Welcome back. Today, I’m profiling one of the most controversial Edmonton institutions. Three words: West Edmonton Mall.
Anyone who lives, or has lived, in Edmonton has their own peculiar relationship with West Edmonton Mall. If you aren’t from this city, it’s likely one of the few things you know about us.
Very early in my life, I recall looking up my hometown in any travel books I found. If it was even mentioned, Edmonton was typically referred to disdainfully as a boring oil city with a gigantic mall and not much else. Once the Internet arrived, I then spent a lot of time looking up travel information in general. Between reading about faraway destinations, I would inevitably look up Edmonton, almost always finding a variation on that same theme. Boring, oil-focused, avoid at all costs. Big mall, yada yada. I guess I was always exploring my sense of place.
It’s no wonder outsiders had, and often still have, such a poor opinion of this city. On the flip side, it’s no wonder we’ve developed such an inferiority complex. It’s what the world has declared about us!
It was difficult not to resent West Edmonton Mall during those years. “We have a beautiful river valley too,” I always insisted. On the rare occasion that someone would choose to visit Edmonton, there was always a stop on the itinerary for West Edmonton Mall. Why would they go to a mall when they could go outside, I wondered.
A note for the “history” books: While many people claim the common shorthand for West Edmonton Mall is “The Mall”, I never called it that. My friends and I always referred to as “West Ed”. Maybe it’s a north side thing.
A Gradual Shift
Then, something strange happened. I begrudgingly began to appreciate West Edmonton Mall. Say it ain’t so.
Maybe it was the general shift in attitude toward Edmonton. Rather than West Ed being the primary focus of all tourist activity in the city, it became one of many options. Perhaps it was the creeping influence of nostalgia, or a series of realizations that key items were missing.
Just yesterday, I realized the “burger guy” statue in the newer food court has been removed. People were upset when they realized the whale statue was gone, but that was only months after it had been moved in order to fit a seating area for Victoria’s Secret.
What else has quietly disappeared? I wonder if we would be surprised at our own reactions before these things were initially lost.
A significant turning point for me was in 2013, when Omar Mouallem wrote a fantastic piece for Avenue Magazine called “The Great Indoors“, in which he described spending three consecutive days inside the mall. It got the wheels of memory spinning, and now, I find myself defending West Edmonton Mall on certain levels.
The Truly Awful
Only some levels, though. While my fondness for Edmonton grew over the years, it took longer to find anything to appreciate about West Ed.
Yesterday, while taking photos for this post, I got turned around and wanted to find the whale sculpture in its temporary location. I asked a teenage girl working at a sunglasses stand which way to go, and she enthusiastically pointed me in the exact opposite direction. It made it about ten feet before realizing I’d been had. “This is what I hate about this place,” I grumbled to myself.
Then there are the rambling, wide groups of tourists preventing you from getting where you’re going, and the hoards of teenagers who are, quite frankly, probably intolerable even to themselves.
Then there’s the mall’s history of unnecessarily displaying animals for entertainment. There have been dolphins, flamingos, penguins, peacocks, and more. Today, they still have sea lions.
And of course the terrible “tradition” of dummies jumping into the lagoon.
Over the years, West Edmonton Mall played a number of roles in my life.
As a child growing up on the far north side, going to West Ed was always an adventure. It felt like another world, far across the city at a time when I had little to no independence. We visited about once a year, or when we had guests from out of town. After all, it was the place to go!
It was especially fun when my family visited from overseas, because we would splurge on the extras. Those were the only times I went on the submarine ride, which even as a kid, I knew was a weak showing. I’m glad to remember how cramped and sweaty it was.
These were the glory days of Fantasyland, before Disney threatened legal action and they changed their name to Galaxyland. There was the Drop of Doom, which would slowly and suspensefully climb to the roof before sending its riders into free-fall. There was the pirate ship that swung upside down; you knew it was running when you heard the “whoosh”. There was the train winding its way around the amusement park and stopping above the children’s play area.
