Thursday, August 25, 2011

The PNE: Definitely Not The Best Part of Summer

I want to preface this entry by saying that I hope I don't offend anyone's traditions or livelihood in this somewhat brutal review of my experience at the PNE.  I realize that lots of people have always gone and have lovely memories with their families at the PNE, and that's totally understandable. That being said, this was my experience and my perspective on the corporate and commercial nature of the PNE.

I've been to the PNE once in my adult life, and I don't remember the experience at all.  Every year the PNE opens and there is a big fuss over it, and every year I don't even bother with it for whatever reason.  This year I felt a strange sense of urgency to take Aias.  After all, the PNE is without a doubt an incredibly popular attraction, so there must be something fantastic about it, right? Back to my strange sense of urgency to take Aias to this yearly event, for some reason I convinced myself that going to the PNE each year is a valuable part of being a Vancouverite and something that Aias will want to know he had been apart of each year as a child.  Clearly as his parent it was my job to ensure this happens, right?  That being said, I didn't want to spend $20 to get in, primarily because I'm cheap. On Monday August 20th, there was free admission to the PNE from 9am to noon.  I can't turn down free, so despite the fact that it was pouring rain, I decided to check it out.  We have every piece of rain gear Mountain Equipment Co-Op has to offer for adults and toddlers alike, so we put them to good use and headed to the PNE by transit in the pouring rain to experience what they describe as "The Best Part of Summer."

Before I get into my experience of actually being at the PNE, let me describe our experience of getting there.  We decided we would take the bus because our car is currently on the fritz and there is hardly ever a decent place to park at the PNE anyhow.  If you do find a spot, you are going to pay $15-$20 for it.  We hopped on the number 9 bus and traveled up Broadway and  got off at the Renfrew Skytrain Station.  We were to take the number 16 bus directly to the PNE. Or so we thought. Number 16 busses as well as special PNE Express busses were flying by, all marked "Full."  12 busses went by.  I had asked someone how long it would take to walk to the PNE from that skytrain station and they said it would take an hour.  Around 11am I decided I was just going to walk. It turns out it only takes 20 minutes to walk there, so that's what I get for asking someone who doesn't appear to be a power walker. By the time we got there Aias was furious for having been in the stroller that long, and while he was dry as a bone in his little newt suit, my jean capri's hands, stroller, were all drenched.  Not cool, but whatever.  It's just water, right?  I was pretty furious with Translink for not providing more transportation to this event when there obviously was a need for it, but more furious with myself for not walking sooner or for at least having gone to 29th Station and getting on the PNE Express there.

So here's your first tip: If you are taking the bus to the PNE, take the Skytrain and get off at 29th Ave Station.  Take the PNE Express from there. Don't try to take it from Renfrew, it will be full, and it only comes every 15 minutes.

It was easy to get into the PNE once we arrived because they weren't exchanging any money.  I felt victorious for having successfully arrived before noon and to have saved $20.  I guess I thought once we walked through the gate there would be happy people, flowers, balloons, and cheery goodness, but instead there was a marketplace entrance to our left, and this:

What is it? Row after row after row of cars and advertising for Jim Pattison.  Not very festive, right? Well, I'm sure the amount of money exchanged to make sure that the first thing people see when they enter the PNE are lines of cars was probably worth it to the PNE, so whatever.  Surely the whole thing couldn't be this corporate... right? If only I had known.

Moving forward, we made it past the long line of Jim Pattison cars and entered what finally started looking like a fair. There were booths of delicious fair food, some community tents, and some media tents.  I hadn't planned on doing all that walking so I was incredibly thirsty and decided to buy some water.  I wandered up to the first tent I saw that had water listed for sale, and I saw this:

If you click on the picture and look at the right, you'll see that this place is selling 500mL bottles of water for the reasonable price of... $4.75. NO REALLY.  I wasn't that thirsty after all.  Luckily the first booth I saw after the long line of cars had free cups of water.  The tent was for the Vancouver Gospel Tent.  The people were incredibly nice to say the least, and goodness knows I enjoyed the free water.  In fact, I enjoyed the free water 3x throughout the day.  They chatted me up a bit each time, gave me some religious materials, and on my first visit proceeded to direct me to a giant replica of Noah's Ark and explained to me through the use of rubber animals how Noah's Ark was totally real and they had proof. I kept drinking my water and nodding.  They were nice enough, I wasn't going to be a jerk to anyone based on having a different belief system than them.  I wasn't around to know whether or not Noah built a giant ark and floated animals on it, so I just kept smiling. It was when I was shown the image below that I knew it was time to leave.

