I think it was the moment I walked into the Glamour Shots store that I realized my sanity was slipping. My effort to spend an entire day inside the Mall of America, from open to close, was wearing me down.
As I walked up to the counter of that infamous photography shop and endured disturbing flashbacks of some hilariously unfortunate photos from my own high school senior class, I was a broken, defeated man.
I had never been to this Mall before, so the idea seemed fun. Why not spend a full day there and see if I can find enough things to do at the Mall of America to entertain myself without going insane? I’m not a mall person anymore, ever since I discovered the joy of thrift stores. But it sounded like an interesting personal challenge.
So I took the train from Minneapolis down to Bloomington, Minnesota, for the longest day in the largest shopping mall in America, which hosts more than 40 million visitors every year (that’s 110,000 per day.) On this particular day, the mall opened at 9:30 am and closed at 9:30 pm. That’s a long day. I would have to rely upon the same stamina I summon when I attend music festivals.
In addition to its four levels and more than 500 stores over 4.2 million square feet, the Mall of America is known for having roller coasters and other kids thrill rides right in the middle of the shopping center. Twenty-nine rides, in fact. It’s like a full-fledged amusement park in there. With Dippin’ Dots, even!
What’s this about getting arrested?
If you’ve been following me on Facebook (do it!), you know there’s a lot more to this story than just trying to keep myself occupied for 12 hours. I also had to try not to get arrested or kicked out.
You see, the Mall of America security team has a reputation for being insanely overzealous in its efforts to crack down on potential terrorists. They use video cameras to follow anyone they deem suspicious, then corner and detain them to investigate whether they’re planning to blow up the mall.
Even taking a few simple photographs can be enough to get yourself targeted and interrogated. They typically question 1,200 people per year – about four per day.
Now, I was obviously going to take photographs, because my readers deserve nothing less. I was visiting by myself – a big red flag, because it assigned me the “creepy loner” tag. I was operating on very little sleep, and I had a creaky knee and sore hip from all the walking I did the day before. I also hadn’t shaven and my hair was a mess thanks to the morning rain.
So just imagine the scene: A disheveled guy in a hoodie who can barely keep his eyes open, hobbling around like Quasimodo, wandering aimlessly for hours, taking pictures of strange children on roller coasters.
I could not possibly have looked more suspicious. I knew it would be a minor miracle if I made it through the day without security taking me down.
As the doors open and I walk in with throngs of others, my first planned destination is the famous Lego store. I figure I can safely snap a few pics inside there, because everyone does. I’ll save the more risky photos of the coasters for later.
As I walk in, I see mall maps at the courtesy desk. But those stories about the spying security guards have made me gunshy. I don’t want to ask for a map, lest I draw unnecessary attention to myself. So I pick a random direction and start walking.
I quickly find a gift shop, which is perfect, because I like to buy fridge magnets from every city I visit. After browsing briefly through a book called “Oddball Minnesota,” which was apparently written by one of my kindred spirits, I plop down $3 for a magnet of the Minneapolis skyline and I’m on my way.
Ten minutes down. Seven hundred and ten more to go. Yay?
I pass a Hugo Boss store, which is not normally my cup of tea, but the suits in the window look trendy, so I think about stepping in to check them out. But then I remember that I currently look homeless, so I’m not going to show my face in there.
I’ve found the Lego store! Adorable indie pop duo Matt & Kim, one of my favorite bands, tweeted a photo of themselves here yesterday, which makes me sad that I just missed them by one day.
The store is smaller than I expected, but it has no roof, so giant Lego sculptures can tower three floors up into the air.
The coolest thing in the Lego store turn out to be Lego block renditions of famous architectural wonders like Fallingwater, the Guggenheom Museum, and the White House.
I snap a cell phone pic of the giant wall of Legos, although I discovered something: Only the bottom four rows actually contain Legos. The upper rows just have a picture stuffed inside the slot to make it look like there are Legos in there. I feel misled, and I don’t know if I can ever trust again.
I pass the Nickelodeon Experience for the first time and take sight of the coasters, log ride, swings, and other amusement park ripoffs. I dare not take any pictures of these just yet, but I start strategizing for later.
