Back in the day, to get to Ontario Place you had to walk the breadth of the Ex. Before it was built up, that was an almost entirely empty stretch of pavement.
This endless parking lot was so vast that it curved with the Earth. When you got off the streetcar, although your view was unimpeded by buildings, you couldn’t yet see the lake. As you approached, Ontario Place would gradually come into view from the top to the bottom.
I worked there in two stretches over two summers as a teenager.
Every morning, coming in alone before the gates opened, I was newly taken by the place. The pods on stilts, the Cinesphere floating at one edge, the pristine monochrome of the structure. It was something designed with no purpose in mind other than to be visually interesting. The CN Tower aside, it was Toronto’s most recognizable piece of architecture.
In the mid-80s and early-90s it looked like the future. Like something they’d have in a far more exotic country. Say, Sweden (I wasn’t exactly a world traveller).
The rest of downtown Toronto did not look like the future. It looked like the present. It was boxy, dreary and overwhelmingly beige. Not actually beige, but it gave off a heavy beige feeling.
The years have not been kind to Ontario Place. I went down there the other day for the first time in a long while. The pods are rusted out. The Cinesphere is filthy. There are industrial fans running in the hallways trying to thwart rot. The rot’s winning.
There is nothing more depressing than an empty amusement park in mid-winter, but this is a special case. Little wonder people have turned on it.
When we talk now about “what to do” with Ontario Place, as if it’s an old shed blighting an otherwise lovely view out the kitchen window of the backyard, I try to recall what it was like then. That’s my North Star for Toronto’s great white elephant.
I had two jobs at Ontario Place. The first was at The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, housed sadly in one of the pods. I got the gig because of a heist.
The jewel of the collection was a signed Babe Ruth ball. There are lots of those, but the owner of this one had a picture of herself as a child sitting on Ruth’s lap. This ball had pedigree.
One day, an opportunistic thief tipped over the glass display case – the case wasn’t screwed down – and walked off with the Babe Ruth ball. Someone gave slow chase. As the robber left the pod and got out onto an open walkway, he dropped it off the side and into the lake.
The theft hit the news, caused a small scandal and meant it was time to hire more security. That was, in part, me – 15 years old and more temperamentally suited to stealing things than securing them.
There wasn’t much to do in that iteration of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame – a batting cage, a pitching station, very few exhibits. But it was thronged with people. On particularly hot days, it was like a nightclub in there. You had to push your way through. And these were not people I knew.
I grew up in a Catholic cloister in the west end. You didn’t leave it unless you were going to the Eaton Centre. It’s possible that by that point I had not ever crossed the Don River. Everybody I knew was either Irish, Italian or Maltese.
These were all sorts of people I’d never interacted with before. Orthodox Jews, women in hijabs, visitors from afar (or so I assumed), huge clans speaking languages I’d never heard. It sounds awfully provincial now because it was. At the time, you could still live in the most diverse city in the world and recognize very little of that diversity.
Through a very few simple virtues, Ontario Place had become a gathering place for all the city’s denizens.
First, it was cheap. The entrance fee was negligible and once inside, just about everything was free. You could go the Cinesphere and watch an Imax movie for nothing.
Once, while standing outside the Cinesphere at my second job – that as a park “host” – a man approached me. He asked, “When does it leave?"
When does what leave?
I’m not following.
“When does it leave for the tour?”
This guy thought the Cinesphere detached itself from its moorings and sailed around Lake Ontario. Hand on my heart, he was not the only person to ask this. But completely free makes people ambitious.
You could go to the Forum and see a pretty decent concert for no charge. I spent one extremely long evening – again as park host – standing at the backstage door as women who looked like my mother handed me pairs of underwear. I promised each one of them that, yes, certainly, I would personally deliver these to Tom Jones. Cross my heart.
When Mr. Jones eventually came out and saw me standing there stupidly holding an armful of (oh God, I prayed) unworn panties, he came over and rubbed my shoulder. Then he got in a limo and left. I dumped the panties in a garbage can.
You could do that at Ontario Place. See Mr. Jones. For nothing. Even people who didn’t care about him were down for that.
Second, it was G-rated. Drunken yobs did not come to Ontario Place. Families of six did. There was the water park and the Children’s Village – feral play areas that, these days, would prompt a royal commission. You could chase the geese around. There was a crew of costumed animals – Reddy the Fox was a friend – that would wander about hugging kids and taking pictures.
I used to ride in on the TTC with a few of the costumed “performers.” They were, every one of them, coke-addled degenerates who hated children. But they struck only the teenagers who kicked them first.
These jobs didn’t pay much. I had friends who worked two weeks at the Ex and made more than I did all summer at Ontario Place (in fairness, they stole most of their earnings).
But I loved the feel of the place too much to quit. Ontario Place was warm, rather than exciting. It wasn’t screaming down the boardwalk. It was ambling along the seaside. Not so much an amusement park in the classic sense as a working-class garden party. Accessible, affordable and, above all, amenable to company.
They ruined it by attempting to monetize the experience, thereby pricing out the sort of people the place was built for. Regular people.
So, when I hear the Ontario government and everyone who’s coming in looking for a payday nattering about “what to do” with Ontario Place, I would wish for them to recreate what it once was. And, no, a casino would not fit the bill.
Forget the profit opportunities. Spiff it up a bit. Install more greenery. Make it low cost. Pull down all barriers to entry. Make Ontario Place no more ambitious a destination than a pleasant environment to take your kids and look out over the water for an afternoon. It sounds simple and money is tight, but this swath of man-made land is a bridge between centuries and generations. It’s too important to screw up.
Back when it was still a hotspot, what mattered about Ontario Place wasn’t the attractions. There weren’t many, they weren’t great and no one cared. It was the people.
There is no more amusing or socially desirable civic destination than one in which a city can simply go to share each other’s company.