Orlando's newest themed attraction: American Girl store
It's no surprise that a lot of out-of-town visitors to Walt Disney World and the other Orlando themed attractions enjoy taking in the other sights and sounds - and shopping opportunities - offered here in Central Florida. Now, for many parents coming here on vacation, there's an even greater enticement to spend at least a part of vacation time at one Orlando's shopping meccas.
For many little girls -- including my own daughter -- a dream came true this past weekend when a new American Girl store opened in Orlando. The popular maker of dolls has fewer than 20 stores nationwide, and most are situated in large cities. Before the new location opened at Florida Mall, Miami was the closest store for Central Florida residents and its visitors.
The grand opening celebration on Saturday and Sunday was expected to draw a combined total of about 10,000 shoppers. My daughter and I were among the crowds on Saturday, and although we had an almost three-hour wait to enter the store in the afternoon, we had an enjoyable time because of the all the additional themed activities and well-planned system for managing the crowds.
When we arrived, we first noticed a large pink tent set up in the parking lot in front of the new store. When we joined the queue there, we were offered bottles of water with the American Girl logo -- a nice touch -- and a brochure with all the scheduled entertainment while we waited to be assigned to a group to enter the store. Tickets were issued on a first-come, first-served basis and multiple methods were used to notify shoppers about which groups were being called to the store so they could do other things at the mall while waiting. (Guests had the opportunity to sign up for text and Facebook alerts, and there were large digital screens set up in the plaza outside the store and inside the mall.)
An ice cream truck and tables covered in pink tablecloths were set up in the parking lot for waiting shoppers. In the outdoor plaza, girls could participate in two different crafts; get a sparkle tattoo and balloon animal; or pop into a photo booth or pose in front of an official opening screen -- all for free. There was so much to do, we didn't even make it into the mall before it was out turn to enter the store. I can't say enough how well the crowds were handled. We hardly felt like we were waiting because my daughter had so many other fun things to do.
When our time was announced, we joined a short queue and were given a complimentary copy of an American Girl craft book. And then, we were inside the store! My daughter had visited the Miami store, so she was familiar with the different sections of the store and immediately set off to find the Doll Salon. She was intent on giving her doll the gift of a spa treatment (a careful cleaning of the doll's "skin") and a new hairstyle that she picked from a list of about 85 choices. The Doll Salon can accommodate a row of dolls at the same time, and the services are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. The hairstyles typically range from $10 to $20, and spa treatments are $5 to $12. Ear piercing also is available for $14.
Next, we visited the Creativ-Tees kiosk, which is where guests can pick a design and have a matching T-shirts made for themselves and their dolls. Although American Girl sells coordinating outfits online and through its catalog, these T-shirts are only sold in stores. My daughter selected a beach design for her doll. The doll-size T-shirts cost $10, the girls' T-shirts are $24. Each store also has a selection of exclusive merchandise, including logo shirts with the city where the store is located.
Then, we headed to the area that featured the clothing and accessories for the Girl of the Year, Isabelle. Each year, American Girl has a featured doll, who is only available for purchase that year. These dolls have a modern interests and are from different parts of the country. For example, Isabelle is a ballet dancer from Washington, D.C., and last year's doll, Saige, was an artist from New Mexico. American Girl stores typically have a photo opportunity set up that features the Girl of the Year, so visitors can pose with their dolls.
American Girl also offers eight historical dolls and 40 dolls that are made to look like the customer. Girls can choose from dolls with various combinations of skin tone, hairstyle and eye color to find one they can identify with. Each 18-inch doll costs $115 and is recommended for ages 8 and older. American Girl also makes Bitty Babies, which are 15-inch dolls that look like babies instead of companions and are aimed at a younger audiences of children ages 3 and older.
My daughter also likes to look in the book nook. Each store also has a designated area for a variety of American Girl books: historical stories, mysteries, modern tales, crafts and DVDs.
The American Girl stores also have restaurants -- called Bistros or Cafes -- that serve afternoon tea, lunch and dinner. Of course, your little girl's doll is invited -- and expected -- to join the experience. In fact, if you child doesn't bring a doll, she will be offered one on loan for the meal. Dolls are seated in their own chairs that attach to the table and given doll-sized portions of food. My daughter and I had lunch at the Miami Bistro and she just loved it! Prices ranges are $4-$7 for appetizers, $8 to $15 for entrees and $4 to $7 for dessert. Afternoon tea is $13.50 per person.
The restaurants also host groups celebrating birthdays. Some locations, including the Orlando location, also have separate rooms for private parties. Reservations are recommended for all meals and parties and can be booked online at AmericanGirl.com.
The new Orlando American Girl store is already decorated for the holidays. The window displays showcase winter scenes, such as one of the dolls riding in a carriage drawn by a horse. Inside, there is a gorgeous tree that makes a wonderful backdrop for photos. Once a store has been in operation for a few months, special events are scheduled at the store. For example, in December, other stores host events with Santa. I was told these won't happen in Orlando until 2015, however.
The store's regular hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays. There will be special hours for the holidays.
If you're a Central Florida parent of a girl who loves the dolls as much as mine, I imagine you're happy there's a nearby store that appeals to your child. If you're visiting Orlando's theme parks, though, and don't live near an American Girl store, you might want to save time in your vacation for a quick trip to a place where special, one-of-a-kind dolls are the themed attraction.