The fate of the new Legoland -- and perhaps the Plymouth Meeting Mall around it -- may rest with consumers like fifth grader James Niles, age 11.
"I like how you can build whatever you want and be as creative as you want," said James, of Warminster, who with mom Dena, 40, checked out the expansive Legoland during a media tour Friday at this troubled mall. Among the many choices were a 4-D theater; a Bricks Motor Test Center where one can build a Lego race car and race it down a ramp; and the Lego-supported Pirate Adventure Island, resembling a jungle gym on a ship.
James' favorite was Philadelphia Mini-Land, a room for Philly icons – from the city's skyline to the Art Museum, with a Rocky figure going up and down the steps -- all in full Lego-linked glory.
"That's a miniature Liberty Bell," James said as he inspected the area of Independence Hall.
The 33,000-square-foot attraction, which opens to the public Thursday, is typical of the types of businesses that mall owners are using to revive struggling centers. Think food, entertainment, and novel experiences.
Michael Taylor, general manager of Legoland Discovery Center, said Philly Mini-land took six months to build. Legoland at Plymouth Meeting is the first one in Pennsylvania, fourth on the East Coast, ninth in the country, and 17th in the world. A single-day pass will cost $19 per person and an annual pass $54 per person.
Legoland's arrival comes as mall owner Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust is looking to replace its Macy's anchor at Plymouth Meeting. That store is closing along with the Macy's at Moorestown Mall and the JCPenney store at Willow Grove Park – part of a trend of contractions as retailers adjust to changing habits and online shopping.
Since most enclosed malls offer good regional access and large spaces, "they are natural landing spots for experiential retail and entertainment," said Douglas Green of MSC Retail, which brokered the deal and represents Legoland here. Malls are seeking "tenants and brands that you can't find anywhere else in the market."
"Entertainment tenants truly are the new anchor," he said.
Joseph Coradino, chief executive officer of PREIT, which owns Plymouth Meeting, Cherry Hill, and Moorestown Malls among others, said about 17 percent of the mall space in PREIT's portfolio was now dedicated to dining and entertainment attractions, up from 2 percent a decade ago.
"Part of the Legoland solution is that it's internet-proof," Coradino said. "You can't go to dinner, Legoland, or Dave & Buster's online."
On Dec. 31, 2016, Plymouth Meeting Mall had a 94.4 percent occupancy rate and generated about $333 in sales per square foot, according to PREIT.
About 92 million cars a year pass near the mall, whose road network includes the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Northeast Extension, I-76, and Germantown Pike. A million children, ages 2 to 12, live within 60 minutes' drive.
A 25-foot-tall Lego giraffe fronts the outside entrance to Legoland and is visible from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Coradino noted. The mall hopes to capture folks from Allentown to Wilmington "who never come to Plymouth Meeting Mall, who will bypass two or three other malls, because we've created a super-powerful draw here," Coradino said.
The early reviews were good.
"We'll be back," vowed Sasha Davies, 36, who traveled two hours from Girardville, near Pottsville, with husband Chuck and twin 10-year-old daughters, Trinity and Lorelai, to check out Legoland. They had never been to Plymouth Meeting Mall before.
"I liked everything," Trinity said.