When you’re looking for an affordable family theme park weekend, it’s easy to get scared away by the price tag on many of the big name theme parks. But sometimes you want a more affordable option, something a little slower pace that still delivers lots of fun. That’s what I found myself looking for and, to my surprise, I found plenty of kid-like fun in Minneapolis.
Here are my recommendations on how to spend a long theme park weekend in Minneapolis, full of lots of big and little kid fun.
MSP (Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport) is a gateway destination, meaning it’s easy to find flights from pretty much everywhere. Plan to arrive as early in the day as possible, giving you the late afternoon and early evening to get settled and start your weekend.
My recommendation is to stay fairly close to the airport. I chose the Airport Hilton, both for its proximity to where I wanted to be as well as for its amenities. The hotel offers a complimentary airport shuttle as well as shuttles to the theme parks, so no need to rent a car or worry about cab fares using up your travel budget. Taking advantage of my Hilton Honors status, I got an upgrade to the executive floor, which also means a complimentary breakfast, evening appetizers, and beverages throughout the day. If you don’t have Honors status, consider booking a room on the executive floor; you might find that the return value exceeds the upgraded costs. Note: The airport is not close to downtown Minneapolis, so if your purpose is downtown business rather than theme park fun, you may want to consider a downtown hotel location.
First stop is Nickelodeon Universe, located in the Mall of America. Nickelodeon Universe covers seven acres in the middle of the mall with rides and attractions appropriate to all age levels. As you would expect, many of the rides feature top Nickelodeon characters such as SpongeBob Square Pants, Rugrats, and Dora the Explorer, but the marketing of these characters is not too obnoxiously in your face.
You’ll find some perennial theme park favorites, like the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round, but you’ll also find the Orange Streak (roller coaster), Avatar Airbender, the Fairly Odd Coaster (roller coaster), and the Log Chute (water ride).
I was a good sport about trying all the rides and found I enjoyed my theme park experience overall, but one attraction did get the better of me — Dutchman’s Deck Ghostly Gangplank and Anchor Drop, a rope and ladder attraction that had you climbing up several stories by way of a series of ropes, rungs, and catwalks. I really wanted to give this a try, and suited up in my harness all ready to go, but my fear of edges and lack of balance got the better of me. I made it up one ladder and couldn’t go any further. I took time to center myself on a platform, caught my breath, and then walked back down the stairs. I admit that my fear got the better of me, but the rest of the group has a great time and could have spent hours climbing around.
Nickelodeon Universe has a few stores that are likely to relieve you of some of your cold, hard cash. The Lego store features over-sized displays worth stopping by for a look. And once in the store you’ll be roped into a look at the exhibits, sets, and other displays. If you’ve been looking to pick up a new Lego set, or round out something you already have, chances are you’ll find it here. My favorite store was Peeps. Probably best known for their Easter and spring time marshmallow chicks and bunnies, the Peeps store offers shapes, colors, and flavors that I’ve never seen before. There is also a Mike ‘n’ Ike’s display wall where you can create your own special assortment from the dozen or so on offer.
There are lots of rides and attractions to take up a good 4-5 hours of time, so if you time it right you can knock out this theme park on your day of arrival. A few tips to help you make that happen:
- The theme park is open and free to walk through, so if you’re not sure if you want to commit to the experience on your first day, take a walk through and see what’s there. You’ll quickly be able to assess if you get value out of the ticket with the time you have left. Hours of operation vary depending on the season.
- There are lockers (small fee) outside the theme park entrance, with in and out privileges allowed. It’s worth the fee for the convenience of storing your coats and gear, especially if you’re also toting around infant or kid’s gear. You can also stow some light snacks to save both time and money when you’re ready for a little snack.
- Figure out the finances of buying individual tokens for each rides and attractions vs. full or half day passes. I think the passes probably offer the best value, but there are lots of variables. Unlimited ride wrist bands are available for a full day or half day; the half day pass can be purchased after 4:30 pm and used after 5 pm. I think the half day is just the right amount of time and fits nicely for the excitement of arrival. Discounted tickets may be purchased online.
- There are a couple of add on attractions, and some rides and attractions have minimal height requirements, so don’t forget to measure your little ones to make sure they can ride.
- I visited on the Friday of a holiday weekend and the crowds were small enough that we could see and do everything we wanted and never waited in line longer than a few minutes. During spring break and other major travel times, I’d expect the wait to be longer.
- Typical theme park food, and prices, provide sustenance for the weary, but there are plenty of healthy and more interesting options in the mall. Try a late lunch before starting out for the day and then have dinner when you finish the time at the theme park.
Get some rest, have a good breakfast, and on your second day, head to Waterpark of America, the tallest indoor waterpark in the United States.
