Toronto: Fun for Kids and Parents Alike

View of Toronto from Billy Bishop Island Airport, home of Porter Airlines
Family Travel: Toronto: Fun for Kids and Parents Alike

By Cathie Arquilla

Dinosaurs are a hit with young and old in Toronto. photos by Cathie Arquilla.
Dinosaurs are a hit with young and old in Toronto. photos by Cathie Arquilla.

Some might say a “family-vacation” is an oxymoron. A friend told me once a family vacation isn’t a vacation, it’s a trip. With limited resources and time you really can’t afford to have a vacation that doesn’t feel like one.

So the biting of nails and gnashing of teeth that usually comes with planning your family vacation, is completely reasonable.

The trick is to create the overlap in your itinerary–things that kids and parents will both enjoy. And I believe a successful family vacation is based on the overlap being at least 50 percent. I’d say the other 25 percent is for them, the kids, and the remaining 25 percent is for us, Mom and/or Dad.

Visiting Toronto, there is plenty to do that falls into the overlap category. My son, James, and I spent about four days there sampling a typical family vacation. We were shown a variety of family friendly venues and attractions that were interesting and fun for both of us.

So I’ll save you the gnashing of teeth and spell out what worked for James, for me, and for both of us while visiting this cosmopolitan city up north.

Know your critic:

James is an athletic, fidgety boy with a quick mind, a short attention span, and a very fun and funny sense of humor. A born performer, he wants a vacation that comes up and hits him in the face.

I’m his mother who loves the way travel can transport you in time and space. I like to experience art, culture, and learn tidbits of compelling information about a destination. I’m a fashion stylist who enjoys domestic pursuits like design and entertaining, so I’m always on the lookout for the “joie de vivre” of a place.

James atop Toronto's CNN Tower.
James atop Toronto’s CNN Tower.

CN Tower

An iconic structure to Toronto, the CN Towers was one of James’s favorite attractions. Shooting up 1,136 feet in a glass-floor-paneled-elevator is his kind of fun. For James, prancing across the Glass Floor was like a rollercoaster descent without the actual fall. At 1,122 feet, I couldn’t even walk on to the glass.

I was able to brave the “Himalamazon” however. This is one of those crazy 4-D movies where your seat careens and water sprays at you and weird things run under your feet, all synchronized to what you are watching on a screen.

Along with our “shipmates,” we screamed, laughed, and generally freaked. The storyline of the movie was nonsensical to me, but who cares? It was fun for James and me.

I had my first experience with pickerel at CN’s Horizons Restaurant. This Lake Erie fish was pan sautéed and placed of a pile of julienne vegetables, flakey and tasty. I think I made a good choice. James, on the other hand, was not pleased with his mussels and he became bored with the ambiance and the view. The slow service was also not a good recipe for James. This dining experience was my 25 percent.

Electricity! Have a Hair Raising Experience
Electricity! Have a Hair Raising Experience

Ontario Science Centre

Author Candyce Stapen, a seasoned family travel expert, thought the Ontario Science Centre was, “One of the best of its kind.” She was particularly taken with the teen exhibit space.

This hands-on gallery allows teens to tinker, experiment, and create. The Centre is organized with age appropriate exhibits in mind. It is a huge place and would take several days to fully explore.

For the few hours that James and I were there, we could stick to what was just right for his age, making the whole experience less overwhelming.

Guides or Hosts in white lab coats will happily explain what is going on at various exhibits and I wished we had taken more advantage of their knowledge and hospitality. Often I was confused about what we were supposed to do to understand the point of the exercise.

“Do I speak into the microphone or touch the screen?” “Do I jump hard or soft?” In most cases, James seemed to know just what to do, but I wasn’t sure if he understood what was being illustrated.

Suggestion: Go slow and take the time to figure out what is being taught, “Because when you do, it’s cool,” says James.

Bicycle Generator at the Ontario Science Centre.
Bicycle Generator at the Ontario Science Centre.

It is also good to know what type of learner you are. If you like to listen and watch, the Science Centre has several Daily Science Demonstrations, which are both entertaining and educational.

We saw, Electricity! Have a Hair Raising Experience. Our host, Tyler, had an entertaining banter and was able to get several points across about how electricity works.

I was glad to sit down and learn a little something and James, having been chosen from the audience to assist, loved being center stage. The best part was the actual hair raising. Catching this “show” was definitely an overlap.

