Murder and Mystery on the Austin Steam Train

Austin Steam Train

When I stumbled across the website for the Austin Steam Train Association, the first thing I noticed was a murder mystery tour! I squealed to my husband, “I wanna go!” Bless his heart, he bought me tickets that very day — five months in advance so we would be sure to get good seats. From what we could tell by looking at the website, he had bought some of the best seats on the train.

For the next five months, I bragged to everybody and their dog, “I get to take a train ride. Ninny, ninny boo boo.” I canceled my Ghosts of Denton tour for that night, willingly trading a night of work for a relaxing evening of fun. I waxed poetic for hours to anyone who would listen about the murder mystery show we would see and the thrill it would be to ride on a train through the Texas Hill Country. Beginning in Cedar Park, near Austin, the train would travel all the way to Burnet on a 66 mile round trip. We would be entertained by the highly acclaimed Penfold Players, who work in partnership with the Austin Steam Train Association, performing “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream… Murder!” The website boasted:

“While the story unfolds before them, passengers will test their sleuthing savvy as they attempt to catch the killer; enjoy a three hour train ride through the beautiful Texas hill country; and indulge in a variety of hors d’oeuvres, as well as wine and beer service, all included in the ticket price! “

Sounds like great fun, doesn’t it? We had great expectations.

Last weekend we took that train ride and I am almost reluctant to tell you about it. Almost. Our experience didn’t quite live up to the hype, and I want you to know some things before you book your own tour. My review is a mixed bag. Parts of the tour were very wonderful … then there were the parts that weren’t.

When we boarded our car, which was called The Eagle Cliff, I was pleased to see the lovely royal blue chairs scattered at the tables in the dining section of the car. Unfortunately, we weren’t seated at those tables. The spaces that had been reserved for us were two mismatched chairs slammed against the wall in the front of the car near a large floor fan. There was no table for us. Remember that I told you that we booked five months in advance? We shouldn’t have bothered. These seats looked like an afterthought, as if we had booked tickets that day and the ticket-master said, “Sure, we can cram you into that car.”

I sucked up my disappointment to try to make the best of it. After all, we probably wouldn’t be sitting the whole trip, because we would be up and down indulging “in a variety of hors d’oeuvres.”

Before the train even started down the tracks, the hostess passed out boxed suppers. We had to ask for a TV tray, but we still wound up eating out of our laps. The supper wasn’t bad (roast beef sandwich, macaroni salad, fruit, and an unidentifiable dessert with lots of whipped cream), but it wasn’t exactly what I had expected. There were no hors d’oeuvres. But, there was beer and wine.

Determined to enjoy ourselves despite the lackluster accommodations, we munched our meal as the train pulled out of the station and started chugging down the tracks. I truly enjoyed the motion of the train and watching the little towns as we rolled through them. The volunteers and staff on the train were very attentive to our needs.

Then, the play began.

Penfold Players 1

I have nothing but high praise for the Penfold Players! Those actors traveled from front car to back car performing a scene from the play and then from back to front with the next scene. It was wonderful melodrama.

Penfold Players 2

They performed in each car with high energy and excellent skill, and they knew how to work the crowd. I don’t see how they kept the same powerful level of performance throughout the night. I enjoyed the play, but unfortunately, since I had never been to a murder mystery play before, I didn’t think about writing down the clues that were given in each scene, so I didn’t figure out “whodunnit.” It didn’t matter. The play was great fun.

Penfold Players 3

Between scenes, my husband and I decided to walk to the front of the train and view the other cars. I envied the passengers on every other car … ours was not the best of the bunch! Of course, Mister Tucker had to get a photograph when we were between cars, because some of the scenery was quite lovely.

sunset from train

But, don’t tell anyone that he leaned out of the car, because there are signs everywhere that tell you not to extend any of the appendages you value outside of the train. Evidently he felt that his brain was expendable (but it’s not!).

snapping photos

Everything seemed to be going well, and then …[dun, dun, dunnnn] the air conditioner in The Eagle Cliff quit!! Yeah, I know! It was traumatic!

