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  • From Dream to Reality
    (A History of Canada's Wonderland)


    How do you convince 2.7 million people that paying $32.5 million to visit Elmer McKinnon's old cow pasture on the outskirts of Toronto is a good idea? You build a $122 million amusement park and advertise plenty of adventure and family fun. Taft Broadcasting, owners of the newly opened Kings Island amusement park in Kings Mills, OH began to consider building a new "dream" park somewhere in the virtually untapped metropolitan area of Toronto in 1972. After careful consideration and research of several potential sites throughout the "Golden Horseshoe" area of Ontario, the village of Maple (now part of the City of Vaughan) was selected to be the home of the new park. According to a letter submitted to the Toronto Sun newspaper in 2002 by the park's General Manager: Barry Jones, this was mainly due to the site's close proximity to the "large and growing population" of the City of Toronto and the "accessibility via the 400 series highways."

    In early 1979, Taft formed a business relationship with Canadian investment company Trizec Properties Inc through its subsidiaries including: Bramalea Ltd, JDS Investments Ltd, and Great West, with Taft having a 20% ownership stake in the future park.

    On June 13, 1979, Ontario Premier William Davis depressed the plunger on an electronic detonating device, triggering an explosion on several hectares of former farmland in the town of Maple.

    Construction on Canada's Wonderland began immediately and continued through to early 1981. Throughout the course of the planning, design and construction of the park 12 architectural and engineering firms and over 700 tradespersons were employed to mould the dream into a reality.

    Initially there were many opponents against the park. Comprised of concerned citizens, regional government and existing amusement ride businesses, they were under the perception that the park would bring excess traffic through the area and potentially put the smaller competitors out of business. However, Taft was able to convince the city, by flying them to Kings Island to see park operations and the effects on the surrounding community, that the park would bring immense business and tourism to the area. Today the City of Vaughan embraces Canada's Wonderland and considers the amusement park to be an important member of the business community.

    In response to the concerns of traffic, noise, and general unsightliness, Taft constructed berms around nearly the entire park, shielding it from view of the surrounding properties and muffling the noise considerably. The extension of existing infrastructure such as sewers, and an overpass built over the 400 highway paved the way for future residential development in the area as well. It should be noted that the current subdivisions surrounding the park were constructed many years after the park's opening, so residents there were well aware of noise and traffic levels at the park when they purchased the homes.

    Advertising played an important role in the beginnings of Canada's Wonderland as well. Gary Gray, then president of Vickers & Benson, a Toronto-based ad agency, created a $1 800 000 advertising campaign to make the public aware of the park's existence. The advertising funding was distributed as follows: 40% to television, 25% to radio, 24% to newspapers and remaining to magazines and public transit ads. Although Gray knew that he could "never out-Disney Disneyland" in his words: "my goal is to have a couple that lives near Orlando by the gates to Disney World say 'That Wonderland sounds like a unique place. Let's try it'." The tag line: "Canada's Wonderland. There's a dream for the whole family ... and the dream is waiting for you" was used in much of the advertising. The central idea behind the advertising was to suggest certain objects, places and characters to the audience and let the individuals imagine their own version of the surroundings and details in between. Commercials incorporated sounds of clashing warriors, screams of delight, and the laughter of children, and visuals including the majestic mountain, an oriental garden themed restaurant, and a medieval castle.

    Careful attention was also given to the park's original logo. After rejecting suggestions of a composite sketch of many rides and attractions, the final version depicted the majestic Wonder Mountain, waterfalls cascading down onto the banner displaying the name Canada's Wonderland with a prominent rainbow appearing overhead, tying in nicely to the Hanna-Barbera theme.

    Preparation including construction, advertising and training continued into early 1981. Finally, on May 23, 1981, Ontario Premier William Davis and Taft Broadcasting President Dudley Taft officially opened the park to the public. In an incredible celebration that included 13 parachutists dropping in, 350 white doves being released, a pipe band playing, the Canadian flag being raised by Wayne Gretzky and 4 children representing the major regions in Canada: the Arctic, Pacific, Atlantic and Great Lakes pouring a vial of water from their homelands into the fountain, 12000 guests were welcomed into the park for the first time. Guests encountered samurai warriors, sorcerers, talking parrots and more fairytale characters in travels throughout the park's pathways.

