The 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The entrance to the world’s first mall zoo.
Mountain painting were done by Shapiro Art Studios
The backgrounds of all of the exhibits had paintings representing the region the animals were native to.
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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