I don’t remember the first time I went to the World Waterpark in West Edmonton Mall.
But I was no older than four, because there’s an old family story about when I escaped my parent’s clutches in the kiddie pool, started running and fell. They say I seemed fine until the next morning, when I woke up with a squishy lump on the side of my head. Apparently, the story goes, some of my cerebrospinal fluid — a.k.a. brain juice — had leaked through my soft skull. Some say they see that injury’s lasting effects to this day, even pointing to it as the reason I became a writer, but I think it all worked out perfekly fjmdsa.
Through my childhood and early teens, the waterpark was the go-to choice for year-end hockey team parties, which were fun and freeing, because there was no way for parents to wrangle us all after unleashing us into the wave pool (a few of us sneaking out mid-swim to have lunch at Hooters, then returning before our parents knew, were the coolest moments of our 16-year-old lives). But I turned 40 this year, and what better way to celebrate than to rent a poolside cabana with friends so we can act like children again? (I do have writer money now, after all.)
Ken Christensen remembers the original cabanas, because the mall’s current creative director helped redesign them 10 years ago. “I was the mall artist back then [26 years ago], so I did most of the murals around the waterpark over about seven years, and redesigned the cabanas. They used to be kind of just changing rooms with a table out front, whereas now they’re modeled after a Vegas experience where you have patio furniture and get food delivered, and they’re licensed so you can have drinks.”
Like most Edmonton kids, Christensen viewed the waterpark as a Mecca, especially in winter, and working there hasn’t dulled its appeal. “[The waterpark] hosts everything from nine-year-old birthday parties to bachelorette parties,” on top of Soundwave, when things get really Vegas. “It’s an EDM show, and we’ve had people like Steve Aoki and other big DJs come in and play a huge beach party with about 5,000 people.”
There are no rental restrictions, but the Palm Cove cabanas and Party Room, and the Family Hammock, are more for kids. The Sky Vista roof top cabanas are the most baller, but I don’t love my friends that much, so I book the Poolside Plus Cabana, which comes with a 55-inch TV and room for 15, so the six of us have room to spare.
After picking up the mall-side, second-level phone and whispering the secret access code (the name on the credit card used to book the cabana) to the mysterious operator, we carry our shoes and head straight for our cabana overlooking the wave pool from its south side. Once there, we strip down to our swim suits (we’re all 40, so no Speedos) and settle in, which means ordering drinks and charcuterie, then sort out our slide strategy.
The plan is to start with the Blue Bullet and Howler. Sadly, we missed taking one last plunge down the Corkscrew, which was decommissioned last year. I’m not big on video games, but we’ll check out Slideboarding, where you sit on a board and click corresponding buttons as you enter the slide’s differently coloured sections (the more precise your clicks, the higher your score). Then we’ll race each other down the Sky Screamer and Nessie’s Revenge, float like logs around Tropical Typhoon and, if we’re feeling brave, make full 360s on the Cyclone’s loop. But first, there are snacks to nibble and playoff hockey to watch, so we soak in the humidity and hear the swimmers’ collective scream every time the wave pool foghorn sounds (is there a more recognizable Edmonton sound?).
“There weren’t many wave pools done like that before,” Christensen says. “It was one of the first of its kind with the big wave panels — which were new technology back in the day — and the big open concept. It was originally conceptualized to have little islands in there too.”
Watching waves gently crash people into each other amidst a mall’s mini sea makes me think stationary islands might have been a good idea to miss. But as the multi-coloured tubes bob around like Froot Loops, we watch from our well-fed perch and wonder if we’ve been spoiled. Not in the moment — we are obviously being spoiled right now as we eat salty snacks and sip fruity drinks in one of the greatest play parks ever constructed. But, besides kids, we as Edmontonians tend to treat it like an afterthought.
In my later teens and contrarian 20s, I felt obligated to call the mall lame and brush it off as a place for tourists and last-minute Christmas shoppers who didn’t plan ahead. But the mall is known, around North America, and despite the understandable qualms people have about waterparks in general, an attraction like this is something we should be proud to have.
Yes, it’s West Edmonton Mall, but Christensen says that when the Ghermezian brothers opened it in 1985, “they focused on creating an entertainment-based destination” that also included shopping — an idea the family replicated in other projects, including the DreamWorks Water Park (North America’s biggest indoor waterpark as of 2020) in the American Dream shopping centre. Speaking about American Dream, Don Ghermezian once said “I’m not a believer in malls…I’ve actually forbidden people in my company to use the word ‘mall.’ We are the opposite of a mall.”
As I talk to Christensen, it’s clear he’s kept his waterpark wonder all these years, including his love of painting — although today he paints bodies, not walls, at Soundwave. And as we sit around our cabana like pasty, pretend kings, we know we’ll be back much sooner than before. I might even make this a yearly tradition. And one of these years, we’ll even get to the slides.
What’s in this photo
Bodysuit, $20, flower hair clip, $5, pink sunglasses, $10, bikini top and bottoms, $25 each, green mesh top, $18, swim trunks, $30, H&M; pearl necklace, $15, Simons
Spectator as Sport
Beach towel, $60; white top, $20, green skirt, $50, Jacquemus orange hat, $115, gold bracelet, $15, acrylic bracelet, $30, Jacquemus orange shirt, $495, Jacquemus swimming brief, $180, The North Face sandals, $50, Simons; Wishbone white shoes, $128, Lemon Jelly sandals, $89, Browns Shoes; straw bag, $60, H&M; bikini top, $48, bottoms, $55, Volcom; gold necklace/chains, $15 each, Ardene