Shopping for Fun


With a presence in Southern California successfully established, snakes, ghouls and enemy fighter pilots will soon be menacing other parts of the country in locations bound to please merchants and restaurateurs.

The enemy pilot is lurking on projection screens in Pasadena at a flight simulation amusement center known as Fightertown. Meanwhile, the snakes and ghouls are creeping and crawling at Ontario Mills, a mall that is a national model for the play-and-shop phenomenon known as retail-tainment.

Opened in October 1996, Ontario Mills was the first mall built by the Washington, D.C.-based Mills Corp. that offered an array of entertainment and interactive playgrounds. These retail-tainment attractions account for one-third of the space at the retail complex and for much of the success of the shopping center, now a prototype for new mall construction by Mills.

American Wilderness Zoo & Aquarium is one of Ontario Mills' more popular draws. Opened in October, it features simulated ecosystems, videos and live animals--snakes included--in an attraction that folks can tour in about 90 minutes.

Another leading attraction--Gameworks--is a high-tech video-and-virtual-reality playground that lures adults and youths with games such as House of the Dead, which pits players against attacking screen-image ghouls.

These outlets for fun drew about 25% of the 17 million people who visited Ontario Mills in 1997, and many of those also took time to shop and dine at the mall's stores and restaurants, said Jim Mance, general manager of the shopping center.

"Some people don't like to shop," Mance said. "These attractions have added an element of fun to the shopping experience. It's prompted people to spend more time at the mall."

Encouraged by the success of its prototype American Wilderness in Ontario, New York-based Ogden Entertainment is now building larger versions at Mills malls in Texas and Arizona.

The creator of Gameworks--Universal City-based Sega Gameworks--is also expanding after its success at Ontario Mills, its first mall-based games emporium. The company--a joint venture involving Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks SKG, Universal Studios and Sega Enterprises--has announced plans to open sites later this year in Miami and suburban Detroit.

Fightertown, after the success at its second Southland site--the Old Town shopping district in Pasadena--is also expanding. Lake Forest-based Fightertown Entertainment opened the Old Town site in December, five years after opening its first flight simulation amusement center at its corporate headquarters.

Such retail-based attractions are on the edge of a wave that will change the shopping environment, said Ira Kalish, a Los Angeles-based retail economist for Price Waterhouse.

"We will see more entertainment in retail areas, and this merging will continue until the lines between amusement and shopping are blurred," he said.

The more traditional entertainment venues at malls are movie theaters that tend to draw large numbers of teenagers who do little or no shopping during cinema trips, Kalish said. In contrast, novel attractions tend to draw a broader demographic mix more interested in shopping and dining, Kalish said. For example, American Wilderness Zoo & Aquarium attracts children and their parents, Kalish said.

Sales at American Wilderness have been 38% above projections since the grand opening in October 1997, said Billy Warr, chief operating officer for Ogden Entertainment. The turnout at Ontario Mills Gameworks has also been higher than expected, said Jon Snoddy, a senior vice president at Sega Gameworks.

The three retail playgrounds have different customer bases. Gameworks' average customer is 22. The average Fightertown customer is 33 and American Wilderness attracts more youths. All three, however, have marketing programs that help neighboring stores and restaurants.

American Wilderness' educational outreach programs bring busloads of students to its mall. Gameworks has hosted fashion shows featuring the apparel of neighboring merchants. And Fightertown, in a joint marketing program with a nearby restaurant called Gordon Biersch, offers a group sales package of fun and food to corporations.


George White can be reached via e-mail at

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