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What American Dream – the huge new retail venue – gets right and wrong

This post was originally published on Yahoo Money.

At long last, the American Dream retail megacenter in East Rutherford, N.J., which has been in the works since 2003, has opened — sort of.

According to the developer, Triple Five Group, what’s known as “Chapter 1” opened on Oct. 25 and the fourth and final chapter is slated to open March 2020. The venue spans 3 million square feet and will cost $5 billion in total.

Nickelodeon Universe at American Dream boasts 35 rides and appeals to a mass audience of thrill-seekers. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
Nickelodeon Universe at American Dream boasts 35 rides and appeals to a mass audience of thrill-seekers. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

First conceived in 1996, when brick-and-mortar malls still reigned over e-commerce, the project was then known as Xanadu. After several failed attempts, the vacant space was often referenced as a punch line rather than a destination that was ever going to materialize.

Our 9-hour visit to American Dream left two spry young adults exhausted, and we only experienced a quarter of what the mall has to offer.

Here’s what the supersized shopping center got right and where it went wrong.

What American Dream gets right

Nickelodeon Universe opened its doors with the first phase of American Dream. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
Nickelodeon Universe opened its doors with the first phase of American Dream. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

1) Ample social media opportunities

The Nickelodeon Universe is a delightful and colorful cartoon fantasia of whirling rollercoasters, brightly painted rides, flashing lights, an obstacle course towering in the corner, and the instantly-recognizable Nickelodeon Slime Blimp hanging overhead.

In short, it’s an Instagram playground filled with Boomerang-worthy moments that will boost your social media clout.

We waited to get our photo opp with Olmec, a prop from 90s Nickelodeon hit "Legends of the Hidden Temple" at Nickelodeon Universe. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
We waited to get our photo opp with Olmec, a prop from 90s Nickelodeon hit "Legends of the Hidden Temple" at Nickelodeon Universe. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

Outside of the mechanical structures, A-list Nickelodeon mascots like Spongebob Squarepants, Blue from “Blue’s Clues,” and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were present and happy to oblige selfie requests from adoring fans.

Character statues and props were also popular attractions, and we even had to wait our turn to snap a picture in Steve’s Thinking Chair from “Blue’s Clues” and a larger-than-life replica of a van driven by the Ninja Turtles.

The main concourse of Nickelodeon Universe is flush with life-size props for photo opps. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
The main concourse of Nickelodeon Universe is flush with life-size props for photo opps. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

2) Reassuring security presence and friendly staff

It was evident that crowd control and security were at the forefront of planning American Dream. Upon arrival at one of the entry points or “hubs,” a security guard greeted and pointed us in the direction of the goods. Additionally, New Jersey State Troopers with canine units were ever-present and gave us a reassuring feeling that should suspicious activity go down, we’d be out of harm’s way.

Second-day, on-the-job-jitters are real, but American Dream’s employees were truly top notch. No one pretended to have all of the answers, but they worked together as a team to keep the guest experience positive with high spirits and great energy.

3) Spotless and sanitary

Trash and recycling receptacles were never out of reach. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
Trash and recycling receptacles were never out of reach. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

Considering we were among American Dream’s first visitors, we got to experience it in its pristine and unspoiled state ahead of the masses.

The Nickelodeon Universe theme park delivered a fresh and clean appearance of polished floors, freshly painted walls, spotless bathrooms, and manicured landscaping. Adding to the aesthetics, trash and recycling bins were never out of reach, indicating the mall’s commitment to cleanliness and the environment. A pledge to public health was also an overtone as we noticed an abundance of hand sanitizer dispensers.

4) Thrills for all ages

Toddlers play with their parents in an exploratory jungle gym at Nickelodeon Universe. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
Toddlers play with their parents in an exploratory jungle gym at Nickelodeon Universe. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

Thrills abound for all ages, but skew younger based on the nature of Nickelodeon. Still, there’s something for everyone and millennials, in particular, will be hit with waves of nostalgia with rides and attractions themed on 1990s hits.

