Best of Orange County 2019: Shopping centers turn to immersive experiences, craft beer and unique dining concepts to draw the public in

In an attempt to entice consumers out of the comfort of their own homes and away from the ease of delivery services like Amazon and GrubHub, Orange County shopping centers and strip malls are getting even more creative and cleaver with their shopping, dining and entertainment options. It’s hard to compete with the nearly instant gratification of hitting a few buttons in an app on a smartphone from the couch, however, in the digital age a lot of these centers continue to expand and thrive.

The MainPlace Mall in Santa Ana, for instance, is slated to undergo a $300 million renovation that would include more dining options, an upgraded movie theater, interactive and educational play centers for kids, a grocery store and 1,900 residential units. A similar idea was also pitched with the Brea Mall, though nothing has been approved there.

It’s become common place for large apartment and condo buildings to be erected near tshopping centers — such as Bella Terra in Huntington Beach, for example — however, the construction is beginning to move inward, bringing all of the amenities of a mall to the front doorsteps of hundreds of thousands of residents throughout Southern California.

To get folks of all ages out and shopping, some of the biggest centers in Orange County have added attractions like water features that kids can play in during the hot summer months, bowling alleys, craft breweries, unique fine and casual dining concepts, arcades, comedy clubs, concert venues, pop-up exhibitions and virtual reality experiences.

Simon Malls, which runs The Outlets at Orange, Anaheim Town Center, Westminster Mall, The Shops at Mission Viejo and the Brea Mall, is currently in partnership with the “Pokémon Go” like augmented reality mobile app game, “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.” Though the game can be played pretty much anywhere, mall patrons will be able to discover sponsored inns and fortresses that give an advantage over other non-sponsored locations. Some of the malls will also host live events and QR assignments for the game players. The thought behind that partnership is simple: Get them in the door and hopefully they’ll spend their money.

Downtown Disney in Anaheim is home to The Void, which currently features “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” an immersive VR experience in which patrons become stormtroopers and fight lava monsters while on their mission. The Void was made to be able to change themes and is rumored to next become an experience based on the “Frozen” films. Just down the street, the Anaheim GardenWalk has the Go VR Gaming and Mission Escape Games, where groups work together to get out of an escape room in 60 minutes or less.

Pop-up experiences are also a big deal since they usually have a wacky theme with a cult following — ice cream, tacos, Mickey Mouse, horror movies and more — and most of them are interactive, but all of them are highly Instagram-worthy. It’s like free publicity every time someone visits one of the pop-ups and posts it with the coinciding hashtag. The District at Tustin Legacy has the BubblePop! experience for kids who love bubbles and fans of Hello Kitty can relax and take pics inside the Hello Kitty Café at the Irvine Spectrum Center. The  Spectrum also has a Ferris Wheel and a carousel for kids and families while the Outlets at Orange has train rides and Those Animals, motorized scooters disguised as stuffed bears, giraffes, lions and leopards that you can actually ride around the shopping center.

Not everything is designed specifically for kids. Downtown Disney now includes the Ballast Point Brewing Co. and the Splitsville bowling alley and Bella Terra is home to The Public House by Evans brewing Co. South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa and Fashion Island in Newport Beach still offer higher-end shopping and fine, multi-cultural dining suitable for just about any palate.

Several locations also now offer adult paint nights that are usually paired with a wine or beer tasting. Most of the movie theaters have been upgraded to include reclining seats, adult beverages and gourmet food that can be ordered right from your chair inside the theater. A bulk of the eateries that serve alcohol are also offering extended and even late night happy hours and various specials as well.

All of these bonus amenities are curated to get people to walk by the shops and hopefully stop inside to pick up a few things as they make a full day or evening of the shopping center, rather than just a quick trip. The stores themselves are offering in-store-only merchandise and exclusive deals including BOGO (buy one, get one) offers and numerous gifts with purchase options.

A lot of the stores are also hosting in-store experiences, everything from cooking demos and book signings to kids crafts and fashion shows, all in an effort to keep the economy stimulated, give the existing more tactile customers somewhere to graze and to lure in and hopefully temporarily convert a tech-savvy online shopper.

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Best of Orange County 2019: Best auto repair

1. ExperTec Automotive

Costa Mesa; 949-645-7722; Huntington Beach; 714-848-9222;

Since readers voted ExperTec Automotive the top auto repair shop in Orange County last year, the business earned another notable accolade.

The city of Huntington Beach and the California Green Business Network designated ExperTec a Certifiable-Sustainable Green shop. According to office manager Emma Naranjo, the shop is the first and only auto repair facility in Southern California to receive that designation.

“Becoming Certified Green was the clearest way we could set a positive example and could show both our community and our customers that we care about the environment and we are fully committed to conserving resources and preventing pollution in both our facility and operations in order to sustain a healthy planet for many generations to come,” Naranjo said.

Customers who not only care about the environment, but who also want peace of mind when they take their vehicle in for repairs, have found a local shop that can put them at ease.

The ExperTec crew is so confident in the work it does, Naranjo said, that it backs it all with a three-year/36,000 mile nationwide warranty.

“We want our customers to rest assured knowing that they’re receiving the best automotive care that Orange County has to offer,” she said. Knowing that more than 35,000 other repair facilities across the country will honor the warranty can assuage the fears of those who like to travel, and it keeps clientele coming back to the same shop they count on to innovate without sacrificing quality of service

“Certain things may change,” Naranjo said, “however our integrity does not.”

2. Star Motors

26181 Avenida Aeropuerto, San Juan Capistrano; 949-443-1970;

This past year Star Motors reached a milestone. The independent auto repair shop had been operating for 10 years under the ownership of Chris Knuth and his wife, Emma, and local readers voted the business one of the Best in Orange County for 10 years in a row.

Star Motors specializes in repairing Mercedes Benz, BMW, Porsche, Jaguar and Land Rover — as well as exotic brands like Rolls-Royce and Bentley, not to mention Euro diesel vehicles and high-tech hybrids.

Within the last year, the business moved to a new location that Chris Knuth calls “bigger and better,” as it enables the shop to serve clients more efficiently.

“We also opened the Star Auto Spa where we take same day appointments for full vehicle detailing,” he said. Star Motors started a new technician apprentice program to mentor and create career paths for entry-level personnel as well, Knuth added, and the business became a completely paperless shop in February.

3. Coastline Imports

225 S. Grand Avenue, Santa Ana; 714-973-2039;

Stu Urquhart says that when he took over at Coastline Imports three years ago he intended to bring dealer-quality service to the Orange County community

“We’re very family-based. We treat everyone who comes in the door as if they’re a member of our family,” Urquhart said about his shop, stressing his crew’s emphasis on honesty and fair prices.

No matter what vehicle problem you have, the Coastline Imports team is confident it can almost surely fix it.

The team consists of Urquhart, his wife, a good friend of some 14 years, and an apprentice.

“All of us are ASE Master Certified and actually Mercedes-Benz certified as well,” Urquhart said, adding that he is formally qualified with Maybach and AMG models, among others.

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