Northlandz

5 most outlandish NJ museums worth the drive

Written for MyCentralJersey.com on 1/25/18

As a travel, entertainment and food writer, there’s nothing I love more than getting out and checking out new and exciting places in the hidden and misunderstood gem that is New Jersey.

However, I have a confession to make: None of those “new and exciting places” ever involve your typical museum. I can admit that I lack the patience, understanding and appreciation that is needed to visit a typical art or history museum and walk through its hallways, learning from a docent about each piece’s significance as I count down the minutes until lunch.

Through my travels, though, I have learned that there are many museums that do not fit this description, and instead, these dynamic and one-of-a-kind museums have me telling my like-minded friends, “You just have to see this.”

If you’re like me and want a museum experience without the museum bore — and you’re ready to escape the drab of winter with something new to do — then check out these New Jersey museums that are certainly worth the journey.

Photo by Jenna Intersimone

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6 roadside curiosities in Central Jersey

Although the holiday season is synonymous with gifts, gatherings with friends and family and the excitement of ringing in the New Year, there’s another less-pleasant activity that also comes along with it – driving.

We’re all used to packing up the car and heading up and down the state to see our loved ones – stuck in traffic, crammed into seats with others, battling unfortunate weather.

However, by stopping at some of these roadside attractions – and curiosities – in Central Jersey, you may be able to make your trek a little more interesting.

The Edison Light Tower, based at the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park at 37 Christie St. in Edison, marks the location of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory. (Photo: ~File photo)

The Edison Light Tower, based at the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park at 37 Christie St. in Edison, marks the location of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory. (Photo: ~File photo)

The Edison Light Tower, based at the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park at 37 Christie St. in Edison, marks the location of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory. Rising 131 feet above the tower’s terrace, the tower’s top is meant to represent an incandescent light bulb and originally included an audio system which could be heard from two miles away.

Today, the bulb shines nightly from the tower, which was constructed in 1937 from three tons of steel and 1200 barrels of cement. Recently refurbished and rededicated, the tower is listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.

For more information, visit menloparkmuseum.org or call 732-549-3299.

P.C. Richard and Son is the newest owner of the former Flagship. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Google Maps)

P.C. Richard and Son is the newest owner of the former Flagship. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Google Maps)

The Flagship, which was originally commissioned as a luxury cruise nightclub in 1938, now serves as a P.C. Richard and Son – which takes up an entire block as it forever “sails” from 2264 Route 22 in Union.

Four years after its building, it was destroyed by a fire, but locals weren’t ready to see their ‘ship in the harbor’ go. After World War II, it was rebuilt and hosted many of the celebrities of the day, including Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Jackie Gleason. Later and into today, it’s been the home of various retail stores.

Spiro Drakoulakous, or ‘The Greek’s,’ imagination is the source of Greek’s Playland attractions. (Photo: ~File photo)

Spiro Drakoulakous, or ‘The Greek’s,’ imagination is the source of Greek’s Playland attractions. (Photo: ~File photo)

“Greek’s Playland,” or Garden Falls and the Stone Museum, which is at 608 Spotswood Englishtown Road in Monroe, isn’t exactly a Disney World or a Universal Studios. In its 87 acres of attractions, ranging from a Cobra helicopter to a 30-foot tall brightly painted clown constructed from an old oil tank, there is no apparent theme.

Spiro Drakoulakous, or ‘The Greek’s,’ imagination is the source of Greek’s Playland attractions. He told Weird NJ that he built the playland for handicapped children to come and have a fun day just like any other child. Today, entrance is free for those coming from state- and locally-sponsored groups.

For more information, visit gardenfalls.com or call 732-656-3333.

Northlandz, called "a fantasy journey" by the Travel Channel and a "breathtaking beauty" by the Discovery Channel. (Photo: ~File photo)

Northlandz, called “a fantasy journey” by the Travel Channel and a “breathtaking beauty” by the Discovery Channel.
(Photo: ~File photo)

Northlandz, called “a fantasy journey” by the Travel Channel and a “breathtaking beauty” by the Discovery Channel, is Flemington’s own wonder of the world, located at 495 Route 202. The world’s largest train museum, the mile-walk through self-guided tour includes hundreds of exhibits containing scenes such as a Civil War battle display, the world’s only toothpick farm and a plane crash site.

A doll museum and 2,000-pipe organ are also in the museum, which is filled with items handmade by Bruce Williams Zaccagnino of Flemington, the owner and founder. The museum has two new wings planned, including exhibits of the Himalayas, the Rockies and Hoover Dam.

For more information, visit northlandz.com or call 908-782-4022.

The Mercedes Benz Tombstone belongs to Ray Tse, Jr., who couldn’t wait to get his driver’s license and own a Mercedes Benz. (Photo: ~File photo)

The Mercedes Benz Tombstone belongs to Ray Tse, Jr., who couldn’t wait to get his driver’s license and own a Mercedes Benz. (Photo: ~File photo)

The Mercedes Benz Tombstone, located on the north end of the Rosedale and Rosehill Cemetery at 355 E. Linden Ave. in Linden, belongs to Ray Tse, Jr., who couldn’t wait to get his driver’s license and own a Mercedes Benz. But he died in 1981 when he was 15 years old.

His millionaire brother, David, commissioned a 36-ton granite memorial sculpted to resemble a full-size 1982 Mercedes Benz 2400 Diesel limousine in his honor, which reportedly cost $250,000. The vanity license plates read “RAY TSE,” although the hood ornament and side view mirrors are missing.

The location of the 1938 Martin Landing Site Monument plaque is no accident – the Martian landings were centered on Grover’s Mill, near Princeton. (Photo: ~Courtesy of forensicgenealogy.com)

The location of the 1938 Martin Landing Site Monument plaque is no accident – the Martian landings were centered on Grover’s Mill, near Princeton. (Photo: ~Courtesy of forensicgenealogy.com)

The 1938 Martian Landing Site Monument, located at Van Nest Park on Cranbury Road. in Princeton Junction, depicts a heated Orson Welles announcing the “live news broadcast” that an attack from Mars was underway, a hoax that occurred as an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds in 1938. Of the 12 million people that listened to the broadcast, many believed it to be true.

The plaque also depicts a 1930s family as they cower near their radio, beneath a tentacled flying saucer. The location of the plaque is no accident – the Martian landings were centered on Grover’s Mill, near Princeton.

Trekking your way back-and-forth during the holidays can take the seasonal cheer out of anyone’s day. However, stop for a pit-stop at one of these Central Jersey roadside attractions, and you just may miss some traffic and have an interesting story to bring to your next party.

Northlandz, Flemington’s ‘wonder of the world’

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.”

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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

 

Northlandz

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