Following the success of Montreal’s Expo 67, the official name of the unofficial World’s Fair that took place in Quebec to worldwide fanfare and record-setting attendance, the government of Ontario decided to replicate the idea and bring Torontonians a similar level of recognition.
Construction on the original Ontario Place began in 1969, with an eye on the future. Architect Eb Zeidler (Eaton Centre, Sherway Gardens, Gladstone Hotel restoration) conceived the futuristic layout despite a modest budget. The original park design, stretched across three man-made islands along Lake Ontario waterfront, consisted of: a complex of pod pavilions and geodesic domes, pedal boats, restaurants, The Forum, a dry dock pier and marina, and the world’s first permanent IMAX theater, Cinesphere—still the most recognizable structure along Toronto’s shoreline. The final cost of construction, adjusted for 2016: $176 million.
(Photo: Brian Snelson)
Though the reception was not as stratospheric as Expo, audiences alike were enchanted. Ontario Place became the go-to summer destination for over thirty years. Everybody has a favourite memory. Here are a few notable moments in the park’s storied history:
1971 – Park opens to the public on May 22 (admission: $1.00 adults; $0.50 for kids)
1978 – OP introduces a water slide—the first in Canada.
1980 – The iconic bumper boats are introduced! General admission ticket immediately pays for itself.
1980 — Unruly riots and punk mayhem resulting from an overbooked (free) Teenage Head concert on OP grounds leads to a ban on “hard rock” music within the park for years. Plus side: Toronto develops some street cred.
1982 — Future Pod opens, giving audiences a glimpse into the scientific and technological achievements made by Canadians, including a replica of the Canadarm
1991 – In celebration of its 20th anniversary, Ontario Place slashes admission costs and offers everyone free entry for the next five years (not a great idea, in hindsight)
1994 – The Forum stage (8,000 seats) is replaced with the Molson Amphitheater (16,000+ seats).
(Photo: Mike Babcock)
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end—if temporarily. By 2011, with attendance dipping to an all-time low, the park, wielding a crippling deficit, was in crisis. Numerous efforts were made to illicit life-saving ideas from the public, but, ultimately, the interest wasn’t there. The powers that be opted to temporarily shut down the establishment in October 2011, with no definitive re-opening window.
Due to revitalization, most of the park’s key features have been closed until further notice, including the general admission grounds, Cineshpere, restaurants, rides (those bumper boats!) and the waterpark. Echo Beach, the Marina, Atlantis Pavilion and the Molson Amphitheater remain open.
Rumours concerning a grand re-opening began to swirl as early as 2013, with organizers eyeing a possible date in July 2015 to coincide with the Pan and Parapan Am Games. Ultimately, this proved unrealistic. (In retrospect, Torontonians would likely have preferred a re-launched Ontario Place to the much maligned gridlock inducing, economically draining pseudo-world sporting event.)
The long-term $100 million revitalization plan for Ontario Place includes year-round admission and, continuing the park’s tradition of innovation, a heavy emphasis on green initiatives, including open air commons, pedestrian bridges, nature trails and breakwaters. The renderings are pretty cool. Additionally, existing structures (Cinesphere, the waterpark) and the current website would also be updated for modern visitors.
All in all, the city (councilors and residents alike) seems destined to bring back the park that, only five years ago, teetered on the verge of obscurity. Current Ontario Tourism Minister Michael Coteau announced in 2014 that the park will open to the public as early as 2016. No word yet on a definitive date. Fingers crossed for September.
(Main photo: Raysonho)