Penfold Players 4

We weren’t quite an hour into a three hour trip! The good news, for us, is that we were near the fan. Do you recall that I mentioned that floor fan? Ours was the only car that had a fan sitting smack dab in the middle of the floor … as if the folks expected that the air conditioner might blow.

To the credit of the volunteers and crew on the train, they worked valiantly to try to restore the air-conditioning to no avail. They served us ice water, and graciously did everything they could to keep us comfortable. They offered, after the play was finished, for us to move into seats in air-conditioned cars. Since there weren’t enough seats for all of us to move, and since I was already accustomed to the heat, we stayed put to allow those who needed it more (like the pregnant woman) to get comfort. In spite of the discomfort in the car, the actors still put on a great show to the end.

After dark, there was no opportunity to view the scenery. The play had ended. No more beer or wine was being served. There wasn’t anything else to do, so I sat in an uncomfortable chair and dozed the rest of the way back. But, that nap on the train was one of the best naps I’ve ever had.

Because I felt that we had not received the experience we paid (through the nose) to have, I called the Austin Steam Train Association when we got home. I told the new director (she has only been on the job three weeks) exactly what I just told you — except for the part about Mr. Tucker hanging out of the train.

She apologized for our experience, and said that they were working to make the website better so that people could tell what kind of seats they were buying. She said that, indeed, the Eagle Cliff had experienced air conditioning problems on the morning run that day, but that the early crew had not communicated that to the evening crew so that repairs could be made before the trip. She didn’t really have any suggestions about how you can book a trip experience that will be better than the one we had.

Would I go on the Austin Steam Train excursions again? I would give them a second chance. If the Penfold Players were aboard, I definitely would be enticed (they are worth seeing!). I enjoyed the ride itself, and was impressed by the volunteers and staff.

Before I booked a train ride, though, there are a few things I would do:

  1. I would NOT book on-line, but would call a ticket agent so I could ask questions about the car I’d be riding.
  2. I won’t be riding on The Eagle Cliff again. The executive director suggested riding in the car called The City of Chicago.
  3. I would definitely ask if I was going to be seated at a real table, if there was a meal involved on the trip!
  4. I would probably book a trip for the fall or the spring, so that if the air conditioner didn’t work then it wouldn’t be quite so traumatic.
  5. If I want to see the scenery, my trip would not be an evening one.

Even though I would take the Austin Steam Train Association’s tours again, I can tell you one darned thing for sure: If I step on that train and see a floor fan in my car, I’m going to scream, “Bloody Murder!”

  5 comments for “Murder and Mystery on the Austin Steam Train

  1. July 23, 2014 at 11:01 am

    When I first opened this in my email, I immediately bookmarked the Austin Steam Train site. Then I read your blog and thought, “Maybe not.” I always appreciate an honest assessment of something like this. But, if I ever decide to do it (and I’m thinking now not so much), I’ll definitely take your suggestions for booking. I’ve taken lots of train excursions and could rave about all of them. But I don’t think I’d be as nice as you were about the seats, etc.

    • July 23, 2014 at 2:53 pm

      Judy, I think you should try it but, knowing what I have told you, be proactive about your tickets. It is a fun ride … if there is air conditioning and you’ve gotten the regular seats.

  2. Jamie
    July 23, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    I’ve always been intrigued by a mystery experience and actually plan to do one on the River boat dinner cruise the next time I’m in Sacramento visiting the daughter. Will definitely tell the son about the Austin train experience as he is bound to end up in TX again at some point during the coming year.

    • July 23, 2014 at 2:54 pm

      Jamie, I would suggest to him that a trip in the fall, after it gets cool, would be a safe bet … if he speaks to the ticket booth in person. I just don’t trust on-line ticketing with them.

  3. July 23, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    I wonder if they will change the website? Did you read any other reviews for other experiences? I would have been bummed to not have a table. But now I know to write down clues if I ever do a murder mystery event. That part definitely sounded like fun.

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