Downtown Fun Spokane vs Calgary!

By Richard White, November 11, 2013

Recently we were in lovely downtown Spokane staying at the Red Lion Hotel at the Park (yes they have a hotel right on the Spokane River where you can see and hear the water) next to Riverfront Park, home to Expo 1974.  While wandering their downtown we quickly noticed how much more fun their downtown is on a Saturday morning compared to Calgary’s. 

I share the fun things we discovered as a way of incubating ideas on how Calgary' downtown and for that matter any downtown can become more fun.  and other  can add more fun to our downtown. 

A carousel is common place in many cities I have visited - Spokane, Missoula, Helena and places like Paris and Lyon. Why not Calgary?

Every downtown needs a big red wagon or the equivalent in one of their urban parks!

Looff Carousel / Rotary Fountain

Wandering from the Red Lion’s (a fun name for a hotel) gardens to the pedestrian bridge, you immediately enter Riverfront Park.  Within a few minutes, we were intrigued by the sound of carousel music, then by the sight of a Ferris wheel and finally the sight of the 1909 Looff Carousel itself housed in a building allowing for year round use.  (Note: Lucky for us there was a private function so the area was animated with music, movement and people.)  

While Calgary’s Sheraton and Prince’s Island have some of these elements -especially in the summer when the wading pool is open - it doesn’t have the same playfulness.  In Spokane, not only do they have the carousel and Ferris wheel in their downtown park, but they also have a wonderful summer fountain sculpture that kids love to play in and adults use as a meeting place year-round. 

Boo Raddley's is jam packed with fun things. It has the feeling of a carnival.

Fun Retail

Boo Raddley, a quirky store across the street from the Carousel, oozes fun for young and old alike.  Upon walking in you are surrounded by posters of clowns and plastic lion and unicorn heads.  I loved the display case with the ray guns made out of old drills.

Next door is a unique gift/coffee shop called Atticus. The saying on the large mural “Shoot all the blue jays you want but…it a sin to kill a mocking bird” immediately tells you this place is full of fun. And it doesn’t disappoint.

Around the corner is an "Apple" store. Even at 10 am the place is packed with smiling people - the place bubbles with fun. I am not sure what it is about "Apple" products and "fun" but they seem to go together.  I can't believe downtown Calgary doesn't have an Apple store yet!  

Later in the day we came upon the bright pink Brutties Gourmet Candy Shoppe, with the look and feel of an old tyme candy shop. After seeing their made-on-site selection of candy, chocolates and fudge and tasting soft peanut brittle their invention, I was literally smiling like a kid in a candy shop.

Soon after, we found Annie’s Bookstore - every downtown needs a bookstore like Annie’s with its fun children’s area and separate room for gamer geeks to hang out.  Calgary used to have a signature downtown bookstore – remember McNally Robinson?  

Even the +15 bridges have a sense of fun in their design and colour.

Mobius Children’s Museum

Our spiny senses told us the Riverfront Park and fun retail didn’t completely explain the Saturday morning downtown animation.  Walking along Main Street we soon figured out why – the children’s museum was located on Main Street as part of Riverfront Square (think Stephen Avenue and The Core). 

The entrance right off Main Street was nondescript; you could easily miss it.  However, once you find it, there is a fun quirky design element - it has two doors - one for big people and one for little people (or big people with a sense of play). How fun!

Inside, the place was hopping and it was only 10:30 am.  It is not a big space but it has 7 or 8, regularly changing activity centers at any given time.  By the buzz, it was obvious everyone was having fun.  We were told on a typical Saturday in fall, they have 750 to 1,000 people visit. 

They even have a “drop and shop” program several times of year (Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day) where parents can drop off their kids ($15 each for 3 hours) and parents can go play elsewhere.

You gotta give credit to the person who designed this entrance. Talk about fun, a sense of place and authenticity; this is good urban street design.

 Parkade Signage

Outside again, we noticed the signage to the Riverfront Square parkade was colourful and fun, not your usual minimal colourless signage that you can’t find even when you know it is there. 

One of the tallest structures in the downtown, the Parkade sign above the city’s 10-story above ground parkade built for the Expo ’74, is now a mid-century modern architectural icon.

There are also several older neon signs that signify the entrance to parkades built much earlier.  I love the ironic neon “Every Green Parking” sign probably from the ‘30s. 

Downtown signage use to be fun, especially in the neon era when almost all signage was big, bold and flashy - I long for the return of the neon craze.

To me this is the perfect parking garage sign. It is easy to see from a distance day or night and it is whimsical. We need to bring back more neon signs!


