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American Wilderness Experience: The world’s first and last zoo in a mall

Failed Zoo in mallThe American Wilderness Experience was located in Ontario California and featured 70 species of live animals, together with a simulator ride and video and interactive nature displays. Billed as “edutainment,” the fun and games lead into a store peddling environmental knickknacks and a restaurant called the Wilderness Grill.

Failed Zoo in Mall

American Wilderness Experience The only completed American WIlderness experience was located in the Ontario Mills Mall, located 40 miles east of Los Angeles. The mall covers two million square feet, has 10,000 parking spaces and features 54 theater screens, and a Dave and Busters (that closed within the last year). The mall was so big they divided it into march 10 color-coordinated “neighborhoods”–themed retail zones catering to tastes ranging from upscale dresses to sporting and adolescent attire.

Failed Zoo in Mall

“If we capture just 3% of the [20 million] people passing through the mall, we’ll be doing great,” says Ogden Entertainment senior vice president Jonathan Stern, who helped develop Grizzly Park, a 90-acre complex near Yellowstone National Park.

Failed Zoo in Mall

The attractions were planned in 1996 By Ogden Entertainment who planned to invest $100 million to create eight different American Wilderness Experiences throughout the united states. Among the 160 wild animals were snakes, roadrunners, bats, sea otters, porcupines, bobcats, scorpions, jellyfish and giant yellow banana slug. The animals were housed in a 35,00 square foot mall zoo, the first and last of it’s kind.

Failed Zoo in Mall

To enhance the experience, artificial trees and plants were added as well as hidden canisters that emitted natural fragrances. After a brief tour, customers are returned to their natural habitat, the mall, where they can shop at the Naturally Untamed Boutique or eat in the Wilderness Grill. The experience, says Ogden V-P Jonathan Stern, is ideal for “people who prefer nature in small doses.” (Isn’t that the best way?) Stern adds that people are so accustomed to hurrying today, the average visit to the Grand Canyon is only 22 minutes long, coincidentally the same length as the average TV show minus commercials.

Failed Zoo in Mall

During AWE’s conceptual pre-planning stage the company settled on the exhibition of animals from five of California’s natural ecosystems — the Redwood Forest, Mojave Desert, High Sierras, Pacific Shore and Yosemite Valley. He also reports that the company has set AWE’s animal acquisition and holding criteria based on the American Zoological Association’s guidelines for humane treatment and holding of animals.

The Wilderness Grill

The retail store, called Naturally Untamed, featured items such as nature books, videos, CD-ROMs and interactive games, as well as plush toys and clothing. AWE’s restaurant, The Wilderness Grill, has a rustic, lodge-like design and features moderately priced restaurant fare. The Wilderness restaurant offered a full-fare menu and comfortable character drinking bar. The Wilderness shop sold outdoor apparel, nature books, and specialty environment-related items.

The smaller retail and restaurant concept will encompassed approximately 15,000 sq. ft. The company had even planned a larger rollout to do a stand-alone, retail and restaurant spin-off of the [AWE] brand that’s within some proximity of a full-blown AWE sites.

Failed Zoo in Mall

The fun began with a motion simulator ride, transporting the guest on an environmental journey culminating at the entrance to California’s Redwood Forest. Authentic settings—combined with live insects, reptiles, mammals, birds, and fish—provide a real life adventure.

The Wild Ride Theater, which treated visitors to an 8-minute motion simulator ride. The Forces of Nature exhibit introduces visitors to the destructive force of volcanoes, glaciers, earthquakes and hurricanes; and the Dangerous Creatures and Sudden Attack exhibits showcased some of nature’s most feared, predatory animals. Following the movie visitors were guided through the exhibits by tour guides dressed as park rangers.

Failed Zoo in Mall

AWE also offered special entertainment packages in connection with the Ogden-managed UltraScreen Theater, located next door. Patrons can see a double feature at the big-screen theater and visit AWE for $16.50 for adults, $15.50 for seniors and $13 for children They had expected to draw 500,000 during its first full year of operation, during the 1998 that the mall is projected 17 million. Attendance on weekdays is expected to be bolstered by school groups receiving a special package rates. AWE had expected to draw heavily on neighboring schools.

Within a year of opening the American Wilderness Zoo & Aquarium had dropped its admission prices and contemplated convert about two-thirds of its retail shop into a banquet facility in an effort to generate more traffic.

The $18 million indoor zoo, restaurant and retail venue at Ontario Mills performed below expectations from it’s opening in the fall of 1997.

Prices dropped to $6.95 and $4.95 for Adults and children aged 3-11 respectively, compared with previous prices of $9.95 and $7.95 by November of 1999.

Failed Zoo in Mall

Seven additional locations were in development stages, each carrying a price tag of between $7 million and $10 million. Additionally, Ogden had committed more than $50 million to roll the project out nationally. Billy Warr, AWE’s vice president of operations, told All Business.com that centers for AWE locations at Mills mall facilities in Tempe, Ariz., and Grapevine, Texas were planned to pen in within two weeks of each other before the end of the 1997. Other planned AWE locations included Gurnee Mills near Chicago (expected to open in November 1998); Sawgrass Mills outside Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; and Opry Mills, Nashville (2000).The other locations were never publicly disclosed, and construction was halted on the Texas and Arizona locations and never completed.

