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Malls Just Want To Be FunMalls Just Want To Be Fun

We are not amused," Queen Victoria said, upon being presented with an imitation figure of herself. But that was 100 years ago in 1900. Today, the queen may well have found it easier to amuse herselves.

Today, for instance, at Grand Century Place in the former British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, the queen could watch a full-sized animatronic maestro walk onto a huge balcony that curves out into the building's atrium, bow, welcome a large audience, turn toward a 52-foot-wide pond, raise his baton and lead a concert including orchestral arrangements, four-story water fountain shoots and sparkling, darting lights.

After the 15-minute show, the queen could visit the maestro offstage and have her picture taken with him.

Designed by Jacksonville, Fla.-based Sally Corp., the Grand Century Place Maestro can make 37 individual movements, which enable him to mimic the exact finger, hand, arm, body, and head motions of a live orchestra conductor.

Halfway around the world, at the Taman Festival Bali in Bali, Indonesia, evening visitors to the 23-acre retail-entertainment village gather at restaurant tables surrounding a lagoon. Several times a night, the lagoon explodes into a spectacular multimedia show.

"We designed the show with water fountains, water screens, flame effects and a lot of laser lighting effects," says Kevin McCarthy, director of sales and market development for Los Angeles-based Laser Media Inc.

In producing the show, Laser Media marshaled the talents of creative artists, computer imaging and live film specialists, electrical engineers, architects, composers, writers, talent, costume designers, water fountain suppliers, special effects masters, and image projection professionals.

The 15-minute "Enchanted Lagoon Show" pays tribute to the spiritual, artistic and mythological culture of Bali. Special effects include a water mist screen that displays film images, colorful laser light movements, stunning spouts of gas flames, theatrical and fiber optic lighting, animated water fountains, and a high-powered sound system for music and narration.

Outside the United States, spectacular common area amusements and entertainment have become almost commonplace in shopping centers.

While the amusement trend remains more limited in the United States, it is growing. At the very least, the days of offering little more than darkened, in-line arcades designed exclusively for teenagers have ended.

Today's common area shopping center amusements - international and domestic - aim to achieve a number of ambitious goals: entertain the entire family, occupy young children, extend shopping trips, inspire more frequent trips, and even expand trading areas.

Fun goes global Why have common area amusements grown so popular at international shopping centers? "Internationally, malls have become the equivalent of city centers," says John Wood, chairman and CEO of Sally Corp. "They are entertainment complexes as much as they are shopping centers."

Laser Media's McCarthy agrees. "International developers seem to want to be their own mini-Disney," he says. "As a result, these developers are more receptive to allocating development budgets to entertainment. Sometimes the attractions are free; sometimes they are paying attractions."

Either way, modern common area amusements can carry hefty price tags. When Laser Media designed and installed an "Intergalactic Circus" for the Lotte World Shopping Center in Seoul, Korea, the tab came to nearly $6 million.

For that price, the center got seven high-power lasers, trees illuminated with fiber optics, 5,000-watt Xenon slide projectors, three 60-foot circular screens suspended from the ceiling, a 30-foot-diameter hydraulic sphere that seems to float 80 feet above an ice rink, a custom soundtrack, and a show put on by a group of Big Top performers claiming to have traveled from a distant galaxy to perform in the mall.

Is $6 million too much for an amusement? It depends on the return. At the Lotte Center, gate receipts in the amusement area of the shopping center rose by more than 35% in the months following the circus' grand opening and led to additional assignments for Laser Media.

In Canada, two developers have built full-scale amusement parks within and around retail shopping centers. At first, the purpose of these parks was to generate traffic to feed the retail offerings. In both cases, the amusements proved so popular that they became profit centers in their own right.

Toronto-based Cadillac Fairview Corp.'s Woodbine Shopping Centre spans 700,000 sq. ft. on two levels and offers 200 shops and services. A 58,000 sq. ft. amusement park called Fantasy Fair operates on the second level of the Toronto mall.

