We never thought we could experience a real tornado warning here at Canada’s Wonderland mega-amusement park, a little north of Toronto but that’s exactly what happened just hours ago as we were enjoying a vacation day in sunshine and heat. Within minutes the rain began and the sky grew darker and darker. We took shelter under a giant umbrella in the water park thinking it will quickly pass and we’d resume our wet fun on the slides and in the wave pools.
As the storm grew in intensity, and the kids began crying uncontrollably, the image of the ominous storm clouds from the Ten Commandments, just before the parting of the Red Sea, was not far from what we were actually experiencing. This was becoming quite serious. Moments later the lifeguards began blowing whistles and running, hollering that a tornado was coming and to evacuate immediately.
With the car much too far to reach quickly we grabbed the kids, stroller and bags and ran to the nearest washroom and hunkered down as the claps of thunder were so deafening loud, they must have been immediately overhead. Power flickered the lights off and on repeatedly and the kids continued wailing… except three month old Jeremy, content in my wife’s arms.
Unbelievably, while we were now relatively safe in the change room the Wonderland security guards asked us to leave as they wanted to close the water park for the evening. We argued with several of them that we would not leave the safety of the building we were in to run with young children and a newborn across Wonderland. They insisted we had to go, and quickly, as more tornado storm activity was about to strike. They essentially were telling us to run for our lives – but again, no directions, no plan, no useful information. We asked for emergency transportation out of the park, to no avail. We asked to remain where we were, also to no avail.
Finally, a kind washroom cleaner handed us garbage bags to try to keep dry in the torrential rain. Strange how it was okay for the Wonderland toilets to be cleaned by an employee in the same facility I was ordered to leave immediately for safety reasons.
With rain pelting down sideways, reminiscent of Florida hurricanes we frantically ran to the next covered area. My daughter cried and screamed, “We’re going to die!”
We ran into a diner where scores of people also took shelter. We huddled for another half hour, my mother in law drying our wet towels under the hand dryer in a futile attempt to warm up and dry off. A young boy stood nearby, separated from his father in the pandemonium. Again, we ran closer to the exit, first a tent-covered amphitheatre and then a pizza restaurant, a gift shop that was flooded and finally the front gates. I ran for the car, as a powerful bolt of lightening struck in the distance, pulled the car up to the gate and scooped up my family to get back to our host’s house, and quick.
The confusing, disorganized and illogical commands of the Wonderland security personnel was unbelievable. Either they had no evacuation plan or poor communication systems or both. To order guests, including children and infants out of a sheltered area and into the storm was irresponsible, dangerous and negligent. The Wonderland public address system continued to blare out music rather than emergency instructions.
Life guards yelled to run without any clear direction where we were to run to. Shopkeepers were completely uninformed about the tornado and storm or evacuation plans.
This will long be remembered as one of the most frightening days ever for me and my family.
Knowing a thing or two about general safety concerns and disaster planning it was evident to me that Wonderland did not live up to expectations to safeguard their guests. Not even close! I will certainly be writing a strongly worded letter to the company president.
As of this evening, the Town of Vaughan, Ontario (where Wonderland is located) has declared a state of emergency. More than 200 homes were severely damaged, 60 of which will have to be torn down.
We’re dry, safe and sound at the end of a very long and frightening day.
Here is a video taken a few blocks from where we were.
Coverage in The Suburban Newspaper, September 16, 2009
Here’s a map view of how close we are (Point A) to where the tornado actually touched down on Burnhaven Road (Point B):