‘World’s most exciting island’: The triumphs and mishaps of Ontario Place’s opening

Fifty years ago, Ontario Place greeted its first visitors, treating them to grand rhetoric, a Colonel Sanders appearance — and a few unfortunate hiccups
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on May 19, 2021
Ontario Place under construction in 1970. (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465. File 32, Item 14)



“It is a stimulating and permanent symbol of the work and achievement of the people of Ontario. The vision and scope of Ontario Place gives promise to our vast potential. There reposes here a part of the soul and spirit of all the thousands of towns and villages, farms and mining camps, urban high-rises and suburban homes which continue to make Ontario.”  

— Premier William Davis, speaking at the official opening ceremony for Ontario Place on May 22, 1971 

While Premier Bill Davis felt that the opening of Ontario Place was “one of the very significant occasions in the history of our province,” those who visited the $23 million tourist attraction during its first weekend experienced a mixture of triumphs, failures, and mishaps. 

Ontario Place was conceived during a period when Toronto was interested in challenging its architectural reputation for dowdiness — it belongs to a decade that brought us such modern structures as the National Arts Centre, the Ontario Science Centre, Toronto City Hall, and the Toronto-Dominion Centre. Aesthetically, it reflected a sense of excitement about the possibilities of exhibition and leisure space inspired by Expo 67. 

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Initially conceived as a plan to expand and modernize the Canadian National Exhibition via an improved provincial-government pavilion, Ontario Place evolved into a landmark to showcase Ontario’s people and resources with Expo-style flair. For architect Eb Zeidler, it represented a chance to spark the development of the waterfront, one of the city’s most neglected areas.

“We have used it for storage and the creation of economic slums,” he wrote in Canadian Architect. “A catalyst is needed before it is too late — a point from which we can commence an orderly pattern within the framework of our economy.” There was also hope, as Steve Paikin notes in his book Public Triumph, Private Tragedy, that it would “create a lasting legacy for young people who had to stay in the big city during the summer.”

black and white photo of a group of smiling people
"Sniff, Daddy! Premier Davis gets a rose from daughter Meg, 7, at Ontario Place. Mrs. Davis and son Neil look on." (Front-page photo on the May 24, 1971, edition of the Toronto Telegram)

Announced under the name “Ontario Showcase” in March 1969, Ontario Place had a tight two-year construction timeline. Arguments between the province and other levels of government, especially Metropolitan Toronto, threatened to derail the project, which critics believed had been sped along to give the Progressive Conservatives a major accomplishment to campaign on in the leadup to an anticipated election in 1971. There were disputes over, for example, who held the title over the lake bottom; Metro ordered a work stoppage after trucks transporting fill to create the park’s islands were spotted driving in the wrong direction along a one-way street.

After several Metro officials complained in September 1970 that pedestrian bridges were being erected across Lake Shore Boulevard without prior consultation, Metro chairman Albert Campbell replied that “when somebody is doing something for you, you don’t get mixed up in technicalities.” In the end, the park’s opening date — May 22, 1971 — came two days ahead of schedule.

The previous night, 2,000 people attended a preview reception hosted by Davis and featuring such dignitaries as Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders (then living in Mississauga) and former Toronto mayor Nathan Phillips, who was proud that the park had been designed by local architects. “People will come to see it from all over the world,” Phillips told the Toronto Telegram, “because there really is nothing quite like it in the world.”

There were several last-minute concerns. Two-thirds of the canal tour boats and the park’s entire train fleet hadn’t yet been delivered. More worrying was the issue of crowd control. Based on phone polling, park officials anticipated that between 50,000 and 85,000 people would turn up on opening day. The public was advised that traffic jams were inevitable and that the turnstiles would be closed once the park hit its capacity of 35,000 visitors. 

The scaremongering worked too well. Though it was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning, only 300 people were waiting when the park opened at 9:29 a.m. on May 22. “The first hour had an eerie atmosphere,” the Globe and Mail reported. “Bands marched bravely from island to island but the people they played for largely disappeared into exhibits and the Cinesphere. Two of 10 folk singers assigned to warm up wandering visitors serenaded one another and a mallard duck floating in the west island reflecting pool nearby.”

Though police prepared for traffic jams, the only congestion that day came thanks to cottage-country traffic. The TTC reported that only 65 people filled its first five runs to the park. That afternoon’s edition of the Telegram suggested that the grand opening “looked like a first night performance about to bomb.” The numbers slowly rose over the day, reaching 2,200 by 11 a.m. and 12,000 by 5 p.m. The public was let in for free after 9:30 p.m., which gave them plenty of time to walk around and enjoy the bars and food stands but only half an hour to see the exhibits. The official day-end attendance total was 23,000. 

Not all those who came were there to take in the sights: around 1 p.m., a dozen members of the Young Socialists picketed the main entrance, holding signs reading “Ontario Place: $23 Million Clubhouse for the Rich” and “Is That All There Is?”

During the opening ceremony, Davis declared, “There are no politics here today. There are only people finding and enjoying themselves. Amid the clamour and sometimes disruption of the modern age, is there not a place for the individual to say to himself, ‘Ontario is not only a good place in which to live — it is a place in which I can take full pride?’” Minister of Trade and Development Allan Grossman suggested that it “may well turn out to be the world’s most exciting island” and that “it may help us to cease our self-analysis and just be what we are.” 

workmen on a large glass roof
Workers bolt ends of aluminum tubing into place to tie the Cinesphere's dome and cap together. (Globe and Mail)

As the ceremony wound down, Davis fed a Chinese dragon money as a symbolic show of good luck. Unfortunately, the event then hit a stretch of bad luck: a fireworks display set ablaze straw laid on the ground to protect freshly seeded grass, and a parachutist who was supposed to land in a reflecting pool on the west island hit the pavement instead (but luckily suffered no injuries). 