    Initially, the park was comprised of these main areas: Grande World Exposition of 1890, a combination of buildings and rides resembling a mini World's Fair, International Street and International Festival, presenting multi-cultural shops and eateries, Medieval Faire, an area entirely dedicated to dragons, castles and lore, and The Happyland of Hanna-Barbera, a children's area chock full of cartoon-themed attractions from the once-famous animation company.

    According to a publication called Memories of Canada's Wonderland, a presently undeveloped portion of land was to later become “Frontier Canada” themed after Canada's vast wilderness and natural spaces. The slogan "Hark to the Call of the Wild" and an artist's sketch indicate that the planning for the area was well under way. Several attractions were to be added including a never-built authentic steam train and Gold Rusher mine ride but when the land was developed for White Water Canyon in 1984, the theme was only partially intact and the original concept and name had been abandoned altogether.

    In late 1983, a group of several high-ranking managers and executives at Taft, including Nelson Schwab III and Jack Rouse (formerly of the live entertainment department), acquired the amusement park division of Taft for $167.5 million in a management buyout. This meant that the parks were not technically owned by Taft, but by a handful of people that also had ties to Taft Broadcasting. The sole focus of the new Kings Entertainment Company (KECO) was the amusement/theme park business. Included in the agreement for the purchase were the licensing rights to Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, which continued to have success at the park.

    In 1984, the White Water Canyon area was added to the park, including the namesake river rapids ride, which continues to be very popular to this day. 1985 brought the Skyrider standup roller coaster, which joined the Mighty Canadian Minebuster roller coaster in the back of the park. Timberwolf Falls, a shoot-the-chutes water ride appeared in 1989 in the White Water Canyon vicinity. Throughout the 1980s, one trend was very evident: Canada’s Wonderland was solidifying itself as a classy, thoroughly family-oriented amusement park.

    Again in 1987, ownership was reorganized as Great American Broadcasting, led by Carl Lindner, obtained a majority stake in Taft. Lindner also returned the amusement park connection to Taft by purchasing KECO for $150 million. Although the parks were wholly owned by Great American Broadcasting, KECO continued to manage the operations. After only 5 additional seasons under KECO management, Linder announced that the contract would be terminated and the parks would be managed internally. KECO’s last influence on the park was the addition of the Splash Works water park in 1992, which filled in the previously open area between the Mighty Canadian Minebuster and Skyrider coasters.

    Instead of Lindner’s original intentions, KECO was sold to Paramount Communications for $400 million on July 31, 1992. By this time, the chain of parks had grown to include: Kings Island, Kings Dominion, Carowinds, Great America and of course a 20% ownership of Canada’s Wonderland. All of the KECO parks, except Canada’s Wonderland were immediately rebranded as “Paramount” parks in 1993. Canada’s Wonderland remained under the original name until the purchase of the remaining stake for $55.1 million later in 1993, and received the new name in 1994.

    Also in 1994, Viacom International purchased Paramount Communications in a $10 billion deal. In turn, Paramount Parks became part of the Viacom conglomerate, which brought about a convenient connection to popular action movies. Throughout the “Paramount” years of Canada’s Wonderland, there were many great additions to the lineup of attractions, most of which were fairly well themed. Some notable additions include: Top Gun, the jet coaster, Drop Zone Stunt Tower, Tomb Raider: The Ride, Cliffhanger, a Mondial Splashover, and The Italian Job: Stunt Track, a LIM-launched coaster (all of which are now operating under different names).

    This new connection with Viacom also allowed the use of Nickelodeon characters at Canada’s Wonderland. As older Hanna-Barbera cartoons have faded in popularity over the years, the attractions at the park have changed to reflect the trends. The Smurf Forest area, added in 1984, was replaced by Kids Kingdom in 1993. This attraction was an extremely large play area including Ball Rooms, a Climbing Castle and the Jumbo Bumps slide. In 1998, the existing Kids Kingdom was renamed and re-themed as Candy Factory. The addition of several more new rides and activities in the area created KidZville. Zoom Zone became a mini-area within KidZville in 2001. The centerpiece of the area is Silver Streak, an inverted roller coaster just for kids. The most recent children’s area was created in 2003 when a portion of Hanna-Barbera Land was converted into Nickelodeon Central, featuring 4 rides themed to Nickelodeon cartoons such as Dora the Explorer, Jimmy Neutron, The Wild Thornberries and The Rugrats. A meet and greet area where children can get up and close with the characters is also a popular attraction for youngsters.

