Love theatre and love to travel? Then it’s time to plan getaways to Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, Canada.
Love live theatre and love to travel? Then you would probably agree that the ideal vacation involves traveling to a destination where there’s an opportunity to take in a play or two (or more). Each year, tens of thousands of North Americans head out of town for the express purpose of attending live theatre.
In the Canadian province of Ontario, there are two communities known around the world for their seasonal professional theatre companies – Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake. In 2018, the Stratford Festival alone welcomed over 500,000 visitors and the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake had over 250,000 – that’s a lot of theatre-goers! Visiting either of these destinations during festival season is a great experience for anyone including families that have children old enough to attend the theatre.
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Visiting Stratford, Ontario
The city of Stratford in southwestern Ontario is located on the picturesque banks of the Avon River, approximately a two hour drive from Toronto. As a major railway hub in the 19th century, Stratford was a prosperous community with grand buildings in the downtown core which can now be seen on a walking tour of the central heritage district. With the founding of the Stratford Festival, tourism developed into a significant industry and Stratford was soon transformed into one of North America’s great arts towns.
The Stratford Festival
The internationally recognized Stratford Festival, founded in 1953, is an annual celebration of theatre that performs several plays (12 in the 2019 season) generally in four permanent venues during a season that runs from April through November although the Tom Patterson Theatre is dark for the 2019 season during a renewal project.
The primary mandate of the festival is to showcase the works of William Shakespeare, however a variety of works are staged each season including popular musicals. The Festival Theatre is the largest of the venues and was built to resemble a tent as a tribute to the early festival performances which were held in a canvas tent set up along the Avon River prior to the construction of a permanent venue. The Festival Theatre is known for its thrust stage, designed to resemble the one in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, in which the audience surrounds three sides of the stage.
Stratford Festival for Families
There are at least a couple of family-friendly shows on the playbill each season but the magic extends beyond those performances. The Stratford Festival is committed to nurturing a love of theatre and, to that end, sponsors a number of activities to encourage families to bring the kids along.
Song and dance or acting workshops are held prior to select shows providing participants of all ages the opportunity to work alongside cast members and learn more about what it takes to be a Stratford actor.
Kids also enjoy tours of the Festival Theatre which provide a glimpse at where the behind the scenes magic happens as well as tours of the Costume and Props Warehouse which involve dressing-up and plenty of photo opportunities.
The festival offers reduced admission for kids to any performance which helps make the theatre experience more affordable for families. Relaxed performances have also been introduced to welcome patrons who would benefit from a less restricted audience environment.
Stratford Theatre Camps
Do you have a budding thespian in your family? The Stratford Festival’s theatre camps are among the best that you will find. Both of my daughters have attended and had incredible experiences. The summer camp program includes day camp for children in grades 1-6 and both Shakespeare focused and Musical Theatre residential camps for those in grades 7-12.
The participants have master classes and rehearsals during the day, attend festival performances in the evening, and stage a performance for families and friends at the end of their stay. For the first time this year, the Stratford Festival is also offering a weekend camp experience for families to attend as well as a program for adults.
Things To Do in Stratford
In addition to theatrical events, Stratford has a number of attractions and activities as well as many fine restaurants and a variety of shops that visitors will enjoy. Foodies who are in town should stop by the Visitor Welcome Centre and purchase a pass that will allow for tasting stops along the self-guided Stratford Chocolate Trail or the Stratford Bacon & Ale Trail.
At any time of the day, visitors can be found strolling the path along the banks of the Avon River, browsing Art in the Park or enjoying a pre-theatre picnic lunch. Those in search of more active pursuits may rent rent a pedal boat, canoe or kayak and spend some time on the placid water.
Stratford is also famed as the birthplace of Justin Bieber and young fans might be pleased to learn that there is a map available indicating some of his favourite hangouts in town and that he has a star on the sidewalk outside the Avon Theatre where he busked as a young boy.
Things To Do Near Stratford
Visitors staying for more than a day can spend some time exploring the region around the city of Stratford. A favourite destination is friendly St. Jacobs where the horse and buggies of the local Mennonite community are a common sight and visitors can shop at the bustling Farmers’ Market on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday or browse the studios, galleries and shops in the village.
Just a few minutes from Stratford, the town of St. Marys has a limestone quarry swimming hole which is billed as Canada’s largest outdoor swimming pool as well as the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum which shares Canada’s baseball heritage.
The town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, on the south shore of Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River, is often described as the prettiest town in Ontario. The area was settled by Loyalists coming to Upper Canada at the end of the American Revolution and was later burned to the ground by American soldiers during the War of 1812.
The town was rebuilt after the war and the quaint downtown area has been preserved as a 19th century village which is wildly popular during the summer months with day-trippers as well as visitors staying in one of the town’s many charming inns.
The Shaw Festival
The world-renowned Shaw Festival is an annual summer theatre festival held in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The festival, launched in 1962 by a Niagara-area lawyer and playwright, is inspired by the works of George Bernard Shaw and features plays from and about his era.
The Festival has grown steadily every year since it was founded and now stages 10-12 productions a year in four theatres all within short walking distance of each other in downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake. The productions at the Shaw Festival would generally be suitable for older school-aged children and teenagers.
Things To Do in Niagara-on-the-Lake
The theatre is just one of the attractions in Niagara-on-the Lake that draws crowds during the summer months. Visitors stroll along Queen Street, the town’s picture-postcard main street, where they will find shops, boutiques, galleries, cafes, and restaurants. Horses with buggies wait outside the Prince of Wales hotels to take passengers on carriage rides around town.
Overnight guests can stay in one of the many elegant hotels or Bed & Breakfast establishments, tour the world-famous Niagara wineries, visit historical sites, play a round of golf, or take a scenic drive along the Niagara parkway to the city of Niagara Falls.
Both Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake are ideal destinations for day trips or for weekend getaways. Both are also now easily accessible to those who don’t wish to drive as the Stratford Festival offers the Stratford Direct Bus from either Toronto or Vaughan (with a brief stop in Kitchener-Waterloo) and the Shaw Express to Niagara-on-the-Lake runs from Toronto (with a brief stop in Burlington) four days a week from April to October. There’s also seasonal GO train service from Toronto to Niagara Falls and VIA Rail has service to Stratford.
The combination of culture, outdoor activities, and additional attractions makes both of these communities fun for a family getaway as well as a great way to develop a love of theatre in kids.
Unfortunately, the 2020 seasons had to be cancelled at both the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival. Information coming soon on the 2021 season.
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