The PNE is many things: an institution, a two-week fair at the end of the summer that people from all walks of life have enjoyed for almost as long as Vancouver has been a city, a nostalgia-laced enterprise that hasn’t fundamentally changed in decades, a 1970s dreamland unconnected from 2010s Vancouver, an overpriced midway on steroids, a fun way to spend an afternoon.
Also an amusement park with adjacent attractions.
If you’ve lived in Vancouver or close to it for most of your life, the PNE has an outsized place in your heart.
And because of that, there are many articles every year that talk about the future of the PNE, or how the PNE could be better.
You know what hasn’t been written? Something ranking every single ride and attraction you can do at the PNE.
So why are we doing this? After all, every year the PNE hypes the new rides, the new concerts, the new things you can eat (cricket burgers, this year). Aren’t surprising new experiencing the point?
(by which I mean, I) don’t go to the PNE for the new things: you go there to indulge in the same pleasures year after year.
Some of these rides and attractions are good, some of these are not good, and because this is the Internet, and I have a stupid desire to
brand myself in unfortunate ways rank things, I’m going to create a list for the first time.
Or rather, me and a small group of people (Trevor Record, Samantha Bruin, Blake Frederick, Gian-Paolo Mendoza and Jack Hauen), all Millennials who grew up in and around Vancouver, and still attend the fair most years as adults.
Here’s what we did:
- We included every ride that an adult might go on without a child, provided it was free (Sorry, Drop Zone and Revelation!)
- We included every non-ride activity that is generally always available, year after year (Sorry, rotating exhibits and quasi-entertaining game shows!)
That gave us 28 obvious things that a person could do in a day. From there, we ranked them out of 25 points, using the following metrics and taking the average of our scores:
- Joy In The Moment (10 points): are you thrilled or scared or delighted when doing or seeing the thing in question? Does it meet or exceed the expectations you have for it?
- Joy In Repeating The Experience (5 points): if you’re the type of person that goes to the PNE year after year, how often do you want to try it again?
- Time It Takes (5 points): are there large lines that suck up an hour of your day? Does the experience take up more effort and minutes than it’s ultimately worth?
- Nostalgia (5 points): how fondly do you look back at it?
You can certainly quibble with these metrics: they favour the old over the new, the pleasant over the terrifying, the thing that avoids a giant line.
But we figure that if you’re going to the PNE as an adult, that’s what matters a little bit more. You want screams and innovative rides? Head down the coast, or east to Toronto’s Wonderland.
That’s never been what the PNE is about, and it’s darn well not what the PNE is about in 2017, especially if you’re heading there for an enjoyable day with your friends.
Alright, we’re done with our preamble. Let’s break down the attractions at the PNE from best … to this.
#28: Glass House (7.9 points)
The Glass House takes up large, valuable real estate in the middle of Playland, which makes it all the more frustrating that it has been there forever and sucked forever.
The fact this doesn’t have lineups isn’t a selling point, it’s just a product of the fact that the glass house is trash. It should be mirrors, but it isn’t. Even my 8-year-old self was disappointed with it.
The PNE’s entire description for Glass House reads as such: “The Glass House is a fun-filled attraction for both adults and children. Come test your skills at finding your way out of a winding maze of glass. Adults beware: you may need your child’s assistance!”
All three of these sentences are lies, because it is not fun, it is not hard, and there are no skills involved in getting out of the Glass House.
At some point during your many hours at the PNE, you will see this, be reminded of your childhood, and think it might be fun to waste a few minutes in the Glass House.
ADDENDUM: After publishing this list, the following exchange occurred with a co-worker.
A man of my word, I pass along the following review from Sylvie The Toddler: “It’s really big and … you can walk around and get stuck when there’s a corner.”
Sylvie also enjoyed the fact one can hide inside Glass House, adding “You walk in it and go around and around and around.”
Sylvie is wrong, but we appreciate her contribution to the discourse.
#27: Ambling Through The Prize Home (8 points)
Who doesn’t remember their parents making them wait 45 minutes to awkwardly shuffle through an aspirational home?
As a child, you may have enjoyed going through the PNE prize home and imagining what life would be like if you actually won that home, their supposed ideal home, the one they were shown between roller coasters and cotton candy at the PNE, the home of Vancouver.
As an adult, it’s pretty much the exact same physical experience: slow and cramped, but still mildly interesting.
But with age, this whole practice has an entirely different mental experience: if you’re a Millennial without well-off parents, every week in Vancouver is the PNE Prize Home.
Not to mention, the homes aren’t even in the Lower Mainland anymore! It’s now hundreds of kilometers away, spat far away like a watermelon seed, now off in the Okanagan or Sun Peaks or somewhere else hundreds of miles away where land is affordable, which is sort of perfect and depressing at the same time.