The waterpark is about a half mile from the Mall of America and is attached to a Radisson Hotel. The waterpark features a large slide tower with three body slides, two tube slides, and a family slide. The family slide is the tallest and starts at the 10th story of the building sliding you down through twists and turns to the bottom. There is also a wave pool, lazy river, flow rider for boogie boarding, children’s pools, a standard swimming pool with water activities, and a couple of large hot tubs. When you’re out of the water you’ll find a children’s playground, arcade, and snack bars.
Check on the opening time on the day you want to visit and plan to be lined up about an hour before opening. There will be a line! We arrived at opening time (10 am on the day we visited), and the line wait was nearly an hour. Ticket prices vary based on day of week and time of year, with full and half day options. Discounts available for online booking.
The waterpark has locker rooms, but they are unattended and get messy pretty quickly. On crowded day the lockers (additional fee) will likely be full and visitors seem to be comfortable creating large piles of clothes and backpacks in the nearest corner. There are toilet stalls and showers, bring your own towel or one from the waterpark area.
The locker rooms reminded me of junior high school – messy, with no chance of getting cleaned up until the end of the day. Towels are all over the floor, clothing thrown in a heap, and the area doesn’t appear to be tidied during the day. The waterpark would benefit from the services of an attendant to pick up towels in the locker room, replenish toilet paper, and wipe down counters and floors from the water dripped all over. Since that isn’t likely, you should be prepared to deal with it. I recommend bring a change of clothes in a beach bag that can be slipped over a damp swim suit, and then shower and change back in the comfort of your hotel room.
Chaise lounges and chairs surround the main pool area – they get grabbed up very fast – and you can find additional personal space on some higher floors that overlook the pools. Since we weren’t able to secure a locker, we had to tote our stuff to the pool area and were fortunate to find one lone chaise that we shared among us. Although people on each side of our lounger seemed to think that the area was safe to leave personal items, I’m not sure I’d recommend taking the chance. Leave valuables in the car, find a way to secure them, or leave one person to guard the valuables while others are in the water.
Tips for a great waterpark day.
- Arrive an hour before park opening time. Operating hours vary based on day of week and time of year.
- Note that some of the slides have a minimum height requirement so measure in advance to avoid disappointment.
- No outdoor food is permitted in the waterpark and, as you would expect, prices and selection at the snack bar aren’t great. We had a big breakfast that lasted us most of the day, but we were famished when we left.
- Bring a towel of your own if you plan to shower and change at the waterpark after your swim.
- Plan on having dinner shortly after leaving the waterpark as you’ll likely be hungry. And tired. So it’s early to bed, too.
Hopefully, you’ve schedule an evening return flight, so in the morning head back to the Mall of America to catch up on what you missed on the first day.
With over 520 stores, the Mall of America is practically a theme park itself. The mall covers over 96 acres, big enough to fit seven Yankee Stadiums inside, and features anchor stores like Nordstrom, Macy’s, and Bloomingdale’s. If you have serious shopping in mind, this is the place to do it – there’s no sales tax or clothing or shoes. The mall is open Monday-Saturday, 10 am-9:30 pm, and Sunday, 11 am-7 pm.
If you’re not up for shopping, visit the SEA LIFE Minnesota Aquarium (advance tickets recommended) or catch a movie at the 14-screen theater. Grab a bit to eat at one of over 50 restaurants, including a food court, and pack something to-go for your return flight home.
If you’ve already exhausted the things to do at the mall, get outside and enjoy some fresh air. Even in the winter, you can have a great time – but bundle up.
Other Theme Park Weekend Tips
Most of the theme parks offer a discount for advance purchases, so check online for special deals. You can also pick up coupons at your hotel or the mall. It’s not a huge discount – a couple of dollars per person – but don’t let the lack of an advance purchase keep you from going. Our trip was completely a last minute thing, nothing was purchased in advance, and we did and saw everything we wanted to without breaking the bank.
Set a budget. A few admissions tickets, some food here and there, and a purchase or two. It all adds up quickly. Be realistic about what things will cost and what extras you can afford and don’t get lulled into spending more than you want to. You can focus on experiences and skip the gift shops.
Don’t let the weather keep you away. Our trip was in the middle of winter; there was snow on the ground and temperatures in the teens. Let’s not kid ourselves, it was cold. But the airport and metropolitan area deal with inclement weather, so you won’t need to worry about getting around or getting stranded. Getting about will not require a lot of time outdoors, although you may want to schedule some snow time as well.
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Mary Jo Manzanares is a founder and the editor-in-chief of The Traveler’s Way, an online travel magazine proving informational and inspirational travel recommendations for curious Baby Boomer travelers. She has been a speaker at various industry events and has a personal travel blog at Traveling with MJ. When she’s not traveling, Mary Jo likes lingering over a cup of coffee, wandering in a museum, sipping wine at a cafe, and sharing it all with friends and readers. Mary Jo’s top travel destinations are Italy, Portugal, and the Caribbean.