by Carmel L. Mooney
Americans love their festivals, events, and history. And now, Americans love the ultimate Canadian Family Destination: Edmonton, Alberta, where finding festivities and family fun is as easy as opening your eyes.
Edmonton, Canada’s festival city hosts year-round visitors from all corners of the U.S. who appreciate the capital of Alberta’s natural beauty, captivating history, thriving arts and culture, and iconic attractions like the West Edmonton Mall, and Fort Edmonton Park.
This family-friendly cosmopolitan center is bursting with sensational entertainment, art, thrills, creativity, and deep cultural roots offering something for children of all ages and parents and grandparents alike. For an unforgettable family vacation, plan on no less than a week to explore and appreciate the diversity that Edmonton has to show any family looking for fun.
A short drive of just over a half-hour from the airport, a lodging must for any family is the Fantasyland Hotel located in the world-famous West Edmonton Mall, the world’s largest and most exciting indoor mall. This mall is like none other in the world, not just because of its size but because of the amazing array of entertainment venues, dining, and shopping all under one enormous glass roof. Nowhere else in the world can one pet and be kissed by a trained sea lion, view live oceanic creatures from around the world, board a life-size authentic replica of a pirate ship, ice skate on an Olympic size rink, catch six-foot waves at an indoor water park and enjoy the thrill of gigantic indoor roller coasters at Galaxyland, all under one roof in one mall.
Yes, you will need to carry a map until you’ve spent a day or two orienting yourself to this mammoth adventure called the West Edmonton Mall and there’s no better way to experience it all at your doorstep than to stay at the famous Fantasyland Hotel located right inside the mall. In this luxury hotel with its 120 fantasy-themed rooms, you may choose to stay in a Canadian Rail-themed room, truck room, Safari room, or any other themed room designed for the delight of both kids and grown ups. Rooms have bunk beds as well as regular beds and huge, lavishly designed themed spa tubs, some with waterfalls. One could only wish Disneyland had a hotel like this. What are they waiting for? Before visiting the Fantasyland Hotel you’ll want to explore many different packages offered, some of which include admission to the World Water Park and Galaxyland amusement park, and others with buffet breakfasts in the mall and dinner discounts.
Families will appreciate the hospitality and amenities of this unique property with pay-per-view movies and games, refrigerators in all the rooms, daily fresh fruit, complimentary playpens on request, wireless high-speed internet access, laundry, and dry cleaning services, room service, and both valet or self-parking available. The pizza we ordered in our room was fabulous, although it took a long time to arrive, so order early to satisfy hungry tummies.
With the mall just a step away, you’ll enjoy the convenience of a spa and gym nearby, not to mention the other amenities of the mall and the hotel itself. You’ll quickly agree, that it’s no wonder the West Edmonton Mall is affectionately called the “Greatest Indoor Show on Earth.”
True festival enthusiasts will want to plan their trip to Edmonton around catching Edmonton’s biggest summer celebration called Capital Ex, the winner of Canada’s major Fair of the Year award. For ten days the best entertainment, fair food, agricultural exhibits, horse racing, going-green educational projects, sports, military, arts, parades, midway, and other venues all come together to celebrate all the things that make the city great.
Nearly a million people attend each year and if you like fairs and expos, you’ll have to plan your trip to be one of the million. Pack comfortable shoes, a hat for shade, and extra drinking water as lines are astronomically long for everything. The Spirit of the Butterfly was our favorite attraction and luckily had the shortest line. It was truly an unforgettable experience being covered by dozens of butterflies imported from around the world. The magic of seeing elderly and young children as their faces lit up while they interacted with these fascinating delicate creatures was priceless.
If your family likes sampling lots of fine food venues all in one place while enjoying excellent entertainment and absorbing the ambiance of a thriving artsy downtown area, then plan to attend the Taste of Edmonton Festival at Sir Winston Churchill Square.
In downtown Edmonton, this food festival is where several dozen of the area’s finest dining establishments give visitors a chance to sample a little of the best of many. With delicious specialties like Belgian Chocolate Pears, Triple Layer Chocolate Explosion, Wild Mushroom Bisque, and Chicken Souvlaki, there are menu items to please every conceivable palette at the Taste of Edmonton. Edmonton was named the Cultural Capital of Canada for 2007 and it’s easy to see why the more you explore.
