What $90 and 90 minutes can buy you at the CNE: rides, games, weird food and fun

The last two years have been tough. Very hard.

So on Friday, when the Canadian National Exhibition opened its doors for the first time since 2019, the Star gave three staff members $90 and 90 minutes. His mission: have fun.

Here’s what they did, how they spent their money, and where they ranked on the fun meter.

demar scholarship

My fun mission: My goal at the CNE was twofold. It was the first time I had attended in my adult life, so I wanted things, and lots of them, to make up for lost time. Also, my niece’s birthday party is this weekend and what better way to secure a treat than to smash strangers at the big game Whack-A-Mole? I could just as easily have bought stuff outright to make sure I walked away with something cuddly, but then there would be no thrill and no risk.

The CNE is also home to rare foods and not a day would be complete without a taste test of something out of the ordinary.

Demar Grant, Star staff reporter. Demar's mission: to get a lot of things done.

My 90 minutes: The first thing I did after walking through the Princes’ Gates was get a caricature of myself. (The goal, again, those things.)

It was at least 20 minutes sitting in the chair waiting for artist Natalie Hume to do her work, but it came out brilliantly.

Then a ride on the Sky Ride, which moves from one end of the enclosure to the other. It’s a great way to get a bird’s-eye view of the festivities, which can seem endless from ground level. When we disembarked, it was just steps away from the ice cream in a fruit. Luckily there was no queue and I got pineapple raspberry ice cream with coconut shavings inside a pineapple.

Then it was game time. First, Whack-A-Mole, where I was able to beat a number of strangers, but also my colleague Star Ben Cohen, securing my first prize of the day, a unicorn with a pink horn.

Then we play a game where we use airsoft guns to shoot soda cans. I was given seven shots to knock as many cans as possible off the wooden boards.

For this I took a step back to think. These are carnival games. Even though the cans were bumped and bent, they were probably harder to tip over than a typical can. I took my time looking at all the cans and grabbed a gun to the end of the table. I aimed at a can that was a little further back than the others.

One shot, one can.

I still had six more shots and I hit some of them, but my assumptions were correct: they hardly moved. Still, I got my second prize: a red and yellow dog with blue eyes.

To finish my fun mission, it was time for food. I grabbed a pulled pork grilled cheese and a blue raspberry slush.

My $90:

$30 Cartoon

$12 Ice Cream in a Fruit

$8 Whack-A-Mole

$20 Airsoft Shooter Set

$7 ride tickets

$11 Grilled Cheese Pulled Pork

$5 Blue Raspberry Granita

What I enjoyed the most: Victorious. Few things feel better. Winning Whack-A-Mole without losing a single mole was like stepping into the zone and seeing things in slow motion.

What I could have done without: Ketchup ice cream. It was absolutely terrible. Imagine a bottle of ketchup without shaking it and just drinking the liquid that collects on top.

Fun Meter Rating: Too much fun

ben cohen

My fun mission: I’ve never been to the CNE, so I felt like I should try a little bit of everything. A ride, some of the unique food offerings, a game or two.

But then I noticed that much of the food looked deliberately disgusting. The ketchup ice cream I was goaded into trying now rots in the trash, where it belongs.

And the rides looked exciting, but with the Exposition’s security inspectors on strike, now didn’t seem like the best time to try them all. (The CNE says it made sure the trips were safe despite the ongoing strike.) I tried a couple, but chose to turn my attention elsewhere.

Ben Cohen, a reporter for the Star. Ben's mission: try a little of everything.

My 90 minutes: I spent a lot of time with the games that filled the fairgrounds. I like challenges and games offer the opportunity to win nice prizes that I knew would be a nice surprise for my partner.

First, I played Whack-A-Mole for $8. I lost to Demar. He left with a unicorn, I left dejected.

I spotted a fantastic-looking giant stuffed frog hanging from a dart game booth and headed straight for it. I asked a man behind the counter how I could win it. He was frank with me; it would take about $60 to win the frog. I walked away.

It turns out that while some of the games accept debit, most are cash only, which narrowed down my options considerably. But lineups were non-existent in games. Once I found a spot, I had all the time I needed to win a prize.

Then I tried a $21 airgun set that had me shooting corks into beat-up beer and soda cans. The corks shot out of the guns with such little force that the cans didn’t fall out, even though it always hit the target.

