Under One Roof

The West Edmonton Mall offers much more than shopping

By: Kathy Chin Leong

No one wants to admit they like shopping, but when Alberta’s West Edmonton Mall weighs in as the number-one tourist attraction in the province above majestic Lake Louise that has to mean something. The latest tally shows that over 22 million people visit annually from all parts of the planet. After all, shopping is the unofficial international language.

Billed as the world’s largest indoor mall in the Guiness Book of World’s Records, the Edmonton icon is truly capitalism on steroids. The 5 million-square-foot, two-level monolith boasts over 800 stores, a waterpark, roller coasters, gambling casino and two hotels, one of which flows directly into the marbled promenade. There’s even the Marketplace Chapel for a quickie wedding, and a bungee-jumping tower to get the honeymoon off to a flying start.

To accommodate its King Kong-like proportions, WEM offers special services. There’s a sample five-day mall vacation itinerary. For navigation, high-tech users can download the map onto their Palm Pilots or BlackBerrys.

Edmonton restaurant owner Normand Campbell often parks his car on one side of the 20,000-space mall parking lot and reparks it to go to the other side when he runs errands. Why not walk?

“It’s faster to repark,” he explained. “Besides, there are too many distractions.”

These diversions may include the daily indoor sea lion shows, pirate shows or the frolicking baby goats at the petting zoo.

Non-shoppers can appreciate the mall for its architectural prowess. It’s no cakewalk covering 48 city blocks under a single domed glass ceiling.

Business tycoons pay homage to the WEM as an entrepreneurial stroke of genius. In the 1940s, the Jacob Ghermezian family arrived from Iran and purchased vast land lots. In the mid ’70s, the clan decided to launch a shopping center. With the notion that consumers wanted more of a good thing, development went from big to mega-big, at warp speed.

WEM’s mission statement isn’t about being a successful mall mecca but to become the “greatest indoor show on earth.” On the docket are plans to add business offices, a sports arena and living space, so residents can conveniently eat at the 100-plus eateries and restaurants every day of their lives. No blueprints yet for a WEM retirement home or cemetery, but at WEM, the glass ceiling’s the limit and that’s pretty big.

“I can’t believe this place,” gawked one California visitor when he saw the Colombus-sized pirate’s galleon.

He then started comparing the mall to a recent film about a man born inside a domed environment, who believes he is living in reality with oceans, parks, tract homes and gas stations. “We’re inside ‘The Truman Show,’” he smirked.