Families visit N.C. Transportation Museum on reopening day

Published 12:10 am Sunday, September 6, 2020

By Shavonne Potts

SPENCER — James Smith on Saturday stood motionless as a model train stopped on the track a few feet away and, with just a wave of his hand, it started again.

The motion sensor-operated train was just one interactive exhibit at the N.C. Transportation Museum. And it was one that allowed visitor interaction without the need to touch as a few families trickled in after the museum reopened with some loosened restrictions. Playgrounds and gyms were also among a number of facilities allowed to reopen more broadly starting at 5 p.m. Friday after Gov. Roy Cooper announced the state would enter phase 2.5 earlier in the week.

When asked about his favorite part of the museum, James pointed to the motion-sensor operated train and said, “that.”

The Smith family has been to the museum many times before, but was excited to see new things and others they hadn’t seen yet, said mom Barbara Smith.

Prior to reopening more broadly on Saturday, the museum had been doing self-guided walking tours, which still gave patrons a look inside exhibition buildings. And there still are some restrictions from the state, including allowing visitors to ride the trains. But, as museum Executive Director Kelly Alexander said, “We’re so excited to be at this point.”

Train and turntable rides remain suspended. The museum’s outdoor play area and the Roundhouse Orientation Room Theater remain closed.

“We’d love to get our train back,” Alexander said.

She said staff members have been preparing for quite some time to get the museum ready for visitors, including sanitizing surfaces and placing of hand sanitizing stations throughout the property. Staff will continue throughout the day to clean and sanitize high-touch surfaces, Alexander said.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, buildings at the museum are limited to no more than 50% of the stated fire code capacity, with space available for social distancing throughout. The gift station is open at a maximum occupancy of 50% of the stated fire code. Alexander said the museum is fortunate that exhibit rooms are so spacious, which allows visitors to naturally social distance.

Alexander said some of the museum’s touch-point interactive exhibits are closed. She said picnic shelters are open and have been arranged with fewer tables that have been spaced apart.

Jessica and Jordan Jueckstock, of Raleigh, initially attended the museum so they could have a picnic with family, but they decided to see the exhibits while there, too. It was a first visit for the couple and their children — Josie, 2, and Johnny, 4.

Andrew Geise and his family — wife and children — as well as in-laws — wife’s sister, husband and their son — traveled about an hour from Graham to spend time at the museum. Geise said the kids love trains, so they decided to attend.

The family spent some time in the gift shop so the kids could get some toys.

Rich English and his wife Denisse, planned a weekend trip that included a stop at the museum. The couple, who are from Charleston, S.C., said they included a one-day stop in Spencer in their trip and will stay in Winston-Salem on their weekend getaway. Rich, a former firefighter, said he’s known about the N.C. Transportation Museum for some time but hadn’t been.

However, not all attractions allowed to reopen more broadly have taken advantage of that ability.

Dan Nicholas Park said certain attractions will remain closed, with paddle boats being among them. In an online post, park staff said challenges include having a dryer that reaches a high-enough temperature to kill the virus, a hiring freeze and worries about space for social distancing.

“We want to be open and fully operational as well,” park staff said. “It’s heartbreaking seeing our park empty in the summer. We miss seeing family and friends having fun and hearing children laugh.”

A major obstacle is that the park doesn’t have enough staff to properly clean attractions and that part-time staff are mostly high schoolers and college students who are now back in school.

“We are also in a hiring freeze, so we are not even able to replace them,” park staff said. “We know this year has been frustrating and our staff have taken the brunt of this frustration. We write this to help shed some light on the issues we face and that reopening is not as easy as it sounds. Our park is a huge attraction for Rowan County and beyond, and part of our job is to keep our visitors safe and healthy.”