Our family recently embarked on a 270 mile road trip from our home in Madison to the Twin Cities. Because we were traveling with our two small children (LB is 2 1/2 and LG is 6 months), we wanted to find the best things to do with a toddler and infant. Zoos are always a family favorite, so we planned to spend our first day at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, a ten minute drive from our hotel near the Mall of America in Bloomington.
When we packed for our vacation, Jason and I figured LB would want to walk everywhere we went, so we only brought the single stroller for LG (with the Beco baby carrier as a backup in case LB wanted to ride in the stroller). I honestly don’t know what we were thinking, because the several miles of walking trails at the Minnesota Zoo would have been way too much for a toddler (if we intended to stay sane). It’s a good thing we realized this early on. We were able to rent a single stroller for just $5 per day (they also had double strollers available for only $8 per day). The stroller was green molded plastic with a footrest and canopy, and was super easy for LB to climb in and out of by himself. He could even buckle (but thankfully, not unbuckle) the belt in the stroller. For an independent toddler, that’s a very big deal.
After renting the stroller, we went directly to “Close Encounters” at Lakeside Terrace, fifty yards from the entrance of the zoo. The Minnesota Zoo’s “Close Encounters” feature different animals every day, and on the day of our visit, we were introduced to an African Crested Porcupine, named Chimba. Before the show started, Jason and LB took their seats in the front row of the little amphitheater and when LG and I joined them, LB kept insisting he was going to meet a dragon. I thought it was just typical toddler imagination stuff, and it wasn’t until after the show that Jason filled me in with the missing details.
Chimba made her entrance with her trainers, and throughout the presentation we learned the African Crested is the world’s largest porcupine and the world’s third largest rodent. They have quills that are up to two feet long, which are used to detect predators who sneak up behind them. Chimba was an incredible animal, and we thought the Close Encounter was a terrific free show. However, LB was more antsy than usual after our long car ride from Madison the day before, and we had our hands full trying to keep him in one spot. LB was more interested in playing with the pile of dry leaves that were gathered at his feet, rather than the magnificent animal prancing around the stage. At one point, Chimba waddled directly over to us because Jason inadvertently gave the same hand signal as the trainer while trying to stop LB from running away from us. I think Chimba was disappointed not to receive a treat for her obedience, and LB was too distracted by his own energy to even notice.
We knew it was crucial for LB to get some play time, so we walked past the beautiful water feature in Central Plaza (which is also a splash pad during the summer) on our way to the first of three wonderful play spaces at the zoo, Woodland Adventure. On our short walk, Jason explained why LB was talking about dragons at the Close Encounter show.
Jason: So, when I sat down with LB, he noticed that there was something going on behind the backdrop of the “stage” area. He said, “I want to go back there and see the lion”. At that moment, an adorable LG (who was probably approaching three years old) with curly blonde hair, approached us from just down the row and said (with the authority of a zoologist), “It’s not a lion! It’s just a porky-pine! It’s only a porky-pine!” Then as she walked away, LB looked at the ground and muttered under his breath “It might be… kind of like a lion… Maybe.” The LG heard this and shot back, “It’s a porky-pine!” LB was only partially defeated, as he immediately retorted that he was excited to see the dragon. This too, was corrected by the little blonde girl, but our LB was sticking to his dragon theory.
When we entered the Woodland Adventure play area, I immediately noticed the three hollow turtle shells, a spider web made of rope and wood, and a big bird’s nest, all designed for kids to explore and climb. It was time for LG to eat, so I sat along the perimeter to nurse her while Jason and LB played.
Jason: The Woodland Adventure area is really pretty expansive, at least for a toddler. The ground is completely covered with recycled rubber “mulch mats”, so you don’t have to empty pea gravel from tiny shoes, and stumble and falls aren’t really a problem. There’s a three-story lighthouse in one end of the playground, complete with a curly slide from the top level to the ground. A footbridge connects the lighthouse’s top floor to a large tree house in another part of the playground. There are plenty of cool features to play with on the ground level, including a small aluminum fishing boat mounted on large springs, and an enormous mosquito structure. There’s a fairly large, man-made “cave” on one side of the playground, complete with a friendly-looking fiberglass bear statue inside. It’s just dark enough that little people might not see the bear until they get to the entrance of the cave, so LB can’t be the first kiddo who was stopped dead in his tracks by this surprise.
After seeing how awesome the first play area was, we decided to make play time the focus of our zoo visit. It was a beautiful day and an absolutely perfect time of year to go. Because we went after school was in session, the zoo was only moderately attended and the majority of other families also had children under the age of four. This cut down on the worry that LB would get lost in a crowd of people, or be inadvertently knocked off of playground equipment by hordes of older children. Since Jason and I are both on alert for these sorts of things when we take the kiddos out, we appreciated the reduced level of parental anxiety.
