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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.

Comments

  • MTorontian2

    Dang, always wanted to do that, but thought I had time. Bring back the hippos!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mannik5000 Ryan Mannik

    Something fun? The city of Toronto will put a stop to it!

    • Anonymous

      Ontario Place is run by the province, not the city.

  • ReadandFeed

    I wondered where they had gone. It was a fun tour.

  • Sharon

    So while Ontario Place sits idle, they couldn’t have had a year to year contract for the ramp? Have them pay a security guard, pay the insurance, and let the good times roll, er, swim.

  • Michelle

    Hippo Tours would have easily got support from Toronto Council had they put in proposal to build a new waterfront ramp, but disguised it as an cheap glass condo

  • OgtheDim

    Seems he wanted to put a ramp where there are fish spawning grounds. There aren’t that many places left on the waterfront where that could be, even 10 years ago.

    If its a choice between a hippo tourist vehicle and fish spawning, I’m not choosing the hippo vehicle.

    • Michael DiFrancesco

      Apparently I am also very worried about the sex life of carp.

      What can I say? I like carp.

  • Judgeetox

    Good riddance to the diesel belching, 2 lane taking monstrosities. I always thought they were an eyesore

    • Anonymous

      They were insanely loud too.

  • Wberben

    It may also have been a result of the massively declining sales experienced by most other boat and bus tours in the city (leading many to merge or go out of business entirely in the last two years)- that and the bad reputation the company was getting from so many tourists stranded on the damn things when they so frequently broke down.

  • Luke

    A boating company whose president casually dismisses environmental concerns as, “too many people worried about the sex life of the carp” is a boating company I won’t miss.

    Between ferries, canoes, kayaks, yachts, and daysailers, there are no shortage of options for touring around the inner harbour. I imagine the city will get along just fine without a fleet of swimming tour buses.

  • Mary

    I propose that Ontario Place be “redeveloped” into Ontario Lifestyle Condos. The cheap wall of glass condos along our waterfront make Toronto very unique. Who needs public spaces when there is money/taxes to be collected.

    • Anonymous

      You said the t-word. Go directly to jail, do not collect $200-million.