The undisputed success of the opening weekend was the Cinesphere, whose innovative IMAX technology wowed viewers and led to lineups. The exhibitions in the central pods, however, failed to generate much excitement. Government officials had thought they would be the centrepiece of the park; visitors could venture through four themed areas covering such topics as geological history and economic development. The displays mixed artifacts, backlit panels, films, and slide projections on white forms that resembled punching bags.

Local critics savaged the content: York University urban-affairs lecturer James Lorimer called it “a celebration of almost nothing” in the Globe and Mail, while Telegram entertainment editor Roy Shields (who overall found the park “splendid, with reservations”) noted that the “Genesis” exhibit left the impression that “in the beginning there was a fiery gas in space, then there was Ontario.”

Over at the Forum, the opening show featured 21 different acts, including middle-of-the-road singers, country groups, cultural-dance ensembles, the National Ballet of Canada, and an 800-voice choir. “You can sit and listen on grassy slopes outside the Forum,” Jack Batten observed in the Globe and Mail, “though not right away because the sod is brand new and the OPP will chase you off if you linger on it too long.” For 12-to-19-year-olds seeking rock music, the Youth Centre offered headliners Edward Bear and Mainline — after an afternoon of Dixieland jazz. “I could have stayed home and heard better music on the radio,” a University of Toronto student complained to the Telegram.

Officials felt that the media had exaggerated how busy the park would likely be on opening day and scared off visitors — although much of the info had come from sources within the provincial government. A media blackout was imposed on future attendance figures; any numbers would be provided by executive director James Ramsay. Park official David de Dominico said that releasing any figures had “a powerful effect on whether people come” and that the government had “felt morally obliged to warn the public that we expected large crowds.” 

The hiccups continued on day two. According to park officials, around 30,000 people visited. To stop the media from conducting its own head count, tape was stuck on the counters. Lines for the Cinesphere and the exhibits were an hour or longer, and the screening schedule for North of Superior was abandoned to cram in as many showings as possible. Park guides grew increasingly frazzled dealing with visitors confused by poor directional signage. A faulty gas valve meant that restaurants on the west island had to serve only cold food or close entirely, increasing lines at unaffected eating spots. 

According to some visitors, dining was pretty much all the site had to offer. Bob Norrie, who brought his family in from Scarborough, told the Toronto Star that, while he’d enjoyed the Cinesphere and touring the HMCS Haida, he was “disappointed that there weren’t more exhibits and things people, especially kids, could participate in. There really isn’t much here except for all the restaurants.” On their way home, he found that his three sons had been more excited about what they saw on trips to the Ontario Science Centre and Upper Canada Village than about anything Ontario Place had to offer. 

a building with a walkway — filled with people — by the water
Ontario Place, c. 1972-1989. (Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 9, Item 2)

Various articles suggested that a steady diet of special entertainment and refreshed exhibitions would keep visitors coming back. But some in the media remained somewhat skeptical, at least of the more sweeping rhetoric. Referring to Grossman's comment that the park would “reaffirm our identity as Ontarians and Canadians,” Windsor Star Queen’s Park writer Bill Prager observed that “it was not previously noticeable that large numbers of Ontario citizens were scouring the countryside looking for their misplaced identities.”

Positive reviews rolled in from south of the border. New York Times columnist Paul J.C. Friedlander noted that “it looks at first like a world’s fair, only better” thanks to its sparkling architecture. He felt its low-key presentation could serve as a model for future plans for the former New York World’s Fair site in Queens.

The Boston Globe compared Ontario Place to Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens and called the main structure “a cross between a well landscaped Texas Tower [a type of lighthouse resembling an oil platform] and a giant moon vehicle that has managed to land, not on a rocky lunar surface, but in the midst of garden islands playing tag with the shoreline.”

Syndicated travel writers Edgar and Patricia Cheatham felt the park shook off Toronto’s “maiden aunt” image and reflected the growing liveliness of the city. Architectural Forum felt it combined “the fantasy of a 19th century amusement pier with the pragmatism of a 20th century deep oil rig.”

By the time Ontario Place closed for the season in October, it had drawn 2.3 million visitors. The park, though, lost $2.2 million, forcing it to raise the admission cost by 50 per cent for 1972. Programming was adjusted to attract a younger crowd, leading to more rock concerts at the Forum. More advertising emphasis was placed on the Children’s Village, while the pod exhibits faded in importance. Regardless of the provincial government’s puffery about how the park symbolized the achievements and people of Ontario, a line from a 1974 tourist guidebook summed up why the public had embraced it: “The world’s best kids’ playground.”

Sources: Public Triumph, Private Tragedy by Steve Paikin (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2006); Robarts by A.K. McDougall (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986); Toronto Guidebook, edited by Alexander Ross (Toronto: Key Publishers, 1974); the July-August 1971 edition of Architectural Forum; the July 25, 1971, edition of the Atlanta Constitution; the May 16, 1971, edition of the Boston Globe; the June 1971 edition of Canadian Architect; the May 18, 1971, May 22, 1971, May 24, 1971, and May 26, 1971, editions of the Globe and Mail; the July 25, 1971, edition of the New York Times; the May 22, 1971, and May 24, 1971, editions of the Toronto Star; the May 22, 1971, and May 24, 1971, editions of the Toronto Telegram; and the May 26, 1971, edition of the Windsor Star.

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