Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Monday, December 21, 2009

Catch Santa's elves in action at Macy's

I've been all across the Midwest, and when it comes to cool, free holiday happenings, Minneapolis ranks among the absolute best with its "A Day in the Life of an Elf" Macy's auditorium show on display through Dec. 30.

This free holiday event is one of the most-beloved traditions for Minnesota families. These animated, three-dimensional journeys through scenes--often from popular children's tales--started with Dayton's 47 years ago. It makes sense that the Twin Cities with deep roots in theater would be able to continually construct spectacular sets.

If, instead of walking, visitors rode motorized sleighs through the 13,000-square-foot auditorium, it would be the equivalent of a Disney World ride.

Going by foot gives you a chance to study each scene, often with snippets of stories. In years past, visitors wandered through moving, larger-than-life scenes from "Harry Potter," "Cinderella," "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," and "The Polar Express" before the movie version.

"A Day in the Life of Elves," brought back again this season with some slight changes, offers a comical look at the life of Santa's helpers, from trying to wake up in the morning to getting buried in the mail room. Mice run across the elves' kitchen floor, reindeer learn to fly while uncomfortably strapped below hot-air balloons, and elves use an inventive machine to make candy canes.

We waited in line for only 10 minutes Saturday morning (not bad) before the 20-minute walk-through. Like always, it's smart to bring a little ka'ching for the cookies afterward.

As we left with our 5-year-old girls (each sporting a green or red frosting mustache) we realized Macy's doesn't need motorized sleighs to feel like Disney World. It has something just as good: eight floors of escalators. The girls loved them.

More information: Look for more information at Remember you can get validated parking through select retailers. You can also up the excitement of the outing with a trip on the Light Rail Train ( You'll have to walk a few more blocks, but Nicollet Mall looks enchanting flanked by illuminated trees.

How about you? Leave your comments about trips to the 8th floor auditorium and share your favorite downtown events.

Upcoming blog: A spin around The Depot's popular ice rink.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Very merry Mall of America

Add a little more magic to your gifts
with a trip to Bloomington

What makes a travel souvenir more than just a regular purchase? The memories attached to it. That's why most of us feel compelled to bring back something whenver we travel. A bottle of local wine. A funny T-shirt. Fine-crafted chocolates.
Christmas ornaments. It's tangible evidence we were there--a visual trigger for days well-spent.

That need for memory--and value--to be attached to our possessions makes the holidays a struggle sometimes. I don't want to just go buy a pile of stuff from mega-stores to tumble under the tree. And who needs more over-the-top packaging that takes a utility knife, multi-tool and 30 minutes to undo toys that break 24 hours later?

Last year, with $50 each from grandparents, our kids were able to purchase one of their best gift : a teddy bear. Yep. A good old bear. No batteries needed. What made it special was the memories attached to it as we made a trip to Mall of America and Build-A-Bear-Workshop. I admit I wasn't that crazy about the idea as I typically dodge crowds and anything that feels overhyped. Boy, was I wrong.

Look for hands-on gifts

The girls, who were 4 at the time, and Jonathan, still 9, absolutely loved the hands-on approach and bringing their own bear to life. It was the highlight in a magical Mall of America outing that included rides at Nickelodeon Universe and lunch among the fishtanks and animatronics of Rainforest Cafe.

The Build-A-Bear staff was helpful and attentive, guiding the kids in choosing their favorite bear (or dog), then a little heart to go inside before they stuffed it. They watched the process with big eyes and a few giggles. The hardest part was choosing the outfits from the mind-boggling choices. We left with a Batman dog, a Snow White puppy, a Sleeping Beauty bear and a whole lotta happiness.

Other kids (big or small) are finding similar experiences with the adjacent store for building dolls, the newly opened Barbie shop(a temporary store through March) and last year's newcomer, the much-anticipated American Girl store complete with restaurant, beauty shop and doll hospital.

Lessons learned:
1. Make time for special outings no matter what time of year.
2. Look for any hands-on opportunities near you, whether it's paint-your-own-pottery, a learn-to-knit session or building a bear.
3. Savor vacation souvenirs whether that vacation was a week in Mexico or a day-trip from your own backyard.
4. Do set a budget. With Underwater World, movie theaters galore, and toy temptations around every corner, it's easy to go nuts. Decide what you can afford and stick to it. Make it clear to kids, too, what you are able to do. If they want more, have them ask Santa for ride tickets or offer ideas for ways they can earn their own money for a return trip.
5. If you do get to the Mall of America this season, be sure to linger after dark when the amusement park with its sparkle of lights feels the most festive.

One more tip: If you are a big fan of Rainforest Cafe, the T-Rex Cafe at Kansas City and in Orlando takes that interactive, full-sensory concept even further with new technology and funky designs. Think meteor storms, digging for bones, sitting beneath a giant jelly fish or chilling out in an ice cave.

Above: The girls on the carousel at Nickelodeon Universe, our second favorite one after the carousel at LARK Toys in Wabasha.

Don't forget about Legoland: It's full of cool contraptions and creations just outside Nickelodeon Universe. Best thing about this attraction: It's free! And for little children, it's ideal. Most of them don't need any fancy rides. Let their creativity loose and have a few car races.