The mall is super-busy today. There are a lot of parent-less teens here. Ne’er do wells, I call them. It’s surprising that on this crowded day, a few stores are still nearly empty. The Minnesota hockey apparel store and a watch store are both abandoned. Tough luck, guys. If you can’t get foot traffic here, that probably doesn’t bode well for your prospects of long-term survival. Time to revamp your business plan.
So far I’ve already seen six gelato, yogurt or ice cream places. I guess there’s no hope of me getting through the day without giving in to temptation. I pass a store called Air Traffic that has what must be the world’s largest collection of Frisbee golf discs. For a moment I wish I was outside in the fresh air zipping flying discs down a fairway.
I pop in to Best Buy but get bored after 10 minutes. Browsing physical CDs and movies just seems so 2004.
Hallelujah, it’s Barnes & Noble! I could spend the next 10 hours here, but that would feel like cheating. And it would make for a boring story, so I move on after an hour of skimming through travel books and jotting down the titles so I can request them from my library when I get home.
So far my day hasn’t been as horrible as I feared, but now I’m starving. Where’s that food court? I can’t wait to see how many choices I have!
Lacking a map, it takes me forever to locate the food court, and when I finally do, it doesn’t satisfy. I’m in the biggest mall in America, and I refuse to settle for McDonald’s or Long John Silvers.
I can’t figure out what I’m in the mood for, so I decide to go with my favorite travel fast-food standby, Qdoba. Sadly, I discover Qdoba is in the other food court, way on the opposite side of the mall. My feet are killing me but I make the hike, because those cheesy nachos are calling.
It’s an underwhelming feast, I must say. But lunch gives my feet a much-needed rest. I sit for as long as possible.
I’ve moved on to a western wear store, where I’m totally out of place. But I embrace the awkwardness. Employees keep pestering me, and I have to keep replying, “Just looking,” as if I’m actually considering buying something in this twilight zone.
Really, I just want to take photos of the massive walls of hats and boots. Minneapolis is not the place I would have expected to find such a cowboy establishment.
I’ve been finding myself in a few stores that I wouldn’t normally enter, so I’ve come up with a little game to keep things interesting. I ask myself, if I was absolutely forced to wear one thing from this place, what would it be?
In the western wear store, I manage to find a plain, buckle-less brown belt that would do just fine. If it wasn’t $50, I may have actually considered buying it. But it’s not going to happen at that price.
As a budget traveler who earlier this year flew to San Diego from Chicago for just $60 each way, I can’t possibly bring myself to pay almost that same amount for a freakin’ belt. The day I spend $50 on a belt is the day I have myself committed.
I’m sneaking a couple of cell phone pics of the coasters now. They have a legit log chute ride that soaks the riders, just like at your local Six Flags. Free shower at the MOA!
The most visually impressive ride is a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Shell Shock wing-like ride that flips the riders around as the ride spins on an axis. I would have killed to ride that when I was a kid! (Who am I kidding… I was afraid of coasters then. I would have sat on a bench and watched.)
They also have a ferris wheel, swings, and something called the SpongeBob SquarePants Rock Bottom Plunge.
Athletic shoe stores, sunglasses stores, optical stores, jewelry stores. The Gap, Old Navy, J. Crew. I can’t even pretend to be interested in these places. So it’s time for dessert.
Earlier, I spotted a Coldstone Creamery. Coldstones have been going out of business left and right, so I take this opportunity to reconnect with the company with whom I’ve spent way too much quality time over the years. I realize this might be my last Coldstone experience. It’s like having one last fling with an ex.
I take this opportunity to order myself a “Love It!” with banana ice cream, chocolate chips and peanut butter mixed in. I can’t speak for Coldstone, but it was good for me.
Food coma. Cannot move. Want to sleep. This experiment was a really, really bad idea. But I’m in too deep. I can’t quit now. I must find the inner strength to metamorphose into a true American and shop until I drop. I march on…
Emerging from my virtual slumber, I stumble upon a place called Happy Days that’s sort of like a better version of Spencer’s. The gifts here are actually cool. Look at this huge collection of Beatles memorabilia! I want it all.
