A neighbour texted me recently for car-buying advice, and her reason caught my eye: it isn’t her who’s looking. It’s her teenage daughter. And her friends.
The kids are not all right, it seems. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve been cooped up for months, and some of them are suddenly realizing the value of getting drivers’ licences and spending squirreled-away money on buying their first vehicles.
With car-sharing and public transit feeling unnecessarily risky – every bus I drive past has at least one person on it not wearing a mask correctly – our cars are proving to be the safest way to get out of the house.
Tell this to folks of a certain vintage and they turn starry-eyed. Once upon a time, standing in line on one’s 16th birthday to get a learner’s permit was a rite of passage, and the ability to drive singlehandedly opened the door to a long-anticipated freedom.
The summer of COVID-19 has, in many ways, allowed us to rekindle our romance with the automobile. As the long commutes and hectic schedules of our previous lives have been stripped away, the things that driving opens up for us today are those that nourish the soul: art, music, nature, and quality time with those closest to us.
Numerous innovative ways to make the most of these experiences have emerged in recent months and shown that, for as long as physical distancing is needed to contain the virus, our cars still have the power to keep us moving and living.
Go to the Movies
When was the last time you went to a drive-in movie theatre? It had been years for me and I’d never taken my daughter, but after one visit we agreed that this is our new favourite way to take in a film. Drive-ins still aren’t getting the latest releases even as they’ve been the only theatres operating, but the charm of eating popcorn and cotton candy while taking in classics under the stars really is just as rich as you remember.
On top of the established drive-in theatres – and a quick Google search reveals there are more still around than you might think – there are also numerous drive-in film festivals cropping up this summer.
In Toronto alone, the province has invested $2 million to create a new drive-in entertainment space at the Ontario Place grounds, where the Italian Contemporary Film Festival is running through July 31 and the Toronto International Film Festival will hold screenings during its run from September 10 to 19, some of which will be free of charge.
And as part of the City of Toronto’s DriveTO initiative, more free screenings will be shown at Ontario Place, including programming by Hot Docs and imagineNATIVE. Plus, the old drive-in at Polson Pier is being resurrected for the Inside Out LGBTQ Film Festival, Reel Asian Film Festival, Reelworld Film Festival, and Regent Park Film Festival. Downsview Park will host Friday Night Lights presented by MADE featuring free made-in-Canada films, and movie nights will also be offered at Sherway Gardens in Etobicoke. This is a very Toronto-centric rundown, but similar programs are being offered across the country.
Some pro tips that might help if you’re taking in a movie on wheels for the first time: bring a battery-powered FM radio to pick up the audio broadcast if you can – running a modern car in accessory mode without the lights on is a pain at best and impossible at worst – and if you have kids along, throw a fitted sheet over their seats, invert the bottom half, and tuck their legs inside. Sticky hands will land on the fabric and popcorn crumbs will get caught in the pocket, so you won’t be wiping and vacuuming for weeks. (You’re welcome.)
Enjoy Live MusicPeople take photos and watch as fireworks burst behind the stage of a drive-in Dean Brody concert to celebrate Canada Day on July 1, 2020 in Markham, Canada. Cole Burston / Getty
It’s going to be a while yet before we can safely cram crowds into stadiums, concert venues, and bars or clubs. Music is one of the things that unites people most, and yet the close contact that’s inherent to an event like a concert is one of the most difficult things to replicate in a summer of physical distancing.
The first hints of innovation in this space were the drive-in raves in Germany that made the news early May. Since then, small-scale drive-in concerts have become relatively common, from Thursday night live music at Polson Pier in Toronto to rock bands holding multi-city tours in western Canada and a concert series at Cavendish Beach in Prince Edward Island.
For a different experience, some larger acts such as country music stars Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton are hosting concerts that will be screened at multiple drive-in movie theatres across Canada on the same night.
Take in Some Art
In the visual arts space, the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit touts itself as the first drive-in art exhibition in the world. The display, which is set up in the former printing press warehouse at 1 Yonge Street in downtown Toronto, is a 35-minute meld of 360-degree projections through the evolution of Van Gogh’s art set against a mood-setting soundtrack. It’s fairly costly for how quickly it goes by, but it’s quite captivating.
The initial run of drive-in tickets sold out, but additional showings are available through September 7. Tickets are time-controlled and there are vehicle size limitations and rules to follow, so be sure to read the fine print to verify you can make the most of it.
Drive Through a Zoo
The Toronto Zoo is only open to walk-in visitors now, but its Scenic Safari driving tour was one of the best activities going for kids while it lasted. Fortunately, there are still plenty of wildlife-oriented activities families can enjoy from the safety of their vehicles.
Northeast of Peterborough, Ontario, the Indian River Reptile Zoo has a reasonably priced drive-through dinosaur park that’s fun for younger dino enthusiasts and can be combined with a walking visit in the reptile sanctuary and Canada’s largest alligator and crocodile exhibit. And then there’s the classic African Lion Safari near Cambridge, Ontario, which has always been a drive-through experience, as has Parc Omega near Montebello, Quebec; and Parc Safari, located south of Montreal close to the U.S. border.
Get Out into NatureVenus shines brightly over Porteau Cove near Vancouver, B.C. Stephen Snell / Postmedia
Amid the endless barrage of disappointments this summer, nature is the one thing that is definitely not cancelled.
Parks across Canada have largely reopened with distancing protocols in place, which means that hiking, camping, and roasting marshmallows over fires to a soundtrack of loon calls – in other words, the very best of what Canada has to offer – all remain on the table and important for our mental and physical health. And stargazing is the perfect excuse to escape the city: the comet NEOWISE will be visible with binoculars or a telescope for a while longer in the northwestern sky, and the annual Perseid meteor shower peaks in mid-August.
It should be said that certain high-traffic experiences that tend to attract large crowds, such as the Grotto on Bruce Peninsula or Lake Louise in Banff National Park, are best left for another time. The circumstances this summer offer a great excuse to seek out more remote parks or locally managed conservation areas.
And if you plan to camp overnight, take the time ensure you’re aware of the rules and regulations. All shower stations are closed in Ontario Parks for the 2020 season, for example, and portable units are not permitted, so don’t plan to stay for longer than you can manage to rough it.