Midway at the Mall

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With all the fanfare of a favorite midway attraction, select entertainment concepts are finding their way into shopping center spaces.

And thrill-seeking developers may find these attractions a perfect fit to fill dark department store spaces or light up open-air projects.

Europe’s biggest attractions operator, Merlin Entertainments Group, is delivering several of its mainstay brands—Legoland Discovery Centre, Madame Tussauds and Sea Life Centre among them—to the United States and, with Los Angeles-based Samuels & Co. as its exclusive broker, is eyeing shopping center sites across the country in which to place its brands as anchor tenants.

“Being entertained, and specifically having intellectual property as part of the entertainment, is playing an increasingly important role in differentiating one shopping center from another,” said Howard Samuels, president of Samuels & Co. “From a macro perspective, entertainment in the right environment complements shopping, because it increases length of stay, it distinguishes one project from another, it creates a sense of village or community—especially if it’s a family-oriented activity—and it enhances opportunities, particularly in lifestyle centers or bigger projects.”

Woodfield gets a leg up: One center that will be home to a Merlin attraction is the Streets of Woodfield, a 630,000-sq.-ft., open-air lifestyle center in Schaumburg, Ill., owned by Chicago-based Joseph Freed and Associates. Anchored by Carson Pirie Scott, Dick’s Sporting Goods and AMC Theatres, and featuring a high-ambience atmosphere with historic streetlights, decorative street furniture, fountains, ponds and arbors, the Streets of Woodfield will be adding a Legoland Discovery Centre this August. The 30,000-sq.-ft. attraction will feature theme-park-like attractions such as a dragon ride, adventure trail and 4-D cinema incorporating fantastical Lego creations and special effects. It will also offer hands-on Lego play using the iconic interlocking colored bricks.

Legoland Discovery Centre will be housed in a vacated two-story building at the south end of the center. The entertainment use is designed not only to bring added traffic to the Streets of Woodfield and the entire area, but to serve as a successful U.S. debut for one of Merlin’s premier attraction concepts.

Merlin’s U.S. foothold: According to broker Howard Samuels, Merlin Entertainments is gaining domestic ground. The first Sea Life Centre in the United States will open in Carlsbad, Calif., in July 2008, positioned at the front entry to the Legoland Theme Park. Madame Tussauds opened in Washington, D.C., in October 2007, and will be opening in Hollywood in March 2009. “We’re finalizing our discussions with Meadowlands Xanadu for the opening of an Observation Wheel in November 2008,” said Samuels. “The Legoland Discovery Centre in Meadowlands Xanadu is predicted to open in March 2009, and we are in discussions with Mall of America for Legoland Discovery Centre and perhaps a few other attractions.”

What entertainment brings to the table: Cinemas have already demonstrated the positive impact they have on shopping center attendance; so have restaurants. Attractions appear destined to wield that much power, and more. “In the case of Legoland, developers across the country are realizing the value that an authentic brand of entertainment can bring,” said Samuels. “A few are considering a re-design of a portion of their projects to utilize—and integrate in an intelligent way—the Lego brand,” he said. Intelligent integration, said Samuels, means incorporating more than a Legoland Discovery Centre at one end of a mall, but also introducing the characters to common areas and offering Lego-inspired entertainment—such as miniature golf—to other parts of the center. Intelligent integration also includes complementary tenanting.

“OshKosh and Carter’s, for example, are increasingly looking for sites in lifestyle and community and power centers,” explained Samuels. “An OshKosh and a Carter’s store, at about 10,000 sq. ft., would be perfect next to a Legoland Discovery Centre. Great brands, great products, great affinity,” he said.

Developers will face challenges in incorporating a Legoland or a Sea Life Centre into the mix. Space considerations are always an issue, as is communicating with a German company. “The communication between Merlin and developers is essential,” said Samuels. Both, he said, have to understand what each has to offer. “Merlin will be seeking locations that appear to be logical fits,” said Samuels, “and developers will need to understand Merlin’s parking, visibility and access needs—as well as how to integrate a Merlin attraction.

“A 35,000- or 40,000-sq.-ft. anchor in the right spot in the right space will clearly enhance certain experiences in a major way,” said Samuels.

Merlin Entertainments’ rollout plans include three-to-five attractions per year worldwide, with two to three of those slated for the United States.

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