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Flashback: Building a Wonderland for the amusement of millions

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Take a trip in time with us through this republished article about the building of Canada’s Wonderland, prior to its opening in 1981. The park’s arrival was a contested one, but the amusement park promised visitors an experience they soon wouldn’t forget.  

“Not the product of a deranged mind” – it’s Canada’s Wonderland!

By Victoria Stevens

(As it appeared in the Toronto Star on April 8, 1980)  

MAPLE – A casual glance at the construction going on near here might lead you to think an architect has gone mad.  

Jutting 150 feed into the air is a pointed steel structure with what appears to be netting over it and men in hard hats clinging to the sides like tiny spiders. Nearby, there’s a Chinese pagoda-type building sticking out of churned up mud fields, a half-finished castle with an empty moat and what looks like an inverted ice cream cone made of wood.  

But the construction on these 320 acres off Highway 400 between Highway 7 and Major Mackenzie Dr. is not the product of a deranged mind.  

It’s Canada’s Wonderland, the $108 million theme park that is right on schedule for its opening in May 1981.  

From left, Fred Flinstone visits workers atop the mountain; Dragon Fire was one of four original coasters built for the park's opening; Swing of the Century (then known as Swing of Siam) and laying stonework in Medieval Faire outside Wonderland Theatre (then known as Canturbury Theatre).

The pointed steel structure is the main feature of the park. By fall, it will be cleverly disguised as a mountain, the meshing sprayed with three layers of gunnite, a special cement roughed up to look like rock.  

By opening day, the mountain will have a waterfall cascading 60 feet into the Royal Fountain, a 300 by 80-foot pool with computerized lights and fountains. Surrounding the mountain are five “theme” areas: Grand World Expo 1890, International Street, a Medieval Faire, the Happy Land of Hanna-Barbera and Frontier Canada.  

Here, up to 40,000 visitors a day will walk around the landscaped grounds to go on 35 rides, eat at more than 40 restaurants, see a variety of entertainment, shop and rub elbows with Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo and all the other Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon characters familiar to children.  

The spring thaw and recent heavy rains have turned the park into a sea of mud, but construction is moving along, despite the odd cement truck that bogs down.  

Mike Filey, public relations manager for Canada’s Wonderland, said he expects construction and landscaping will be completed by October, leaving the winter for interior work and finishing touches for next spring’s opening.  

First proposed in 1972, the theme park met vociferous opposition from local residents, who dubbed it “Plasticland” and said they didn’t want the noise and traffic generated by the 2 to 3 million visitors expected the first year.  

They lost when the Ontario Municipal Board finally approved the park last year and construction began last spring.  

It’s owned 75 per cent by Taft Broadcasting Co. and 25 per cent by the Great West Life Assurance Co., both U.S. firms. The park’s management says the park will create nearly 3,000 seasonal jobs for local students and residents.  

All the contractors are local firms who will employ about 500 workers before the park is complete. It’s estimated the park will generate about $50 million in federal and provincial taxes in the first five years of operation.  

Filey, formerly a publicist with the Canadian National Exhibition, said the park will have about 1,100 fully grown trees transplanted from a Pickering tree farm next May at a cost of over $1,000 each to provide shade and atmosphere.  

Plans call for $12 million just for landscaping. A natural woodlot on the western edge of the site will be kept as a sound barrier and a place to explore, Filey said. Prices aren’t firm yet, but Filey said it will cost about $60 per family for a day in Wonderland, excluding meals, parking and souvenir shopping.  

From left, International Street in its early stages; the bones of Wonder Mountain; and the humble beginnings of Great Canadian Minebuster - one of the Park's four original roller coasters. 

As in Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California, patrons will also be able to pay a straight admission price and buy individual tickets for various attractions. Some attractions will be free.  

Among the unusual features of the park will be the world’s largest expanse of interlocking paving stones at a cost of $4 million. Most theme parks use asphalt, which gets hot and sticky and unpleasant to walk on, Filey said. The paving stones will be cooler, more attractive and will make underwater sewers and other physical services more accessible, he said.  

Construction is also progressing on a Highway 400 overpass, which will bring traffic into the park’s two parking lots, designed for 12,000 cars at a time, Filey said. He said $3 million will be spent on roads so that park traffic won’t have to use local roads, one of the main objections to the development.  

Immediate plans call for closing the park during winter, although some buildings are designed for winter use. The regular season will run from Victoria Day in May to Labour Day in September, then continuing on weekends only until Thanksgiving.  

There are also plans to have a bus to the park from Yorkdale Shopping Plaza in North York, Filey said.  

He said there will be a bonus for Canadian entertainers in that the 1,200-seat Canterbury theatre in the Medieval Fair will present Broadway shows using all-Canadian entertainers under the guidance of Christian Gurney, formerly of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

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Grace Peacock

Director, Communications

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