That's Entertainment: Shopping Malls Are Borrowing Ideas from Theme Parks to Survive

By Kaufman, Leslie | Newsweek, September 11, 1995 | Go to article overview

That's Entertainment: Shopping Malls Are Borrowing Ideas from Theme Parks to Survive


Kaufman, Leslie, Newsweek


WANDERING THE cobblestone paths of Caesars Forum Shops in Las Vegas, you can't help thinking that if Julius hadn't been so busy conquering the Gauls, he might have built a mall like this. Every detail is imperial--and gaudy, too. Crashing waters bathe Poseidon in a re-creation of Rome's Trevi fountain. Shoppers bustle along a vast pink-marble arcade. Overhead a sophisticated projection system creates the illusion of an ever-changing sky--encouraging you to forget that you're deep inside a virtually no-exit shopping complex. In the central piazza, huge mechanized statues of the wine god Bacchus and his court come alive on the hour, breaking into song in a flash of laser light. A man with a video cam exclaims, "Bravo!"

A food court and a cinema twelveplex used to be the most exciting things going on at the local mall. But that's changing. Caesars Forum is a prototype of what promoters call "destination entertainment centers." In these malls of the future, the anchor will no longer be the department store--Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's will give way to giant-screen movies and rock-and-roll restaurants. Such "themed" development has much in common with the trend to use showbiz attractions to revive blighted urban areas, like 42d Street in New York. In fact, many of the new malls--equal parts amusement park and retail center--are being designed and run by the same entertainment conglomerates that are refashioning our cities. These new commercial fantasy worlds come in many shapes and sizes--upscale L.A. chic, environment-sensitive Brazilian rain forest and high-tech virtual reality. But all aim to give consumers "an immersive experience," as consultant Mike Rubin puts it--and, of course, to get their dollars flowing into the malls again.

Once mighty cathedrals of consumption, many malls are in trouble. Built at a breakneck rate of 2,000 a year in the late 1980s, their cookie-cutter designs and predictable mix of stores seem to have alienated the average consumer, who spends 20 minutes less per visit today than a decade ago. Shoppers have turned to new options, like mail-order catalogs and home-shopping channels. Carl Steidtmann of Management Horizons predicts that up to 100 regional malls will be abandoned by the end of the century.

Still, people like to get out of the house, argues Florida-based mall designer Yaromir Steiner--if they can "rub shoulders" in a place that's diverting and out of the ordinary. The numbers say he's right. Caesars Forum raked in sales of $1,000 per square foot last year, roughly five times the national average. Other malls heavy on atmosphere also have thrived. Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles, the sanitized neon-and-palm cityscape built by MCA/Universal, has posted sales well above the norm, as has Cocowalk, Miami's complex of Mediterranean villas. …

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