Built on the bones of every Toronto child’s cherished memory of the best day ever, the Aurora Winter Festival has transformed the abandoned grounds of Ontario Place into a glittering wonderland. Aside from the geodesic dome, many of the things you remember about Ontario Place are gone. Most woefully is that forest of colourful suspended punching bags that no child escaped without being bruised and battered. Today, the only thing that will receive such a pummelling is your wallet.
You buy tickets at a tent on the mainland before enduring a bag search. Once your ticket has been scanned, you’ll be funnelled into the first of many photogenic spots. The bridge into Ontario Place has been restyled as a tunnel twinkling with hundreds of blue lights and marks the entrance and exit into the grounds. In an effort to be more eco-friendly (or more likely, cost-effective) they don’t give out maps when you buy your ticket. There’s only one map on a board at the end of the bridge, but the festival grounds are easy to navigate and you likely won’t get lost.
What To Do
Coloured lights will be wrapped around trees all over the grounds, giving off an eerie green, pink or purple glow that is reminiscent of the festival’s namesake, the aurora borealis. Within this illuminated forest are towering light installations of animals you’d find in Arctic Canada, like foxes, moose and bears, but more whimsical creatures like a Pegasus will also be around. This sparkling woodland and its fauna are the big draw to this event, but not the only thing to see and do at the Aurora Winter Festival.
At the end of a lane is a large tent that houses Santa’s Workshop. During the day it’s a crafts area for kids. At night, the fat man himself and some of Santa’s elves will put on a skit and tell a Christmas tale for Santa’s Storytime. This happens at several points during the evening, and while it’s also meant for children, there were a lot of adults on the benches. Yes, they were there with their children, but the bro has some cool stories that will get you into the spirit. Mark commented that this place was really getting him into the holiday mood even though Christmas Day had already passed by this point, and began annoyingly singing along to Christmas carols.
The midway is a frenetic oasis in the otherwise serene festival grounds. Flashing bulbs, carnival barkers calling out for more punters, and the excited “whoo!” noise of ride goers. The rides that are set up are nothing too frightening: spinny strawberries, a boat that swings back and forth like a pendulum, and a huge slide surely leftover from the Ontario Place days. Rides are on a token basis and can be bought from the tent that will have a big crowd in front of it.
The bane of any shutterbug is group pictures, where one loser has to be the one to hold the camera and gets excluded from the fun photo. The Aurora fest has thought ahead and employed designated picture takers at select spots. I took advantage of their services at the light installation of two swans kissing (a photo-op must for couples) and in the Mystical Worlds where a Yeti had taken up residence.
The Frozen Pond is worth visiting even if you don’t intend to skate. Look for the glimmering narwhal breaching the surface of the ice. This outdoor skating rink is picturesquely positioned against a backdrop of the CN Tower and the rest of the Toronto skyline. Skates have to be rented for a fee, but you can bring your own if you have them. If you don’t feel like being embarrassed by a nine-year-old who skates better than you, there is a covered viewing patio with chairs next to the rink where you can people watch.
It wouldn’t be a Christmas event without shopping. Rows of wooden huts try to evoke the feel of European Christmas markets. Most will have their wares outside and you get served through a window, but with some of the huts, you can go inside and pretend to be interested in the merchandise while you escape the cold. Expect the usual offerings of gourmet foodstuffs, jewellery and stocking stuffers. Some notable shops include one that sold novelty woolly hats and another that was entirely posters and hangable art.
All over the park, you’ll spot lamps that you’ll inevitably run to, your cold hands outstretched in a zombie-like fashion. No doubt you’ll be drawn in by the fire that burns at their base, but these things are useless at actually warming anything. Seek out the covered warming stations, where lamps with a fire burning at the top will give off a much stronger heat. Inside these tents, you can rest at picnic benches and buy warm drinks to beat the chill even more. There’s also a big entertainment tent with lots of seating and a live band playing when we walked by. Even if you hate whatever music is playing inside, it’s heated and it has a bar. The warmest part of the park, though, is a big fire cage with Muskoka chairs around it. During this year, it was inside one of the food gardens.
