Ontario Place is nostalgia. We all have vague or even not so vague memories of going down to Ontario Place with our families for a fun-filled day. But things are changing at the park.
Opened in 1971, the idea of Ontario Place came following the success of Expo 67 in Montreal. Ontario Place was a display in modernism — a showcase of the future. The 1960s and ’70s were a transformative time culturally and architecturally in Toronto. Buildings such as Toronto City Hall and the TD Centre ushered Toronto into a new era. Ontario Place was part of that optimism. Brightly coloured pavilions echoing Expo would scatter its grounds along with giant silos, but the signature structure was and still remains the iconic, space-aged Cinesphere, featuring new IMAX movie technology. The buildings were the unique designs of Eb Zeidler, a German born architect working in Canada.
Continuing Toronto’s century long obsession with shaping and reshaping its waterfront, the land to house Ontario Place was a new addition to the city’s geography. Two infill islands would be built south of Lake Shore Boulevard near the Exhibition Grounds, connecting to the mainland by bridges.
The park would grow over the years. A central rink doubled in the summer as roller rink and as a skating rink in the winter months. The Ontario Place Forum offered musical entertainment from Teenage Head to Johnny Cash to Blue Rodeo to BB King to The Tragically Hip. The Toronto’s only waterpark — Froster Soak Park — would open in 1978 on the East Island. Wilderness Adventure Ride would excite log-riding ‘thrill seekers’ starting in 1986.
Ontario Place closed in 2011. Although many of the park landmarks are still intact and Ontario Place Corporation is still active, the sites serve almost as urban relics. It’s an odd yet intriguing contrast walking there today: one thinks of the circumstances of its construction — the hope and intent for grandeur and futurism — and then its sad abandoned state — how that vision didn’t ultimately hold up. Maybe it was never meant last. Dwindling attendance put an end to it.
As mentioned, there were attractions added over the years, but perhaps Ontario Place never matched up as a ‘modern’ amusement park to its suburban counterpart Canada’s Wonderland. As the years grew, I certainly heard it mentioned less and less as a destination. Oddly, I actually encountered the grounds more as an adult than as a child; albeit this was because attending concerts finally became a reality and the Molson Amphitheatre — the successor to the Forum — was a great venue for it, so I was only passing through.
The good news: revitalization is in Ontario Place’s future. A long-term vision has the grounds becoming a destination once more through a lot of re-purposing. One part of this plan is already in effect: Trillium Park and William G. Davis Trail. This extraordinary space was carved out parking lots and offers some of the most spectacular skyline views of Toronto.
As a showing of the possibilities, Ontario Place held a Winter Lights Exhibition in the winter of 2018, transforming the grounds and showing them off in a different, well, light. A walk around the artist creations offered neat views of the abandoned park, instilling both a sadness and perhaps some optimism for the next stages. Maybe then Ontario Place will be the future once more.