BY LINDA MONDOUX
The Molson Canadian Amphitheatre will be alive with the sounds of music on the Toronto waterfront this summer, with the Dave Matthews Band, Lady Antebellum, the Beach Boys and Sarah McLachlan kicking things off. Unfortunately, that’s about all that will be happening on the grounds of Ontario Place, which has been all but closed down due to budget cuts.
The Ontario government plans to save $20 million a year by shuttering the majority of the iconic park, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011. The announcement that the bulk of Ontario Place — including the Cinesphere, the amusement rides, the water park and the concession stands — won’t be open for business this year came as a bit of a shock to both staff and visitors, some of whom had already purchased park passes
for the 2012 season.
“Everybody who grew up in the Toronto area has great memories of Ontario Place,” Jennifer Kerr, manager of communications and media relations, tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. She grew up in Oakville, and remembers spending many happy summers at Ontario Place.
The move to gate all but the amphitheatre and the Atlantis special events venue (both of which are privately run), along with the marina and the parking lot means visitors will no longer be able to combine a concert with a day at the park taking in a 3D movie at the Cinesphere, enjoying a ride on the Scrambler or getting soaked on a water slide. Forget about the candy floss, too.
Ontario Place will be closed for at least the next five years, with an appointed panel to determine what best should be developed on the prime 96-acre Lake Ontario property. Former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory is leading the advisory panel.
“Ontario Place has a great 40-year history, and I look forward to another 40 years,” says Kerr, who for now still has her full-time job. “I am looking forward to what the panel decides.”
The committee will take a closer look at redevelopment ideas submitted in September 2010, after the Ontario government put out a request for information from developers and potential partners. Among the ideas suggested for the Ontario Place property was a casino, housing and a planetarium. Whatever is developed, Ontario Tourism Minister Michael Chan has said he wants Ontario Place to be available as a venue for the 2015 Pan Am Games, and to be fully revitalized by 2017, when Canada celebrates its 150th birthday.
Park celebrated 40th anniversary with fanfare
While the Ontario government figures out what to do with its money-losing waterfront property, students counting on a summer job at Ontario Place will have to look elsewhere. It’s unknown how many jobs will be available this summer, but the 600 or so students who have relied on Ontario Place for employment in the past are being warned that opportunities may be “extremely limited.” About three dozen full-time jobs are also expected to be cut.
The park celebrated its 40th anniversary with free admission, 3D IMAX feature-length Hollywood films at the revamped Cinesphere, an expanded water park and a host of live special events, including an acrobatics and trampoline show and fireworks over the lake.
While the lineup and free admission did pull in 70 per cent more visitors than in 2010, Ontario Place could not match the success of its inaugural year in 1971, when 2.5 million people walked through the gates of the modernist world designed by Eberhard Zeidler. Attendance since that first year has averaged about one million.
Ontario Place has reinvented itself over the years, with millions of dollars spent updating and renovating to keep up with the demands of an ever-changing world. For whatever reason, the crowds just didn’t get any bigger. Too late came the revamp of the Cinesphere. The renovation in February 2011, the first since it opened in 1971, included the installation of a new IMAX 3D projector, digital audio sound system, cinematic screen and stadium-style seating. “These enhancements make Ontario Place’s iconic Cinesphere one of the best film experiences in North America,” Ontario Place proclaimed.
Unfortunately, the government has declared it is to be lights out at the Cinesphere, where 300 new energy-saving LED light bulbs recently added to the dome’s façade may never shine again.
“All the decisions are based on the current economic challenges,” Kerr said when asked why the Cinesphere, hailed as the world’s first permanent IMAX theatre and the “crowning jewel” of Ontario Place, was among the areas being closed down.
Ontario Place was built as a showcase for the province. When it opened in May 1971, it featured the five-pod pavilion complex suspended over the lake, The Forum (since torn down to make way for the Molson amphitheatre), pedal boats, a marina, restaurants and the Cinesphere. The first brochure described it as a “work in progress.” Over time, a water park was added, along with a skating/roller rink and motion simulator rides. Even bungee jumping made an appearance, and restaurants made way for the Atlantis banquet centre, complete with spectacular waterviews. Northern mining showcase. Heritage Days. Tall Ships. Ontario Place has seen it all over its 40-year history.
The thought that the Cinesphere’s geodesic dome could be demolished and the Ontario Place property turned over to the private sector is not sitting well with some people.
'... one more provincial icon will be gone forever'
“The government is saying Ontario Place will be closed for up to the next five years,” Warren Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, says in a statement. “Neither will they confirm or deny that the Cinesphere will be demolished. Rumours of a new casino or more waterfront condos could result in permanent transformation of this landmark area into just another cluster of concrete and steel towers ... There are profits to be made from entertainment, if the government made the investment. Instead, the Ontario Liberals will hand over a provincial asset to the private sector, a move that is irrevocable. Cash that would have come to the government will instead go to private investors. And one more provincial icon will be gone forever.”
For now, you can take in a concert or dock at the marina, but the rest of the park is out of bounds. No walking around aimlessly. Until at least 2015, you’ll have to make do with strolling down memory lane. And with 40 years worth of memories, that’s a lot of strolling. As one poster commented on the CBC news site:
“Ontario Place was my childhood. Those water parks were like my life.”
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — February 2012