such as Day Out With Thomas and the North Pole Express.

The Seaboard Air Line 821 coach, the open air observation car as well as the 6324 coach car do not feature air conditioning, unlike the New Georgia coach, the ACL 250 Lounge Car and the 6203 and 3155 coach cars. As I mentioned previously, during the summer months the climate controlled cars get a good share of ridership due to the air conditioning installed.

The train departs Parrish for a six mile trip north on the SW Line to Willow. On the way north you will pass by citrus groves and mossy forests that reflect the true meaning of the Sunshine State of Florida before the era of Interstates 75, 275 and 4. You'll pass under a set of Florida Power and Light transmission lines a third of the way north.

Dickey Road - Mile Post SW 858.0 - is the halfway point of the six mile trip. Just before Dickey Road on your left is an area that resembles the Old West, which is used during the train robbery themed trips. If you haven't been on a themed event train ride at the Florida Railroad Museum you owe it to yourself to go on one - it's lots of fun for your money!

North of Dickey Road the terrain is more fields and forests that reflect Florida's past. Within a short time you will see the Florida Power and Light Manatee Plant to the right with the two smokestacks painted in alternating red and white to warn low flying aircraft. Right after that you will see a track spur that services the plant and - all of a sudden - the train comes to a stop thinking that you are in Willow. Not yet!

When the train stops you will see a second track on your right. It is the locomotive runaround track and it is on that track that the locomotive will use to reverse direction to get ready for the southbound journey back to Parrish later on. In fact, if you go to the open air observation car you can watch the train crew in action as the locomotive is disconnected from the train, pulled northward past the switch and the crew lines the switch so that the locomotive can go around the passenger cars and be the first going south.

All track switching in Willow on the SW Line is done manually by the museum train crew. This is done by experienced trainmen but you may see a car host in training for the next step. To contrast, track switching on the main CSX A Line - the domain of Amtrak's Silver Star in Tampa - is done by automatic means by controllers located at CSX's Jacksonville headquarters.

Now that the locomotive is facing south, the train will make a backing move into a fenced in area which is the museum's maintenance facilities. Once you are inside the confines of the facilities, you are in Willow. Just before the train stops in Willow your Car Host or the Conductor gives a brief presentation of the history of Willow, which used to be a sawmill town in its early heydays in the 1920's until its demise in the Great Depression. Willow also houses a replica of the train station that used to be in Parrish on the west side of US 301 until it was destroyed by a fire in the late 1960's. The replica you see in Willow was built based on the plans of the original Parrish station.

The backing move into Willow can be compared to the Amtrak backing move of its Silver Star service (Trains 91 and 92) into Tampa Union Station. Instead of a siding where the Florida Railroad Museum's locomotive switches sides for the return trip, Amtrak moves off of the main CSX A Line and onto a short spur arranged into a wye track called the Neve Wye. Once past the Neve Wye switch on the spur track, the track is switched onto another track and the train is readied for the reverse move back onto the A Line and into Tampa Union Station.

While in Willow you will see plenty of passenger cars, freight cars and locomotives stored on the various storage tracks in the maintenance area. Look closely on one of the locomotives and you'll see one that has a Tri-Rail (South Florida's commuter railroad) logo, along with locomotives that have the old Seaboard Air Line logo on them. Moreover, Willow is also the home to many of the museum's special events such as the Pumpkin Patch Express in October, the North Pole Express in December, the Hobo Campfire Cookout in late January, Murder Mystery from mid-February to early March (this is where you have your dinner while the second act plays) and the Cotton Tail Express around Easter. You get to detrain in Willow to take a look at the artifacts contained in the station buiding and after a short time you reboard the train for the return trip to Parrish.

After a short time in Willow the conductor will give the go ahead to the locomotive engineer to take the train on its southward journey six miles back to Parrish. Once you detrain in Parrish you will have had the best train trip of your life, so much that you want to go back for more!

What is beyond Willow?

If you are wondering what is beyond Willow (and the railcars that are stored on the main track awaiting restoration), that's a good question!