Still, I won either a lop-eared bear or a rabbit-like creature. It’s spring green and adorable. My girlfriend will love it.

Finally, after being turned down from cash-only free throw and cash-only Skee-Ball, my colleague Madison Wong and I found a nerf gun target shooting table that accepted plastic.

I paid $20 for seven shots with a nerf crossbow. I think I only missed two. My prize was a lime green jumpsuit with a long, poseable story and a terrifying smile.

My $90:

$7 Sky Ride and Star Dancer Tickets

$7 strawberry lemonade

$8 Whack-A-Mole

$12.65 Blue granita and cotton candy

$21 cork shot

$15.26 Lick’s HomeBurger and Nestea

$20 Nerf Shots

What I enjoyed the most: Winning that flexible rabbit and bear toy. Although I probably could have bought more stuffed animals for the price I paid for this one, a story like the one you will have is invaluable. I won it by testing my mettle in a precision competition and I take it to my partner as a hunting trophy. Some primary itch has been scratched. Satisfying.

What I could have done without: Seeing Lick’s HomeBurgers at the Food Building was amazing. I thought the chain was dead a long time ago. I thought it was a very entertaining and tasty place when I was a kid. Zombie Lick’s at the CNE is okay, but the burger and bun were a bit burnt. It didn’t match my memory.

Fun Meter Rating: Fun

madison wong

My mission: For the most food with $90, from new and innovative foods to classic Midway snacks. Why? Because it’s not often that you get $90 to eat whatever you choose.

Madison Wong, digital producer of the Star. Madison's mission: try all the snacks.

My 90 minutes: Before making my way to CNE bliss, I decided to hop on a few rides to avoid any possible stomach upset after one too many deep-fried Mars bars.

Demar, Ben and I went on the Sky Ride and then shortly after Ben and I decided to take the Star Dancer ride, where we waited about 10 minutes to get on. This surprisingly exciting ride swings you back and forth on claw-machine-shaped seats that rotate as the ride raises and lowers you.

After feeling the adrenaline from the rides, I was ready to eat.

My first stop was to try the fruit ice cream and the mini Nutella and strawberry pancakes. Fortunately, the two stalls were right next to each other, so after placing my orders at the same time, my sweet tooth was satisfied.

To give my stomach a break to digest, I decided to go to some board games at Midway. After winning a purple flamingo award competing against Ben in the shooter game, I felt confident.

I tried to win a skeeball prize and even though I hit a couple of 40 slots, I walked away empty handed.

Leaving the Midway, I was struck by the ketchup and mustard-flavored ice cream stand. After all, it’s been the talk of the town. the delights of this year’s CNE. I waited about 10 minutes for my ketchup ice cream cone, served in a waffle cone with fries for aesthetic presentation. Before long, I was running to the lemonade stand to wash the disgusting taste off my tongue.

Last stop: the Food Building, where I was overwhelmed by vendors and the smells of all things sweet and fried. After being hesitant and walking through the crowded aisles, I decided to buy two dozen Tiny Tom donuts, because who goes to CNE without having some of those delicious mini cakes?

I also decided to try the very colorful and sweet rainbow slime candy that has been all over Instagram and couldn’t leave without my favorite CNE treat: a deep fried Mars bar.

How did you spend your money?

$10 Ketchup Ice Cream Cone

$12 Fruit ice cream

$12 Strawberry Nutella Mini Pancakes

$5 Skee-Ball Booth Game

$10 Shoot the Target Booth Game

$5 Rainbow Slime Candy

$5 Regular Size Lemonade

$7 ride tickets

$14 Tiny Tom Donuts

$10 Fried Mars Bar

What I enjoyed the most: Aside from the nostalgia for the Sky Ride, it was ice cream in a fruit. I had the watermelon bowl with a pineapple raspberry soft serve ice cream, topped with mini chocolate chips. The ice cream was absolutely delicious and refreshing in the bright sun. Eating and drinking straight from a fruit gives off the perfect summer energy and the flavors boost serotonin.

What I could have done without: The ketchup flavored ice cream cone. For $10, even if it would have been tasty, the presentation didn’t make it seem appetizing. I like ketchup-flavored fries and general relish with fries and burgers, but now I know there’s no reason to mix it with dairy and serve it in a cone.

Fun Meter Rating: Too much fun

Ben Cohen is a reporter for the Star in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn


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