We toured around the in-progress Ex with the one woman who knows how it all comes together (hint: lots of fencing).
Other than a few dozen metal posts painted orange, green, purple, and yellow, there were no telltale signs as to which ride was being created from the spiderweb of steel pieces laid out like an ambitious Ikea project in the middle of the CNE’s vast parking lot. But once Virginia Ludy, the Ex’s long-serving assistant general manager and director of operations uttered the words “Polar Express,” it made perfect sense. The circular configuration assumed a skeletal significance, and you could almost feel the energy of that backwards centrifuge whipping riders dizzy. (“Do you want to go faster?”)
Opening day was still a week away, but the 135-year-old Canadian National Exhibition was slowly taking shape. The purple and yellow pieces of the Mega Drop sat half unfolded out of a transport trailer near the Polar Express, looking like some sort of Transformer caught changing out of its vehicular disguise. On another flatbed, there was a single piece of massive midway infrastructure: the billboard-sized sign for the Crazy Mouse rollercoaster, all old-school lightbulbs and metal piping. Rows of white food-truck trailers lined the stretch of Princes’ Boulevard at the far end of the Direct Energy Centre, making it seem like an immaculate shipping yard, albeit one where workers testing the brand-new Zipline rocketed overhead.
There was still much to do. Riding around in Ludy’s golf cart, we were but one of many vehicles crisscrossing the grounds—a few front-end loaders, the occasional transport, more golf carts, and trucks carrying the countless concrete counterweighs and planter weights used to tie down everything from the food tents to the Zipline tower. (Ludy explained that they don’t stake anything into the ground because there’s so much old city infrastructure buried under the park.) Though the planning had technically been going on since the spring, when crews start pulling out all the CNE’s inventory, it was only in these few days after the end of Caribana that things had begun to ramp up.
Indeed, having used the CNE grounds as a cycling shortcut most evenings, I found the transformation from parking lots to midway to be almost instantaneous—far more than the gradual barricading that signals the start of the Indy. “We probably had in the neighbourhood of 40 transport trucks arrive last night,” said Ludy, who schedules thrice-daily meetings with all the foremen working on the grounds in order to keep tabs on progress.
As we cruised around the entire fairgrounds—a trek that even by golf cart took the better part of an hour—the range and scope of the undertaking became somewhat daunting. The home pavilion buildings stood as big as an airport hangar, stretching on and on as we travelled through, carting over shrink-wrapped industrial carpet that bisected the rows of empty booths and an occasional cherry picker. Every manner of construction was underway: Workers laid bricks for a wine garden while others secured the 15-foot-high tiered towers of dirt for the sand-sculpting competition. Even the disused police station was being readied for a small force that would patrol the area for the duration of the CNE. Through it all lay a small-town’s worth of electrical infrastructure and temporary shelter, ready to be occupied.
Ludy pointed to the village within the fairgrounds—rows of trailers divided into bunk-sized rooms, all of which would be hidden behind the main midway. Since most of the workers travel across the States and Canada with the various rides, games, and food trucks owned by North American Midway and Entertainment, they also stay on the premises. “It’s a little bit different than what was the norm many years ago,” said Ludy. “I think a lot of them slept in their games and rides.” Instead, the current configuration boasts air conditioning, and even has a school for those travelling with kids.
That setting up 192 acres of exhibition grounds seems so efficient is a reminder of how other parts of the city have lagged behind on completing the simplest improvements. Sure, most of it is temporary, but it serves its purpose perfectly. Scarborough Polar Express transit anyone? Because we all want to go faster.