A look at the development of the amusement park, which turns 35 this year.
“Must we trade all that is good in our community for the artificial plastic world of profit-motivated developers?” Letter writer Elaine Ziemba’s complaint to the Star in early 1976 was far from the only one expressing fear about the impact a proposed amusement park would have on Maple. Divisions quickly emerged between proponents, who felt it would boost the economy of the then Town of Vaughan, and those who felt it signalled the demise of their quiet community.
In July 1975, Family Leisure Centres, a division of Taft Broadcasting, announced that it planned to turn 320 acres of farmland it had bought two years earlier at Highway 400 and Major Mackenzie Drive into a $50 million amusement park. To win over the locals, Family Leisure Centres filled a charter flight a month later with local officials (who paid their way) and residents, and gave them a tour of Kings Island, near Cincinnati. Vaughan Mayor Garnet Williams was impressed. “That was a great public relations thing for them to do,” he told The Globe and Mail. “They even had the plane wait for us on the runway and we could leave our coats there and everything.” He was especially wowed by the youth working there, noting they were a great PR tool and that “they had to have their hair short.”
Less enticed was Vaughan councillor Jim Cameron, who thought there were too many trinkets from Hong Kong for sale. He also worried about repercussions ranging from increased pressure to rezone agricultural areas as commercial to residents with visions of earning millions from future developments dancing in their heads.
Opposition soon arose elsewhere. In Toronto, the Canadian National Exhibition board looked nervously at the proposal, yet hesitated to publicly oppose the park until more information was available. One board member unwilling to keep mum was city councillor John Sewell, who felt that “we should do everything possible to discourage this proposal.” In a letter to Cameron, provincial treasurer Darcy McKeough fretted about the impact on local attractions like the CNE, Harbourfront, and Ontario Place. He also noted that Family Leisure Centres reps met with provincial planning officials, and were twice told the area was unsuitable for a midway. A report from within McKeough’s ministry, produced in January 1976, indicated that hundreds of millions of dollars would be required to handle increased traffic from the projected two million visitors per year, and that by 1986 Highway 400 would be permanently gridlocked.
Despite the efforts of opponents like Sensible Approach to Vaughan’s Environment (SAVE), concerned about noise, pollution, and traffic, the project was approved by the Ontario Municipal Board in March 1978. Its 32-page report recommended that the provincial ministry of culture and recreation should force the park to maintain a high level of Canadian content. By this point, previously antsy officials like McKeough warmed to the park. When he was grilled for his change of heart by Beaches-Woodbine MPP Marion Bryden during question period, Premier William Davis entered the debate, asking Bryden “are you against children having fun?”
Davis was on hand for a musical preview of the park, now dubbed Canada’s Wonderland, at the St. Lawrence Centre in June 1979. The one-hour show featured appearances by Fred Flintstone, Yogi Bear, and talk show host/Spider-Man voice Paul Soles. Davis was there to, according to the Star, “symbolically trigger a ground-breaking explosion at the site.” The province hailed the park’s owner for its speedy construction schedule, with plans to welcome the first visitors within two years.
Opponents continued to voice concerns about Canada’s Wonderland, as well as other signs of suburban encroachment, such as the Keele Valley Landfill. “Resignation has been the real response of the people,” SAVE representative told the Star in 1980. “It means we’ll be living between two dumps. The thing that really bothers me is that they didn’t consider the impact of the two projects together; they were dealt with separately.” Vaughan councillor and future mayor Lorna Jackson felt that “unless we want to turn Maple into a row of touristy boutiques, I can’t see the park doing much for local businessmen.” On the other hand, Williams touted the summer jobs for students, and felt “people will be spending their money here rather than going to Florida.”
The initial plan divided the park into five areas: Frontier Canada, Hanna-Barbera Land, International Street, Medieval Fair, and World Expo 1890. As construction proceeded, the decision was made to delay the Canadian section until the park’s second season (it was later reported that when budget numbers were crunched, either it or the Hanna-Barbera characters would go). That move incensed critics like Cameron, who may have overreached with the comparison he used. “You could pick this thing up, lock stock and barrel, and move it to Pretoria and call it South Africa’s Wonderland. There is nothing Canadian about it at all,” he told the Globe and Mail. Public relations manager Mike Filey pointed out elements from the true north strong and free in the park, including employing local workers, lining the grounds with cobblestones once used to surround Toronto’s streetcar tracks, planting over 1,200 trees bought from a Pickering farm, installing a vintage carousel imported from Vancouver, and that Canadian-based Great West Life owned a quarter of the partnership running the place. As PR officer Connie Robillard told the Globe and Mail, “Canada’s Wonderland just means a wonderland in Canada.”