I discover the American Girl store. A friend recently gave me the scoop on this wildly popular place, which I’d never heard of. Girls pay hundreds of dollars to buy dolls, which they bring back here periodically to get their hair styled. The dolls’ hair, I mean. The kids (or their parents) pay big money to have stylists fix up the hair on their dolls.
I start to get even more paranoid than I already was. I keep picturing a team of stone-faced men and women wearing headsets sitting in front of a wall of video monitors, following my every step as they alert security on the floor. “Who’s that homeless-looking guy that has been here all day? What’s he doing eyeing up the American Girl store? Zoom in on him, he looks like trouble.”
I start imagining how the conversation will go when they stop me for interrogation. Will I play the “I have a blog and I’m going to write about your harassment” card? Or will I hug them and thank them profusely for asking me to leave so that my day here can end?
There’s a movie theater here. I’d like to spend the rest of my night and eat popcorn while being entertained by the latest Joseph Gordon-Levitt picture, but again, that would be cheating. I’m here to spend my time reporting on the people and sights inside the Mall of America, not some random film. Even if it does star Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
I’m weary and cranky, and I’ve spent the four hours since lunch doing little more than looking forward to dinner. It’s back to the food court, where I ingest some nondescript Chinese food with extra MSG.
I’m now shamelessly sitting by the third-floor railing, snapping pics of the Nickelodeon Village below with my camera in full view. Go ahead, security. Come get me. I’ve lost the will to care.
You know, a lot of people laughed at the Mall of America when they installed these coasters, but they are incredibly popular. The kids love them and they provide great indoor entertainment all year round. The mall gets the last laugh.
I try to cheer myself up inside a board games store. Tired and frazzled, I feel compelled for some reason to snap a quick self pic. I’m exactly as happy as I look.
Ninety minutes to go. I’m really starting to run out of ideas, but I must carry on. I see a Peeps store, which sounds like the greatest thing ever. Alas, they don’t offer much more than candy and Peeps apparel. And meeting the Peep mascot has already been done, so I take a final bathroom break to refocus.
Just over an hour left, and I’m starting to settle into a euphoric groove. The Peeps have rejuvenated me. Everything excites me now. I decide to try to squeeze into as many stores as possible over the last hour.
I enter a watch repair store, even though I possess neither a watch nor any desire to own one. I go in PacSun and relive my college years. I even poke my head into a Guess store. I had no idea Guess was even still a brand. God bless them for hanging in there.
I locate Urban Outfitters and H&M in close proximity to each other. Score! These are two of the few clothing chains I still patronize. At Urban, I find sweet new undies and a big travel coffee table book with information about every country in the world. This is definitely going on my Christmas list.
At H&M, Karmin’s “Brokenhearted” is playing on the in-store radio. That’s not a great tune, but in my current delirious frame of mind, it suddenly becomes my new favorite song. Even though I’m ready to leave, I remain in the store for another four minutes to hear the rest of the track.
We’re only 16 minutes from completing this pointless task, and I see a print ad on the wall for “Google indoor maps.” Reading on, I learn this is a service that allows you to obtain a directory of the Mall of America right on your phone.
I can’t believe it. I wandered around aimlessly all day when I could have been using Google indoor maps?! I should be seething, but I just smile and laugh at my luck. I can’t get angry when this long experiment is about to reach its merciful end.
I run inside a Gamestop to finish the night. While anxious associates stand behind the counter waiting for me to leave, I spend the final minutes perusing the used PlayStation 2 games, because that’s the last video game console I bothered to own. If there’s a cheap karaoke singing game, I’ll purchase it, but the selection leaves a lot to desired.
My experiment in self-torture has come to a close, and it was not as bad as I feared. Or maybe it was worse. I can’t tell. My mind is fried. What were the best store in the Mall of America? Who knows… I guess the Lego store was cool, and the board games store, and the Happy Days shop.
What did I learn from my day at the Mall of America? Americans like to shop, kids love roller coasters, and food courts sell mediocre food. Gee, talk about radical new insight into the American experience. I’m glad my time here was well spent.
At least I didn’t get hassled or interrogated or arrested. Thank you, Mall of America, for not presuming me to be a terrorist. I promise I’ll be seeing you again very never.