Like many small children, my son Vincent has an obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine. Or rather, he did. From his second birthday until recently, hours of our days were consumed by Thomas, Henry and James et al. Railway tracks could be found in paving stones, the TV remote was called the Fat Controller, and causing “confusion and delay” was a serious transgression indeed. My baby son’s middle name is Thomas, which was a compromise: Vincent at three had been an enthusiastic advocate for Gordon.
Thanks to Thomas Land, Vincent and I may have been two of Drayton Manor’s most frequent visitors in 2014, using our off-peak passes almost every Friday throughout the spring and summer. I probably lost count while on Winston’s Whistle Stop Tours, having deliberately banged my head against the steering wheel.
But I always knew those days were as precious and fleeting as toddlerhood itself. When we got the chance to visit Japan this summer, Thomas Land at the Fuji-Q Highland Resort came high on my wish list. Vincent would start school a few weeks later and I could already see his passion for trains making way for Star Wars and superheroes, taking with it a sweet little era in our lives.
“Wow, look at those big mountains,” Vincent said, nose squashed against the window of the coach we’d caught from Tokyo. The day was overcast but we could see far enough to realise the drama of Fuji-Q’s setting, near the foot of Mount Fuji. Unsurprisingly the air felt cooler and fresher than in the city. Gazing at the ascensions and plummets of the fierce Fujiyama, once the world’s tallest rollercoaster, I briefly wished I could view Fuji from its 79-metre peak. But today was for a little boy, and perhaps for saying goodbye to a little blue engine.
Fuji-Q’s Thomas Land was laid out differently to its Drayton Manor counterpart but had a similar vibe, with eateries and bright shopfronts such as Mrs Kyndley’s Kitchen and Elsbridge Photo Studio evoking a quaint British town. Lady Topham Hatt’s Pavilion, a covered space for outdoor eating, lent an upper-class air: a theme-park Cotswolds transposed to Japan.
Vincent and I started out in a circus-styled maze, constructed from giant wooden crates. It felt confining and not remotely fun inside, with the only link to trains pressed into ink stamps that guests were encouraged to collect along the way. Hot and lost, and fed up with being nudged by similarly hot, lost people, I inwardly cheered when Vincent asked whether we could try something else.
Our next experience was, again, only loosely connected to Thomas and Friends – this time via colourful hoardings depicting some of Sodor’s engines. We borrowed a pair of Crocs-style shoes each, rented two plastic sleds and spent a happy half hour hurtling down a pile of artificial snow, occasionally blasted by a man with a snow machine. Vincent shrieked with laughter, and I hushed my inner eco-worrier who frets about the environmental cost of maintaining snow in 30-degree sunshine. We played until ice seeped into our Crocs and numbed our toes.
Not wishing to miss out on valuable ride time, we grabbed hotdogs and orange juice for lunch. The food at Fuji-Q was varied and plentiful, catering to predominantly Japanese, Chinese and Korean tourists. Snacks in Thomas Land included Thomas-shaped pancakes, which we bought mid-afternoon when Vincent was flagging. Elsewhere in the park we tried ice-cream and delicious deep-fried ‘hurricane’ potatoes, twizzled around a stick.
Skipping the Harold and Bulstrode rides that are replicated at Drayton Manor, we tried Everybody Twist, a carousel featuring small versions of popular engines. We got Bill, or maybe Ben. The ride played a Thomas song as it whirled us around, and everyone sang along while bashing the tambourine that had been hooked over their train’s funnel. I found the idea cute and funny, but couldn’t imagine it catching on among cynical Brits – even tiny, Thomas-loving ones. Vincent looked confused and mildly embarrassed, although he asked to go on it again later.
We queued for Thomas and Percy’s Fun Ride which I expected to be a straightforward trip around the park, like the one-way journey at Drayton Manor which takes guests from the front of Thomas Land to the museum and zoo. This turned out to be a story ride, though, narrated in Japanese via loudspeakers and featuring Sir Topham Hatt, Winston, Cranky the Crane and – causing a small, clammy hand to find and grip my own hand – Diesel 10 flexing his dreaded claw. Worse still, as we rounded a bend, Vincent caught sight of a scene he’s always cowered from on TV: Henry bricked into a tunnel.
“Mummy!” he hissed. “I never, ever want to go on this ride again.”
I understood: the Henry episode had half-fascinated, half-terrified me as a child too. But to my frustration Vincent was now spooked and refused to board the Great Gatagoto Adventure, a party-themed ride, or Exciting Cruise, which promised not excitement exactly but a gentle boat journey ‘through Trevor’s orchard’.
“Look – those children are all younger than you and they’re not frightened,” I told Vincent. It was true: he was one of the biggest children there. The Thomas magic must wear off quickly in Japan too.
“But the Troublesome Trucks have horrible faces and they’re being really pushy,” he said, digging his sandals into the concrete platform.
Suppressing my inner mother-logue (“You don’t realise how lucky you are!”) because this was meant to be a special day, I coaxed him into the Thomas Land theatre. Although the film was in Japanese and incomprehensible to us, I felt reasonably confident it followed a similar plot to most other Thomas stories: engine causes confusion and delay; engine is bumped, decommissioned or bricked up in a tunnel; engine learns its lesson and vows to be Really Useful next time. Nevertheless I appreciated cooling down in the air-conditioned auditorium and seeing Vincent laugh at Thomas’s capers through 3D glasses.
With perfect (infuriating) four-year-old logic, Vincent chose for our final attraction a ‘blue rollercoaster’ he’d spotted from afar. The Great Fluffy Sky Adventure featured cute manga characters but was higher, faster and scarier than any ride in Thomas Land.
“Are you sure?” I asked him, as the ride attendant checked he met the minimum height requirement. We queued for the best part of two hours in exchange for a couple of minutes spent flying through the air in a car shaped like hamsters on a cloud. He yelled joyfully throughout and asked afterwards whether I had been really, really scared.
“Because I wasn’t at all. It was the best ride in the world!”
And suddenly I knew I’d no longer let myself feel sad about the Thomas pyjamas that are rapidly becoming too small, or the once-beloved wooden engines that seldom come out of their box. Although Vincent’s toddlerhood may be behind us, the biggest and best fun of his childhood stretches out like railway tracks ahead . . .