I took a look via Google Maps and traced what is beyond Willow. There is still railroad track but you can only see it in varying degrees due to the vegetative overgrowth in the area. Not far north of Willow is an old railroad bridge that spans the Little Manatee River; just after the bridge the railroad track ends and what is left from north of the Little Manatee River to the CSX Valrico Subdivision track approximately west of CR 676 in the Hillsborough County community of Durant, located southeast of Valrico is a railroad grade owned by Tampa Electric (TECO) and utilized as a utility corridor.

However, the track north of Willow to the Little Manatee River is reported to be in bad shape and it would require extensive rehabilitation work if the Florida Railroad Museum would like to consider extending the route a little further north.

The Pullman Sleeper Car - The Bradenton

Earlier I discussed the Pullman sleeper car that is attached to the museum's model railroad display car. The car is called the Bradenton, and taking a look inside the sleeper car is a step back to the 1950's era of passenger railroading, especially when you took a train cross country and you were on the train overnight.

If you have an extra few minutes to spare before your train departs at the museum, take a look at the sleeper car by going through the vestibule doorway that is adjacent to the model rairoad display car into the sleeper car. Perhaps the museum might want to consider rehabilitating the car and maybe offering it on one of the weekend rail trips.

Once you enter the car you go through a central hallway and on either side you will see little rooms which are akin to today's roomettes on Amtrak. Look in one of the rooms and you will see its daytime configuration in which there is seating for one to two persons. In addition, there is a control panel which works the lights and a call button to summon the porter if need may be. A sink folds out and there is a self contained toilet for personal comfort.

If you take a look at another roomette you will see one that is set up in its nighttime configuration. The bed is concealed in the wall during the day but a flip of a handle lowers the bed into its nighttime configuration; this is done by the sleeping car attendant while you are probably having dinner in the dining car. After all, on Amtrak when you ride in the sleeping car your meals are included in the accommodation charge. The only exception to this is the Silver Star: There is no diner, only a Cafe Car; however, the accommodation charge on the Silver Star is lower than its Silver Meteor counterpart. While the Silver Star serves Tampa, the Silver Meteor does not.

Go down the hallway and follow it as it turns. The next set of rooms you see are the family style rooms, akin to today's counterparts on Amtrak (but much better and more improved). In those rooms there is a private toilet included in each room as well as more space for your family. Like the roomettes, the family rooms are converted from a daytime to a nighttime configuration by a turn of the handle by the sleeping car attendant serving your room.

Admission Prices, Location and Hours

The Florida Railroad Museum is located in Parrish east of US 301 at 12210 83rd Street East.

To get there from:

St. Petersburg: Follow Interstate 275 south across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge (toll bridge; toll is payable by SunPass or cash) all the way to its end at Interstate 75 just outside Parrish. When you get to Interstate 75, follow the signs for northbound Interstate 75 to Tampa. Once on the ramp, you will see signs for Exit 229, CR 683 to Parrish - this is the exit you want to take. Exit Interstate 75 at Exit 229 and follow CR 683 east - also known as Moccasin Wallow Road - for five miles to US 301. At US 301 turn right and proceed about less than a half a mile to 83rd Street East - there you will see signage for the museum; the museum is straight ahead on 83rd Street East.

Tampa: Follow Interstate 75 south until you reach Exit 229, CR 683 to Parrish. Exit Interstate 75 at Exit 229 and follow CR 683 - also known as Moccasin Wallow Road - east for five miles to US 301. At US 301 turn right and proceed about less than a half a mile to 83rd Street East - there you will see signage for the museum; the museum is straight ahead on 83rd Street East.

Western Pasco County (New Port Richey, Port Richey): Follow FL 54 east through Land o' Lakes to Interstate 75 south (the road changes from FL 54 to FL 56 just before you get to Interstate 75). Follow Interstate 75 south around Tampa (the signage for Naples) until you reach Exit 229, CR 683 to Parrish. Exit Interstate 75 at Exit 229 and follow CR 683 - known as Moccasin Wallow Road - east for five miles to US 301. At US 301 turn right and proceed about less than a half a mile to 83rd Street East - there you will see signage for the museum; the museum is straight ahead on 83rd Street East.

