Canadian National Exhibition


by Gary McWilliams (aka Festival Nomad)

I Can Remember…
Anyone living near or close to Toronto knows the slogan “Let’s go to The Ex”, and they have, by the millions, over the past 128 years. For me, CNE is made up of memories. I can remember my parents taking me there as a young boy, the sights and sounds still vivid in my memory.

I can remember my mother getting into a bumper car with me and chasing my father around the track. A few years later, when I was old enough to drive one of the cars myself, chasing my mother and bumping into her as hard as I could. She gave as good as she got.

As a young teenager my friends and I would take the TTC to The Ex and spend the day wander the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. We would ride the rides, see if the weight guesser could guess our weight, try our luck at the games and then try to hop on one of the CNE. trolleys to see how long we could ride for free before getting kick off.

But most of all I can remember racing through the Food Building to see how much free samples we could accumulate. The companies back then used the exhibition to promote their products and most gave them away free or at very little cost. We always came away with a huge bag of goodies.

I can remember working at The Ex selling “souvenir hats” at a booth just outside the now torn down exhibition stadium. It was one of my first jobs. The first morning I was racing to catch the bus to go to work. I tripped and fell and sprained my ankle. It was a bad sprain, but I wanted the job and the summer money, so I hobbled to the bus and for the next three weeks worked my way through the pain. It was a great experience.

The next year I fared much better. During my breaks as a souvenir hat salesman I would go to the Food Building to sample all the produces being offered. I never came away hungry. Back then it seemed like a community event. It wasn’t unusual to run into people you knew.

During those years my Mom and Dad came quite often. I knew I could always find my mother at the Bingo building. It was just one of the things she liked to do when she came to the Exhibition.

After Judi and I married and moved away from Toronto, we make it a point to visit the CNE to see what was new. We are never disappointed.

“Let’s Go to The Ex”

The following is a description of one of our many visited to The Ex.

We decided to go to the exhibition on a weekday so the crowds wouldn’t be overwhelming, but first we had to weave our way through downtown Toronto traffic. Fortunately I know a lot of back ways to the grounds, so we made pretty good time. When they built the new Exhibit Hall, they included underground parking. For just $20.00 you can park indoors, right on the exhibition grounds. From the underground parking you take a set of escalators onto the main corridor of Exhibition Hall.

This is where this year’s CNE journey begins.

Before I describe our experiences, I would like to add a word of caution. The Canadian National Exhibition is huge, both in size and number of attractions. Our time at here was limited to a few hours. This article in no way attempts to cover the entire experience. For that you would need to spend several days exploring all the buildings and attending all the entertainment. What we would like to give you is a taste of The Ex through our eyes and then next year you come and see it through your eye. Perhaps we can compare notes!

Exhibition Hall is a very long building. It contains smaller Halls within the large Hall. At Exhibition Hall they break the main Hall into 4 sections. The Hall to the east “D” featured the IAMS Superdogs Show. Unfortunately we arrived just as the show was finishing. Judging by the people coming out of the show and their comments, it must have been a lot of fun.

Hall “C” was made into a Wholesale Outlet. Several companies had set up large booths and were offering their products at reduced prices. Judi had a great time looking through the clothing outlets.

Next to the Outlet Hall was the International Pavilion, Hall “B”. This is where you could find products from a number of different countries. The sights and sounds were breathtaking. As I wandered through the numerous rows I came to realize the uniqueness of each nation and how we are all inter-dependent on each other. I left this Hall with a sense of pride for Canada as a melting pot for all these cultures.

The final Hall, “A”, was the At Home Pavilion. This hall contained a combination of displays and presentations – cooking demonstrations, mechanical beds, electronics, home renovation, books and much more, everything for the home. 

We left Exhibition Hall and walked west to the next building…

The Horse Palace…
Whenever I visited the Exhibition, the Horse Palace is always on my list of buildings to explore. You never know what to expect. It’s different each and each day. There were no main arena events scheduled in the afternoon, but there was a wonderful children’s exhibit called Horseplay. This was located in one of the centre stall areas at the west end of the building. Here kids could learn about horses, ride a mechanical horse, see what they eat and they could touch and groom live horses.

While we were looking around at the Horseplay presentation, we saw a notice that Tom Bishop and his Trick Riding Show was scheduled to start at 5:00 PM. We decided to come back to see the show and we are glad we did! By the time we came back, the stands we almost full.

Luckily we were able to find two seats at the north end of the arena. Close to 5:00 PM the master of ceremonies told us what we could expect from the show, but first he said there would be a special surprise performance by two Knights from Medieval Times.