There’s a “Legends of the Hidden Temple” high-ropes course with a Shrine of the Silver Monkey challenge, a “Ren & Stimpy” space exploration ride, and a carousel that swaps traditional horses for Reptar dinosaurs from “Rugrats.”

Newer franchise staples like “PAW Patrol,” “Dora the Explorer,” and “Blue Clues” also were included among the 35 rides.

5) Ample lockers

The clever minds at Nickelodeon Universe solved the issue of where to stash your gear by including ample locker stations. Situated near most of the attractions, a locker opened with a wave of our park-issued wristband’s unique barcode and secured our belongings for one hour. Reopening the locker was the same deal: Wave your wristband over the sensor. No physical keys or combinations required.

Keyless lockers were one of Nickelodeon Universe's most redeeming qualities. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
Keyless lockers were one of Nickelodeon Universe's most redeeming qualities. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

During freebie weekend, lockers were gratis but it wasn’t clear how much the lockers will eventually cost. But don’t count on them being free — there was a credit card slot under the scanner. One employee we spoke with shared with us that mobile pay is the ultimate goal, but for now, the wristbands do not function as a form of payment.

For safety, items like glasses, keys, hats, or phones are forbidden on high-speed rollercoasters and rides. Baskets are conveniently placed at the entry point for each ride where passengers can drop their items – free of charge.

6) Promising signs of what’s to come

A common refrain used by American Dream. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
A common refrain used by American Dream. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

The long-anticipated opening delivered only a quarter of a fully operational mall and left a lot to the imagination, but it served a major gesture of goodwill that the public was welcomed on the house. Temporary attractions also were added to appease the crowds.

Leaning into the fall season, a pop-up harvest festival transformed what otherwise would have been cavernous hallways with stark white walls. Appealing to a much younger audience, there were face painters, hay bales for climbing, pumpkin ring toss, and a farmers market stall. And, all of it was free of charge.

On opening weekend, a pop-up harvest-themed party was hosted for guests to get their faces painted. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
On opening weekend, a pop-up harvest-themed party was hosted for guests to get their faces painted. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

What American Dream got wrong

Crowds grew restless as lines were long as rides opened and closed without warning. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
Crowds grew restless as lines were long as rides opened and closed without warning. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

1) A communications and logistical mess

Being journalists and all, our pre-research was thorough. Yet, everything we thought we knew was quickly upended upon arrival.

There was a dearth of information about what was open, accessibility, food options, pricing and parking options. For example, we were disappointed to learn that all of the Nickelodeon Universe tickets were sold out for Saturday. But then, to our surprise, American Dream gifted all of Saturday’s guests with free day passes.

Also free was the ice skate rental and rink time at the NHL-regulation sized rink.

With conflicting reports among mall employees of how much things will eventually cost, what would open ,and when, we felt it was best to take a page from the employees’ book and go with the flow.

American Dream doesn't earn high marks for first impressions. Porta-potties for the construction workers punctuate the exterior. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
American Dream doesn't earn high marks for first impressions. Porta-potties for the construction workers punctuate the exterior. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

2) Clutter showing a work in progress

In the early morning light, Stephanie thought the megacenter looked like a majestical monument off of Route 3 when viewed from the backseat window of her Lyft. Yet the closer you got, the more you could see the cracks in its veneer. It was clear that, despite crews working around the clock for October’s opening, there were some major oversights.

After entering through one of American Dream's "hubs," we were greeted with boxes and unfinished projects. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
After entering through one of American Dream's "hubs," we were greeted with boxes and unfinished projects. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

After a few loops around the massive complex, we were directionally-challenged and managed to flag down a helpful construction worker who told us where to park. More signage would have been helpful.

Crews were still painting fixtures after the doors opened at American Dream on Saturday morning. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
Crews were still painting fixtures after the doors opened at American Dream on Saturday morning. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

We fully understand that American Dream is still an active construction site, so we weren’t put off by the porta potties, but perhaps they could have been pivoted out of sight for opening weekend. The same goes for the trash.

