Winter Haven man sends holiday spirit with train display

Article Courtesy of The Ledger

By Paul Catala

Published November 21, 2018

WINTER HAVEN — Since 2005, John and Robin Solebello have fired up the engines and helped roll a bit of holiday spirit into town.

For the first 12 years, the Solebellos set up a 250-foot model railroad track while living in Sebring. Last year, they set up a new train layout, which covers about 3,000 square feet, in the backyard of their Winter Haven home in The Villages at Spirit Lake neighborhood.

Beginning Thursday, the Solebellos will again open up their yard 6 to 9 p.m. Thursdays and 3 to 7 p.m. Sundays through the holidays for the public.

The couple’s 800-square–foot model railroad track and scale model city and countryside from 2017 is still set up. Adjacent to that, Solebello, 56, has constructed a new layout.

Since January, the bartender and Uber and Lyft driver, has meticulously constructed a new train layout based on fictional Walton’s Mountain, Virginia, from the TV show “The Waltons.” Among the layout is a 12-by-25 area of mountains made from foam, small buildings and homes, trees and about 60 miniature people milling about.



Solebello has three model trains — an 060 Switcher, 040 Switcher and 262 Livesteam — controlled by a steering system in a booth by the garage, designed to look like a conductor’s cabin. From there, he can turn on the power for the trains and monitor their speeds.

During a practice run Sunday, Solebello said he invested about $6,000 into the set up just to help bring some of his childhood joy of trains to whoever wants to stop by and visit.

“I do this just for the enjoyment of being able to share it with people and use my creativity to make the season more joyful,” he said. “It makes me feel satisfied and it’s the joy of giving to others.”

Other items around the track are gas stations, bookstores, a hospital, post office, clothing store, hardware shop and restaurants. A native of Belfast, Maine, he said the scenery also depicts scenes from there and from downtown in “The Waltons.” The trains, track and scenery were purchased on eBay and from model train shows; about a third of the buildings and the mountain range Solebello made by hand.

Although it can be a tedious task setting up and positioning the train, tracks and scenery just right, Solebello said he does it because it’s challenging but fun.

″As long as I’m able, I’ll continue to do this each year,” said Solebello, who grew up with four older brothers.

Cindy Martin, a neighbor of the Solebelloses who lives on Lanceolate Drive, said she and her sons — Leo, 12 and Luke, 5 — saw the train track in 2017. She said she thought it is great thing that John Solebello puts time, effort and money into making the holiday season a bit more awe-inspiring and magical.

“It’s great that he takes time to do that and everyone seems to enjoy it,” she said.

Another neighbor in The Villages at Spirit Lake, Homeowners’ Association President Frank Johnson, said everyone who visits seems to enjoy Solebellos’ effort and generosity. He said the model train set-up helps bring seasonal spirit into the area.

“He mans the gate, lets people in and kids and adults love it. It’s his way to brighten up the holidays,” he said.