The Ontario Science Centre has an abundance of cool things to do so plan ahead. Sleepovers, Sci, Fri: Friday Night at the OSC for teens, to name a few. Special exhibits running through September 09 include; Lizards and Snakes: Alive! and The Science of Spying.

Royal Ontario Museum
Royal Ontario Museum

For James, the “sneezing boy” in KidsSpark, a large exhibit space dedicated to kids 8 years and under, was also a “do not miss” hit.


I asked, Kimberley Newport Mimran, native to Ontario, a mom, and designer of Pink Tartan what she recommends for a family outing in Toronto. She told me without hesitation, the ROM–Royal Ontario Museum. Wondering the galleries or picking one to explore in-depth, the

ROM is the Mimran family’s local museum to go back to again and again. Situated downtown, near hip stores and restaurants, the ROM is one stop on a daylong outing that might include a trip to Holts Cafe at Holt Renfrew.

There, this fashion designer mom and her eight-year-old daughter can rest up, post-ROM, and snack on a tartine made from world-renowned Pollane bread that’s flown in from Paris daily.

Inside the Royal Ontario Museum.
Inside the Royal Ontario Museum.

At the ROM, James and I were entirely in the overlap zone. The First Peoples Gallery brought us up-close to Chief Sitting Bull’s feather war bonnet. We marveled at the enormous collection of work by the pioneer painter Paul Kane.

His depiction of life amongst Canadian natives reminded me of the Hudson River School painters–grand, bucolic, and Mohican!

The Age of Dinosaurs offers some jaw-dropping specimens in residence here, a 90-foot barasaurus skeleton, that’s the one with the long neck and tail, tiny head.

Say hello to several duck-billed dinosaurs, hadrosaurs, from Alberta. The Age Of Mammals on the same level houses mammals that rapidly diversified following the extinction of dinosaurs. Here you’ll find your woolly mammoth.

Suffer for beauty corset, Royal Ontario Museum
Suffer for beauty corset, Royal Ontario Museum

Note: The gift store has a great stuffed woolly mammoth that James really wanted.

As a stylist, I enjoyed the textile and costume gallery. There were some lovely costumes from the 17th and 18th century as well as surprising pieces of suffering for beauty fashion–a beautiful corset and teenie-weenie beaded shoes. Surprisingly, James was interested in the video about textile restoration in this gallery.

More than a natural history museum, the ROM is a museum of the artistic and cultural traditions of peoples throughout the world. James and I made our own shortlist of things we missed, but would definitely like to see if given another chance.


• The Bat Cave: Modeled after the St. Clair cave in Jamaica, the bats inside this cave are real but no longer alive–creepy and cool.
• Family Gallery of Hands-on Biodiversity: You can actually touch skin and skulls and other gross stuff.
• Arms and Armor in the European Galleries: Chain mail, automatic guns, and weapons of all kinds–he’s a boy. Need I say more…?


Forsythe Family Farms.
Forsythe Family Farms.

• Gallery of China: 7,000 years of Chinese history. Sign me up.
• Gallery of Greece: Visit Greece before Christ, see jewelry, craftsmanship, and Aphrodite. Add the sun, sea and your imagination.
• Art Deco collection in the European Galleries: Home furnishings and sculptures, from the 1920s and 30s France–Devine design.

Side Tripping, Eh!

If a trip outside the metro area beckons, consider Markham. About a half-hour north of Toronto, Markham provides some great family outings for regional travelers. Some of these spots just may draw city vacationers out of Toronto too, especially if a sibling or spouse is pining for nature.

On the trail in York Regional Forest
On the trail in York Regional Forest

York Regional Forest

York Regional Forest was a barren desert before it was rescued in 1924. Apparently, farmers of the 1800s had cleared and farmed the land to extinction. The Canadian forest management came to the rescue in 1924 planting mostly red and white pine trees.

Since then indigenous flora and fauna have moved in creating a dreamy forest canopy. James gave it an A-plus calling it a “nice, quiet, relaxing walk where you can see old trees.”

Forsythe Family Farms

“We raise our own beef, pork, and chicken. We’re a working farm that provides education and entertainment to our visitors,” says Jim Forsythe of Forsythe Family Farms.

