TORONTO – "I can hardly see you," says my 10-year-old son. He's trying to get a picture of his mom and sister beside the massive skeleton of the Futalognkosaurus at the Royal Ontario Museum. Considering the skeleton is more than 110 feet tall, this is no easy task and he keeps stepping back farther and farther until he's at the very edge of the entrance hall. In the photo, we look like Lilliputians beside the massive prehistoric creature.
The skeleton stands in the entrance, not only to wow visitors when they come in, but because the specimen is simply too big to fit in the exhibit space. When roaming the planet, the Futalognkosaurus, which means giant chief lizard, weighed about 88,000 pounds, making it one of the largest dinosaurs ever. Yet, unlike the popular T. Rexes and Triceratops, it is relatively unknown. This is not because the Futalognkosaurus is so difficult to write and pronounce, but rather because this creature, along with others, inhabited the Southern Hemisphere on a super continent called Gondwana.
Paleontologists have made spectacular discoveries in the region in the past three decades, revealing new species that are every bit as ferocious and mythical as their more famous northern counterparts.
Showing until March 17, the ROM's "Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana" exhibit highlights these new findings in the largest display of southern dinosaurs ever mounted in North America. Since opening in June, 194,000 attendees have visited. Amanda Fruci, a spokeswoman for the museum, says the response has been one of excitement and enthusiasm, especially when it comes to the species themselves.
"They are big, bold and bizarre, and visitors love getting to know them," she says.
The carnivorous specimens, especially the Giganotosaurus, with its razor-sharp teeth and bone-crushing jaw, impressed our family the most. The dinosaurs are brought to life through interactive technology, making the displays more dynamic, especially to tech-savvy kids.
Swivel the iPad mounted on the display and a 3-D representation of what the living, flesh-and-blood dinosaur might have looked like bursts onto the screen. Download the free app and you'll have a whole other element to interact with. Even a picture in the guidebook is transformed into a 3-D movielike image when you point your iPhone or iPad at it.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5:50 p.m. every day except Fridays, when it is open until 8:30 p.m. Admission to the museum (100 Queens Park) and dinosaur exhibit is $25 for adults; $17 for children; discounts for students and seniors, and on Friday evenings. Booking tickets ahead is recommended; go to www.rom.on.ca/en;http://www.ritzmontreal.com.
Of course, dinosaurs aren't the only reason to bring the kids to Toronto. We all know about the city's terrific science center and zoo, but here are some lesser-known gems to consider:
Bata Shoe Museum (327 Bloor St. West): Love shoes? Then this museum, located a few blocks west of the ROM, is the place for you. More than 12,000 items spanning 4,500 years of history are housed in this shoe-box shaped building designed by Canadian architect Raymond Moriyami.
Celebrity shoes include Elton John's 12-inch-plus platforms, former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's sandals, and other footwear worn by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, Britney Spears and Roger Federer. There's even a pair of black silk socks worn by Napoleon. On weekends, family fun activities like shoe-themed arts and crafts and "shoe detective" hunts entertain younger visitors.
Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art (111 Queens Park): Most days of the week, you might be hesitant to bring children along to a place that specializes exclusively in (breakable) ceramic art and pottery from around the world. But Sundays are family days at this museum across from the ROM, and its rotating lineup of child-friendly programming keeps little ones engaged with activities that range from creating clay masterpieces to guided kid tours, storytelling and musical entertainment.
Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People (165 Front Street East): This downtown building on Front Street once housed the horses that pulled the city's streetcars, but it's now the home for a nonprofit theater company that produces high-quality professional children's shows. Onstage through Dec. 30 is "Cinderella (a RATical retelling)" that shares the "true" story of this classic fairy narrated by her friends – five rats named Ears, Teeth, Claws, Tails and Whiskers.Casa Loma (1 Austin Terrace): And for a fairy-tale setting, there's Toronto's famous castle, built a hundred years ago for Sir Henry Pellatt, the founder of the Toronto Electric Co. Casa Loma has 98 rooms, 30 bathrooms, secret passageways, a greenhouse and a stained-glass dome ceiling from Italy. Outside are the usual castle trimmings of turrets and rearing lions atop banded columns. The month of December offers special holiday programming, including gingerbread house making, carolers and visits with Santa. Special for this year is Mozart's Magical Castle, which features workshops and activities designed to expose participants of all ages to the music, dance and story of Mozart's "The Magic Flute."
Accommodations: Both the Delta Chelsea (800-CHELSEA; 800-243-5732) and Fairmont Royal Hotel (800-257-7544) offer packages starting at $189 that include tickets to the ROM's dinosaur exhibit.