In the last 40 years, while the PNE has stayed mostly the same and targeted the same audience, Vancouver has transformed from a working-class city to a world metropolis.
Sometimes that paradox brings out a wonderful nostalgia when attending the fair.
Here, it brings out rage.
#26: Trying To Get Lunch At Normal Hours On A Weekend (8.67 points)
(yeah i’m taking daily hive content don’t @ me)
If, as Will Ferguson said in How To Be A Canadian, “The Food Court at the mall represents Canadian multiculturalism at its purest”, the experience of finding of finding a meal at 1pm on a weekend in Hastings Park represents the PNE at its purest: claustrophobic, overly onerous, full of way too many options — only half of which are truly worthwhile — and a mix of traditional and straining-to-be-modern options for greasy protein to slide down your gullet to sustain you for the next seven hours.
Is the food good? Not particularly!
Are the lines justifiable? Not considering the quality! And you can leave the confines the park, you know! Hastings-Sunrise has good restaurants!
Such questions of objective quality are very fair — hence the terrible ranking — but ultimately irrelevant: you need food. In your mind, you cannot leave the PNE until the day is done. And when else are you going to justify eating a donut burger with pickles and peanut butter? Or copious amounts of barbecued meat surrounded by agitated parents and screaming toddlers?
In the moment it can be a stomach-churning experience, but the sense of mild satisfaction you get when you finally get to eat your food while ambling back to the rides brings back great memories.
#25: RCMP Musical Ride (8.83 points)
About 50% of the problem with the Musical Ride is that you’re indoors, and if you’re going to watch Horses Do Stuff, one should really be in a reasonable facsimile of their natural environment.
But the other 50% of the problem with the Musical Ride is that it’s a weird outdated thing that isn’t fun, isn’t connected to what the RCMP is about today, and something you’re invariably dragged to by your mom when what you REALLY want to do is go on another ride.
Or maybe that’s just us projecting here.
#24: Gladiator (9.13 points)
You’ll see this ride, it will look mildly amusing and because it is relatively new you’ll think “maybe I’ll give this a chance.”
Resist that urge, for Gladiator is slow and lame and a pale retread of the Octopus ride, which was also better because it reminded you of childhood, which was joyous and pure, and now has been replaced by this mediocre dreck, which for some earthly reason the PNE lists as an “Extreme” ride.
All Gladiator does is remind you that most midway rides are sort of bleh.
#23: Haunted House (10.63 points)
Why would you choose to go to the Haunted House in the middle of the summer? There are literally 50 other things you could do! Are you one of those weird people that really enjoys being scared, or attempted to be scared, even in the depths of summer?
Well, yes. You’re here, doing the one Haunted House that is open before Fright Nights, which is really the time when you should be partaking in this experience.
And look, if you do the Haunted House now, it’s fine.
Not good. But fine. A good waste of 10 minutes. Scary, if you’re the type of person that finds virtually everything scary.
Otherwise, wait for October.
#22: The Farm Animals In The Middle (10.7 points)
Delightful anachorcism? Pleasant low-key nostalgia? EXCITEMENT ABOUT TINY ANIMALS?
All interpretations are open when you visit the “Big Red Barns”, as the PNE’s own website calls them, and you decide to cool your jets in the middle of the day by seeing … animals … do … stuff.
Look, we get that agriculture is an important part of the PNE’s heritage — it has a whole subsection on their website, listing the 4-H Festival, Farm Country, and Youth in Agriculture as separate events — and if you’re a fan of duck races or overly crowded petting zoos, it can be a nice diversion.
But if you’re someone that doesn’t enjoy seeing hundreds of cooped-up animals in a crowded barn, it’s more than a little weird. And it smells and the races are always too packed with the same jokes every time.
That isn’t to say don’t go, especially if you’re with small children.
But your mileage will certainly vary here.
#21: Mini Golf (11.13 points)
Mini Golf can be an excellent lark whether you’re 6 or 60 years old, but there’s three big reasons why Mini Golf at the PNE is generally an ill-advised choice.
The first is that it simply takes plenty of time, and with so many other things to do, time is your enemy at this park. The second is that there are plenty of other places in Metro Vancouver where you can go mini-golfing – it seems weird to spend 90 minutes doing something you could replicate elsewhere, instead of 30 minutes doing Superdogs or carnival games.
But the third, less existential reason, is that the Mini Golf course is not a kitschy over-the-top delight, filled with windmills and loops and ramps, but a “realistic putting” course that offers no wackiness, just a watered-down version of being on an actual pitch and putt course.
