I visited the American Girl Place as an adult, and I can't believe how much it's changed since I was a kid
- American Girl Place is the flagship store home to its iconic toy brand, which makes dolls with historical and contemporary stories.
- I used to love the brand's girlhood-centric books and magazine, and I had two dolls of my own.
- Years later, I visited American Girl Place in New York City and was floored at its Instagram-worthy photo areas and hands-on doll "wellness center."
- Even though the store is now tailored to attract kids born in the 2000s and 2010s, many parts of the brand have remained unchanged since my childhood.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
Starting around age 6 or 7, when I wasn't at school or swim practice, I was probably playing with Kit Kittredge and her dog, Coconut.
While it may sound like a girl named Kit and a friendly pup named Coconut were my real-life neighbors, that wasn't the case. Allow me to explain.
Founded in 1986, American Girl started as a toy brand that sold a small collection of dolls with historical backstories via catalogs. Today, the brand — owned by Mattel, Inc. — sells hundreds of its signature 18-inch dolls that can cost from $98 to $200 each. American Girl offers 11 dolls with historical stories, including Kit Kittredge, the one I had as a child.
The idea behind the brand is credited to a writer and former teacher named Pleasant Rowland, who apparently imagined a line of dolls whose stories would educate girls about American history.
Previously, I spoke with American Girl's current president, Jamie Cygielman, about how the toy brand that I knew and loved as a little girl is getting creative to stay relevant in the digital age.
Keep reading to see what it was like to visit the New York City flagship store as an adult, where I saw with my own eyes how the dolls and their stories are continuing to capture the hearts of children (and parents), but in a much newer way than I would've ever imagined as a kid.
Growing up, I loved American Girl dolls, and they played a big part in my childhood — from furthering my love of storytelling to fueling my imagination.
I especially connected with the dolls' accompanying books that told their historical stories, and the Kit character — who I'm holding in the above picture — had a special place in my heart.
Kit lives in Cincinnati, Ohio (which is also the state where I grew up) during the Great Depression, and is a budding journalist.
I can't say I decided to go to journalism school because of my Kit Kittredge doll, but who knows? Maybe her story planted the seed in my head.
We even had matching pajamas. If that's not love, I don't know what is.
Aside from loving the dolls and their accessories, I was a fan of just about everything from the American Girl brand.
When I went to summer camp, my parents would send me the latest issues of American Girl Magazine, which came in the mail while I was away.
As I got a little older, while traveling and on road trips, I voraciously read the brand's books — many of which tackled nonfiction topics and had journaling activities.
Years later, I decided to visit New York City's flagship American Girl Place to see for myself how much the brand has evolved.
American Girl currently has two flagship stores: Chicago and New York City. The first opened in Chicago in the late 1990s, which is the location I visited as a kid.
At the time, the Chicago American Girl Place was the first of its kind: a brick-and-mortar shop that also had a restaurant and a theater for doll-themed musical shows.
It's been many years since I was among the target age group for American Girl — after all, my dolls are now safely stored in a container in my parents' house, on reserve for a potential grandkid; and it's been since the early 2000s that I visited American Girl Place in Chicago.
I was eager to see in person how the brand has adapted and grown to stay relevant for a new generation of kids (and parents).
Even on one of the rainiest, dreary days in Manhattan, American Girl Place exuded warmth.
I no longer needed my Google Maps walking directions once I saw American Girl's classic red color streaming through the windows of the store.
I looked up and saw a row of dolls staring back at me.
Even from outside the store, I noted the variety of dolls that were on display, which I thought was a clear reflection that American Girl aims to cater to a wide range of audiences.
Inside, I was greeted by several displays of Joss Kendrick, the brand's 2020 Girl of the Year, a surfer and cheerleader who was born deaf in one ear.
American Girl launched its Girl of the Year collection in 2001, and every year since then the company has released an exclusive doll with a story set in the present.
The collection is a big part of the brand's shift to tell contemporary stories that modern girls connect with, American Girl's president, Jamie Cygielman, previously told me in an interview.
"We see the line as an opportunity for girls to see themselves in that character and also to help them create a broader worldview," Cygielman said.
The 2020 Girl of the Year is an example of how American Girl is continuing to make its dolls reflect a variety of abilities. For example, part of Joss Kendrick's story is that she was born deaf in one ear, and the doll comes with a hearing aid.
Joss, whose story is set in California, has a cheery blue van where she stows her surfboards and other gear.
An American Girl store representative told me that Joss' vehicle was designed and manufactured in partnership with Volkswagen.
The surf bus doesn't come included with the Joss doll. It's a limited-edition item that was available to purchase for $650 at the time of writing.
Inside Joss' van, her laptop — showing a video editor program with clips of her surfing — was arranged on a table with a sandwich, cold drink, and "Surf's Up" magazine in the back.
Honestly, this doesn't look too different from my own desk at work.
I even caught some (pretend) waves as part of the store display celebrating Joss.