Food & Drink
There are two main food gardens at opposite ends of the grounds. The food trucks will serve typical carny fare: burgers, popcorn, hot dogs, funnel cakes, poutine and whatever unholy combination they’ve come up with that year, like a funnel cake burger. Guilty indulgences like fudge and candy apples can be found at the wooden shacks in the shopping lanes.
Drink huts are spread out all over the grounds. Despite the huts having different names, they will all serve the same variety of drinks. There are different varieties of coffee, tea and hot chocolate, but the most interesting selections are holiday mainstays like mulled wine and eggnog for $8 a cup. When buying a festive adult beverage like the spiked apple cider, you’ll have your choice of whisky, rum or vodka.
This is a pricey event with general admission being $25 per adult on the weekend in 2019. You save a paltry $2 if you take advantage of the “early bird” price by entering before 4pm, but I don’t think it’s worth it. The best thing about this event are the light sculptures, and they only look good at night. During the day, they’re just twisted metal and I’m not even sure if they’re lit up. If there’s one way to kill what little magic exists at this festival, it’s walking around in unforgiving daylight noticing just how much trash is on the ground and how filthy the snow really is as you desperately wait for it to finally get dark. Families might want to go during the day since their children have early bedtimes. Adults should go at sundown, otherwise, you’ll just be freezing outside for longer.
Is It Worth It?
Everyone living here has already been to the Toronto Christmas Market, and it’s hard not to compare the two. Both have lights, a big Christmas tree and Euro-style wooden huts selling overpriced “artisan” crap. The sticking point is that the Toronto Christmas Market is half the price at $12, or free if you go on the weekdays. Still a bloody rip-off, in my opinion.
Due to this, a lot of Torontonians have shit to say about the Aurora Winter Festival. A big complaint is that it’s expensive as hell. Of course it is! It’s an event that takes place in this dull city in the dead of winter. People are so starved for entertainment that they’d go watch television commercials on a jumbotron if someone set up a craft beer tent nearby.
Another valid niggle is that there’s nothing to do. $25 is really steep if you don’t intend to play any carnival games, skate on the pond, zip down the giant slide or buy anything at the stalls. Now you’re just paying $25 to look at some lights and freeze your ass off. You should never sit back and expect this city to entertain you – you will always be disappointed (Nuit Blanche, anyone?).
This is not the place for you if you’re going to be stubbornly clutching your pennies. You have to make or find amusement where you can, and in a place like this, that involves spending more money. Buy a rummy eggnog, indulge in a doughnut grilled cheese that you’d never be able to get anywhere else, cram all your friends into an oversized berry to spin until you’re sick and make a valiant yet futile ring toss effort.
What does the Aurora Winter Festival have over the Toronto Christmas Market to justify its $25 price? More lights, monstrous lit-up animals, midway rides, games, crafts for kids, a skating rink, the nostalgia of walking around Ontario Place and being by the water instead of among ugly industrial buildings.
The Toronto Christmas Market is just a place to shop and drink and brings in mostly young professionals. Aurora Winter Fest, with its cheesy Santa’s Workshop and ferris wheel, is more geared towards families and the type of adult who would twirl on the skating pond with their sweetie – the young at heart and the hopeless romantics.
Though it costs way more, I’m on the side of the Aurora Winter Festival. I thought it was pretty and had a good night taking lots of pictures. Then again, I actually possess disposable income (a rarity in this city) and I haven’t had my soul sucked out by living in Toronto. I saw it as a touristy treat that I was lucky to enjoy because, just like Ontario Place itself, who knows how long it’ll exist.
Aurora Winter Festival
Ontario Place (West Island), 955 Lake Shore Boulevard West
Weekdays, 4pm – 10pm
Saturday & Sunday, 2pm – 10pm
Closed on Mondays, Christmas Eve & Christmas Day
Runs from the last week of November to the first week of January