canadas wonderland

This is what Canada's Wonderland looked like in the 1980s

Canada's Wonderland opened its gates for the first time on May 23, 1981. A wave of giddy publicity crested as Canada swooned for its first ever theme park—a 370-acre nirvana of wild rides, colourful fancies and family entertainment in Vaughan.

Canadas WonderlandThe hype was so great that expected attendance on day one was in the ballpark of 40,000 people. In actuality, only 12,000 showed up.

Canadas Wonderland

On opening day, then-Premier Bill Davis opined on the majesty of great Canadian entertainment, Wayne Gretzky helped raise the Canadian flag, and guests including Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera mingled with mascots of their cartoon creations.

Canadas Wonderland

CBC's athlete of the year Kathy Sutton (née Cox, daughter of sculptor E.B Cox) arrived by parachute, just before 10,000 balloons were released and 350 white doves flew into the sky. Wonderland had arrived in grand style.Canadas Wonderland

Both the Conklin family and Disney had rejected the city of Toronto as a suitable location for a theme park (owing to our sub-freezing temperatures that would stifle profit for nearly half the year).

In the early 1970s, however, powerhouse media conglomerate Taft Broadcasting waded into the lucrative Canadian market, choosing Vaughan over other contenders such as Cambridge and Milton.

Canadas Wonderland

There was initial outrage that the Americans were using this big shiny theme park as a Trojan horse for coarse American culture, but that soon gave way to the more vocal crowd who wanted giant roller coasters and didn't care any about their geo-pedigree.Canadas Wonderland

To be fair, Taft scrapped plans to install a replica Eiffel Tower at the centre of the park (as it had been in Wonderland's sister parks Kings Island and Kings Dominion), instead constructing a mighty "Canadian" mountain ("Wonder Mountain").Canadas Wonderland

That same mountain is obviously a standing icon for the park, serving as a focal point much like the Eiffel Tower itself. Canadas Wonderland

Taft also brought with them ownership of Hanna-Barbera, an animation studio whose roster included Yogi Bear, Scooby Doo, The Flintstones and The Smurfs—perfect characters to embody the spirit of the park and make it even more irresistible to legions of cartoon-watching kids.Canadas Wonderland

Original 1981 big-kid-pants rides included the Dragon Fyre (later Dragon Fire), Wilde Night Mares, the Mighty Canadian Mine Buster, Wild Beast and the Rage (a swinging ship).Canadas Wonderland

Junior rides included Thunder Run and the strangely spooky Ghoster Coaster. The gross food hit of the midway was deep fried broccoli, certainly a stimulating thing to eat before setting out on a corkscrew rollercoaster.Canadas Wonderland

The children's area started out as "The Happyland of Hanna-Barbera," with three main areas including Yogi's Woods, Bedrock and Scoobyville (Yogi's Woods was converted to Smurf's Village in 1984).Canadas Wonderland

Families could also explore Medieval Faire, International Street, or walk to the very top of Wonder Mountain (sadly closed after a fatality in the early 1990s).

When asked at the time to comment on what made Canada's Wonderland different from the perennial Toronto favourite, the CNE, Wonderland's general manager Howard Tate said, "We're different kinds of places, but I'll say that this is a like a 1982 Cadillac. The CNE is a 1959 Ford."Candas Wonderland

While Wonderland's first summer season successfully wound up, plans for the next year began to take shape, including the filming of an episode of CTV's enormously popular series The Littlest Hobo on the grounds of the park.

The episode "Forget Me Not" serves as one long commercial for Canada's Wonderland, and is probably the most Canadian thing you will ever see.Hanna Barbera

For those who were there when it opened, Wonderland was an utterly magical, indescribable place to visit: The CNE and Ontario Place would never be the same again, and the era of low-key amusement parks such as Crystal Beach were effectively over.Canadas Wonderland

Wonderland has successfully evolved in quantum leaps over the last 34 years, adding bigger rides, flipping ownership several times and rallying with gusto to stay relevant during changing eras.

That said, it would be near impossible for them to ever match that Wonder-full launch in the summer of 1981.Canadas Wonderland

Lead photo by

Toronto Archives.


Join the conversation Load comments

Latest in Sports & Play

TV station drives emotional stake into the hearts of crushed Toronto Maple Leafs fans

People got stuck outside on a ride at Canada's Wonderland during the weekend storm

The massive waterpark at Canada's Wonderland opens for the summer this week

This incredible tropical beach is just two hours from Toronto

This hiking trail near Toronto comes with an epic waterfall

Toronto just got European-style bike infrastructure and cyclists are overjoyed

25 fun day trips from Toronto to add to your summer bucket list

Drake's son is going to be a basketball star one day but for now he's just adorable