Late last month, American Wilderness Experience (AWE) unleashed its attraction to Ontario Mills mallgoers, allowing a complete glimpse of the newest player in destination-based, mall entertainment. Next year, AWE is slated for other Mills centers, including Grapevine Mills in Texas; Arizona Mills in Arizona; and Sawgrass Mills in Florida. Billy Warr, AWE's vice president of operations and chief operating officer, reports that an additional location at Gurnee Mills in Illinois is likely due in the early part of 1999.

The multi-tiered retail and entertainment concept from New York-based Ogden Entertainment Services Inc. (a division of Ogden Corp.) includes an interactive habitat for some of California's indigenous animals (AWE's future sites will showcase animals from other parts of the country and world). AWE also features a nature-based retail store and a full-service, themed restaurant.

The retail store, called Naturally Untamed, features items such as nature books, videos, CD-ROMs and interactive games, as well as plush toys and clothing. AWE's restaurant, The Wilderness Grill, has a rustic, lodge-like design and features moderately priced restaurant fare.

Patrons who take the AWE tour at Ontario Mills will absorb a series of learning-based, interactive attractions. In addition to the live animals (more than 70 species), AWE features the Wild Ride Theater, which treats visitors to an 8-minute motion simulator ride. The Forces of Nature exhibit introduces visitors to the destructive force of volcanoes, glaciers, earthquakes and hurricanes; and the Dangerous Creatures and Sudden Attack exhibits showcase some of nature's most feared, predatory animals.

AWE will make a further connection to its community by offering an on-staff "Wilderness Education Specialist" who will coordinate field trips and off-site animal visits with regional schools. According to Warr, the American Wilderness Experience concludes with a visit through a California State Welcome Center -- the first of its kind to open in the state's southern region.

AWE's primary drawing power likely will stem first and foremost from its live animal exhibit, which serves as a man-made habitat for animals that are deemed non-releasable into their natural surroundings (either due to injury or captive upbringing). Warr explains that, in AWE's conceptual pre-planning stage, the company settled on the exhibition of animals from five of California's natural ecosystems -- the Redwood Forest, Mojave Desert, High Sierras, Pacific Shore and Yosemite Valley. He also reports that the company has set AWE's animal acquisition and holding criteria based on the American Zoological Association's guidelines for humane treatment and holding of animals. (In some cases, Warr reports, AWE has exceeded those rules.)

"What we're doing is appealing to zoological facilities in looking for animals we'd like to have on display, either on loan or donation," he says, adding that AWE will likely differ from traditional zoo environments because of its heavy representation of North American species. "Most zoos don't really have a lot in the way of North American wildlife; they focus mainly on the international, exotic animals," he explains. "Many North American animals, due to loss of habitat, are becoming rare, hard to find and rarely seen. That in itself makes them somewhat exotic."

According to Warr, inasmuch as AWE is an "exotic" addition to Ontario Mills (and to successive centers), it also is a step forward for site-based, themed attractions in shopping centers. He notes that malls always were part of the company's expansion plan because their strategic goals are so closely in synch with those of AWE.

"The reason that AWE works in a shopping center or mega mall environment is that most zoological facilities are destination centers by nature," he says. "If a family were to plan a trip to Yosemite Park or Sea World, they'd have to plan at least a day, if not several, to take the family there. What we thought would be the best of both worlds is to take the components of a themed, entertainment facility and state or federal park and bring them all to where the people are.

"Simultaneously, shopping centers [and entertainment companies] throughout the world are looking for entertainment venues to create a draw," he continues. "The Disneys, the Universals, the Blockbusters -- they're all looking for that holy grail of site-based, entertainment concepts that would be the ultimate magnet for a retail facility. We think we got under the radar and came up with [a strong contender]."

Warr says AWE's expansion is limited neither to Mills centers nor to its own 35,000 sq. ft. footprint. The company is reportedly in discussion with other shopping center owner/developers, including Indianapolis-based Simon DeBartolo Group, to bring a smaller, retail- and restaurant-only concept to The Shops at Sunset Place, one of Simon DeBartolo's Florida centers. "That particular facility creates a lot of interest for us because it establishes a satellite to the Sawgrass Mills location, which has the full facility [and is 40 miles away]," he says.

The smaller retail and restaurant concept will encompass approximately 15,000 sq. ft., Warr notes, adding that a larger rollout could be in the works. "We'd like to do a stand-alone, retail and restaurant spin-off of the [AWE] brand that's within some proximity of a full-blown AWE site," he explains.

Although initial emphasis will remain on larger sites, many possibilities remain, adds Warr. "There's no reason why we can't spin-off further -- go completely stand-alone in a city independent of the attraction," he says.

Contact: Jonathan Stern, senior vice president, Ogden Entertainment, 2 Pennsylvania Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10121; (212) 868-6000.

"Just browsing" takes on a new meaning when shoppers stop by Internet stations at EduNation. The retailer's one permanent location, which also serves as the company headquarters, is located at Cottonwood Mall in Albuquerque (a seasonal site exists at Coronado Center, also in Albuquerque). The 3,700 sq. ft. store mixes Internet stations and a cyber juice bar with the sale of various software titles, educational books and CD-ROMs for families with children of all ages.

"The key word here is 'edutainment,'" says EduNation president Tyler Tysdal. "The word 'edutainment' began in the software industry, and we've broadened its meaning from simply toys and games to books, videos and software. EduNation reflects an entertaining product mix with educational value and a technological spin."

EduNation's overall strategy, says Tysdal, is to "capture the [facets of education] outside the school systems that are going to give families a learning advantage." He notes that the objective was put to the test recently when the store was visited by the parent of a child with Down's syndrome.

"We looked some things up on the Internet she'd never seen before, and she was fascinated by the information that was out there," he says. "We got her on some chat lines with other families [who also have Down's syndrome children], and then she went to our Early Learning section and picked out some related products that were on that Web site."

If EduNation appears to have surprisingly focused direction for a retailer with only two stores, it is a project that has enjoyed help from some experienced industry players. Tysdal reports that EduNation was guided through an entrepreneurial development program conducted by Indianapolis-based Simon DeBartolo Group Inc.

"[In Simon DeBartolo's program], they took the concept and basically threw a lot of knowledge our way," he explains. "We met in Indianapolis with their senior executives, including [senior vice president] Debbie Simon and [senior vice president] Karen Corsaro, and they just gave us a tremendous amount of advice to make the project happen. They would like to see us grow nationally."

>From the meeting with Simon DeBartolo, says Tysdal, EduNation began to take design shape when Corsaro placed a call to Kiku Obata, a St. Louis-based retail architect and designer. The next day, Tysdal and EduNation vice president Beth Anne Walker (who also is Tysdal's sister) flew to St. Louis to meet with Obata to develop a design strategy for the new concept.

The keys to EduNation's image and design, according to Obata, are fun and interactivity. "We really tried to play with the idea of EduNation, and asked the question, 'How do we communicate the concept without it appearing stodgy,'" she says.

She adds that the store is intended to invoke the themes of ivy league schools, coupled with the use of warm, rich woods, Greek columns and large wooden fixtures. "We felt we had to set a tone by complementing the educational component with fun themes and interactivity on top of it," she says.

According to Tysdal, EduNation is examining 10 cities for new stores, with between three and 10 new stores on tap for 1998. He says the retailer is considering in-line locations at major regional malls, as well as a few festival centers, as sites for possible expansion.

Contact: Tyler Tysdal, president, EduNation, 10000 Coors Blvd., Suite G-11, Albuquerque, N.M. 87114; (505) 899-0800.