Anyone who's ever eaten at Rancho de Tia Rosa knows the feast is as much for your eyes as it is for your stomach.
The Mesa restaurant practically bursts with things to look at, from hand-painted Mexican tiles on the walls and rustic beams in the ceiling, to colorful artwork, stained-glass windows and patios packed with flowers and fountains.
It's no shocker, then, that owners Dennis and Lizabeth Sirrine's home is also a visual delight. What is surprising is what their backyard is filled with: trains. An acre-and-a-half of the couple's Mesa lawn is covered with 6,000 feet of track and a garden-scale railroad they've named the Palo Verde & Southwestern.
You can get a look at the operation this week and next, when the Sirrines host their fifth annual holiday open house. Four evenings in December, the public is invited to watch the trains, visit with Santa and enjoy cookies, cotton candy and hot chocolate.
"There is something special about trains and Christmas that brings out the kid in all of us," says Dennis. "I have people at the post office and grocery store asking me if I'm doing it again this year. It's really become a big thing."
Realistic trains busily traverse the elaborate tableau, chugging across bridges, through tunnels and amid lifelike scenes with miniature buildings, trees, lakes, people and animals.
A workshop full of miniature train cars and engines, accessories and parts will also be open for a peek.
"I love to watch the parents having to take the kids out yelling and screaming, because (the kids) don't want to leave. That happens every year," says Sirrine.
Last year, 15,000 visitors passed through the backyard.
"And through the generous donations of the people who came to see the trains, we were able to raise a little over $10,000 for Phoenix Children's Hospital. It was a great feeling to be able to give that money to such a worthy cause at Christmastime," says Sirrine.
This year, donations (and the profits from nominally priced food and drink sales) will again go to a local children's healthcare center.
The Sirrines' open house is 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and Dec. 16-17, at 1929 N. 24th St., Mesa. Admission is free, but the family will accept donations for a children's hospital. Free parking is available at a church parking lot just south of the residence. For information, call (480) 620-9459 or visit www.pvswrr.com.
A local group called Arizona Big Train Operators also hosts a Christmas tour of backyard railroads. Those homes, scattered throughout the Valley, will be open Saturday and Sunday and Dec. 17-18; the Sirrine home is not included in the ABTO tour. For maps and information, go to www.azbigtrains.org.