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Toronto’s Amphibious Bus Tours Are No More

Hippo Tours, a tourist fixture for 12 years, has left town after a falling out with Ontario Place.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/lu_/518391918/"}Lú_{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

If you had always dreamed of exploring Toronto aboard a vehicle that travels as easily on water as it does on land, you’ve missed your chance. Hippo Tours has left town, a casualty of the province’s ongoing effort to redevelop the aging, money-losing amusement park at Ontario Place.

Hippo Tours’ three amphibious buses, which took riders on guided tours of downtown and the inner harbour, were unmissable on Toronto’s streets. Painted bright blue and yellow, they looked like what would happen if a school bus unhinged its snout and swallowed a yacht. Their names were (and are) Harry, Happy, and Henrietta.

Thanks to custom-built hull-shaped undercarriages that allowed them to splash into Lake Ontario and maneuver around, they were a unique and popular tourist attraction for 12 years. Even locals who never rode the buses were familiar with them as a warm-weather fixture on major downtown thoroughfares.

But anyone who has been paying attention to traffic this summer will have noticed by now that the buses, currently, are missing in action. That’s because they’re all 3,000 kilometres away, in Victoria, British Columbia. Geoffry Lind, the company’s president and co-owner, still lives and works in Toronto, but his fleet will be plying Pacific waters for the foreseeable future.

“Victoria wanted us,” said Lind. “They’ve been trying to get me to come there for years.”

But that’s not why the buses left.

As Lind explains it, the entire Hippo Tours business model relied on one crucial piece of infrastructure: a ramp that juts off the Ontario Place shoreline. It’s the only ramp on the central waterfront that is suitable for the purposes of driving a bus directly into the lake. Lind said Hippo Tours tried to build another ramp 10 years ago, but failed. “The City said no,” he recalled. “There were too many NIMBYs, too many people worried about the sex life of the carp.”

According to Lind, the Ontario Place ramp was so important to Hippo Tours that the company invested $50,000 in rebuilding it in 2000. Until recently, Hippo was paying Ontario Place $120 a day for use of the site. That worked out to about $22,000 per six-month tourist season.

Things started to change in 2010, when Lind received bad news from John Tevlin, who at the time was Ontario Place’s general manager. (Tevlin has since been fired and replaced with an acting general manager.) As Lind put it: “They just phoned me up on Christmas Eve 2010 and said, ‘Sorry, you don’t have [the ramp] for 2011.”

A Hippo Tours Toronto promotional video.

After some negotiation, Lind was able to secure ramp access for 2011. But when the time came to talk about 2012, the situation at Ontario Place took an unexpected turn: in February, the province decided to shut down most of Ontario Place’s operations and fire a number of its staff, including Tevlin.

Tevlin’s effort to revitalize the aging, money-losing park was placed in the hands of an advisory panel, to be led by former Progressive Conservative leader John Tory.

Lind’s understanding is that Hippo’s ramp access was revoked because the province wanted the amphibious buses out of the way of its revitalization scheme. He tried to negotiate, but wasn’t successful. “I did contact politicians,” he said. “But Ontario Place was losing, I’ve heard, $20 million a year, and they wanted to be unencumbered to decide what they wanted to do with it.”

The province will not say why it revoked ramp access for the buses. Ontario Place referred questions to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Sport. The ministry repeatedly refused to comment on anything relating to Ontario Place’s former agreement with Hippo Tours, but did confirm that the agreement had expired in 2011.

Lind is bitter at having been forced to remove his buses from Toronto, his native city. He believes Hippo Tours will find some success in Victoria, where tourists pour in by the millions every year. Even so, he thinks he’d consider bringing amphibious tours back to Toronto, under the right set of circumstances.

“I’ve told the City of Toronto that I’d be more than happy to come back once [the province has] made up their mind about what they’re going to do with Ontario Place,” he said.

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