Transylvania Railroad expecting 600 to 800 spectators on Halloween – The San Diego Union-Tribune

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Every year on Halloween night, the Transylvania Railroad steams its way through Fred McDowell’s garage in San Marcos.
For the 12th year in a row, McDowell will open up his garage door at 5 p.m. Sunday to share with the trick-or-treating public his four-story, six-train, multi-locale Spookytown metropolis. During the four hours he’ll keep the trains running, as many as 600 children and a couple hundred parents will cycle past the garage in a line that often stretches around the block from his home at 709 Avenida Leon.
Model trains are a lifelong passion for McDowell, 53, a captain with the Costa Mesa Fire Department. Creating new elements for the massive Halloween structure each year, and the weekslong process to set it up is worth it, he says, because he loves seeing the faces of children when they first walk up and take it all in.
“For some of the younger ones who come, they walk up, put down their buckets, sit cross-legged on the driveway and they don’t move. Halloween is over for them. They don’t care about their candy anymore,” he said. “For many of the children who come each year, this is their first experience ever seeing an electric train.”

The Transylvania Railroad set-up has several different sections, which McDowell said he created to bring nostalgic memories for people of all generations. There are film, television and comic book characters dating from the 1950s to today, as well as turn-of-the-century-style buildings and trains. Many of the scenes are inspired by Disney characters. McDowell and his wife of 29 years, Nikki, both worked at Disneyland when they were younger.
On the garage floor of the display is San Diego, with an Amtrak Surfliner train, pictures of Petco Park and the Santa Fe Depot and a San Diego Padres train car. There’s also Snoopy’s pumpkin patch from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” Hogwarts Castle complete with groundskeeper Hagrid and his Hippogriff from the Harry Potter book series, and — new this year — a Mexican village celebrating Dia de los Muertos with sugar skulls, papel picado decorations and folkloric dancing.
The second level is Spookytown, with dozens of illuminated buildings that include a school with skeleton cheerleaders and a house that’s been toilet-papered by monsters. There’s also a tribute to Disney’s “The Mandalorian” series with a teeny-tiny baby Yoda. The third level is a large amusement park with automated rides, a graveyard with the book character Coraline, Godzilla on a rampage and characters from Disney’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “The Incredibles” films. The fourth level — McDowell’s favorite — is the ice planet of Hoth from “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” with a re-creation of the battle between Imperial and rebel forces.
The whole set-up has five operating O-Gauge trains and one miniature N-Scale train on the Hoth planet level.
Nikki McDowell, a nurse, also gets involved in the project each year. She helps set up the village and creates the character stories on each street. She has also carved more than a dozen rigid foam pumpkins with a dremel tool. The pumpkins will be illuminated on the family’s front lawn Sunday with exquisitely detailed designs of Spider-Man, Capt. Jack Sparrow, a New England lighthouse, the mouse from “Ratatouille,” an elephant and more.
McDowell’s daughter Molly, 21, said what she appreciates most about her parents’ Halloween display is how much thought, love and effort they put into the viewer experience. She also said no detail is too small to be overlooked in the display. Her dad hand-made and painted all of the half-inch-tall sugar skulls and small plates of Mexican food in the Mexican village. He also made the dozens of miniature pumpkins in Snoopy’s pumpkin patch, which he created for Nikki, a Charlie Brown memorabilia collector.

McDowell grew up in Santa Ana, where his grandfathers worked on the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads. Because his mother used a wheelchair and found it hard to get around, the family entertained themselves with afternoon drives to the city’s transit station where he loved to watch the trains pull in and out. He was 7 the first time he saw a model train layout at a department store during Christmas season, and he was instantly hooked.
For many years, he enjoyed building train sets with his kids, Josh and Molly, but they’re now grown and out of college. Nowadays, the time he spends with his trains is focused on coming up with new ideas for each Halloween. Molly McDowell said her dad is so humble, he always worries people will be disappointed at the display, but instead she said the crowds are always filled with wonder.
“I think what I enjoy most,” McDowell said of his Transylvania Railroad project, ” is seeing all of the different generations coming together to visit. Sometimes grandparents have to explain to their grandkids what ‘Scooby-Doo’ and ‘Ghostbusters’ are, and the kids will have to explain ‘The Incredibles’ to their grandparents. I love how this brings everyone together.”
The Transylvania Railroad will be open for viewing from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31, at 709 Avenida Leon in San Marcos.

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