People who prefer these types of mini golf courses are the true monsters in our society.
#20: Hellevator (11.75 points)
Hellevator looks like a lot of fun, and is very fun in that first second when you go hurling up into the sky, and you remember it being very cool when you were 11 years old and it was the first “Super Ride” to come to the PNE in quite a while, so it must be really awesome, right?
No. No it is not.
It’s a fine enough ride in the moment, but the thrill wears off after the first time, because ultimately, there’s nothing going on other than going up and being dropped, and that’s not enough to stay in what can sometimes be a fairly long lineup.
Even the name admits the ride is just a fast-moving elevator that goes nowhere, and it’s honestly just as fun to watch the anticipation of the people just about to launch than to actually ride the Hellevator.
#19: West Coast Wheel (12.25 points)
Look, it’s a Ferris wheel. You know exactly what a ferris wheel is, what it will deliver and what it won’t deliver.
But if you are the type to sneer at the humble wheel, to belittle its speed and mock its history, then you may be a manchild stuck in adolescence, a simpleton who prizes things that go whiz and boom above all else and unable to enjoy the smaller pleasures in life.
We’re not saying the West Coast Wheel is outstanding, mind you. The lines can be long and the views can be had on other rides.
But it’s certainly the best activity at the PNE for a couple to enjoy together
or so the proprietor of this website has been told.
And in a park where you’re jammed next to people for hours on end, a nice bit of peace, quite and nostalgia can go a long way.
#18: Rock-N-Cars (12.5 points)
The lines are way too long. The controls are a ruse. You do not control anything. It controls you and you just sorta wait it out until the ride is over and you can get unstuck from the corner.
But. BUT! There is still something very fun about it, because part of the PNE as an adult is reveling in its contradictions, and the contradictions of the bumber cars as an adult can be joyful.
Because aside from the nostalgia, there’s the silliness of being in a tiny car, the part of your brain that *will* inevitably consider ramming your car into the car of a small child, the larger part of your brain that *will* decide to try ramming down your friend in another car, and the shame that will ensure when neither one of you can get a good smash on the other, because That’s Not How Bumper Cars Work In 2017.
In short, Rock-N-Cars is a very solid ride to on with a few friends. I can’t think of anything more heartbreaking than riding the bumper cars alone.
#17: The Weird Market In The Gym (12.67 points)
One of the unspoken values of the PNE is its place as a “Big Day Out” for generations of working-class families in and around Vancouver, the type of families that didn’t have money for vacations to Mexico or Hawaii or Disneyland, but made damn sure that everyone would get out to the PNE every year or two and enjoy its glorious excess to the fullest.
And part of that subtext comes right after going through the main entrance at Hastings and Renfrew. There lies the gymnasium with all the weird and somewhat unnecessary pillows and soaps and Pink Solution and other products.
Ordinarily you would never think about purchasing, but hey, it’s PNE Day, so we should at least see what’s inside, right?
In any case, the market used to actually get a lot more space, and have way more stuff, but the rise of the internet has really cut into the bottom line of all the fly-by-night faux grifters selling knives and fancy blenders. There are still plenty of purveyors of fine quality chips and Egyptian sheets though, and 15 minutes here is worth plenty of nostalgia, plus the additional benefit of beating the heat for a little bit.
#16: Hell’s Gate (13.3 points)
Real talk: Hell’s Gate went from a good ride to a mediocre one the moment management decided to tamp down the water that explodes from the bottom.
There may have been good reasons for that choice several years ago, litigation/environmentally-based or otherwise, but the water was the only thing that really made Hell’s Gate unique.
Now it’s just a clunky thing with a lineup that puts you upside down three or four times. Oooh, original.
And let’s not get started with the bladder crusher masquerading as a safety restraint.
Hell’s Gate is still enjoyable, and if you like the rush of being flung upside down, it certainly does that.
But lots of rides can do that. Hell’s Gate gives you higher expectations. And sadly, it rarely fulfills them.
#15: Seeing An Ancient Classic Rock Group At The Night Concert (13.33 points)
Would you ever go out of your way to see Joan Jett or Trooper or Foreigner or Colin James? If you’re under 40, probably not! But the end of night outdoor concerts are free, will usually include one or two songs you know, and are always a solid way of capping off an exhausting day of consumerism.
However, there are two unavoidable issues with PNE concerts. The first is deciding how early to get to the amphitheatre: there are a small number of $20 tickets, but everything else is free. Ergo, how good of a grassy perch you get depends how early you are willing to show up, but showing up early means you miss out on smaller lines on good rides at the end of the night, and how much do you really want to wait around in order to see the Steve Miller Band? Where is the equilibrium?