Plan to spend at least two days or more exploring the West Edmonton Mall with a map in hand. It’s nothing short of an adrenaline rush to experience the thrilling rides and attractions inside Galaxyland with its indoor roller coasters and more. The clan will have to ride the Mindbender, where gravity forces passengers into their seats while screaming through the world’s largest indoor triple loop roller coaster. It’s just one of 26 thrilling rides and attractions in Galaxyland. The little ones will enjoy Galaxy Kids Playpark, where they can enjoy four stories of an interactive space-themed play area.
The World Water Park at West Edmonton Mall is equally spectacular and boasts the world’s largest indoor wave pool and nearly two dozen exciting and varied slides and play areas. Whether an adrenaline junkie or a timid wader, there are attractions to please all levels and ages at this astounding five-acre water park where mom and dad can relax in one of the hot tubs while the kids slide, bungee jump, or play. The perfect indoor tropical temperature of 86 degrees promises perfect weather (and water) any time of year, even in the winter.
Fine dining abounds throughout the mall and we found Earl’s in the Bourbon Street section of the mall to be the most unforgettable family dining experience we had ever enjoyed in Canada. From the impeccable ambiance to the warm and friendly and highly trained staff, every aspect of our family’s dinner there was flawless as our taste buds were spoiled with astounding flavors and textures.
The sablefish, salmon rolls, chili chicken, Asian salad, toffee cake, coconut cream pie, and chicken tenders were all fabulous beyond our highest expectations. If only we had found the restaurant earlier in our stay—that was our only regret. The silver lining however was to learn there are other locations as we must dine at another Earl’s on another trip.
The highlight and pinnacle of the trip’s activities was none other than Fort Edmonton Park, Canada’s largest living history museum located about fifteen minutes from downtown, situated on 158 acres of beautiful lushly forested land along the river. Easily accessible from the major freeways, getting to this gem is a piece of cake. This park was magical and an absolute must-see for anyone visiting Edmonton. Docents in period costume welcome you as a visitor throughout various sections of the park each depicting a different era of Canadian history. A steam train included in the price of admission transports guests between the two main sections and the train itself is a treat.
Decorated authentically the train was used in the movie The Assassination of Jesse James with Brad Pitt. It’s a spectacular piece of history itself.
In the park, families can walk down authentic 1800s dirt streets complete with covered wagons, stagecoaches, frontiersmen, and live turkeys and chickens. You’ll want to browse the local old-time merchants dressed in period costumes while learning the history as you interact with them. While visiting the fort, one can learn the fur trading history of Canada. The fort is a spectacular example of construction and architecture with endless educational opportunities, most of which are hands-on for kids.
A section of the park dedicated to the 1920s offers folks a chance to ride a real streetcar and there’s even an authentic 1920’s midway and exhibition where kids delight in winning prizes and riding a real hand-carved carousel.
Fort Edmonton Park offers a wonderful chance to get away from the bustling city and to enjoy nature and history in a beautiful country setting.
Here are some things to keep in mind before and while traveling to make your Canadian vacation run smoothly:
- You will need a passport for every family member traveling to Canada. This can take several weeks for processing, so start early. If one parent travels with the children, they will need a notarized note from the absent parent authorizing their permission to travel. It does not currently state this as mandatory on the Canadian travel and government sites, but we were hassled. So I strongly suggested going prepared.
- Exchange your money before you leave the states. There is an exchange center in the West Edmonton Mall, but they charge exorbitant fees. Have Canadian money in the form of coins ready when traveling downtown as parking is tricky and scarce and what is available is mostly parking meter patrolled.
- Crime is evident in the city and at the mall, particularly at night. Canadian laws made it nearly impossible for our family to carry pepper spray as we do traveling in the states. At night we felt vulnerable. You will see signs throughout the mall and city warning of crime and theft problems. Use common sense and avoid unfamiliar surroundings after dark and do not leave valuables in your rental car, especially at the mall.
- Check with your insurance company several days before departing, as they will most likely furnish you/fax you a special document to carry while driving through Canada.
- When renting your car at the airport, do rent a portable GPS unit. We received a lot of bad directions and had a hard enough time with a GPS, we would have been sunk without it, as street signs are missing or difficult to follow in many areas downtown especially several areas under construction. Get very clear rules from the rental car company about refueling and receipt policies for returning your car. Everyone else we saw renting cars was hassled about this and we were glad we followed the rules to the letter.
For families who enjoy vacationing outside the box, and who love festivals, arts, and history, Edmonton, Alberta Canada is just your ticket to the perfect family destination. Get your passport and start packing to head North!
Carmel L. Mooney is a mom and travel columnist, travel author, and radio talk show host.