The two knights rode into the arena with their followed by their Squires. After introductions the 2 Knights gave the audience a taste of their battling skills. Once the Knights had left the “Battlefield”, the Tom Bishop show began. The gate at the end of the arena opened and the shows stars rode into the arena with flags waving and hoofs flying. The show was none stop.

Trick riding from two sensational acrobatic riders. The feature star, Janelle Thornton, and her wonderfully trained horse dazzled the audience with their performance. This beautiful horse followed every command, from putting all four hoofs onto a small square box to taking a bow at the end of the performance. Tom Bishop Sr. came out with his various lassoes. Tom showed us large lassoes, small lassoes, lassoes that he skipped and lassoes that he jumped through. He even continuously twirled a lasso while lay down. The audience loved him.

Janelle came out into the arena standing up on the backs of two horses. She performed different while standing. Tom Jr. then came out standing on the backs of two horses and followed Janelle around the ring. Finally both came out again, this time each with a team of four horses. Both had two lead horses and they rode, standing up on the two back horses. It is difficult to describe in words, the photos that are included with this article help, but for the full effect, you must see them perform in person. All-in-all it was a wonderful show.

The Food Building and More…
In between the Horse Palace and the Food Building there is a roadway that leads from the exhibition Go Train Station into the grounds. After passing through the admission gates, Exhibition Goers enter a world of excitement. The passage way between the two buildings is the start of all the action. You can stop at the information booth to pick-up the days schedule.

You can stop and listen to a Bavarian Oom Pah Band. Just passed the band there is an age/weight guess booth where you can win a prize. On a little further is the “naughty booth” selling candy apples, cotton candy, sno cones and popcorn!

Once passed all these attractions, you have to make a choice, turn left and you enter the world of the carnival, games, carnival food and drinks and, of course, the Midway.

If you turn left, passed the giant “sling-shot” apparatus (great for kids!), you will enter a more “genteel” world, BMO Field, the Queen Elizabeth Building (art & crafts) and the Better Living Centre (Casino and SportsZone). Judi and I, however, ignore all this and went straight for the food.

We entered the Food Building through the east side door. Even though it didn’t match the excitement of days gone by (running around collecting free stuff), it still had that magical allure that we would find something familiar, like a worn-in shoe. Many of the companies and products from years ago were still there, Maggies (Back bacon on a bun), H Salt Fish & Chips, Coca-cola, Honey Dew, Hershey and, of course, Tiny Tom Donuts (my favourite). It took awhile to choose, but I went for Maggies Back Bacon and the both Judi and lined up for Tiny Tom Donuts. I’m not completely sure why the fascination with these small donuts, perhaps it’s the fresh warm taste or, more likely it’s the way the dough is squeezed out of a nozzle in the shape of a donut, cooks in the oil and come down the conveyor belt as it cools and then drops into a bin where it is scooped up and placed into a small bag. The sugar, cinnamon and powered sugar are just an extra bonus! Satisfied, we left the Food Building to continue our exhibition experience…

Arts and Sports…
Just to the south of the Food Building is BMO Field. We passed it and walked to the Queen Elizabeth Building which housed the Arts, Crafts and Hobbies Show. A crowd was gathering just outside the east doors. A group of young men were warming up to entertain the crowd.

The team, Nexus Movement were about to perform various urban dance styles that used a combination of martial arts, Breakdancing and acrobatics. The performance was on bare cement and was awesome. The crowd held their breath as the performers twisted, turned, tumbled and flipped. All too soon the performance ended.

After the crowd dispersed, we entered the Arts, Crafts and Hobbies Show. As we started to walk down the first row, we spotted a familiar name, Ingrid Hunt. We had seen Ingrid’s booth at Kempenfest, but the booth had been full of people so we decided to pass. Today the booth was empty so we went in to say hello. Ingrid paints realistic miniature scenes. It is a style that she has painted for years and has become famous for. The detail in each painting is amazing. We left Ingrid’s booth and started to explore the remainder of the show.

As we were finishing the last row we came across a booth that reminded me of my father. My father used to entertain my brother and sisters and me, plus anyone else within hearing distance, with his wooden spoons. This booth was selling wooded spoons! Inside the booth was a lady sitting in a chair playing a set of spoons. I had to go in to investigate. Unlike the spoons my father played, these spoons were attached! I talked to the lady about the spoons and how they were made and played. She let me try a set. They were much easier to play then my dad’s. The spoons are made a Quebec artisan, Richard Cyr. Unfortunately Richard was away from the booth when we visited. We left the Queen Elizabeth Building by the south door.

