27 super fun (and mostly cheap) things to do in the city.
Here’s a dangerous question to pose to a kid: How would you spend an ultimate, fantastical, crazy-awesome summer day? Since The Grid likes to live on the edge, we tracked down 10 eager beavers and took diligent notes. Some of their ideas were decidedly doable (eat chicken wings! Meet the zoo’s new pandas!); others were, um, less so (ride a unicorn! Watch the Jays beat the Red Sox!). Happily, we recruited the staff at Bunchfamily.ca—a cool site packed with tons of Toronto family events—to help make those dreams a (more-or-less) reality. All you need to supply is the transport and the tub of sunscreen.
“I’d go to Centreville, have pizza, and make caterpillar art.”
›› You’ve got plenty of options for your jaunt to Centreville: Through July and August, the Island amusement park is open seven days a week, from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Kids can—and will want to—ride all day for $26 (11 bucks more if they’re over four feet tall); otherwise, a family of four gets unlimited rides for $112, and if you buy online, you save about $6. For emergency crowd relief, or if you just need to hit the mainland stat, dial up a water taxi at 416-203-TAXI. It’ll run you $10 for each adult and $5 for each child.
›› If a Centreville and pizza combo is non-negotiable, time your arrival for Wednesday, which happens to be pizza night at the Island Café (20 Withrow St.). The restaurant makes a different pie every week—recently, it was arugula with house-made Italian sausage—and all the meats come from local Rowe Farms, which practices conscientious farming. Bonus for parents: Pints are $5 on pizza night, too.
›› Marshmallow caterpillar art is sweet and simple: Take six or eight marshmallows, add a pile of toothpicks, and voila. If you and the gang want to up your game, though, why not draw inspiration from the seagulls you saw on the Island? Using sugar glue (1.5 cups icing sugar and 1 egg white, beaten), add two eyes from bits of licorice string and a hunk of candy corn for the beak, then finish it off with toothpick legs. Or take your cues from the Island’s Far Enough Farm and make cupcake sheep by sticking mini-marshmallows onto a frosted chocolate mini-cupcake. Make the faces from black gumdrops and it’s baa-baa black sheep all the way home.
“I’d go to Mexico and play on the beach or play football. I like climbing! I like chocolate!”
›› For a taste of Mexico—without the trouble of air travel—hit up St. Clair West. The food at Rebozos Mexican Restaurant (126 Rogers Rd.) will totally trick your kids into thinking they’re down south. Stay for the pozole (a traditional, pre-16th-century soup) so everyone can brag that their lunch was more than 500 years old. Or pack a take-out bag of tacos and Sidral Mundet green-apple soda and head over to Salsa on St. Clair, which takes place July 13–14 between Winona and Christie. There will be live performances by Samba Squad, and a parade both nights at 9 p.m.
›› The view of Toronto from Hillcrest Park (950 Davenport Rd.) is absolutely fantastic, and the wading pool and splash pad aren’t too shabby, either (open Tuesday–Saturday, 12–7 p.m., and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.). There’s tons of room to toss a ball and a newly refurbished playground—plus an excellent crabapple tree for climbing.
›› Chocolate fiends are well served at Dutch Dreams (78 Vaughan Rd.), an ice cream–themed fantasyland in a quirky corner building. They can choose between original recipes like Chocolate Fudge Cookie, Dutch Chocolate, or Moose Droppings, or else go all out with a kiddie sundae (plus sprinkles!), which is a pleasantly retro $4.65. Cash only, and brace yourself for lineups on a hot day.
“I’d go to the Toronto Zoo to meet the new pandas. Then I’d go to Yamato [in Yorkville] for some salmon.”
›› Now is the best time to meet Er Shun and Da Mao, the pre-school-aged pandas here on an exchange from China, because crowds will be a bit thinner than during their May debut. But pandas are incredibly slothful, and sloth can get a bit boring. Perk up by watching the acrobatics of our North American river otters. The zoo (361A Old Finch Ave.) is huge, so budget for a full day to explore the place one geographical section at a time.
›› We think seven is too young to be set in your salmon-eating ways. Why not make like Pedro the Penguin and go on a seafood crawl—but in Kensington Market? Start with the superlative mahi-mahi fish taco from Seven Lives Tacos y Mariscos (69 Kensington Ave.), duck in for a mini West Indies–style ackee-and-saltfish fritter at Patty King (187 Baldwin St.), then wrap things up with crab cakes from Fresco’s Fish and Chips (213 Augusta Ave.). Come on Pedestrian Sunday (the last Sunday of each month) and you won’t have to contend with cars.