By march of 1999 the 2 billion dollar Ogden Corp. planned to split into two publicly traded companies. A separate entertainment and aviation company were planned. The entertainment group has interests in themed and location-based attractions, waterparks, food and beverage concessions, venue management, large format films and theaters, concert promotions, artist management and recordings. The aviation group provides ground and cargo handling, passenger services, fueling, and airport infrastructure development and management. The energy group develops, owns and operates independent power facilities and provides related infrastructure services.

By May of 2000 mall officials announced that American Wilderness Zoo & Aquarium and its affiliated restaurant, the Wilderness Grill, would soon be shuttered.

The unique destination promised an ‘immersive zoo adventure’, restaurant, and retail store. Company officials claimed that labor costs were thirty percent higher than were acceptable. The world’s first zoo mall closed in less than four years a shorter life span than most of the animals that it housed.

Failed Zoo in Mall
The entrance to the world’s first mall zoo.

Failed Zoo in Mall
Mountain painting were done by Shapiro Art Studios

Failed Zoo in Mall
The backgrounds of all of the exhibits had paintings representing the region the animals were native to.

TIME Article

SIERRA Magazine Review

I actually visited the mall zoo in 1999 on a trip to see relatives in Palm Springs, and it was pretty strange seeing a zoo in the middle of the mall. Most of the exhibits seemed small, and some of the backgrounds made things look a little cheesy. The entrance was impressive and parts of it were really impressive to look at. After walking through the zoo my brother and I ate in the restaurant for about 45 bucks. The food was overpriced, but decent and the salad was pretty good.

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Posted By: Jerome Aronson

News Category: Abandoned, Environmental


16 Responses to “American Wilderness Experience: The world’s first and last zoo in a mall”

  1. What a girly-man: “…and the salad was pretty good.”

    Michael on 23 May 2008 at 9:57 am
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    juma on 13 Jun 2008 at 2:20 am
  3. hahaha^ thats Hilarious.

    olthuggie on 23 Jun 2008 at 10:57 am
  4. Working here was a great expirience..one that I will never forget. It gave me my dream as to working will all types of animals. I really enjoyed it. Too bad there wasn’t another place like it. I am very blessed to have worked with them.

    Melissa Miller on 06 Oct 2008 at 11:12 am
  5. Sad, I never got to see it. I love to see animals. 🙁

    Mel Thompson on 16 Oct 2008 at 3:09 pm
  6. The enclosures did seem pretty small, it was definitely cool – would love to see someone who had more pictures of it. (So regret not taking my camera, but figured they would be around for awhile.)

    Jerome on 16 Oct 2008 at 5:23 pm
  7. nice idea….

    mayo on 22 May 2009 at 8:05 am
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    ali j on 24 Dec 2009 at 9:53 pm
  9. Oh yeah, Send your money to Tanzania…NOW! Yeah, Jerome, take that camera next time, don’t be a forgetful pussy.

    Shawn on 19 Feb 2010 at 9:30 pm
  10. Wow. I am sad that I missed this experience. It sounds like it was really cool. I just think it sounds like it wasn’t well planned on the financial end. Someone should have notice that going to the los angeles zoo for the day cost way less than the mall experience in the beginning. Too bad it didn’t work out, it would be awesome to go see it today.

    Trish on 22 Feb 2011 at 4:24 pm
  11. I was the first animal caretaker they hired. The curator had the first batch of reptiles they received in holding tanks in her offsite office, until the facility was ready for them. It was a super cool place to work. I was originally hired as one of the reptile specialists, but I also trained a redtail hawk, cared for badgers, fishers, bobcats, coatimundi, etc… To this day it often comes up in conversations and I show people a little stack of photos I took before I left the place. It was a good idea, but it wasn’t executed correctly. I could see something like it being successful with a few tweaks to the plan.

    Nathan on 27 Nov 2011 at 11:32 pm
  12. Nathan would like to get some further feedback from you on AWE You can contact us through inquiries@lecworldwide.com

    Jim on 29 Jun 2012 at 10:35 am
  13. I just found a brochure from the 5th grade field trip here. Its crazy to think that the Fish Market and the Improv took over the space…the place was pretty large (or maybe I was just super small). Cool fact, my Uncle was in charge of the construction so I got to see it before everyone. Even got to help peel the plastics off the brand new stainless steel kitchen appliances. Free kid labor, whatchya gonna do? LOL

    Erica on 19 Jan 2013 at 12:28 pm
  14. I also worked there from the the day it opened the facility to almost when it closed. I worked in the retail department. I have to say I met some great people there and the most fun. It was a great concept and I learned so much. Wish that it would have survived.

    Darlene on 19 Jan 2015 at 6:28 pm
  15. I always figured that it was shut down by animal activists. The glass boxes the animals were imprisoned in were tiny and they didn’t even have real plants growing. I doubt the lights for the animals were full spectrum. I wonder if they were put down after the place closed.

    Breanna on 11 Mar 2015 at 12:04 pm
  16. I worked here from the time it opened until it closed. All the animals were shipped to different zoos who found room for them or back to zoos they came from ( many were on loan from other zoos).

    Angela on 08 Jun 2016 at 11:29 pm

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