The park offers a Ferris wheel, a kiddy train, bumper cars, bumper boats, a teacup ride, an airplane ride, race cars, a parachute ride, and an antique Loof carousel crafted in 1911. Additional features include an 8,000 sq. ft., two-level play village and a family game area.

Admission to the park is free, and the rides carry nominal prices, ranging from $1.60 to $2.40. All-day ride passes are available for $10.95. According to Tammy Stapleton, who manages Fantasy Fair, the park sells about 1 million rides and generates more than $2 million in revenue per year.

The combined retail and amusement offerings attracted approximately 2 million visitors during the past 12 months, up about 17% over the previous year. Woodbine has tracked traffic only for the past two years and does not distinguish its traffic counts between mall and amusement park visits. But Andrea Locke, Woodbine's marketing director, estimates that crossover traffic from the park to the center averages about 30% of all visitors.

As Stapleton notes, "There is a spillover effect both ways. People come to the mall and then go for a ride. And people come to the park and then go shopping at the mall."

As the largest mall in the world (5.2 million sq. ft.), West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton, Alberta, may have invented the concept of using amusements to build traffic.

The facility, owned by Edmonton, Alberta-based Triple Five Corp., opened as a 1.1 million sq. ft. retail center in 1981. In 1983, Triple Five added another 1.1 million sq. ft. of retail space, along with an amusement park and ice skating rink.

Two years later, in 1985, six more major amusement facilities joined the mix: World Waterpark, Galaxyland, Deep Sea Adventure, The Dolphin Lagoon, Sea Life Caverns, and Professor Wem's Adventure.

"In 1985, the philosophy was to build these attractions not to make money but to draw people to the mall," says Travis Reynolds, attractions marketing manager for West Edmonton. "We wanted to bring people in to help the retailers make money.

"Since then, the philosophy has changed," he continues. "We began to realize that not only were the attractions drawing traffic to the mall from all parts of the world, they were starting to make money. Today, we look at both the mall and the amusements as profit centers."

The mall's original revenue ratio of retail to amusements was about 90% to 10%. Today, the ratio has shifted dramatically: 65% of West Edmonton's revenue comes from retail and 35% comes from amusement attractions.

Not only do the amusement and entertainment features draw traffic to West Edmonton Mall, but they also extend stays in dramatic fashion.

"Most centers operate from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.," Reynolds explains. "But we are literally open all of the time, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. So you can go to a movie at 10 p.m., get out at 12:30 a.m., and go dancing at a nightclub. By stretching out the hours like this, we get more out of the center."

The approach has indeed gotten more out of the center. From 1997 to 1998, total amusement sales increased by 11.4% and net income by 14.3%, Reynolds reports. From 1994 to 1998, he adds, total amusement revenues increased by 28.1% and net income by 25.7%, and attendance rose by 29.4%.

Using amusements to generate revenue and draw traffic to the extent of West Edmonton Mall is no easy task. In addition to the capital expense of the amusements themselves, figures that are unavailable, Triple Five employs a staff of some 400 people, about 25% of the total number of employees, to manage, operate and maintain the amusement facilities.

Fun begins in U.S. The success of West Edmonton Mall's combined retail, amusement and entertainment concepts led Triple Five to partner with Melvin Simon Associates Inc. in 1985 to build Mall of America.

At 4.2 million sq. ft., the Bloomington, Minn., facility lags behind West Edmonton in size but not in visits, which total approximately 40 million annually - thanks in part to Knott's Camp Snoopy. The largest indoor family theme park in the nation, Camp Snoopy offers 28 rides set on seven acres in the middle of the mall.

Edmonton Mall, Woodbine Centre and Mall of America offer three examples of amusement parks designed to attract visitors. However, most of the activity in amusements in North America and specifically in the United States aims to create unique environments, similar to the way Grand Central Park in Hong Kong and Bali Festival Park in Indonesia have used amusements to create a sense of place.

