MINNEAPOLIS — The lights go down and the darkness frightens the two girls who cling to their parents.
The opening bars of music filter through the air and an ocean of colour crashes through the senses as players and costumes take control of the stage and audience.
So much for worries that we'd have to leave the performance early to take the two grandchildren, aged three and five, back to the hotel. They were mesmerized for the next two hours, and the Chanhassen Dinner Theater scored another victory with its production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
It was part of a family experience in Minneapolis that parents, grandparents and especially two young kids are likely never to forget.
It started when my son-in-law Robert and I snagged tickets for a day at the recent PGA golf major at Hazeltine Golf Club in Chaska near Minneapolis.
Why don't we make it a family outing, my daughter Hilary and I thought?
It seemed like a good idea except for the thought of travelling more than 700 kilometres in a car with two youngsters. However, once Hilary and Rob bought into the idea, there was no turning back.
We made the drive a part of the adventure, with lots of stops for snacks and stretching. The stops seemed to shorten the trip. By the time we arrived, the sight of the water park through the window of the Radisson Bloomington hotel lobby erased the fatigue. It's named Water Park of America for a reason. There are slides and pools for children of every age, not to mention lengthy versions of slides with breakneck speed, sharp turns and dramatic drops.
It's not long before we were in those waters with Avery, the younger of the two, splashing in the Fort Snelling play area for the smaller set, while Jayda (who has discovered her inner daredevil) challenged her parent's fears for her safety and their own sanity by taking on longer and faster slides.
It's billed as the largest indoor water park in the United States. While a 10-storey whitewater raft ride is one of its features, the park can keep an entire family occupied for a day, with several tube slides, a huge wave pool, and a five-gallon bucket that, every couple of minutes or so, dumps on those standing under it.
Before long, as Rob and I amused the children at the games arcade, the women hopped on one of the frequent shuttle buses going to the Mall of America. The shopping experience is important to most people who travel, but realistically there are not enough days to get around all of 400-plus stores.
The Mall of America may be one of the biggest shopping centres in the world, but it's also a family destination for its Nickelodeon Universe, Underwater Adventures, and Lego display centre.
I am grateful that our little ones are not of the age yet where they were begging us to join them on the giant roller-coasters or the spiralling rock-bottom dives of the SpongeBob SquarePants ride. These are not for the faint of heart, yet there seem to be constant lineups at them. Our girls were satisfied with the merry-go-round and Diego's Rescue Bus ride.
Everything at the Mall of America seems to be bigger than the rest, and Underwater Adventures is no exception. It's billed as the largest underwater aquarium in the world, with a shark exhibit that has been widely praised.
A moving walkway allows visitors to flow slowly and effortlessly through a long tunnel that winds through the exhibit. Here you feel engulfed by the sea life. If you feel like spending a little more time with a school of fish, just step off and get back on after you're satisfied.
At first, the children were somewhat apprehensive as they went underground to begin the adventure. The muted light coming from the tanks, along with the surprise of seeing sharks swimming so near to them, was scary. But with a kaleidoscope of almost 5,000 colourful sea creatures constantly changing around them, the fear quickly turned to laughter as they watched the antics.
The few days we allocated for this retreat passed quickly.
Driving home on I-94 we were greeted with one more temptation, the Albertville Premium Outlet Mall.
Hard to believe that we still had room in our cross-border allowance, but by the time we covered many of the stores in a couple of hours, we knew it was no longer the case.
Many days have passed, but the children still babble on about the musical, the rides, and the bunk beds they liked so much.
IF YOU GO
What to Do:
The Chanhassen Theaters offer two performances in separate theatres. Oklahoma has replaced Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in the main dinner theatre, while the Fireside Theatre continues with performances of Always... Patsy Cline until October 31. Go to www.chanhassentheatres.com for times and tickets.
Theatre-goers will appreciate the performances at the Guthrie Theatre. For a complete list of plays check www.guthrietheater.org/whats_happening/shows.
Where to Eat:
Malls are usually not known for quality restaurants, but that doesn't hold true for the Mall of America. CRAVE restaurant is casual but the menu is creative and the quality is exceptional. I had one of the best steaks I've ever eaten. My nephew Kent tried the shaved rib-eye pizza, which was also excellent. Go to www.cravemn.com for a complete menu.
The last time we were at the Mall of America we dined at the Tucci Benucch. It was a meal to rave about.
For a unique experience in downtown Minneapolis, try the Brazilian-style restaurant, Fogo de Chao, at 645 Hennepin Ave. Be hungry when you go because a large salad bar, plus 15 cuts of fire-roasted meats keep coming until you signal you've had enough.
Where to Stay:
While there are a number of brand-name hotels near the Mall of America, the Radisson Bloomington with its Water Park of America and entertainment area is a top choice for families.