Fair attracted 22 million people, showcasing Vancouver as a world-class city
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
Expo had an influential impact on the progression of transportation in Vancouver. The SkyTrain system was built for the fair opening in 1985. The fair also appeared on the cover of an Archie comic issue in 1986.
Expo 86 brought the world to Vancouver. It was a precursor to future prominent events the city would later host such as the 2010 Winter Olympics. But in 1986, over 22 million people visited Expo 86. The fair ran from May 2 till October 13.
The man responsible for helping to bring Expo to the west coast was former BC premier Bill Bennett (who died in 2015 at age 83). In 1981, Bennett announced his plan for a world’s fair to be built and opened in five years. He recruited Vancouver businessman, Jim Pattison, who became CEO and president of Expo 86 Corporation. The fair covered two sites (70 hectares). The main site, 67 hectares, stretched 4.5 km along the north and east shores of False Creek. And the Canadian pavilion (now Canada Place), located away from the main site, covered three hectares.
In October 1983, construction started on the first pavilion. There were challenges to the project, including a labour dispute in 1984 lasting five months disrupting work. But the pavilions were completed in time and were $8 million under budget. Expo 86 cost over $800 million to build, and revenues were $491 million. Participants spent $698 million, with the total expenditures at Expo being $1.5 billion. The final deficit was $311 million.
Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, along with then Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney were part of the ceremonies to launch the fair’s opening. For those who remember Expo 86, it was a big deal! Expo 86 was a global spectacle; news media worldwide descended to Vancouver to cover it. Expo 86 propelled Vancouver into the world spotlight. Notably, this was the last fair to be held on North American soil.
Expo had an influential impact on the progression of transportation in Vancouver. The SkyTrain system was built for the fair opening in 1985. The fair also appeared on the cover of an Archie comic issue in 1986. Even late-night television host, David Letterman, was invited to Vancouver to broadcast his Late Night with David Letterman program at the fair. Unfortunately, Letterman did not come to Vancouver. But his show sidekick and bandleader, Paul Shaffer, was invited and attended the fair as an honoured guest.
Buildings constructed for Expo 86 that still exist are Canada Place Trade and the Convention Centre (site of the Canadian pavilion), Science World (called Expo Centre in 1986), and BC Place (opened in 1983) used for Expo’s opening and closing ceremonies. But 35 years ago, buildings that were brand new were the Expo Theatre and the Plaza of Nations—and national and special day ceremonies were held in these locations.
A total of 54 nations participated at Expo 86, with 65 pavilions constructed (41 were international, seven provinces, two territories, three states, and nine corporations). Another two were theme pavilions, and one was a special one (Ramses II containing treasures from the life of the pharaoh). To navigate oneself around the fairgrounds, it was divided into six coloured zones, each containing theatres, pavilions, rides, and restaurants.
The fair contained a plethora of exhibits, shows, restaurants, and retail and souvenir shops. There was also the famous “Scream Machine” roller coaster, giant hockey stick, Highway 86 display, and Expo Ernie (fair’s mascot). As well, people could take the monorail. Another option was boarding one of the two gondola systems (both sponsored by Air Canada and Canadian Pacific). And when people were hungry, there were many restaurants available including the “McBarge,” which served as a floating McDonald’s restaurant during Expo 86.
There was no shortage of entertainment as the fair had a vast array of entertainment including a special series of rock ‘n’ roll reunion concerts featuring some of rock’s biggest legends: Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and Ray Charles. Other performers included the Righteous Brothers, the Everly Brothers, Donovan, Bobby Vee, and Johnny Rivers. Legendary Vancouver DJ Red Robinson posted on his website in May 2016 how he was able to get the heavyweight lineup of rock legends to grace their presence at Expo 86: “We worked with promoter Paul Mercs and EXPO 86 executives to bring the greatest names of rock ‘n’ roll to Vancouver. Now we needed a sponsor, and radio legend Mel Cooper introduced us to Labatt Brewing.” The performances were held for 13 weekends, with an afternoon matinee and a concert each Sunday night.
In May 2016, the 30th anniversary of Expo 86 news outlets broadcasted special segments marking the anniversary. Former Surrey Mayor, Linda Hepner, said Expo 86 helped put Vancouver on the map as a world-class city on a global scale. “I think if we reflect on what it was telling us back then, inviting the world,” Hepner told CBC News. “The world is here. All of the people that are moving here, [and] all of the diversity that exists in our region. Expo 86 was a really strong catalyst for opening the doors of British Columbia to the world. And I think that shows every single day now to all of us.”
Jim Pattison reflected on the impact Expo 86 had on Vancouver. He was very proud of what the fair achieved. But initially, he admitted when the fair began he had his trepidations: “Well, one thing that stands out for me is the opening ceremonies—when we didn’t know whether it was going to be a success or not,” Pattison said in the same CBC News segment. “And then of course the closing ceremonies when we knew that we had a successful fair.”