Bruce Williams Zaccagnino of Flemington spends almost every day surrounded by 100 trains, 500,000 trees and 1,200 structures that he built with his bare hands. And all of it is contained within one 52,000-square-foot building.
How is this possible? Most of those trains, trees and structures are only a few inches tall.
That’s because Zaccagnino founded and created each exhibit of the world’s largest model railroad museum, which is joined by, in Zaccagnino’ museum Northlandz, a doll collection holding more than 200 historic dolls, an 1890s replica steam train and a 2,000-pipe organ, which Zaccagnino plays on weekends.
Northlandz, which is about a mile walk-through, is composed of hundreds of exhibits containing scenes such as a Civil War battle display, the world’s only toothpick farm, a skyscraping city, a miniature carnival and a plane crash site.
The museum has been called “a fantasy journey” by the Travel Channel and a “breathtaking beauty” by the Discovery Channel. Zaccagnino, however, doesn’t buy into the hype.
“We had thousands that said that this is a wonder of the world. I don’t think it is,” he said. “People say that this is better than Disney World. But this is just my hobby.”
The museum, which receives about 200 daily visitors, certainly began as Zaccagnino’ hobby. The man with many interests and former careers, including concert musician, entrepreneur and computer game software developer, began simply by building model trains in the basement of under-construction home 42 years ago.
Zaccagnino continued to imagine new scenes for his new found craft for 18 years, leading to his building of five basement additions to accommodate his model railways and their accompanying exhibits.
“I’m a worker and I’m an artist, and if you’re an artist, you’re compelled to pursue something,” he said. “I feel like this is my one shot at life so I might as well do it well.”
Persuaded by friends, Zaccagnino began to open his basement twice a year to the public, which brought such excitement s that Zaccagnino decided to create a year-round attraction and opened Northlandz in late 1996. However, even with all of the press that followed, Zaccagnino remained, and continues to be, humble about his creation.
“I’m not here for an ego trip,” he said. “I see this as a gift to the world. Period.”
Years later, it still holds true. Zaccagnino said that teenagers come in rolling their eyes and seniors come in saying that they have seen it all, but everyone comes out of the two- to three-hour tour impressed and happy to have seen the wholesome attraction, free of electronic screens or interactive games.
“Everyone thought that this wouldn’t last long as a business,” Zaccagnino said. “The only one that believed in me was my wife, Jean, who I was married to for 33 years before she died eight years ago.”
Northlandz isn’t finished yet. Zaccagnino said he plans to expand the museum’s doll collection, which takes dolls by donation only. He also has two new wings on the way that will include exhibits such as the Himalayas, Rocky Mountains and Hoover Dam. In spite of the expansive, worldly scenes that Zaccagnino has created, he has never been on a boat, plane or train.
“I have no desire to travel,” he said. “I get bored easily.”
Of the hundreds of scenes, Zaccagnino said he has no favorite.
“I’m like a woman with 10 kids — I can’t have a favorite,” he said. “It’s all good. Every square inch of Northlandz was made to be funny or exciting.”
Today, Zaccagnino still does most of the daily duties himself, with the help of one assistant, Rich.
“Most CEOs move to an executive position and then they farm out their duties,” Zaccagnino said. “But I’m a worker. When I do something, I do it extreme.”
Jenna Intersimone’s “Life Aboard The Traveling Circus” column appears Tuesdays. Her “Life Aboard The Traveling Circus” blog is at MyCentralJersey.com, as well asLifeAboardTheTravelingCircus.com. Tweet her at @JIntersimone or email her at JIntersimone@MyCentralJersey.com.
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Written for MyCentralJersey.com
Cost: Ages 13 and up $13.75, children 2-12 $9.75, children under 2 free, seniors 62 and up $12.50
Hours: Weekends 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., weekdays 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., closed Tuesdays
Time Spent: Tour takes two to three hours and is one mile all the way through
Address: 495 Route 202, Flemington
Contact: 908-782-4022 or www.northlandz.com