On the Canadian National Exhibition: The View from the Sky Ride

This piece is the second in a series of reports from the 2012 Canadian National Exhibition. The first report covered the opening ceremony.

A frequent complaint about the CNE is that it’s always the same, year after year. And it’s hard to deny that there’s a lot of truth to this complaint. The architecture of the grounds has largely stagnated, and more structures have been demolished than built in recent decades. Likewise, the midway, which was once one of the most innovative in North America, has become predictable. Every year there’s something that gets ballyhooed as new and exciting, but it’s usually pretty modest: a new ride that’s not all that different from the other rides, a crazy food concoction that’s just a little bit crazier than last year’s crazy food concoction (about which more in a later post).

This year, though, there actually is something worth getting excited about: the Sky Ride. It isn’t new, exactly; it’s a rebirth of the Alpine Way that soared over the midway from 1966 to 1994 (and a stunted one at that: only 13 metres high compared to the Alpine Way’s 31 metres). To be honest, I was sceptical bordering on dismissive when I first saw it being set up before the fair opened. Seeing the structure rising in the middle of an empty lot, I found it hard to imagine the appeal of a not-very-high chairlift moving slowly in a straight line.

But it turns out the Sky Ride is easily the best addition to the Ex in recent years. Even if it’s not that high, the view is still impressive. From above, you get a sense of just how big the fair is, of how many people are jammed in there together and how many disparate activities are going on at once. I rode it at night, and the swirl of lights and colours and music and noise was intoxicating. The slowness of the ride is a useful contrast to the frenzy of the midway and makes you feel like you’re drifting through a phantasmagoria.

The view from the Sky Ride: Carnival lights in theforeground, city lights in the distance.

At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, the view from the Sky Ride also makes you conscious of how embedded the fair is in the wider city—something that’s at the heart of the CNE’s identity but that you can lose sight of when you’re overwhelmed by the carnival atmosphere down on the ground. Watching the city lights and the midway lights blur into one another makes you realize that, unlike Disneyland or Canada’s Wonderland, the CNE is not a self-contained dreamworld; it’s a dreamworld that rubs up against the real world, a carnival that can’t help but be in dialogue with the urban civilization that hosts it.

Ultimately, the Sky Ride is a simple ride. But just by letting people see the CNE and take in its uniqueness, it could do more to get people excited about the CNE than anything else the fair’s management has tried in recent years.