In the ongoing evolution of the post-pandemic retail landscape, a former west suburban Sears store is being transformed into an indoor entertainment theme park, giving visitors the chance to zap ectoplasmic entities from “Ghostbusters” where they once shopped for Toughskin jeans. Sony Pictures Entertainment is launching its first Wonderverse at Oakbrook Center next month, an elaborate 45,000-square-foot space stocked with immersive experiences based on hits like “Zombieland” and “Jumanji” from the studio’s movie, TV and video game franchises. “This is an opportunity to kind of step into the screen and go past it, if you will,” said Jeffrey Godsick, head of location-based entertainment at Sony Pictures. “And in some cases, be a Ghostbuster.” Wonderverse will include both permanent and pop-up themed attractions, from virtual reality quests and escape rooms to old school arcade games. It will also feature a full-service restaurant and bar, as well as a Ghostbusters speakeasy to ostensibly drink spirits with spirits. The Ghostbusters offering includes a mission to capture ghosts while armed with realistic-looking proton packs — cross the streams at your own risk. There is also a simulated Ectomobile hovercraft ride. Zombieland attractions include a Pacific Playland arcade and bumper cars, where contact turns each player into an undead driver. Jumanji will be a virtual reality experience to find and replace the Jaguar’s jeweled eye, the focus of the rebooted 2017 movie. A retail store will feature merchandise geared toward devotees, filled with such inside references as a T-shirt for “Ray’s Occult Books,” a shop run by Dan Aykroyd’s character in 1989′s “Ghostbusters II” sequel. The item will only be available at Wonderverse, Godsick said. “Almost every single thing that’s in the store you cannot buy anywhere else in the world,” Godsick said. “These are exclusive designs made specifically for the store.” Wonderverse is slated for a soft opening in December and a grand opening in January. Admission will be free, but the attractions are designed as pay-for-play, with prices ranging from $10 to $35 per person, Godsick said. Sony is projecting upward of 5,000 daily visitors, but individual attractions should be booked in advance, with a limited number of participants at a time. The entertainment center will be an adult-only experience after 8 p.m. each night. Sony, which hopes to roll out the Wonderverse concept internationally, signed a 10-year lease with Brookfield Properties, the owners of Oakbrook Center. The space encompasses 80,000 square feet, with Sony planning to sublease the adjacent 35,000 square feet to other tenants, Godsick said. The space was once part of a massive Sears anchor store spanning three stories and 250,000 square feet. It was subdivided in 2018, giving rise to Life Time Fitness, L.L. Bean and Ballard Designs, among other tenants. Sears closed its downsized store on the lower level after emerging from bankruptcy in 2019. The remaining 80,000-square-foot space on the upper level was leased in 2018 to KidZania, a children’s entertainment center, but it never opened and the Mexico-based company halted the Oak Brook project in 2021. “Unfortunately, they were a casualty of the pandemic,” said Tim Geiges, senior general manager of Oakbrook Center. Into the void stepped Sony, which has been in the planning stages for Wonderverse at Oakbrook Center for several years, Geiges said. It will soon join an increasingly diverse roster of tenants at the sprawling west suburban outdoor mall. Built in 1962, Oakbrook Center is the second largest Chicago-area shopping center with more than 2.5 million square feet of leasable space. Anchor tenants include Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, with dozens of retailers, restaurants and a growing portfolio of experiential offerings. In addition to the forthcoming Wonderverse, experiential tenants include Puttshack, Escape The Room, Immersive Gamebox and Sandbox VR, all of which opened in the last few years. “We’ve kind of been evolving over the past 10-plus years,” Geiges said. “This really isn’t anything new for us.” Back in the day, experiential at a shopping center might have meant a movie, a bowling alley, a restaurant or perhaps a warmup-suited mall walker. But the offerings have evolved in recent years as retail navigates the growth of online shopping, which was catalyzed by the pandemic. North Michigan Avenue, long the nexus of shopping in Chicago, saw an exodus of retailers during the pandemic, losing Macy’s, Gap and Japanese clothing giant Uniqlo, among others. Vacancy along the Magnificent Mile still sits at about 25%. New tenants include the Museum of Ice Cream, which opened two years ago in the redeveloped Tribune Tower. Across the U.S., shopping center occupancy, which dropped to 90.2% in 2021, has nearly recovered to pre-pandemic levels at 92.1%, according to third quarter data from ICSC, an industry trade group. A growing number of those vacancies are being filled by experiential tenants, which account for roughly 15% of all retail leasing activity in the past year, according to a November report by JLL. “We are in the midst of an explosion in the experiential economy,” Godsick said. “People today, especially millennials and Gen Z, are much more interested in spending their money on experiences than acquiring just material goods.” Brookfield Properties, part of Toronto-based Brookfield Asset Management, took over Oakbrook Center and a handful of other area shopping centers with its $15 billion acquisition of GGP in 2018. It has been, for better or worse, a change agent in Chicago retail. At Northbrook Court, Brookfield demolished a vacant Macy’s anchor store in 2019, and is looking to redevelop the nearly 50-year-old north suburban mall as a mixed-use residential and retail center. In April 2022, Brookfield walked away from Water Tower Place, handing the onetime jewel of Michigan Avenue back to the lender after losing Macy’s and other tenants during the pandemic. Oakbrook Center remains a “thriving, evolving mall” with a waiting list of prospective tenants, according to Lindsay Kahn, a spokesperson for Brookfield Properties. Geiges is confident Wonderverse will be a regional draw for Oakbrook Center. “I think Sony’s Wonderverse will bring people in from all over because it is going to be such a unique, exciting concept,” Geiges said. Sony, for its part, is banking on that success. Goldsick said the concept is being vetted for locations around the world, based on how the initial Wonderverse at Oakbrook Center performs. “Our goal is to open this one first, learn everything we possibly can,” Goldsick said. “And then we will start to roll out Wonderverse as a product both in the United States and internationally.” Already listed on the Oakbrook Center site as coming soon, Wonderverse is racing the clock to open by the holidays. During a recent visit, workers in hard hats and yellow vests were busy building out the cavernous space, where construction scissor lifts were the most plentiful rides weeks before its planned opening. Many of the attractions are being assembled off-site. The Ghostbusters virtual reality experience was among the first to be put in place, with the Ectomobile ride sitting under wraps and an array of proton packs hanging on a nearby wall. The Pacific Playland arcade, site of the final scene from “Zombieland,” was also fully installed and beckoning with the flashing lights of coin-swallowing games, from giant video classics like Pac-Man and Space Invaders to customized claw machines and Skee-Ball. Off in their own arena, pristine bumper cars sat neatly in a row as they waited for the fender benders and chaos to come. Some concepts are still being worked out, however. While chefs at the in-house restaurant have already come up with a toasted Marshmallow Man as an homage to “Ghostbusters,” a plan to create a Twinkie-like treat in honor of “Zombieland” is still in culinary research and development, Godsick said. “We are working on something that’s kind of a giant sponge cake dessert,” Godsick said. “We haven’t cracked that one yet.”
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