For most Americans, it’s just not the holidays without a mall visit. Chicago-area Woodfield prepped weeks before the Black Friday shopping blitz, debuting an Ice Palace with a light show and Santa photo-ops.
After all, its parking lots are crowded whatever the season. Woodfield gets 27 million annual visitors—more than any other Illinois attraction (only 8.69 million make it to Chicago’s Navy Pier). A heady mix of shopping, eating, and entertainment options has turned malls across the U.S. into similar tourism magnets and coined the phrase “destination malls.”
The 20 most-visited shopping malls range from pioneering Mall of America in Minnesota—ranked No. 1 with a staggering 40 million annual visitors—to upscale NorthPark Center, which displays rotating works by artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and hosts events during the Dallas International Film Festival.
“Shopping centers and malls, especially large enclosed malls, are increasingly attempting to become something more than just a place for the distribution of goods,” says Jesse Tron of the International Council of Shopping Centers, a nonprofit that monitors the global mall industry. “This trend has increased industry-wide coming out of the recession.”
Sure, nearly every large mall has a movie complex and food court these days. But what was cutting edge 20 years ago is now old hat, as malls up the ante on their extras. According to Tama Shor, publisher of the Directory of Major Malls, which compiles data on more than 7,200 malls and shopping centers in the U.S. and Canada, ice rinks within malls used to be a big deal, but no longer.
“Malls have gotten much more creative,” says Shor. “They’ve taken what used to be traditional retail space and turned it into gymnastics studios, playhouses, trampoline places, you name it. All of these things generate revenues, and the hope is that many of the people who come for other reasons will make purchases in the more traditional retail stores.”
Among the more innovative additions are an indoor reptile zoo at Gurnee Mills near Chicago, a permanent catwalk for fashion shows (and Santa’s arrival) at Fashion Show in Las Vegas, an indoor tennis club at the Houston Galleria, and the massive new aquarium (nurturing more than 10,000 sea creatures) at the Mall of America.
And developers are thinking even bigger. The 3-million-square-foot American Dream Meadowlands mall is under construction in northern New Jersey with ambitious plans for an indoor ski/snowboard slope, a skydive simulator, and full-scale amusement and water parks.
Chances are these 20 most-visited shopping malls will gear up for the competition.
Methodology: We obtained the latest Directory of Major Malls list of the top 50 largest enclosed malls in the United States and set out to determine annual visitor numbers.
Some mall owners were glad to share their latest data; others either refused or said they don’t keep track of how many people come through their doors. In cases where we couldn’t get the data directly from the malls, we used alternative sources including chambers of commerce, newspapers, advertising agencies, and tourism websites. Given that people don’t purchase tickets to a mall, all of the annual visitation numbers are estimates no matter what the source.
We focused on traditional enclosed malls, avoiding outlet malls as well as unconventional designs like the open-air Ala Moana Center in Honolulu, which attracts roughly 42 million visitors per year, and Chesterfield Commons near St. Louis, considered the most popular strip mall, with about 10 million annual visitors.