At the 510,000 sq. ft. Shops at Sunset Place in south Miami, Simon Properties has combined escalators with "spitting lizard" water fountains, turned supporting columns in the center court into banyon trees, and brought the feel of Miami into the open-air center with simulated thunder and lightning storms that recur throughout the day. When evening falls, laser light shows add to the appeal.

"Developers used to take common areas for granted, but no more," says Edward Latessa of The Latessa Corp., Boston, who consulted with Simon on the development of Sunset Place. "Today, center common areas are key elements in the success of a property. They are designed to interact with people. At Sunset Place we have simulated storms. At The Forum Shops in Las Vegas, statues in the common area talk to visitors. What we're really doing is building environments where people can relax and be entertained, where they can make constant discoveries."

What do these amusements add to centers in terms of traffic and revenues? "There are no figures on this," Latessa says. "But the developments that have these environmental design elements are all successful. I can't name one that hasn't succeeded."

Traffic is not the only benefit that amusements offer. Some centers have designed smaller amusements that simply complement the entertainment offerings provided by tenants.

For example, the design of the 1.7 million sq. ft. Ontario Mills Mall in Ontario, Calif., includes several common area rotundas where the facility's 18 million annual visitors can relax. Two of the rotundas offer light and music shows with animatronic presentations.

At the Vineyard Rotunda, a vibrant gold and red caterpillar pulls juicy purple grapes from a leafy vine, while the man in the moon tells a children's story. The City Beautiful Rotunda features a garden through which a magical watering-can travels from flower to flower. The flowers grow as they are watered, while a bee, a hummingbird and a butterfly sing songs.

"The walk through Ontario Mills is a mile long," says Richard Eichenbaum, the mall's general manager. "The idea behind the displays in our rotundas is to break up the walk. Mom and dad can relax and look at the displays, which also give the kids something to do."

The Mills "shoppertainment" common area amusements, Eichenbaum explains, are a companion to the retail and entertainment concepts supplied by mall tenants. Ontario Mills houses a number of entertainment-style tenants including the nation's first American Wilderness Zoo and Aquarium, Dave & Buster's, and Wolfgang Puck restaurant.

"The idea is to create a total attraction," he says. "The architecture of the mall, the retail experience and the retail entertainment, along with our animatronic amusements, add up to a total experience."

Chicago-based Urban Retail Properties has taken a different tack on amusements. The company has found that by treating amusements like events, it is possible to amortize costs by moving displays from mall to mall.

Currently making the rounds of Urban centers are common area shows with dinosaurs, Ice Age mammals and animatronic butterflies, each designed and produced by Dinamation International Corp., Irvine, Calif. These displays typically stay at locations for four to six weeks.

Urban executives are always on the lookout for possible touring amusements. Early this year, Urban came across a museum-style exhibit called "Masters of the Nights: The True Story of Bats" and placed it in a vacant in-line store in its Stratford Square mall in Chicago. The animatronic bat displays, produced by San Antonio-based BBH Exhibits Inc., aim to dispel myths about bats and have proved popular among adults and children.

"We look at amusements as enhancements to the shopping experience," says Van Geroux, vice president and regional marketing manager with Urban. "We try to schedule these kinds of displays during peak periods, to generate repeat visits and maximize sales. People often come back two and three times to see these touring exhibits, increasing foot traffic and sales at certain stores in the malls."

In addition, continues Geroux, by rotating exhibits in this way, Urban can freshen the look of property after property, without allowing individual exhibits to grow stale.

Time was, shopping centers left the job of satisfying customers to retailers. Today, however, developers have begun to pitch in with amusements designed to handle any number of tasks: from keeping the kids interested enough to allow parents time to shop, to creating a destination worthy of a tourist's itinerary.

The reason? For shopping centers to compete these days, they have to be as much fun as their retail tenants.

Thrill-seekers at West Edmonton Mall stay to do some shopping, too, according to traffic reports by center officials.

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