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Retail Magic: Malls Turn Into Theme Parks

Mall of America interior, including rides
Mall of America, Bloomington, Minn. Photo by Flickr user dustyrhodes2012.

How would you define a mall?

Depending on your age, the answer may seem intuitive. A mall is a collection of stores, centralized in one place, sometimes but not always indoors. Retail has the focus, though malls have traditionally included dining establishments and, often, some sort of entertainment.

As I wrote earlier this year, the kind of mall that used to be the natural habitat of 1990s-era teenagers has struggled in a present where online shopping dominates the retail sector. Which raises a new question: Why would anyone want to pitch a plan to build the biggest and most expensive mall in the U.S. today?

The answer is that the new mall is not really a mall, and its planners don’t market it that way. American Dream Miami is a “retail and entertainment complex,” according to Triple Five Worldwide Group of Cos, the project’s developer. And the ratio of retail to entertainment tilts distinctly in favor of the latter.

Anyone who has visited Walt Disney World knows that this “retail and entertainment complex” is also a collection of retail and dining establishments with entertainment attached – a gigantic mall by another name, really, with a somewhat narrower product line. And although they will have a different feel and likely attract somewhat different audiences, the strategic similarities between Walt Disney World and American Dream Miami are not a coincidence.

Triple Five Group secured zoning approval from the Miami-Dade County Commission to move forward with its complex, which will occupy a 174-acre site along the Florida Turnpike in Miami Lakes. American Dream Miami will certainly contain a lot of shops in its proposed 6.2 million square feet, but it will contain more attractions, including multiple indoor roller coasters, an artificial ski slope, a water park, a lake with submarine rides, a skating rink and a performing arts center. The developers also plan to build 2,000 hotel rooms. As Curbed Miami observed, “If American Dream Miami sounds more like Disney than Macy’s, it’s because that’s exactly the point.”

American Dream Miami is not the only potential mall-by-another-name in South Florida’s future. Not far away, within Miami’s city limits, David Beckham and his partners have spent five years trying to secure permission to build a 25,000-seat soccer stadium. If approved, their plan would include not only the stadium, but also 750 hotel rooms, a 58-acre park, and restaurants, shops and entertainment. The entire complex would be called Miami Freedom Park and would occupy an area that currently hosts city-owned Melreese Gold Course. On July 18, Miami commissioners decided to hold a November referendum to ask voters if the city should negotiate a no-bid lease with Beckham’s ownership group, the Miami Herald reported.

As I observed in January, it seems that the malls that survive, and even thrive, today are those that successfully create experiences worth leaving home for. In some cases, this means revitalized urban shopping neighborhoods that also offer high-end dining and services, or malls that mimic such areas. In other cases, it means changing the primary focus of complexes that incorporate both retail and entertainment; Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota has largely taken this route. Triple Five Group also developed Mall of America, suggesting that the developers may have modeled American Dream Miami on lessons learned from their successful Midwestern destination.

The idea of marrying retail to entertainment options and unique attractions existed long before malls got on board. Walt Disney may have been the first, or at least one of the first, business leaders to realize that a theme park is just a retail mall by another name. Today, maybe the mall is just another name for a theme park. Nobody needs to leave home to shop anymore. Retail is becoming incidental to other activities, whether watching a movie, dining out at a restaurant, visiting a water park or cheering at a sports event.

Not every existing shopping mall will survive, and many that have held on will be repurposed for other uses. But mall construction has not died, exactly. It continues, even on a large scale like American Dream Miami. The malls of tomorrow just won’t look very much like the malls of yesterday.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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