The initial concept for Heritage Park Historical Village was formulated in 1961 during discussions between trustees of the Woods Foundation and City of Calgary Commissioners concerning the development of a children’s pioneer theme park. The Woods Foundation provided $150,000, which was matched by the City of Calgary; who also provided the land. Interested Calgarians pledged a further $77,000. With funding in place, the foundation was laid for what would become one of North America’s largest and most successful living history museums.
City officials and staff of the Glenbow Foundation jointly undertook the early planning of the Park. The Heritage Park Society was then formed in the fall of 1963 and placed in charge of the construction, development and operation of the Park. To complete the ambitious project, Standard Holdings Ltd. provided a project manager; the Glenbow Foundation supplied a field representative; and the City of Calgary, various corporations and individuals made personnel and services available at little or no cost to the Society.
Within nine months two dozen historical buildings were moved in, repaired and then furnished with a few thousand artifacts. A vintage train, which is now the Park’s most iconic feature, was restored to operating condition and 4,300’ of track was laid for its thundering journey around the Park. The public first experienced the Park on July 1, 1964, which at the time was operated by just 100 volunteers, six full-time staff and 22 part-time employees.
Today, the Park has grown into one of Calgary’s premier tourist attractions and one of North America’s largest and most successful living history museums. Throughout the year, guests have the opportunity to interact with nearly 100 years of history. Heritage Park’s exhibits span the early 1860s fur trade to the petroleum and automobile-dominated 1950s. It is the Park’s mission to preserve the history of the early West and to educate and entertain guests of all ages for many generations to come.
How do the experiences you offer at Heritage Park Historical Village give guests a unique perspective on the history, people or culture of your region?
Heritage Park Historical Village is Canada’s largest living history museum. Our mandate is to connect people to the settlement of Western Canada. Heritage Park has 182 exhibits, over 55,000 artifacts and hundreds of staff- all dedicated to sharing the unique history of Western Canada. The Park features four different time periods: 1860s, 1880s, 1910 and 1930s. Each one of these areas has different exhibits, programming and activities specifically geared to best represent the time period and how they relate to the settlement of the west. We start with the 1860s and a First Nations’ Encampment, Catholic Mission and Hudson Bay Company Fur Trading Fort to demonstrate how the early Missionaries and Voyageurs lived and worked with the First Nations. Our 1880s time period represents a rustic pre-railway settlement with the early pioneers, like Calgary’s first settler, Sam Livingston and the arrival of the North West Mounted Police. Our 1910 town is an accurate depiction of a typical prairie town once the railroad was finished, complete with antique steam train, paddle wheel boat and an antique midway. Our 1930s area is a representation of a 1930s streetscape and town square.
How have the experiences that you offer evolved since their inception?
Heritage Park’s experiences are constantly evolving and growing. When the park opened in 1964 it had only a handful of staff and exhibits. We have placed a much greater emphasis on developing our experiential programming over the past few years, and with each new exhibit we add, we can offer our guests that many more experiences. For example: We have grown our Aboriginal programming and experiences by leaps and bounds over the past 8 years. This has been a priority of the park. We work closely with the First Nations’ community and much research and development goes into every new program to ensure we are offering an authentic experience. We also try as much as possible to incorporate a hands-on element to just about everything we offer. Guests can participate in drumming circles, help raise a tipi, learn about Aboriginal hunting tools, play traditional games and hear the stories of the Blackfoot people’s history and culture. We have had a painted tipi on our wish list for years and in 2015 were gifted a Yellow Otter Tipi, which has now added to our guest experience. They can sit inside, listen to stories and the learn all about the significance of painted tipis.
What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important? Please explain why.
I feel that would be the authenticity of the experiences we offer. Guests may not realize the amount of research and planning that goes into each experience, but to us, it is very important to provide an accurate representation of what we are sharing with guests. We want them to walk away entertained and informed!
What do you wish every guest knew as they consider participating in the experiences you offer?
We have something that will appeal to everyone; young, not-so-young, history hunters, cultural explorers etc. Some of our guests may have a pre-conceived notion that our experiences are only for children, or seniors, but we strive to offer a variety of experiences that would appeal to all age groups and interests.
What is one travel trend that really excites you?
People are looking for authentic experiences, and there seems to be an increase in people exploring historical sites and museums- a win-win for us! Also, because of the recent economic climate, we are expecting to see a lot more locals re-visiting the park this season. We’re excited for locals to rediscover the park. Many think it’s the same-old place they came to as children, but then they’re always amazed at how much we’ve grown and all there is to do here!
What sets Heritage Park apart from other historical attractions in the region?
Our size and depth. We are Canada’s largest living museum with 182 exhibits, over 55,000 artifacts and spread out over 127 acres. We focus primarily on the settlement of Western Canada, and have a large collection of rolling stock, an area dedicated to ranching and will soon be redeveloping our natural resource area. The park also has Gasoline Alley Museum, a 75,000 square foot space packed to the rafters with vintage vehicles, North America’s largest collection of restored gas pumps and antique signs. The museum is also open year-round. After hours, we are also a popular catering and events location with a wide variety of venues and spaces to accommodate groups of 10 to 1500. We pride ourselves on our authentic and accurate representation.
What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?
Give yourself enough time to actually experience all there is to see and do! Plan ahead so you’re not rushing through things you would really like to explore in-depth. We recommend a minimum of four hours to properly enjoy the Park.
What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow?
In 2011, Heritage Park was welcomed into the Canadian Tourism Commission’s (now Destination Canada) Signature Experiences Collection, which promotes once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences on an international scale. The Signature Experiences Collection promotes Heritage Park internationally, nationally and regionally into markets that we would not be able to tap into on our own. When we became a Signature Experience, we implemented the EQ segmentation tool to better understand who our demographic was. We have used this information to develop our programming and our experiences to suit what our visitors want to see and do.
Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.
We had a guest from the middle east come to the park and spend some time in our Montefiore Institute, which is a historical synagogue. They spent quite a bit of time interacting with our interpreters and learned a lot about Jewish culture and history- especially pertaining to western Canada. Once they went back home they wrote us a letter saying their experience in our little yellow synagogue provided more insight into the Jewish religion than they had ever experienced before and it was a positive, moving experience for them.