Subscribe & Save!
Subscribe now and save 50% off the cover price of the Indianapolis Monthly magazine.

It’s Full Steam Ahead With Jingle Rails

The creativity behind the Eiteljorg Museum's annual model train holiday display is off the rails.
Jingle Rails steam engine train up close

Photo by Zach Dobson

JINGLE ALL THE WAY. Watching a miniature train loop around your Christmas tree on a 40-inch-diameter circle is one thing. Seeing large-scale model trains weave through iconic landmarks of Indianapolis and the American West on 1,200 feet of track is another thing entirely. But that’s Jingle Rails or, to use its full name, Jingle Rails: The Great Western Adventure. Designed exclusively for the Eiteljorg, the annual holiday display has become as much of a family tradition as the Indianapolis Zoo’s Christmas at the Zoo.

A LOCOMOTIVE WONDERLAND. Jingle Rails is one part Indianapolis, two parts American West, and three parts festive. The display includes miniature versions of Monument Circle and Lucas Oil Stadium, which are surrounded by lights, snow, trees, and poinsettias. There’s even a wee version of the Indiana State Fair, which gets a new building this year: the Glass Barn. (It’s the excessively pointy structure on the north side of the fairgrounds.) Since the Eiteljorg celebrates the art, history, and culture of Native Americans and the American West, Jingle Rails also features scaled-down versions of several national parks, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Las Vegas Strip, and Old Faithful, which, thanks to dry ice, actually “erupts.” Evergreen branches and pillowy fake snow—which looks like cotton candy but most definitely isn’t—blanket the scenes.

SIZE MATTERS. Jingle Rails has nine G-scale trains. With a scale ratio of 1:22.5, they are some of the largest model trains out there. Because of their size, G-scale trains are ideal for outdoor use and are sometimes called “garden-scale” trains. The “G” doesn’t stand for “garden,” however. It actually stems from the German word “groß,” which means “big.” Interessant, ja?

LIKE FATHER, LIKE DAUGHTER. Applied Imagination, the creative team behind Jingle Rails, was founded by Paul Busse in 1991. Busse earned a degree in landscape architecture from Ohio State University in 1972 and started building public garden railroads in the ’80s. He remained the driving force behind the company until 2017, when Parkinson’s disease forced him to retire. That’s when Busse told his daughter, Laura Busse Dolan, that she was the nearest thing they had to a clone of himself. He asked her if she wanted to keep Applied Imagination going; she said yes and left her advertising career behind. Now, Busse Dolan says she creates happiness for a living.

A wide angle shot of a train taking a long turn on a mountain side surrounded by hot-air balloons

Photo by Casey Cronin

LOVELY ARE THY BRANCHES. Save for the trains and their tracks, Applied Imagination uses dried natural materials to create their displays. In-house artists handbuild bridges and trestles using willow, and they shape hot-air balloons out of leaves. For Jingle Rails, artists entwined tree roots to shape Mount Rushmore and layered dried bark to build the Grand Canyon. The company finds most of its materials in forests near their property in Alexandria, Kentucky. Clients at the botanical gardens, conservatories, and arboretums also collect materials for special projects, and tree trimmers will drop off the occasional hollow log.

ALL ABOARD. It takes one week for the entire team at Applied Imagination to set up Jingle Rails, which is made up of several modular pods. Since the trains have to run seven hours a day, seven days a week for 10 weeks, they require routine maintenance. To ensure the wheels on the trains go round and round, a group of enthusiasts known informally as “the train guys” volunteer their time. They keep everything on track, and even answer visitors’ questions.

SEE FOR YOURSELF. Jingle Rails opens November 19, and is included in regular admission. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, and $8 for children ages 5–17. Kids 4 and younger are free. Jingle Rails runs until January 16, which is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In honor of the holiday, the Eiteljorg will have free admission that day. 


1. The Feed: Doc B’s Restaurant, Cardinal Spirits, and More

2. Dexter Clardy Is Bringing Nerdy Back

3. Dining: Valentine’s Day Love Connections