Goldie is only 5 years old, but she's already learned how to spend a small fortune on Chicago's Magnificent Mile. The red-haired little girl in the pink-satin "Hello Kitty" jacket carries a red shopping bag that's half as big as she is. Inside are a number of boxes containing various outfits and accessories for an 18-inch doll with curly blonde hair dressed in a green herringbone skirt, lavender tie-front cardigan and purple zip-front ankle boots.
"She's been talking about this shopping trip for eight months," says her mother, Heather Raznick, a St. Louis psychologist. "Do you want to know how much I've spent? About $500."
Heather and Goldie are wrapping up a day of female bonding at American Girl Place, that multistoried mecca for fans of American Girl dolls. While venerable retail establishments such as Neiman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue are almost deserted on this sunny Saturday afternoon, American Girl Place is packed with women of all ages: mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces, grandmothers and granddaughters. A Chicago tour guide tells us the store sells more per square foot of space than any other retailer on Michigan Avenue. And judging from the number of red American Girl shopping bags we see on the street, we believe her. So popular is American Girl's Chicago store, in fact, that the Middleton, Wis.-based manufacturer opened a New York City location.
The American Girl Place experience, however, is about more than just dropping up to $90 for a doll â€” the most expensive are the historical dolls in The American Girls Collection, which come in period costume with a hardcover book â€” or picking and choosing from the astounding selection of accouterments, which include outfits for everything from bowling to boogie-boarding and matching duds for young owners.
Our afternoon begins in the American Girl Theater, where little girls sit in cushy crimson-velvet seats and hold their dolls while they watch "Circle of Friends: An American Girls Musical." The 75-minute production, about the misunderstandings and hurt feelings that result when an American Girls Club plans a surprise birthday party for one of its members, incorporates stories of friendship told in the series of books featuring the historical dolls. The theater recently introduced a second musical, "Bitty Bear's Matinee: The Family Tree," a 40-minute interactive production for preschoolers based on a board book that accompanies the Bitty Baby doll.
Mothers should brace themselves for a barrage of "I wants" after the show. Outside the theater doors are displays crammed with music CDs from the shows, dolls and books featured in the productions, even the white cropped pants and hot-pink T-shirts worn by performers during the "Circle of Friends" finale, in both doll and girl sizes.
After the musical, we head up to the American Girl Cafe, a black-and-white confection with conical chandeliers covered in pink fabric daisies, for a sold-out afternoon tea. The "Warm Welcome" â€” a miniature cinnamon bun served on a heart-shaped azure plate â€” is followed by a selection of scones, fancy egg salad and ham-and-Boursin cheese tea sandwiches, little corn muffins stuffed with chicken salad, and cucumber "flower cups" filled with salmon mousse, all named after characters in the historical doll books. A chocolate teacup filled with lemon pudding, a strawberry shortbread cookie and a ceramic flowerpot filled with white-chocolate mousse and topped with a fabric daisy complete a menu that's sophisticated yet kid-friendly.
But the biggest treat for girls is the fact that they can eat with their dolls, which are seated in appropriately sized highchairs that attach to the tables and served tea in miniature mugs. A stash of American Girl dolls is kept on hand for patrons who arrive without one. Our waiter insists on seating us with Nellie, a turn-of-the-century addition to the line of historical dolls, even though we don't have a child in tow and are obviously too old to play tea party.
It takes us a good couple of hours afterward to explore the three-story store, which carries almost everything available in the American Girl catalog and on Americangirl.com. There's also a photo studio where girls can get a souvenir copy of American Girl magazine with their picture on the cover, a hospital admissions area where staffers in white coats "admit" dolls for repair and a hair salon where crowds watch four stylists put dolls' hair in French braids, updos and so on while their owners wait. It's an experience that girls won't soon forget, no matter how old they are.
American Girl Place is located at 111 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago. Store hours are Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, call 1-877-AG PLACE.
A number of hotels offer special rates and packages for American Girl Place patrons. For a list of hotels, log on to Americangirlplace.com and click on "Chicago," then "Plan Your Visit."
Great Lakes Options
Beyond the Canvas
An International Legacy: Selections from Carnegie Museum of Art will make its way to the Columbus Museum of Art May 6 through Aug. 14. The exhibit will showcase works from the 16th century to modern masterpieces, including photography, multimedia and installation art. The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for seniors and students 6 and over and free for members and children 5 and under. Admission is free on Sundays. For more information, call (614) 221-4848 or visit www.columbusmuseum.org.
This month, you can catch 10,000 butterflies fluttering around the Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati. The 2005 Butterfly Show, themed "10 Years with Flying Colors," will feature exotic species from Central and South America. The show will be open daily from May 7 through June 19, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for children 5 to 17, and free for children 4 and under. For more information, call (513) 421-5707 or visit www.butterflyshow.com.
â€” Kim Schneider