- American Dream opened in October 2019 after more than 20 years of planning and development.
- Just after it opened, however, the pandemic hit, and the mall was forced to close.
- I visited American Dream and saw how badly retail has been hit during the pandemic with the rise of e-commerce and the fall of in-person shopping.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
More than 20 years in the making, the mall opened in October 2019 only to come to grips with a worldwide pandemic that would accelerate the decline of in-person shopping while boosting e-commerce to unforeseen heights.
But with COVID-19 on the ropes, American Dream is once again a reality and its doors are open to shoppers, adventure-seekers, and the host of other visitors to whom the infamous mall caters.
I stopped by American Dream, conveniently located off the New Jersey Turnpike right next to MetLife Stadium, on my way to Newark airport. Here’s what I found.
I entered the mail from the retail parking lot on the south side. At first, the three-level structure seemed deserted despite a crowded parking lot on the weekday of my visit.
But it wasn’t that the mall was empty. American Dream is so massive that it just seemed empty by comparison. There are around 100 stores and retailers at present, around a third of the mall’s capacity.
Besides its size, though, there was nothing special about the mall part of American Dream. There wasn’t much here that I couldn’t find in my local mall, for example, and it lacked a lot of the high-end retailers found in nearby malls like The Mall at Short Hills.
That may change, however, in September when more than 20 luxury retailers are slated to open.
Many of the stores that were open – like Primark, Best Buy, and Zara – were cavernous in size. Some were even two levels.
I was truly impressed with how deep some of them were, including Urban Planet. It’s a testament to the mall’s size.
The lack of patronage, however, has forced some of the larger stores to scale back. It’Sugar, for example, is scaled down to one floor.
Speaking of the confectionary, this was the first time I’d been in a self-serve candy store since the pandemic. Patrons are required to wear gloves when making their selections.
It’s a fair COVID compromise that lets customers experience the joy of scooping up their own candy.
Despite the mall’s size, however, it doesn’t have that Mall of America feel. I attribute that closed-in feeling to the lack of natural light in the mall.
There are not a lot of windows or skylights in the main shopping areas or even the atriums.
The best parts of the mall, I found, were the spaces with skylights so that natural light could come in.
This luscious gnome garden, for example, was my favorite part of the mall and a natural attraction.
This was also the only spot in the mall that had the true communal feeling of a mall. The only problem was that it was flanked by bare walls.
Some of the areas of the malls that hadn’t been filled were walled out from public access completely.
The food court featured many mall favorites and eateries like Kelly’s Cajun Grill, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell.
There were some higher-end food options, like Grisini, but they hadn’t yet opened for business during my visit.
Being an amateur mall food enthusiast, I had to try the staple of any mall food court: bourbon chicken, from Kelly’s Cajun Grill. And to American Dream’s credit, it was spot on.
I continued my journey and found the main atrium, another centerpiece where the mall’s size truly shows.
But once more, I didn’t find it to be too welcoming. A few couches were laid out in lieu of a grand centerpiece in the way other malls have.
In addition to good food court food, American Dream also featured the other two staples of a mall: a Hot Topic…
Some stores that I’ve never seen in my local malls can be found in American Dream include the Beef Jerky Experience…
And a Korean-themed store, which proved to be one of my favorites.
Masks aren’t required for vaccinated shoppers but each store can have its own rules, as this one did.
BTS was a major theme, unsurprisingly, and I couldn’t help but hear the song “Dynamite” in my head while browsing.
Kakao Friends, pointed out to me by former Seoul resident and Insider’s own Rachel Premack, was another big theme on display.
I also got a glimpse at Korean apparel, a style that I never really had seen promoted in my local malls in the past.
Another mall staple that American Dream can boast is animal rides. I fondly remember riding on these in my youth.
Attractions are truly where the mall shines and there’s no shortage of them. Big Snow is the massive indoor ski slope that offers year-round snowboarding.
Two hours on the artificial slope, with rentals included, starts at $69.99. Without rentals, it can be as cheap as $34.99.
Attractions for children are the bulk of the offering, however, and include Legoland…
Sea Life Aquarium…
Angry Birds-themed miniature golf…
And Out of This World miniature golfing.
There’s even an ice skating rink that doubles as a hockey rink. Prices start at $25 for those ages 10 and up.
For more thrill-seeking kids, Nickelodeon Universe and DreamWorks Water Park are the two main amusement parks in the mall.
Nickelodeon Universe offers roller coasters and standard theme park attractions while DreamWorks Water Park offers water slides, wave pools, and tube rides.
Masks are similarly not required in DreamWorks Water Park as “there is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, spas, or water play areas,” American Dream claims.
It’s no secret that mall patronage is in decline following the rise of internet shopping, as Taylor Swift notes in her song “Coney Island,” and these attractions give consumers a reason to come to the mall that isn’t shopping.
But these attractions aren’t cheap. A standard adult ticket for Nickelodeon Universe is $75.
DreamWorks Water Park is a more expensive $99 per adult.
So far, the inner 1980s teenager in me wasn’t overly impressed. Unless you’re willing to pay up, there’s not much that this mall has to offer after visitors get bored marveling at its size.
But American Dream definitely does try to tap into that 1980s-era nostalgia.
There’s even a DeLorean replica a la “Back to the Future.” Marty McFly, however, would quickly note this isn’t the average Twin Pines Mall.
In some areas, American Dream does a great job of papering over the cracks – in this case, its lack of stores – but other places seem bare.
American Dream hasn’t yet reached its full potential and one can hardly blame it as the pandemic accelerated the downfall of malls and the continued rise of the e-commerce giants that are making malls obsolete.
Once more stores line its hallways, American Dream may very well be the premier shopping destination that it has always wanted to be.
Until then, at the very least, there’s Cinnabon.
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