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It's a mall world after all

I hate malls. I've been to the mall closest to my home in Boston once in the last two years, and that was for work. So how did I find myself at the biggest mall in the world?

Well, I had a one-day layover in Edmonton and figured this monster mall might be fun, especially when I heard about the mall's Fantasyland Hotel, with its themed rooms.

My stay started off annoyingly, but that wasn't the fault of the mall or the hotel. I was due to arrive in Edmonton around 10 p.m. Instead, after sitting on the Toronto runway on my connecting flight for five hours in a snowstorm, I arrived at 2 a.m. I checked into the hotel at 3:30. That was 5:30 Boston time.

So I was in no mood for cartoonish quarters, but there it was, the romantic Roman Room. I threw myself onto the round, king-size bed, with its red bedspread and cream silk drapes. I noted the marblelike pillars and the maiden statue about the round, faux marble Jacuzzi.

Then I looked up, and I burst out laughing. I was gazing at myself in a round mirror on the ceiling above my bodacious boudoir. Alone and exhausted.

Later that day, something strange happened. Maybe it was all those shiny, good-natured Canadians, but the mall sucked me in.

How could I go from loathing malls to liking one with such super status? The West Edmonton Mall calls itself the world's largest entertainment and shopping complex, with more than 800 stores, eight "major attractions," 26 movie theaters, 58 entrances and parking for more than 20,000 vehicles (almost three times the capacity of Tropicana Field's parking lots.)

Other attractions include a casino, a dinner theater, dolphin shows, a lagoon, miniature golf, a submarine ride, an IMAX theater, bowling, billiards, video games, nightclubs and a golf driving range.

For your dining pleasure, there are 110 options, from food-court fare to restaurants (Cajun, Italian, Japanese, Mexican . . .), most of them along "Bourbon Street," which is also the nightlife hot spot.

And how do you work off those calories? Try ice skating, or walking the mall (2 miles of corridors), or wading at the 5-acre water park, which boasts the world's largest wave pool and a terrific kiddie area.

Or you could lose the food all at once, on the Mindbender, a 14-story, triple-loop roller coaster, one of the many rides in the Galaxyland amusement park. As you might expect, the Mindbender is the world's largest indoor coaster.

My stomach turned just standing under it.

It was school vacation time in Alberta when I visited. Families were everywhere. So were groups of teens. So were groups of women.

They were part of the estimated 20-million annual visitors (half from outside Edmonton), making it Edmonton's top tourist attraction. And all seemed to be having a really good time. Even the salespeople were pleasant. It rubbed off on me.

Shopping is not the main attraction. The West Edmonton Mall is more about entertainment, and it has more of it proportionately than the Mall of America, outside Minneapolis. At about 5.3-million square feet, the West Edmonton Mall is also about 1-million square feet larger than that sister mall (they share developers) in Bloomington, Minn., marketing manager Travis Reynolds said.

So if it is huge, why doesn't its name imply grandiosity. Why not "The Mall of Canada"?

That is one question management is pondering, along with renaming the mall's four sections, built between 1981 and 1998, which are drearily termed "phases," as in "meet me at the Orange Julius in Phase II."

The owners are planning a multimillion-dollar makeover, adding a hotel, a supermarket, an arena, an apartment complex and, of course, more retail space.

The mall employs about 23,500 people; the center has a staff of about 950.

For now, the shopping options are pretty middle of the road. Who cares about shopping when you can be playing? But if you do care, expect local offerings, Canadian chains and the usual global giants: Sound Depot, Gap, Esprit, Radio Shack, HMV, Foot Locker, Sears, Old Navy, Spencer Gifts, the Body Shop, etc.

There are a few interesting art shops: African Heritage Gallery and the Northern Images Gallery and Snowbird Gallery, both selling native art and artifacts.

The mall also stages special events year-round. The National Hockey League's Edmonton Oilers practice at the rink 10 times a year, and the hometown heroes sign autographs. The water park throws a huge New Year's Eve bash. And part of the amusement park is moved monthly to make room for a giant floor for teen dances, said Reynolds, who heads up a kids advisory board.

Before heading back for a siesta on my Roman bed, I stopped at the Marketplace Chapel and met the affable chaplain, the Rev. Ben Kellert, who runs youth programs at the mall, offers a Sunday morning worship service and performs wedding ceremonies, in the chapel and in guests' hotel rooms. Last year he married about 60 couples.

That brings us back to the Fantasyland Hotel, where many a bellhop has been called up to a room to serve as a witness.

The 12-floor hotel has 355 guest rooms, of which 113 are themed. These rooms, regularly priced at $235 to $305 Canadian a night, often are discounted to $180 to $200, which is about $117 to $130 U.S.

The decor is over the top but also inventive and fun. Many rooms are set up for families, with a queen-size bed and bunk beds. For instance, the Western Room features a bed in the back of a stagecoach with bunk beds behind "bars."

In the Truck Room, the bed is in the back of a pickup truck, and the room is decorated with an antique gas pump and traffic lights. The Polynesian Room is decorated with a tropical setting, with a bed placed on a "warrior catamaran boat in full sail." The Jacuzzi is built into a simulated lava rock and is filled up by a "waterfall."

Other themes include an igloo, African, Canadian Rail, Victorian coach, Arabian and Hollywood.

Even if you don't stay at the hotel, try to make the daily room tour, open to anyone. There are two tours a day in the summer to accommodate the crowds. The day I went there were about 10 of us. Kids were snapping photos, and adults were reminiscing about prior stays and which theme rooms they preferred.

Diane Daniel is a Boston-based freelance writer.

IF YOU GO

Prices listed below are in Canadian dollars; the current exchange rate is $1 Canadian equals about 65 cents U.S.

GETTING THERE: There are connecting flights to Edmonton from the Tampa Bay area. From the airport, Sky Shuttle bus service takes passengers throughout the city and to the West Edmonton Mall. Fares are $13 for adults one way, $6 for ages 3-12; children younger than 3 ride free. Call toll-free 1-888-438-2342 or go to www.edmontonairports.com.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact Edmonton Tourism, 9797 Jasper Ave., toll-free 1-800-463-4667 or www.tourism.ede.org. Also, check the Web site www.discoveredmonton.com.

West Edmonton Mall is at 8882 170th St., between 87th and 90th avenues. Call toll-free 1-800-661-8890 or check www.westedmontonmall.com.

Typical prices for mall attractions: a day pass to Galaxyland amusement park is $29.95 for adults,$21.95 for those shorter than 4 feet or those at least 55 years old; World Waterpark is $29.95 for adults, $21.95 for 3-10 years old and 55 and older; the Deep Sea Adventure submarine ride is $12 for adults, $5 for 3-10 and 55 and older.

STAYING THERE: Fantasyland Hotel, toll-free 1-800-737-3783; www.fantasylandhotel.com.Regular rooms: $175-$195. Theme rooms: $235-$305.

West Edmonton Mall Inn is across from mall, at 17504 90th Ave.; toll-free 1-800-737-3783 or www.westedmontonmall.com. All rooms $119.

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