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

Ah, but it's progress. Like CocoWalk, Riverfront can truly claim to be the heart and beat of its neighborhood. Located midway between popular Las Olas Boulevard and the Broward Center For the Performing Arts, Riverfront unites an emerging circuit of clubs, restaurants, and museums into a mile-long waterfront strip intersected only by railroad tracks.

We park in an indoor garage two blocks from the mall. Again parking is free -- at least during a weekend day -- though we have to wind our way up three levels before we can find a space. At the bend of Brickell Avenue sits the mall, a three-tier birthday cake of tile, brick, and stucco in a style that is called "Boca Mediterranean." If it's not an exact clone of CocoWalk, it is at least a fraternal twin. Brickell's few remaining original buildings slump opposite the mall. It may be an argument for urban renewal that the Riverfront mall is mostly occupied while the historic structures, all of which have been attractively refurbished, sit empty.

Kind of like the mall itself, peoplewise. Maybe it's the early afternoon hour or the roasting heat, but almost nobody is here, even with many of the stores open, unlike at the Oasis at Sawgrass Mills. A frozen-custard stand waits next to a Sunglass Hut. A lonely kiosk displays baseball caps. Visually anchoring everything, just like it does at CocoWalk, is a bar selling pina coladas. At the moment only one rump rests on a barstool. The cashier from the General Nutrition Center, a mall staple, stands outside her store's front door, counting change in her hand.

The place is dead.
"We were just noticing that," says Miamian Vanina Goldinger, who is visiting the mall with her friend Stacy Blum and Stacy's mom Shelly. "It's always crowded at CocoWalk." The trio is headed to Big Pink, an offshoot of the Miami Beach restaurant. They've decided to bypass Hooters, which in this mall is right out in the open on the second level, not sequestered upstairs as at CocoWalk. The owners of this Hooters say they sold 60,000 chicken wings last June, in the first month the mall opened.

Riverfront cost $52 million to build. It is immediately evident that the money was spent following a recipe that included as many CocoWalk ingredients as possible. In addition to the Spanish tile and the frozen drinks and the Hooters, a cartoonish mural by an artist named Lebo decorates a wall, just like at the Grove's sister mall, Mayfair. Live music is booked every day, though no one is playing right now. A poster near the front entrance notes that CocoWalk's flamenco fixture Arturo Fuerte will be playing six times this month. Out by the water sits a dude with two parrots perched on his shoulders.

However faithful the reproduction, the I-Team is underwhelmed. "The boats are pretty," says Gabriella as a gigantic fiberglass yacht sputters up the New River.

"It is more of a mall," Vania offers halfheartedly, comparing the Riverfront with the Oasis. "It has a little bit of everything."

Only when we climb to the third level do opinions change. There we discover a menacingly large and fear-inducing movie-theater-and-video-games complex called the Escape. Outside the complex's front doors loiter packs of kids weathering the heat in bulky Adidas sweat suits and stocking caps. Inside are 23 theaters with all the character and charm of a crowded South American airport terminal. The girls sprint up an escalator to a game area bathed in a canopy of black light. A cacophony of bleeps and crashes emanates from the bumper cars, the virtual-reality golf courses, and six truncated bowling lanes. It's hard to envision a less soothing or less pleasurable place to see a film. The Escape. It's a call to action.

"This is great!" yelps Michelle as she leans her hips into a pinball machine. "Much better than at Sawgrass Mills." Vania and Gabriella vigorously nod their heads in agreement.

"The bathrooms at Oasis are still better," adds Gabriella, trying to be helpful. They would stay all day if they could, but we have a schedule to keep. As quickly as we can, we pull them out of the darkness and back toward the sunshine of BeachPlace, only three miles away.

First the checklist:
Historic buildings destroyed in the construction? Check!
Tacky souvenir T-shirts? Check!
Cafe Tu Tu Tango? No.
Guy spray-painting psychedelic moonscapes? No.
Hooters? Check!
Packs of kids up to no good? Check!
Frozen daiquiris? Check!

Fort Lauderdale owes its fame to spring break, though city leaders would prefer to deny it. As the inspiration for the movie Where the Boys Are, as well as the underappreciated Revenge of the Nerds II, Fort Lauderdale is the home of the International Drunken Belly Flop Hall of Fame.

Yet earnest civil servants have spent the past decade washing the beer-bong vomit off their city's image, and to a large degree they've succeeded. Las Olas Boulevard has become a haven for European tourists and their cell phones. The beach is most notable now for its neon-lit sea wall and inline-skater-friendly sidewalk. Popular spring break institutions are crumbling, especially when hit by wrecking balls. The Jolly Roger became a smooth black parking lot. The Marlin Beach Hotel, once the spring break epicenter, was knocked down to make room for BeachPlace.

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