For years I’ve watched those offensively large hippos lumber up Yonge Street. I loathed them; they were the essence of tourist trap. Why, I wondered, would people shell out hard-?earned cash to pile into a painted bus/barge hybrid and sit in traffic?
Yet wave after wave of snapshot-? shooting tourists ride by every summer. I figure there’s space for me this year, since foreign tourism is at its lowest ebb since record-keeping began (1972). And since I’m already doing the hippo thing, I might as well hop on those double-decker buses too.
Climbing into Henrietta, as she’s called, feels extremely dorky. The dork factor is amplified by the fact that I’m sitting alone and the Hippo has my $38.
“Is anyone from Toronto?” asks our guide. I figure it’s best to lie low. If questioned, I’ll just blurt out a few lines of Ukrainian.
“Good,” she responds. “I can say anything I want and get away with it.” And she’s probably right. There is, in fact, no oversight of tour guide spiels by the city. (See sidebar.)
The fact is, the Toronto these companies want outsiders to see isn’t the city we know, with its ethnic enclaves, artsy ‘hoods and Victorian residential streets.
Sorry, most of Toronto, you don’t matter. Sticking to the safe traffic flow of McCaul and avoiding Spadina, the tours I take basically ask passengers to imagine a bustling Chinatown. Nor do they venture to Little Italy or point out that a chunk of T.O.’s creative heart pumps in West Queen West or Leslieville.
Queen West does get a mention as the area to buy hip things. And one guide says Eat My Martini is where it’s at on the west College strip. Leslieville, Cabbagetown, Danforth and beyond: you are officially not Toronto tour-?worthy. Instead, the Hippo guide directs visitors to Joe Badali’s to take advantage of the 15 per cent entree discount we get with our tour ticket stub. At least she doesn’t say Lone Star Texas Grill, but it’s close.
Some info is just plain skewed.
The guide claims that Yonge Street is listed in Guinness World Records as the world’s longest street. Maybe years ago, but it’s not in the book any more, since it becomes highway 11 and actually disappears in Barrie.
Passing Robarts Library at U of T, we’re told it’s sinking from the weight of books. It isn’t, but let me tell you about my friend who got shot at by Hunter S. Thompson, was robbed of a dead dog in a suitcase and then woke up without a kidney in Mexico.
Tourists enjoy hearing that the Royal Bank building has 24-karat gold in the windows. The guide says the gold’s worth $70 per window, and she’s actually right, though the next tour company I ride with claims it’s $45. Who’s going to know?
I’m a little surprised to see that Fort York isn’t worth a drive-?by, except by the Hippo on its way to a splash. The silly boat plows into the water near Ontario Place, where I’m relieved to hear the tour leader get it right: the CN Tower is doomed to lose its height title to Dubai.
Later, racing up from Front to Yonge-?Dundas Square, I catch Shop-?Dine-?Tour’s yellow double-?decker, a retired Bristol VR transit coach from the UK with a sawed-?off roof. The company website says for $33 you get to use it “every day of your stay,” so it looks like I’m going to use it for the rest of the year.
In the spirit of authentic tourist-gouging, the $33 ticket becomes a $36 ticket when I get to the booth. Then $37 when I get my bill – thanks to a mysterious convenience fee.
Fortunately, this ride is a gas. The on-?off system works, nobody hassles you and buses run regularly. But, geez, the guide is familiar. It doesn’t take long to figure out he’s the stand-?up comic I saw a few weeks back at an open-?mic night. He’s mostly funny, and inserts his own take on the city.
“I like that building,” he says, pointing at Postal Station F at Charles and Yonge, “not because it’s special, but it has a McDonald’s, a Starbucks and a gym, so you can get fat and work it off all in one stop.”
He tells riders where he likes to get cheesecake (Carole’s Cheesecake Café, on Cumberland) and peameal bacon sandwiches (the St. Lawrence Market). I get the feeling these aren’t marketing suggestions from the company.
Best of all, the high bus cuts it frighteningly close going under some of the city’s older bridges or skimming along under the streetcar power cables. It’s entirely possible to get decapitated or electrocuted if you stand up; it makes the trip awesome.
But by the time the third bus tour rolls around, hearing how Henry Pellatt failed, how the CN Tower was once the tallest, or driving up our once-?longest street to be told what Sam the Record Man used to be, what the Carlu could have been and where the Leafs used to play starts to wear me down. There’s more to Toronto. Maybe the guides’ current info carte blanche could be used to invent some more positive stuff to point at.