10 March 2023

West Edmonton Mall, Edmonton, AB

 An extant asset

I can still remember the first time that I had heard of West Edmonton Mall.  I was watching some news report or documentary about big malls around the world and they featured this magical place in some foreign land in the great white north.  There were water slides and roller coasters all under one roof, joined by an endless selection of shops and restaurants.  And it was all in a state of eternal spring even while winter weather raged right outside.

The exterior of Phase 1 and the Hudson's Bay store.

Before I finally got to experience the giant monolith, I had visited some other flashier and even larger shopping centers through the years.  The Mall of America was the first of the super-giant-crazy-fantastic new generation of mega-mall that I visited in 1993.  But living in Manila, Philippines for several years where everyday shopping was carried out within some of the largest malls in the world such as SM Mega Mall, Shangri-La Plaza and the Mall of Asia, I kind of became numb to the allure of the crazy huge malls.  

1 to 4- Scenes from Phase 1.  5 & 6- The two food courts.

But I still had a bright, shiny pin stuck into the map at West Edmonton Mall.  It was one of the first of its kind, built on a sprawling pad on the western side of Alberta’s provincial capital.  It had history and personality.  And a pirate ship.  I couldn’t wait to see them all.

It was your average sub-zero morning in Edmonton when I took the #900x bus from my hotel downtown to the western suburbs.  Edmonton is quite the handsome city with its tree lined neighborhood streets, ice coated ravines and snow-covered yards.  It’s also very diverse and international, with Jollibee stores abutting neighborhoods straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  

1 & 2- The ice rink in the mall's center.  3 to 6- Shots from the mall's Phase 2.

Eventually the small and cozy homes make way for one of the world’s most well-known shopping centers, and still North America’s largest by store count.  The majority of the facility is only stacked two tiers high, so it seems to stretch across the flat Albertan prairie like a non-descript, chestnut colored hill far off in the distance.  Well, a hill topped with impressive barrel skylights and the names Zara and Old Navy displayed prominently on one of its highest points over Galaxyland.  It wasn’t nearly as flashy as some of its newer peers, but it was nonetheless impressive in an imposing sort of way.  And I really wanted to stand outside longer in order to take in its monumental expanse, but my hands were burning from the chill while my fingers teetered on the edge of frostbite, so I made my way in.

The World Waterpark and Galaxyland amusement park.

Inside the fairly recent anchor addition of Simons was my first view of the interior.  Their exit into the mall led straight to Europa Avenue, home of faux generic what could be Paris or maybe Milan or perhaps Amsterdam inspired architecture.   This led to the Marine Life area, home of an old timey ship replica and Sea Life Caverns.  Though the ship and Europa Avenue seemed kitschy enough, it was in a good way.  Though the cell phone advert banners just beneath the glass ceilings did kill the illusion a bit.

1 & 2- The corridor above Bourbon Street and its Asian flair.  3 to 6- Bourbon Street and the train.

Further down the mall, toward the east, West Edmonton turns into much more of your average enclosed shopping center.  Unlike the Mall of America where the amusement parks and attractions were laid out to be the center of focus, the World Waterpark and Galaxyland were off to opposite sides of the facility.  Though both were notable in their own ways, the fact that they opened quite a bit later than the rest of the businesses left me a little disappointed.

Deep Sea Adventure Lake and its old timey ship.

Finally, on the far eastern end of the structure past the Ice Palace, a regulation hockey size rink, is the original Phase 1 of West Edmonton Mall.  Still a mere two stories, this area very much feels like a mall from my youth.  The mallway is noticeably darker and far less colorful than subsequent phases, but it was actually my favorite section.  It reminded me of décor that, although outdated by today’s standards, was brimming with the dark, earthy and sunken elements of malls passed.  This main passageway runs perpendicular to the rest of the structure and is laid out nearly like an old-fashioned dumbbell, with traditional anchors on each end but with another in the middle.

West Edmonton Mall mallmanac ca 2022.  See the full PDF version here.

Unfortunately, Hudson’s Bay, the middle anchor, is the only traditional department store remaining in Phase 1.  The northern bookend was once home to Sears Canada, but now houses The Brick furniture store and the West Edmonton Toyota.  On the south side, what was once a Zeller’s and then Target Canada now is home to a Winners and Home Sense.  But I do love the Hudson’s Bay, still unchanged with its ochre concrete exterior and black glass porticos over the entrances.  Never change, Hudson’s Bay.  Please.

1- The mall's western end and the entrance to Simons.  2- LEGO!  3 to 6- Europa Avenue.

West Edmonton Mall came onto the scene in 1981 with the opening of Phase 1.  There were no pirate ships or amusement parks at the time, just a two-level straight line facility housing shops and three traditional anchors.  Three additional phases were added in 1983, 1985 and 1999, making West Edmonton Mall the largest of its type in the world through 2004.  Galaxyland (originally Fantasyland, but Disney didn’t like that) and the World Waterpark were added during these expansions, making the mall the multi-faceted adventure destination that it is today.

1- WEM's northern edifice.  2- London Drugs' exterior.  3- The north exterior looking toward the east.  4- BB&B.  The tall building in the distance is part of Galaxyland.  5- Simons distinctive exterior.  6- The entrance to and the Galaxyland Hotel.

It was truly worth a trip to one of the world’s northernmost major cities in February to finally capture the mythical beast I had first caught sight of during my youth.  And though the city of Edmonton has grown to the point where it offers much more than just a super-mega-huge-crazy mall, the West Edmonton Mall definitely shouldn’t be missed.

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