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Mall, Schmall--- sounds like a small town Shopping is just one of the things to do


Bloomington, Minn.-- Girls' Night Out.

Pack the skimpy black halter, the video camera, the annual hand-me- down gag birthday gift (size 16 girdle and 40D bra with tassels). Kiss hubby goodbye. Check in at the Hilton. Sip cocktails at the bar. Then head for the mall.

Go past the indoor roller coaster, the 35-foot-tall inflatable Snoopy, the Lego Easter Bunny. Do not stop at the old Metropolitan Stadium home plate (preserved in platinum). Head straight for Gatlin Brothers Music City and a photo session with the Nashville kitten, Miss Tanya Tucker. Well, sort of.

"You feel like you're on vacation," Nancy Peterson says as she and a gaggle of girlfriends step back from the cardboard likeness of the country-western singer.

Vacationing in a mall? Sounds like a suburban nightmare. But Nancy and her friends did a version of it on a recent Friday night, along with Super Shoppers from around the world who come to see this still new commercial curiosity on the prairie.

The brick and stucco structure 12 miles from downtown Minneapolis looks like a mall -- an unremarkable facade, parking for 13,000 cars, flagship stores (Bloomies and Nordstrom's included). But it's not just any mall. Where else could you sip a drink at Fat Tuesday, a bar on the fourth level, and watch a platform of screaming people fly past the window?

Only here at the Mall of America, 4.2 million square feet of space where America is at home.

"A totally bizarre place," says Rene Daniel, a Baltimore mall leasing consultant who has visited the shopping center three times since it opened last summer. "Do I think we need one in Baltimore, one in Philadelphia, one in D.C.? I don't think so. It's a reason to visit Minneapolis. Everybody seems positive about it."

It's a 1990s shopping experience with a 1980s "Shop Till You Drop" attitude. While retail consultants question whether bus loads of tourists and conventioneers can sustain the mall over the long haul, operators say two-thirds of its visitors are from the Twin Cities area.

'I'll just choke'

Katie Chartrand has been to the Mall of America before, but never to sample any of the 16 rides within the 7-acre indoor amusement park dubbed Camp Snoopy. Now it's her turn on the Ripsaw Roller Coaster.

"I won't scream this time," the 12-year-old from St. Anthony, Minn., assures her mother, snug in the seat ahead. "I'll just choke on my gum."

As the cars chug up the first hill, the seventh-grader has a change of heart: "Maybe I will scream this time.

"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!" she wails as she grips the bar, white-knuckled, and the coaster plunges, then swoops along a curve, keeling as it turns. "Whoa! Oh boy!"

Screams emanate from somewhere behind her head.

Her throat fills; her voice squeaks and then erupts into a horror movie S-C-R-E-A-M!

The coaster turns on its side and heads for the home stretch, and Katie's race on the rails is soon over. Two-and-a-half minutes after her lanky body was locked behind a safety bar, the roller coaster abruptly stops.

She bounds from the car. Scared much?

"A little," she says, "on the sharp turns."16 million visitors

The rides didn't lure Thomas Magnusson, lately of Fargo, N.D., to the mall. It was a sports store with its own boxing ring, racquetball court, soccer goalie and, in the winter, ice skating rink. After a scant 45 minutes in the store and seven hours

and 15 minutes browsing among the mall's 350 shops, the 24-year-old exchange student from Sweden yawns.

"These same stores are in New York. I've seen it all," he says matter-of-factly.

Happy to have a Bloomingdale's in her backyard, Ann-marie Trost has returned to the mall because she has a run in her Donna Karan stockings. At $14.50, the hosiery costs a small fortune. At the time she bought them, the saleswoman encouraged her: "It's an investment."

Recently, the saleswoman called to ask Ms. Trost how her investment was doing. Not good, the Minneapolis insurance analyst said, explaining the problem.

"Bring them back. I'll give you a new pair," Ms. Trost was told. So she has, and now she's on a first-name basis with the saleswoman.

"Her name is Trish. And she's terrific," says Ms. Trost.

Some service.

"It's part of clientele building, where they set up a relationship to have more of an intimate relationship," says a Bloomingdale's customer service agent.

Since the Mall of America opened Aug. 11, Minnesotans like Ms. Trost, New Yorkers, Arkansans and folks from the remaining 47 states (and 27 countries) have logged 16 million visits to the shopping center and amusement park on the site of the old Minnesota Twins stadium.

The Brits have landed for "Shop Till You Drop" trips. The Japanese have sent 96 groups. The average shopping party plunks down $84, more than double the industry average of $32, according to mall spokesmen.

With all the attractions (a red stadium chair hangs on a wall and marks the spot where one of Harmon Killebrew's 573 home runs landed, 513 feet from home plate) and all the distractions (electric folding beds and hot tubs on display), the most frequently asked question at the information desk is: "Where do I catch a cab or a bus?"

Mall, schmall -- sounds like a small town

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