Nothing throws a wrench in your day like being told you will end up in the Lake of Fire if you don't give your soul to Jesus.  Their timeline of history and how evolution and dinosaurs were friends with Adam and Eve impress my inner scientist very much either, but I digress, this is about the PNE.

But first, tip number 2: The Vancouver Gospel tent has free water if you don't want to spend several dollars on it. Better yet, bring your own water from home.

Upon successfully re-hydrating myself and my child with the free water, we decided to carry on. We walked past booth after booth of food, nothing that looked like I couldn't get it on Main Street, and almost all of it looking like a sure path to heart disease.  I know, I know, it's once a year, it's ok to have "Those Little Donuts" (they are called that!) or a Whale Tale or a stick of french fries.  And of course, they have a captive audience so they charge as much as they can, which is plenty.  Aias saw a slushy machine like the ones they have in 7-11 (remember he's an addict?) but I wasn't paying $4 for a small Slurpee. Cheap mom is cheap. 

I started to notice booth after booth selling lottery tickets to win a PNE Prize Home, and I wondered what that was about, so I asked.  Turns out you can buy tickets to win a beautiful house in Kelowna.  I asked where the money goes, and the person seemed confused. "Does it go to the hospital or something? You know, like a fundraiser?" and they were just very, very confused by my question.  I take this to believe that the money just goes to the PNE? Correct me if I'm wrong. 

These people are standing in a line to walk through the Prize Home. It was a LONG line:

Speaking of lines, just past this winding line to get into the Prize Home there was a huge tent for Global and they also had a line.  I asked the people what they were lining up for, and if wasn't until I asked a 7th person that someone had any idea.  Most of them just happily said "I don't know!"  When I finally got an answer, the answer was that they were in line to spin a wheel so they could win a Coca Cola Frisbee? Really? Sounds pretty impressive to me: have people stand in a line so they can get useless swag from you that bears your logo so you can advertise to everyone who sees them holding it.

Jesus wept.

Oh by the way, you can also win a car at the PNE:

Tip number 3: you are probably NOT going to win a car or house. Take your $25 or $50 and put it in a trust fund for your kid instead. 

I was starting to get seriously annoyed, seeing as nothing we had encountered thus far came even close to being "The Best Part of Summer" for me (unless you are a stakeholder in a major corporation, that is).  My annoyance was interrupted by delightful music, and upon hearing it, Aias ran toward it.  It turned out to be a lovely band playing older music that had snazzy beats appealing very much to Aias.  He danced around for probably 25 minutes before he tired of it.  Of course, here's a picture of the stage:

Notice the WestJet advertising? Subtle, no?  I was getting tired of standing at this point and I saw some bleachers, but as we neared them I noticed they were considered "VIP seating" which you, of course, had to pay for.  I was only surprised that I wasn't surprised.

Tip number 4: if you want to sit, bring a small lawn chair.

I thought about leaving at this point but then I remembered there was supposed to be a 4-H exhibit. We located it immediately, and my icy heart began to melt a bit.  A little known fact: I used to be in the 4-H Club myself.  Not an agricultural contingent, more of a sewing and volunteering one, but still.  Aias immediately fell in love with baby ducks and baby chicks. Who wouldn't? Here are some pictures.

This almost made up for the corporate sins the PNE had in store for us earlier in the day, but let's not forget the name of the farm portion of the PNE: Safeway Farm Country.  You'd think it would be 4-H Farm Country, but I guess they can't afford that sort of thing.

I'm going to hold back from too much discussion on how surprised I was that they were allowing huge groups of people to gather around all these animals that had no way of hiding or making themselves feel less vulnerable, because that's a whole other entry all together.  Trust me, it's hard for me to hold back on this, but I'll just stop myself now.

The part of Safeway Farm Country that was the most fun was the Kidz Discovery Farm.  Basically you line up and you get a bucket and a cute little apron and you walk through different small exhibits learning about planting seeds, harvesting, milk, meat, wool, salmon farming, etc. At each station you get a tiny replica of each item and you put it in your bucket. At the end, you ride around on a tiny tractor, turn your items in, return your bucket and apron, get some farm cash, and trade it in for a pack of Craisins.  Aias liked this process very much, and I thought it was adorable.  At the same time, I was basically aghast that they were partnered with the Salmon Farmer's Association of BC, given that farming salmon is incredibly controversial and an environmental faux pas.   If Aias had been older I would have used this as an opportunity to explain that to him.  Right now he's too young to care, all he wanted to do was play with the giant fishing net, so whatever.

