As a new parent, you learn very early on that the key to a happy kid is distraction. About to go into meltdown mode in the middle of the grocery store? Give her an apple to play with. Having a tantrum over spilled milk? Turn on the Bubble Guppies. These tricks of the trade do more than just keep a toddler gurgling with contentment – they also help Mom and Dad maintain some level of sanity.
My daughter, who’s about to turn 18 months old, is a fairly chilled-out kid. Not one to throw a tantrum at every opportunity or run circles around furniture just to let off some steam, she is, by and large, a first-time mother’s dream come true. But, of course, she has moments like any other kid when she rails against the injustices of life (“what do you mean it’s time to get out of the bath?!”), and these momentary lapses of rationality seem to occur more frequently during the long, cold days of winter.
So, in an effort to distract her from winter being so long and so cold, I took her to three of Toronto’s top family-friendly attractions over the course of one month: Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, LEGOLAND Discovery Centre Toronto, and Children’s Discovery Centre. Each place had its pros and cons and offered a multitude of distractions for my curious toddler, which in my book earns them all a gold star.
As a parent, I’m grateful for having fun outlets like these readily available to me in my own backyard. And as a travel writer? Now that I’ve checked these attractions off my list, I can certainly appreciate what they all do to enhance Toronto’s family-friendly tourist offerings.
RIPLEY’S AQUARIUM OF CANADA
Featuring 16,000 aquatic animals, 5.7 million litres of water and 100 interactive experiences, Ripley’s is every parent’s dream: fun, engaging and educational. There are nine curated galleries on site that showcase a cross section of saltwater and freshwater environments from around the world, and to make things even more fun, live jazz turns things up after hours on every second Friday of every month. There’s even a ‘Sleep With The Sharks’ program that allows little ones to spend the night in the Dangerous Lagoon Tunnel.
We spent approximately two hours admiring underwater creatures in glass tanks and touching harmless crabs and critters. My daughter’s favourite exhibit was definitely the jellyfish, with the Lagoon Tunnel coming a close second. She also got a kick out of seeing a trainer – decked out in full scuba gear – feed the fish and wave hello from the other side of the glass.
PROS: The fish! There were so many of them, in so many different colours, and with Ripley’s low lighting, every exhibit seemed to glow in the dark.
CONS: In hindsight, we probably should not have gone during Boxing Day weekend. The massive crowds (and parade of strollers) made it impossible at times to walk, much less see exhibits. Try to go during the week or early morning.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada is located at 288 Bremner Boulevard. Anytime Express Tickets cost $29.98 for adults, $19.98 for seniors, $19.98 for youths, and $9.98 for children ages 3-5 when purchased online. Visitors can save a few bucks when purchasing Timed Tickets online.
LEGOLAND DISCOVERY CENTRE TORONTO
Everything is awesome! At least according to the LEGO Movie, whose theme song – performed by Canadian duo Tegan & Sara – salutes everything that is awesome about life and friendship. The same fun and celebratory feel can be found at LEGOLAND Discovery Centre Toronto in Vaughan Mills, a 34,000 square-foot facility full of interactive activities for children 3-10 years old. There’s a 4D cinema, master building classes, two rides, a Toronto ‘miniland’ and, of course, tons and tons of LEGO bricks in big oversized bins.
My daughter loved playing with the bricks and also spent a good chunk of time in the small toy kitchen. But she mostly got a kick out of watching older kids build LEGO vehicles and testing them out on the speed test track. From what we could tell, everyone there was having a blast.
PROS: I personally loved the replica of Toronto’s cityscape, which included Nathan Phillips Square, City Hall, Union Station and the Air Canada Centre, which came complete with miniature Maple Leafs and controls that you could use to score goals on net. My daughter and I also took a selfie with a life-sized group of LEGO tween girls. Now if that’s not #squadgoals, I don’t know what is.
CONS: At 18 months, my daughter was perhaps a tad too young to fully enjoy the LEGOLAND experience. But that just means a future visit is in the cards, when she’s old enough to build something truly awesome out of a pile of bricks.
LEGOLAND Discovery Centre is located at 1 Bass Pro Mills Drive. Single Visit Tickets cost $22 for ages 3 and up, with online tickets starting at $17.60 (online tickets must be purchased one or more days in advance). Children under 3 years old are free. Children 17 and under must be accompanied by an adult supervisor.
CHILDREN’S DISCOVERY CENTRE
This “grassroots pilot project initiative”, as Founder & CEO Jeanhy Shim calls it, is so much more than just one big playroom for kids. It’s a museum, art gallery, laboratory, library, theme park and funhouse all rolled up in one, a veritable ‘Alice in Wonderland’ dreamscape designed exclusively for tots 6 and under. A total of 10 ‘Discovery Zones’ comprise the expansive 20,000 square-foot ‘pop-up’ facility in Liberty Village, ranging from the Art Hive where kids can paint and play with Play-doh to their hearts content, to the Campground, which comes complete with a canoe and makeshift campsite.
I’m not exaggerating when I say my daughter had a great time in every single zone, which is quite the accomplishment considering she has the attention span of, well, a toddler. We read stories in Storyland, banged on pots and pans in the Boom Room, studied animal X-rays in Pet Vet, rode a trike in Mini City and tried on butterfly wings in the Make Believe zone. There was so much to see and do in every room that we easily could’ve stayed all day. But after two and a half hours of pure, whimsical fun, my daughter finally agreed to leave on the one condition we come back – and soon.
PROS: What’s not to love, seriously? It’s completely obvious how much love and attention went into every aspect of the centre (those butterfly wings were handmade!), plus the entire facility was extremely well kept, with staff cleaning up paint, replenishing supplies and tidying up after guests. Another big bonus is the centre’s re-enter policy – once you pay, you can leave and re-enter as many times as you wish over the course of a day, so long as you stamp your hand with a smiley face.
CONS: This is only a pilot project, meaning that after its last day on May 31, 2016, it will have to find a new permanent location (TBD). Let’s hope the new location is just as fabulous and opens in time for summer.
Children’s Discovery Centre is located at 45 Strachan Avenue until May 31, 2016. An all day pass costs $13 + hst, infants under 12 months are free. 5-day packs and annual memberships are also available.