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14 Destinations Blend Family Vacation and Work

By Andy Greder

IT MAY BE HARD TO IMAGINE what SpongeBob SquarePants and private suites; The Great Serengeti Indoor Water Park and meeting rooms; Lynnard the llama and picnic areas, all have in common, but the answer lies right here in Minnesota.

Each belong, respectively, at the Mall of America, the Holiday Inn & Suites in Owatonna and Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth. And all have the attractions and amenities to host your special event or corporate outing, while also being able to entertain your children.

From parks to museums and resorts to casinos, we break down 14 wide-ranging options that can give you the best of parenting and work productivity.


Mall of America

If you want to go big and bold, few Minnesota attractions can top the Mall of America, with Nickelodeon Universe-the largest indoor amusement park in the United States-and its collection of more than 6,000 square feet of meeting space.

“Our mission is to be more than a mall; to be an entertainment attraction,” says Jennifer Lauerman, senior marketing director for the mall.

With tailored group packages, guests can be greeted by Sharky, the mascot to Sea Life Aquarium-the mall’s 500,000-gallon tank filled with sharks, octopus, fish and other sea life. Or, you can head to more private suites available on the fourth floor with views of whizzing roller coasters. You can even book meetings in Nickelodeon Universe and then break for a meet-and-greet with SpongeBob SquarePants.

“There are so many things that we can customize to guests, so it really makes our venue unique,” says Lauerman, adding overnight accommodations abound at the mall and in Bloomington.

Lake Superior Zoo

On a quaint 16-acre tract of land, the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth offers an intimate experience with animals and fellow humans alike.

“This is a great place for people of all ages,” says Kim Matteen, director of marketing. “Everyone loves animals. Everyone can get an education on conservation, animal issues and the environment.”

The zoo boasts a three-season pavilion and versatile education area, and features zookeepers at the ready to answer questions, as well as customizable special events, such as sleepovers and corporate parties. Catering options come from sustainable resources in the on-site Safari Café, or your choice of outside sources. Matteen suggests picnic food as an excellent option for groups.

And don’t forget to visit the popular residents: Lynnard the llama and the brown bears, Trouble and Phoebe.


The goal: ensure visitors have the “Best Day Ever.”

With a 90-acre playground of 75 rides and attractions, including eight roller coasters, a water park and live entertainment, it’s hard to argue with that objective.

Valleyfair has something for every member of your group and their family members,” says Todd Larkin, promotions and communications manager. “Plus, the more in your group, the more you save on admission.”

And, this 37-year-old attraction has recently expanded its offerings to groups with their new venue, Picnic Point, three pavilions with catering options from barbecue to breakfast and the ability to meet special dietary needs.

“Not only do we have amazing picnic-style facilities,” Larkin says, “but we are one of the few locations in the metro that allow much more.”

Minnesota Zoo

Group sizes can go as high as the Entire Zoo Rental Package for up to 15,000 people, yet the main attraction is the 4,300 animals that roam the 485 acres south of the Twin Cities in the suburb of Apple Valley.

“The animals provide the entertainment, and we’re able to add planner expertise and fabulous food for an easy one-stop shopping event,” says Kelly Lessard, public relations manager for the Minnesota Zoo. “Parents are entertained by not only the animals, but seeing the joy and excitement on their children’s faces as they see, experience or learn something new.”

The one-stop aspect includes in-house catering, four different meeting rooms, three picnic shelters, four areas for evening events, a theater for presentations, as well as add-ons you can only get at the zoo, like an up-close look at raptors and fish feedings.


The Bakken Museum

For groups with kids, there’s a kinetic energy available inside this museum dedicated to the science and history of electricity and magnetism.

“The great part about The Bakken Museum is that it caters to the needs, wants and whims of all ages,” says Suzy Piper, events and marketing manager at the museum. “Adults will enjoy the architecture, beautiful gardens and educational nature of the museum. Children will enjoy the hands-on activities, special programming and the fact that this is a museum where children are encouraged to explore and get excited.”

The museum is available for any group size up to 200, and with the stately architecture on the grounds, some of the kids wonder, “Are we in a castle?”

Duluth Children’s Museum

Attention, kiddos: This Duluth spot has 1,400 dolls and several hundred toys for everyone to enjoy. And that’s just one sampling of the nearly 35,000 objects in the museum’s collection.

Groups can come to explore the Duluth Children’s Museum during open hours or reserve the space for a private function. Its 1,000-square-foot Celebration Room can seat about 50 and includes access to an outdoor patio and private entrance.

“The museum provides an opportunity for everyone to explore their creativity, so we offer family, children or adult experiences to your needs,” says Michael Garcia, president and CEO of the museum.

Museum staff can tailor trips around such subjects as dinosaurs, magnetism, art, rocketry and more.

Science Museum of Minnesota

With 70,000 square feet dedicated to exhibits ranging from the human body to paleontology to the Mississippi River and many other topics, this St. Paul museum is a vast area available for mixing your next event with your kids.

