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Malls aren't just a shopper's playground

Four are kid magnets, with "playtowns'' that thrill children and get parents to stick around.

Published June 30, 2006

TAMPA - Three to four days a week, Angela Tavlan takes her 3-year-old son, Atilla, to a place where he can socialize with other kids, romp around and drain his toddler energy.

It's not the park, the zoo or an amusement park. It's a shopping mall.

This time of year, area malls become popular destinations for parents seeking something to do with their little ones while escaping the heat, rain and sun of Florida's summers.

The malls have play areas with giant rubbery ice cream cones and tunnels where infants to 6-year-olds can run, jump and crawl.

"(Atilla) doesn't go to preschool yet," said Tavlan, a stay-at-home mom from Valrico who frequents Westfield Brandon. "This gives him something to do, a chance to meet other kids and stay cool."

These contained play areas, sometimes called "playtowns," have become smart business for shopping center officials, who hope that mom and dad will buy something on their way to a play date at the mall.

Four shopping centers in Hillsborough County - Westfield Brandon, Westfield Citrus Park, International Plaza and WestShore Plaza - feature play areas, which allow caregivers to chat with one another and rest their feet. Tampa International Airport also has an aviation-themed play space, but it is accessible only to ticketed passengers.

Banquette-style seating provides parents a sweeping view of the space, made up of giant, colorful figures made of soft, durable foam. There are no sharp edges and plenty of spaces for crawling around. All the malls except for WestShore Plaza offer wireless Internet access.

The rules are the same: Kids must be under 42 inches tall, they must remove their shoes (Westfield malls provide cubbies), parents must watch their kids, and the children can't engage in rough play.

Play areas have become so popular that one mall, Westfield Citrus Park, recently added a second location - in the food court.

"Malls have become much more than shopping destinations," said Mary Ellen Norton, spokeswoman for Westfield Citrus Park. "They're entertainment destinations."

The thinking is that parents will spend more time in the mall and not feel rushed to leave. If kids get restless, parents can take a break at the play area before resuming their shopping, Norton said.

When Westfield Citrus Park opened in 1999, it featured a playtown in the center of the mall. In April 2005, officials moved it near Dillard's and put a double decker carousel in its place, she said.

Still, parents said they wanted an additional playtown, Norton said.

So this past May, the mall added a second play area in the food court .

Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Westfield Citrus Park offers free kids movies at its theaters next to the food court. Before and after the movies, kids swarm to the playtown. "They sit in the theater for a while. For their age, it seems like a long time," Angie Patane said of her 3-year-old twins. "They have a lot of energy when they get out. The play area is perfect."

More than 400 malls in America have play areas, according to PLAYTIME LLC, a Colorado company that has installed about 90 percent of them. They range from 600 to 2,500 square feet and cost about $125 a square foot, said David O'Niones, vice president and director of sales for PLAYTIME.

Mall play areas have created subculture of their own, attracting play groups, coffee clubs and grandparents.

"The parents can rejuvenate; the kids get their wiggles out," O'Niones said. "Obviously, the mall experience for the family is enhanced tenfold."

*   *   * 

So how do local play areas rate? I tested them out by hitting four malls in four days with my two sons, Jonathon, 3, and Khoi, 1. By the third day, Jonathon groaned. "I don't want to go to another mall," he said.

But all playtowns are different - and a lot of fun. His groans quickly turned to squeals of laughter as he made a friend and climbed and tumbled barefoot, happy and (relatively) free.

Here's a description of each:


International Plaza

THEME: Beachy. Features diving dolphins, newly hatched tortoises, a pearl inside a giant clam.

SIZE: 2,112 square feet

CLEANLINESS: Sanitized once a day, more if needed. Deep-cleaned monthly.

BEST PLACE TO PARK: Parking lot "B" near Nordstrom or lot "D" near the California Pizza Kitchen

PLAY NOTES: By far the largest play area of all the malls, this space features a lot for climbers. Jonathon, who brought a toy car to the mall, lay inside the giant clam and happily played with his car.

Khoi loved sitting inside the hatched tortoise eggs and climbing on the diver with his rubber ducky.

This space is large enough where it doesn't turn into a traffic jam trying to climb onto your favorite object. You can spend a good 45 minutes here just watching the kids play.

I finally had to leave when Jonathon wouldn't stop running into the nearby video game store to look at items from the Disney movie Cars. With two places to enter and exit the play area, keep a close eye on your kids.

Security does its job and shoos the big kids away.


WestShore Plaza

THEME: Journalism. Features a giant camera, a microphone, a computer and a big brown hat.

BEST PLACE TO PARK: Near either of the two main entrances by JCPenney.

SIZE: 800 square feet

CLEANLINESS: Sanitized each morning, maintained throughout the day.

PLAY NOTES: Kids loved sitting on top of the big hat, and there was room for more than one child. Khoi liked crawling through the computer while Jonathon sat on top of it. The wavy newspaper proved to be a lot of fun, too.


Westfield Citrus Park

THEME: Food. Features a fallen soda cup, a hamburger, hot dog and ice cream cone.

BEST PLACE TO PARK: Outside Quickfood Cafes

SIZE: 982 square feet

CLEANLINESS: Sanitized daily at 3 p.m. (Play area is closed for 30 minutes.) It's cleaned again either that night or the next morning and deep-cleaned monthly.

PLAY NOTES: Kids love the hot dog launch pad. The soda cup tunnel is pretty cool, too, but watch out for jumpers from the cup above when others are emerging from the tunnel. My palms sweated a few times because jumpers came too close for comfort. Jonathon and his cousin, Cynthia, were preoccupied with a line of coin-operated rides lined up against the play area. Bring plenty of change.

Just outside the playtown entrance are kid-sized tables and chairs for eating. Around lunchtime, the kids movie lets out and a swarm of older kids descend on the playground.


Westfield Citrus Park Playtown #2

THEME: Turtles, logs, spinning activity boards.

BEST PLACE TO PARK: Outside Dillard's

SIZE: 605 square feet

CLEANLINESS: Sanitized daily at 3 p.m. (Play area is closed for 30 minutes.) It's cleaned again either that night or the next morning and deep-cleaned monthly.

PLAY NOTES: It's a smaller space that tends to draw younger kids who are crawling or still unsure on their feet. I didn't have to watch Khoi as closely this time. He liked to play with wheels of beads mounted against the inside of the play area.


Westfield Brandon

THEME: Similar to other Westfield-owned malls. This one features two fun cars with steering wheels.


SIZE: 1,056 square feet

CLEANLINESS: Sanitized once a day, more if needed. Deep-cleaned once a week. An antibacterial hand gel dispenser is just outside the play area.

PLAY NOTES: A rainbow-shaped ramp attracts kids who like to climb and slide. Outside the play area, coin-operated rides feature a rocket ship and cars.

Jonathon laughed as he climbed on and tumbled down the arc. He "raced" in the soft cars, turning their steering wheels with fury. There were lots of colorful plastic panels for Khoi to flip and turn.

[Last modified June 29, 2006, 10:23:39]

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