“I’d go to the Rogers Centre to watch the Blue Jays play the Red Sox—and win. I’d get pepperoni pizza and play soccer in Christie pits.”
›› We can get Sasha halfway there: The Jays play the Red Sox in Toronto on August 13, 14, and 15. (Wins are tricky; our team’s a bit spotty.) But if your pipsqueak will settle for the Houston Astros or Oakland A’s this summer, the reward is a Jr. Jays Saturday, with discount tickets for the under-14s and the opportunity to hit the field and run the bases after the game.
›› Sure, nothing beats traditional pepperoni pizza. But you can get a little wacky by making your own on the barbecue—just find an olive-oil-based dough recipe and top the pizza after grilling one side of the crust till it’s golden brown. If you want to mix things up a little, add some grilled pineapple to that pepperoni, or else serve it alongside vanilla frozen yogurt for dessert.
›› Soccer in Christie Pits? That’s easy. Hit the field on a lovely summer evening, or enroll your mini-Beckham in SC Toronto’s one-week Summer Daze Soccer Camp (tag line: “Your child deserves a good kick in the grass”). There are still dates available in August; a half-day camp runs $99, and full day costs $150.
“I’d go down a big water slide at a million miles per hour. I’d also read a Power Rangers book—the white one is my favourite.”
›› It’s sad to think of a generation of downtown kids missing out on the Ontario Place water slide (bring it back!). But little speed-demons can try to break the sound barrier in their own backyards. You can buy plastic sheeting from any hardware store for about $12 a roll; you’ll need a piece roughly 10 feet wide and at least 25 feet long. Unroll onto the grass (hills are terrific), hold it down with a rock, and make triple-sure there’s enough space to land. Point a garden hose down the length of the slide and enjoy until you feel guilty about your water consumption.
›› Chilling out with a book is a great way to beat the heat, especially in an outdoor reading nook. Make your own shade by hanging a bed sheet from a tree branch with clothes pegs, then fill an aluminum water bottle with lemonade and lose yourself in a novel (The Grid could not recommend Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers more) while kiddo reads Power Rangers Megaforce: Mega Mission cover to cover.
“I’d go to Cabo San Lucas, swim in the pool there, and drink a smoothie.”
›› Cabo San Lucas is all the rage for poolside life—but, hey, so is Pickering. The Petticoat Creek Conservation Area (1100 Whites Rd. S.) boasts a 1,600-square-metre pool that can fit 800 of your kid’s closest friends. There’s also an interactive splash pad to get everyone good and soaked in a gorgeous natural setting, just minutes from Rouge Valley. Entry is $4.75 ($2.75 for park members) and it’s open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. until September 2.
›› We feel cantaloupe is a seriously underrated smoothie flavour. See for yourself: Blend one very ripe cantaloupe with the juice of an entire lemon or orange, 1 cup of Greek yogurt, 2 tablespoons of honey, and 1 cup of ice. If you want to take it over the top (we hear tropical drinks are in right now), swap out the yogurt for half a can of coconut milk. Cantaloupe creamsicle!
›› Cabo San Lucas is a favourite haunt of Keith Richards—he married Patti Hansen there 30 years ago. If your little one is looking to channel her own inner rock god, help her assemble the awesome DIY wooden ukulele kit from the Drake General Store ($48, 1144 Queen St. W.). All you need is a small screwdriver, wood glue, some sandpaper (if you’re fussy), and non-toxic paint, because a blank wood canvas should probably be livened up with a bit of sticky finger-painting.
“I’d eat malt vinegar. I’d make any kind of art, but probably a painting. I just made one that had my mom riding Pegasus on one side, and a dragon on the other. ”
›› If your kids are crazy about vinegar, encourage those adventurous palates by holding a vinegar tasting for their underage friends. Serve a flight of vinegars in sake cups or little ramekins, starting with malt and white vinegar, working up to more complex kinds like apple cider and rice, then finishing with balsamic. Draw up cards for tasting notes, and offer fresh white bread for nibbling between tastings so as not to interfere with the flavours.
