Canadian National Exhibition: The Complete Guide

CNE-toronto
The Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

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For 18 days at the end of the summer, the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) takes over the grounds of Exhibition Place in what has always been a beloved summer tradition in the city. Whether you go for the midway rides and games, the music, the food, or just to soak up the carnival atmosphere, the CNE offers something for everyone. If you’re curious about visiting, or want some more details on what to expect, read on for the complete guide to the Canadian National Exhibition.

History of the CNE

Founded in 1879 as the Toronto Industrial Exhibition, the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), otherwise known as “The Ex,” began as a place where visitors came to experience some of the newest innovations in technology and commercial products, as well as to see performances by popular entertainers and musicians of the time. By 1912, the CNE’s fairgrounds covered close to 350 acres and included one of the best amusement parks in the world.

In terms of the CNE once being a place to showcase new and emerging technology, fair-goers were introduced to electric railway transportation in 1883, the wireless telephone in the 1890s, radio in 1922 and virtual reality in 1992, to name a few innovations featured over the decades.

Since its inception, the CNE has changed in terms of what it offers, but it remains a beloved annual institution for both Toronto locals as well as visitors from the rest of Canada and beyond.

 The CNE is currently one of the 10 largest fairs in North America, and it's Canada’s largest community event.

What to Expect

The CNE represents the wind down of summer and the shift towards a new season, providing the opportunity for people of all ages to come together for food, fun, and entertainment of all kinds.

In 2014, the CNE attracted 1.43 million visitors over the 18 days of the fair, so there’s rarely a slow or quiet moment, but there are enough things going on from day to day that nothing ever feels overly crowded.

You can expect to do a lot of walking, especially if you want to maximize your visit, as the CNE covers 192 acres (including parking). There are 114 midway games, 60 midway rides to choose from, 700 vendors and exhibitors, and seven music stages. Not to mention, a casino, several bars and restaurants, craft and shopping pavilions, farm animals, and much more. The CNE is also well known for the iconic Air Show that happens over Labor Day weekend each year.

Getting Tickets

There are several ways to get yourself tickets to the CNE. For starters, you can make your purchase online, where for 2018, tickets are available for a discounted rate until August 16. Then tickets will be available online starting August 17 until September 3, 2018 at the regular rate.

You can also purchase tickets at any CNE gate from August 17 to September 3, 2018. Lines can get long, but do tend to move quickly at the gate.

Generally, regular (non-discounted) admission is $15, and a Ride All Day Pass (includes both admission and unlimited rides; all ages) is $41.

Keep in mind you’ll need to buy ride tickets separately if you just pay the admission fee.

Events and Shows

No matter what you’re interested in, there’s likely a show or event taking place at the CNE that you’ll be interested in. Below is an overview of some of the CNE’s entertainment highlights, from music to food to unique events for all ages.

  • The CNE plays host to an aerial acrobatic and ice skating show, the theme of which changes each year. For 2018, the theme is centered around the Four Elements: water, fire, wind, and earth.
  • The CNE Garden Show is home to the largest flower and vegetable growing competition in Canada.
  • The annual Canadian International Air Show (CIAS) happens high above Lake Ontario Labor Day weekend and features some awe-inspiring aerial acrobatics courtesy of a few daring and talented pilots. Some of these include the United States Air Force Thunderbirds and the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.
  • The Bandshell concert series always features an eclectic roster of performers. For 2018, the lineup includes Dennis DeYoung, Nancy Wilson of Heart, Marianas Trench, Men Without Hats, Stars, Freddie McGregor, Hollerado, Emerson Drive, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Fateh, Classic Albums Live - Led Zeppelin II, Bedouin Soundclash, Moist, The Washboard Union and James Barker Band, Big Sugar, Kansas, and The Trews.
  • Food truck fans will want to check out Food Truck Frenzy, featuring nearly two dozen mobile eateries offering both sweet and savory treats over three days (August 24-26, 2018). Running alongside Food Truck Frenzy is Craft Beer Fest, where beer fans can sample locally crafted beers from 11 breweries.
  • Watch energetic dogs do fun and entertaining tricks at the annual SuperDogs show, which always proves extremely popular (go early to get a seat). If you’re more of a cat-person, you can check out the cat show where more than 125 cats from across Ontario are showcased in display and in competition.
  • Head to the Farm to see a variety of adorable baby animals.

Rides and Games

Both kids and adults can enjoy rides at the CNE’s midway. For the smaller set, the Kiddie Midway is located just east of Kids' World at the west end of the CNE grounds and features 30 tame but fun rides suitable for kids.

For adults, you won’t find the thrill levels of larger amusement parks, but there are still plenty of options for anyone looking for an adrenalin spike or some fast-moving fun. You’ll find everything here from roller coasters to rides that spin, twist and twirl. Some CNE classic rides include the iconic Tilt-a-Whirl, Crazy Mouse Roller Coaster, Swing Tower, Niagara Falls Flume (prepare to get wet) and the Mega Drop (to name a few)

The Sky Ride offers a birds-eye view of the CNE grounds and is a great way to see everything in one easygoing ride. Extending 40 feet above the ground at its highest point, the Sky Ride elevates visitors into the air, transporting them across the grounds towards the historic Princes' Gates.

When it comes to games, there are a wide variety of typical carnival games to choose from that involve everything from shooting water at a moving target, to ring tosses, to whack-a-mole games. Do your best, and see if you’re lucky enough to bring home a giant stuffed animal.

What to Eat and Drink

As much as some people head to the CNE for rides and shows, there’s a whole other contingent of fair-goers that make food their focus, which isn’t hard to do.

Each year, more than one million people visit the Toronto Star Food Building, which as the name suggests, is all about the food. Think of the Food Building as one giant food court, with a little something for everyone. Here you’ll find all the fast food classics (burgers, fries, pizza, etc.), as well as options from around the world, and vegetarian and gluten-free options.

The CNE is also known for introducing a few wild and crazy food items each year that people get very excited about. Check the CNE’s website for details leading up the start of the fair. But expect some unique flavor combinations and lots of deep fried foods.

In addition, if you prefer a sit-down meal or drink, there are several bars and restaurants to choose from, including Wine Garden, The Beach Bar, Craft Taps, Northern Comfort Saloon, and Glow Bar.

And anyone who loves ribs will want to head to Ribfest, happening at Bandshell Park every day of the CNE

Location and Getting There

The CNE is located at Toronto’s Exhibition Place, north of Lake Shore Boulevard West, between Strachan and Dufferin Streets. It is accessible directly from the Gardiner Expressway. 

Due to limited (and pricey) parking, your best bet for getting to the CNE is via public transit.

The following TTC buses and streetcars offer direct service to the CNE, stopping at the Dufferin Gate Loop (west end of CNE grounds) and Exhibition Loop (via east end of grounds).

511 Bathurst Streetcar: From Bathurst Subway Station, the 511 Bathurst Streetcar south brings you to the Exhibition Loop

29 Dufferin Bus: From Dufferin Subway Station, the 29 Dufferin Bus south brings you to the Dufferin Gate Loop

509 Harbourfront Streetcar: From Union Station, the 509 Harbourfront Streetcar brings you to the Exhibition Loop

Other Things to Know

  • Since you’ll be doing a lot of walking, comfortable shoes are a must, as well as sunscreen and a hat.
  • It’s also a good idea to avoid large bags and backpacks since buildings can get crowded.
  • Remember that all CNE shows and attractions are free with admission, but you will need to buy ride tickets if you did not buy a Ride All Day pass.
  • Parking at the CNE is expensive and hard to come by – take public transit if you can.