Opened in August after a $24 million, 10-year development, Little Canada is Toronto’s newest tourist attraction.
Always keen to hear news about model railways, a lifetime passion, I’ve been following the story of Little Canada for months. Now it’s open and on a recent 90-minute visit, I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more.
There’s lots of railroad tracks and 1:87 scale passenger and freight trains zipping around, but the main attraction is the shear scope and imagination behind the displays. Model makers have created edited versions of Ottawa, Toronto and Quebec City, with Niagara, the Golden Horseshoe and a winter snowscape in Quebec rounding out the current landscape. The whole is inhabited by more than 10 thousand tiny ¾-inch scale people, engaged in every imaginable (decent) activity and hundreds of moving vehicles. The sun rises and sets every 15 minutes and as darkness approaches, car lights come on and buildings glow enchantingly.
As a Toronto resident, I was amused to see how the designers had re-arranged the city. It’s still completely recognizable, but without all the boring bits, and sorted out to show it off to best advantage. I liked seeing the historic St. Lawrence Market next to the restored Distillery District, both wonderfully modelled with cut-aways to show off the activities inside. In the background trains come and go, including a commuter GO train.
The bank towers loom alongside a fantastic model of the Royal York Hotel, but I was disappointed to see that the golden towers of the Royal Bank of Canada, where I once toiled as a PR person, were missing. Perhaps, one day, they’ll sponsor their own edifice, as TD, BMo and Scotiabank seem to have done, to grand effect.
There are several showpieces in Little Toronto. Baseball fans will be eager to see who wins at the Sky Dome. Yes, it was still called that in 1993, when the world stopped turning for a few moments, as a slugger named Joe Carter hit the World Series-winning home run. It’s memorialized on a tiny Jumbotron as the players run the bases. My family were there that day, but I couldn’t spot them in the stands alongside thousands of other tiny devotees.
Another spectacle is Union Station, with taxis and limos lined up outside, passengers entering and exiting on forever journeys, a couple enthusiastically entwined in a farewell kiss and more tiny slices of life than you can grasp at once.
Humour is not absent either. On the bridge to the USA in Niagara Falls, a car has stalled with steam pouring out from the engine with a helpless driver checking under the hood. In Ottawa, the building where our taxes are collected has been turned into a jellybean factory full of ghastly ‘bean counters.’ In Quebec’s old town, Le Cochon Dingue (The Crazy Pig), one of my favourite restaurants, has tiny pigs inside. You will undoubtedly find your own favourite funny scenes.
Little Niagara, where the adventure begins, has a panoramic model of the Falls, with tumbling water projected onto the scene as a tiny Maid of the Mist makes its way upstream against a raging torrent. Clifton Hill has all the tacky attractions, mercifully reduced to a tiny scale and the trains come and go from a nearby station. The original Tim Horton’s doughnut shop can be found among the tiny buildings.
In the miniature Niagara on the Lake, a horse and carriage circles a wonderful replica of the Prince of Wales Hotel, where I have been known to stay. Over at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, two thespians on a balcony entertain a large crowd of theatregoers. The steel furnaces in Hamilton still roar, while in a more bucolic nearby scene road racers reach the finish line. The winner raises his arms in triumph.
Ottawa is a spectacle on an entirely different scale. The full panoply of Parliament is spread out on a magical Canada Day. As the sun sets and the great Peace Tower clock chimes, a son et lumière is projected onto the Centre Block, to the accompaniment of the National Anthem. No sooner does that conclude, when an amazing fireworks display bursts over the Ottawa River.
There’s much more to see in Ottawa but my absolute favourite is the gardens planted with thousands of tulips. These salute the tribute from the people of the Netherlands, for our country’s kindness to their Royal Family during WW2. In one corner a tiny bunch of gardeners are planting more flowers.
In Quebec there’s another spectacular scene, with the Dufferin Terrace embracing a huge model of the Château Frontenac Hotel in a detailed winter scene. The old town nestles below, with tiny houses, restaurants and bars—did I mention pigs? On the river front a ferry awaits its load of cars, while a fleet of competitive ice canoers race between the ice flows to cross the wide St. Lawrence River. The longest cantilever bridge span in the world, the Pont de Québec, traverses the background. Close by there are other snowy attractions, a spectacular waterfall and a ski hill especially beautiful when the sun sets and lights illuminate the scene.
There are trees everywhere and my last stop is to peek into the Miniature Makers workshop where modellers labour painstakingly over their creations. We can watch them at work on future projects. One is making a tree, to add to the forest of over 5,000 already on site. Another shows me tiny bicycles cut by laser and ready for painting. Before Little Canada even opened, modellers put in 180,000 hours of work.
A designer is working on plans for Dawson City, to be a feature in Little North, which will be the next section to open. Since the real Canadian North is nearly 1.5 million square kilometers in size, I imagine there’s some serious editing to be done. I’m sure there will be inuksuit (the Inuktituk plural of inuksuk).
The skill and patience of the designers, model makers and scenic artists is to be much admired. All the tiny details they have laboured over are revealed when one looks closely at any part of the enormous display. In the next few years, it will only get bigger and better.
Next they are planning for Little East Coast, Little Prairies, Little Rockies, Little West Coast and Petit Montréal to come at the rate of one a year over the next few years. They have 45,000 square feet to fill, so there’s plenty of room for expansion.
It also gives me an excellent excuse to return again and again.
A large futuristic pod stands to one side. It’s called the Littlization Station. I am lured in by the thought of being beamed up to become a permanent resident of Little Canada. Inside 128 cameras take a 3D picture of me as I pose self-consciously. I will only be ¾ inches tall, but happy to give a giant welcome to thousands of visitors a year.
When my Little Me arrives, I am given a choice of where I would like my tiny replica to pose forever. I debate whether I’d like to stand next to the flagpole flying a Union Jack at an historic fort in Niagara, as a tribute to my Brit heritage. Or perhaps I’d be better off standing at Union Station gazing across the road to where Royal Bank Plaza should be. It was my workplace for many years. Or, as my son is a road racer, it might be fun to stand in the crowd assembled at the finish line to cheer on the approaching cyclists. I was sorry that the Toronto Islands seem to have been edited out of Little Toronto, as I would like to have stood near a sailing boat. Perhaps I can find a happy place near some other sailing boats?
When you visit–and you must–see if you can find Little Me!
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This is Nigel’s 315th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories.