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Road Trip / Toronto for families

A midwinter trip that entertains and enlightens

Ripley’s Aquarium

Courtesy of RIpley’s aquarium


As a suburban kid growing up in the Southtowns, it never occurred to me that Toronto was one of the largest, most cosmopolitan cities in the world. It was simply that city a couple hours away that my family enjoyed visiting for Blue Jays games, the Hockey Hall of Fame, and, of course, Phantom of the Opera. (Yes, we bought “Phantom by phone.”) As a concert-crazed teenager, it became clear that Toronto was good for live music too.


Recently, my wife and I visited Toronto with our eight-year-old son and four-year-old daughter for a weekend getaway, and had a front-row seat for something extraordinary: the looks on our kids’ faces as we cruised down the Gardiner Expressway into the city. While we’d visited the outskirts previously, this was our first true family jaunt into Toronto—and it was unforgettable.


Close to Buffalo, easy to traverse, and full of unique options, TO is perfect for a quick vacation. And with April’s spring break approaching, there has never been a better time to visit.


The Dangerous Lagoon at Ripley’s Aquarium is a stunner.


What to do

There were two must-visits on our family agenda: Ripley’s Aquarium (ripleyaquariums.com/Canada) and LEGOLAND Discovery Centre Toronto (toronto.legolanddiscoverycentre.ca). Both of these facilities opened in 2013. Ripley’s, located at the foot of the CN Tower, is known for its epic collection of aquatic animals (20,000), its stunning viewing tunnel, and its many interactive opportunities. And LEGOLAND is pretty much heaven for any LEGO-loving kid or adult.


After a reasonably quick drive from Buffalo—about two hours—we arrived in the city and easily found a parking spot near Ripley’s Aquarium. (With the CN Tower, Rogers Centre, and Scotiabank Arena so close, parking is plentiful.) It was a Saturday, and that means large crowds right from the minute Ripley’s opens at 9 a.m. We arrived around 10:30 a.m., and had no difficulty quickly moving inside.


The Ripley’s experience is wonderfully immersive, especially for children. From touch tanks and pint-sized walkways to getting “weighed” as the catch of the day, there are things to see and do for hours. But nothing compares to the stunning “Dangerous Lagoon.” Featuring the longest moving sidewalk in North America and an underwater gallery of sand tiger sharks, sea turtles, and green sawfish, it is a total stunner.


A few souvenirs in tow, we walked around the area outside Ripley’s for a bit before heading to our hotel. (More on that below.) Our second day was for LEGOLAND Discovery Centre Toronto. It is located in Vaughan Mills, a giant outlet mall a half-hour or so outside of the city. And while it’s difficult to gauge the size of the Centre from outdoors, once one enters the mall, it is clear that this LEGO paradise is plenty large. (However, keep in mind that discovery centers are quite a bit different and smaller than LEGO theme parks, such as LEGOLAND Florida.)


LEGOLAND Discovery Centre is perfect for immersive family play.



Starting with an area showing exactly how LEGOs are made, visitors then can move right into a family-friendly ride called “Kingdom Quest,” or the breathtaking “Miniland.” The latter is a LEGO replica of the City of Toronto, and what makes it special is the detail. Yes, there’s a wee CN Tower and tiny Rogers Centre, but there’s also Toronto International Film Festival venues the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres and Roy Thomson Hall. The main area of the Discovery Centre features even more to do, including Duplo Village for little ones, building and testing tracks, more rides, and my son’s favorite spot, Ninjago City Adventure (based on the popular animated series and movie). Other highlights for us were the 4D cinema and the “Master Builder Academy,” which gave us the opportunity to do some structured building.


It was a fantastic visit, especially for my son; I expect my daughter will enjoy it more a few years from now. But one important note: There is a LEGO Store connected to the Discovery Centre, and it is packed with hard-to-find toys. In other words, be prepared to buy something.


Where to stay

Knowing that our second day would be centered around a trip to Vaughan Mills, it was easiest for us to stay outside of the city. A search led us to the Holiday Inn Toronto-Yorkdale (hiyorkdale.com), a twenty-minute drive from downtown. In addition to being located literally across the street from the gargantuan Yorkdale Shopping Centre, it features a nice-sized pool, an indoor tennis court, a children’s play area that is often monitored by helpful hotel employees, and a breakfast buffet. All of this is music to the ears of parents. And that makes this an ideal hotel for a family stay.


Where to eat

There are numerous family friendly restaurants to recommend in the city, including Ricarda’s (Mediterranean), Piano Piano (Italian), Cluny Bistro (French), Lakeview (a retro diner), Queen Margherita Pizza, and Terroni (Italian). Tourism Toronto has put together a list of ten family choices.


More things to do

Our visit was a short one. If you have a bit more time, here are four more ideas to consider:

    • The Hockey Hall of Fame (hhof.com): See the Stanley Cup and more in a gorgeous space on Yonge Street.

    • The Toronto Zoo (torontozoo.com): One of North America’s finest zoos offers much to do in colder months.

    • Toronto Maple Leafs (nhl.com/mapleleafs) and Toronto Raptors (nba.com/raptors) games: Both the Leafs and Raptors have home games throughout April.

    • Cinesphere (ontarioplace.com/en/cinesphere): The world’s first permanent IMAX movie theater, Cinesphere is located on the Ontario Space grounds, and features some super-cool programming.


A central resource

When planning your family visit to Toronto, a good general go-to for information and ideas is the Tourism Toronto website, see torontonow.com. Check it out, get planning, and take one last bit of advice: the Rainbow Bridge is faster than the Lewiston-Queenston. Trust me on that.


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