I can’t attest to have visited every theme park in the United States, but it does seem like when I look back at my travels over the past 20+ years since I caught the theme park/roller coaster bug that I’ve been to far more than I can count. In addition to being insatiable thrill seekers, my family is a big fan of baseball, and I have personally visited 24 of the 30 current MLB ballparks (my wife and son are a little further behind). So, where do you go for a summer vacation when you’ve only got 6 MLB ballparks on your bucket list and have visited just about every major theme park in North America?
Minneapolis, Minnesota of course. We’ve been combining baseball and theme parks into family trips the last few years with a trip to New York City last year (Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, and Six Flags Great Adventure), Cleveland/Columbus/Cincinnati the year before (Progressive Field, Great American Ballpark, Cedar Point, and Kings Island), and St. Louis/Chicago/Milwaukee/Santa Claus the year before that (Busch Stadium, Wrigley Field, Miller Park, Six Flags St. Louis, Six Flags Great America, and Holiday World). Target Field (home of the Minnesota Twins) was one of the few stadiums in the middle of the country that has eluded me, and by happenstance, the Orioles’ trip to the Twin Cities was scheduled this year just after the 4th of July (the last few years, the O’s were always making mid-week trips to the Twins in May or September, not very feasible with a school-age child). So, why not spend July 4th in Minneapolis? After all, the 4th in Washington DC is so clichéd after you’ve dealt with the nonsense for your entire life (trust me, one trip to the National Mall on the 4th is all you need to earn your Stars and Stripes).
Living in the DC Area for all my life, you forget how spread out things are in the Midwest until you start planning a trip to those cities. We really enjoyed our past trips to Ohio and St. Louis/Chicago, but it was a lot of driving. We wanted to fully explore Minneapolis, so tried to limit our driving radius to no more than an hour. Much to my chagrin, that meant foregoing a 3-4 hour drive up to Duluth to explore a working iron mine or even to Chippewa Falls, WI to visit the Leinenkeugel’s Brewery. Honestly, we really didn’t know much about Minneapolis/St. Paul until we started planning this trip aside from it being the home of Prince, the Mall of America, and Target Field. Our planning started there, and our trip encompassed so much more than we could have imagined.
Being a theme park site, most readers here are probably interested in the actual theme parks, but as AJ found at The Henry Ford, there are places around the world that are not traditionally considered theme parks, but have some theme park qualities. In Minneapolis, Fort Snelling is one of those places. Built to protect the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, the 19th Century fort is very much like Colonial Williamsburg or Greenfield Village with costumed characters recreating what life was like during various time periods throughout the fort’s history. On the 4th of July, Fort Snelling goes all out with battle reenactments, games (including a version of baseball that was more like cricket than MLB), guided tours, working blacksmith shop, and cannon blasting throughout the day. My guess is that Fort Snelling is nothing more than a 2-hour diversion during most of the year, but on the 4th of July, we felt compelled to spend nearly 4 hours there.
Another theme park-esque place was the Mill City Museum. I wouldn’t call the museum a theme park, but it did have an attraction that felt like it was designed by an Immagineer. The Flour Tower is an elevator attraction that is like the Tower of Terror with education filling in for the thrills. Stepping into the elevator, guests familiar with the Disney ride will be looking for their seat belts, but sadly, they’re just plain benches, and the ride up and down the shaft lacks the airtime and g-forces of the Disney icon. Nonetheless, the elevator is very much a theme park-style dark ride telling the story of the Washburn Flour Mill, and the explosion from 1878 that destroyed the plant and 18 workers. The elevator stops on various levels showing equipment and video of what it was like to work in the mill. I was pretty impressed to see such a dynamic attraction outside of a theme park, and was waiting for the Rod Serling narration as we exited.
