So far, the largest shopping center we’ve featured on this site is the massive Mall of America in suburban Minneapolis, Minnesota. On a recent trip which brought us through the intermountain west and western Canada, we were able to visit the only North American mall larger than the Mall of America: West Edmonton Mall in Canada.
Edmonton is the provincial capital of Alberta and a city with a metropolitan population of just over one million. Not only a center of government, Edmonton is also the northern anchor of the Edmonton-Calgary technology corridor, one of four regions of Canada comprising 50 percent of that country’s population. Edmonton is also home to numerous institutions of higher education, including the flagship campus of the University of Alberta. In addition, Edmonton currently holds the moniker “Oil Capital of Canada” – since the 1940s, Edmonton has been best known for its petrochemical industries due to the abundance of natural energy resources nearby; and, even though Edmonton’s economy is diversified today, the natural resources energy reserves in northern Alberta are second only to Saudi Arabia’s in the entire world.
In the late 1970s, amid Edmonton’s largest boom in growth resulting from petroleum sector jobs, an Iranian immigrant family, the Ghermezians, embarked upon a plan to build a super-regional mall on the west side of Edmonton. The project, however, did not open as the behemoth 6 million square-foot supermall that exists today.
Instead, the West Edmonton Mall opened in September, 1981 with a modest – at least compared to today’s size – selection of only 220 stores totalling just over one million square feet on two levels. The mall opened along 170th street between 90th and 87th Avenue. Upon opening, the anchors were Sears, Eaton’s, and The Bay, and the mall cost C$200,000 to build. The original 1981 mall still exists today as Phase I, and is still anchored by Sears and The Bay, but Zellers rounds out the third anchor as it moved from Phase II in 2000 to replace Eatons, which went out of business in 1999. A large food court, Gourmet World, is located in Phase I and connects Phase I to the mall’s indoor amusement park.
In 1983, West Edmonton Mall Phase II opened, doubling the mall’s size, giving it destinational status and worldwide media coverage. Unlike Phase I, which was comprised of only retail, Phase II incorporated recreation and entertainment venues to complement the retail and give a better overall experience. Over 220 stores were added in the expansion, along with an NHL-sized ice rink, known as the Ice Palace, and the Fantasyland amusement park, which continues to be the largest indoor amusement park in the world. A large Zellers was also added in Phase II, which eventually relocated to replace the Eatons in Phase I when it closed in 1999. Today, the original Zellers is now a Winners, flanking the south side of the ice skating rink.
1985 saw the opening of Phase III, largest addition at West Edmonton Mall to date, giving it the status of the largest mall in the world, a title it would hold until 2004 when several Asian malls surpassed its size. Included in the Phase III expansion were a large Canadian Tire superstore, a Woodward’s department store at the western end of the mall, The Brick, London Drugs, as well as more entertainment options such as miniature golf and two themed sections: Europa Boulevard and Bourbon Street. A second food court also exists on the lower level in Phase III, called Gourmet Court.
The entertainment options comprise the largest real estate in the Phase III addition, and include the World Waterpark, the world’s largest indoor water park featuring an 83-foot slide, complete with a wave pool capable of generating 6-foot waves. There is also a bungee jump where one can dangle directly over the wave pool, several major water slide rides, and a tube river thinger.
In addition to the water park, Phase III also includes Sea Life Caverns and Deep Sea Derby, a deep salt-water lake located in the middle of the Phase III addition under a massive glassy, galleria-style roof. At one point there were dolphins and other sea life, as well as submarine rides, but today the submarine rides are closed and the featured sea mammals are three sea lions named Pablo, Kelpie, and Clara. The Deep Sea Adventure area is anchored by a life-size replica of Columbus’ ship Santa Maria, which first appeared at Vancouver’s Expo 86. The ship has been used for special events such as fundraising, but is unfortunately not accessible to the public.
The final major entertainment venue to open with Phase III was Red’s, an entertainment complex consisting of a bowling alley, pool hall, music stage, arcade, and restaurant. However, in 2006, Red’s chose not to renew their lease and the former Red’s area was separated into three venues. The music stage and restaurant were converted to Edmonton Events Centre, and are home to many Canadian and international bands such as Switchfoot, GWAR, Lifehouse, and Theory of a Deadman, just to name a few. The arcade and bowling alley were renamed Ed’s Rec Room, and the mini-golf area became Putt ‘n’ Glow.
The two themed “streets” which opened in 1985 with the Phase III expansion were modeled after Europe and New Orleans. Europa Boulevard features an eclectic array of shops along a multistory European streetscape facade. However, the shops are only at the bottom of the facade – which is located on the 2nd level of the mall – with rentable conference rooms on the levels above. A large Petcetera store and a Gold’s Gym are located near or along Europa Boulevard. Some of the shops along Europa Boulevard feature high fashion and stores with price points significantly higher than in other areas of the mall. In addition, Europe Boulevard features a European-inspired and themed coffee shop, Cafe Europa.
Bourbon Street, the second themed area to open in 1985 with Phase III, is designed to mimic a nighttime streetscape of New Orleans. Featuring many chain restaurants such as Hooters, Earl’s, Tony Roma’s, Boston’s Pizza, Albert’s and others, there are also options for tippling as this is the mall’s largest concentration of bars as well. Bourbon Street also features a comedy club and mannequins along the street depicting street people of New Orleans. The lights along Bourbon Street are intentionally kept darker than the rest of the mall to inspire a nighttime feel.
