July 15, 2018
Ontario Place was a jewel on the Toronto waterfront for 40 years before declining attendance caused the government to shut it down in October 2011 for the last time. Plans were immediately announced that major renovations were planned and the park would re-open in time for Canada 150 in July 2017. This didn’t happen and a change of provincial governments threatens to derail the project further. I decided to take a walk around the park and see what is going on these days.
Ontario Place was designed by Toronto architect Eberhard Zeidler. A large part of the concept for Ontario Place came from the idea to have large display pods built over the water. The idea likely was inspired by Expo 67 where Pods were built over the Saint Lawrence River in Montreal. Three artificial islands were created in the harbour that are connected to the mainland by three bridges. The central bridge connects to the set of pods which make up the middle island. The five elevated pods are interconnected as they stand above Lake Ontario. Each pod is a three story structure that encloses 743 square metres of space. Originally used for multimedia exhibitions, they were intended to be flexible and accommodate other uses over the years.
This is the seventh season that Ontario Place has been largely abandoned although it does appear to be open as I was not challenged by the staff I passed on the bridge. The entire time that I spent walking through the park I met less than twenty other people. It truly felt like walking through a ghost town.
In the 1980’s over 3 million people per year visited the park but by 2010 the number was down to only 10% of that. The log flume on the west island was always sure to soak the riders, a welcome treat on a hot day.
The park was in a continual state of development with new attractions being added as the years went by. The original pods were not the raving success that was envisioned but the idea of showcasing the northern part of the province was seen as a way of potentially attracting professionals to relocate north where there was a shortage of people. In 1980 silos were constructed that resemble farm silos that stand across rural Ontario. The wildlife displays didn’t do as well as expected and the silos were eventually converted into additional rides.
The Cinesphere showcased the world’s first permanent IMAX projector on a screen that was 24 metres wide and 18 metres high. The dome is 35 metres wide and when it opened in 1971 it became the icon of Ontario Place. It was so successful that there was a regular line-up to get in. On a school trip we saw a movie called Snow Day in which it felt like we were in a school bus running out of control on snowy roads. A good choice for kids who had arrived via school bus. Cinesphere was closed in 2012 along with the rest of the park but in 2014 the dome was given a cultural heritage designation. As of 2017 the theater is open again on a full time basis with state of the art equipment.
March of 1969 saw the first activity in the building of Ontario Place and it opened just over two years later on May 22, 1971. Construction of the Cinesphere and the pods is seen in this 1970 photograph from the Toronto Archives.
The design called for display pods suspended over the water to display the scientific and technological wonders of Ontario. Constructing the pods over open water became an engineering problem and the costs mounted to the point of consuming the budget. To reduce the costs a protective break wall was designed using three obsolete lake freighters. They were sunk and filled with concrete to create a safe harbour for a marina. The ships can be walked out to the end where one of the bridges is open for exploration. The three ships anchors are also preserved on the third ship. The picture below shows the outline of two of the ships where they meet.
The 1970 photo below shows the three ships, reported to be the The Shaw, The Houghton and The Victorious in their positions with the west island being formed out of lake fill.
The pods are now underutilized and the iconic sets of stairs on the outside are peeling and no longer ring with the sounds of crowds filled with laughter.
The water park covered much of the east island and went under the name Soak City. A series of coloured water slides was installed in the 1990’s and was a popular attraction until the park closed. The slides remained in place until May of 2016 when they were disassembled to prevent a potential injury to people who insisted on climbing up and even rollerblading down them. Today the central support tower is all that’s left except for a few abutments to mark the site of the water park.
Trillium Park, containing the William G. Davis Trail is the first part of Ontario Place to get a completely new lease on life. This area was formerly a 7.5 acre parking lot. Today it has been converted into a lush green space with a 1.3 kilometre trail named after Bill Davis who was premier in Ontario in 1971 when Ontario Place first opened. The trail passes through an artificial ravine and contains the Moccasin Marker. The carvings on either side of the ravine are intended to remind us of those who were here before us.
I picked a good time to visit as the Indy was on and parts of Lakeshore Avenue were closed for the race. I decided to park at Budapest Park and walk part of the Martin Goodman Trail to reach Ontario Place. I used the Bruce Trail App to track my walk which came out to 10.4 kilometres. By parking at Ontario Place you can explore the area with three or four kilometres worth of walking. Be sure to make the walk along along the three sunken ships that is represented by the tail extending out into the lake on the map below.
Having visited the park in 1972 or 1973 with my aunt and uncle, both of whom have passed on, I have fond memories of an Ontario Place that was vibrant and full of people. It’s sad to see what has become of our waterfront park especially when there is no clear timeline for completion of the renovations.
As a parting thought, would you have wanted this job building the Cinesphere?
Google Maps Link: Ontario Place
For additional places to explore visit our recent Greatest Treks 3 post.
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Very much enjoyed learning about Ontario Place’s construction and history. It’s hard to understand how a beautiful park on our cherished waterfront has come to be a ‘ghost town’ of sorts. May a new lease on life be around the corner. Thanks for this story.
A great take. I share in that eerieness. That 1970 aerial is great.
I went there on opening day and many, many times after that. They used to hold free jazz concerts with some of the old jazz greats at the amphitheater, and fireworks displays on special occasions. Having left the Toronto area for Western Canada in 1979, I have not seen Ontario Place often sinse and it makes me sad to see that it is in disrepair and present and future generations will not be able to see the showcase it once was.
The western island where the Mega
Maze was seems to be the summer home of a YMCA day camp. The entire island seems to be accessible (except for the flume ride)
Thanks for the entry. Ontario place is just what the 2020 generation needs as they seek walking, jogging, biking areas. Put the bug in the premier’s ear as he likes spending on his old stomping grounds.
I’ve seen many movies at the Cinesphere and some music at the Forum.
Some friends had their wedding reception at Ontario Place.
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