Edmonton is Alberta's capital of family hotels, with some of the most far out accommodations we've ever seen — even for Canada!
Capital of Canada’s rugged Alberta province, the city of Edmonton has a climate with extreme mood swings (we heard about July days at 95°F/35°C and February ones that plummeted to -18°F/-55°C). It’s no wonder that these Albertans cope by creating parallel worlds: the enormous West Edmonton Mall and the sprawling Fort Edmonton are two examples of the rich experiences awaiting families who want to escape reality — and both have their own hotels.
WEM: Abode of the Fun Gods
The West Edmonton Mall (2472, 8882 – 170 Street, Edmonton T5T 4M2, 800/661-8890) rates more superlatives than any other entertainment complex in the world, including its business partner, Minneapolis’ Mall of America. It boasts the world’s largest indoor water park at 217,800-square-foot, with dozens of shallow pools, slides and squirters for every age group. Its skylit, indoor Galaxyland amusement park has 25 rides including three looping coasters and the new Galaxy Orbiter, a spinning-while-revolving attraction.
In addition to the 800 retail shops and restaurants one might expect to service such a large complex, are an indoor Ice Palace with an NHL-regulation rink and rental equipment; indoor mini-golf course; bowling alley and billiards center; trained sea lion show and aquarium with a full-fledged summer camp; day spas galore; themed children’s daycare center; and a lagoon hosting a dozen bumper boats with squirters, a submerged sightseeing submarine, and a reproduction of Columbus’ Santa Maria, where weddings are held.
Naturally, this mall has not one, but two hotels. The West Edmonton Mall Inn (17504-90 Avenue Edmonton, AB T5T 6L6, 800/737-3783; 780/444-9378) is a moderately-priced place that pales in comparison with its sister across the street, which is just what its name implies.
Within Fantasyland Hotel‘s (West Edmonton Mall, 17700 87th Avenue, Edmonton, AB, Canada T5T 4V4, 780/444-3000) dozen stories are 355 guestrooms, about a third of which provide the setting to live a dozen different lifestyles. These fantasies range from a wild, erotic decadence (the Classical Rome rooms have a round bed surrounded by nude statues, mirrors and chandeliers, perfect for private parties); to an island paradise hideaway (Polynesian Rooms boast a hand-crafted, mermaid tail bedframe surrounded by billowing sails, faux palms and a peanut-shaped Jacuzzi); or an Arctic adventure (Igloo rooms contain styrofoam ice-brick domes with bedding inside, a team of painted, life-size ceramic Husky dogs, a frolicking polar bear holding up a coffee table, sleighbeds — literally — and polar ice cap wall murals). Your family might prefer a roadside trucker’s getaway, or a Hollywood mogul’s pad, or a Canadian Pacific railway berth to squeeze into.
We weren’t lucky enough to find an available room but we did get a backstage tour. Our knowledgeable and informative guide, Dan Kober, walked us through an African Room with leopard-patterned carpeting, rattan bedframes and primitive African sculpture, explaining that in every room, the decor and carpet patterns were custom made for the hotel’s designer.
In a hotel enjoying more than 95% occupancy, it’s hard to keep up maintenance. Instead, the Fantasyland Hotel is constantly renovating. They poll guests to find out what they’d like to see on their next visit, then build it. New ideas arise, such as the Western Room, clustered along one floor where 40 different palomino horses grace the door of each guestroom. Inside, adults sleep in the back of a wagon while a lifesize driver stands at the headboard, guiding the molded plastic rumps of two horses (their torsos are painted in perspective on the desert landscape wall mural.) Kids can fight over their own log bunk beds draped in Cree Indian blankets. Other new ideas include the Sports Room, where a flat panel TV, basketball net, baseball glove-shaped seats, and turf tiling make athletes feel at home.
The hotel actually gets business travelers, couples and convention groups in addition to families, with honeymooners preferring the Rome theme rooms and families with a large contingent of fantasy-seekers going for the Luxury Canadian National Railroad rooms, where a train sleeper car has a king berth, two double-bedded bunks and room to accommodate up to three families. The key to the hotel’s success for all ages is its sincerity; all 12 themes go much deeper than the purely visual to tell a story. In one of our favorite touches, for example, Western rooms have jail bars to shield the kids from looking longingly into the glass mall structure below. In fact, Dan revealed that many families check in for one week, moving fantasy rooms each night to experience a different adventure.
