America’s supersized malls may, at first glance, resemble fossils from the pre-Amazon era. These retail dinosaurs seem to litter the nation’s landscape, skeletally intact but losing life as e-commerce drives brick-and-mortar stores out of business.
That isn’t the whole story, though, as evidenced by the fact that the country’s largest mall — the Mall of America — has not only survived the onslaught of online competition but is growing even bigger. Last year, the mall’s management group broke ground on a 5 million square-foot expansion that will roughly double its footprint.
Retail is only part of the expansion plan, which includes hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions like an NHL-sized ice arena. That’s a key to the resilience of the Mall of America and other gargantuan shopping centers: They aren’t just for shopping, as TIME reported in 1997.
Back then, 12 states ranked malls among their top three tourist attractions, per TIME. Like the Mall of America, many of these were half-mall, half-theme-park hybrids. The Ontario Mills mall, for example, a California behemoth the size of 38 football fields, was drawing crowds with its virtual-reality racetrack and a park called the American Wilderness Experience, which featured 70 species of live animals and interactive nature displays — catering to patrons who liked a little of the outdoors with their indoor shopping.
“Malls have always been about more than the efficient delivery of goods,” TIME’s Christopher Matthews noted in 2012. “They’re about shopping as an experience. They’re about spending a Saturday out of the house, with friends and family, perusing goods, eating sweets, and people watching.”
When the Mall of America opened on this day, Aug. 11, in 1992, it offered the top-of-the line version of that experience, as TIME described:
The mall’s sheer physical size is part of its allure — and it’s what the Internet can never match. In fact, the Mall of America’s next big competitor may not be on the Internet, but in a Miami suburb, where plans for a megamall twice its size are in the works. The $4 billion proposal includes an indoor ski slope, sea lion shows, and submarine rides. The owners of the Mall of America aren’t worried about the nation’s new largest mall cutting into their business, however: they’re the ones behind the venture.
Read more from 1997 about megamalls, here in the TIME archives: The Mall, The Merrier
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