When I appeared on WOFL FOX 35 last week, I was asked how once-struggling malls like Orlando Fashion Square were reinventing themselves. When the recession hit, shoppers noticed as a select number of brands removed their stores from the mall including American Eagle Outfitters and Victoria’s Secret as they began to wonder if Fashion Square would ever recover.
The truth is that a mall is measured by more than what stores it contains, and that point couldn’t be more illustrated than by Orlando Fashion Square.
Let’s first separate fact from fiction: Orlando Fashion Square is not trying to be like The Mall at Millenia. With a high-end mall like Millenia — especially one as technologically advanced — it’s hard for any mall to compare. Instead, Fashion Square stands for Orlando’s community mall, and appeals itself to families and residents in the nearby neighborhoods including Baldwin Park, Audubon Park and College Park.
Fashion Square was Orlando’s first mall having opened in 1973. It’s fair to say the mall and retail in general has changed dramatically since then, and it has evolved in the decades since. Beginning in the mid-2000s, the mall would begin to fashion itself as the community’s neighborhood mall and feature local art groups, back-to-school fashion shows, business expos and health fairs.
After the economy took a turn for the worse, the retail industry struggled all-around, Fashion Square included. But it wasn’t long until it started to show signs of life and an indication of things to come.
First, the National Entrepreneur Center opened in 2011 and was backed by region mega-powers including Walt Disney World Resort, the University of Central Florida and the Orlando Magic. Panera Bread and Planet Fitness would also soon set up shop in the mall when it was easy to see that this was a becoming a community hub.
But it was in 2013 when UP Development (pronounced like initials: U-P) purchased the mall. You can already see signs of this with the addition of StrikeOuts Bowling and Entertainment which opened in the summer of 2014. Just across from Premiere Cinema 14 on the second level, StrikeOuts serves the mall’s mission to be a destination for the community and families. Bowl a game, play at the arcades, grab food and then wander over to see a movie. And oh yeah, while you’re there you can shop for the entire family.
In 2016, the mall will open a hotel. Element by Westin will boast 160 rooms and appeal to business travelers. The hotel’s location is ideal for this clientele what with Orlando Executive Airport practically within walking distance and its proximity still with downtown. It is mall officials’ hope that hotel guests walk down from their room and into the mall where they will shop for themselves and their families and dine in the restaurants — which by the way will soon include TGI Fridays and a sushi restaurant. Their limited stay will also ensure that profits stay with the mall because if they do decide to make a return down the line, it will likely be once they’ve left Orlando.
Expansion hasn’t been limited to inside the mall. The former site of Toys”R”Us is now home to DICK’S Sporting Goods. The 63,000 square-foot store competes with The Sports Authority down and across the street in the Colonial Landing shopping plaza for the sporting goods crown.
We’re also close to the opening of Noodles & Co. which stands between Olive Garden and the new BB&T Bank along East Colonial Drive. Offering entrees spanning Asia, the Mediterranean and America, this will be the brand’s third restaurant in the Orlando area when it opens later this year.
Inside the mall you have likely noticed a large-scale basketball court branded with the Orlando Magic logo. That’s because Fashion Square is involved in a marketing partnership with the NBA franchise and on an almost monthly basis hosts an Orlando Magic-themed event. From player signings to Magic Dancers and Stuff the Magic Dragon appearances, it’s a convenient way to stay connected to Orlando’s pro basketball team.
Women have been excited ever since Sephora opened inside JCPenney. There was no greater evidence than by its grand opening which saw more than 500 shoppers stand outside waiting to experience the brand’s latest Orlando offering. And last but not least, it’s the malls emphasis on events that also keeps shoppers coming back. Look no further than its annual Canstruction event which has been held at the mall for the past 21 years which features local organizations including engineering and architecture firms creating sculptures made up entirely of canned goods. And if you want proof that Orlando Fashion Square can thrive once again, you should have been there when the mall hosted the Asian Lunar Parade which celebrates the lunar new year. Talk about packed!
And once Element by Westin opens, expect to see more stores put their trust in the mall. The strategies put in place by UP Development have the intended consequence on strengthening the once-top shopping destination in Orlando.
For long-time fans of the mall, it’s important to remember how far it’s come in the past 10 years let alone five. Count myself as someone who still believes in the power of Orlando Fashion Square and its place among Orlando’s amazing shopping malls.