And second is the classic rock homogeneity of the lineup through the years. Many people, including the proprietor of this website, LOVE dad rock
because he refuses to enjoy new culture due to the blackness of his soul, but many younger people do not care for dad rock, and yet, every year brings exciting new bands like ZZ Top and Chicago and WHY IS TOM COCHRANE PLAYING AGAIN THIS YEAR HAVEN’T WE ALL HEARD LIFE IS A HIGHWAY ENOUGH AT THIS POINT COME ON.
#14: Breakdance (13.5 points)
Hey look it’s another ride where you spin around randomly wheeeee.
Breakdance is the ride you go on because you’re walking by it and you haven’t done it yet. It’s inauspicious, and even the aesthetics aren’t trying to wow you, with the decorators halfway through deciding “New York Taxi cabs” was an easier theme than “dancing” and creating a delightfully odd mismatch in the aesthetic.
And yet, it’s a solid enough time, partly because the silly theme is memorable, partly because the lines are not onerous, partly because it sits in a sweet spot of creating thrills without being too over-the-top.
You need rides like Breakdance in your day at the PNE: quick dependable hits that don’t take too long to do.
Just don’t bring a bowl of chili on it.
#13: Playing The Carnival Games (14.17 points)
Sometimes you’re just seized by a self-destructive urge to throw away money, and that’s why these games are there. The carnival games are undoubtedly more fun as a child, but as an grownup, there’s a much greater chance of winning.
(At the adult’s Playland night last month, one of our rankers won a stuffed bear, and he’s stuck with it forever “because my partner is a 5-year-old at heart and is attached to it now.”)
Yes, many of these games are long in the tooth, and if you’ve ever experienced the carnival boardwalk at Disney’s California Adventure, it’s hard to go back to Playland.
And yet, there’s a reasonable amount of joy if you know your financial limit, have decent hand-eye coordination, and smartly wait for a multi-player game with enough people playing to ensure a big payout.
The end result could be $20 out of your pocket. It could be a giant Sonic/Pokemon/Disney stuffed animal you’ll love for two weeks and regret having for 200 more. But it’s a low-stress silly throwback that’s part of the bread and butter of the PNE experience.
#12: Superdogs (14.5 points)
Bow Wow! Ruff Ruff!
Alright, now that we’ve got the weird cult-like chanting out of the way, Let Us Consider Super Dogs.
And the truth is, this is a weird event centred around “cheering at animals obeying human commands” which the PNE’s heritage is a little too comfortable with.
But in the moment, it’s a delightful hour.
For one, it’s weird for people to hypertrain their dogs for obstacle courses, and the dogs give it their best, and watching weirdness is generally fun.
For two, it’s a delightful experience being surrounded by thousands of people, in the arena where Orland Kurtenbach to Pavel Bure and every Canuck in between made their mark, in the arena where Trevor Linden rose after a Messier crosscheck and Jim Robson declared “you’ll know he’ll play!” in front of 18,000 believing the Canucks would end 24 years of futility … and then it’s 2017, the Canucks still haven’t won the Stanley Cup, and the Pacific Coliseum is filled with tiny dogs jumping over simple obstacles with everyone losing their minds.
For three, it’s solid time in the shade. The dogs aren’t actually amazing, and the tricks are simple, but the memories are good, it’s presented well, and in a long day, an hour at the Superdogs is rarely a poorly wasted hour.
#11: Atmosfear (14.83 points)
The good: VIEWS VIEWS VIEWS from 218 feet in the air, giving you amazing looks at Hastings Park, Burrard Inlet, and whatever they’re calling Hastings-Sunrise East Village these days. It’s a true specatcle of a ride, and it is definitely worth doing at least once.
The bad: Lines are long, and on days where it rains, the way it hits you while whipping in a circle going 70 km/hr can be less than ideal.
The meh: When you’re going that fast, it’s hard to really enjoy any of the views for too long. And once the swings fully rise up, Atmosfear doesn’t really “change” so much as “do the exact same thing for 90 more seconds”. Which is fine, if a bit underwhelming.
But the thing preventing this ride from achieving true greatness, at least among a cohort of Cynical Millenails (™), is that Atmosfear is essentially the Wave Swinger on steroids. There’s no innovation, there’s no charm, there’s no nostalgia: it’s just trying to make something that was already good at the PNE bigger and faster.
Which is fine. Even understandable, considering a) how great the Wave Swinger is and b) how hard/expensive it is to create a new ride with buzz that is worth going on again and again.
Atmosfear is fun. Often very fun. But the fact it’s such a clear imitation makes it hard for us to give it a top-10 ranking.
PART 2: The 10 best things to do at the PNE