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How to spend 12 hours at American Dream

It's actually a fun escape just 15 minutes outside of NYC.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver

New York City may have everything, but New Jersey's American Dream has everything in one place.

The retail and entertainment complex that opened in East Rutherford in 2019 promised to be a destination where the thrill of big attractions and the fun of shopping and eating all merge under one roof. Despite our initial reservations about spending all day in what can be considered a mall, we visited on a recent Wednesday and found that it actually can be a fun escape from NYC.

For one, visitors to American Dream can bounce from activity to activity without worrying about transportation or the weather, and that already is a major win. But its long list of shops and attractions is really the star of the show. As they say, there's something for everyone, from stomach-dropping roller coasters to spa experiences, and from luxury shopping to discount shopping. 

It keeps changing up its offerings, too. American Dream just opened the massive Dream Wheel that you can see the NYC skyline from and has a slew of new stores coming soon, including the beloved H Mart. It also holds regular performances, too. It truly succeeds in having everything.

If you find yourself being slowly won over, read our itinerary on how to spend 12 hours at American Dream before heading out. We promise it'll be a fun day if you follow our agenda.

11am: DreamWorks Water Park

DreamWorks Water Park American Dream
Photograph: courtesy of DreamWorks Water Park at American Dream

Start your day by getting soaked at the largest indoor water park in North America! From the world's biggest wave pool to its high-speed body spiral slide, Mad Flush, the DreamWorks Water Park will thrill and refresh you. Set at a balmy 81 degrees, the water park is an oasis in itself with cabanas you can rent a lazy river you can relax in and more.

Time Out Tip: Bring a change of clothes if you plan on going to Big Snow or the Dreamworks Water Park. There are lockers available at both experiences.

1pm: Lunch at 1st RND

1st RND
Photograph: courtesy of 1st RND and American Dream

After all that water play, you've worked up a massive appetite! Head over to 1st RND for some mouthwatering burgers and beer. 1st RND has 36 beers on tap and more than 75 in total—all with a focus on local craft beer from the best breweries in the New Jersey and New York area. Better yet, you can swig your beer down and fill your belly with one of 18 different signature burgers while enjoying live sports on massive video walls and across 47 different screens. 

Time Out Tip: You'll want to order the Tater Tots Supreme (aka "Totchos") to start and the Mac & Cheese Burger for dinner. If you want something lighter but still tasty, go for the Asian Lettuce Wraps. If you're more of a wings person, the whisky barbecue sauce is top-notch. Still hungry? Order a Reese's Pieces milkshake. It's heavenly.

2pm: Shopping

Artizia American Dream
Photograph: courtesy of American Dream

Walk off the calories with a little shopping spree. Any retail chain store you can imagine is in American Dream, even Hot Topic, Spencer's, Wetzel's Pretzels, Bath & Body Works, Build-A-Bear and other nostalgic places. Of course, there are tons of popular shops such as Banana Republic, Artizia, Zara and even Primark. There's a whole directory you can search! And don't worry about your bags—many attractions at the complex have lockers.

Time Out Tip: Use the wayfinding kiosks to help you locate shops you'd like to visit. Since American Dream is so large, it's easy to get lost or go the wrong way!

4pm: Nickelodeon Universe or Big Snow

Nickelodeon Universe
Photograph: courtesy of American Dream

While Nickelodeon Universe seems like a space just for kiddies, we assure you it is not. From its throwbacks to '90s cartoons to its absolutely gut-dropping rides, adults can have a thrilling time here, too. It is the western hemisphere's biggest indoor theme park, so you have your pick of classic rides like the swing ride and the Blue's Skidoo rotating ride to more intense thrills such as Aang's Air Gliders and The Shredder roller coaster. Luckily, you took that shopping break before heading here, right?

Not a thrill ride kind of person? Head to Big Snow to ride down North America's first indoor ski slope.

Time Out Tip: Check the website to see which rides may be offline when you're there. 

6pm: Dream Wheel

American Dream Wheel
Photograph: Michael Simon, courtesy of American Dream

Take one more ride on The Dream Wheel. The new attraction reaches up to 300 feet, giving sweeping views of Manhattan, the Hudson River and the New Jersey Meadowlands. We suggest doing this as the sun is setting for the most perfect experience. Just hop in one of the 27 temperature-controlled gondolas for a 30-minute ride that can calm you down after the thrill rides at Nickelodeon. The wheel is open seven days a week for general admission, the VIP experience and private events. You can start reserving your spot aboard the Dream Wheel here.

Time Out Tip: Order some carnival-themed food from Deep Fried Love like funnel cake, fried Oreos or a corn dog, and take it up into the sky with you—it's allowed.

7pm: Shopping at The Avenue

The Avenue American Dream
Photograph: Shaye Weaver/Time Out New York

Head over to The Avenue—American Dream's wing of luxury stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Hermes, Tiffany & Co., Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Johnny Was, Saint Laurent and more. Open Monday to Saturday from 11am to 7pm, this area is definitely a more upscale section you'll want to visit, even if it's out of your price range. It's actually a really gorgeous space with fountains and koi fish, larger-than-life sculptures, hedges and velvet seating in mini-gardens and architecture that makes it look like you are shopping along an outdoor street.

Time Out Tip: This is where you'll want to get some selfies for Instagram. But don't feed the fish!

8pm: Dinner at Carpaccio

Photograph: courtesy of American Dream

It's been quite a full day and by now, you've mustered up a big appetite and you're ready to indulge a bit. Head to Carpaccio, an Italian restaurant and bar where you can enjoy awesome service and extremely tasty dishes and refreshing drinks either outside on its piazza-like space or in its lush interior.

Time Out Tip: Order the peach iced tea, which also comes in an alcoholic version, the Salmone Avocado to start and the Chicken Scaloppine Piccata for dinner. Stick around for the incredible apple pie! 

9-10pm: Black Light Mini-Golf and mirror maze

Mini-golf American Dream
Photograph: courtesy of American Dream

Now that you are refueled, finish up your big day at American Dream with party vibes at the Black Light Mini-Golf course, where you'll glow in the dark and do your best to beat your pals in space-themed greens. The 18-hole course is peppered with more difficult greens but does have some easier ones to keep it doable for everyone. Once you've won the title of No. 1, head next door to the Mirror Maze to rethink your ability to determine what's real. When we went through it we nearly face-planted into mirrors numerous times thinking they were a clear and open entrance. As you go through, it gets more and more difficult as lights begin to play with your vision. When you make it out, you'll experience both relief and pride at making it through.

Time Out Tip: Mirror Maze can get a little disorienting thanks to strobe lights, so be prepared for that.

Know before you go: 

American Dream hours: Be sure to check American Dream's website to see when attractions close. Most things open at 11am and close at 9pm, but much of the complex is open later on the weekend until 10pm.

How to get there: By car, it's 15-30 minutes from Manhattan depending on traffic. By bus, it's about 16 minutes. Take NJ TRANSIT 355 Bus from Gate 305 at Port Authority Bus Terminal on weekends and holidays.

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