The Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) has been a Toronto end-of-summer staple for over 100 years. But having not grown up in Ontario, my childhood memories of my hometown’s mini version of “The Ex” are a few dusty days filled with screaming teens on clunky rides and smells of fried onion and the nearby rodeo.
Mention the CNE to any GTA-raised parent and the reaction is always nostalgic and often filled with anticipation and anxiety about bringing their own kids to “The Ex.”
So I teamed up with another mom and brought four boys (aged 3, 4, 6 and 7) on a weekday morning ready to take on the crowds (over a million visitors annually), 60+ midway rides, 100+ midway games, 700 vendors and exhibitors, 140 farm animals, hundreds of performances and millions of requests for cotton candy and mini-donuts.
To my surprise, it wasn’t as overwhelming as the list above. So for all of you planning your first time or those who’ve never-been with kids in TOw, here are a few ways to survive your first-go.
Getting there: From most places in Toronto, it may seem like a trek on TTC. (But for kids, the TTC usually means big adventure, especially with the chance of riding the new streetcars that travel on the Exhibition route.) That way you can put $25-$30 parking fee towards other CNE expenses. The Dufferin and Exhibition stops bring you near Kids’ World and the Kiddie Midway.
Getting around: Yes, The Ex is huge – 192 acres. But when narrowing it down to kid-friendly activities, the area to be travelled drops drastically. Consult the map beforehand to orient yourself with all the kid zones. (Kid’s World, Kiddie Midway, The Farm, etc.) On-site, you’ll find lots of info desks. With these kid-friendly zones in mind, the area is walk-able even for the littlest of legs and stroller-friendly. You can also rent wagons for $10. I highly recommend the free mini-train going along the north road to get you between major destinations.
What it’ll cost you: Admission has a Family Pass option for $56 (2 adults + 2 kids or 1 adult + 3 kids.) Kids 4 and under are free. If your child hasn’t received a kids pass through school, you can get it online.
What’s On: There is a lot of programming for kids. While much of the activities are drop-in, there are a number of shows and activities you may want to plan your day around. (You can create a schedule online and save or print your itinerary.) We say start in the Kids’ World, a grassy area with free activities for kids 10 and under, located on the west side. To the immediate east is the Kiddies Midway with 29 rides (what it’ll cost you) with varying height restrictions. Children 42” or taller are usually good to ride all solo. For littler children, they may need a grown up (and adults need coupons to ride.) For extra entertainment, check out the line up for the Stunt Stage and Talent Shows.
Favourites: Outside of the Kiddies Midway, my kids loved Reptilia (mini trailer/exhibit filled with snakes and such, plus they have a series of short outdoor shows throughout the day) and the LEGO area in Kids’ World. A surprise favourite was The Farm in the Better Living Centre (indoors). It’s in walking distance of the kids areas (Tiny Tom donuts en route) and is set up like a mini Royal Agricultural Fair with things like animals, an inflatable corn maze, fishing, magic show and a fun circuit where kids can participate in a “Day at the Farm,” picking vegetables, eggs and driving a tractor. All free.
Take a break: We were happy to find a playground in the centre of Kids’ World. It’s also in a grassy area, so you can hang out on the ground or grab a bench or picnic table. There are three Baby Centres.
Snack time: If you don’t want to wander too far from the kids’ areas, you can either bring a lunch or pick up a slice from Pizza Nova. (They also have a make-your-own station in the Kids’ World.) The Food Building is right next to the Kiddie Midway.
Potty time: Yes, bathrooms with baby change tables throughout and well marked.
The next time: Of course, you can’t fit everything in in one day. We were there from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and missed out on some activities we had on our itinery (Superdogs, Mardi Gras parade, Parkour demos to name a few.) There are tons of interesting events and activities that are much more enjoyable without kids in TOw. Next time, it may be a multi-day affair.