BLOOMINGTON, Minn. Minnesota isn't known for moderate weather. But blizzardlike winters, blinding rainstorms or muggy summers don't deter shoppers at the Mall of America, where it's always a dry, comfortable 70 degrees.
In fact, you can catch the light-rail transit from downtown Minneapolis on one end, or the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on the other end, and ride it right inside the mall's parking garage, missing any bad weather.
That's exactly what my 17-year-old daughter, Amy, and I did on a rainy day several months ago. We sloshed from the Graves 601 Hotel in downtown Minneapolis to the light-rail stop. For the cost of $1.50 per ticket, we stayed warm and dry, and in only 35 minutes we entered the Mall of America's surreal shopping paradise. This is the largest retail/entertainment complex in the United States and the second-largest mall in the world, with top honors going to the West Edmonton Mall in Canada.
Before the trip, Amy visited mallofamerica.com and mapped the locations of stores she wanted to visit. She had seen many of them in her monthly Seventeen magazine, and none of them were found in our neighborhood mall. This was a good idea, because we only had about 10 hours to blitz the place. With 520 shops, if you spent only 10 minutes in each store, it would still take you 86 hours to visit them all, according to the mall management's calculations. And since the mall is so big that 258 Statues of Liberty could lie inside it, you'd be exhausted in the process.
And why travel all the way to Minnesota just to shop at the same old stores you could visit at home?
I'm not much of a shopper. But there are plenty of ways to entertain yourself while others in your group are dropping their cash:
• An indoor amusement park
• A 1.2 million-gallon aquarium
• A 14-screen movie theater
• 20 sit-down restaurants
• 30 fast-food restaurants
• A four-story LEGO Play Area
The mall also hosts various events and guest appearances. The largest, an 'NSYNC autograph signing in 1999, attracted 20,000. So, it's possible to spend a full day there and leave without buying anything.
The mall is built on the former site of the Metropolitan Stadium, where Minneapolis' professional baseball and football teams, the Twins and the Vikings, once played. The teams moved to the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis in the 1980s, leaving Bloomington with 78 acres of real estate with a great location. It was less than two miles from the airport, and at the intersection of four major highways. The mall was built and is owned by the Triple Five Group, Ghemezian brothers of Canada, who also built the West Edmonton Mall. In 1992 the doors opened with 330 stores and 10,000 employees.
It's designed in a square, with four anchor stores in each corner: Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Nordstrom and Sears. The amusement park is in the middle, with three levels of retail shops on the avenues connecting the anchor stores.
There's clothing for every price range: from the $650 Burberry trench coat at Bloomingdale's to $4 shirts at Petter's, a discount store that boasts, "Twice the fun, half the price." In between, there are lots of recognizable names like Charlotte Russe, Rainbow, Wet Seal, Delia's, Old Navy, Deb, Aldo, Lane Bryant, Urban Outfitters, H & M Hollister's, Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Sports Authority, and Nordstrom Rack.
To sweeten the deal, there's no sales tax on clothing or shoes in Minnesota.
While my daughter hit Delia's and a prom-dress store called Glitz, I tried on a few things at Torrid. As the name implies, there are no frumpy mu-muus at this plus-size women's shop. It was hard to find much that wasn't sheer, skimpy or low cut.
At the Nordstrom Rack, we met the most diplomatic sales clerk ever. As people came out of the dressing room to return clothes, she smiled reassuringly and said, "Oh, they don't fit? Well, those clothes don't deserve you then."
We saw footwear for every occasion at some of the 30-plus shoe stores: Baker's, Naturalizer, Easy Spirit, Aldo, D.S.W. Shoe Warehouse, Footaction, and others. We strolled past the Franklin Covey store next door to the Lindt Swiss chocolate shop. We tried on fancy make-up at Sephora, and taste-tested artichoke dip at the Le Gourmet Chef cookware store. Since Nordic Ware is a Minnesota company, it was no surprise to find that the store had a huge selection of bundt pans, from mini to giant sizes, and in shapes from sand castles to roses.
A potpourri of ethereal scents lured us into Basin, a store filled with colorful bars of soap in with a chunky, hand-made look. Priced at $3.95-$5.95 per bar, they seemed more of a gift item than a replacement for the usual bar of Dial.
We browsed several of the 13 different sports-fan shops, such as Field of Dreams and Champs, stuffed with pro and college jerseys, hats, sweatshirts and so on. We looked in on Ridemakerz, which specializes in radio-controlled cars; and Archives, filled with scrapbooking supplies. Rainbow had an edgy assortment of sunglasses and clothes. There was Corda-Roy's Originals bean-bag chairs made of corduroy.