Not sourced from Canada were the park’s costumes, which were produced by Cincinnati-based King’s Productions. Designer Katie Leahy was challenged to account for cooler spring and fall weather. “I made the costumes roomy enough to wear a turtleneck sweater underneath and designed nylon-hooded jackets to wear with most of the outfits,” she told the Star. While simple costumes like jester outfits were remedied, those dressed as Hanna-Barbera characters experienced little relief from heat at any time in their acrylic fur and cloth get-ups. “None of the characters can walk around for more than 15 minutes,” Leahy observed. Overall, the costumes took two years and $500,000 to design.
Auditions for park entertainers began in February 1981. The first day drew over 200 hopefuls to York University’s Burton Auditorium. “This could be really be a stepping stone for me,” 18-year-old singer Leanne Mitchell told the Star. “Canada’s Wonderland is new and I’d like to be part of it.” For her two-minute tryout, Mitchell had spent 15 hours on the road driving in from South Porcupine near Timmins. The ride down wasn’t without a hitch—a jack-knifed tanker near New Liskeard forced a lengthy detour. The paper reported that Mitchell was invited back for round two of tryouts. Hiring students to perform drew the ire of Canadian Actors Equity and the Toronto Musicians Association, who placed the park on their “unfair lists” for not employing union talent.
As opening day approached, an ad blitz was planned for a 200-mile radius of Toronto. Six television spots were built around the theme “The Dream That is Canada’s Wonderland.” The opening ticket package settled at $11.95 for general admission and access to 18 attractions.
During media previews, the Star sent reporter Kevin Scanlon to test the roller coasters. “The Dragon Fyre gave me a sensation I hadn’t felt since rolling a speeding Volkswagen Beetle four times in a Perth County ditch,” Scanlon noted. On a scale of 10, he gave that coaster an eight, docking points for its short duration. By comparison, the Wilde Beast earned a nine (exhilarating, but it gave him bruised elbows), and the Mighty Canadian Mine Buster a perfect rating (high drop, speed up to 83 km/h). Food critic Jim White was pleased by the quality of the dining options, which ranged from open-face Scandinavian sandwiches to paella, but suspected diners would grumble over the limited seating. He also noticed the lack of universal hamburger and hot dog stands, which might be refreshing to some but frustrating to parents with cranky kids who only ate those foods.
Forecasts for opening day anticipated 40,000 visitors. By the time the gates closed on May 23, 1981, only 12,000 had shown up. General manager Michael Bartlett wasn’t fazed, noting that parks generally had low turnouts during their debut. Traffic jams failed to live up to doomsday scenarios that may have kept people away. It was also Victoria Day weekend, which meant many potential customers were out of town.
During the opening ceremony, a skydiver landed on stage and handed Premier Davis a red rose. Before flipping the switch to turn the water on the park’s man-made mountain, Davis boasted his pride in the park, calling it “one of the things which bring us together as Canadians, to have fun and to better understand ourselves.” Not so happy were members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, whose picketers protested the below-scale wages paid to non-union staff.
One habit among visitors was quickly corrected—“Metro Toronto residents,” the Globe and Mail observed, “accustomed to the enlightened parks policy that encourages people to walk on the grass, will find themselves politely but firmly rousted if they venture on to the scattered stretches of green among the expanses of interlocking brick that cover the area.” Among those impressed by the park was CNE assistant general manager Howard Tate, who noted “the cleanliness is terrific, lots of parkland, lack of commercial signs, nice staff. We’re different kinds of places, but I’ll say this is like a 1982 Cadillac; CNE’s a ’59 Ford.”
Around 2.2 million visitors checked out the debut season of Canada’s Wonderland. Though exact numbers weren’t revealed, park officials boasted that they turned “a tidy little profit.” To prepare for 1982, $5 million was spent upgrading dining facilities, drinking fountains, and street furniture. To the heartbreak of the staunchest nationalists, Frontier Canada was never built. Over the ensuing years, suburbia continued to creep toward Maple, and generations of visitors have enjoyed the park’s evolving attractions.
Additional material from the October 20, 1975, October 31, 1975, May 9, 1978, September 10, 1979, April 1, 1981, April 4, 1981, April 18, 1981, May 25, 1981, and September 28, 1981 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the January 26, 1976, February 5, 1976, March 17, 1978, June 14, 1979, April 7, 1980, February 6, 1981, May 9, 1981, May 18, 1981, May 20, 1981, and May 24, 1981 editions of the Toronto Star.
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