Group helps put family-friendly face on Calgary

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CALGARY, Alberta -- At first glance, this Canadian city looks like any other big city, another bustling metropolis.

But a closer look reveals a family-friendly city, one with an office created solely for the promotion of family travel: Child and Youth Friendly Calgary (CYFC).

We want to be sure families are as welcome in Calgary as any other kind of guest, said Wendy Kennelly, communications director for the nonprofit organization.

The CYFC Web site, at www.childfriendly.ab.ca, is a comprehensive resource for families seeking restaurants, accommodations and attractions with the CYFC stamp of approval.

The image of a happy sun, brightly shining on a mountaintop in our family guides, indicates attractions that have met strict family/child-friendly standards, Kennelly said.

Organizers of the accreditation program, started in 1992, say its the first of its kind in North America.

And the CYFC does more than pay lip service to its process of rating and evaluating. They send teams of eight Calgary kids to inspect and evaluate suppliers. Kennelly said the kids range in age from 4 to 15 and are accompanied by a staff member.

Their job, she said, is to come up with a report card that grades a hotel or attractions in terms of its services and amenities.

A restaurant, for example, cant just have the same old kids menu. The team has to find the food exciting and healthful, too.

There are a few tales of successful businesspeople sweating it out as the team judges whether the toilet bowl is too low (or high) in an otherwise deluxe hotel room or if the coffeemaker is too close to the bed and can be accidentally jarred, causing burns.

Jeff Hessel, director of public relations at the Calgary Science Center, recalls his accreditation visits when teens and younger kids came to check out the exhibits. They later went on the radio, he said, and discussed their findings.

It was tough, and you never know what theyre going to say.

A young city

Calgary is a young city, so the family emphasis makes a lot of sense. The average age of Calgary residents is between 30 and 35, which may explain why so many young families were out and about, walking the citys broad streets and taking advantage of its attractions.

Even the airport manages to take the stress (and boredom) out of traveling with its Spaceport, a high-tech entertainment and educational facility that combines aviation and space exploration with telecommunications technology.

Kidsport, a departures-level play area, has a mini jumbo jet, TV/playroom combination, a child-height washroom and a nursing room for mothers.

Calgary designated the downtown area as a free fare zone, meaning the modern street cars (C-Train) are free, which makes it easy and inexpensive for families to explore the city.

Families often take the train one way, then enjoy the five-block walk back along fashionable Stephen Avenue Mall. This pedestrian-only thoroughfare is festooned with hanging flowers and lined with specialty shops, pubs and restaurants where tables spill onto the sidewalk.

There are sculptures that emit music from hidden speakers, and in bad weather, the shops, restaurants and offices are accessible through a glassed-in walkway called Plus 15.

Calgary, like Denver, bills itself as the gateway to the Rockies. And the mountains form an impressive backdrop to the miles of plains that surround the city.

But theres plenty to do in the city itself, especially in the summer when it stays light until 10 p.m.

Calgarys big show

Calgarys defining event is the Calgary Stampede, a 10-day celebration of everything Western. Every July, the Stampede takes over the city and fills the streets with cowboys and wannabe cowboys, parades, square dancing and a touch of Western madness.

Look for the chuckwagon races ($600,000 to the winner), bareback riding, calf-roping, steer wrestling and bull riding. There are lots of trade booths, stunt teams, parades, bands and floats.

The Web site (www.calgarystampede.com) lists general information and commissionable travel packages with names like Grin With Your Kin; Cattle, Rattle, Paddle and Saddle Package. Phone: (800) 661-1260.

Creative Western runs the travel/accommodations package for the Stampede and will customize packages for travel agents. Agent commission is 10% on all travel/ticket packages. For information, call (866) 333-7717 or e-mail [email protected]. Travel agents and tour operators can block out individual tickets at net rates (10% off retail price) for Stampede tickets.

Another popular family event is the International Childrens Festival. Phone: (403) 294-7414; Web: www.calgarychildfest.org. The annual springtime festival (May 24 to 28, 2005) features performers from all over the world. Music from Africa, China and Ecuador mix with stories from many countries designed to link children to cultures beyond their borders.

Kaleel Sakakeeny covers the family travel market for Travel Weekly and can be reached at [email protected].

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