Minneapolis does actually have a couple of traditional theme parks, Nickelodeon Universe and Valleyfair. Nickelodeon Universe is an independent park located in the center of the Mall of America. Nickelodeon Universe operates more like an amusement park with a pay per ride system (guests can also purchase all-day wrist bands), but the theming at the park is far beyond any standard amusement park. The Log Chute is one of the most intricately themed log flumes outside of Orlando or California with animatronic figures of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
Another well themed and quite unique attraction was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Shell Shock. This is a flat ride that initially looks pretty benign, but once you get on and figure out that you can influence how intense the ride is, it is one of the coolest flat rides I’ve ever ridden. The entry is well done, and even the ride control station is themed to look like a pizza cart. Riders sit in seats with over the shoulder restraints that lock in your waist, but leave your upper body free to lean back and forth. That freedom, in addition to some levers on each side of your seat attached to giant wings, can allow you to tilt your seat back and forth as the contraption rises and turn riders around the upper reaches of the mall. I’ve never seen or ridden anything like this, but it might be worth the price of an all-day wristband by itself.
Another unique flat ride was Brain Surge. What this ride lacked in theming, it made up for in nausea. Riders sit in pairs of seats around the perimeter of a rotating mechanism similar to how you sit on a B&M wing coaster (like Gatekeeper) or X2. As I observed the ride operating before we hopped on, I thought the riders were using their weight to get the seats to flip over as they spun around. However, once on the ride, I found out that the rotation of the seat was completely in the control of the riders through the use of a joystick. You could ride the entire cycle facing down, up, upside down, or right side up. Of course my son just wanted to spin constantly, which was fine for a few seconds, but eventually was so disorienting that I wrestled control away from him. I probably would have taken another spin on Brain Surge later in our day, but it seemed to be subject to frequent technical issues and a glacially slow loading process.
Did I mention that Nickelodeon Universe even has some roller coasters? Yup, they’ve got 5, granted one is a powered kiddie coaster that we didn’t bother riding. SpongeBob SquarePants Rock Bottom Plunge is the best of the bunch, and is a Gerstlauer custom Euro-fighter. It starts with a vertical lift and plunges riders down a 90-degree drop before going through a loop, over-banked turn and a slow heartline roll. It’s quick, but packs quite a punch. It’s similar to the outside portion of Mystery Mine at Dollywood minus the twisting dive loop. It’s not anywhere close to my top 25 roller coasters of all time, but it’s a solid entry for an independent park. Another solid coaster is Avatar Airbender, which is an Intamin Surfrider. This one is a shuttle coaster, so it was a bit of a slow loader, exasperated by the fact that only 12 people can ride at a time. However, the sensations on this one were pretty unique. The train launches back and forth along the U-shaped track, while each individual carriage of seats spins freely based on the weight distribution. Depending on how it spins, you can get some great airtime on this.
The other coasters are nothing special with a spinning wild mouse (Fairly Odd Parents Coaster) and the Pepsi Orange Streak, which does have a cool powered section through the inside portions of the Log Chute.
There are some standard flat rides along with lots of kid’s rides at Nickeodeon Universe in addition to Ghost Blasters, which is almost a carbon copy of the Boo Blasters found at many Cedar Fair parks. They also have an upcharge mini golf course and zipline/ropes course, though we just stuck with the attractions included with the wristband. I was pretty impressed with Nickelodeon Universe, and while I don’t feel the need to go back anytime soon, I highly recommend it to theme park fans that happen to find themselves in the area. Being inside, it’s open year-round, so even if there’s 5 feet of snow on the ground, you can ride some decently good coasters and unique flat rides you can’t find anywhere else in the US.
The other theme park in the Minneapolis Area is Valleyfair, which is part of the Cedar Fair chain. This park is quite small compared to other Cedar Fair parks, especially Cedar Point, but its design requires a lot of walking (long and skinny like Cedar Point or Legoland Florida with lots of dead ends). Over a day and a half, we managed to ride pretty much every attraction in the park. The best of the bunch is Wild Thing, which is a Morgan hypercoaster that’s very much like Steel Force at Dorney Park. Wild Thing has solid airtime and some decent g’s on the turnaround. There’s also a hidden bunny hill inside a building, which was even more impressive at night (if you could tolerate the bugs). Of the Morgan hypers I’ve ridden, Desperado and Phantom’s Revenge would still rank higher, but I think Wild Thing is right there with Steel Force, and definitely ahead of Magnum XL 200 (I know, blasphemy) and Steel Eel.