Directly south was the Better Living Centre. The east half of the building housed a Casino. A band was playing just outside the entrance. The western part of the building held the SportZone. To get to the entrance we had to pass by a number of vendor tents that were located on either side of the roadway.

The inside of the building was set up to showcase a variety of sports. The displays included electronic games, clothing for sale, interactive experiences and demonstrations. A large Extreme Sports course was set up inside the SportZone.

Although there was nothing scheduled, a young boy was practicing his skateboarding techniques. The course contained several jumps. This skateboarder was attempting to complete all the jumps. The last one was giving him problems. Finally, after three or four attempts, he cleared the jump.

The small audience that was watching him perform clapped when he completed the last jump. It was getting late and we wanted to grab a bit to eat. There was a show we wanted to see and it started at 7:00 PM…

Baby It’s Cold Inside…
We made our way back to the Heritage Court. This building is attached to Exhibition Hall. This is a beautifully restored building that houses the Garden Show. In the middle of the wonderful garden and floral displays there is a sand and stone pit. This is where Visual Artist Daryl Maddeaux stacks “rock on rock” and makes the most amazing formations. People watched Daryl in disbelief as he stacked misshaped rocks on one another.

He made what seemed impossible, possible. We had gone to the Heritage Court to line up for the “Salute to Broadway” Aerial Acrobatics and Ice Skating Show. This show was being held at the Ricoh Coliseum which is attached to Heritage Court. We had heard that this was a “must see” show. Even though we had arrived an hour before the show, there was still quite a line up.

The ushers open the doors to the coliseum about 20 minutes before the show started. The shock of the cold air reached us as soon as the doors opened. At first the cold air was refreshing (it had been a warm day), but it soon became uncomfortable as we waited for the start of the show. Finally the lights went down and the coliseum was completely black.

The music started and coloured lights began to shine. In the middle of the arena a man with a half white mask was singing, the Saluted to Broadway had begun with music from Phantom of the Opera. Everywhere there were skaters with half white masks. A rope was lowered to the ice surface and an aerialist was lifted up off the ice. The whole combined effect of lighting, music, skaters and aerialists was magical. As soon as the musical number was over, the lights went off and then, a few moments later the lights acme back on and new tributes started – skaters, music and lights. The next musical to be saluted was Cats. This was followed by Annie, Mamma Mia, The Lion King, Chicago, La Cage Aux Folles, Evita and for the grand finale, Grease. Somehow, during the course of the performance, the cold had gone away. The only feeling left was the warmth of the music and the performers. The melodies kept playing through my head as I hummed my way out of the coliseum. Back in the real world we exited the building to the sounds of the Midway…

So Little Time… So Much To See…
The sun was starting to set as we left the Heritage Court building. We had a long drive ahead of us, but we decided to take one last walk around the Midway area. The Ex always seems to come alive in the evenings.

People like ourselves strolling through the grounds taking one last look, younger couples sitting and listening to music at the various live entertainment stages and teenagers roaming the midway streets trying their hand at the various games of skill and chance or lining up for one of the many thrilling rides.

As you walk through the grounds, the sounds of the CNE are everywhere, the hum of people talking, music floating in the air from live bands, Carnies calling out and yelling “come in and try your luck“, the rush of the rides with music blaring, all to increase the thrill and riders screaming as their stomach rise and fall with the motion of the rides.

Reluctantly we turned back to walk to Exhibition Hall and our car. We passed the Bingo hall, much smaller then I remembered it, the bingo caller yelling out “Bingo, hold your markers”. So many great memories of now and the past. So much that we saw today, so much more that we could have seen. Perhaps we should have come back another day, too late now.

As we looked out from the Canadian National Exhibition at Toronto’s downtown skyline, we knew we would be back in years to come!

Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) ~ Re-visited

Kevin Stuart

by Festival Nomad Correspondent, Kevin Stuart

A Family Tradition…
It’s been called a family tradition and, given its enduring history, that’s no surprise. It began in 1879 with a largely agricultural theme but, with time and progression of its host city, Toronto, it has become a showcase of anything new, innovative, or just plain interesting. The Canadian National Exhibition has evolved into Canada’s largest annual community event. Taking place over the 18 days leading up to and including Labour Day, it has played host to millions of visitors

It’s Been A Long Time…
Since it had been several years since my wife and I last visited the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), long before our son was born, we felt it was time to experience it once more. It’s interesting to note the rainy weather conditions surrounding our visit since it ultimately worked to our advantage. There was a hint of rain on our way but once we hit the city, it was nothing short of a torrential downpour. I kept my fingers crossed that my wishful expectation of it letting up would come to pass. Amazingly, within moments of us parking, it had been reduced to a mere mist. This is noteworthy since the earlier weather had obviously made many others reconsider coming down, resulting in nearly non-existent line-ups and plenty of elbow room when walking the grounds.

