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Retail Reinvented

When you include a shopping stop on your tour, it’s always great to give your group something they can’t find at home, whether it’s high-end brands, exclusive outlets or locally made products they won’t get anywhere else. But in a handful of cities, mega shopping centers with hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of square feet of retail offerings and entertainment have upgraded the average mall experience.

Destiny USA

  Syracuse, New York

Thirty years ago, the sprawling site on Lake Onondaga that now holds the 2.4 million-square-foot Destiny USA shopping center was a mess. A scrap yard rose next to the highway, and abandoned oil tanks leaked petroleum and industrial waste into the soil. Today, it’s the largest LEED-certified commercial building in the world, complete with solar roof and rainwater harvesting, and more than 260 retail offerings like J. Crew, Lenox China and Williams-Sonoma. It’s hard to imagine Destiny USA was ever anything but a gleaming destination for locals and visitors alike.

By square footage, Destiny USA is the sixth-largest enclosed shopping center in the country, but its eclectic offerings and location have made it one of the most visited, second only to the Mall of America. It is just 10 minutes from the New York State Thruway and Syracuse Airport, making it a convenient destination for groups on the way to Niagara Falls. Destiny USA also gets nearly 20 percent of its visitors from across the border and many more from other states, as it lies within three hours of more than 5 million people and within five hours of New York and Boston.

In 1990, when the shopping center originally opened as the Carousel Center, named for its historic carousel centerpiece designed by one of the oldest roller coaster companies in the world, it featured name-brand New York City department stores that had ushered in the concept of Fifth Avenue as we know it. In its new incarnation as Destiny USA, the options are much more diverse, from the World of Beer and Ashley Lynn Winery to Apple, Microsoft, Michael Kors, Swarovski and even 15-minute teeth whitening.

Groups can easily coordinate their own daylong itineraries of shopping and activities such as an indoor ropes adventure course, half-hour Indiana Jones-style puzzle adventures at 5 Wits, and racing at Pole Position Raceway, the first shopping center go-kart track in the world.

Easton Town Center

  Columbus, Ohio

Arriving at Easton Town Center, it’s easy to be confused. Is this downtown? Is it a shopping center? Though open-air lifestyle shopping centers have become more the norm than the exception, when Easton Town Center opened in 1999, it was one of the first to attempt the concept. Even today, its original design, with an erstwhile town hall, train station and central plaza with open-air movies in the summer, sets it apart.

In keeping with its small-town ambiance, what most sets Easton Town Center apart is its selection of local dining. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, a local start-up that has gone on to national acclaim; made-from-scratch local bakery Cheryl’s; and Illinois-based Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant highlight the best of the region. For large groups, private and semiprivate dining is available in Paris-inspired brasserie Bon Vie Bistro and KDB — short for Kitchen, Den and Bar — which also offers 25,000 square feet of sports simulations, pool tables and arcade games.

The local vibe extends to retail offerings like Celebrate Local and Buckeye Corner, but Easton also offers many Ohio firsts, most notably a Tesla electric car showroom and an American Girl store, and high-end brands like Kate Spade New York, Lacoste, and Louis Vuitton.

In August 2015, Easton Gateway, a new mall-style addition, added more restaurants, like BJ’s Brewhouse, and a new level of retail and services, including Vineyard Vines, Z. Gallerie and a Truerest Float Spa that will open later this year.

Gabi Logan

Gabi Logan is a freelance travel journalist whose work has also appeared in USA TODAY, The Dallas Morning News and Italy Magazine. As she travels more than 100,000 miles each year, she aims to discover the unexpected wonder in every destination.