When you think about fun stuff for a two year old kid to do, you might not think roller coasters fit the bill (and for the most part, they don’t). But in planning our recent family vacation to Minneapolis/St. Paul, we took a chance on the Nickelodeon Universe theme park at Mall of America. I’m happy to say we had a pretty good time.
Our LB is two and a half years old, and our LG is only six months, so outside of the Minnesota Children’s Museum and Minnesota Zoo (absolute winners for family fun in the Twin Cities), we needed a few more things to see and do. We opted to stay in a hotel near the Mall of America, and were thrilled to find out that the Mall’s “Toddler Tuesday” promotion included a special deal at the Nickelodeon Universe theme park. You can get an “unlimited ride” wristband for your toddler for only $11.95, which is a decent price considering a single ride ticket is normally priced at $3.45. The Toddler Tuesday special is limited to Tuesdays only, and only for a five hour stretch (from 10 AM to 3 PM), but that worked perfectly for us since LB doesn’t have five hours of amusement park rides in him anyway.
The Nickelodeon Universe is actually inside the Mall of America building/property, so while it’s quite small by amusement park standards, you don’t have to worry about inclement weather, long walks to get where you want to go, or long lines when you get there. The rides aren’t breaking any records for height or size, and the assortment of serious thrill rides is a tad thin – but it is Nickelodeon Universe, so by the nature of the network tie-in, it’s geared toward kids in the first place.
We started our adventure just after 11 AM, when most rides had just begun operating. One cool (and convenient) thing about the park is the automated ride ticket kiosks spread liberally throughout. With a quick swipe of a credit card, you can purchase single ride tickets (in the form of a wristband), multiple ride tickets (with as many or as few ride tickets as you like, pre-loaded on your wristband), or even season passes. (Toddler Tuesday wristbands need to be purchased at one of the Guest Services desks.)
The really awesome thing about Nickelodeon Universe, is the requirement that small children (kids measuring under a set height for each ride) need to ride with a chaperone. And the chaperone rides free. Our LB is around 37 inches tall, so while he was tall enough for many rides, he needed an adult with him on nearly every one. The down side to this is that I’m 5′ 11″ and just over 240 pounds. I’m also convinced that my femurs are abnormally long, but regardless, I was so close to not being able to fit in many of the rides (especially those with safety lap bars), that it reaffirmed in me the need to return to healthier eating and exercise to ensure many years of roller coaster fun with my kids.
Our first ride was Blue’s Skidoo, a Blue’s Clues themed ride in which riders board “cars” modeled after the popular animated dog and her best friend, “Magenta”. The cars go around in a tight circle (like a merry go round). Riders have two buttons to push when the ride is in motion. One button makes the car “jump” when pressed – or go up a few feet if that button is held down. The other button plays “music”. This was one of the tightest fits for me of any of the rides we went on. I felt positively enormous crammed into this silly cartoon dog, and if I’m being honest, I was nauseous by the time the ride came to an end. LB had a lot of fun though, waving at mom and pushing the buttons. He was happily oblivious to my suffering, as well he should be.
Right next to Blue’s Skidoo there’s another ride geared to very small kids, called Big Rigs.
The idea here is that kids (and their chaperone) can hop into the cab of a miniaturized semi-tractor and cruise around in a circle – with a few small hills, dips and curves. The trucks are on a track, but little riders can still pretend they’re driving with use of a small steering wheel and a bicycle horn to squeeze (each Big Rig has four steering wheels and four horns – and the cacophony was mighty). If you’re a kid with an adult-sized chaperone, you can ride on an open-air portion of the truck instead of the cab. Again, I was a bit of a sardine on this one, but LB had a blast.
Just around the corner from Big Rigs, was Wonder Pet’s Flyboat. Basically, a smaller version of the Splat-O-Sphere near the center of the park (and I’m willing to bet virtually nobody reading this is saying, “Oh, sure, I’m familiar with Splat-O-Sphere”). At any rate, Wonder Pet’s Flyboat is a “lift-and-drop” ride, in which kids sit on a row of molded seats (I believe there is a safety belt on each seat, in addition to a lap bar across all seats). Then, the ride goes up 20 feet, and then “drops” gently, but swiftly, a few feet at a time. It goes back up, and repeats a couple of times. This was the first ride that he went on alone, so LB wasn’t so sure at first. But after seeing how much fun a fellow passenger was having, he was sold.
We grabbed a quick snack to ward off the hangries and (tempting fate with a kiddo who is known to get car sick) decided to try an actual roller coaster. The Back at the Barnyard Hayride, is most definitely a kid-friendly coaster, with very little elevation and a tiny footprint, but a coaster nonetheless. The ride operator recommended that we sit in a specific car on the ride, and even gave me a tip on where to put my legs, so I’d have more room. That was pretty thoughtful. LB loved the ride, and we had no issues with motion sickness.
Next up was Diego’s Rescue Rider, which had us sitting in rows inside a large “van” which then remains level as it swings around and around as if it were the hand of a large clock. Of all the rides, I think LB giggled on this one the most. It definitely gives you that “butterflies in your tummy” feeling.
After Diego’s Rescue Rider, LB wanted to ride the dragon on the Carousel. After his insistence about seeing a dragon at the zoo the day before, this was fate. He was starting to get tired at this point, but we continued on for a little longer because we didn’t want to chance motion sickness by riding after lunch.
From there, I hung back with LG, who was peacefully asleep in her stroller, while Chris and LB rode a few rides together. They rode La Adventura De Azul (best described as an intensely tame, tiny train ride), and Swiper’s Sweeper (a car ride that whips riders around a small track – it was a big hit for both Chris and LB), followed by a new addition to the park, the Bubble Guppies Guppy Bubbler! The BGGB features a rotating ring of small gondolas which climb into the air about forty feet – and if you wish, you can spin your individual gondola! Thankfully, Chris didn’t do much spinning with LB, as that could have gone south pretty quick.
It was time for lunch, so we bid farewell to Nickelodeon Universe and headed to the Hard Rock Cafe (which is along the perimeter of the amusement park, and is a participating restaurant for Kids Eat Free on Toddler Tuesday).
We came back to the mall on Thursday and had lunch (once again) at the Hard Rock Cafe. Midway through lunch, as a bargaining device, we suggested that if LB was patient and behaved well, he could have a ride on the train (which we felt was a relatively low risk for motion sickness after a meal) . He was on his best behavior, so we headed to the La Adventura De Azul. To our disappointment, we arrived just before the operator started the final ride of her shift. The ride wasn’t full, but she still turned LB away, leaving Chris and I to come up with another suitable (low motion sickness risk) ride to fulfill our promise to a now tearful young fella.
Unfortunately, outside of Toddler Tuesday (and presumably during off-peak season), Nickelodeon Universe isn’t busy enough to sustain full staffing – and so rides are open on a rotating basis. It seemed like every ride LB wanted to go on (those he rode on Tuesday) were all closed for twenty minutes or much longer. Schedules were posted, but toddlers have little respect for deferred gratification (and he needed to get back to the hotel for his nap), so we opted for the Carousel, which was just about our only option. That was kind of a bummer, but it did the trick.
All things considered, we’d give Toddler Tuesday a shot at Nickelodeon Universe again, but would most likely steer clear on other days of the week during off-peak season.