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What makes Toronto so special for kids? Here, in no particular order, are a number of ideas.
The CN Tower is obviously Toronto's most visible landmark. It could hardly be otherwise, as the tallest free-standing structure in the Americas -- indeed, the tallest in the world for 30 years, until the completion of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Ironically, the CN Tower wasn't built to be an icon. Its primary purpose was utilitarian, in good old Canadian fashion. It was designed as a bigger, better broadcast tower for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The CBC backed out, but Canadian National Railways, which owned the land, decided to press ahead. When it was finished in April 1975, it was already legendary. It did go on to become a broadcasting tower, but tourism accounts for about 80% of revenue.
Get there early, especially in the school holidays, to minimize the crowds. The views from all levels are stunning. And if you are sick of looking at it every time you turn around in Toronto, just remember that the top of the CN Tower is the one place in Toronto where you can't see it!
SkyDome (now officially called the Rogers Centre) is home to the Toronto Blue Jays, who have been a fixture in Toronto since they were founded in 1976. They were originally owned by the Labatt's beer company, which brews a beer called Blue. They naturally hoped that the team would become known as the Blues, but everyone calls them the Jays.
This was the world's first stadium with a working retractable roof. It's not the prettiest of sights (it has been described as a giant armadillo). But watching the roof open and close is still impressive (it takes 20 minutes). The stadium seats 53,000, and other teams play there. The artificial surface can be converted for most sports, including cricket! It is also a concert venue. There is a hotel with rooms overlooking the field (at a price).
Located next to the CN Tower, the Rogers Centre also offers guided tours, but the best way to see it is to soak up the ambiance during a game or other event.
The most recent addition to the area surrounding the CN Tower, Ripley's Aquarium of Canada is ensuring that a trip to the CN Tower and a ball game will be an all day event. There are sharks, jelly fishes, sting rays amongst many other sea creatures to see and explore. The underwater habitats provide excellent learning opportunities for the whole family!
The Ontario Science Centre is one amazing place, but it's a bit out of the way. Either take the Yonge Street subway to Eglinton, then take bus number 34 east on Eglinton to the corner of Don Mills Road, where the Science Centre is, or the Bloor subway to Pape station, and take the number 25 bus to St. Dennis Drive. Both bus routes run at least every 10 minutes. By car, exit the Don Valley Parkway onto northbound Don Mills road, and turn left at St. Dennis drive.
There are over 800 exhibits in a building built into a hillside. You go down several levels, with different themes on each. Most of the displays are interactive, and for example you can land a space ship on the moon. There is a human body section, a physics section, and lots of historical displays tracing the great scientific discoveries. All information is presented in layman's terms.
One big draw is the Omnimax Theatre, featuring a wraparound screen with digital sound.
The Science Centre is open every day, except Christmas. There are snack bars throughout and picnic areas (inside and out) where you can eat your own food.
The ROM, as it's known locally, focuses on both natural history and world cultures. While its fine collection of Chinese porcelain might be of little interest to most children, its hands-on galleries were designed with them in mind. There's also the Bat Cave, equal parts frightening and educational!
The museum is open every day except Christmas. Tickets can be bought online via their website -- a good way to avoid a long line on busy weekends and during school break weeks. It's found downtown at the Museum subway station (which was recently redone with decorative columns that echo some of the ROM's collections).
Fort York is a great place to learn about the history of Toronto. The city traces its origins to this military post, and the emerging town was originally known as York.
The Fort is located on Garrison Road, off Fleet Street, and can be reached by the Bathurst (No. 511) streetcar. It's a 20-minute walk from Union Station. Intended to bolster the British presence, it was built on the shores of Lake Ontario -- since shifted south by landfill. It was never properly finished, partly due to lack of funds, but also because it was really in the wrong place for its purpose.
It had fallen into disrepair, but was brought back to active duty during the war of 1812, in which the British fought off American attempts to take over the whole continent. Its main contribution to victory was accidental. With American forces advancing, the British decided to blow up the powder magazine. Underestimating the force of the explosion, they killed 10 of their own men. They did, however, also kill 250 Americans, including a general.
There are free hour-long tours, and you can wander about on your own. There are lots of displays, and kids love forts anyway!
The fort has different opening hours depending on the season, and is open daily. See the Fort York site for hours and admission fees.
Casa Loma is Toronto's folly. Located at 1 Austin Terrace, it is just a few minutes walk up the hill from the Dupont subway station.