The children’s area was a magical wonderland in itself. There were kid-sized cubes to crawl through, rope bridges and slides, and mirrored nooks tucked away to excite my overstimulated imagination. Ask anyone who grew up around Edmonton during this era about the play area, and there’s a good chance they will suddenly get very excited.
The World Waterpark was where I fell in love with waterslides, especially the original “lazy river“-style tube ride. It turned me into the river-floating fiend I am today. Then, they added bungee jumping above the wave pool. Now there’s surfing, and a loop-de-loop waterslide.
In June 1986, West Ed made the news in the worst way when three people were killed in an accident on the Mindbender rollercoaster. My family visited from England a few months later, and my daredevil cousin rode the rollercoaster. I’ve still never been on it.
One of my favourite childhood authors wrote a book set at the mall (Eric Wilson’s Code Red at the Supermall), and at one point in the story, sharks from the lagoon are in danger of swimming into the wave pool. I knew that would have been impossible, given the layout of the mall, but forgave him because so few books are set here.
Other childhood West Ed memories include: staring endlessly at the Rube Goldberg machine that was tucked away in the corner, watching the spinning puffy paint t-shirt machines in awe, serious discussions about how fancy the theme rooms at the Fantasyland Hotel really are, stopping to watch the dancing fountains (especially the one that jumped over your head in the food court), wishing I could ride the scooters, dubious claims that it was the biggest mall in the world, the days when the mini golf course was still great, hearing the term “mall rats” for the first time (not like that), the media frenzy around Hooters opening on Bourbon Street, and much more.
In my teen years, my best friend and I got into the habit of riding the bus across the city and going to Johnny Rockets. For those unfamiliar with the chain, it was a 1950s-style diner with jukeboxes on the table. The servers would dance whenever “Rockin’ Robin” came on. They had the best milkshakes. Now, the Johnny Rockets is an Orange Julius and Yogen Früz. So it goes.
It was during those years that I went to some of the Rock ‘n’ Ride parties at Galaxyland. A lot of kids growing up in Edmonton in the ’90s and ’00s have stories about Rock ‘n’ Ride. Basically, it was a teenage rave in the amusement park. They were cancelled after a girl tragically died from a bad drug reaction in 2009.
It was around then that the music video for Captain Tractor performing “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate” (that I have previously posted) was filmed on the replica Santa María ship. The public was invited, but I was in junior high and had classes. I was too young to understand that the correct course of action, if only for future heritage nostalgia purposes, would have been to skip school and go.
I’m An Adult Now (At Least On Paper)
When I reached legal drinking age, my relationship with West Ed evolved again.
This was the era of going to Red’s – then Ed’s, then the Edmonton Event Centre – to see bands play. It was always the worst place to see a show, but if you really wanted to see the band, you went. Some of the more memorable shows I saw there were The Flaming Lips, Gogol Bordello, and Arcade Fire.
I warred regularly with security over mandatory coat checks (I once convinced them there’s a law prohibiting mandatory coat checks and arrogantly quoted fictional legislation, all because I’m cheap). I always resented travelling so far to have a mostly mediocre time, and eventually gave up altogether.
Around the corner from the stage was the bowling alley, featuring glow-in-the-dark bowling. At least Red’s served decent Caesars.
There were other nightclubs in the mall, too, but you’ll have to ask someone else about those.
It was around this time that Phase IV was completed, with businesses like SilverCity (movie theatre), Playdium (arcade), and HMV moving in. There was a fire-breathing dragon at SilverCity that was a destination in itself. SilverCity was the first theatre in town to have separate businesses inside the theatrre complex. It was there that I saw Star Wars Episode I on opening night. The fire-breathing dragon was taken down last year, but it lives on in numerous YouTube videos (1, 2, 3). Playdium and HMV are gone too, but SilverCity lives on as the Scotiabank Theatre.
Oh, and sometimes movies have been filmed at West Ed.
At one point, the roof over the ice rink collapsed during a summer hailstorm.
