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Our 2006 Road Trip, Part 16: Another Hick in the Mall

[The very special miniseries continues! See Part One for the official intro and context…]

Day 6: Thursday, July 27th

By the third day of our stay at the same Bloomington hotel, we were finding it difficult to make the same breakfast buffet seem novel and appetizing. We ate much less than usual, contenting ourselves with watching in amusement as a whole new line of hotel guests each found their own way to screw up the waffle-making process. The instructions were right there on the wall, but we were amazed at the damage to be done by forgetting to use cooking spray, by pouring in the wrong amounts of batter, by pouring the batter unevenly on one side, by neglecting to turn the waffle-maker to the ON position and thereby negating the timer, and so on. As former longtime restaurant employees, Anne and I are elitist like that.

Our objective was the one and only Mall of America. Our family and friends back home were more excited about this stop than we were. When Anne and I first traveled together in 1999, one of the first and unhappiest lessons we learned was that chain retail stores, with extremely few exceptions, carry the exact same merchandise from state to state. Walmarts in Kentucky have the same Star Wars figures as those in Indiana. Toys-R-Us-es in Missouri line their shelves with the same clearance worst-sellers as those back home. By logical extension, we assumed even the Mall of America would be subject to this guideline. We figured we had to try it anyway, on behalf of our friends and family demanding their vicarious thrills after the fact. Besides, when in Rome, and all that.

Mall of America!

One of my two favorite things about Minneapolis was their professional interstate system. The interstates dissect the city into grids in such a way that almost every inch of city is within five minutes of an exit. Their drivers were neither ill-mannered madmen nor somnambulant Sunday lollygaggers. Everywhere we went, we flowed from point A to point B without so much as an obstacle or a competitor. Thus, after two minutes of backroads along the multi-hotel stretch parallel to the interstate, our one-mile drive on the interstate itself from the hotel to the Mall was a sixty-second transfer from entrance ramp to interchange ramp to exit ramp onto the Mall property. We spent more time roaming the gargantuan (but free!) parking garage for a space at 9:30 a.m. than we did just driving to it. Having Commander LaForge beam us over would’ve taken only a minute less.

As the stores and attractions opened one by one, we wandered through the amusement park at the core of the mall, sizing up their attractions. Two solid rollercoasters and a few mammoth automated vertigo machines were the centerpieces of the theme park formerly known as Camp Snoopy until license expiration forced a name change to the unwieldy and hopefully temporary appellation “The Park at the Mall of America”. A large replica of Snoopy’s dog dish remains as evidence of Park-That-Was, albeit with his name removed from its still-distinctive shape. Oddly, one of the coasters also has a dinky petting zoo tucked under one of its curves, but when we first arrived it was still closed and unmanned, even half an hour after the Mall opened.

We expected my son to want admission and a few minutes apiece on some of the carny offerings…but in another twist of mood, he declined and nagged us to consider an alternative: the Underwater Adventures Aquarium, located down in the basement. After the gratuitous Minnesota Zoo and the underwhelming Great Lakes Aquarium, I wasn’t keen on the idea of checking out yet another animal exhibit until I did the math and realized the aquarium was cheaper than the Park. And we had a coupon for the aquarium. Eventually I was sold, and we gave it a whirl.

The MoA’s Aquarium is designed just like the Newport Aquarium, which we visited last year — the aquatic life is kept in enormous tanks that compose the upper half of every hallway, the ceiling as well as the walls, so that fish can swim over the customers and provide a great close-up of their undersides (which, especially for the rays and the pointier-toothed dwellers, are more fascinating to watch than you might think). The variety and quantity underperformed Newport’s own, but well surpassed the Great Lakes Aquarium in the same categories.

The second-best highlight would’ve been their crowded piranha tank (whose scheduled 5:00 feeding time was sadly hours away), but my son’s favorite part was the circular petting tank, which contained a couple of small sharks…and a whole mess of stingrays. As the rays did laps around the tank, my son stood there for I-don’t-know-HOW-long, taking every opportunity to reach out and caress each of the tiny li’l devils. One feisty li’l grayish specimen, no more than a foot long from snout to barb, kept paddling along, eagerly sidling up the outer wall of the tank, showing off and reaching out for someone to hold.

Besides a deserted playground set at the end of the tour, one high-camp feature is a hallway exhibit called “Seacrits of Hollywood”, which consists of an imitation Hollywood Walk of Fame, with each star tile representing a different movie that had something to do with water and/or water animals. Some of the display choices were obvious — Titanic, The Little Mermaid, Free Willy, Flipper, the ’80s B-movie Alligator, Piranha as well as Piranha 2: the Spawning, that sort of thing. Some choices were a little more, erm, unexpected: Das Boot, Clash of the Titans, Men of Honor, the first Austin Powers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As free samples of underwater life in cinema, two TVs played repeating clips from those timeless naval classics Blue Hawaii and Thunderball. Offsetting this was a modest selection of movie posters and Pirates of the Carribean decor…which worked equivalent wonders for Crabby’s back in Wisconsin Dells.

