The mall is a zoo, but what did you expect? Shopping: In California, a man-made animal preserve goes up to the door of your favorite store. It's a natural, developers say.

October 30, 1997|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ONTARIO, Calif. -- There's a salamander by the mud bank, a Mexican bat in the trees and a sale at the Burlington Coat Factory.

At California's newest mega-mall, retail meets the outdoors. The American Wilderness Experience, a man-made animal preserve featuring 70 species in a $12 million setting, is the latest attempt to make a mini-theme park out of a plain old shopping complex.

When the attraction opens tomorrow in Ontario Mills, 40 miles east of Los Angeles, visitors who come to shop also will be able to wander through the Mojave Desert, watch a bobcat, pet a starfish, dive through a (simulated) wave -- all for less than a pair of loafers at Payless.

"It's the universal and timeless appeal of nature," says Jonathan Stern, creator of American Wilderness and senior vice president of Ogden Entertainment in New York. "We've delivered on an attraction that works for the entire family. It has entertainment but a foundation of education. And you can learn without being exposed to the elements."

While the roadrunners, porcupines and badgers are all real, the elements aren't.

The scent of redwood comes from an aerosol can, the giant Joshua tree is made of concrete, and the foliage is mostly silk. Latex paint in shades of sienna, umber and oxide green adds scenic color.

The journey to the wild side, which costs $8 to $10 per person, starts with a five-minute simulator ride through the Golden State's terrain. On this strapped-in adventure, visitors see the world through the eyes of a bumblebee, a dolphin, an owl and a frog on a lily pad.

Then the trek through the high Sierras, redwood forests, Pacific shore, Yosemite Valley and Mojave Desert begins. Giant banana slugs slither around cases in an ersatz mud wall. The desert is filled with lizards, tortoises and Gila monsters. The sea has jellyfish and seal exhibits and a touch pool with anemones.

On average, guests will be able to see 200 animals in 90 minutes or less. After their tour, nature lovers can detour into the Naturally Untamed store and rustic Wilderness Grill. The field study ends at a state welcome center with information on the actual destinations.

Rather than replace the outdoors, Stern says this attraction will encourage visits to the real thing -- and already has received requests for school field trips.

Education aside, the idea of housing animals in a mall has generated controversy.

"When we first heard there was going to be a zoo in the mall, we were worried," says Marsha Wyatt, supervisor of field services for the Pomona Valley Humane Society. "It seemed like the worst possible scenario. But after numerous visits, we feel they are following the maximum guidelines for the care, health and well-being of the animals."

Developers say the animals were already in captivity -- in zoos or rehabilitation centers -- and are being kept in environments above U.S. and state standards, with ventilation, temperature and lighting systems resembling their habitats. Most animals arrived more than a month ago to allow them time to adjust.

But even if the animals appear healthy, Wyatt has reservations about youngsters equating the mall with where you see wildlife.

"There's a great deal of theatrics involved here -- the fake trees, the smell of redwood, the taped bird calls," she says. "We, of course, would like people to see the real thing. But many people don't have the opportunity."

Ingrid Newkirk, president of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Norfolk, Va., hasn't visited the site but dislikes what she's heard.

"It's all rather pathetic," she says. "Animals aren't living toys. They're not here for our amusement. The way you respect wildlife is to leave it alone -- afford it its natural life."

With studies showing interest in malls declining, industry analysts praise this and other "shoppertainment" ventures as ways of bringing new life to an old concept.

At Ontario Mills mall, roughly 25 percent of the venues are devoted to entertainment: 30 movie theaters; a food court longer than a football field; a Gameworks virtual-reality arcade created by Sega Enterprises, Universal Studios and Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks group; and a Dave & Buster's, an adult arcade with skeeball, pearl-inlaid pool tables and food.

The mall is expected to attract 18 million visitors this year. It actively courts the tourist trade, offering a lounge for tour bus drivers and valet parking for shoppers. Although it's a discount complex, Ontario Mills -- with its Brazilian cherry wood floors, Rodeo Drive outlet stores and Wolfgang Puck restaurant -- hardly feels like low-rent shopping.

William Roop, president of Stillerman Jones & Company, a retail research and consulting firm in Indianapolis, says the Mills Corp. -- which owns Ontario Mills and Potomac Mills in Virginia, among others -- is ahead of the curve in uniting entertainment and retail.

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