Once inside, we were greeted by contractors who were painting, polishing escalators and hauling boxes. A sign reading “Forever 21” scribbled in black marker was stuck to a door with electrical tape.

One of the first signs to greet visitors to American Dream megacenter in East Rutherford, NJ. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
One of the first signs to greet visitors to American Dream megacenter in East Rutherford, NJ. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

3) Limited food options

On opening weekend, all of the food and snacks were on the house. The options, though, were limited.
On opening weekend, all of the food and snacks were on the house. The options, though, were limited.

You can’t expect Michelin-star caliber food from an amusement park. However, American Dream could do a better job of incorporating menu variety to accommodate common culinary preferences like vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free eaters.

The only spot serving food on a limited menu on Saturday was Nickelodeon Universe. The selection — all of which was free — was cold food with no heated options available. Among the entrees, we counted one vegetarian option and three vegan options. Ingredients were listed, but none of the prepackaged food came with an explicit call-out label.

As the mall expands, the variety of food options needs to expand. On its second day of operation, there were limited menu options for gluten-free eaters, vegans and vegetarians.
As the mall expands, the variety of food options needs to expand. On its second day of operation, there were limited menu options for gluten-free eaters, vegans and vegetarians.

With 40 million visitors projected annually, a wider menu to accommodate common food allergies and preferences should happen. The American Dream website promises, “over 100 carefully curated dining destinations – ranging from casual and cool to memorable experiences from the world’s most celebrated chefs.”

4) The parking situation

Parking is among the biggest kinks in need of a resolution before the mall continues to expand, and it’s not because of availability. The complex, when combined with MetLife Stadium next door, boasts 33,000 spots. Rather, it’s about the accessibility and cost.

Just a stone's throw from MetLife Stadium, American Dream shares a parking lot with the sports and entertainment complex. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
Just a stone's throw from MetLife Stadium, American Dream shares a parking lot with the sports and entertainment complex. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

On day two of being open to the public, most lots were blocked off to passenger cars and were clearly points of egress for construction vehicles. But ironically, the sign for public parking took us to the wrong lot.

Freshly spray painted valet parking signs were drying as of Saturday morning. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
Freshly spray painted valet parking signs were drying as of Saturday morning. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

Once we parked, in the absence of directional arrows, we instinctively gravitated toward the entrance. We would come to learn each parking lot is connected via escalator to what’s called a “hub,” which is essentially a lobby that connects the lot to the mall’s main floor.

Crews were polishing the escalators moments before the doors opened to the public on Saturday morning. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
Crews were polishing the escalators moments before the doors opened to the public on Saturday morning. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

If not for freebie weekend, our nine-hour American Dream adventure would have cost us $24 to park. In the future, it’s going to cost you. Parking ranges from $3 for visits under three hours to a whopping $24 for anything over an eight-hour visit. And a visit on Sundays during football season carries a premium: Drivers will pay a flat rate of $30.

One surprising observation: No electric car-charging stations. No word on if charging stations will be included in future phases.

5) It may actually be too big

The sheer size of American Dream is nothing to overlook. As two active young adults, we were exhausted after our all-day adventure that included several rollercoasters, rides, a high-ropes course, a lunch break, and ice skating. It’s mind-boggling that we only experienced a quarter of the entire mall.

The Rink at American Dream is an NHL-regulation sized ice rink. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)
The Rink at American Dream is an NHL-regulation sized ice rink. (Photo: Stephanie Asymkos/Yahoo Finance)

It’s inconceivable this will become a single-day destination once all phases of the mall are up and running. Each part requires its own separate day to experience in full.

6) The location is odd

The megacenter’s eight-mile proximity to New York City and close distance to three major airports are being touted as some of its redeeming qualities.

However, its presence doesn’t fill a void felt by New Jersey residents and joins an already saturated retail landscape. In a state that embraces retail, American Dream may fail to win over many residents because of the fear of heightened traffic on an already congested highway.

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