The little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake just got a lot smaller.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of the pieces of a highly detailed miniature attraction called Little Canada that's on display in Toronto and is now open to visitors. The project took 10 years to complete and is meant to show off Canadian landscapes and intricate landmarks.
And you can go visit it, and even place a miniature version of yourself inside.
Jean-Louis Brenninkmeijer, founder of the exhibit, said it was an idea he'd had for a long time, one that really came to fruition after his sons were assigned a project in school to do research about Canada's provinces. Having only recently moved to Canada at the time, he said it was an educational experience for his whole family.
"My wife and I learned more about Canada through those projects than living here and so that was one of the inspirations for me to do this," he said in an interview.
Brenninkmeijer grew up in London's Wimbledon neighbourhood. His family owns the C&A store chain, one of Europe's largest retailers.
"I came to Canada in '99 and never heard of Wayne Gretzky, never heard of Terry Fox. I thought that basketball was invented by an American. And it wasn't until, in fact the 2010 Olympics that I realized that William Shatner, who was a great idol of mine when I was growing up and watching 'Star Trek,' that Captain Kirk was a Canadian. I was literally blown away."
He has also always been fascinated with miniature exhibits and building models. He said years ago he visited Miniature Wonderland, the largest model railway in the world in Hamburg, Germany.
"I walked in at nine in the morning when it first opened, and I left at seven in the evening when they closed and I said to myself, 'This is what I want to do.' "
About 10 years ago, when Brenninkmeijer was looking for a change in career, he set in to build the largest miniature model of Canada to share some of the information he'd learned about Canada over the years.
So why does Niagara-on-the-Lake plays such a large role in the exhibit's Little Niagara section? Largely because NOTL reminds him of Europe.
"When I went to Quebec City or when I go down to Niagara-on-the-Lake, I just feel like I'm back in Europe. That's really the main reason. I think the other reason is I took the team. We spent a whole day in Niagara, we split up into two teams. And half of us did upper Niagara and the other did lower Niagara — that's kind of how we called it — and I was fortunate enough to be in the Niagara-on-the-Lake part, and had the most fun talking about 'OK, we should include this, include that."
Brenninkmeijer said while he does love building models, he leaves that work to his team that helps builds the miniature models based on photographs. They originally started using modified kits, but now customize everything with the help of 3D printers and laser engravers.
"We've got a graduate architect on our team who would modify the kits, because most of them are U.S. or European, and then we would change them to reflect the architecture here. And some of those kits we could use for Quebec City, some of them we could use for the Niagara-on-the-Lake," he said.
"When they first started that's how they worked. Now they make everything from from scratch, so they design it on the computer, the computer then transfers the file to the laser cut engraver and the 3D printer and prints out and cuts the various pieces that are needed to put together the structure. And then they paint it and they weather it and they put interiors in it. And they do that 100 times better job that I would be able to do."
The first step, he said, is choosing what landmarks to include.
"Although we've got 50,000 square feet, we don't have enough space to show everything. So we have to pick and choose. And this is where the graduate architect comes in," he said.
The Little Niagara portion, he said, goes from Old Town Niagara-on-the-Lake, up to Queenston Heights and then into Niagara Falls.
Then from there it gets discussed what should go into the smaller "blocks" of the exhibit.
For Niagara-on-the-Lake, he said his team consulted the NOTL Chamber of Commerce and visited several stores to decide what needed to be included, such as Greaves, the Shaw Festival, the clock tower cenotaph and the Prince of Wales.
Some of the buildings are also cut open so guests can look inside, such as the Royal George Theatre and the Niagara Apothecary.
He said the models aren't designed "right to the last detail," but it gives a sense and a feel for the town.
"People have told us, 'Oh, that looks exactly like what it is when you walk down Niagara-on-the-Lake.' "
The Niagara-on-the-Lake portion is structured around the downtown core of the historic Old Town, near the iconic clock tower cenotaph.
The whole Little Canada attraction is a two-hour experience that offers scenery, soundscapes, animated features and moving cars, trains and boats that all operate on a 15-minute day cycle. At sunset, thousands of tiny lights illuminate the display.
The attraction is open to the public at 10 Dundas St. E. across from Yonge-Dundas Square. Tickets to the attraction come with a visitor guide and scavenger hunt, challenging guests to pay attention to the intricate details of the displays.
Guests can visit five Canadian destinations including Little Niagara, Little Toronto, Little Golden Horseshoe, Little Ottawa and Petit Québec. A sixth destination, Little North, is under construction.
Visitors also can become part of the exhibit by stepping inside the "Littization Station" and striking a pose, where 128 cameras take a 360-degree instantaneous photo to create a 3D three-quarter-inch model of them. Guests then choose from a list of locations in the little destinations where their Little Me can be placed.
For an additional cost, a second Little Me will be mailed to you to display at home.
Tickets can be purchased at little-canada.ca.