STRATFORD, Ontario—Broadway is often seen as the theater-goers’ Mecca, but there is another destination that lets theater fans take their love for the stage to the next level. Canada’s Stratford Festival—about a two-hour drive from Toronto—combines top-notch theater with lots of behind-the-scenes opportunities.
“Our patrons say, ‘Coming to Stratford is like a theater camp for adults.’ They come and they get to see the shows. They get to do the tours. They get to learn how the costumes are made. They get to learn why we’ve chosen a show and what’s relevant about it today,” said Heather Martin, the festival’s groups and schools sales manager.
Stratford Festival is North America’s largest repertory theater, drawing well-known actors such as Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy. More than five percent of the festival’s annual half-million visitors come by charter bus—and about a quarter of that traffic comes from the U.S.
Deals and discounts
Stratford can be easier on the pocketbook than Broadway, particularly in the spring when senior rates can be paired with a 10 percent tour operator discount. These deals run from the first performances in late April through the first week of July, when peak season starts. Fall matinee prices for seniors return the last week of August and run through October, or longer if shows are extended due to popularity.
U.S. visitors also benefit from the exchange rate, which makes it seem like the entire country is on sale for 30 percent off. The way the market is moving, that discount is expected to deepen to 35 percent over the next two years, Martin says.
The deepest discounts are weekday matinees. In 2019, the festival added 12:30 p.m. matinees along with the traditional 2 p.m. shows to give more flexibility to patrons who wanted to fit more activities into their schedules or see one more show before hitting the road.
Another perk offered to group organizers is payment in three installments, allowing numbers to increase or decrease before the final balance is due. For every 20 group tickets bought, the festival gives a comp ticket.
Accessibility and convenience
While accessibility laws are just being implemented in Ontario, the festival has long emphasized accessibility with designated seating, assistance with walkers and hearing devices. Free bus parking is located within walking distance to theaters, which also have designated points for buses to load and unload passengers.
In 2020, the Tom Patterson Theater will be unveiled thanks to a $100-million fundraising campaign. Named after the festival’s founder, the new facility will stage smaller productions and host forums such as lectures and chats with the creative teams behind the shows.
Behind-the-scenes tours, costume and props warehouse tours, chats with the actors, workshops, and other learning experiences can be reserved at the time of booking.
“We really do love making experiences for our groups, so we often bend itinerary times, bring in chats with directors or actors after a show. That’s a custom experience that somebody walking off the street couldn’t buy,” Martin said.
Five things to know about Stratford
- European feel. Long before Stratford became a theater town in the 1950s, English settlers named their village after the hometown of the playwright William Shakespeare. The picturesque river running through Stratford is called the Thames, just like its namesake that flows through London. A castle-like red-brick city hall in the center of downtown adds to the stately European feel of Stratford.
- Must-see destinations. There’s a lot to see in Stratford. Topping the list is the Perth Museum, which features displays about the Stratford Festival and its history. This year there’s an exhibit on pop star Justin Bieber, aptly titled “Steps to Stardom” since he got his start busking as a child on the steps of the Avon Theater before being signed to a record deal. His bronze star on the sidewalk nearby is a popular selfie spot.
- Delicious explorations. Along with gallery walks, shopping, boat rides and free concerts, Stratford offers a few options for those who like to explore with their taste buds. There are cooking classes at the Stratford Chefs School, tours of distilleries and breweries and trails that lead to stops at shops and restaurants. Special treats cater to chocolate lovers and “bacon & ale fans.” Group operators can claim a sweet discount of 10 percent on Chocolate Trail vouchers.
- Bus- and group-friendly. There are bus parking spots around town. Accommodations for large groups range from the luxurious Bruce Hotel and Restaurant to the moderately priced Queen’s Inn and Boar’s Head Pub and Parlour Inn.
- Concierge service. The Stratford Tourism Alliance is eager to help motorcoach operators configure itineraries by phone or email. There’s also a virtual concierge at visitstratford.ca that can help.