›› Dragons like to play with fire, so let your budding artist paint one on a ceramic piece that’ll be whisked off to a kiln. The Clay Room (279 Danforth Ave.) has hundreds of items to choose from—mugs and tea pots and piggy banks, oh my!—all priced between $4 and $45. No reservations required. Extra points awarded to drawings of endangered species like pandas, rhinos, and Rob Ford staffers.
“I’d meet a unicorn, ride it, and make it fly me to Candyland. I’d eat a ton of marshmallows, make a gumdrop trampoline, and then jump on it.”
›› Who doesn’t dream of unicorns when they’re young? Totally understandable—and almost entirely possible if you ride the Antique Dentzel Carousel at Centre Island. Your kid will be seated on a lovely horse, but if you take a picture from the right angle (and then everyone squints), it looks just like flying. The hand-carved wooden carousel is more than 100 years old and there are maybe 30 others like it left in the world. It even survived a hurricane.
›› Marshmallows are divine, and since it’s the summer, you might as well roast ’em. Book the campfire pit for a couple families at Dufferin Grove Park (check out the info at dufferinpark.ca/campfires) and split the suggested donation of $20. And though they’re unorthodox, chocolate-covered digestives or chocolate-filled wafers can make for some low-maintenance s’mores. Our preferred method for roasting the filling is to use a steady heat source but no flame: Load up your marshmallow skewer and hold it as close (say, 1 cm) to the red-hot coals as possible without covering your treat in ash. It takes (delicious) practice.
›› A gumdrop trampoline is plenty of fun, but how many kids can you cram onto one? What’s needed here is a giant room full of trampolines, and at Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park (45 Esandar Dr.), a full hour and a half of frenetic jumping costs $16 a person. Tykes under the age of five can get in on the tumbling during Toddler Time, which runs 9:30–11 a.m. and 1–2:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays—it’s $8 for each toddler and $5 for siblings.
“I’d hit the Ghoster Coaster at Canada’s Wonderland.”
›› We get it: No parent is particularly psyched about going to Canada’s Wonderland (9580 Jane St.). But there are ways to staunch the cash-bleeding. Buying online three days in advance will save you almost 20 bucks off each ticket. And if conquering that Coaster is your child’s summer goal, a junior season’s pass is $69, giving you early ride access between 9 and 10 a.m. on July 19 and August 2, 16, and 30.
›› Keep things ghostastic when you get home by telling some good ol’ fashioned spooky stories. Atmosphere is key, so have everyone sit in a semi-circle and use a single source of light, like a candle or (safer) a wind-up camping lantern. Open all the windows, let the night air blow the curtains around, and tell the story as if it’s one you know first-hand.
›› Best way to pretend you were totally there? Tell a Toronto ghost story. Legend has it that the gash in the door at U of T’s University College was made in the mid-19th century by an axe-wielding Ivan Reznikoff, who was chasing after his friend and fellow stone-mason—and sweetheart-stealer!— Paul Diabolos. There was a scuffle on a staircase; Reznikoff ended up dead. But not gone, and definitely not over the betrayal—hey, what’s that banging in the hall?!
“I’d get some Buffalo chicken wings—the boneless ones. Then I’d dance any kind of dance.”
›› Fact: Kids love Buffalo wings. Further fact: They are super easy to make at home. Downsize boneless wings for kid-size mouths by cutting up smaller pieces of chicken breast, then whisk together ¾-cup flour with ½-teaspoon paprika (this is the secret), 1 teaspoon salt, and ¼-teaspoon each of black and cayenne pepper. Dunk the chicken in an egg-and-milk mixture (two eggs and a splash of milk is fine), then dip and coat once more for good measure. Bake in a cast-iron pan for 10–12 minutes, placing them under the broiler for the last minute or so, until they’re good and crisp. Slather on Frank’s Red Hot Buffalo Wings Sauce with a knob of melted butter and serve with a milkshake. Hey, they’re young.
›› Then work it off alongside the Toronto All-Star Big Band at Harbourfront Centre’s third annual Dancing On The Pier event. This old-school, all-ages dance party happens July 18 from 7–10 p.m., and the theme is Swinging the Rhythm, Dancing the Blues.
›› Can’t wait till then to dance? Pick up some sweet moves this weekend at DanceClash, where some of the slickest street-dance crews in Toronto square off for supremacy. (Harbourfront Centre, WestJet Stage, July 14, 3:30–5 p.m. Free.)
Related reading: Our six favourite off-the-beaten-path parks for kids