If you were to make a short list of things New Jersey is known for, shopping malls would certainly be in the top ten.

However, while a good number of malls are economically holding their own in the Garden State, many are struggling as more shoppers turn to buying things online and favoring one-stop shopping in big box stores.

Over the past couple of years, we have documented some shopping centers and malls across the state that are having some issues — some places seem to be in a slow decline while others have fallen into a state where they look like a scene out of a zombie apocalypse movie.

The "mall" that I found myself in the other day seems to be in neither of those categories yet could possibly be the emptiest shopping mall in the entire state.

Curious note found under a shopping cart on the Black Horse Pike in Mays Landing NJ - Photo: Chris Coleman
Curious note found under a shopping cart on the Black Horse Pike in Mays Landing NJ - Photo: Chris Coleman
loading...

Even more interesting is the fact that this mall (I guess you can still technically call it a mall — more on that in a moment) is in a shore town, often not known for having big malls, and hundreds of thousands of people walk past it every summer yet few actually venture inside.

The mall that I'm talking about is what is now known as ACX1 Studios on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Perhaps you know it under its former names of The Playground / Playground Pier, The Pier Shops at Caesars, or the Ocean One Mall.

Atlantic City Boardwalk South - Photo: Chris Coleman/Townsquare Media
Atlantic City Boardwalk South - Photo: Chris Coleman/Townsquare Media
loading...

There is a long history to this center, but here's the quick version: The Million Dollar Pier operated on this site from 1906 to 1981. That pier was transformed into the Ocean One mall, which was open from 1983 to 2003. In 2006, the pier (re)opened as The Pier Shops at Caesars and then it became The Playground Pier in 2015.

In the 2010s, that pier/mall was home to many higher-end stores and restaurants, including an Apple store, which famously became one of the only such stores in the country to close and not be relocated.

In September 2023, the pier was reopened under the ACX1 Studios name, envisioned now as a live entertainment, movie, and production center, with hopes of attracting Hollywood-style movie types to the World's Play Ground.

As an East Coast entertainment production hub, some mall-type stores are still open inside and the layout is still very much mall-like, however, it is a literal ghost town inside (granted, this was a Wednesday evening — it might be much more active on the weekends).

Empty Slot Machine Leads to Empty Mall

I found myself in Atlantic City the other day and decided to pop into Caesars to throw a few bucks into a slot machine. Lady luck was not on my side that day and after my financial defeat, I decided to walk over the boardwalk via the sky bridge and into the old pier/mall.

Chris Coleman/TSM
Chris Coleman/TSM
loading...

Once on that side of the great wooden way, I was practically the only person there. It was really just me and one or two other people walking around this giant empty space.

Empty store followed empty store followed empty store. Countless restaurants are upstairs, some with their signs still on and not a menu or person to be seen anywhere. More bizarre was the fact that this whole space was open to the public.

Chris Coleman
Chris Coleman
loading...

I will say this, though — a lot of money went into this facility over the years and some parts of it are still visually stunning, especially at the back of the pier. It's very difficult to imagine how something this nice-looking was not able to sustain itself. This is the only place in Atlantic City where you could grab a high-end dinner and enjoy the views from out over the ocean — or just grab a drink and watch the waves roll in. It's a really beautiful space.

And before we step inside, I don't want to give a false impression that this is a giant empty wasteland. It's not. This space is open and functioning as an audio and video production hub with some retail mixed in; its current owners are very active inside. They have big plans for this pier. Many of the empty storefronts have been transformed into recording studio space and there are live shows and music on occasion. It is a very intriguing evolution. My pictures below are merely intended to capture what was once a bustling shopping mall that was a very liminal space when I recently walked through it.

A walk inside New Jersey's emptiest shopping mall

A walk through the old Ocean One mall / Pier Shops at Caesars in Atlantic City, now ACX1, on a quiet summer evening in the World's Play Ground.

Gallery Credit: Chris Coleman

A walk around the closed Atlantic Club Casino in Atlantic City

The Atlantic Club closed in January 2014 and not much has happened there since.

Gallery Credit: Chris Coleman

More From Lite 96.9 WFPG