Mall of America amusement park puts shopping in second place
Entering Mall of America, my kids were unimpressed.
It resembled Woodfield, and they silently feared we'd be spending the day shopping for clothes for mom.
The thought crossed my mind.
Then we got to the center of the mall, and smiles spread across their faces. They grabbed each other's arms and started jumping up and down.
"Oh my God! This is awesome!" they squealed, upon seeing the SpongeBob SquarePants-themed roller coasters and the colorful rides in the Nickelodeon Universe indoor amusement park.
They maintained this level of euphoria for the rest of the weekend in Minneapolis, one of the most kid-friendly but cold cities in the United States. Daytime high temperatures during our mid-January visit? Eight degrees. A three-block walk to a train or a museum made our faces, fingers and toes numb. It snowed twice in three days.
Yet, the weather didn't slow the city down or put a damper on anyone's fun. The Mall of America was crowded -- more than 40 million people visit each year -- and when we were there, most of them were shopping, taking advantage of Minnesota's nonexistent sales tax on clothes.
Every parent knows it's no fun to shop with your kids. Besides, why would we come all this way to shop at Macy's and Abercrombie & Fitch? We're not exactly in a shopping desert here in suburban Chicago.
So our mission was to enjoy the mall's entertainment -- and there's lots of it.
The mall's become increasingly family- and kid-focused in recent years, and millions of dollars were spent transforming the old Knott's Camp Snoopy into Nickelodeon Universe, and adding entertainment like a movie theater with VIP seating, an 18-hole miniature golf course, and a flight simulator.
What I liked about the indoor amusement park compared to, say, Great America, is that it was comfortably large -- 25 rides and attractions -- and it wasn't overrun with teenagers. The mall requires teens under age 16 to be accompanied by an adult starting in the late afternoon on Fridays and Saturdays. Bummer for them. Bonus for us.
Everything was clean, geared to a variety of age groups, and had short lines. We were able to ride our favorite roller coaster three times in one hour (and then bought those cheesy photos of us screaming on the ride afterward).
Best of all, it was an even 70 degrees all day long. At night, when the sky darkened through the mall's glass roof, the place lit up with flashing lights like a carnival.
Beside the amusement park, our two favorite attractions at Mall of America were:
• Underwater Adventures (which will be re-branded Sealife Aquarium in March), a huge aquarium with an impressive collection of jellyfish, and a long, winding walkway where sharks, fish and an enormous turtle swim around you.
• Amazing Mirror Maze, a darkened, mirror-covered maze. It had us laughing out loud, and a little freaked out that we might never find our way out. But when we emerged, we said "That was so cool!" for the next 20 minutes.
There's no need to shop in the mall, but it's almost impossible not to. Of the more than 500 stores, we were drawn into unique places you wouldn't find in Chicago:
• Rybicki Cheese, which gave out many free samples of tasty Wisconsin cheese and was covered from ceiling to floor in Green Bay Packers merchandise.
• Corda Roys, which sells enormous bean bag chairs which you're invited to plop down on;.
• Nestle Toll House Cookie Cafe. Toll House cookie-and-frosting sandwich, anyone?
I stuck with my mission to avoid shopping, breaking down only in our final hours of our two-day visit to buy each of us a University of Minnesota hoodie in one of the many Minnesota-themed stores. I paid for one of them, which was $19.99, with a $20 bill and got change. The novelty of no sales tax blew my mind.
I'm going to remember that at back-to-school shopping time. And I'm going to remember the fun we had at the Mall of America for a long time after that.
Where to stay:
• The Depot Renaissance Hotel, 225 S. Third Ave., Minneapolis. Rates start at $89.
This unique downtown hotel run by the Marriott chain is a refurbished old train depot. It's connected to the Light Rail train station (which goes to the airport and the Mall of America) and the Mill City Museum, and also has an indoor water park, a large indoor ice skating rink, and a game room.
• Hampton Inn, 3000 Eagandale Place, Eagan. Rates start at $79.
Located in a business park of an airport suburb, this quiet, clean hotel has family-friendly features, like free hot breakfast, an indoor pool, and free shuttle service to the airport and the Mall of America.