30 years of the Mall of America

Thirty years ago, the nation's largest mall burst onto the scene. Ever since, the Mall of America has been a community gathering spot, playing host to concerts, weddings, fundraisers and family events. It may be a tourist destination, but it's also a slice of home.
Patience paid off as the doors finally opened for the crowd gathered at the mall’s north entrance on the mall’s opening day. About 150,000 shoppers — or at least curious onlookers — made their way to the Bloomington mall on its first day of business. That number beat what was then the record attendance for the opening day of the Minnesota State Fair, which was 87,414 in 1988.
The crowd surveys the 7-acre Knott’s Camp Snoopy, now called Nickelodeon Universe, on the mall’s opening day in August 1992.
There are shoppers, and then there are serious shoppers. Amy Benson, Katie Trier, Carol Anderson and Jody Anderson showed up at 6 a.m. and ate their breakfast on the lawn outside the north entrance as they waited for the Mall of America’s grand opening in 1992. They had plenty of company, as more than 500 people were lined up at the mall’s entrances.
Shoppers take a break from the hustle and bustle on one of the mall’s many seating areas on opening day in 1992. As the state’s latest (and largest) attraction drew crowds from the region, its developers were pleased. “It’s incredible out there,” Mel Simon said at the time. “Look at all the people.” And Minnesota Nice was in full force, too. “There’s not all the shoving you get at other places,” he added.
It was like Christmas crowds in August. Just a week after opening in 1992, the nation’s largest mall recorded 1 million visitors and was still basking in the national spotlight. Business was already exceeding expectations at many of the 330 stores, and lunchtime crowds could face waits up to 45 minutes. Those running behind could use one of the 200 pay phones or rent a “cellular telephone” at customer service centers.
More than 15,000 people came to watch Macy’s balloon parade outside the mall Sept. 6, 1992. It featured marching bands, kid prizes and supersized balloons from the store’s famous Thanksgiving Day parade. The smaller balloons were a hit, too.
The crowd packed the mall’s rotunda in 1995 to watch Hulk Hogan take care of Big Bubba — and his trainer handle the referee — as part of “WCW Monday Nitro Live.” This was the first stop on the series, which was broadcast on cable’s TNT network.
You never know who you’ll run into at the Mall of America. In 2005, Roxie Wester celebrated her 61st birthday with a whole lotta lovin’ from Elvis impersonator Chuck Kish of Mesa, Ariz. Wester and friend Sharon Meacham, both of Bruce, Wis., took in the Contest of Kings, a benefit for the Greater Twin Cities United Way. Elvises were judged on vocals, appearance, moves and professionalism.
Litchfield High School held its prom at the Mall of America — a first for the mall — which started with the traditional dinner and dancing and ended with promgoers having the run of the theme park until 2:30 a.m. Students Beca Hansen, Michelle Williams and Kris Tanner relaxed during the late-night fun on Apr. 26, 2008. Both students and school administrators gave the evening an A+.
The mall’s aquarium draws visitors from near and far — including the North Pole. Santa came to the mall to scuba dive, and met siblings P.J. Schulte, right, and Grace Schulte in 2008. The aquarium opened at the mall in 1996 as Underwater World, but is now Sea Life at Mall of America and features a 300-foot underwater tunnel.
It is tradition for many Muslim families to celebrate Eid al-Fitr — the end of the holy month of Ramadan — with a family outing. That meant a trip to the mall’s amusement park, Nickelodeon Universe, for Balqiis Hayir, left, and Nasteho Abdi on Sept. 10, 2010. The two took a liking to this ride, the Brain Surge — that was their third time on it.
As a way to honor local veterans, dancers and drum groups from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community held a powwow in the mall’s rotunda on Aug. 13, 2015. Mike Gabbard of Moorhead helped his son, Anthony, with his regalia before they began.
It wasn’t quite Times Square, but there was a ball drop. The mall held a “Moonlight Circus” celebration in the rotunda for revelers of all ages on Dec. 31, 2015. The event also included music and a ball drop at Nickelodeon Universe, and the countdowns were held at both 10 p.m. and midnight for those partygoers who couldn’t make it until midnight.
It was a new winter wonderland in 2018 as the mall debuted its Skate the Star ice rink in collaboration with UCare. Skating was free, and the money collected from skate rentals went to the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities. Located at the mall’s north entrance, the rink was built by a local company using 18,000 gallons of water. The popular attraction was set to return the next year, but then COVID hit.
Choirs, groups and families descended on the rotunda in 2018 for KS95’s annual “Clouds” Choir for a Cause, which celebrates the legacy of Zach Sobiech. Zach wrote “Clouds” in 2012, after doctors told him he had just months to live, about his cancer journey. His parents, Laura and Rob Sobiech, attend the event, which raises money for children’s cancer research. Zach died in 2013 at age 18.
During the pandemic, the mall changed with the times to become a community health outpost, hosting COVID testing sites and, eventually, vaccination clinics. Late last year, 8-year-old Zach Bakke of Minnetonka posed for a photo at the mall’s second-floor clinic. It’s one of the state-run Community Vaccination Program sites, which provide free vaccines in safe settings.
The Mall of America kicked off its 30th anniversary celebration in January with “Back to the ’90s Drag Show” — its first drag show. Among the performers was local queen Mercedes Iman Diamond, who performed “I’m a Barbie Girl.”