MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL -- I'm sitting at the controls of an 18,000-pound CAT bulldozer, revving the engine and bearing down on a parked white compact car with my blade down ready, to push it forward as far as I want.
Nearby, my 17-year-old daughter Sarah is pulling levers back and forth as she plunges the bucket on her 19-ton excavator down into the soil and back up, quickly creating a small crater before dropping dirt from above like a mini waterfall.
Watching and waiting her turn is my wife, Gail, while Mary, our daughter who uses a wheelchair to get around, is watching everything from her vantage point inside an enclosed ATV.
You might think we were on a construction site, working hard on a time clock, but you'd be wrong. My family is on vacation.
And we're having a blast.
We're at one of the Twin Cities' newest -- and quickly becoming most popular -- attractions. It's called Extreme Sandbox and it's located in the extreme southeast corner of the Minnesota capital region in the riverside community of Hastings.
Here, under the guidance of trained staff linked via headphones and microphones, folks young and old who have only seen construction equipment from afar can get a chance to take the controls and see what it's like.
It's just one of the numerous things a family can do during a vacation in the Twin Cities. Manitobans could be forgiven for regarding Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the numerous other small towns and villages in the area as one big shopping mecca. Others think of the area for its professional sports teams - the Twins, Wild and Timberwolves. Still others go to see concerts.
But, beyond all this, the Twin Cities has more than enough to keep families entertained, which we discovered when we spent several days there during our March break. With several hundred lakes within easy reach (some big enough to canoe, kayak or cruise on), lots of paved bicycle trails, tons of attractions and terrific night life, the Twin Cities is one of America's best-kept secrets.
Downtown St. Paul has two major family attractions, the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Minnesota Children's Museum.
The science museum is a place where both children and the kid in all of us can learn about science in a hands-on, entertaining way. And every kid loves to see dinosaur skeletons.
One of the best things about the museum is the travelling exhibits which pass through. In the past, we've seen exhibitions on King Tut and the explorations of a pirate ship, but this time the museum's featured show was called Body Worlds and the Cycle of Life.
The 200 displays featured the plasticized bodies of real people and body parts, including the muscles and tendons used by people playing baseball, doing yoga moves, figure-skating, and body-checking in hockey. We even saw what a hip replacement looks like and how a surgeon puts screws in to hold a bone in place.
While this show has now ended, the museum will host the much-anticipated Maya -- Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibit beginning June 21, featuring archeological exhibits from the Mayan civilization.
The museum has two eating areas -- a snack area beside the exhibit areas and a cafeteria on an upper floor. But if you're hungry for history, just a short 10-minute walk away is the historic Mickey's Diner.
This diner, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in America, has been in continuous business 24 hours a day since opening in 1939. It has also been featured in numerous movies and television shows including Jingle All The Way with Arnold Schwarzeneger and the Mighty Ducks movies.
It's a tight squeeze -- the staff had to rearrange several people to make way for my daughter's wheelchair -- but history never tasted so good.
A block away from Mickey's is the Minnesota Children's Museum. Here, on several floors, is every young kid's dream. You can lift 'steel' girders with a claw and put them into a building under construction. You can move clouds with a wheel and wiring to create a storm. You can dance to a song of your choice and appear on a video screen. You can even make your own paper and imprint a symbol of your choice in it. Don't be surprised if a few hours go by before you know it.
St. Paul is also the hometown of the late Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, and dotted around the downtown are whimsical statues of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and Schroeder.
Just a few kilometres away in downtown Minneapolis is another tribute, this one to the city's most famous resident who never lived there. The iconic statue of Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat in the air sits just outside the gigantic downtown Macy's store, an homage to the opening credits of the popular 1970s show set in Minneapolis.
A few blocks away, you can have some fun learning about the industry that was the backbone of growth in the area -- Minneapolis was the milling capital of the world from 1880 to 1920.
Located just downstream of St. Anthony Falls on the west side, the Mill City Museum resides in the original flagship flour mill of General Mills, the company responsible for Cheerios, Wheaties and other cereals. The mill produced two million pounds of flour a day until it was shut down in the mid-1960s, its operations shifting to Buffalo and Kansas City.
The building caught fire in the 1990s because, as it turns out, flour dust is extremely flammable and can be explosive. But the destruction sparked a revival of the area. Where little more than a decade ago there was an abandoned flour mill and vacant industrial area, the mill now has been restored as a milling museum and the surrounding area is filled with offices and residential blocks.
