Monday, September 28, 2015

# 61 ~ "Play by the Bay", Part III - Ontario Place

This is the third of four articles that are taken from a presentation that I gave during the week of September 21st, 2015.  Given that we have reached the official end of summer, I presented a look back at some of Toronto's favourite summertime recreational spots - particularly, those located around the Toronto harbour.

For many children in Toronto who grew up in the 1970s or later, Ontario Place remains a summer destination that I often reminisce about.  Ontario Place came about for a variety of reasons.  By the 1960s, city planners wanted to make the waterfront more appealing.  A century of industrialization had made Toronto’s lakeside unappealing, despite its potential.  There had also been a lot of waterfront development to make way for more cars on the road in Toronto.

Ontario Place was conceived as a place to remedy all of this, and was also built to appease Toronto, after the high level of government spending that went to Toronto’s great rival, Montreal, for Expo ’67.

Photographs of Montreal's Expo '67 show it as having a very similar look to what would become Ontario Place.

The original plan was to have Ontario Place built as an onshore attraction, but it was eventually constructed out in the water.  Eventually, three artificial islands and five “pod” buildings were constructed, as well as the Cinesphere Dome building. 

One of the three islands was dedicated as an open air concert space – this was the Forum but became the Molson Canadian Ampitheatre that we know today.  The other two islands held amusements, parkland and exhibits. Three old lake freighters were sunk to provide a breakwater for a public marina between the main islands. Ontario Place opened in 1971, and thrilled families in Toronto for forty years.  I’d like to share with you a series of photographs that will hopefully rekindle any memories for any of you who may have made family visits to Ontario Place over the years.

The Forum drew a lot of people down to Ontario Place.  It was a circular theatre space set in a basin created by four hills.  Bench seating provided space for an audience of 2,500 people.  There was additional grass seating on the hills surrounding the Forum, providing space for up to 8,000 people. 
Some concerts were so popular that they drew in crowds of 20,000 people.  The Forum opened up with the rest of Ontario Place in 1971, and in 1976, a revolving stage was introduced, to ensure an equal view from all areas of the audience.

Above, and below, grass seating at the Forum.

\The Forum featured up to 120 concerts a year, during its season from late May to early September.  Classical concerts put on by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Hamilton Philharmonic or the National Ballet of Canada became popular. 

A performance of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture became a popular annual feature.  The guns of HMCS Haida, which was docked nearby, aided performances of that particular event.

Through the 1970s & 1980s, pop, blues & rock concerts became popular at the Forum.  Roy Orbison (left) and Canadian musical legend Stompin' Tom Connors both played the Forum.

Willie Nelson & Kris Kristopherson played a show at the Forum at some point in the early 1980s.

The controversial decision to demolish the Forum took place over the winter of late 1994 and early 1995.  The new Molson Canadian Ampitheatre, which is on the site today, opened in May of 1995, with a set of concerts by Bryan Adams.

Bryan Adams (inset) & the Molson Canadian Ampitheatre.


The Cinesphere was another major source of entertainment at Ontario Place.  It had the distinction of being the first permanent IMAX theatre in the world – and IMAX itself was of course a Canadian invention.  The Cinesphere was the most popular attraction at Ontario Place on opening day, in May of 1971.  The Cinesphere debuted with a travelogue film called “North of Superior” which is still shown at Imax festivals today.


Many visitors to Ontario Place will remember visiting HMCS Haida.  The ship was a Tribal-class destroyer that served in the Royal Canadian Navy from 1943 until 1963.  Haida sank more enemy surface tonnage than any other Canadian warship.  She is also the only surviving Tribal-class destroyer out of the 27 vessels that were constructed between 1937 and 1945 for the Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, and the Royal Australian Navy.

Haida opened as an attraction at the pier on York Street in 1965.  The ship was moved to its location near Ontario Place in 1970, a year before the park opened.  Haida served as an attraction at Ontario Place for 31 years, and was also used as a Royal Canadian Sea Cadets training facility.

In 2002, at the urging of Hamilton’s Member of Parliament, Sheila Copps, Parks Canada purchased Haida from the provincial government and towed her with great difficulty from Ontario Place, to a new home on the Hamilton waterfront.  Although Haida received an 11 gun salute when she reached Hamilton, many of us who made an annual pilgrimage to Ontario Place, and Haida felt spurned that our great destroyer was “stolen” from Toronto’s harbour. 


Ontario Place actually held a good variety of restaurants.  Some of the pavilion restaurants offered waterside dining that was popular with the marina crowd.

The Trillium Room offered elevated dining with a panoramic view.

There was a fair amount of night life on the grounds of Ontario Place in the late 1970s and 1980s, usually following a show at the Forum.

By the 1980s, Ontario Place had really stepped up advertising and it ran with the slogan “It’s All Yours …”.  Below is a television commercial for Ontario Place from 1984.

Looking back on some of the rides for kids at Ontario Place, it seems unlikely that they would ever be found in parks or playgrounds today.  Scraped knees, falls and worse were often par for the course.  

The original water slide at Ontario Place was made of concrete.  If you lost your mat on the way down, you'd really regret it by the time you reached the bottom.

This miniature zip line was an alternative to the water slide.  Apart from the risk of catching your fingers in the old clothesline type apparatus, there was also the risk of letting go and falling several feet on to concrete.  Of course, there were several inches of water to "break your fall".

This ride tumbled around rather like a slow moving clothes dryer.  Kids of all sizes piled in & were tumbled all over one another, with the smaller children somehow inevitably landing under the larger ones.  It was several years before they lined the hard surface of the ride's interior with a sort of shag carpeting.

Perhaps the most visually memorable attraction at Ontario Place was this punching bag maze.  The colours made it memorable, as did the fact that if you didn't wind up getting one in the kisser from a larger, stronger kid, you weren't really trying.

The bumper boats were loads of fun, too.  A bunch of pre-teen kids driving around with gas outboard engines, with the express intention of smashing into each other ... what could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, due to apparently declining attendance, Ontario Place was suddenly closed at the end of October, 2011.  There are still concerts at the Molson Canadian Ampitheatre, but very little other activity on the grounds.   The Government of Ontario has announced that it plans to renovate the facility and reopen it in 2017, but there is very little information on what it will be used for.


My "blog" on Toronto, Then & Now has developed out of the thousands of historical photographs of Toronto that I have collected over the years, in the course of giving illustrated talks and presentations.

If you have an interest in booking an illustrated talk, please get in touch.  I have many different subjects put together.  Just a few of these include :

- Toronto in the Georgian Era (1793 to 1834)
- Victorian Toronto (1837 to 1901)
- Demolished Toronto
- A History of Old Homes & Estates in Toronto
- A History of Cinema & Entertainment in Toronto
- Toronto During the First World War
- At least two different presentations on True Crime in Toronto
- Ghost Stories of Toronto

Presentations can be tailored to run anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the needs of your group.  I come with all my own equipment - laptop, speaker, and digital projector.  Researching the history of Toronto and going on a detective hunt for old photographs is a passion of mine.

If you don't see a subject that you're interested in listed above, just ask!

You can reach me at :

telephone : 416 487 9017

You can follow Muddy York Tours on twitter @MuddyYorkTours

Also : join our Facebook group for special information on "secret" events and tours that aren't always announced to the public.  Our Facebook group can be found here.

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