Lunch was at the Magic Pan, a crepe stand offering its wares stuffed with meat or drenched in sugar-based condiments for dessert. Beyond that different but rewarding meal, the bulk of the Mall was, as we predicted, dozens upon dozens of retail and restaurant franchises easily found in every other mall in America besides the Mall of America. The lone exceptions, at least for us Hoosiers and our more conservative malls, were a progressive oxygen bar that made us cackle every time we walked past it; an “As Seen on TV” store overflowing with the fabled crap of Ronco, Mr. Popeil, and their ilk; and — much more astoundingly — the Lego Imaginarium, a store of Legos, Legos, Legos, with giant Lego collections and displays and dioramas and such. Lovely digs, as plastic paradises go.

Lego Store!

At a few minutes to five, since our Aquarium passes were good for all-day admission, we scurried back to the MoA basement to catch the piranha feeding. We were disappointed that they were fed chunks of shredded pre-dead meat rather than, say, a live customer. Shattering yet another stereotype, the narrating handler revealed to our disgust — in addition to piranha not being as aggressive as Hollywood would have us think — that piranha teeth don’t stick out in a menacing manner. By her allegations, the only reason their teeth jut out more in movies and old TV shows is because their lips were surgically removed in those instances to give them a fiercer look.

EWWWWWW. Thus were our vacation and all future piranha cameos forever tainted.

We then made another stop at the petting zoo, our fourth such stop there that day. We’d had yet to see a single employee near it, suggesting either attendance problems or excessive coffee breaks. At long last, on our final try a lanky, mopey lad emerged from a nearby shed with a large book he’d been in the middle of reading and reluctantly admitted us to see the animals. There were a dozen in all, including a llama, a duck, a sheep, a pot-bellied pig, a guinea pig in hiding, and an African pygmy goat that kept chewing on the fringes of our clothing. The animals were as starved for attention as they were for food, which a few quarters popped into handy vending machines easily supplied. Their desperation showed even more clearly as they tried to nose their way into the machines before we could finish inserting our quarters. Except for one noxious llama fart, my son got a kick out of the live interaction (and now wants his own pot-bellied pig to replace our dog that recently passed way — ummm, we’ll see, son). I felt sorry for seeing them all stuck with such a waste of protoplasm for a keeper.

Petting Zoo!

We roamed some more thereafter, did some souvenir-buying and very light shopping. I picked up a deeply discounted copy of The Slings and Arrows Comics Guide at Atlantic Books, an otherwise east-coast-only all-remainders bookstore chain. We had hoped to grab a meal at Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Shack, based on our favorable experiences with their smaller namesake located inside Paramount’s Kings Island. When we tracked them down and compared their four-star-steakhouse prices against the tattered remains of our week’s meal budget, we downshifted our expectations dramatically. We also checked out the Rainforest Cafe, drenched in atmosphere, and not as in-your-face GO-GREEN! as the name implied to us, but expensive regardless.

We opted instead for a meal at Wolfgang Puck’s Express, which sounded really fancy but was ultimately an alt-universe Boston Market. (That’s not a slam — I’m just saying the prices and selection were equivalent.) Our cashier was the most delightful person we met all day, so they’ve got that going for them, too. She casually mentioned that, despite its size, the Mall has plans for even more expansion, including hopes of adding a water park. Inconceivable. At this rate I fully expect the Mall of America to secede from Minneapolis, annex Bloomington, and formally request statehood.

When we left the Mall, I made a mental note of how dangerously low the rear driver’s side tire had deflated once again, adding it to my mental itinerary for the next morning. On our final night at the hotel, Anne and I were by now bored stiff with hotel pools in general, so we sat poolside and caught up on reading while my son plodded along and tried to make the most of his final hotel-pool experience of the year. If it were up to him, we’d visit a hotel pool every week back home.

To be concluded!

[Historical notes:

1. On our 2014 road trip, the Mall of America was one of the few places we revisited that we’d previously seen in 2006. Photos wll be posted in the forthcoming “Our 2014 Road Trip”, which will commence when this 2006 remastering ends. That’ll be soon. We promise we took many more photos of the Mall this year, too. We still didn’t try the oxygen bar, though.

2. As of this writing, the Park at the Mall of America has been rebranded as the Nickelodeon Universe. What a difference eight years makes.

3. While we’re on the subject of amusement park name changes: regarding that tossed-off reference above, Paramount dumped Kings Island from its portfolio a few years ago, so once again it’s simply “Kings Island” as its founder intended. During its Hollywood sponsorship days, KI’s Bubba Gump’s franchise was one of many features named after things from movies. Today its name is something more generic, as was the taste of their seafood on our last visit.

3. I don’t recall seeing the petting zoo this year at all. We know for certain that Wolfgang Puck’s alcove has been taken over by another restaurant.

4. This is the third entry from which I’ve deleted dated references to the late Steve Irwin. When I wrote this in the fall of 2006, his tragic death was very much on my mind whenever I tried to recount our encounters with aquatic life, which you’ll notice was every other day on this trip. That didn’t help at all.

5. My son’s passion for hotel pools passed away many years ago. I blame the teen aging process.]

Link enclosed here to handy checklist for previous and future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Thanks for reading!]

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