UPDATE: On February 1, the provincial government announced that it is closing three key parts of Ontario Place: the Cinesphere, water park and amusement rides. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said the province will be saving about $20 million per year by closing down those facilities. There are plans for a temporary re-opening when Toronto hosts the Pan Am Games in 2015. A revamped Ontario Place is expected to open in 2017.

For 40 years, Ontario Place has stood on the Toronto waterfront as an attraction for visitors around the world. First conceived at the Montreal Expo ‘67, in a bid to bring the Olympic Games to Toronto, construction commenced in March 1969 despite losing to Montreal to make the under-developed waterfront more appealing.

Costing $29 million to build, the original design of the 96-acre park featured three man-made islands, five-pavilion pods, the dome-shaped IMAX theatre The Cinesphere, and concert venue The Forum (now known as The Molson Amphitheatre) as the park’s main attractions.

When it opened May 22, 1971, Ontario Place attracted 2.5 million visitors in their first year with admission being just a dollar for adults and 50 cents for children. As the park developed, many new attractions such as the Children’s Village and a waterplay area were added.

This year’s 40th anniversary marks a special milestone for the park, which has become a staple attraction for visitors like Yvonne Speed, who have been coming back every year since 1998.

Attracted to its scenery, architecture and entertainment, a typical trip to Ontario Place for Speed’s family includes bike rides and playing at the waterpark.

“I like the vast areas where you can just sit and have a picnic. Just being on the lake is nice and fresh and a little bit of a getaway,” Speed says.

Speed, who is also a mother of a four-year-old named Gabriel, says her son loves Ontario Place. From the moment it opens for the summer to months after it closes, Gabriel will always be asking to go back.

“He is thrilled. Any day we get to go to Ontario Place, he loves it. And I do too. For us, it’s an adventure,” Speed says.

But being a long time visitor of the park, Speed, 41, says she hasn’t seen a lot of changes and admits it has gotten a little worn down over the years.

“I do love the place, as much as it has fallen a little bit,” she says.

But Michael Chan, the Ontario Minister of Tourism and Culture, says he believes Ontario Place has a bright future as a tourist attraction.

On April 27, he announced that admission to the grounds would be free to commemorate the park’s 40th anniversary.

“We want Ontario Place to realize its full potential as a signature attraction for Toronto and Ontario,” Chan says. “Revitalization has the potential to stimulate the province’s economy, develop exciting new attractions and create jobs.”

But offering free admission is nothing new.

In 1991, Ontario Place offered free admission for their 20th anniversary, which increased attendance by roughly 45 per cent and drew in an estimated 2.36 million people. However, attendance rates have dropped significantly to roughly 1 million visitors in 2009, with half going to watch concerts at the Molson Amphitheatre.

Although free admission this year will probably help increase attendance numbers, Edward Skira, publisher of Urban Toronto, says Ontarians won’t be drawn in if Ontario Place doesn’t introduce new programs or make the best of their facilities.

Despite the drop in attendance, John Tevlin, Ontario Place’s general manager, says he is enthusiastic for the new season.

This year, Tevlin says visitors can expect a lot of changes such as the park’s first child-friendly rollercoaster called the Wacky Worm, a shuttle bus service and expansions to the waterpark with a beach and waterslide. In addition, renovations were made to The Cinesphere, which now screens 3D film as well as IMAX.

Tevlin hopes the longer season, which began in May and will end in November, along with the free admission, will change the atmosphere of the park and ultimately attract more visitors.

However, Wayne Reeves, chief curator for the City of Toronto Museum Services says the park has seen very little change since it first opened.

“I think what happened over time is Ontario Place failed to create those new attractions,” he says. “The opening of the Molson Amphitheatre has really been the last big move on the site.”

“If they don’t have a reason go, they won’t go,” Skira adds. “I think 40 years ago, there was a lot less to do in the City of Toronto and Ontario Place was just not kept up. It was kind of same old, same old.”

Spacing managing editor, Todd Harrison agrees.

He says Ontario Place should concentrate more on programming and offer more exhibitions that will draw visitors in.

“How do you compete with [Canada’s] Wonderland? How do you compete with Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls?” Harrison says. “There’s so many amazing destinations that offer things similar things that Ontario Place offers that it becomes less appealing for anyone to visit those places.”

After asking the public for feedback in July 2010, Ontario Place received more than 1,200 ideas on how to improve the park with some notable ones being ziplines, a floating hotel and an aquarium, according to the Toronto Star.

But despite the announcement in 2010 to revitalize the 96-acre area, a plan has not been chosen.

With government funding from all three levels welcome, former Ontario Place general manager Tim Casey told the Toronto Star that until a final plan is picked and private partners are in place with a financing scheme, it’s too early to start requesting funds.

For 37-year-old Peter Stern, Ontario Place lacks the creativity and innovation he saw in attractions such as the original Children’s Village, and was upset when much of it was removed during the 2010 season.

The play area, which was Stern’s favourite attraction growing up, was a place he wanted to take his two kids to.

“My sister and I would do the maze, the slides, the various climbing contraptions and various other things.  I can think of several kids I made friends with playing there,” he says.

But now that much of the original children’s area has been removed, it remains a vast area hosting a new stage and replaced with a large waterpark and several small fairground rides.

Stern says Ontario Place should target an audience such as families with young kids and older people whose ideas of fun go beyond rollercoasters and carnivals.

But perhaps the underlying issue is the fact that the park is separated from the rest of the city, according to Harrison.

He says in order to make it more walkable and less intimidating for people, there needs to be active transportation to the waterfront and liven up the area under the Gardiner expressway

But with plans for redevelopment, both Reeves and Skira hope Ontario Place will stay true to its historical features.

Reeves says he’d like to see a mix of old and new.

“The designs in 1971 were very progressive and attracted a lot of attention because it was kind of unique along the Toronto waterfront. I think we need that kind of vision in the early 70s brought more into 2011,” he says.

For Skira, he fears the heritage buildings built in the 60s and 70s will be teared down and replaced.

“They should keep them and refresh the usage within inside them that are actually interesting and exciting for people,” Skira says. “I want them to use the pods better and make sure there’s something there so people can actually want to go to Ontario Place.”

Harrison says while it may seem frivolous to retool the amusement park, which has limited space to develop along the waterfront, he is enthusiastic about the possibilities.

“Ontario Place represents a low hanging fruit,” he says. “If there was something down at the water that was phenomenal, then people would overcome barriers. They would do all the things that would conveniently get them there.”

— Photos courtesy of the City of Toronto archives, Ellis Wiley (1972-1989)