The Science Museum has six meeting spaces that can accommodate small groups and larger events with space for up to 1,500-person galas. “Guests that attend a meeting or event at the science museum receive passes to enjoy the permanent galleries,” says Jennifer Ernst-George, facility and event sales manager. “During off hours, the Omnitheater can be rented out for private screenings of films from our library of Omni films.”

Given the science museum’s downtown locale-it’s within walking distance to Saint Paul RiverCentre and other hotels, bars and restaurants- it’s perfect for an event that combines education and fun.


The Depot

If you’re looking for a splash or skate, this pair of downtown Minneapolis hotels-The Depot Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel and Residence Inn Minneapolis at The Depot-has your kids covered with a railroadthemed water park and a seasonally indoor ice rink. For the adults, there is more than 40,000 square feet of meeting space with multiple ballrooms, breakout rooms and special event space. There are also 225 rooms at The Depot Renaissance and an additional 130 rooms at the Residence Inn at The Depot. “We are a downtown Minneapolis hotel that has easy access to the Mall of America on the light rail,” says Robert Payne, regional director of sales and marketing at CSM Corporation. “It has access to the water park at The Depot and, in the wintertime, skating at The Depot rink. It is especially popular on the weekends.”

Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Owatonna

In Owatonna, this spot can be the destination for adults and children, as well as a starting point for nearby attractions. It boasts the 43rd Street Pub and Grill for adult flavor; the Great Serengeti Indoor Water Park and the Lion’s Den Arcade for the little ones’ enjoyment; and shopping at Cabela’s and the Preferred Outlets at Medford for both groups. The hotel offers meetings space for up to 300 guests and the water park located inside the hotel is perfect for those looking for a bit of fun.

Holiday Inn can also negotiate rates for a block of 10 or more rooms and can meet the needs of groups in its 4,500 square feet of meeting space.

Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes

Peace of mind and productivity are not at a premium at this 102-room getaway-they are plentiful.

“It’s nice for people to know that while they are in meetings with their colleagues that their families can relax and have fun at the water park and arcade,” says Karolyn McCarte, director of sales.

Arrowwood has suites so large they call them cabins, a 30,000-square-foot Paul Bunyan Water Park, a 2,400-square-foot Gold Mine Arcade and 7,500 square feet of meeting space, as well as on-site dining, catering and a lounge.

“Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes is a great option for groups due to the fact that everything is under one roof,” McCarte says.

And when you don’t want the roof, go out into the Northwoods and relax at the outdoor fire pit.


Children’s Theatre Company

If your meeting needs a break, try a spontaneous production from the Tony Award-winning Children’s Theater Company, and be back before bedtime. With more than 250,000 attendees annually, this is a convenient option for high-quality shows.

“The company is noted for defining worldwide standards for youth theater with an innovative mix of classic tales, celebrated international productions and challenging new work,” says Sherry Ward, senior publicist at the theater.

More than 700 visitors can attend a show in front of the UnitedHealth Group Stage-with discounts available for groups of more than 10.

Fall shows include Busytown the Musical and Seedfolks.

Spirit Mountain

From the alpine coaster, mountain biking and the zip line in the fall to skiing, tubing and snowboarding snowboarding in the winter, things move fast at Duluth’s Spirit Mountain. But that speed creates pauses, too.

“Spirit Mountain is an excellent option for any event, but particularly those events wanting ‘downtime’ for their attendees,” says Renee Mattson, former executive director.

The urban resort is set in the dense wilderness near the St. Louis River and Lake Superior, but is only a short drive from downtown Duluth. Spirit has two chalets with individual meeting rooms and two seasonal restaurants, as well as a year-round dining spot, to host a bevy of group outings. For those that don’t want to leave, campsites and villas are available.

“How to find time to do it all,” Mattson says, “is the bigger question.”

Paul Bunyan Land

With rustic storefronts such as the Blackpowder Range and the Buttons and Bows Boutique, a visit to this Brainerd lakes area village has a combinations of “rides and nostalgia” that makes it “a destination for all age groups,” says Lois Moon, owner.

Hours can be spent on 40 rides and attractions- including the favorite train ride-and in the 30 buildings in Pioneer Village, but the most sought-after attraction is the 40-acre park’s namesake.

“Of course, the main event is talking to Paul Bunyan after he greets you by name,” Moon says.

Groups can grub on concessions or bring in food to the picnic area, and staff can customize accommodations and options to meet all groups’ needs.

Seven Clans Casino

Going inside this 200,000-square-foot complex in Thief River Falls is a “great escape,” says Jasmine Smith, group sales coordinator.

“That’s what we thrive for,” Smith says. “We offer many options to cater to nearly everybody.”

Beyond poker, blackjack and video betting machines on the gaming floor for adults and an indoor water park for the kids, Seven Clans has three meeting rooms ranging from 500 square feet to nearly 2,000.

“We have a group sales department which specializes in meeting the needs of different groups of different sizes,” Smith says.

For a rave retreat, rates can range into something that can fit your budget.

“Our mission here will always be to exceed our own customer service goals,” she says. “We believe it is of the upmost importance.”

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