Rated a “3.5 star” rather than a 3-star hotel because Fantasyland does everything its own way, guest rooms come in standard or luxury sizes (a full 640-square-feet) and have phones, TVs, unstocked minibars, ironing setups and surprisingly ordinary bathrooms; however, four-seater plunge Jacuzzis crown each of the luxury rooms. Room service is available nightly until 2am and a buffet breakfast is served in the Europa Cafe, an upscale mall eatery that overlooks the arcade of shops on European street. The on-site Fantasy Grill also gets high marks for its cuisine. There’s no in-house childcare but kids ages 5-12 can be left in the care of FunBosses at Kidtropolis, a creative daycare set in the mall; babysitters for little ones can be booked through Gold’s Gym or Jan and Pat’s, two other mall concessions.
In addition to having some connecting rooms (note that themed rooms typically connect to an unthemed hotel room so — grandparents — you know where you are sleeping), families may request a “bed in a bag” that is used in lieu of rollaways; cribs are not provided. During the summer high season, luxury themed rooms start at CDN$$$$ per night including breakfast or a waterpark ticket; regular rooms in the high season begin at CND$$. This isn’t a cheap experience, but when is fulfilling a fantasy not considered priceless?
Fort Edmonton: A Trip Through the Ages
Fort Edmonton Park (780/496-8787) is an alternative kind of reality, a 158-acre complex comprised of historic buildings. The periods 1885, 1905 and 1920 each have their own dirt “street” near the recreation 1846-era fur trade fort and Cree encampment. While not a military facility, the log-pole fort protected the valuable beaver pelt industry and, as a trading post, had rooms for living and storage, pens for animals, parking for Calistoga wagons, and more within its walls.Ã‚ The new Fort Edmonton was a local fantasy acted on to commemorate the 1967 Canada Centennial and it has grown into the region’s most fascinating attraction. Daily between May and the September Labor Day holiday, visitors can join Edmontonians admiring their past along the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River.
The 1885 area of the park is thick with local lore, farm animals, aboriginals, and split log buildings, many furnished authentically to illustrate the life of their former inhabitants. Historical interpreters — costumed volunteers with a deep knowledge of Edmonton’s early history — occupy canvas tents along the 1905 street, where they wait for their “new” Craftsmen style homes to be built. Women in plain cotton dresses distribute samples of baked goods that they’ve made in cast iron pans on open fires in front of guests. Fort Edmonton’s 1920s street, popular for its general store, ice cream vendor and red brick hotel, has its own working streetcar line. A brief run up and down the boardwalk in this part of the settlement is fun for kids, especially.
When entering the complex, it’s easy to spot the colorful classic midway, whose carousel is made of hand-painted animals and gentle rides. Families with the young and old, or anyone who is unsure about doing a lot of walking, may want to wait for the historic steam train that circles the 1885-era farm, one-room schoolhouse and blacksmith shop and gives a good overview of the many things to see. We’d suggest planning a whole day of time travel here, as there are several places to snack and fuel everyone’s stamina for the wealth of learning that’s on display. Not only are the buildings well sign-posted, but they are also furnished to emphasize their original role in the community, so even without a costumed interpreter, all ages will have a strong feeling for the era.
If you choose to stay longer (and many do), try the Hotel Selkirk (1920s Street, Fort Edmonton Park, Edmonton, AB, Canada T5J 2R7, 877/496-7227), site of filming for Brad Pitt’s latest epic, “The Legend of Jesse James.” Once favored by the city’s elite, it was rebuilt within the protective fort after its downtown Edmonton location was destroyed. There’s no childcare and nothing especially childlike, but families will find WiFi access, A/C and phones upstairs. A night in one of its 30 wooden rooms, with their old enamel sinks and iron bedsteads, followed by a pancake breakfast in the tin-ceilinged dining room, is guaranteed to transport any visitor into another world.
There are several moderately priced admission plans to Fort Edmonton, with top value family specials if everyone comes in together. Hotel rates begin at CDN$ for suites that offer a king-bedded private room plus a living room with queen sofabed; can’t beat the price. A very special, authentic to the period High Tea is offered every Wednesday and Thursday in their dining room throughout the summer season. Fort Edmonton is located just below the Quesnell Bridge in west Edmonton at the corner of Fox Drive and Whitemud Drive.
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