Mobius Science Centre

Across the street from the Children’s Museum and Riverfront Square sits the new Science Centre, which opened just a year ago. A shame its entrance isn’t very inviting and there is not attempt to connect it with the Children’s Museum or to say, “science is fun.” However once inside, there are strong elements of fun from a paper airplane challenge to the basketball jump competition.

At the entrance are live snakes, frogs, turtles and tarantulas with a quote the floor “Kissing will not produce princes. Handling will not cause warts.” Again, the Centre is not huge, maybe 15 or so activity area but judging by the squealing, jumping and laughing, there were lots of children and adults have fun while learning.

When was the last time you saw hundreds of kids running around Calgary’s downtown having fun? If downtown is truly the heart of the city, shouldn’t it be attractive to everyone, not just the corporate crusaders? 

Perhaps we made a mistake taking our science centre out of the downtown. Riding the bus or train including walking through the +15 walkway to get to the science centre use to be part of the fun downtown adventure for our visiting nieces and nephews.

This was our new friend showing us how this exhibit worked. She probably spent 30 minutes with us showing us how everything worked and encouraging us to give it a try. Too much fun!


Big Red Wagon and Building Blocks

Wandering back to the Red Lion through Riverfront Park again, we came upon more families milling about the big (and I mean BIG) Radio Flyer red wagon slide.  Standing 12 feet tall, 12 feet wide and 27 feet long and weighing 26 tons, the wagon so big moms and dads can and do climb unabashedly up into it and slide down with their kids.

Next to the wagon, are a dozen or so concrete cubes painted like children’s blocks for climbing and sitting. Even when there are no kids around, I highly suspect the scene generates more than a few smiles from passersby.

Making a downtown an urban playground should be more than just fun things for adults i.e. boutiques, restaurants, pubs, lounge and bars. I love to hang out in our downtown during the International Children’s Festival; too bad we couldn’t make our downtown more child friendly year-round. Or can we?

How fun and creative are these children blocks for kids to sit and climb on?

Even the shoppers were having fun. These one's were laughing so hard my camera couldn't get a clear picture. Everywhere we went people were having fun.

Gondola Ride

Of course, one of the most fun things to do in downtown Spokane is to ride gondola over the roaring Spokane Falls. It drops you 200 feet into the river gorge over the falls and under the Monroe Street Bridge, offering outstanding views of the falls and historic architecture of the downtown.  If you are lucky, you can open the windows and take a close-up picture of a rainbow.

Though in Calgary you can float down the Bow River and maybe even catch a Rainbow trout, it is tough to beat the fun factor of Spokane’s Sky Ride ($10 for 15 minutes), ranked this year by Conte Nast Traveler as one of the top gondola rides in the world.

Red Lion Hotel

Earlier that morning at the Red Lion on the Park, we were surprised at the sheer number of families having breakfast.  Later, as we were leaving for downtown, we discovered why.  The hotel has an outdoor pool area (complete with waterslide, waterfall, hot tub and huge patio – very resort-like), as well as an indoor pool and hot tub we noticed earlier. However it wasn’t until we returned after our day of flaneuring downtown that we found the children’s outdoor playground.  I am not aware of any downtown hotel in Calgary or anywhere for that matter with this big of a commitment to family fun. 

The Red Lion Parkside hotel's pool is also a hidden gem with its 28-foot waterslide and 6-foot rainbow LED light waterfall cascading from a lush native Northwest landscape scene. The pool has a fun history. When it was first opened in 1983, the hotel manager, losing a bet with the contractor that the pool wouldn’t be ready for the grand opening, had to go down the waterslide in his business suit. The manager, Don Barbieri, is now Chairman of the Board of Directors for Red Lions Hotels Corporation.

In keeping with tradition, current General Manager Patrick Shimon also was the first to go down the waterslide – and in his business suit - after the 2012 renovations. (photo, Spokane Review).

How about this fun piece of public art? Gives a new perspective on jogging!

Last Word

I have said it before and I will say it again “downtown Calgary is too corporate!”  Why do downtown office buildings have to be so lifeless and visually minimal?  Why can’t they have more color and ornamentation?  Why can’t their entrances and lobbies be more inviting and visually interesting?  

Maybe Suncor Centre could have one of the monster oilsand trucks on the plaza in front of their building – wouldn’t that make a fun statement?  Let the kids climb up and play on it.  Maybe make it into a giant slide?

To be fair there are some fun things in our downtown, but that will be the subject of another column.  

Love to hear about what fun things there are to see and do in your downtown! Send me your comments.


If you like this blog you might like: 

 Off The Beaten Path In Spokane 

Discovering Calgary's Secret Heritage Trail 

Calgary's Cafe Culture  

Largest Bike Shop in North America  

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's, New Condos section, November 9, 2013.