This is a huge, turreted mansion built by Toronto tycoon Sir Henry Pellatt between 1911 and 1914. It cost $3 million to build, an enormous sum at the time. However, due to reckless business dealings, he lived there only until 1923, when he was declared bankrupt.
An audiocassette tour is included. There is a numbered route through the house. When you get to the study, there are two secret passages that can be explored. There are also rumors of ghosts! The tour also includes the garden and stables.
Casa Loma needs to be seen to be believed. No description can do it justice.
It is open daily 9:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. (Last admission: 4:00 p.m.) It is closed Christmas Day. More info (including current admission fees) at www.casaloma.org.
The Toronto Islands in general, and Centre Island in particular, make a pleasant break from the city. It is reached by regular ferries from the foot of Yonge and Bay Streets (behind the very visible Harbour Castle Westin Hotel) and the vintage ferries and their excellent views of the downtown skyline are themselves an attraction.
Open during the summer, a great place for children is Centreville on Centre Island. It is a bit like going back in time, as the rides are slightly old-fashioned, including a ferris wheel, roller coaster and Model T Ford ride. You can buy tickets to pay for rides individually, or an all-day pass. Centreville also boasts " Far Enough Farm", a small farm and petting zoo.
Centre Island has particular appeal for younger children, but all the islands (there are four, all connected) make a great and peaceful day out, with cycles of various kinds available to rent and large beaches.
Black Creek Pioneer Village is a great place to learn about the pioneering history of this part of Canada.
It's a fair way north of downtown, at Jane Street and Steeles Avenue. By public transport, take the Yonge subway as far north as it goes, Finch station, then the bus (check with the station staff which bus to catch).
This is a living history museum, with guides dressed in period costumes, who immerse visitors in the pioneer life of the 1860s. The everyday life of the pioneers is portrayed with 35 restored buildings, gardens and working "pioneers". There are blacksmiths, gunsmiths, weavers and spinners. There is a period doctor's surgery, as well as retail shops.
Daniel and Elizabeth Stong were the original settlers on the land where Black Creek Pioneer Village now stands. They cleared one hundred acres of wilderness, forests of white pine, oak and elm, for farming and built their first home - a small log house. A grain barn, piggery, smoke house and finally, a larger second home were added over the next few years. The Stong farm buildings now form the heart of Black Creek Pioneer Village.
The village is a hodge-podge of buildings and may not be entirely authentic, but it is still a lot of fun.
The village is open from May to December, with hours varying seasonally.
Here's a longer list of family attractions in the Toronto area.
East Side Mario's is a chain, but an excellent one. They have "kids eat free Tuesdays" and a children's menu. The regular menu also has loads of options for fussy children. Some locations used to have barrels of peanuts in the bar area where you wait for your table, and patrons were encouraged to toss the shells on the floor. This can be great fun for families without peanut allergies; however, East Side Mario is said to have stopped this practice due to allergy concerns. If a family member has a peanut allergy, you may wish to phone ahead just to be sure you'll be okay.
East Side Mario's is a Canadian chain with over 100 locations across the country, including one in Toronto at 151 Front Street West, not far from Union Station and the CN Tower. This is an "American Italian eatery". The Statue of Liberty welcomes diners to a New York Lower East Side environment, complete with a Mulberry and Canal Streets intersection and a "Scalero Brothers" backroom.
The menu is standard Italian-American fare, including pizza and pasta dishes, as well as chicken parmigiana, roast chicken, steak and ribs. A great feature is that all entrées come with complimentary unlimited soup or salad and homemade garlic loaf. There is a choice of house or caesar salad, and they are both excellent. Free refills on soft drinks are included.
If you are traveling to Toronto, and are tired of hauling baby equipment with you, here's something you might want to check out: baby equipment rentals. At least two services rent car seats, car booster seats, high chairs, cribs, strollers, jogging strollers, safety equipment and more; items are rented on a daily or weekly basis.
Travelbug Baby rents brand names such as Clek, Bloom, Graco and Fisher-Price and sells travel supplies. They provides full-service delivery, set-up and pick up of all equipment rentals.
Wee Travel Baby Equipment Rentals rents brand names such as Quinny, Valco, Fisher Price, Graco, Evenflo, Safety 1st, InStep, and Chicco, and they even supply diapers, wipes and formula.They offer pick-ups at their downtown locations and a delivery service.