The high point of the museum is its freight elevator, which takes you up and down and up again through the eight-story flour mill. People who used to work in the mill appear through film and audio, and there are recreations showing what the mill was like produce in its heyday. Fresh bread is baked in a kitchen on the main floor, the aroma wafting through the exhibit area.
A young school group loved the huge table that features running water to mimic the nearby river and falls, allowing them to put up dams to redirect the water to power the flour mills.
Even if you don't necessarily want to shop, the Mall of America is a must-see during a trip to the Twin Cities. Among many other attractions, you can see sharks, play mini-golf or ride on a ferris wheel.
Sea Life Minnesota is a series of aquariums, both small and huge, housing sting rays, sharks, starfish, jellyfish, octopus and many other denizens of the deep. The long tunnels you walk through while everything from hammerhead sharks to turtles swim beside you or over your head are still the highlight.
Up on the third level of the mall is Moose Mountain Adventure Golf. It's an 18-hole mini-golf course which winds around simulated hills and tunnels. It was my chance to bring my rusty outdoor putting skills into an indoor setting.
The Nickelodeon amusement park in the centre of the mall used to be called Camp Snoopy. Several of the rides are the same, just rebranded with names of characters from television shows on Nickelodeon like Sponge Bob Squarepants and Fairly Odd Parents.
But the fun is the same too. After all, it's not every day that you can scream around turns on a roller coaster or get a bit wet on a log flume ride, all in a climate-controlled mall.
And yes, this is a mall, with three floors of stores -- each of them bigger than a standard mall. (One of the newest stores here is entirely devoted to the boy group, One Direction -- t-shirts, posters, you name it. Who knew?)
But, on this trip, we were trying valiantly to see things instead of shop. So we headed across the highway to the aptly named Water Park of America. It bills itself as America's biggest indoor water park, and it's hard to argue.
You can grab a tube, lie back and relax as you slowly float around a large, lazy river winding around the park perimeter, occasionally bumping into other people or bends in the route. There are also several waterslides, including little ones for small children and bigger ones for the more adventurous.
Before heading home, we spent a couple of hours at the Minnesota Zoo, which doesn't seem to have changed much since I was last there almost 15 years ago. New this year, though, is a black bear exhibit, part of a Minnesota exhibit where you can bears and wolves walk by just inches from you, separated only by thick glass.
A monorail allows you to view the animals from above, and there's also a large penguin aquarium.
As we drove west, with the Twin Cities in our rear-view mirror, the amazing thought that came to mind wasn't just that we'd had lots of fun and seen plenty, we that we had really only scratched the surface.
And part of that surface was with a bulldozer.
IF YOU GO
Minneapolis is about an eight-hour drive from Winnipeg if you only stop for gas and don't get hung up too long at the border at Pembina, N.D. The quickest route is I-29 to Fargo and then I-94 east to the Twin Cities.
If you have time, a scenic route would be taking Hwy. 2 east from Grand Forks to Bemidji and then down south through Brainerd and St. Cloud before linking back to I-94.
Places to see
Has several packages starting with a one hour session on a skid steer for $195, $295 for 90 minutes on an excavator or bulldozer, and up to $895 for seven hours on all three pieces of equipment.
1901 Glendale Rd., Hastings
Mill City Museum
Admission is $11 for adults, $9 for seniors and college students, $6 for children aged six to 17, free for children five and under.
704 South 2nd St., Minneapolis
36 W. 7th St., St. Paul.
Minnesota Children's Museum
Admission ages one to 101 is $9.50
10 7th St W, St. Paul
Science Museum of Minnesota
Admission for adults are $13 and children four to 12 and seniors 60 and over are $10
120 W Kellogg Blvd, St. Paul.
Mall of America:
Sea Life: Adults 13 and over are $20.99, and children 3 to 12 are $15.99. There are cheaper prices online at www.visitsealife.com/Minnesota/buy-tickets/
Nickelodeon Universe: $29.99 for unlimited rides. There are various point passes as well. www.nickelodeonuniverse.com
Moose Mountain Adventure Golf: $8 per person or $26 for a family of four.
Waterpark of America
An all-day pass from 11 a.m. to close is $39.95 while a half-day pass from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., or 4 p.m. to close is $32.95. There is a discount for CAA members.
Admission for age 13 to 64 is $18. Children 3 to 12 and seniors 65 and over is $12, under 3 is free.