My granddaughter, Rachel, and I had planned the outing with care. When the day came, we dressed in our party best, and made our way to American Girl Place, located just off Michigan Avenue, across from the Water Tower in Chicago's toniest shopping district.
American Girl Place is an indoor theme park based on the popular American Girl dolls.
If your family has only boys who play with trucks, let me explain. The American Girls Collection is a sextet of dolls drawn from periods in United States history. The dolls come with storybooks, wardrobes, accessories, and a seriousness of purpose beyond most playthings, and they've won over much of the female grade-school population.
The company behind the high-priced dolls was started in 1985, when Pleasant Rowland, a former elementary school teacher, visited Williamsburg, Va., and was inspired to write a children's story. She imagined what it would be like for a young girl living in Colonial times, and then transformed her into a doll.
The idea proved so popular that the line expanded to six dolls, which were only available by mail order until the opening of the Chicago retail store.
Ms. Rowland sold Pleasant Company to Mattel in July, 1998, for $700 million. She was appointed vice chairman of Mattel, assigned to work on adding educational components, along with entertainment, to other Mattel products. The American Girl division is based in Middleton, Wis.
These dolls have replaced Barbie in the affections of the children - not to mention providing parents and grandparents with an alternative to the leggy, blond teeny-bopper.
American Girl Place in Chicago is more than a retail shop. The three-story building holds a cafe on the top floor and a lower-level theater where the "American Girl Revue" is presented on weekends. A typical outing includes lunch or tea and tickets to the show.
The dolls are also invited to dine, with special tiny chairs that hook onto the table to hold them. And it's hard to believe there's a grandmother alive who could resist a souvenir or two to add to her granddaughter's collection.
Rachel and I had reservations for lunch and tickets for the performance.
The "American Girls Revue" has been staged in an improvisational manner, without the suggestion of a junior beauty pageant. The children in the cast look like Rachel's friends rather than perfect persons, and are blessed with lovely singing voices. The revue was created by two musical-theater veterans - Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford - after they read the stories and called to offer their talents.
The setting is a meeting of an American Girls Club at which each of the members takes on the character of a different doll and sings her story. The lyrics describe virtues that will help these girls grow up into self-reliant, courageous women, outfitted with good humor and an appreciation of each other's differences. The moralizing is gentle.
Another reason for the dolls' popularity is that, in addition to teaching history, the stories also portray children solving problems that resonate from generation to generation. According to Rowland, "We give girls chocolate cake with vitamins. The dolls and accessories are pretty. But more important, they give young girls a sense of self and an understanding of where they came from and who they are."
The dolls' stories incorporate the era in which they lived: Felicity Merriman, a Colonial girl growing up in Williamsburg in 1774; Josefina Montoya, a Hispanic girl from New Mexico in 1824; Kirsten Larson, a 19th-century pioneer girl who immigrated from Sweden to the prairies of Minnesota; Addy Walker, an African-American child determined to find freedom from slavery; the Victorian-era Samantha; and Molly McIntire, a child of World War II.
Felicity came to live in granddaughter Rachel's room as a sixth birthday gift; Josefina joined her a year later. These dolls have become Rachel's best buddies, often dressed in outfits more appropriate to modern day. The dolls spur Rachel on to evermore creative adventures.
The one caveat about an excursion to American Girl Place concerns the cost. Rachel and I chose Caesar Salad with Chicken from three choices for lunch, accompanied by appetizer, dessert, and beverage for $16 each; tickets for the revue are $25. However, the tab is comparable to a day at other theme parks.
The price for a set that includes a doll dressed in one costume plus a book is $82. Additional books, clothes, and accessories such as a chair for Felicity or a loom for Josefina are available for separate purchase.
Rachel is still talking about her day at American Girl Place. There were three birthday parties to watch in the cafe where the waitresses were "so nice to me," as she tells it. The show held Rachel spellbound for its hour and 10 minutes, then she spent some time trying to decide which two doll dresses to bring home to Felicity and Josefina.
A promise was made to send one of the Bitty Babies, a new addition to the collection, for her next birthday.
*For information and reservations to American Girl Place, call 1-877-AG PLACE.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society