Valentine’s Day Extravaganza
My favourite memory involving West Ed, if I had to choose, happened on February 14, 2009. It was Valentine’s Day. Probably the best Valentine’s Day.
I dragged a group of my single friends to the Wild West Shooting Range. Of course they’ve got a shooting range – right? Because we were on a mission to have the most ridiculous Valentine’s Day ever, we then moved on to the temporary segway course in Phase IV, where we met the most erratic segway instructor ever. He told us about his supposed half-Icelandic/half-Japanese Internet girlfriend, and demonstrated how he could turn his head almost all the way around. It was a scene straight out of a horror movie.
After that, we aired and burned our grievances, and beat up an “effigy”. It was actually a blow-up doll from the now-closed San Francisco store at the mall, and we felt great.
West Edmonton Mall Today
Nowadays, West Edmonton Mall is a very different place. I’m rarely there anymore.
So much of the mall I once knew has changed: the submarine ride is gone, meaning we can’t joke anymore about how the mall has more subs than the Canadian Navy. The corniness of Bourbon Street and Europa Boulevard have faded, and the theatre in the newer food court is long closed. Zellers became a Target store, and then Target left Canada, leaving that corner of the mall closed indefinitely.
Whenever I visit, I notice more changes. Yesterday, I realized the McDonald’s in the newer food court has disappeared, and the front of Circuit City has been pushed back to make room for a store. Sorry teenage boys, no more DDR peacocking displays for you. There was also a visible increase of booths and carts set up in the middle of the halls. It seems like a whole new economic category of rental space has been established, and the mall is hungry for sales.
The only thing that I’m pretty sure hasn’t changed is the sportscar up for raffle. I cynically suspect that same car has been there for years.
Notably, in February 2015, the mall made the news when it was listed as a possible terrorist target. Cheerleading teams pulled out of an upcoming competition, shoppers defiantly shopped, and there was no doubt that times have changed since the mall opened in 1981.
Why Should Anyone Care?
I celebrate Edmonton knowing full well that it is not Berlin, Montréal, New York, or Vancouver. It’s a small town growing into its big city identity, bringing with it some significant problems that should not be dismissed. If anything, in promoting this city, I encourage people to protect it and fight to make it better.
West Edmonton Mall is a difficult place to appreciate, especially when it doesn’t seem to understand its own kitsch value.
Looking back, it has reflected many significant societal changes, and I understand it better from this perspective. I spent my youth focusing my righteous indignation on malls and calling for a return to friendlier shopping districts. Now, there’s almost a quaint appeal to indoor shopping malls. At least they’re navigable on foot, rather than essentially requiring people to drive from store to store.
A lot of smaller stores at West Ed have disappeared, and it feels more homogeneous and modern. I remember the tucked-away knick-knack shops above Fantasyland, the ’90s educational toy store boom, the craft store with the dollhouse section, and the forever-missed Kites & Other Delights and its model train section (I’m drawn to life in miniature). There are still a few shops like that left, and hopefully they will stick around a while longer. West Edmonton Coin & Stamp is still around, and reminds me of a younger West Edmonton Mall. Go there. Spend your money.
The shopping mall is simply an older consumer model. These days, we have South Edmonton Common, the obnoxious big box store wasteland on the far south side of the city. IKEA used to be at West Ed, but it has moved to South Edmonton Common. Many smaller shopping malls feel quite desolate these days, while others are modernizing through extensive renovations (Southgate and Londonderry come to mind).
Now, more than anything, I am compelled to capture my memories.
So, I went to West Ed. Saw a movie. Took some photos. Not a comprehensive sample, but hopefully enough to get a taste of West Edmonton Mall circa 2015.
The Santa María and lagoon:
No more submarine ride:
New candy store where the old candy store once stood (outside the waterpark):
“Old” food court:
Brianna graciously reenacts the lost burger man statue in the “new” food court:
Finally, the whale! As you can see, it’s still under construction, but I’m so pleased to have it back:
Do you have memories of West Edmonton Mall that you would like to share? Tell me about them in the comments.