The other top coaster at Valleyfair is Steel Venom, which is an Intamin inverted impulse coaster. There’s really nothing special about this coaster if you’ve been on Wicked Twister (duel twisting spikes) or V2 (twisting 45-degree spike), but considering the mediocre collection here, it’s a must do.
Renegade is a pretty good GCI woodie with a clever first drop that caught me off guard. The design has the top of the lift splitting the two sides of the figure 8-design, so riding the first time, I had no idea while riding in the back whether the train was going to turn right or left down the first drop – I guessed wrong. Renegade uses Millennium Flyer trains, so the ride is relatively smooth with comfortable, supportive seats, but there was quite a lot of chatter compared to Thunderhead, InvadR, or Lightning Racer, perhaps because the track takes some serious punishment over the winter months. Speaking of rough, at the very back of the park, there’s Excalibur. I was initially pretty excited for this one, which looks like an Arrow mine train on steroids with a 105-foot drop. However, you quickly learn why mine trains are trimmed out and have gentle twists and turns. Excalibur is borderline painful with extremely rough transitions that jar you to the core. It’s certainly worth trying once for the most ardent coaster fan, but you’ll regret getting dragged on this a second time by your kids.
There’s a rare Arrow wild mouse coaster (Mad Mouse) that was interesting, but not worth a second ride with the extremely slow-moving line later in the day, and an Arrow looper named Corkscrew that is nearly identical to the one at Cedar Point minus the inversions over the midway (the corkscrews here are over a lake instead). High Roller is a classic wooden coaster built in 1976 that’s probably ready for retirement or at least a retracking.
There’s a varied yet unspectacular lineup of flat rides at Valleyfair highlighted by Xtreme Swing, North Star (Skyflier), Power Tower, and Delirious (giant loop). It was interesting to ride Delirious, the newest addition to the park for 2018, since the giant loop we ride most often (Bourbon Street Fireball at Six Flags America) is manually controlled, while Delirious is computer controlled. Also the shape of the loop on Delirious is more of a flat oval compared to the perfect circle of Fireball. However, I felt that the park really missed on an opportunity by painting the track bright purple yet not including the namesake’s song from Prince playing in the background (I was humming it to myself while riding, so I can attest that the song would work well with the ride). Prince’s estate is notoriously protective of his music, so I don’t necessarily blame the park, just a bit bummed that they used the name and color without the song.
Valleyfair has a water park (Soak City) positioned in the middle of the park, which is really small, but extremely popular. The lines for some of the slides were well over 45 minutes on a weekday, and finding a chair in the afternoon after we had spent the first half of the day riding dry rides was next to impossible. There’s a complex of trap door slides along with a couple of speed slides, a wave pool, a lazy river, a unique river rapid tube ride, and a couple of smaller body slides, but all in all, the water park was lackluster (we only spent a little over 2 hours there). Perhaps my opinion of Soak City was biased by having visited Volcano Bay just 3 weeks prior. However, it is probably a nice diversion for season ticket holders and guests looking to cool off on a hot summer day (the park has a small rapids ride and a chute the chutes ride, but no log flume or other water rides outside of Soak City).
All in all, Valleyfair is a pretty nice park, but easily ranks lower than all the other Cedar Fair parks we’ve visited (Knott’s, Kings Island, Cedar Point, Kings Dominion, Carowinds, Dorney Park, and Canada’s Wonderland). Wild Thing is really the draw, and the rest of the rides are middle of the pack for what they are. However, as an overall destination, Minneapolis/St. Paul is not the complete wasteland we had expected when we initially started planning as we found plenty of other activities and attractions to fill our 6-day vacation. However, we’re definitely looking forward to our next baseball and theme park vacation next August to Southern California, where we won’t have any issues finding attractions to fill what is likely to be a 10+ day trip.
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