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Recycling and transforming retail spaces to create new experiences

The demise of major retailers has left empty spaces, but indoor theme parks & innovative experiences could help with revitalising these retail centres

omega mart meow wolf

By Lance HartScreamscape

Long before the arrival of COVID-19, the US had another issue that was causing big problems in the retail world. I’m talking about the demise of many major retailers across the American landscape. This runs from the bankruptcy of several major big-box store chains such as K-Mart, Toys “R” Us and more, to the slow but steady meltdown of what were once stable anchor tenants in mega-malls across the nation like, Sears, JC Penneys and Macy’s.

Person in shopping mall holding bags

The rapid growth of online retailers, spearheaded by Amazon, has played a major part in this. After all, it is hard to deny the convenience of online shopping. The millennial generation has also caused problems for brick and mortar retailers. This demographic’s personal preferences and shopping tastes have moved away from retails brands that were once thought of as evergreen.

In addition to this, there is also the rise of the experience economy. This is the growing preference for placing value on experience, rather than the need to collect physical possessions. So, there is a clear need to work on revitalising retail centres and creating something new.

America’s empty retail spaces

The arrival of the pandemic in 2020 served only to turbo-charge the already rapid growth of online retail. It also pushed many of the successful retailers and grocery stores into starting their own online initiatives to offer both delivery and curbside pickup of goods.

This retail crisis is a global problem. However, in America, it seems worse, as the past few decades saw new mega-malls built at a rapid pace. The resulting storm has left the nation with a huge collection of dead and dying mall spaces. There is potential for revitalising some of these retail spaces. But a large number of these sites will need to be redeveloped to serve new functions. 

Amazon Logo

There are countless reports already about how various properties have been successfully redeveloped into an amazing assortment of new functions. These can range from new schools and college campuses to mixed-use communities. Some have even transformed into warehouse-style fulfilment centres for the same online retailers that caused their extinction. 

Revitalising retail

However, there is another possible use for some of these sites. They could be transformed into new amusement, theme park, and themed entertainment centres. Especially in areas that have been long under-served by the current market.

For instance, large population centres currently without a theme park, like the Seattle area where cold winters and frequent rain have made the idea of a traditional outdoor park a risk, could definitely benefit from the idea of an indoor park. And there are many other major cities that have never had a major park for a variety of reasons. Think Phoenix, Miami, Indianapolis, Raleigh, Portland and more.

Seattle skyline revitalising retail

Then there are major cities that once had major parks, only to lose them to developers. For example, Houston (Astroworld) and Nashville (Opryland USA). In addition, there is also New Orleans which lost its Six Flags park due to Hurricane Katrina

America’s large and dying malls could represent a viable solution to markets like those. They are already zoned for large commercial development and connected to high traffic highways. Plus, they often have acres of empty parking lot space. These kinds of properties could find new life by entertaining their local communities through creative redevelopment and the addition of attractions both indoors and outside.  

New indoor theme park concepts

The idea of what you can actually create as an indoor theme park concept has reached new highs over the past few years.

We have seen the development of many creative new indoor amusement centres around the world. For instance, the innovation behind several indoor projects such as Warner Bros. World and Ferrari World in Adu Dhabi, as well as the new SeaWorld currently under construction, can provide inspiration as to what the future can hold as we work towards revitalising these retail centres.

Ferrari World Entrance
Ferrari World Abu Dhabi

Plus, many more interesting concepts have opened around the world in recent years. For example, Lionsgate Entertainment World in China, Dream Island in Moscow, IMG Worlds of Adventure in Dubai, Rulantica in Germany, Lotte World’s indoor park in South Korea, the Trans Studio parks in Indonesia and many more.

This is to say nothing of America’s own indoor projects. Think Nickelodeon Universe parks in Minnesota and New Jersey or the Circus Circus AdventureDome in Las Vegas. 

The concept of what makes a theme park has also changed. A park doesn’t have to entirely revolve around the concept of large steel rides. Modern-day visitors want experiences. So, the creation of highly themed environments designed to tickle the senses may be exactly what people want. 

The Meow Wolf model

Meow Wolf has found a way to capitalize exactly on this very concept of revitalising retail and unused spaces. Its first attraction, the House of Eternal Return, came about with the transformation of a closed bowling alley in New Mexico by a group of determined artists who wanted to share a vision like no other.

House of Eternal Return Meow Wolf revitalising retail
Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return

The creation of Meow Wolf’s unique interactive and explorable immersive art experience as a journey into another world has now spread to Las Vegas with the opening of Omega Mart (pictured, top), in the heart of the new AREA15 complex. AREA15 provides a wild variety of artful experiences that will impact the way visitors relax, dine, game, shop and just explore the entire attraction.

Meow Wolf also has a third site now in development for Denver, Colorado and is in talks with several other future locations.

As we move forward, I believe there are going to be some unique opportunities ahead for those with the foresight to see beyond what is in front of them and the will to bring their vision to life. 

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Lance Hart

Lance Hart

Lance has been running Screamscape for nearly 20 years. Married and a father to three roller coaster loving kids, he worked for SeaWorld (San Diego and Orlando) in Operations and Entertainment for 19 years.

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