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  March/April 1998 Features:
On Top of the World
Just Deserts
Tallying the Taku
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Sierra Magazine
The Great Indoors

Retailers have not only bottled the wilderness, but they offer plenty of free parking, too. Will that be cash or charge?

by B.J. Bergman

Somewhere between the La-Z-Boy and the great outdoors lies the American Wilderness Experience, a special place where the scenery never changes, the cats live in fishbowls, and admission is just $9.95.

For the more literal-minded, the American Wilderness Experience—or, as its promoters are pleased to call it, AWE—can be found at the junction of interstates 10 and 15, some 40 miles east of that other land of enchantment, Hollywood. Billed as a "multi-dimensional nature-based attraction," it's a new addition to the teeming Ontario Mills megamall, a 2-million square-foot shoppers' paradise that boasts 10,000 parking spots and its own police station, along with factory-discount outlets, multiplexes, and even a magnet boutique. Bought all the shoes you can use? Maxed out your Discover card? Hang a left at the food court. Then, as the billboard says, "Go Wild in the Mall!"

The world's first in-mall wilderness park promises "a totally immersive wilderness experience" meant to entertain and educate visitors through "a unique blend of technology, ecology, and wildlife discovery." The American Wilderness Experience is brought to you by the Ogden Corporation, whose other recent projects include a coal-fired power plant in the Philippines and a 290-slot casino in Aruba. Besides its Ontario flagship, the $2 billion company has established a beachhead in Phoenix-Tempe's Arizona Mills mall, and plans to expand its "location-based entertainment concept" to Grapevine Mills (Dallas), Gurnee Mills (Chicago), Sawgrass Mills (Ft. Lauderdale), and at least four other U.S. outposts. Eventually, Ogden hopes to export AWE to strategically targeted less-developed nations whose quaint, benighted people still tryst with nature by going outdoors.

Their day will come, I figured. But ours was here now. So, accompanied by a fellow credit-card-carrying American, I followed the signs to Ontario Mills, a place so vast it's arranged into merchandise-themed "neighborhoods." In a neighborhood dominated by eating and entertainment, where Starbucks and Dreamworks vie to goose your flagging consciousness, resides the American Wilderness Experience.

Having ponied up our $19.90, my companion and I are greeted by a faux uniformed ranger amid a variety of trees—some are crafted in three dimensions while others are drawn on the wall. "Enjoy your wilderness experience," she says pleasantly. "Just to your left." To our left is a thatched hut, also faux. Inside, a second ersatz ranger shows off a real American kestrel, or sparrow hawk, obtained from a rehabilitation center in the Coachella Valley. A third explains that we're about to embark on "a half-million-mile hike" through five California biomes. For reasons I fail to grasp, there is an advisory for pregnant women and small children.

We move to an anteroom to make way for the next throng of hikers. As we wait behind guardrails, we're treated to an endlessly looping video displayed on a pair of monitors overhead. Baby ducks, baby foxes, baby penguins, baby beavers, baby wolves. By third viewing we have all reached our cuteness threshold. Sensing our impatience, a ranger advises us to take a bathroom break if we need one. Last rest stop for a half-million miles.

And then—the experience? We're ushered into another room, with yet another video monitor. The lights dim. The TV show begins. We meet Jonathan, a boy who wants to become an architect "like his parents." His dream, we are told, "grew and grew and grew," until it materializes on-screen as a shining city that looks, from my vantage point, like a nightmare of sprawl. An owl appears to Jonathan, and to us, to say that while his city is commendable, the young lad's forgotten something: his dream "does not include animals." The English-speaking predator invites Jonathan to "see the world through our eyes," whereupon we are herded into what I take to be a small movie theater.

But this is no ordinary movie house. Welcome to Wild Ride Theater, featuring the Simulator, the reason for that mysterious pregnant-woman advisory. We take our seats to find ourselves trapped onboard a large trackless roller coaster, complete with a safety bar across our laps. The floor rocks and tilts and pitches as, through the magic of computer animation, we careen like pinballs through air and sea past digital renderings of birds, bees, whales, dolphins, and critters I'm bouncing too much to identify. We're seeing the world through the eyes of some exotic creature, I think, but he's probably a UCLA film grad. The Wright Brothers encountered less turbulence than these finned and feathered fighter pilots.

Our landing, on the other hand, is picture perfect. After a four-minute trip, the screen goes blank, the lights come up, and we're free to move about the wilderness, conveniently located through the doors to our right. First stop: the Redwood Forest, a simulated ecosystem described as "magical" in the AWE brochure, which adds breathlessly, "Can this really be in a mall?" In a word, sure. In one corner of the room is a stand of phony redwoods, through which I can see diners grazing on "tumbleweeds" (salads) and "redwood burgers" in the adjacent Wilderness Grill. In another corner are a handful of small window displays featuring live snakes and salamanders. From a distant light—all right, another TV monitor—appears the floating head of a cartoon camper, sort of a cross between John Muir and Gabby Hayes. "Nothing like the wilderness to calm your soul," observes our Mr. Natural, who proclaims himself the "spirit of wilderness."

Then it's on to the High Sierra, where a pair of young bobcats sleep under a make-believe pine tree in a picture window. (Like all of AWE's real-live animals, they've been procured from a rehab center; a ranger tells me they were imprinted as kittens when someone tried to "adopt" them, but I search in vain for admonitions to others to leave wild creatures alone.) When the bobcats weary of being ogled—the Experience is open 12 hours a day, seven days a week—they can get away from it all in a pen backstage. Less fortunate are three roadrunners who share their nearby Mojave Desert habitat—a glassed cubicle furnished with papier-mâché rocks—with four desert tortoises. One manic bird sprints obsessively along a six-foot ridge against the rear wall. At each end she stops, studies the painted mountains, and abruptly reverses direction. A ranger assures me she's adjusting well to confinement.

And so it goes, past the counterfeit Joshua tree to the mock Pacific Shore, with its live harbor seals and man-made tidepools, then inland again to the Yosemite Valley, where a real red-tailed hawk is framed against a perpetually frozen Yosemite Falls. We stroll by a porcupine, a fisher, a badger, and sundry other live specimens, and before we know it we've passed seamlessly out of the wilderness and into "Naturally Untamed," which purveys T-shirts, CD-ROMs, and even Sierra magazine. In barely an hour we've hiked to five imitation biomes, a full-service restaurant, and a nature-themed gift store—all of it, the brochure reminds us, "just pawprints away from your favorite Ontario Mills shops."

My companion and I make tracks instead for the parking lot. It's 4:30, a fine autumn afternoon. Genuine, gorgeous mountains are visible through the haze. We're surrounded by stunning California geography. Within 15 minutes we reach San Bernardino National Forest and, once inside its boundaries, I pull our rented vehicle off to the shoulder. Civilization and its discontents are still close at hand—a car whizzes by every minute or so—but this is a huge step in the right direction, with intimations of solitude and a vast pink sunset and green, fog-shrouded hills. We watch till darkness descends. Nothing like the wilderness to calm your soul.

And then I recall Jonathan, and I wonder if what they're selling in Ontario isn't a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy. Add enough AWE to enough megamalls and you've got just what the owl prescribed: unfettered development that "remembers the animals." Throw up some subdivisions for shoppers' convenience, overlay with infrastructure, and before you know it there's no more wilderness—just computer-enhanced re-creations of biomes that used to be.

Someday, it occurs to me, the American Wilderness Experience could become the American wilderness experience. Did that cartoon camper mean "spirit," as in ghost?

B. J. Bergman is Sierra's writer/editor.

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