On our way to the next playground, at the newly opened Hanifl Family Wild Woods, we walked through Russia’s Grizzly Coast. The path led through a replica lava tube, which had a little cave-like tunnel off to one side (near the brown bear viewing area). LB had a blast exploring the tunnel. He ran through it several times, until Jason positioned himself at the other end and growled like a bear. It was meant to be a funny joke, but LB was terrified and came screaming out of the tunnel with arms flailing and leaped into my arms. I have to admit Jason’s bear sounds were quite realistic (he is a voice actor, after all). After Jason apologized to LB for scaring him and explained it was just a joke, LB asked if Jason would “Do it again, dadoh?”
We continued along the Northern Trail, which was 3/4 of a mile along a partially wooded path. The animal exhibits were impressively expansive habitats that gave the feel of actually coming upon the animals in the wild. Jason and I stopped only briefly at each exhibit so we could get to the next play area before lunch, and LB was starting to get hangry. Goldfish crackers are a parent’s best friend to help kids make it to mealtime, but honestly, why do they have to pick up the ones they drop in the bottom of a rental stroller and eat them? Even if there is a huge bag of fresh ones available, and especially if they are told not to put them in their mouths. Ew.
When we came close to Hanifl Family Wild Woods, LB needed a potty break. He and I started walking toward the bathrooms, and halfway there LB changed his mind (he is learning to use the potty, but is still in pull-ups). We don’t ever force him to use the toilet, so I turned back to Jason to let him know LB and I were going to continue on to the playground. My recollection is that Jason agreed to hang back with LG, who was peacefully asleep in her stroller.
At Hanifl Family Wild Woods you can ‘play like an animal’ with natural play features like stone stairs and a log pile climb. LB loved running over the bridges and then going down the twisty slide, which was the first thing he did. From my high vantage point on the bridge I could see LB searching for me when he emerged from the slide, and it took me a minute or so to get down to his level (because it didn’t even occur to me that I should go down the slide after him). This newly opened nature-themed playground is truly awesome, especially for older kids. I was really thankful to be only in the company of other toddler-aged children here, because I would have been a little too nervous to let my two-year-old loose otherwise. After about thirty minutes, I could see LB was getting tired and I already knew he was hungry. He didn’t want to leave, but I enticed him with the promise of one carousel ride. When we returned to Jason and LG, Jason told me that he thought we had been in the bathroom the entire time, and he was beginning to worry.
Jason: I must have missed Chris telling me they were going to the playground, because I thought they were just in the bathroom. After about five minutes, I assumed that things got complicated. After ten minutes, I thought things must have gotten really complicated. After thirty minutes, I was watching people exiting the bathroom to see if they were horrified, listening for people saying things like, “geez, I’m glad I’m not that poor woman.” Everyone leaving the restroom seemed pretty calm, so I was simply puzzled. Then, after about 40 minutes, Chris and LB approached from the direction of the carousel. Whew!
As Jason told his side of the bathroom story, we walked back to the main building so we could eat at the Food Court. LB was obviously tired during lunch, so we decided to play it by ear whether we should continue on after our meal. The third and final kids play area, which is near the food court and caters to families with kids under four, is called the Bee Hive. We stopped in so I could change LG’s diaper in the family restroom, which is an absolute necessity for us. On the long drive from Madison, we learned that she is extremely afraid of high powered hand dryers and loud toilet flushes in public restrooms. She positively panics, which is no good at all.
The quiet oasis of the Bee Hive was just what our family needed to refresh and recharge. For the first fifteen minutes, we had the room all to ourselves. The play area, which is specifically designed for 1 to 3-year-olds, features a set of wood compartments made to look like honeycomb, a small slide, and large yellow foam discs (the honey) that kids can stack and knock down. After using the family restroom, LG and I snuggled up on the bench in the adorable reading nook/nursing area while LB and Jason continued to play. Eventually, another family with two LBs, who were younger than LB, came in and started stacking the honey discs. LB walked right over to them, with great social awareness, and joined right in with what they were doing. It was fun to watch the three boys, who had not previously met, playing so cooperatively. Still, he was clearly becoming more exhausted by the minute, so we gathered our family and started heading for the exit.
On our way out, we stopped to watch the African Penguins dive into the icy waters in their exhibit. LB absolutely loved this! He was talking to the penguins, basically narrating their movements through the water, and every time one would swim away he’d say “Bye!” The Minnesota Zoo is a beautiful, smoke-free, parent-friendly place. We only made it through half of what there was to offer, but with little kids you have to make your priorities. We were happy to play at all three of the zoo’s wonderful playgrounds, and we saw some pretty cool stuff along the way. The next time we’re in the Twin Cities, we’ll definitely go back. We made some great memories there.
Disclosure: We received admission to the zoo for this post. All thoughts are our own.