Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Late, Lamented Ontario Place

One of the "pods" suspended out over Lake Ontario
cc Flickr user: sookie

I miss Ontario Place. Weirdly, though, I don't know if I miss the actual, concrete and glass Ontario Place or the idea of it, the spot it holds in my heart.

The Forum in its early days
Toronto Star File Photo
I miss the concerts at the Forum, free with admission for many years. My folks took me to see the Toronto Symphony Orchestra perform the 1812 Overture more than once, with the cannons on the HMCS Haida (which used to be moored there) providing the percussion for the final movement. I miss the rotating stage which meant that, at some point during every concert, you would be positioned in the best seats in the house. I miss lying on a blanket on the grass of the surrounding hills, staring up at the stars while the sounds of Chuck Mangione or Spyro Gyra carried me away.

Ontario Place under construction in 1970
Toronto: Ontario Department of Trade and Development, 1970
I miss the pods, too. Although they were spectacular to look at from the ground, once you climbed the stairs and reached the top of them you found yourself on an island of searing concrete with nowhere to hide from the blazing sun. But inside was where you really wanted to be. There were "cultural displays", slide projections, films on back-lit panels. It was one of the original homes of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame before it was relocated to St. Mary's, Ontario. And in one special pod there was magic: a dimly-lit, air-conditioned, quiet and little-used area of Ontario Place where my friend Michael and I (occasionally joined by Kemp) used to go to just chill out in every sense of the word. We would bring a glow-in-the-dark frisbee and toss it to each other under the ultra-violet lights of the main walkway, dodging behind the metal abstract art pieces to avoid being spotted by the infrequent security guards. When we tired of that game we liked to sit on the ground in a very small "room of lights and mirrors" that created a kind of kaleidoscope effect on the ceiling, while we listened to the piped-in sounds of Oscar Peterson. Some days that was our main destination at Ontario Place and we would quite literally spend hours in that particular pod.

Aerial view of Ontario Place from the west
I hardly ever went over to the western side of Ontario Place, which contained most of the greenspace, some shops and restaurants and, at one point, a giant outdoor roller rink. Michael, Kemp and I did have one memorable experience in that area, though: on Canada Day one year late in the '70s (my guess is 1978 but I can't be sure) the three of us visited the park to spend the day and stayed for the fireworks that evening. When it was time for the park to close, an announcement was made over the loudspeakers that everyone had to leave, but we thought it would be hilarious to hide amongst the shrubbery on the tip of the western part of the park. We stayed there for quite some time before it finally dawned on us that absolutely nobody was looking for us. We came out of our hiding spots and shuffled sheepishly to the gates. The exits, lucky for us, were permanently unlocked turnstiles; otherwise, we'd have been stuck there all night. As it was we had to walk a considerable distance along Lakeshore Blvd. before we found a bus that would take us over to Yonge St. so we could catch another bus to North York and walk home from there - finally getting back at after 4AM. Guess we showed them, huh?

Cinesphere postcard
Of course, no memories of Ontario Place would be complete without talking of the crown jewel: the Cinesphere. The world's first permanent IMAX theatre, the 800-seat capacity Cinesphere has had an iconic place on Toronto's waterfront since it opened in 1971. I saw many, many movies there over the years, lining up for what seemed like hours on the ramps and passageways of the pod structure around the dome. I've also been back many times during the winter months to see special presentations of wide-release movies (such as Superman and Trainspotting) but the film that had the most lasting impact on me was North of Superior, the first IMAX film shot in Canada and one that marked the beginning of my love affair with that part of our province. To this day I sing the movie's main song, Ojibway Country, whenever I am deep into the Canadian Shield, but especially when Sarah and I travel along the north shore of Lake Superior on our way to Kenora.

What kind of man will come to this country
To bear the discomfort and challenge his brain?
For it will take him, shake him, remake him;
So sang the schemer, the poet, the dreamer,
So sang the many who gave it their name.

Many years later I took my young son to Ontario Place and while we were there we watched an IMAX film entitled Ring of Fire, a spectacular movie about the volcano belt of the Pacific Rim. During one particular scene, the shots of an active volcano were getting more and more intense until suddenly the scene shifted to a barren, post-eruption landscape and the film went very, very quiet. Out of the silence of the Cinesphere rose one voice, tiny yet firm, delivering the heartfelt message, "The End!" It seems Tim wasn't as enraptured by the seething volcanic cauldron as his dad was.

Click on the banner to see how you can help Save Ontario Place
Now, of course, Ontario Place is but a shell of what it once was, having been predominantly closed by the Government of Ontario while it awaits some "revitalization project" or another (which, I sincerely hope, will not include a casino). The provincial Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sport has started a website soliciting ideas from the public on how to proceed with the "revitalization"; it's not particularly common knowledge, though, as I only found out about it while visiting the main Ontario Place website today. I also, in the course of writing this piece, came across a terrific article in the Torontoist outlining the evolution of Ontario Place from its conceptual beginnings until the announcement of the suspension of activities at the park.

It's funny to see, reading through the Star readers' memories of Ontario Place, just how varied those memories are. I guess it all depends on when you first visited, because the park underwent several transformations over the years, some big and some small. I took my own kids there more than once but my memories of those visits are not nearly as strong as those of the times I visited as a boy. So that makes me wonder: is it Ontario Place I really miss? Or do I just miss what it represents in my memory bank? Either way, I truly hope we've not seen the last of it.


  1. I have many fond memories of visiting Ontario Place, too. I hope they will find a tasteful way to revitalize it.

    1. Since John Tory is in charge of the "project", I assume that: 1) it will be a platform issue in the next provincial election (and maybe the one after that); and 2) it may actually be handled properly, since Tory has a good track record (in my opinion).


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