Salmon Farming for kids

Ambivalent to his experience on a small tractor

At this point we were pretty hungry, and I dreaded having to make a choice as to which delicious artery clogging fair food we should eat, but we got lucky. We happened to come across a little eatery inside the Safeway Farm Country building.  I was able to get a chicken sandwich, a large salad, and some fries for $8.50 inclusive of taxes.  It wasn't free range to my knowledge and at this point I figured it was better I just not ask. 

Not bad for $8.50 at the PNE. But beware the chicken is breaded.

Tip number 5: look at the baby chicks AFTER you've eaten lunch, because nothing ruins the taste of a chicken sandwich like the fresh image in your mind of what your food looked like as a baby.

Tip number 6: The food place inside the Safeway Farm Country building has relatively inexpensive food.

After eating we went to the Marketplace which was the biggest waste of time ever.  We walked and looked at every booth and it was basically just table after table of "Only On TV" type products that looked like they had just come off a ship in a crate from China.  Now not only Jesus was weeping, but so was the environment.  The only two booths that I could respect even remotely were the Usborne Books table in the back, and the Fresh Is Best booth, both of which stood out like a sore thumb.  The Marketplace just represented everything that's wrong with North American culture and Capitalism to me.  I feel dirty even thinking about it. 

The last place we went was the Home Depot Home Improvement Showcase Exhibit. This was actually a mistake, we had wandered into it thinking it was something else, but it ended up being the best part of the day. Home Depot was doing DIY workshops with kids each hour, and they have 10 openings per session. We happened to be there at 2:23pm, and the next one started at 3pm.  I had to sign Aias up (and here's the kicker) and then stand in the line until it started at 3.  At first I thought this would end horribly because Aias would NOT stand in a line and cooperate for over 30 minutes, but it turned out he thought the little girl in front of us in the line was the greatest thing ever, so he happily played with her the whole time.  The DIY project was "make your own toolbox" and you got to keep your hard hat and your apron.  I ended up doing it mostly myself because it required the use of a hammer and nails, but he loved putting the pieces together and watching me attach them.  He also loved the outfit. Check it out:

 Tip number 7: Sign your kid up for this DIY Home Depot session because it's super fun and worth standing in line for.

After building the awesome toolbox, we decided to head toward the Playland area to see if we were missing out on anything.  It turns out we were missing out on something pretty great: a parents' room (sponsored by London Drugs, of course).  I was beyond happy to stumble upon this because the other bathrooms in the PNE had nowhere to change a diaper, and the handicapped bathrooms all had multiples signs on them saying they were ONLY for people with disabilities which I imagine was a way of deterring people with strollers.  The PNE Parents’ Room is located beside the Kiwanis food kiosk (across from Celebration Plaza). For your convenience, the Parents’ Room offers the following services: 

  • Space to change your child's diaper 
  • Complimentary diapers, wipes and baby powder 
  • A separate and discreet room for nursing mothers
  • A single washroom for those families utilizing our parents’ room services
The nursing area was comfortable and I was able to chat it up with other nursing mothers.

Tip number 8: Use the London Drugs Parents Room, it's awesome.

After this we decided to take one more trip to the Safeway Farm Country Building so Aias could say goodbye to the chicks and ducks, and it was here that he fell in love with the bunnies.

I enjoyed the farm portion a lot, of course, especially because "city kids" don't get to see a lot of livestock.  Of course, on this second trip back we did overhear a mom asking her 4 year old where animals come from, and they said they live at the Fair. Oops.  I can see how he got that answer, however. It only occurred to me at that time that this was exactly the lesson I was now teaching Aias. 

All in all, I wouldn't say it was a failed day.  In fact, it really opened my eyes.  This whole time I had thought that going to the PNE was going to be this essential aspect of Aias's Vancouver childhood experience, but as it turns out, it probably won't be.  Like I said at the beginning of this entry, I recognize that lots of people consider the PNE an important tradition for their families because of the time they spent with loved ones there, and I respect that.  At the same time, I think Aias deserves as commercial free a childhood as I can provide to him, and I don't think the PNE really factors into that.  I'll probably not go again until Aias specifically asks to, or if friends or family members invite us along and want us to be apart of the experience with them.  I just can't see any sense in shelling out $20 per person so that we can be blatantly and aggressively advertised to, robbed of our money on $4.75 waters, and coveting greasy overpriced food.  If I want to teach Aias about farms and farm animals, I'll take him to a farm. If I want to teach him about music, I'll take him to a music festival or concert. 

If you feel like the PNE truly is "The Best Part of Summer," the bad news is I'm sorry to say that you may be doing it wrong.  The good news is, if this is your standard of awesome, there are other events in this city that will blow your mind and most of them don't even cost any money. 

Check out the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.

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