Open House Checklist

Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

Here are a few tips for holding a successful Garden Railroad open house. This list is largely the result of seeing what works and what doesn’t work at various open houses. I’m also assuming that you hope your open house:

  • Informs newcomers about the hobby,
  • Gives other garden railroaders ideas for things to try (or not to try, as the case may be),
  • Provides enjoyment for all who visit,
  • Helps everyone make new friends, and maybe
  • Recruits future garden railroaders and club members.

A little forethought can go a long way toward meeting these objectives, without losing your sanity in the process. A little planning can also help you keep Murphy’s law from destroying your enjoyment of what should be a very exciting afternoon for you. I’m hoping to keep this list active as a resource, so if you can think of anything I left out, please please contact us with suggestions.


To have a railroad that better captures and holds the attention of anyone who visits, whenever they visit:

  • Incorporate scenic details that capture the imagination of non-railroaders & children (make certain they’re out of small children’s reach, however)
  • Incorporate the capability of varying operations enough to keep interest in the train itself (changing directions, changing trains, multiple trains, etc.)
  • Keep your RR Facts Sheet up to date (more on that later).

Three weeks before:

  • Arrange for activities to keep very young visitors busy. Parents are more likely to enjoy the open house and to learn if they don’t have to drag bored children around or worry that their kids are getting into trouble. Possibilities include:
    • "Kids’ train" with indestructible or inexpensive equipment and adult supervision
    • "Thomas" videos on a TV in the shade
    • Other games or activities
  • Line up reliable supervision. Ask people nicely ahead of time to make certain they are available, plan to attend, and don’t mind helping out. Have backups and enough people to spell each other if possible. Of course, a small setup may not need that much supervision, but consider assigning folks to supervise:
    • Operations, so a derailment or uncoupled caboose doesn’t cause bigger problems (also, so operations aren’t too boring or repetitive)
    • Young visitors at the railroad, so they don’t poke or pull at things
    • Young visitors involved in childrens’ activities
    • The snack and literature tables (should be visited and replenished as necessary at least once an hour)
  • Plan for security. This is seldom an issue, but planning is better than regretting:
    • Consider how you will keep people from getting where they don’t belong (into your tools, into your home, etc.).
    • Make certain your supervisors know to keep an eye on people who won’t keep their hands to themselves, who try to circumvent barriers, etc.
    • Make a path to the garden that doesn’t take people through the house; in fact you should have your front and any side doors locked throughout the open house so you can see everyone who comes and goes.
  • Plan refreshments, focusing on finger foods that won’t get people’s fingers messy (you don’t want cheese-ball or potato-chip grease fingerprints all over things when the open house is over).
  • Prepare literature for literature table, including:
    • Club brochures, back copies of club newsletters, and relevant train show fliers (contact your club leaders for these)
    • Open house schedules and maps for other people’s open houses
    • Your railroad’s fact sheet
    • Visitors’ book and/or sign-in sheets

One week before:

  • Verify that you have backups for backups, tested and ready to put into operation at a moment’s notice. (If you don’t have backups, borrow some to have on hand. If you have backups, you probably won’t need them. If you don’t have backups, Murphy’s law dictates that you will wish you had.)
  • Don’t make major changes that could affect operation within a week before. This includes:
    • New track
    • Significant reballasting
    • Significant changes in power/control system

One day before:

  • Prepare refreshments as necessary.
  • Go back over the checklist and make certain you have everything else ready to go.
  • If you have time, do a test run of the equipment you plan to start with tomorrow

That morning:

  • Clean track, check for obstacles.
  • Block traffic patterns that cross working trackage.
  • Set out equipment you plan to operate, literature table, and refreshments. As supervisors arrive, assign them politely to their positions and tell them when they can expect to be relieved.


  • Vary operations enough to keep people’s interest in the trains themselves.
  • Make certain supervisors are in position (supervising operations & children), and are given breaks as necessary.
  • Try to greet everyone at least briefly.
  • Be available to answer questions, but don’t let a few individuals take up all of your time so you miss other people. Your fact sheet should help you keep from having to answer some of the same questions over and over.
  • Encourage everyone to sign in and pick up available literature.

What to include on your Railroad Fact Sheet

At a bare minimum, your "Fact Sheet" should:

  • Provide information on how long you’ve been at this, and so on
  • Give visitors something to hold onto and refer to as they visit
  • Answer basic questions so you don’t have to answer the same questions over and over again
  • Give folks an idea of what resources they’d need to build a garden railroad like yours

If you want to get more elaborate, you can add:

  • A "history" of the railroad and the towns and industries it serves
  • A "Where’s Waldo"-type list of things to try to "find" (this is especially helpful for keeping children’s interest)
  • A scene-by-scene "tour" of the railroad. You can even "name" the little people and explain what’s happening in the scenes—just don’t put more effort into your prose than you have put into your scenery, or it will seem silly.

Not only will a fact sheet answer questions and help visitors find their way around, you’ll also find it stimulates your imagination and helps you focus your efforts. Just be certain you update it every year or so. And save and date old copies, so you have a history for future reference.

That said, try at least to include the following items as they apply to your garden railroad

  • RR Name
  • Year started
  • Year current mainline was completed
  • Approximate period modeled
  • Geographic region modeled
  • Typical freight load and industries served
  • Length of mainline
  • Predominant manufacturer of track
  • Minimum radius of track on mainline
  • Roadbed construction (gravel, gravel and sand mix, pressure-treated wood, blueboard, etc.)
  • Scale(s) modeled
  • Predominant manufacturer(s) of rolling stock, buildings and people
  • Any scratchbuilt or kitbashed equipment or accessories of note
  • Power/Control systems
  • Landscaping (include quantities if possible):
    • Timber used and amount (if any): RR ties, landscaping timbers, etc.
    • Source and volume of stone (quarried, recovered, etc.)
    • Predominant types of stone (limestone, etc.)
    • Volumes of topsoil, gravel, etc., you had brought in
  • Plants:
    • Groundcovers:
    • Conifers:
    • Ornamental plants:
    • Additional plants:
  • Pond (if applicable):
    • Size of pond in gallons:
    • Preformed liner, flexible liner or other:
    • Pond plants used:
    • Fish:

Visitor’s Sign-in Sheet

You can simply use a visitor’s book, but you may not get information from your visitors that you wish you had. An alternative might be to use a sign-in sheet, including such questions as:

  • Name
  • Address
  • Do you have a Garden Railroad now?
    • Just enjoy visiting
    • Considering starting one
    • Have one started
    • Have one in operation
  • Are you a member of a club? If so, which club? If not, would you be interested in joining a local garden railroading club?
  • Would you like to be contacted about other garden railroading events, open houses, shows, etc., in the near future? If so, please provide complete address and or e-mail address.


You may think of other things that should be included, but these checklists should help you avoid last-minute crises and help you and your visitors get the most enjoyment and information possible out of the open house.

This article copyright © 2000 by Paul D. Race. Reproduced by permission.

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