A Company in Grapevine Ranks #2 in the World for Visitor Attraction
1 Jul 2023
It’s been over a decade since Merlin Entertainments arrived in Grapevine; enough time for the brand to have fallen off your radar. Launched out of the U.K. in 1999, Merlin has spent the 21st century assembling a massive portfolio of attractions that span four continents. Some they built, while others were acquired and incorporated into a list of destinations 140 entries long. Their offerings are as diverse as they are widespread, and only discerning guests will notice the corporate umbrella under which each individual venue operates. In fact, there’s a chance that even lifelong residents of our City have completely missed their presence here.
LEGOland Discovery Center and SeaLife Aquarium draw hundreds of thousands of people into Grapevine every year. They’ve had such great success, in fact, that Merlin decided to add a third offering to the cluster inside of Grapevine Mills: the first Peppa Pig World of Play ever constructed in the United States. Together, those attractions represent important bookends in the redevelopment of a once-dated shopping center.
Grapevine Mills got a multi-million-dollar makeover in the 2010s. The 2011 grand opening of SeaLife and LEGOland – both of which served to backfill huge, empty storefronts at the center – could be considered the first phase of what is now an industry-leading conversion. Together, they set the tone for the Mills’ rebirth as one of the most-visited regional shopping malls in the nation.
Right Idea, Wrong Approach
The company behind Grapevine Mills has always envisioned it as a combination of entertainment and retail space. When the doors first opened in 1997, the Mills Corporation had assembled a group of tenants with that goal in mind. Simon Property Group continued that strategic commitment after acquiring the center. But knowing the goal and executing on the strategy are two different things.
“We used to have an ESPN-themed skate park. And back in the day that was a great name. It was, you know, considered to be [a great addition to the center]. What it turned out to be was that Mom would drop off the teens with the skateboards, then leave and pick them up later. It was not a great use for the center because it wasn’t very family-centric,” said Grapevine Mills General Manager Joe Szymaszek.
If the goal was to draw people into the center and hold them until a retail offering caught their eye, an isolated attraction that never brought customers beyond the first set of doors wasn’t enough. The skate park struggled on its own and didn’t add any strategic value to the center. Next door, a multi-level SEGA GameWorks arcade ran into similar issues, compounded by bankruptcies at the parent company. The closure of those two massive sites gave the development team a chance to try again.
“The Merlin attractions? The whole family can enjoy those,” Szymaszek said. “Their most successful assets are their cluster here; their SeaLife and LEGOland. So we certainly have the reputation of being the centerpoint of the metroplex. This is where you need to come and do business. This is where you’ll be successful... the last two years have been record years for the center so far, as far as performance.”
The Power of DFW
Texas has a reputation for economic excellence, and the DFW metroplex plays an important role in maintaining the Lone Star State’s dominance. Home to 6.5 million people – and counting – the sprawling cities and suburbs of North Texas can support just about any concept through latent demand and a talented labor force. Geographically, it’s hard to find a more advantageous spot for a physical location, too: the entire continental United States lies within 3 hours by plane, and DFW International Airport makes it easy to step much further away.
“You look at the sheer number of people who live in DFW; the economy size and the number of people there rivals a pretty big country. And you’ve got them all right on your doorstep," said Ed Evans, General Manager for all three Merlin attractions here in Grapevine.
“It’s a growing area; there’s a lot of people who are sort of looking for things to do. So it makes sense [for Merlin to build here] from that perspective. But then you couple that with the way that the mall in Grapevine is run, which is pretty exceptional. I think they’re quite forward-thinking. They seem to make strong decision after strong decision. And then you’ve got the City of Grapevine, which is – again – future focused with a strong idea of what success looks like and wants good, well-run businesses in their City. That seems to be a good combination.”
Merlin made a big investment in their DFW attractions by building SeaLife and LEGOland nearly simultaneously, but it’s turned out to be a wise one. Evans estimates that the cluster sees hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, with nearly a third of them purchasing a combination ticket that grants entry to two or three of the attractions at Grapevine Mills.
“The strategy of Merlin would be: if you’re going to have an attraction in a location, you should probably have a couple more attractions around there, as well,” he said. “There’s a cost saving, obviously, from having a couple of attractions near each other. I would not be able to manage three locations three attractions if there were geographically miles apart from each other. But then there’s also the synergy. You can do better marketing campaigns. If people are looking for a destination to go and have fun with their family, they can just go to Grapevine Mills and have a great time there.”
A Touch of Merlin Magic
Grapevine Mills is home to all kinds of family-friendly entertainment these days, but few offerings are quite as unique as Merlin’s. LEGOland hosts model-building contests and a thematic LEGO pirate sprayground alongside 4D movies, immersive rides, and educational experiences. SeaLife Aquarium allows guests to walk through the state’s only 360-degree underwater tunnel and, on occasion, meet a mermaid. They’re also home to an AZA-accredited Sea Turtle Hospital, rescuing and rehabilitating marine life from all over North America. Peppa Pig World of Play adds something special to the mix, too.
“We do attract a multi-generational family,” said Trudy Cresswell, Director of Marketing and Business Development at Grapevine Mills. “So you may have children who are teenagers, who are enjoying Round 1 bowling or The Escape Game or the movie theatre. But then you have family that comes in with small nieces and nephews and grandchildren. You know, Peppa Pig attracts kids 6-and-under. Hardly any entertainment really targets that age. And what a wonderful opportunity to have! Basically, it’s an indoor, interactive playground with a snack shop. I mean, if you’re a parent with someone who is 6-and-under, that’s just a banner place to know.”
For shopping centers like Grapevine Mills, expanded demographic appeal is important. Leisure shopping is still a major entertainment category in the US, but it’s become increasingly rare for folks to go out of their way to shop in the age of ecommerce. Physical retail has some advantages, of course – buyers get their items instantly after an extended, hands-on trial – but it really shines when paired with entertainment that can pull in prospective shoppers. That’s where Merlin excels.
“More people visit a Merlin attraction every year than visit a Premier League Game, the NBA, the NHL, and the NFL combined. It’s a lot of people going through and, hopefully, having a great experience at one of the attractions,” Evans said. “You put your attractions where you’re going to find the type of people who are going to visit your attractions. With shopping malls, you’ve got families going in there, looking to buy a few things and have a day out. Now you’ve got some entertainment that you can do while you’re there. Sometimes it works in reverse, as well: families looking for something to do will then stay in the mall and buy a few things.”
That synergy is the lifeblood of Grapevine’s most impactful shopping center; a place that has evolved into a must-see destination for visitors near and far in no small part because of pioneers like Merlin.
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