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The success of the Mills approach is all the more striking because America would seem to need another mall like Main Street needs another Starbucks. The U.S. already has more than 42,000, from strip malls on rural interstates to the gaudy Forum Shops in Las Vegas. That's 20 sq. ft. of shopping-center space for every man, woman and child in the nation. "We just don't need any more traditional shopping, period," says Craig Schmidt, a retail-industry analyst at Merrill Lynch.
Retailers have always considered entertainment essential to the shopping experience, but in the new malls diversions have taken on a life of their own. The American Wilderness Experience at Ontario features 70 species of live animals, including roadrunners, bats, sea otters and even a giant yellow banana slug, together with a simulator ride and video and interactive nature displays. Billed as "edutainment," the fun and games lead into a store peddling environmental knickknacks and a restaurant called the Wilderness Grill. "If we capture just 3% of the [20 million] people passing through the mall, we'll be doing great," says Ogden Entertainment senior vice president Jonathan Stern, who helped develop Grizzly Park, a 90-acre complex near Yellowstone National Park.
Another Mills Corp. venture is Sawgrass Mills, 26 miles from Miami International Airport, which boasts annual sales of $450 per sq. ft., almost twice the U.S. average. Two Palm Beach, Fla., women recently made headlines by choppering in for a binge. Now plans are being drawn up for a "Shopper Chopper" to ferry patrons from Miami and Bal Harbour. Nearly half the 19 million people who showed up at Sawgrass last year were foreigners: a Saudi princess arrived with two limos trailed by rental trucks to transport the day's haul.
Sawgrass's success is spurring local imitators: Dolphin Mall, a quick taxi ride from the airport, plans to open in 1999 with a roller coaster and other attractions. A Dolphin developer marveled that American Airlines has had to bring in extra cargo planes at times to carry the overflow goods of booty-laden visitors flying home after visits to Sawgrass.
Twelve states rank malls among their top three tourist attractions, including Minnesota (Mall of America), Virginia (Potomac Mills) and Colorado (Denver's Cherry Creek Mall). Yet by most estimates, fewer than 30 U.S. cities are big enough to support a mega-shopping center, and even those probably don't have room for more than one. Perhaps that's why Mills has announced an alliance with New York City-based Tishman Speyer Properties to build malls in Germany, Britain, Japan and Brazil. Today America; tomorrow the world.
--With reporting by Greg Aunapu/Sunrise and Jacqueline Savaiano/Ontario