Ontario Place is a 155-acre tourist attraction located on the Lake Ontario shoreline in Toronto. Operated by the Province of Ontario, the park opened on 22 May 1971. A highlight of the $29-million project was the Cinesphere, the world’s first permanent IMAX theatre. Aside from Atlantis (an event space), the marina and its music venues, the provincial government closed Ontario Place between 2012 and 2017 to save money. While many of the park’s attractions permanently closed during this period, others, such as the Cinesphere, reopened. The provincial government is working with various developers to further reimagine the space.
Ontario Place was inspired by the success of the Ontario pavilion at Expo ’67. The pavilion had drawn large crowds to view the Oscar-winning film A Place to Stand. After Expo ’67, the Ontario government desired a permanent tourist attraction that showcased the province’s accomplishments and potential while capturing the spirit of the fair. They chose Ontario Place’s present-day location partly to spur development along Toronto’s waterfront, and partly to help revitalize the Canadian National Exhibition grounds.
German-Canadian architect Eberhard Zeidler, of the firm of Craig, Zeidler and Strong, designed Ontario Place. Three principles guided Zeidler’s design: flexibility to handle a variety of exhibitions, reviving a section of the waterfront that had been cut off from the rest of the city by the construction of the Gardiner Expressway, and providing an urban park that integrated the city and nature.
Initially called Ontario Showcase, the site was built on two man-made islands. The islands were built with fill left over from recent expansions to Toronto’s subway system and the financial district’s Commerce Court office complex. Zeidler created a five-section pavilion consisting of “pods” — 8,000-square-foot, three-storey boxes elevated over the lake via a suspension system. The pods housed exhibits on Ontario’s past, present and future, and a restaurant. The centrepiece of Zeidler’s design, however, was the Cinesphere, a giant cinema encased in a geodesic dome. The Cinesphere boasted the world’s first permanently installed IMAX projector.
Did you know?
The American Pavilion at Expo ’67 inspired Ontario Place’s Cinesphere. Designed by famed American architect Buckminster Fuller, the pavilion was a geodesic dome. “Geodesic” designs use simple, triangular forms to create spherical objects. Geodesic domes enclose more space without supporting columns than any other structure, and therefore save on materials and cost. Among his life missions, Fuller aimed to improve human dwellings by making them more efficient and affordable. He designed the geodesic dome as a means of achieving this goal. (See also Montreal Biosphere.)
Zeidler’s modernist design received numerous awards, including the Canadian Architect Award of Excellence in 1969 and the Prix du XXe Siècle in 2017.
Ontario Place opened on 22 May 1971. Attendance was lower than anticipated, perhaps because of scaremongering by park officials and the media over potential traffic jams. “It is a stimulating and permanent symbol of the work and achievement of the people of Ontario,” Ontario premier William Davis observed during the official opening ceremony.
After a $2.2-million loss during its first season, officials made adjustments to Ontario Place’s programming. Musical performances at the amphitheatre stage, known as the Forum, took on greater importance. The Children’s Village play area, designed by Eric McMillan and opened in 1973, incorporated games and climbing structures, and was soon joined by a water-play area. Canada’s first major waterslide opened in the park in 1978.
To promote northern Ontario, Ontario North Now opened in 1980. It consisted of seven interconnected concrete silos that showcased the communities, industries and resources of that part of the province. It lasted for a decade before the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines determined it had outlived its usefulness as a promotional tool.
Future Pod, which operated from 1982 to 1985, focused on emerging technology, including home computing, nuclear reactors, and a replica of the Canadarm. Following Future Pod’s closure, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame occupied the space from 1986 to 1989 before moving to its permanent home in St. Marys, Ontario. Elsewhere in the park, the Wilderness Adventure water ride was installed in 1985.
Two major changes occurred in 1994. Two of the pods were converted into the Atlantis event space, a venue for weddings and special events. The Forum closed and was replaced with the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre (now known as Budweiser Stage). The amphitheatre opened on 18 May 1995 with a Bryan Adams concert.
Closure and Re-Opening
Over time, as government and park officials continued to balance old and new attractions, such as by renovating the Cinesphere and adding the Echo Beach concert venue, attendance fell from a peak of around 3.3 million visitors annually in the early 1980s to, depending on the source, between 330,000 and 560,000 by 2011.
On 1 February 2012, the provincial government, then led by Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty, announced that, apart from Atlantis, the marina and the music venues, Ontario Place would close for up to five years. They indicated that the park was no longer financially sustainable amid low attendance and the rising provincial deficit. The government estimated closing the park would save $20 million annually.
An advisory panel headed by John Tory (then the chair of CivicAction, later mayor of Toronto), issued a report in July 2012 that recommended the site should be open to the public year-round with free admission. “People care deeply about Ontario Place and would like this landmark destination to be a vibrant hub of activity again,” Tory observed in the report’s introduction. Union leaders and the provincial New Democratic Party criticized the report for proposing to reserve up to 15 per cent of the site for residential development. They feared that expensive waterfront condominiums would be built.
During the closure, 7.5 acres on the eastern end of the site were transformed from a parking lot into a waterfront trail. It officially opened in June 2017 as Trillium Park and the William G. Davis Trail. The Cinesphere, complete with a new projection system, also reopened that year.
In November 2018, the provincial government of Premier Doug Ford tabled the Ontario Place Corporation Repeal Act to dissolve the corporation and by extension, its board of directors. A new board was created in its place. A call for development proposals was issued in 2019. The call led to a trio of partnerships: Therme Group will develop a year-round water park and wellness complex; Écorécréo Group will develop a family-friendly adventure park; and event promotor Live Nation will redevelop the amphitheatre, turning it into an all-season venue. Promises were also made to work with the Ontario Science Centre on educational programming in the Cinesphere and the pods. Construction is expected to begin in 2024 and end between 2027 and 2030.
Around the same time the Ford government issued the Ontario Place Corporation Repeal Act, the attraction was removed from a list of provincial cultural heritage sites that it had been added to in 2014. The City of Toronto, however, placed the park on its heritage registry. In 2020, the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based non-profit organization, listed Ontario Place among 25 endangered global cultural sites. They launched the Future of Ontario Place Project with local collaborators to promote awareness of the site’s cultural importance, preserve its architecture, and promote its future use.