The 1990s saw success and a continued transformation for West Edmonton Mall, and by the end of the decade the mall received its latest and smallest expansion, Phase IV. In 1990, a 10,000 square-foot casino came to West Edmonton Mall, located on the north side of Phase II adjacent to the indoor theme park. Today, the Palace Casino is over 64,000 square feet on two levels, and features table games as well as slots and a full bar. In addition, sometime during the early 1990s Woodward’s department store, which opened in 1985 and flanked the western end of the mall in Phase III, closed and became a second location of The Bay. Then, in the mid 1990s, the large Canadian Tire store in Phase III closed, leaving a large hole on level two that sat vacant for the rest of the decade.
In 1995, the Walt Disney Company apparently got wind of West Edmonton Mall’s indoor theme park using the name Fantasyland, a name Disney uses for a themed area in most of their parks, which resulted in a successful cease-and-desist order on the part of the Mouse; West Edmonton Mall’s indoor theme park became Galaxyland – featuring a space theme – in July, 1995. Its mascot, Cosmo, is featured throughout the park and also the entire mall. However, the Fantasyland hotel, located across the mall near its southeast corner on the lower level of Phase III, has retained its name – Disney be damned. While we’re on topic, there’s also another hotel part of the mall, though not physically attached; the West Edmonton Inn is located across 90th Avenue to the north of the mall, next to the overflow/large vehicle parking.
In the late 1990s, The Bay, which operated two locations in the mall at this point, closed their second store in Phase III. This closure paved the way for Phase IV, West Edmonton Mall’s most recent development. Phase IV was actually more of a redevelopment rather than an expansion, as the previous 3 phases were, and it redeveloped the former Woodward’s/Bay location at the western end of the mall. Phase IV opened in 1998, and included a Chapters book box with a Starbucks, a two-level HMV with its own performing stage, a Famous Players theatre and IMAX 3-D, and Playdium, an arcade game amusement facility. By 2005, Playdium had closed and the space was rented to several Edmonton-area radio stations: 790 CFCW, K-97, and 96.3 Capital FM, and in 2007, the Famous Players theatre was rebranded as Scotiabank Theatre. Today, Scotiabank theatre is the only movie theatre at the mall, though at one point two other theatres existed elsewhere in the mall; one of those former theatres was converted to the West49 Skatepark.
In 2002, the large vacant area left by the mid-1990s closure of Canadian Tire became the third themed area of the mall, Chinatown. Anchored by T&T Supermarket, an Asian supermarket from British Columbia, the area features Chinese decor as well as Asian-related retail and restaurants which complement the theme. This ethnic area seems to be a hit, especially considering the number of area residents with Asian heritage.
With the completion of Phase IV, West Edmonton Mall solidified its position as the largest mall in the world – at least until 2004, when Asia began building larger malls. Currently, West Edmonton Mall contains more than 6 million square feet of space and over 800 stores and services. The Mall of America, by comparison, has only 4.5 million square feet of space (including amusement parks and other non-retail ventures) and just over 520 stores and services. There are over 20,000 parking spaces, and more than 23,000 people are employed on the property. West Edmonton Mall receives between 60,000 and 150,000 visitors daily depending on the day and season, and the mall is valued at nearly C$1 Billion. West Edmonton Mall is, like the Mall of America, fully owned and operated by the Ghermezian family’s Triple Five Group.
As if all of the above weren’t enough, West Edmonton Mall has even more features we haven’t even mentioned, and is also planning for future expansion. In addition to everything above, there’s an indoor shooting range, a non-denominational chapel, a petting zoo, a set of flamingos who are currently on “vacation” in Winnipeg, and an internet cafe. High speed internet is available throughout the mall - for purchase - with WEMiSphere access codes you can buy in any guest services location or both hotels. Charging for internet is kind of lame, no?
In mid-2009, U.S. retailer Bed Bath and Beyond is opening above the food court in Phase III. In addition, another expansion is underway for an additional 320,000 square-feet of retail space, a sports facility, a 600-unit apartment building, and more parking. Will this be called Phase V? And where exactly will it be located? It wasn’t exactly clear to us.
We visited West Edmonton Mall in July, 2009 and took the pictures featured here. We found the mall to be as impressive and amazing as expected – if not more – but we were really struck at how dated much of the mall seems. Most of the mall was completed by 1985, and the mainline areas of stores still have decor reminiscent of the 1980s – featuring dark wood, darker color schemes, and mirrors galore. Even the most recent Phase IV, completed in 1998, is already showing its age with its liberal use of neon. The mall is also a bit more sprawly than its sister in the U.S., the Mall of America. Where the Mall of America is a somewhat boring square design on three – and sometimes four – levels, West Edmonton Mall leaves a bit more to the imagination with its cavernous design, inviting the visitor to explore what’s down every rogue hallway and beyond. While the base design of WEM is a two-level “T” shape, the addition of side corridors featuring separate themes - such as Chinatown or Bourbon Street - gives the visitor a very inviting reason to go down these shorter corridors. Both food courts are also located away from the central right-of-way, too, as are all of the amusement activities, whereas in the Mall of America all of these things are centralized. We’re not necessarily arguing for one or the other, but it’s intriguing since both centers were designed and still managed by the same family.
As always, enjoy the photos and feel free to leave your own comments and experiences. Also, be sure to check out the 12 short videos I took in the mall, which are posted on my YouTube page.