When Ontario Place opens in May, it won't cost a dime to get in.
The announcement, made against the backdrop of the aging Cinesphere, comes after last year's Discovering Ontario report on the shape of tourism in the province recommended the park, marking its 40th anniversary, stop charging for admission to its grounds.
Attendance levels have been declining at Ontario Place in recent years. The park hosted fewer than a million visitors in 2009, compared with nearly two million in 1998.
Opening up the gates is the beginning of its revitalization. Management started thinking about how to drive traffic to the park last year, beginning with an open call for ideas. The exact plans for the future are not yet known, but staff have already started several upgrades for this summer, most notably a renovated Cinesphere and a new water slide.
"We hope people will start to think of Ontario Place as a place to enjoy a summer evening," said John Tevlin, the park's general manager. The park will now be open later in the evening and feature late-night events. The grounds will remain open until Nov. 13 - two months longer than in previous years.
Lori Van Soelen, 38, is already planning to take her three kids to Ontario Place this summer. The benefit, she says, is that you can go without worrying about how the kids will handle it.
"If you get there and your kid throws up half an hour later, you don't have to be like 'Oh my God, we spent all this money and now we have to go,'" she said.
The park plans to make money from ride prices and food and drink sales. Mr. Tevlin said they will renovate two restaurants onsite, converting one into a pub. They are also looking for outside vendors interested in setting up shop.
"It's always been sort of underused," said ward councillor Mike Layton. Mr. Layton grew up near Ontario Place, even working at the CNE for two summers. He says the open grounds will likely draw more people down to the waterfront, and stressed the importance of Ontario Place being accessible to the public.
Designed by Toronto architect Eberhard Zeidler, Ontario Place opened in 1971. At the time, it was hailed as a gem of the province - a floating amusement park complete with the Cinesphere, the world's first permanent IMAX theatre. In the seventies, the park drew about three million guests annually, each paying a charge of just $1 to get in.
The Cinesphere has been refitted with new technology. The iconic IMAX theatre had lost relevance with the rise of big screen mega-theatres. The six-storey screen has been replaced with a 3D-ready display and updated sound system.
The grounds themselves are being given a new coat of paint and cleaned in preparation for opening day, May 21. Park staff are scattering more than half a million wildflower seeds and revamping the landscape.
Ontario Place has also scheduled about 2,000 different events for the summer, the majority of which will be free to attend.