The Art of Attractions - March 2019


Opening in New Jersey this year, American Dream will include an 8-acre Nickelodeon Universe theme park with five roller coasters. (Credit: American Dream)

Shop Till You Drop (on the Coaster)

by Arthur Levine

I was the original mall rat.

I’m so old, there weren’t many indoor malls around when I was a kid. But there was a large, outdoor shopping center about a mile from my home that was my weekend go-to hangout.

My friends and I had our routine. We’d kibitz over greasy fries at J.J. Newberry’s lunch counter, ogle the stereo gear at Sears and Radio Shack, peruse the latest releases from bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Beatles at the record store, catch an occasional movie at the cinema, and make nervous small talk with girls.

But more than anything else, we played pinball and other coin-ops. There was a crude auto racing game at S.S. Kresge. The steering wheel and shifter were generally slimy, because I and the other delinquents that pumped our dimes into the slot often munched on Kresge’s greasy popcorn between plays. There were two pinball machines at the shopping center’s bowling alley. However, its managers weren’t all that keen about young punks hanging around, trying to milk their pocket change while playing the silver ball.

We congregated the most at a tiny, open-air arcade—it was really more of a hut—home to three Gottlieb pinball units and a vintage baseball game. The workers there were only too happy to tolerate us as we fed quarters into the machines and heard the satisfying thwack, thwack, thwack of their counters racking up three plays.

The game shed was at Kiddie Town, an outdoor amusement park with a handful of rides including a Ferris wheel, a carousel, and a junior roller coaster. Yes, I grew up about a mile away from a park, albeit a tiny one.

The shopping center of my youth may have been ahead of its time. Instead of solely relying on retail stores, it included a mix of entertainment venues and other diversions. Today, consumer trends are evolving, and stores are vacating malls. Location-based virtual reality experiences, family entertainment centers, and other attractions are filling the void.

American Dream, which will open in New Jersey this year, will include a DreamWorks Water Park, Sea Life Aquarium, Legoland Discovery Center, Kidzania, an observation wheel, an indoor snow park and chalet, and the 8-acre Nickelodeon Universe theme park, complete with five roller coasters. The mega-mall will devote more space to entertainment than retail.

With infrastructures in place, ailing malls offer visionaries (like you?) opportunities to think outside the big box. And some of them are thinking big. At IAAPA Attractions Expo 2018, CAVU Designwerks and Framestore revealed concepts for an interactive roller coaster that could race down corridors and soar above shoppers at malls.

I’ll see you at the malls. I’ll be the one in search of some greasy popcorn and a pinball machine.

A lifelong park fanatic, Arthur Levine has been writing newspaper and magazine travel features about the industry he loves since 1992. He’s been the Theme Parks Expert at (formerly since 2002, and is a regular contributor for USA Today.