When I was a kid, the Central Canada Exhibition, aka SuperEx, aka The Ex, was a big deal — the last hurrah before the end of summer. If it was still going on, it would be on right now.
For a pre-teen or teenager of my generation, it couldn’t be beat. We’d save up all summer to spend the day at the Ex. It was our one day of freedom, where there were no parents, no set mealtimes, nothing except our friends and the rules of the Ex. Those rules were pretty simple: If you wanted to play a game, go on a ride or get a treat, everyone either went along or stopped to watch. And you generally had to behave in a way that wouldn’t get you kicked out, which gave you quite a bit of latitude.
Weekdays were the domain of the tween and young teen crowd. Parents were at work, younger kids were too young to go by themselves, and the older teens were either working summer jobs or sleeping in. We’d take the special EX bus to arrive at opening time. The crowds were relatively small and you could often get off of a ride and jump right back on it after going back through the entrance gate. The barkers were desperate for customers and would come out of their booths to entice you to play a game. If it was a racing-type game, your only competition might be your friends. Somebody’s parents would arrange to pick us up sometime around the supper hour.
Evenings belonged to the older teens and young adults. I remember certain rides were tailored to this crowd, including the Swiss Bob.
The operator of the Swiss Bob played loud rock music all day, and he would talk to the riders through a microphone, saying things like, “Do you want to go faster?!”
And of course, everybody would scream, “Yeahhhhh!”
Whenever I think about the Ex, which I often do at this time of year, all of the sights, sounds and smells come back to me as if I’m right there.
The air was pungent with the aroma of cooking oil, especially in and around the Food Fair building, which boasted Tiny Tom donuts, fresh waffles topped with ice cream, and all sorts of burgers, fries, corn on the cob, Pogo dogs, back bacon on a bun and just about anything else that was more about taste than nutrition. How we kept all that garbage down while taking in the rides, I’ll never know.
The midway games were the loudest part of the Ex, with barkers talking into microphones that were strapped to their chins (a little too closely for clear sound), entreating passersby to come and win a big prize. “All you have to do is get the ring on the neck of the bottle.” Three tries for a dollar!” I also remember the sounds of the racing games, where you had to spray water into a clown target’s mouth until a balloon filled with water and burst, or be the first to shoot out a paper star with a pellet gun. When somebody won, a siren would go off and the barker would shout, “We have a winner!”
Usually the prize was something like a small stuffed toy. Then you could play again and trade it in for a larger toy. The manliest of young men might blow their budget for the month trying to win a HUGE stuffed animal for their date, who always looked so proud to be carrying it around the exhibition grounds for the rest of the night.
I also remember the click-click-click of the wheel in the Crown and Anchor games, that nobody ever seemed too young to lose a few quarters on, although when I was very young my father told me those were grown-up games. I do remember as a teenager putting my money down along with my friends. I was never overly tempted to bet too much or play too long because I knew I had to make my money last all day.
But nothing tops the memory of those rides. The scariest of all was the Skydiver, which was a bit like a ferris wheel, except the cars were enclosed and spun on an axle that ran front to back down the length of the car, controlled by a little steering wheel. There was no way to keep that thing from going upside down or even going into an uncontrolled spin, as the cars went up the wheel, then over the top and back down again.
Then of course there were the haunted houses. Some you walked through and some you rode through. I’m not sure which ones were the scariest. Knowing that you had to walk through it yourself was a bit more unnerving because you had to screw up the courage to keep going.
And the Sky Wheel, also known as the double ferris wheel offered a spectacular view of the exhibition grounds and surrounding neighbourhood.
My favourite, though, was the Tilt-a-Whirl.
There were, of course, also the Grandstand shows, which were included in the cost of admission in the earlier years, although as the names got bigger, separate tickets were required for them. The stage was set up on the football field where the Ottawa Rough Riders played, facing the north stands. I remember seeing the Osmonds and the Bells. Later, I paid to see George Thorogood, Bryan Adams, and Neil Young at the Grandstand.
And if you needed to relax and get out of the heat during the day you could go into the Civic Centre where the hockey rink was used for equestrian competitions, including barrel racing and show jumping.
The Ex had a complicated relationship with its location, Landsdowne Park, as well the Glebe neighbourhood where the park was located. There was frequent talk of moving it to a location outside the city. During the 1990s attendance seemed to drop off as well.
A tragic incident where a young man died after a reverse bungee ride malfunctioned tarnished the Ex’s reputation somewhat, and when Landsdowne Park was redeveloped starting in 2011, the Ex was suspended, and then finally cancelled for good.
The appeal of theme parks like Wonderland and La Ronde with their multitude of permanent roller coasters took some of the magic away from the Ex. The Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto was and is much bigger and, no doubt, some families chose to go there instead.
In the end, the Ex was a victim of its times. It had simply outlived its era.