"Wow, look at the trains!" "See all the little cows and horses."
"Hey, somebody's getting married!"
How wonderful it is to let yourself look at a child's world with childlike enthusiasm, to join in the wide-eyed excitement as each step presents another colorful vista.
That's part of the enjoyment for adults visiting Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village, north of Whitby, less than an hour's drive east of Toronto. Grandparents, in fact, probably comprise the largest group of visitors to this attraction, opened in 1980 by Len Cullen. Many of the older visitors are on tours for seniors that come from as far away as Pennsylvania.
But many of the visitors live within a brief drive and return here, according to project manager Owen Hatchee, because seeing all of the 50-acre attraction in one trip is difficult:
There are 140 historical and miniature buildings, constructed on a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot. The gardens themselves cover 25 acres and include an estimated 100,000 tulips, 2,000 rose bushes and sculptured chrysanthemums. A song-and-dance review is performed several times each day, and during the summer months, there is a puppet show for young children.
Cullen, president of a chain of garden stores bearing his name, wanted to recapture the past, so he chose century-old buildings from various southern Ontario communities as his models. Each of the buildings has asbestos-shingle roofing. And each of the structures is taken indoors during winter, for refurbishing.
The miniature village has a short side street that has been in place since the attraction opened, but almost every day employees hear someone say, "I don't remember seeing that before."
Perhaps it is the animatronics elsewhere that diverts customers' attention. Eyes are drawn to the moving objects _ the tiny figure sweeping a porch, the window washer, the fence painter.
Concentrating on the arrival of a model train coming into a reproduction of Whitby's former railway station turns heads from some of the static displays. The sound of church bells draws attention to the crowds of Lilliputian people gathered on the lawn of a miniature church at the far end of the village, honoring a bride and groom. Flashing red lights atop the police cruiser cause you to notice the officer who is writing out a ticket for a motorist he has pulled over.
Of the 600 or so tiny figures in the village, only a dozen or so have movement. They are strategically placed throughout the community, to give the impression that something is always happening.
The main street features stores selling appliances, jewelry, mirrors, paint, milk, pastries, even a fried chicken drive-in that uses Cullen's nickname, "Lucky." There is also a gas station, an office building fire station and a bank _ some of them copies of existing structures in Toronto.
Out on the highway leading from the village, everything is moving. Vehicles in the inside lane are being overtaken by the faster cars and trucks on the outside. Some are old clunkers in need of a paint job, others appear to be fresh off the assembly line. A family car, bags neatly strapped to a roof rack, is towing a motorboat toward the lake.
Strolling along the path that provides a view to all this apparent activity, you leave the Miniature Village behind and arrive in Cottage Country, the most recent addition to the attraction. Here, again, there is movement and perceived movement.
Another railway line has been constructed to haul freight. Nearby lakes, fed by a stream with rapids and waterfalls, offer a playground for boaters. A number of models ply the waters, avoiding the Glenora ferry, which makes regular runs across the narrows. There are boat houses, a trading post and small cabins.
Guests at Windermere Lodge sit on the verandah or the lawn in front of this replica of the 101-year-old Lake Rosseau property. Tiny figures populate private summer cottages among miniature trees. A campground has tents, a volleyball net and a camp fire.
In and around all these properties _ at the lake, in the Miniature Village, even at the fairgrounds with its carousel (going merrily around) and its roller coaster (rolling) _ the lawns are trimmed with extreme care. The staff at Cullen Gardens seemed please when visitors ask how they do it. (For the small area, the workers kneel and use hand clippers; the larger lawns are manicured with power mowers.)
Claudia Baun, supervisor of the gardening staff, says she would rather answer dozens of questions about the plantings than take away from the appearance of the gardens by labeling everything. And appearance is everything in this land of miniatures.
Gordon G. Garrison is is a travel writer and broadcaster in Ontario.
IF YOU GO
To reach Whitby, head east from Toronto on Highway 401, then north on Highway 12, which becomes Brock Street in Whitby. Turn left on Taunton Road and follow the signs to Cullen Gardens.
The attraction is open from mid-April to early January, with a special Christmas display beginning in mid-November and running to closing in January. The gardens and miniature village open at 10 a.m. daily, with closing times varied with the season. Closing time is 6 p.m. from now through June 21, then 10 p.m. until Sept. 2, then 6 p.m. until mid-November, and back to 10 p.m. for the holiday season.
Admission prices are $7 (Canadian) for adults, $6 for seniors and students, and $3.50 for children 4-12 years old. For information, contact Cullen Gardens, 300 Taunton Road W, Whitby, Ontario, L1N 5R5 Canada; phone (416) 668-6606.