American Dream Meadowlands: Opening Three-Day Weekend Scorecard

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The long-awaited “soft opening” of American Dream Meadowlands kicked off on Friday, and there’s plenty to analyze after NJ Online Gambling visited the project on each of its first three days.

One of the biggest fears of the project’s developers for months had been a “carmageddon” of curious locals and tourists mucking up the Friday rush hour and/or the weekend. But with relatively little publicity, those fears proved unfounded.

Signage near the Meadowlands Sports Complex was extensive and for the most part effective in guiding visitors to parking garages under the main portion, or the indoor snow park, of the 2.9-million-square-foot entertainment and retail project.

(Pro tip: If you don’t notice a clear sign posting that you can mark down, take a few photos of your surroundings as you leave your car. That can help security guards locate it if you get lost — and you might.)

Parking was free all three days, unlike the $3-$6 cost that will be incurred for anywhere from 30 minutes to eight hours once the project is fully open for business. For those seeking to take a bus to the site — many of them from Manhattan — pricing can vary significantly.

Land of the free

One surprise was the setup of a variety of pumpkin-themed attractions near the entrance. For locals with youngsters, that area alone — with a farmer’s market, hay bale maze, “hay climbing area,” face painting, and other kid-friendly offerings — was well worth the price of (no) admission.

Speaking of no admission, the NHL-sized indoor skating rink was, as advertised, free all weekend (though that is soon expected to change).

The indoor amusement park — the other Phase One featured attraction — was listed at $39.99 for a multi-hour pass for all but the premium rides and $49.99 for an “all-access” pass. But those willing to roll the dice on what they could see on Friday (and who are at least four feet tall) were rewarded with free wristbands for all rides. The same was true on Saturday, though a bit less clearly.

On Sunday, those entering at lunchtime got mixed messages depending on whom they spoke with and the size of their party. Some of those flying solo were told that the day was “sold out” and/or rented out to private events, but were then granted wristbands anyway.

There was plenty of elbow room on all three afternoons.

This Dream will cost you — eventually

So when do those prices go into effect?

On Monday morning, the American Dream website listed the $49.99 price — with tax, it’s $53.30 — for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

But unless many of the top rides such as Sandy’s Blasting Bronco, Skyline Scream, or The Shredder suddenly have their state-licensed approvals, it’s difficult to picture project officials charging that price.

The Shellraiser — billed as the world’s steepest rollercoaster, and ridden by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday — is impressive. Many mid-tier rides such as Nickelodeon Sky Streak, Jimmy Neutron’s Atom Smasher, and Ren & Stimpy’s Space Madness were open right away.

But on top of the dearth of adult-sized thrill rides, the park also so far lacks satisfactory food amenities. Food and drink was free for at least parts of all three days, but that was for water and soda plus snacks and pre-packaged lunches that have been compared to airport fare.

Those lunches were priced at $8.50-$10.25 on some signage — a sign of things to come, apparently.

It’s worth keeping in mind that not even 20% of the sprawling project, whose predecessor was granted state approval way back in 2003, is yet open for business.

When it is, presumably by mid-2020, the experience will be a lot more fulfilling. Those admission prices seem more palatable with a light lunch at a few dozen restaurants in the complex before or during the allotted time — or with an adult beverage available on site for those looking to unwind.

A Dream scenario for some youngsters

The good news — even if the admission prices are charged — is that American Dream is just that for toddlers.

The 8.5-acre amusement park surely strikes them as enormous, and the bright lights, intense colors, and sounds of other shrieking children clearly entranced many of them.

There is a stage where various Nickelodeon characters such as SpongeBob appear throughout the day, eager to greet the toddlers. But taking a stroll through the park, you’re liable to meet the characters anywhere.

A $160 price tag for a half-day of amusement for a family of four (though visitors aged 2 and under enter for free) sounds steep, on the one hand. But compared to buying four plane tickets to Disney World in Florida, not to mention travel hassles, hotel charges, a much more expensive amusement park pass, and other costs, the price starts to seem more a lot more reasonable. For families with a pre-schooler or two, there is plenty at the East Rutherford site to entice them.

What’s next?

The IT’SUGAR! candy store — which already has a multi-story faux Statue of Liberty holding a gnawed-on chocolate bar — is slated to open on Nov. 7.

Then on Thanksgiving weekend, here comes the mammoth indoor water park (it’s already visible near the skating rink). On Dec. 5, North America’s first indoor snowpark will be unveiled. And unlike its counterparts, it was constructed by the project’s original Meadowlands Xanadu developers more than a decade ago.

Whither the more than 1 million square feet of shopping? That, so far, isn’t slated to roll out until next spring.

But like everything else involving this complex, final details are still being worked out.

If American Dream proves to be a hit, meanwhile, that might someday encourage state officials to double down on the Meadowlands Sports Complex by adding a casino to a gambling mix that already includes a racetrack and FanDuel Sportsbook.

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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