Six shoppertainment malls, three eager mallrats, one day of shopping nirvana

Oasis at Sawgrass Mills
Just ten years after opening, Sawgrass Mills mall bills itself as the second-most-popular tourist attraction in Florida, behind only a new Super Kmart outside Kissimmee. More than 24 million people visit the alligator-shape outlet mall each year to troll for bargains at popular retailers such as Ann Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue. The phenomenal success of Sawgrass Mills has transformed Sunrise from a sleepy bedroom community out by the Everglades into a congested bedroom community out by the Everglades that has a major shopping mall.

And a major new sports arena, too, now that the Florida Panthers hockey team has constructed a car rental drop-off facility adjacent to the mall. The arrival of the National Car Rental Center prompted mall officials to speed up their long-established plans to add an "entertainment" component to the complex. The $50 million result, the Oasis at Sawgrass Mills, opened this past April.

We arrive at the Oasis a few minutes before 1 p.m. Parking is free, which is nice, but the mall on a Saturday is always very crowded, so it's hard to find a spot. We are tempted to use the three-dollar valet, if we ever did that sort of thing. After a few laps of frustration, we roll down the window to ask a worker in a golf cart for a little help. He points us to a lot approximately seven miles away.

On the half-hour drive up I-75, it had taken the girls only a few minutes to overcome their shyness and partake of the cookies, chips, and Gatorade provided for their comfort. Not only has this feast raised their blood sugar levels higher than medically advisable, it has also topped off their bladders. As soon as the van's wheels stop, the I-Team slides open the side doors and darts toward the bathrooms. "Hey, it's the Cheesecake Factory!" says Vania, speed walking past a CocoWalk institution.

"This is just like Coconut Grove," Michelle adds.
The Oasis is a pastel candyland of a shoppertainment center. Yellow and pink paints shade the walls. Whimsically tiled spiral fountains are great for little kids to play on, though security guards chase off those who do. On a wall near the Burlington Coat Factory entrance, the Oasis mascot, a fanciful bird (the rare Yellow-Bellied Purple-Plumed Shill) totes a banner that carries the Oasis slogan: "The most fun under the sun. The most fun under the stars."

"It looks like Disney World," chirps Gabriella, emerging from the restrooms, which she reports are modern and clean.

The Oasis is geared toward family entertainment, so no Hooters, thank you. Instead alongside the mandatory multiplex theater sits a Hard Rock Cafe and Steven Spielberg's GameWorks arcade. A Polo outlet store sells $50 loose-fit jeans for only $35. Most of the stores are unknowns. Adventura? Time Factory? At the latter, Barbie wristwatches loiter in the windows.

Mostly we got restaurants, lots of them, every last one a chain. Joining the Hard Rock are a Los Ranchos steak house, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop, and Cafe Tu Tu Tango, another CocoWalk success story. Internationally known chef Wolfgang Puck invites us to "Eat, Live, and Love" at his cafe, but it isn't open yet. Come to mention it, neither is almost every other restaurant, nor most of the stores. It's one week after the mall's highly publicized grand opening, yet the movie theater is closed. Construction workers scurry around the Hard Rock. The GameWorks arcade is silent, as is a giant Ron Jon Surf Shop. It's encouraging that the Legal Sea Foods restaurant serves $4.25 bowls of clam chowder, but so far only at dinnertime.

"We won't be coming back here until this place opens up for real," says a mother to her young son, who is toting a yellow balloon.

"The bottom line," adds Pembroke Pines resident Diedre Thornhill, "is it's open, but most of the things that I want to go to are not open. So, sorry."

The I-Team shares the frustration. "Nothing is open yet," grumbles Michelle.
"It doesn't have good stores," Gabriella adds. "It has good restaurants, but not good stores."

All three praise the mall's colorful design, especially the fountains. And the bathrooms are nice. What don't they like? "Everything else!" shouts Vania, and the I-Team breaks into giggles.

We run through the checklist:
Cafe Tu Tu Tango? Check!
Cheesecake Factory? Check!
Hooters? No.
Guy with a parrot on his shoulder? No.
Gap? No.
Flamenco guitarist? No.
Are you having the most fun you've ever had under the sun? No.
Do you think you would be having more fun if you were under the stars? No.

Is this place the heart and beat of Sunrise? The question provokes quizzical looks, indicating it's time to move on. We trek back to the van. Downtown Fort Lauderdale awaits.

Las Olas Riverfront
Fort Lauderdale lost its first downtown to fire in 1912. A replacement main street rose alongside Henry Flagler's railroad tracks on the north bank of the New River. Local farmers traveled to the attractive new downtown to ship their crops north, to shop at the city's first dry goods store, or to make a run on the first city bank. By the '60s, though, the neighborhood had gone to seed. Not that the largely abandoned buildings didn't retain their good looks, especially in relation to the soulless structures rising along Broward Boulevard. To save old downtown, city officials in 1975 designated the area an historic district. Nine of eleven buildings in that area were destroyed in the construction of Las Olas Riverfront.

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