Plant City and points east (including Orlando): There are two ways to get to the Florida Railroad Museum.

1. Follow Interstate 4 west to Interstate 75 south (Exit 7). Follow Interstate 75 south until you reach Exit 229, CR 683 to Parrish. Exit Interstate 75 at Exit 229 and follow CR 683 east - known as Moccasin Wallow Road - for five miles to US 301. At US 301 turn right and proceed about less than a half a mile to 83rd Street East - there you will see signage for the museum; the museum is behind the Post Office on 83rd Street East.

2. Or, for a scenic trip from Interstate 4 exit at Exit 22, FL 39 in Plant City. Follow FL 39 south through Plant City; FL 39 is also known as James Redman Parkway as you head south. Cross FL 60; the road changes from FL 39 to CR 39 but continue to head south until you get to FL 62 in Duette. West on FL 62 for about 17 miles to Parrish and US 301. At US 301 turn right, cross the railroad tracks and turn right again on 83rd Street East and the museum is straight ahead.

Sarasota, Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda, Fort Myers, Naples and points south: Follow Interstate 75 north to Exit 229, which is Moccasin Wallow Road to Parrish. This exit is just north of Exit 228, Interstate 275 north to St. Petersburg - follow the signs so that you do not get off at the wrong exit! East on Moccasin Wallow Road for five miles to US 301, then south on US 301 for about 1/4 mile to the museum entrance. Or, use Exit 224 (US 301 to Ellenton and Palmetto) and north on US 301 for 7 miles to Parrish; the museum is on your right as soon as you pass FL 62 and cross the railroad tracks.

Admission on regular ride days is adults 12 years of age and over $14.00, children ages 3 to 11 $10.00, and children 2 and under are free (admission prices are current as of June 2018; check the Florida Railroad Museum website for more details). Themed train ride events (such as Murder Mystery Express, Day Out With Thomas and North Pole Express to name a few) are specially priced, again you may want to check the museum website for more information.

Regular train rides are scheduled on the weekends at 11 AM and 2 PM. Allow plenty of time to get to the station in Parrish so that you can park your car, obtain your tickets and board the train before departure. Themed event train rides as mentioned previously are scheduled and priced differently, again you may want to check the Florida Railroad Museum website for specifics. It is very important to be on the train before the train departs; trains do depart on time and trains are not held for latecomers!

The museum's gift shop is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 AM to 4 PM, but be forewarned: The gift shop is closed by the time you return from the 2 PM trip. If there is something you want at the gift shop, I would advise purchasing it and storing your purchase in the trunk of your car before you get on board.

Food and drink are available for purchase, either at the gift shop or on board the train in the concession area on the ACL 250 Lounge Car or other car so designated (your Car Host will give you directions as part of the welcoming safety spiel). The museum prohibits outside food and drink from being brought on board, unless you are chartering the party caboose for a special event such as a birthday party.

Speaking of the party caboose, the museum has two cabooses that can be attached to the train on a regular ride weekend. Why not make your child's birthday party more memorable on board the train? It costs $200 which includes admission for up to 16 people plus your very own car host for the trip!

More Information on the Florida Railroad Museum

I encourage you to visit the website of the Florida Railroad Museum - it has a good wealth of information including the special events that take place throughout the year. While you are there, you can even purchase tickets for the regular or themed train rides that are offered.

Have you thought about becoming a member of the Florida Railroad Museum? Being a member carries a lot of great benefits starting at the individual level, which include space available train rides on regular ride days plus a lot more! The museum's website has more details on how to become a member.

By the way, your webmaster is a proud member and a volunteer of the Florida Railroad Museum.

Pictures related to the Florida Railroad Museum

Here is a smorgasbord of pictures related to the Florida Railroad Museum for your viewing pleasure.