Several stores are devoted solely to Mall of America souvenirs. Maybe it's not that strange to think of it as a destination rather than just a place to buy stuff, because tourists account for half the money spent at the mall. While resting on a bench for all of 10 minutes, I was asked directions by two different groups of shoppers with foreign accents. Canada, England, Japan, German, Denmark, Norway and Sweden are the leading countries for international tourists, according to the mall press kit.
The Lake Woebegone USA store, billed as "Gateway to Central Minnesota," offered books and videos by "A Prairie Home Companion" radio personality and author Garrison Keillor. Slogans on the mugs, T-shirts and hats give a humorous look into Minnesota culture and the Scandinavian heritage:
• "American Duct Tape Council: It's What Holds America Together"
• "What happens in the garage stays in the garage."
• "You can always tell a Swede, but you can't tell 'em much."
• "What part of Uff Da don't you understand?" (For those who really don't understand, the Norwegian exclamation means "Off it!" Perhaps it's Minnesota's equivalent of Utah's "Oh my heck!")
We stopped for a lunch/dinner at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, which takes its theme from the "Forrest Gump" movie. It's full of shrimp shack ambience, with fishnets and a rack of hot sauce hanging on the walls.
The wait staff has an interesting way of communication; a blue license plate on each table says "Run Forrest Run!" and a red one says "Stop Forrest Stop!" You set out the red one when you want your server to stop at your table for something and the blue one when you don't.
The menu is boiled shrimp, barbecue shrimp, fried shrimp, coconut shrimp, Cajun shrimp, shrimp Po'Boys, and stuffed shrimp, and more shrimp, just the way Bubba would have done it.
Besides Bubba Gump, there's Famous Dave's, Kokomo's Island Cafe, Napa Valley Grille, Rainforest Cafe, Tucci Benucch (Italian), Twin City Grill (American), Tiger Sushi, and Wolfgang Puck Express.
For entertainment, we checked out The Park in the center of the mall. It's seven acres filled with 30 rides and attractions. It has an outdoor feel, thanks to skylights that let in about 70 percent natural light, and the 400-plus live trees. Most of the rides are tame in comparison to larger parks such as Lagoon. The ride prices were confusing, with "loon," "duck," and "hummingbird," packages of various "points." Perhaps a lot of people just give up and buy the all-day pass for $24.95. The roller coaster ride was $4.50 each, and it took us up and down the treetops and around the park, similar in wildness to Lagoon's Jet Star ride.
Other "big" rides include a spiraling coaster called Timberland Twister, a Log Chute and a Skyscraper Ferris Wheel. Beginning March 15, a new "Nickelodeon Universe" will offer several new rides, including SpongeBob SquarePants Rock Bottom Plunge, a Splate-O-Sphere and Avatar Airbender.We never made it to the aquarium, or the multi-plex, the LEGO Play Area, or about 300 of the stores. But, it was nearing 8 p.m., and our arms were full of shopping bags. Our last stop near the door was at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory for a caramel apple, which we shared on the light rail back to our hotel. My daughter's nickname is "Loved By The Mall," and she truly earned it that day.
• The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is less than two miles from Mall Of America, and can be accessed by light rail. Also, more than 35 nearby hotels and motels offer free shuttle service to both the mall and the airport.
• Wear comfortable shoes, and be prepared for lots of crowds, kids and mega-strollers.
• Prioritize the stores you want to visit, but allow enough flexibility to browse interesting finds along the way.
• If you're going in a group, make sure everyone has a working cell phone, or schedule places to meet every so often. Letting everyone wander on their own and hoping you'll all meet up sometime won't work.• Maps throughout the store help you figure out where you are. But keep in mind that there are two or more of some shops and eateries. My daughter called on her cell phone and told me she was standing next to the Caribou Coffee shop. But when I got there, she was nowhere to be found. Turns out there are three Caribou Coffee shops in the mall.
Underwater Adventure: It's the world's largest underground aquarium, with more than 4,500 sea creatures and a virtual submarine tour.
Admission fees: Age 2 and under, free; ages 3-12, $9.95; adults, $16.95.
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
The Park at MOA: A 7-acre amusement park with more than 30 rides.
Admission: An unlimited ride pass is $24.95 per person; individual rides and reduced-fare group rates are also available.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.
LEGO Play Area: This four-story LEGO showplace contains thousands of LEGO bricks to play with, models to look at and sets to buy. Admission is free.