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Thursday, Nov 15, 2018
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Build-A-Bear promotion overwhelms local malls as crowds swarm stores nationwide

Lindsay Cox was one of the lucky ones.

She beat the rush to the Brandon Build-A-Bear Workshop and scored a monkey for her son before the company halted its "Pay Your Age" promotion everywhere as lines grew too long and chaotic across the country.

The new Riverview mother knew the promotion would draw a crowd — but she didn’t expect the throng that formed behind her as she waited in front of the store.

"I knew it would be long," she said, "but not that long."

Cox, 18, got to Westfield Brandon at 7:15 a.m. Thursday, where she had to wait outside for about an hour before she was let in the mall, and in front of the Build-A-Bear store. Soon, people joined her who had been waiting outside another mall entrance.

"At first, I was just waiting with three other people," she said. "Then all the sudden, people started piling up."

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Stunned by the crowd gathering behind her, she took out her phone to post a photo to her Snapchat page before walking inside the shop. Cox said she left the workshop, her son and new monkey in tow, at 10:30 a.m.

The crowd was still growing.

By 11 a.m., Build-A-Bear’s corporate leaders had to put a stop to the stuffed animal chaos. What Cox saw in Brandon was happening at stores all over.

Frustrated parents and shocked onlookers posted photos similar to Cox’s from the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel and Westfield Countryside in Clearwater — and from pretty much every mall with a Build-A-Bear. The chain has more than 400 locations worldwide, though the promotion was only in the United States and Canada.

"Per local authorities, we cannot accept additional Guests at our locations due to crowds and safety concerns," Build-A-Bear posted to its Facebook page. "We have closed lines in our U.S. and Canada stores. We understand some Guests are disappointed and we will reach out directly as soon as possible."

But that didn’t mean people already in line were giving up.

At the Westfield mall in Clearwater, Vicki Stahl was still waiting at 1:15 p.m. with her children, ages 2, 4, and 11. She said she got to the mall at 8 a.m.

Earlier in the day, the company had posted that it was experiencing an "unprecedented response" and "significantly longer than expected lines."

Build-A-Bear said in a statement it gave customers who were turned away vouchers and has also made vouchers available online to store rewards members.

Cox said even with barricades up, it was clear some people were cutting ahead of others in line. In some locations, Build-A-Bear had to close its stores completely due to safety concerns, and in others, workers limited lines. Tampa Bay law enforcement reported no incidents at local Build-A-Bear shops.

The promotion allowed children to create a Build-A-Bear — stuff it, put a heart inside its tummy and dress it — with the price matching their age. In other words, a bear would cost $1 for a 1-year-old, $2 for a 2-year-old, and so on.

That meant the monkey Cox made with her 4-month-old son for his crib only cost $1. Usually, the shop’s stuffed creations start at $12 but can cost a small fortune once you add on accessories. Premium animals and characters start at $28.

Build-A-Bear’s promotion started going viral on Facebook shortly after the chain posted about it on July 9. The post said it was the first time ever the chain was offering such a deal on "any furry friend at the Workshop."

Hours after Cox had left the Brandon mall, happy children were taking care of their new friends inside the workshop after hourslong waits.

In Clearwater, 8-year-old Skylar Baughey gave her pink troll a big squeeze and 5-year-old Gabriel Perkins groomed his new dragon.

The day had its victors — and, perhaps, taught some the value of patience.

Times staff photographer Doug Clifford contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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