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    MetroWest experiences a different kind of tourism

    American Girl associate and doll hair stylist Julia Moser-Hardy at work in Natick.
    John Swinconeck
    American Girl associate and doll hair stylist Julia Moser-Hardy at work in Natick.

    Kristyn Whitney fought the traffic just to take her daughter from their home in Rhode Island to a location in Massachusetts for a special birthday event.

    But the two weren’t riding the duck boats in Boston or searching Cape Cod tidal pools for hermit crabs. They were at the Natick Mall, where their destination was the American Girl boutique doll store, the only one in New England.

    “It’s her eighth birthday,” Whitney said, “and it was her one request.”

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    As shocking as it may seem to local motorists stuck in traffic on Route 9, the American Girl store, and the Natick Mall itself, are a bit of a tourist draw. According to store manager Ed Galante, customers travel not just from throughout New England, but from the United Kingdom, Australia, and South America to buy the pricey American Girl dolls and their accessories.

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    “You can tell when someone walks in for the first time by the looks on their faces,” said Galante. “It’s like going to Disney World.”

    If they are staying overnight for what could only be described as a doll-cation, the nearby Courtyard by Marriott hotel offers an American Girl package that includes a personalized welcome letter, a doll-sized travel bed to take home, and cookies and milk. The price tag ranges from $140 to $170, compared with regular nightly rates that start at $109.

    At the Crowne Plaza across Route 9, an American Girl package starts at $240 and includes milk and cookies delivered to the room in the evening, breakfast for four, and a free shuttle to the store. Regular Crowne Plaza rates start at about $200 for a room with two double beds.

    In an e-mail, Crowne Plaza general manager John Dodson said his hotel has sold “over several hundred packages” to American Girl fans.

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    “This package has only increased in interest and we have already sold more this year than last year, and are expecting even more for the holiday season,” Dodson wrote.

    The Natick store offers dolls, books, and videos featuring characters from the American Girl lineup. Customers can have their doll’s hair done at a salon in the store (the cost ranges from $10 to $25, and waiting time on busy days is up to four hours), and eat with their doll (which sits in its own store-provided booster seat) in a 120-seat bistro.

    Tracey Vaccarella knows about the experience.

    Every year, Vaccarella and her family make the trek from Davie, Fla., just outside Fort Lauderdale, to visit relatives in Sturbridge. They consider themselves “typical tourists,” said Vaccarella. They spend a week on Cape Cod and see the sights in Boston. And, for the last several years, they have included a stop at the American Girl store in Natick.

    Emma Vaccarella, 7, and her cousin, Caitlyn Freitas, 9, love the store.

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    “For the cousins, they have a mutual interest. And it’s a special world, here, that they love,” Vaccarella said.

    ‘You can tell when someone walks in for the first time by the looks on their faces. It’s like going to Disney World.’

    The MetroWest Visitors Bureau says the American Girl store, and the Natick Mall, are among a group of sleeper locations that draw a healthy number of visitors.

    “That’s what the tourist of today wants,” Susan Nicholl, the regional organization’s executive director, told participants in a workshop on promoting the area this spring. “They want to get a little history, and then buy out the Natick Mall.”

    The bureau is working to educate so-called “ambassadors” on local cultural or economic “jewels,” including businesses such as Framingham’s Bose Inc., the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, wildlife sanctuaries, and botanical gardens.

    Take, for instance, Wegmans, a grocery store chain with an almost cult-like following.

    On the afternoon of July 3, shoppers at the Wegmans in Northborough were combing the aisles in anticipation of Independence Day barbecues. According Nicholl, when it opened Oct. 16, 2011, the store drew more visitors — defined as someone who has traveled more than 50 miles — than any other place in Massachusetts.

    “The day we opened, we had over 2,000 people waiting in line to get into the store at 7 in the morning,” said Bill Congdon, vice president of the New York-based chain’s New England division. “Some of the folks camped out overnight. There was a Winnebago parked in our parking lot that was full of doctors and nurses that had gone to school in upstate New York, and had been familiar with Wegmans, who were now working in the downtown Boston area. . .  To draw that kind of crowd on opening day was outstanding.”

    Congdon said the majority of shoppers at Wegmans live within a 25-mile radius, but he also noted that “we have shoppers who come from all over the place, especially on weekends.

    “I just talked to some folks the other day . . . who make the trip up here from Connecticut on a weekly basis,” he said.

    Congdon said the grocery chain plans to open three more stores in Massachusetts, in Westwood, Chestnut Hill, and Burlington.

    “When we started researching and defining’’ tourism, Nicholl said, “we looked at why people are already coming here. Wegmans is a perfect example. People are willing to go a long ways to find really interesting retail. We know people will go a long way for food.”

    According to the Natick Mall’s marketing manager, J. Lynn Josephson, it is the largest shopping center in New England. “A visit here is not 20 minutes. It’s one you can make a day of,” Josephson said. “American Girl boutiques are more than just a place, it’s about an experience.

    “The collection of stores here are only replicated in downtown Boston,” Josephson said. So the mall stores have been reaching out to foreigners traveling in groups.

    That may be a blessing for an economy that’s become more retail-oriented. For every 35 international visitors to the United States, one new job is created, said Nicholl.

    “People are really changing their thinking about what a visitor is,” she said.

    It’s not only specialized stores that are drawing international visitors, according to Nicholl, who points to Canadian parents who travel to Marlborough to support their children’s hockey teams. She said the New England Sports Center brings in enough business to support 1,500 hotel rooms in Marlborough alone.

    Richard Tomanek, manager of Embassy Suites in Marlborough, said he sees visitors from across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom who are there for events at the sports complex, which he called “a significant part of the local economy.”

    New England Sports Center is second only to EMC Corp., an international data-storage company, in terms of drawing visitors to the region.

    Business visitors also send out ripples into the local economy, between eating at restaurants, shopping, and touring the area’s historical sites. “Companies like Boston Scientific, Raytheon, Bose Corp, TJX, Staples, all are huge contributors to tourism,” said Tomanek.

    John Swinconeck can be reached at johnswinc@gmail.com.