American Girl Place has been optimized for the Instagram age, with several interactive photo backdrops scattered throughout the store.
Then, I entered a festive area full of furniture, photo ops, and hands-on activities dedicated to the doll Julie, whose story is set in San Francisco during the '70s.
The general manager of American Girl Place, Stacey Martland, told me that the Julie pop-up area was only recently installed.
Martland has worked for the American Girl brand since 2000. She's managed American Girl retail locations around the country and has been the general manager at the New York flagship since 2012.
She explained that the store's spacious Julie doll display has reinvigorated interest in the character, which was originally released in 2007.
"It makes you love Julie again," Martland said. "You get to talk about her again. We talk about the characters girls are attracted to for whatever reason, but Julie's immersive part of the store really brings her back into the spotlight."
I was amazed at the ornate backdrop for the doll, which was complete with the Golden Gate Bridge and a miniature cable car.
The bright yellow cable car can't be purchased and is just for display purposes.
Similar to Joss, Julie also has transportation options of her own. If the imaginary cable car isn't running, for example, she can hop in her shiny blue convertible.
Her aqua-colored vehicle was modeled after a 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle and was previously available for purchase for $350. The model convertible looked nicer than any car I'll probably ever drive.
There was also a life-sized version of Julie's Volkswagen Beetle, which invites visitors to "climb in and take a '70s selfie!"
Within the span of just a few minutes, I was hit with my second social media-friendly photo installation.
Cygielman previously told me that the Instagram-worthy photo areas around American Girl Place have been an important part of keeping the retail experience relevant for visitors.
"Having those photo-op moments is important because that's the way our customers like to celebrate family events, and obviously posting on social is an important aspect, particularly for the mom or dad, but also for the way [American Girl] deploys our content," Cygielman said.
Part of the character Julie's story is that she loves to play basketball, so naturally, the store had a setup for a real-life game of hoops.
The basketball game is a big hit with store visitors of all ages, Martland told me.
"Every Saturday, we see several girls, several families, playing this and intermingling," she said.
Moving on, I found myself face-to-face with neatly arranged Truly Me dolls, which are available in a variety of hair, eye, and skin colors.
The brand's Truly Me dolls are available in boy and girl options, and they're $98 each. They come dressed in the outfit displayed here, along with a book called "Friends: Making Them & Keeping Them."
One of the newest Truly Me doll options has rainbow-colored hair with blue, purple, and pink streaks.
"We call her our unicorn-hair doll," Martland told me.
I obsessed over the dolls' 21st-century accessories. This character wore over-the-ear headphones and held a miniature cell phone with interchangeable screens.
From the hoodie to the tiny cellular device, this doll looked identical to millennials I see commuting on the subway every morning.
I was also amazed at how digital the experience was. Here, people can use a tablet to design a custom doll.
The brand's custom doll option is $200. Visitors who design their doll at the store using the tablet can expect to have it shipped to them in about three weeks.
Next, I stopped by the Doll Hospital, which has an interactive "wellness center" inside the store.
American Girl's official Doll Hospital is located in Wisconsin, where its parent company, Mattel, Inc., is located.
Owners with dolls in need of repairs (i.e. a broken limb, body part, or "skin" that's been stained with marker or paint) can bring them to any American Girl store location, and they'll be sent to the hospital center in Wisconsin, then fixed and shipped back home.
The NYC and Chicago flagship stores have what's known as the "wellness center," where owners can watch their dolls go through routine checkups, X-rays, and eye exams for fun.
Bria Fernandez, the Doll Hospital caretaker on duty, gave me the full wellness center experience, including checking a doll's temperature and reflexes with tiny tools.
The wellness center experience, which is free of charge (unless the visitor decides to purchase a product or service offered in the area, like getting glasses or having their doll's ear pierced) lets store guests see their doll get all the regular checkups that would be tested in a typical pediatrician visit — including ears, eyes, nose, and heartbeat.
There are also imaginary flu "vaccines" for dolls, which Fernandez explained doesn't actually involve syringes.
Fernandez explained that the doll "vaccine" process involves taking the doll in a back room for a minute or two.
"I usually ask the doll owner, 'Do you want your doll to get a flu shot?' And if they say yes, we just take the doll in the back. There's no actual shot involved," Fernandez said.
The make-believe flu shot is an example of how the doll wellness center is adding an immersive, educational component to American Girl Place. It's meant to mimic the experience doll owners have during their own real-life doctors' office experience.
Fernandez even performs eye exams on dolls. "Of course, they're usually 20/20," she said, laughing.
American Girl offers a variety of glasses made just for dolls — none have actual prescriptions, though.
I marveled at the wellness center experience, which wasn't around when I was little.
Cygielman previously told me that the wellness center has been one of the most popular features of the store since it was introduced in October.
"We're seeing tremendous amounts of visits with it and a lot of traffic to the store in that area," Cygielman said.
While I was an extra-cautious 8-year-old and never had to send my dolls to the American Girl Doll Hospital to get repaired, I'm sure I would've been entranced by the imaginary medical experience when I was a kid.
