Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of...Minnesota

Minneapolis is the greatest secret in America. I say this often, but seriously, it is true. They have an airport with all sorts of international flights thanks to being a Delta hub. There's passable public transport with airport connections, which is incredibly rare even in cities with light rail. The most famous hospital in the world isn't that far away, and there's a great research university. All four major pro sports are represented. Minnesota was so well developed, peaceful, and frankly "socialist" (google the Minnesota Miracle) that the federal government made it the dumping ground for diaspora running from their homelands simply because it, more than any other city in the nation, was capable of accepting and integrating them. Don't believe me? Go look at the huge Hmong and Somali populations and tell me otherwise. The city consistently rates as one of the world's most livable.

As a whole, the state has elected the likes of a pro wrestler (Jesse Ventura) and stand up comedian (Al Franken) to high office. Garrison Keillor is from here, and he's the most NPR thing in the world. So was Prince, who never left Minneapolis even at the peak of his fame. They're "different" in the way Vermonters are different, except by most criteria, they're also better than most everywhere in the United States at literally every aspect of civilization. And yet they get no credit. Funny how that works, right?

But this isn't just a blog for recitation of random factoids about places you, likely a US resident within 150 miles of an ocean, have thought beneath you. This is a blog specifically about amusement rides, theme parks, and all the things that fall under that umbrella. It is a big umbrella. If Minnesota is so livable and so good, clearly, it must have rides worth talking about. How could it not?

As always here, we start with the known quantities, and that means we're spending lots of time in the Twin Cities. Valleyfair is a Cedar Fair owned and constructed park that opened in 1976. Cedar Fair's corporate name stems from the combination of Cedar Point and Valleyfair. As a Cedar Fair park of the vintage, it certainly shows in the midway and building design. Some of the more unique rides in the park include the Renegade GCI wood coaster, Wild Thing (Morgan Hypercoaster), and Excaliber, a Arrow Mine Train with some serious kick. Not too far away is the Mall of America, home to Nickelodeon Universe and its unique collection of rides, ranging from a Zierer Hexentanz to a Gerstlauer Eurofighter coaster and a Sally shooting dark ride. Don't forget that the mall is also home to a Soarin' style ride (Flyover America), the huge Water Park of America, and a large aquarium, now operated by Merlin.

And now, the less known:

It might be a stretch to call the Minnesota State Fair "unknown". One of the nation's 3 most attended fairs, Minnesota and Texas have been the two pillars on which the increasing number of independent midways in America have been built. In addition to the unique rides that come to Minneapolis each August, there's a number of permanent rides here that operate only during the Fair. Among these: a 100+ year old Old Mill dark ride, a Von Roll skyride, a rotating observation tower, and a one-off Barr Engineering rapids ride. Staying in the metro area, Como Town and Zoo in St. Paul recently welcomed an Interpark Zyklon to join their collection of family rides and attractions.

Now, yes, more than half of the state's population lives within the confines of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Statistical Area. But there's still a couple million people elsewhere, and they do stuff too. Some of it is kinda unique. Take for example the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion in Hawley. Located 3 1/2 hours northwest of Minneapolis itself, it might be the single largest collection of steam powered equipment in the world, and two of those pieces are ride-able. There are train rides (surprise!) but also a steam powered carousel, one of very few anywhere in the world. Back east a little ways in Brainerd is Paul Bunyan Land, which has two notable attractions: one is the home built haunted house that operates during its full season. The other is the last known permanent installation of Flying Cages anywhere in the the US. Wonder what these look like? Well, wonder no further:

Southeast of Minneapolis, in the city of Kellogg, is LARK Toys. Whomever it is that ranks toy stores finds this one to be among the tops in the nation, and they've got a unique new build wood carousel and mini golf as draws aside from the toys. Heading well north to Lake Superior, the city of Duluth has a ski resort (Spirit Mountain) which became one of the first in the nation to acquire a Wiegland Alpine Coaster in 2010. It's really the only such ride in this region of the nation (world if you count Western Ontario and Manitoba). The next closest one is a day's drive away in Branson, MO. If having underwheels is too risk adverse for your taste, Wild Mountain in Taylors Falls has an old fashioned concrete alpine slide, plus an airbag platform to jump off of. You climb a tower and jump off, no restraints, no assistance, into an airbag.


There are a ton of aquatics facilities in Minnesota: 15 or so qualify as full bore parks outside of the big one attached to Mall of America. Few of them have really defining and strange characteristics aside from Wild Mountain's Big Country slide (a long slide featuring 9 splashdown points and a ground hugging layout suggesting a past history of being concrete) and the Venetian Indoor Waterpark. The latter doesn't have anything colossal, just a comparatively unique theme.

LARK Toys is not the only retail location to have a themed attraction. Tom's Logging Camp outside Duluth features a Gravity House attraction in the classic 1950s tradition. But there's also some historical exhibits showing life for loggers from turn of the century-era frontier time too.

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