    In 2005 the park introduced its first themed seasonal event: FearFest. The haunted house walkthrough attractions and theming as well as the darker, scarier coasters and other rides were well received by park patrons throughout the month of October. One of the most popular haunted rides is known as Haunted Thunder Run, where patrons ride through a dark tunnel with strobe lights effects, fog machines, and black light lit scenes featuring a host of mine-related tragedies. Spooktacular, a children's daytime Halloween themed celebration was introduced in 2006. In addition to all children's rides being open, the park scheduled costume contests, craft workshops, treasure hunts and more.

    From the beginning, Taft intended Canada’s Wonderland to be a destination for the entire family. The constant renewal of attractions in the park and the caliber of planning employed over the years made Canada’s Wonderland the busiest seasonal amusement park in North America in 2005. Despite the success of this park and the other “Paramount” parks, corporate restructuring was once more about to change the future of the Toronto amusement park.

    In 2005, Viacom announced that it was splitting its assets into two independent companies in order to achieve better management structure and sort the assets into groups based on growth potential. The two companies would be known as CBS Corporation, and the new Viacom. The CBS Corporation included Paramount Parks and the following divisions: CBS and UPN broadcast networks, Viacom Television Stations Group, Infinity Broadcasting, Viacom Outdoor, the CBS, Paramount and King World television production and syndication operations, as well as Showtime, and Simon & Schuster.

    Shortly after the split, on January 27, 2006, CBS announced that it intended to sell its Paramount Parks division citing that the amusement parks did not mesh well with its other businesses, which were comprised strictly of TV networks and broadcasters. Although several companies were reported to have shown an interest in the properties, Cedar Fair L.P. eventually outbid the other competitors with a $1.24 billion deal, which was announced on May 22, 2006. This purchase included Nickelodeon and Paramount licensing deals for several years as well.

    Later in 2006, Cedar Fair began the daunting task to integrate the former Paramount Parks operations with their own. The first task was to close the offices in Charlotte, North Carolina that were not necessary and eliminate the redundant positions among year-round staff. There were no other notable changes under the new ownership during the remainder of the 2006 season aside from slightly more efficient operations. Cedar Fair L.P. later changed its name to Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, which it believes better reflects the scope and focus of the business. This coincidentally appears to be a hybrid of Cedar Fair L.P. and Kings Entertainment Company, paying homage to the origination of the entire set of parks.

    2007 was the first full year of ownership under the Cedar Fair banner. The newly acquired parks including Canada’s Wonderland returned to their original names (before Paramount ownership), which many families and guests already associate with the parks. Canada’s Wonderland received two new sit-down restaurants, which were desperately needed, more quality entertainment including the first ice-skating show in 10 years and a cleaner, more streamlined overall operation.

    Cedar Fair recognized the shortcomings of Canada's Wonderland in the thrill ride category immediately after taking over operations at the park. As a result, in June 2006, the Cedar Fair contracted Bolliger & Mabillard, a Swiss coaster design firm, to design a monstrous beast for Canada's Wonderland. The 2008 season brought Behemoth, the largest investment in the park's entire history at $26 million. This coaster catapulted Canada's Wonderland to an elite class of thrill destinations worldwide. This hyper-coaster will forever be known as the signature ride at the park due to its commanding presence and popular public perception.

    As already indicated by the addition of Behemoth, the future looks extremely bright for Canada’s Wonderland as part of the Cedar Fair family of parks. The company is known for its consistent ride maintenance, impeccable landscaping and park cleanliness, maximum capacity ride operation and educated, safety conscious employees. Its flagship park, Cedar Point has become world-renowned not only for its mega-thriller rides but its personal touches such as elegant floral displays and broad spectrum of quality entertainment. The awards amassed by Cedar Fair Entertainment Company are a testament to its philosophy of great family entertainment. Although no park will replace the company’s “crown jewel” Cedar Point, and rightly so given its extremely long history of success, expect Canada’s Wonderland to continue to thrive and evolve further into “the” Canadian destination for families and ride enthusiasts alike.