Doesn’t warm apple pie from the country store, feeding greedy goats, navigating a corn maze, cuddling baby bunnies, and visiting a storybook forest, sound like the ultimate overlap?

Teaching and entertainment is both a passion and a survival strategy for this 64-acre farm. The Forsythes have hit on a perfect combination of tradition, charm, education, and real-life farming.

Not your everyday forest.
Not your everyday forest.


1794, when Unionville was settled, is very old for Canada. Historical committees police just what is allowed in terms of aesthetics these days and everything must look of age, the Victorian age that is.

Thus Unionville, known as a “Canadian Treat” looks and feels like quintessential Main Street America. Disney and The Gilmore Girls are just a few of the many film and production companies who have used Unionville for a wholesome Americana backdrop.

Like a Gibson Girl want-to-be, I embraced the ambiance of this quaint street, relishing the free time to look at housewares, sample smelly lotions, and purchase an evening bag.

James grew impatient while I ducked in and out of girly stores, absolutely refusing to set foot in a lingerie store behind a charming Victorian facade. I wanted to purchase a perfectly tame nightgown. He wanted nothing to do with it–my 25 percent. Perhaps one day James will tolerate girly shopping.

Hey, with a crush he’s aiming to please, strolling the likes of Unionville may even become his 25 percent.

Homewood Suites by Hilton

Home to us during this Toronto blitz was Homewood Suites by Hilton in Markham. While I can’t recommend this as an ideal location for touring Toronto proper, it was an exceptional place to stay for exploring Markham. More importantly, I would recommend Homewood

Dinner fit for a Knight at Medieval Times.
Dinner fit for a Knight at Medieval Times.

Suites for families. There are some 270 Homewoods out there with another 127 on the way. Each delivers the same service, upscale furnishings and amenities.

This predictability can be a plus when you’re navigating other “surprises” during a family vacation.

The same things that make this brand’s formula work for business travelers, applies to families. Unlike its competitors, Homewood is still offering complimentary hot breakfast seven days a week, dinner Monday through Thursday, and most importantly, homemade chocolate chip cookies in the afternoons. Offering a timely family meal can be a lifeboat to a family vacation that’s sinking.

The same luxury bedding that you’d get at the Waldorf, you’re sleeping on at Homewood, so if you do have junior climbing in, at least it’s a comfortable bed. Studio, one and two bedrooms suites have multiple TVs, granite countertops, Neutrogena products AND kitchens with full-size refrigerators.

Ever tried to shove a half-gallon of milk into a mini-bar? They also offer a “while you’re out” grocery shopping service providing another way to stretch your travel dollar–eating “at home.”

Where To Stay, Downtown Toronto:

Aptly named, the Sheraton Centre Toronto is ideally located for touring downtown Toronto. They offer a family package worth investigating; discount coupons to local attractions and shops, indoor/outdoor heated pool, 4 pm checkout if available, and one free movie per night.

Also downtown and catering to families is the Delta Chelsea. Let me just say, “4-story Corkscrew waterslide.” You can go to the ROM in the morning and scream, “cowabunga” in the afternoon.

An Elegant Meal for Mom and Dad

c5 doesn’t seem ideal for kids but would be fabulous for a night out with your Mister. Located in the top fifth (thus, the name c5) of the ROM’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, a towering glass cube-like structure protruding from the original museum, c5 is all elegance. Stunning views and dramatic modern interiors of light, playing on dark furnishings, decorative pieces, and materials–makes me want to eat there tonight!

The Green Knight's apprentice
The Green Knight’s apprentice

Jousting Anyone?

Payback for your romantic dinner at c5 might be a trip to Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament where you eat with your hands!

James was psyched to go to this King Arthur type pageant– falconry, jousting, sword fighting, prancing and thundering hooves, evil knights, bound princes, ladies faire–bring it on!

Medieval Times has nine different locations in the US, but just this one in Canada. It was grad-night the evening we were there, which made our cheering and a jeering section especially pumped, or maybe we were all just bursting with enthusiasm for our “Green Night.” He was really hot.

Note: There is lots of commerce surrounding this attraction offering aspiring lords and ladies plenty of props to live-their-dream. It’s probably a good idea to have a “souvenir plan” before you go.

Also: The Dungeon museum is not appropriate for kids. There are several descriptions and devices of genital torture. For once, I was relieved that James quickly ran through a museum without reading any of the placards.

Find out more about Toronto

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