If Kids Can Play, Will Mom Shop? Wall Street Journal Reports on PLAYTIME

May 16, 2012

“Shopping-mall designers see indoor shopping mall playscapes as a way to lure in more shoppers and get them to stay longer,” reports Wall Street Journal columnist Kris Hudson on Lunch Break as he looks at the most innovative playscapes in malls across the U.S. and what’s next.

Hudson recently visited the PLAYTIME Studios and its Looney Tunes-themed Rocky Mountain Play Park in Denver’s Cherry Creek Shopping Center. It was there he met Katie Poch, who visits the Cherry Creek Shopping Center in Denver more than once a month, but not for the Neiman Marcus, Juicy Couture and Burberry stores. It’s Tweety Bird and Porky Pig that draw her.

The Denver woman, a part-time research assistant, brings her daughters, 2 and 4 years old, to the mall to let them romp in its 1,130-square-foot play area filled with Looney Tunes characters. “I come to this mall more than any other mall because I know that if we need a break, there is a spot for the kids,” says Ms. Poch, who also does a little shopping while she’s there.

The once-humble play area is one of shopping malls’ new secret weapons. In their bid to keep shoppers from deserting to the Internet, more malls are adding restaurants and services like hair salons and fitness clubs that provide things that the Internet can’t. New play areas can create lively public spaces while keeping a key constituent—parents—happy.

Most malls are grappling with encroachment from online shopping and competition created by decades of retail overbuilding. As a result, malls “no longer can afford to be just landlords,” said Paco Underhill, founder and CEO of Envirosell Inc., which consults for mall owners and retailers. “They have to be place makers,” he says, referring to “the little something extra that gets someone to drive past another mall to come to yours.”

That is why sprawling play areas averaging 900 to 1,200 square feet— with some topping 2,000 square feet—have been popping up in malls’ center courts. Playtime Inc., the leading supplier of play areas to malls, installed 65 new shopping-center projects last year, with major upgrades to an additional 18. Sales of play areas to malls have grown from less than $500,000 in 2000 to an estimated $12 million this year, industry participants say.

Playtime’s soft climbing structures are frequently crafted as Sesame Street characters, Garfield the cat or Bugs Bunny. A few have proximity sensors that trigger sounds when kids get close, such as carrot-chomping sounds from Bugs, creaks from a foam bridge or twangs from a guitar.

Setups from Playtime run from $50,000 to $500,000. But malls often recruit local sponsors, which display their logos around the play area and sometimes consult on its design. At Cherry Creek, a Taubman Centers Inc. mall, the play area is sponsored by Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children. To promote a healthy lifestyle, it includes Looney Tunes characters rafting, backpacking and, in the case of Daffy Duck, hanging from a rescue helicopter on the mall’s ceiling.

“The hospitals have the most local interest in reaching families,” said Glenda Cole, Taubman’s vice president of sponsorship and mall marketing.

Indoor play spaces raise anxieties for some parents. They sometimes have a dreary image as spaces that keep children inside. And some parents cringe at the commercialism of the mall backdrop, which, for many, can lead to pleas of “Will you buy me that?”

“When I was a new mom, I was a little concerned because I thought it was a germfest,” says Jill Vived, a 37-year-old mother of a 3-year-old daughter playing at the Cherry Creek mall. “But if they go to preschool, there are also germs.”

To combat the “germnasium” image of some indoor play areas, many large mall owners say they clean their play areas three times a day—twice during operating hours and once after hours. (PLAYTIME play products are certified antibacterial, thanks to their smooth, non-porous urethanes coatings.)

Mall play areas generally don’t have full-time attendants, leaving parents to police the playing.

“Some parents think this is a drop-off daycare where they can sit here and (barely) watch their kids,” says Ms. Poch, adding that most kids do obey when asked to calm down. To address safety concerns, the play areas are usually surrounded by a 4-foot-high wall, with foam-padded floors and only one exit.

The cushy new play areas are a far cry from the simple, coin-operated rides and puzzle tables parked in distant wings of older malls. For decades, fountains were the belles of the mall, occupying the center courts. But by the 1980s, mall owners saw fountains as costly features that did little to draw customers. Since then, they have experimented with placing lounge areas, art and performance spaces at center court.

In 1998, a Taubman architect saw Playtime’s foam structures at Walt Disney Co.’s Blizzard Beach Water Park in Orlando, Fla., and Taubman asked the company to make something similar for its malls. Now, Playtime, based in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Colo., has produced play areas for roughly 650 U.S. shopping centers, as well as play areas for fitness clubs, restaurants, children’s hospitals and amusement parks.

Playtime’s systems typically take 12 to 16 weeks to build. Each piece starts with a flat wooden base and a core of hand-sculpted Styrofoam. Artists encase the structure in a quarter inch of fiberglass. Over that, they attach a half-inch layer of foam to give the structure some yield for little climbers.

“You have to have artists at every stage to make it look real,” Playtime Chief Executive Mike Evans said. Technicians called “goopers” spray on a quarter-inch layer of rubber, providing more softness and pliability. The structures are then coated with paint and a urethane that keeps liquids and bacteria from penetrating them and allows for easy cleaning.

Playtime and its customers keep the structures short, rarely allowing them to exceed 48 inches in height; Playtime technicians use probes the size of a child’s hand, fingers and head to check for “pinch points.”

At a food-court table close by, in early May, Pacific Palisades resident Michelle Lande had soft pretzels she had bought for her three children to eat when they emerged from the play area. “We will come back,” she said, “because I can read a book while they play.”