I stopped by the store's other interactive hubs, including the hair salon, where girls and dolls can get matching hairstyles and nails.
Dolls get the ultimate beauty treatment with aprons, miniature hair tools and accessories, and authentic salon chairs. Girls can even get matching treatments, whether it's a coordinating hairstyle or manicure.
The store also has a café, where families and dolls can dine together. Dolls get their own tiny cutlery and seat.
When I visited the American Girl café, dolls were arranged with festive crowns for a birthday party happening later that evening.
The restaurant also gives visitors the option to borrow a doll if they don't own one or didn't bring one to the store.
"It's because we want everyone to be included," Martland said of the option for guests to borrow a doll to join them during their meal. "We want everyone to be able to have a special experience here."
Just outside the café, rows of characters were stacked, as if they were waiting patiently to be selected to accompany a guest.
I took the escalator downstairs and descended upon the brand's section of historical characters, which is marked by a timeline featuring each doll and its era.
Martland told me that while she is seeing most people very excited to buy a Truly Me doll, or a doll with a contemporary story and modern accessories, she thinks there's still a big interest in the brand's historical characters. According to Martland, it just depends on the child's personality.
"It's a different type of girl who goes for the Truly Me dolls or comes down here for a doll with a story set in another era," Martland said.
The brand's historical doll collection has expanded and includes characters that weren't around when I was a kid — such as Rebecca Rubin, a Jewish-American living in New York City.
Rebecca was added to the historical collection in 2009.
There were also museum-worthy miniature displays equally as ornate as Joss Kendrick's Volkswagen van, like this realistic diner setup.
The doll behind the counter is Maryellen Larkin, whose story is set in the 1950s. Her meticulous diner set was sold out on the American Girl site at the time of writing but originally retailed for $275.
I found myself feeling most struck by motifs throughout the store, like the positive affirmations on every mirror.
When I wasn't admiring the adorably detailed dolls and arrangements, I noticed that the store had a unique use of mirrors. They were decorated with inspirational quotes — there was never just a plain mirror.
I thought this was representative of the whole essence of American Girl, which Cygielman told me aims to stand by and lift up girls as they're growing up and navigating their early years.
While child visitors may not think much of these quotes that adorned many of the mirrored decorations, to me, they were a modern example of American Girl's commitment to uplifting young girls.
It's been many years since I've visited the American Girl Place flagship in Chicago, but even if I did see these kinds of quotes or affirmations plastered on the walls or mirrors throughout the space as a child, I probably wouldn't have thought much of them.
Today, though, I thought these positive quotes were a small but significant way in which American Girl not only inspires, but also aims to appeal to the people actually buying the dolls.
While I'm not a parent, I can imagine that a mom or dad or grandparent bringing their child to the store would probably love and appreciate seeing these sayings. I think it tells them that their purchase of a nearly $100 doll is an investment, and that they're buying into a brand that's promoting positivity for their kids.
There were also mirrored displays that let visitors envision themselves in the shoes of historical characters.
This reminded me of what Jamie Cygielman, American Girl's president, previously told me about the dolls being a "window" or "mirror" for girls.
"We like to say the characters we bring forth through our storytelling and through the physical product are either a mirror to a girl, where she can see part of herself, or they're a window onto another culture or someone else's perspective," Cygielman said.
I thought the newer, hands-on parts of the store — like the wellness center checkup, the doll salon, and the photo backdrops — are certainly smart ways to entice visitors.
The hair salon looked and smelled nicer than just about every overpriced studio in New York City, and if the friendly, warm American Girl doll wellness center opened a human version, I would be the first to write my name on a waiting list.
While I had never visited the doll salon or had a Doll Hospital experience as a kid, from my adult perspective, I was floored at the quality and attention to detail of these experiences and can understand why they help American Girl Place remain a destination for tourists and out-of-town visitors.
But even with the modern additions, I realized the best parts of American Girl haven't changed all that much since I was little — they have just been enhanced for today's generation.
I was relieved to still see so much space in the store dedicated to the dolls that started it all in the 1980s — and what many people who owned an American Girl doll in its early years remember — the historical characters.
That being said, it was impressive to see in person just how much more diverse the characters have gotten over time.
Growing up, I would've loved to have a doll who came with Jewish holiday accessories. I can imagine other girls are excited to see a piece of themselves in the dolls that have been introduced since I've aged out of the brand, from Nanea Mitchell, a Hawaiian girl who survives Pearl Harbor; to Melody Ellison, the second black historical doll, who grows up in 1964 in Detroit.
On my way out of the colorful wonderland, I passed the display of Bitty Babies and felt a little emotional.
After all, the next time I think about these iconic dolls might be when I have a daughter of my own (which isn't anytime soon).
After hours of roaming the store and viewing hundreds of dolls, I concluded that I felt simultaneously old and like a child again.
Unfortunately, though, I couldn't drive Julie's blue Volkswagen Beetle back to my Brooklyn apartment.
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