I've known this all along Marty, but glad you had a chance to witness it and participate.
Many here complain about the fantasy, make-believe and licensed trains Lionel makes, as if these trains prevent Lionel from making what they want. Yet it is these products: the Thomas line-up, Polar Express, Peanuts and others that are reaching new customers. It make take some time, but this is where someone else's interest in trains will begin.
Too bad Lionel couldn't have gotten the Sponge Bob license. The starter set market is not MTH's strongest point (even though they do make quality sets, for certain).
Some years ago it was very easy to find these neat Sponge Bob figures in bubble gum machines for 50 cents... perfect size. I've incorporated these into some custom made Sponge Bob cars, which always get lots of happy reactions from kids. One of these days, I need to get a digital camera, learn how to use it and do some photos.
There's a vast divide between the sorts of trains commonly talked about here, and the sorts of trains like Thomas, that help grow the hobby, one train set at a time.