The battle over the future of Ontario Place is pitched—and for good reason. Thousands of Torontonians spent their formative years there, learning the art of play, listening to live music and catching IMAX flicks. A nostalgic tour of the glory years
In the late 1960s, following the success of Montreal’s Expo 67, Toronto finally decided to do something about its long-neglected waterfront. The Toronto Harbour Commission developed a master plan to transform a 155-acre swath of land into a massive recreational site. The result, Ontario Place, included five sci-fi-esque multi-use pods, a marina, an outdoor concert venue, a geodesic dome housing a theatre, a one-of-a-kind children’s play area created by British designer Eric McMillan and a collection of “villages”—modular structures containing restaurants and shops.
German Canadian architect Eberhard Zeidler—best known for his work on the Eaton Centre and the McMaster University Health Sciences Centre—spearheaded the project, which broke ground in March of 1969. Zeidler’s design drew inspiration from the Eiffel Tower and London’s Crystal Palace. Landscape architect Michael Hough was tapped to make Zeidler’s vision a reality. Using decommissioned ships, Hough built breakwaters to protect Zeidler’s designs from crashing waves. All told, the project cost $29 million (about $223 million today).
When it opened, in 1971, Ontario Place quickly captured the public’s attention: it drew more than 2 million visitors annually in its first few years. But its operating costs were higher than anticipated, with each decade bringing the closure or demolition of facilities, until Ontario Place’s main attractions eventually closed in 2012.
When Doug Ford announced a plan to build a private spa run by an Austria-based firm on the site, the backlash was instant. The protests underscored the deep attachment Torontonians have to the park—and, in late August, led the firm to propose a revised design for the space. Here, a history of Ontario Place in archival photographs.
WATERWORLD (1972): Access to Toronto’s shoreline was limited before the creation of Ontario Place. Jim Ramsay, the park’s initial executive director, was underwhelmed by the government’s original plans to draw people to the waterfront by overhauling the CNE, advocating instead for the creation of new facilities and attractions.
SETTING THE STAGE (1971): The Forum was a beloved venue for outdoor summer concerts. When its seating filled up, visitors sprawled out on the lawn. In 1994, the structure was demolished and replaced with a higher-capacity amphitheatre, which is now Budweiser Stage.
MOVIE NIGHTS (1972): Taking inspiration from the Expo 67 geodesic dome, the futuristic Cinesphere hosted the world’s first permanent IMAX theatre. It closed along with the rest of the park in 2012 but reopened in 2017 to screen movies full time.
FUN HOUSE (1973): Eric McMillan, who designed the children’s attractions at Ontario Place, was credited with inventing “soft play.” Using materials like rope and vinyl-clad foam to prevent kids from getting hurt, he built a foam “swamp,” a punching bag forest and a rope ladder strung over a pool of water. The Children’s Village, as it was called, was a smash hit with the park’s youngest guests.
MAKING A SPLASH (1986): After the success of the Children’s Village, McMillan was commissioned to design an aquatic play area in 1973. He created a free-roaming waterpark with multiple levels and stationary water guns. “The creative freedom I was given was amazing,” he says. “The waterpark earned more press coverage than Ontario Place’s initial opening.”
A NOVEL IDEA (1970s): The initial plan for Ontario Place involved overhauling the CNE’s Ontario Government pavilion. But one of the project’s architects, Noel Hancock, suggested building exhibition pods in the lake instead. “The project became much more ambitious,” says McMillan.
BUMPY RIDE (1986): In the mid-1980s, the provincial government tried to monetize Ontario Place by turning parts of it into a theme park. A few rides, like the now-defunct Wilderness Adventure, were built only to fall into disrepair.
FREE FLOATING (1987): In the 1980s, bumper boats arrived on the scene, allowing visitors to safely crash into their pals against the backdrop of the HMCS Haida, which served the Royal Canadian Navy until 1963.
BRIGHT FUTURE (1970s): Originally painted in eye-popping colours, the fun-focused futuristic villages housed, at different times, skating and roller rinks, restaurants, a reflecting pool and an eco-learning centre.
PLAYTIME (1970s): The colourful water modules, which sprayed with the pull of a lever, were an experiment in play that forged a large part of Ontario Place’s character. They established McMillan as a leading force in the world of children’s attractions.
GOING GREEN (1970s): One of the park’s early aims was to provide urbanites with access to nature and water. Landscape architect Michael Hough wanted to democratize the city’s green spaces, particularly as the surrounding population boomed.
OPEN SEASON (1996): During Ontario Place’s heyday, visitors sought out its vast waterpark to keep cool in the summertime. McMillan’s team also built skating rinks on the roofs of the pods and invited guests to try summer skating on their slippery plastic surfaces.