American Dream opens its doors in a limited and choreographed debut

After 17 years of false starts, bankruptcies, and public scorn, the Meadowlands project now known as American Dream opened its doors to the public Friday — a limited and choreographed debut that showcased one element of the sprawling complex, a Nickelodeon-themed indoor amusement park.

A limited crowd that included the governor and other officials were on hand to take stock of the attractions.

Was it worth waiting for?

“Of course! Are you crazy? Look at this place! It’s insane!” said Evanche Clark of Roselle Park, who scored one of a limited number of tickets made available to the public by Triple Five, the developer of the complex. “And then they have all the coolest things — Rugrats, Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob — and then the adult rides are really scary!”

Grinning Nickelodeon characters mugged for guests and news cameras, including SpongeBob, who led the Clifton High School Band on a parade across the theme park floor. Friday’s soundtrack was also punctuated by delighted screams from riders on plunging roller coasters — like the Shellraiser, which features a steep drop after climbing to a vantage point above the ceiling of the complex.

“When you go up to the top, you stop and you look over Manhattan — and all of your weight is on the restraints. The longest 30 seconds of your life! But it was fantastic!” said Katherine Fronczek of New York City.

Eli Berkowitz of Freehold was also a fan. “That view of Manhattan from the top of that ride was amazing, best part of it all. And then we saw the governor.”

Indeed, Gov. Phil Murphy and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin also rode the Shellraiser, before joining a gaggle of official celebrants that included Don Ghermezian of the family-owned Triple Five.

“That is the number-one roller coaster we have ever been on! Number One in the world.” Murphy said. “My heart is still in my throat.”

The state’s chief executive served the role of chief cheerleader for the project Friday. “This feels like a success. When Don rattles off the number of visitors to the greater New York area — half of them come with their families, looking desperately for something to do — this is going to be a really logical place for them to come.”

Major elements of the complex were not part of Friday’s opening, including its shops, a water park and other attractions, as work crews continued to prepare them. Even within the amusement area, the work continued Friday, as some rides were tested with dummies as passengers.

The opening barely made Triple Five’s thrice-delayed deadline, as the complex got just a 90-day Temporary Certificate of Occupancy late Thursday night.

Invited guests with comped or pre-paid tickets arrived for metered blocks of timed amusement, and the developer strictly controlled access to the Nickelodeon venue’s sold-out, first day.  Next week, tickets will cost $40-$50 bucks.

“I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that’s why I took it,” said Lindsey Kelly of Cresskill. “But on a regular basis, it’s not somewhere where I’d be able to bring my kids for fun on a Saturday … If I took my two kids and me — we’re spending $130 right off the bat, before food or anything else.”

On the other hand, Keith Murphy of Newark viewed the price as reasonable.

“You would be here all day for the price that you pay,” he said. “So it’s lovely. It’s lovely. We’re definitely coming back.”

Friday’s scaled-back debut — an ice-skating rink also opened —helped keep traffic light. But local officials still fear what they’re calling “carmageddon” as American Dream continues to open in so-called “chapters” in the coming months — adding the Dreamworks Water Park Nov. 27, and a collection of 350 dining and retail stores by March 2020.

A meeting with NJ Transit is scheduled for next week.

“To me, the only way that this is really going to really really work well is with mass transit,” said Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco. “We don’t want people driving single cars. We want to use mass transit. And that’s my push with the governor.”

Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli is also worried about traffic congestion.

“It’s going to be a nightmare for us,” he said. “You can’t leave Secaucus now at 4 o’clock, every day. 4 o’clock is a dead standstill … They have to seriously do something to really mitigate this traffic issue.”

Starting next week, American Dream will charge for parking. Direct buses are available from the Port Authority terminal in midtown Manhattan, and Lautenberg NJ Transit station in Secaucus. But there’s no regular train service on the spur NJ Transit build to the Sport Complex.

Meanwhile, Don Ghermezian talked about his family’s vision for the complex.

