Can’t afford a luxury playhouse? An Alberta builder is opening a ‘play cottage’ resort

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For anyone who’s ever dreamed of escaping reality to live in a fairytale for a little while, Tyson Leavitt is hoping to take your reservation this summer.

His Alberta company has been making high-end children’s backyard playhouses for the rich and famous for five years — including kids’ castles, playground pirate ships or tree houses — with some fetching up to a half-million dollars.

Now, the former landscaper from Lethbridge, Alta., is working on plans to open his first resort in the province this year, offering playhouse cottages that families can rent.

“We wanted to be able to do something that we could allow all families to be able to experience the magic of what we build,” said Leavitt, who owns Charmed Playhouses with his wife, Audy.

To those unfamiliar with the Leavitts’ work, or their TV show on TLC, the idea of spending a weekend in a playhouse with the kids might sound a bit more like a hardship than fun. 

That is, until you see the playhouses they build — and the cottages they have planned.

WATCH | Take a look at what the resort plans to offer:

A Cinderella story

Employing a team of 15 people, their high-end playhouses are built from wood. Artists sculpt Styrofoam to add embellishments like giant mushrooms or colossal tree stumps. There are towers and spires as well as slides, swings and climbing walls.

Clients have spent between $15,000 and $500,000 to get one, the Leavitts say, with buyers coming from as far away as China.  

Customers — the ones they can talk about — include basketball superstar Steph Curry, pro golfer Jason Day and baseball’s Ryan Zimmerman.

As business tales go, Charmed Playhouses is a bit of a Cinderella story.

Tyson and Audy Leavitt, owners of Charmed Playhouses, stand in front of one of the cottages that will be part of their new resort in southern Alberta. (Tony Seskus/CBC)

“We kind of thought we might be able to convince people to spend $5,000 or $10,000 on a playhouse and it’s turned into people willing to spend a few hundred thousand dollars,” Audy Leavitt said. “So it was just as shocking to us as it’s been to anyone else.”

Making something accessible

But the Leavitts, who come from blue-collar backgrounds themselves, said they wanted to make something that was accessible to more families like theirs.

So they’re building “play cottages” for a resort that they’re striving to open as early as this spring.  

Their strategy focuses on cottages built around storylines. One example is a cottage with a tower and a Rapunzel-like braid flowing from its window. 

Comparable to a tiny house, the cottages can accommodate up to six people, come with a kitchenette and are made for year-round use. 

“We’re going to have all different types of cottages at the resorts,” Tyson said. “Whether it’s a tree house or a storybook home or Rapunzel’s tower or half-ling houses or castles.”

The anticipated price of renting one of the cottages will be about $300 to $400 a day.

One of 15 employees at Charmed Playhouses, which makes luxury playhouses at its shop in Lethbridge, Alta., works on a tree made from polystyrene foam. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Last July, Charmed launched a trial cottage near Waterton National Park in southern Alberta. It didn’t take long for the cottage to be booked all the way into October.

The new resort will be located in southwest Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass, about 150 kilometres west of Lethbridge. The ultimate plan is to have as many as 20 cottages available to rent.

Craving experiences over things

It’s difficult to know exactly what the tourism market will look like as the country gradually emerges from the pandemic — such as the distances people will be willing, or able, to travel — but Rachel Dodds, a professor of hospitality and tourism management at Ryerson University, believes some pre-pandemic trends will continue.

That includes families wanting to share unique experiences rather than purchasing things, she said. 

“We crave things to do, experiences to have with our children, with our friends and families,” Dodds said in an interview. “If it’s unique and different and can somehow bring in some kind of learning, that’s even better.”

The cottages that Charmed Playhouses is building for the resort will be able to accommodate up to six people. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Dodds pointed to Singapore’s Changi airport, where customers are paying up to $269 US per night to camp in a tent in its retail wing, a novel travel experience that’s proven popular and helping the airport improve revenues during the pandemic.

Closer to home, she noted the popularity of virtual visits to museums and attractions, like the Vancouver Aquarium, during COVID-19, demonstrating people’s appetite to learn and share experiences.

She expects interactive exhibits will again be big draws in the future, like Marvel’s Avengers-themed exhibition in Toronto. Everyone wants a “little bit of inspiration, a little bit of hope.”

“People are getting really creative right now and I love it,” she said.

Tyson and Audy Leavitt hope people will flock to their idea, too. For now, the focus is on getting ready for what they hope will be their spring launch.

“We’ve really believed in what we’re doing,” Audy said. 

“That has kept us going through those hard times and … now we’re really, really grateful to be where we are — even though we have a long way to go.”

The company opened this trial cottage last summer at Alberta’s Waterton National Park for a test run of their resort idea. (Charmed Playhouses)



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