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Toronto's Just the Ticket for Children

Good theater, eating and shopping are showstoppers for kids and parents.


TORONTO — I joined the standing ovation for "Mamma Mia" and thought, "Clinically depressed people should come to this show in busloads for a few hours of relief and old-fashioned joy."

But I couldn't linger. "The Lion King" was also about to let out half a block away, and I had to get my 8-year-old daughter, Madeline, and solicit her opinion. She had seen one show on Broadway and was a budding theater snob.

"Well, I know the story too well," she said of "Lion King" as we walked away, "but the staging was better than 'Peter Pan."' High praise coming from her for a production 450 miles off Broadway.

But this, after all, was Toronto, a metropolitan area of 4.3 million that offers more theater than any city except London or New York. Granted, it's a distant third, but there are more shows playing in any given week than one could see. And much of it is high quality, nurtured with government funds, molded by artists eager to prove their nation's cultural worth.

During a three-night stay in Toronto, the capital of Ontario, during the last week in April, I saw three excellent plays, two in gorgeously restored old theaters. I stayed in two first-rate hotels, ate in several good restaurants, strolled a harbor front that reminded me of Chicago, toured a Chinatown that made me think of San Francisco--and spent about the same amount I would have eating in delis and sleeping a step above fleabag in New York.

My husband, Bruce Alpert, and I were there with a twofold purpose: to have an adult-style theater escape yet still show our daughter and 13-year-old niece a good time. We scored on both attempts.

Every night except Monday, Toronto offers four to six plays by producers capable of mounting large-scale shows and a plethora of others. Recently there were 29 plays for adults and 11 for kids--plus two operas, five classical music concerts, seven dance productions and shows at three comedy houses. Ticket prices for all were at least 25% lower than at most big-city U.S. venues.

We started at the Royal Alexandra with "Mamma Mia," which had a recent run in Los Angeles and is Broadway-bound.

"The Lion King" is a smash in Toronto, but visitors can get tickets from the blocks set aside for hotels.

After our matinees, we grabbed a cab for the nearby Harbourfront, an entertainment and shopping complex with a lot of open space. From here a seven-minute ferry ride takes you across the harbor to the Toronto Islands, 14 to be exact, one of which features a small amusement park and petting farm.

For parents inclined to let their children sample theme parks (we were not, at least on this trip), there is Ontario Place, also on the lakefront. The park has amusement rides, a playground with an enormous trampoline and a water play area with squirt guns, hoses, slides and giant dryers. Paramount Canada's Wonderland is outside town, with 50 rides and 12 water slides that Madeline would have loved. (Neither had opened for the season when we were there.)

Instead we grabbed a bite at Shopsy's Deli, which failed my husband's Jewish authenticity test (the food did not come near the standards of a New York deli), and headed back to our hotel.

With 1,591 rooms, the Delta Chelsea is Canada's largest hotel. It features, among other things, a family-only pool. It also has an adult-only pool, which I coveted after an hour at the family-only pool. Suffice it to say, if you build a pool for children, they will come. And they will be loud.

The next morning we took a tour of the largest of Toronto's three Chinatowns.

Having a guide who knows the history and culture of a neighborhood is definitely the way to go. With Shirley Lum, I discovered the identity and use of the mysterious items sold in Asian groceries.

The kids loved the Chinese pharmacy, where scorpions, flattened lizards, roots and snakeskin cures were a page out of a Harry Potter spell book. The dried sea horses, we learned, are for liver problems; slices of antler at $110 an ounce are for anemia.

At Tung King Bakery we enjoyed fried lotus sesame balls, white sugar cake and butter cream buns. Lum also insisted on getting us samples of those heads-still-on pigs, ducks and chickens that hang in the shop windows of every Chinatown. I won't be feeling the need to try the pig again.

But the dim sum at the Bright Pearl? Now, that's another story. Waitresses arrived with 75 choices. The garlic, chive and shrimp dumplings, the sui mai and the mango pudding dessert were excellent. The owner apologized that, this being a Monday instead of a weekend, he didn't have 150 dishes to offer.

We took a cab to the Royal Ontario Museum, where we had to drag my daughter away from the two floors with interactive exhibits. She held a live garter snake; examined fossils, tusks and dead frogs in jars under magnifiers; put specimens under microscopes; and touched Egyptian artifacts and British suits of armor.

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