SARASOTA -- The preview of The Mall at University Town Center was packed Wednesday night with locals looking to be the first to experience the mall firsthand.
Entertainment for thousands of mallgoers included jugglers, opera singers, models, fashion shows, tap and ballet dancers and saxophone players.
Formally dressed visitors also sampled hors d'oeuvres, beer, wine and a specialty cocktail, all courtesy of their $100 per person ticket.
Many expressed enthusiasm at how well the mall turned out.
"This is mind-blowing," said Liz Arme, a local resident for 23 years. "We can't believe this type of turnout, and for such a good cause. Whoever thought of this was brilliant."
"It's even more than what we expected," added her friend, Carey Beychok, who said she has lived in the area about 50 years.
Many people said they were excited to see large anchor stores such as Dillard's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's, and others said they couldn't wait to go to stores such as Crate and Barrel, the Gap, Vera Bradley and White House Black Market.
Several said they couldn't wait to try the restaurants, too.
"(My favorite part is) the restaurants," said Thomas Listern, an employee at Taubman Centers, which built the mall. "I can go out and have something to eat while my wife shops."
The preview was comprised mostly of women and couples with the occasional gaggle of male friends. All said they were happy to have an extensive mall closer to home.
"I'm dying to see Crate and Barrel," said Sharon King, a local resident for nine years. "I go to the one in Tampa, and I'm so excited that now I have one that's 10 minutes from my house."
"It's dangerously close," said Terri Potoka, who also only lives 10 minutes from the mall.
A common favorite feature was the skylight, which runs the length of the mall and lit up in yellows, blues, purples and more as the night wore on.
"I love the skylight," said Patty Tridente, a resident for three years. "I can't wait to see it light up."
People took advantage of being dressed in their best by taking photos everywhere -- in front of still models, eating and in front of their favorite shops. A favorite was the Tesla store, where people could climb into two model cars on display.
Money raised from the event goes to 10 local charities, including the Food Bank of Manatee, Mote Marine Laboratory and the Boys and Girls Club of Sarasota County.
Several restaurants gave out free samples to mallgoers, and nearly all open stores had deals for shoppers, including raffles, free gifts and percentages off purchases.