“The entertainment components that we deliver, they drive traffic,” he said during a press availability Friday. “People come. They bring their families. They spend not hours, but they spend days. And they shop. So we know the formula works. It’s something that we have incredible experience with. And we’ve just really gone crazy to deliver it here to the state of New Jersey.”

American Dream FAQ

Where is it?

American Dream surrounds the now-shuttered Meadowlands arena at the Sports Complex, which is also the home to MetLife Stadium, where New York’s two NFL franchises play, and the Meadowlands racetrack, where simulcast horse-race betting and sports wagering takes place.

How do I get there?

The Sports Complex sits at the intersection of the western spur of the NJ Turnpike and Route 3. Triple Five says there are 33,000 parking spaces available at the site for drivers.

NJ Transit is adding bus service, including an hourly, direct run from the Port Authority terminal in midtown Manhattan ($9), and a bus running every 30 minutes from the Frank Lautenberg train station in Secaucus ($2.25). In addition, three existing bus lines have added stops at the site, chiefly to serve American Dream employees.

NJ Transit has a rail spur with a station at the Sports Complex, but it says that it will not be adding trains specifically for American Dream customers until the agency feels it’s resilient enough to do so, without impacting regular service. It is also looking to partner with a private entity for ideas on an innovative people mover, like a monorail or gondola, that would be built to serve the site.

How did we get here? A brief timeline

2003: The Mills Corporation announces it will build Xanadu, a megamall mixing retail and entertainment, at the Meadowland Sports Complex after being selected by the state Sports and Exposition Authority as the developer for its remaking of the complex. The company, which for years had sought to build one of its signature destination malls at a wetlands tract just north of the sports complex, unveils plans a 2.5-million-square-foot structure comprising retail and such features as a ferris wheel, a ski slope, a concert venue, and a minor league baseball stadium. The company, which owns large malls at locations around the country, says it will spend $1.3 billion on Xanadu.

2007: After Mills runs into significant financial troubles, it gives way to Colony Capital, the real-estate investment firm run by Thomas Barrack, a close friend of future President Donald Trump. The company picks up where Mills left off, making few if any changes to Mills’ plans, but also runs into financial woes at the site. Construction stops again in 2007, with $2 billion spent.

2011: Gov. Chris Christie hands the keys to Triple Five, the owner of the Mall of America. Rebranding the complex American Dream, the company adds significantly to the planned footprint, adding indoor amusement and water parks, as well as a skating rink. Construction begins again in 2013, and continues in fits and starts over the next six years.

2019: Triple Five announces a staged opening of American Dream, beginning on Oct. 25, with the debut of Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park and the ice-skating rink.

Who’s paying for it all?

Financing for the American Dream project comes from a combination of private and public sources. In addition to a $1.67-billion private financing package, led by J.P. Morgan, Triple Five was allowed to issue $1.15 billion in tax-exempt bonds, backed by $350 million in state tax incentives and local tax incentives worth another $800 million. State officials say the complicated public financing package is backed solely by the revenues of the project, meaning that bond holders have no recourse against taxpayers if American Dream goes belly up. All told, including the money spent by the previous developers, the project has cost $5 billion.

What opens when?

Oct. 25 — The indoor Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park and an ice-skating rink debuts.

Nov. 27 —DreamWorks Water Park, comprising 40 water slides and 15 attractions, including a 1.5-acre wave pool and a 142-foot-tall body slide opens to the public. The attractions are arranged around themes such as Madagascar’s Rain Forest, Shrek’s Swamp and the Kung Fu Panda Zone.

Dec. 5 — Big SNOW, American Dream’s indoor ski area, will be opening its slopes. Associated shopping will also open at that time.

March, 2020 — 350 stores open at the site, ranging from Hermès, Dolce & Gabbana and Tiffany & Co. to H&M, Uniqlo and Primark. Also debuting at that time will be 100 restaurants and other dining destinations. Further attractions are also planned, such as a Sea Life Aquarium, a Legoland Discovery Center, movie theaters and a 300-foot observation wheel.