Kid’s World!
With two young charges in tow, our first stop was Kids’ World, offering a vast array of family-friendly activities. We stopped into Professor Wick’s School of Magic and Illusion where believing is seeing. The distorted mirror images are always photogenic, allowing us to see ourselves in a different way. There were many optical illusions to not only witness but participate in, such as the hoop that appears to go through solid objects. Although magic classes were available, we moved on to the next scheduled class of pizza making at the Pizza Nova stop.

Following some entertaining banter about pizza, the youngsters were then each given dough to knead and flip. At first I wondered what they were thinking allowing the second part but, surprisingly, only one met with the floor. No matter, it was only for show. As a reward, each budding young chef received a slice of pizza for their efforts. We also were treated to hearing the Pizza Nova jingle for days afterwards.

Up Close and Personal?
Nearby, on stage we caught Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo, a chance to get up close and personal with a python, tarantula, turtles and more. Naturally, there were two camps in the audience-those who were intrigued-and those whose skin began to crawl. In all cases, the message seemed to be that these animals are not to be as feared as they generally are. We all heard the message, but I suspect there were few converts.

Ride On…
Of course, for many, the CNE midway rides are a big attraction. In our case, it was one for the rides and one loving the sweet treats, both of which were found in abundance. As I mentioned, previously, the earlier weather conditions made for little time spent lining up, which allowed for more time actually riding and eating. It was also fortuitous for us choosing a Kid’s Toonie Monday to go since that day midway ride coupons were discounted…an added bonus.

Finding Your Way
For anyone who might be unfamiliar with The EX, as it is often affectionately called, the grounds are immense, so plan your stops in advance to ensure you see what most interests you. One key way to assist in your time management is the tram that frequently rolls by, picking up and dropping off passengers at all main attractions in the park. Even with this time saver we still found ourselves wondering where the day went. Next up for us was the President’s Choice Superdogs Show, located inside the Direct Energy building. Lots of energy and, in some cases, humans competed with their canine counterparts with interesting results. The show was quite impressive and it was also noteworthy that all the canines were rescued dogs.

To say that the Direct Energy building is BIG would be a rather BIG understatement. In addition to housing several stages, there were a host of other exhibits and consumer items from here and around the world. The building also plays host to several conventions and other significant events and also houses the annual Royal Winter Fair display each November. It also interconnects with other buildings where other performances are held. In this particular case, we made our way to the Ricoh Coliseum to catch the La Vie aerial acrobatics and skating show hosted by our Olympic gold medal champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

At Its Best…
This was not a show you could watch in neutral. By that I mean, not only was it fast-paced, but many activities were happening simultaneously at various sections. These included, not only skating, but trampoline tricks and aerial acrobatics. Most of these shows are a half-hour in length which keeps the interest level up, even for those with shorter attention spans. For those with a keen sense of visual artistry, this delivered on many levels in the lighting and precision the timing of nearly every maneuver.

The Midway!!
As we made our way out the west side of the building, we walked through part of one of the CNE’s most popular features – the midway. It was here I suddenly experienced a moment of nostalgia. I can remember being with my parents and begging for more money to play this game and that game and wagering how many no’s would be heard before a yes might be forthcoming. This was exactly what my wife and I experienced and for a moment I realized that the generational torch had truly been passed. Now WE were the ones dealing out that two-letter word that strikes anger, disappointment and a host of other unpleasantness.

Lots of Places To Eat
Fortunately, it wasn’t too intense and our next stop was the Food Building. While there are plenty other places to fill up throughout the grounds, this fixture of The EX offers a variety of foods to satisfy nearly all appetites under one roof.

Too Bad…
We just missed the Mardi Gras parade near the Princes’ Gates although not for lack of trying. I could go on about other such attractions and events but such is the nature of a day at the CNE. We saw a lot, yet probably covered only a third of the grounds; hence my strong recommendation that visitors etch out a rough itinerary prior to attending. Fortunately, nowadays planning ahead is much easier with a visit to their website.

While many get a chill hearing about the opening Canadian National Exhibition as it signals the end of summer, I like to look at it another way. Since summer is ending anyway, The EX is a terrific way to see it off in style and, perhaps create a memory or two for yourself and the next generation.


  1. Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve been to this website before but after reading through some of the post
    I realized it’s new to me. Anyhow, I’m definitely happy
    I found it and I’ll be bookmarking and checking back often!

  2. Pretty! This was an incredibly wonderful post. Many thanks for supplying this info.

Leave a Reply