And all I got was this lousy T-shirt

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Summer is beginning its wind-down, and I scream at the fading light. I love summer so much so that perhaps I am in love with summer, but that’s a different column. Instead, I wish to ruminate some fine local summer vacation activities my family and I have enjoyed this year.

My family and I haven’t taken a proper vacation in four years for a variety of reasons. Instead, we try to just have fun around here, or at least within an easy(ish) two-hour drive. Central Minnesota actually has quite a bit to offer a family with kids ranging from 2 to 13.

Our first stop this year was Como Zoo. For those of you who haven’t been there lately (or ever!), Como Zoo is a must-see for every Minnesotan. There is no strict fee to enter the zoo, rather a suggested donation, which is nice for families with every budget. In years we do better, we try to give more when we visit, and in years where we can’t give as much, we try not to feel too bad about it.

There is a wide variety of animals at Como Zoo, from apes and monkeys, to big cats, giraffes, wolves and even my family’s favorite, the polar bear. This year, Como Zoo is also under massive construction to redesign its seal habitat, so there is definitely a reason for us to go back in 2019.

Outside of the animals at Como Zoo, there is also a section with ticketed theme-park rides. This is a bit spendy, but I am a sucker for the Tilt-a-Whirl, as are my 4- and 6-year olds. My 2-year-old enjoys the train, and my 13-year-old doesn’t care for rides at all.

Of course, we must exit through the gift shop, which has amazingly low-priced stuffed animals. It’s very easy to get nice souvenirs for all the kids for under $50.

One last must-see at Como is the historic Cafesjian’s Carousel, which was built in 1914, and still functions for kids to ride today. It makes for a nice family tradition I was able to go on as a child and share with my kids.

The other daycation spot we love to visit every year is just to the north in Brainerd. I can only be referring to the beloved Paul Bunyan Land of course. There is nothing more Minnesotan than a theme park for the giant lumberjack responsible for so much of Minnesota’s topography (according to legend). Sure, there’s the typical rides (more Tilt-a-Whirl), but the main attraction is Paul himself! Yes, Paul is now retired from his lumberjack days and the giant sits just inside his theme park, towering over all. But, Paul is friendly, saying hello to all and welcoming each child by name as they enter. My own children have met Paul’s welcome with both terror at the giant talking to them (he is 26 feet tall), and amazement. It’s, again, a proud tradition to share with my children the fear I felt at their ages.

Of course, PBL (as we cool kids call it) has more to offer than animatronics and rides. There is the Ghost Mine, the Magnetic Mine Shaft and the historical Pioneer Village to see. The petting zoo is fun as well, but my favorite thing will always be the bumper cars. Now that my boy is 13, he’s really ready to help me Malachi Crunch (for you Happy Days super fans) any and all foolish to ride against us. Paul Bunyan Land is fun because you pay once and ride all you want, plus there’s enough other things to see before you (once again) exit through the gift shop.

There’s still a few weeks left to see these uniquely Minnesotan attractions before summer’s last gasp and kids head back to school. As for my family, we’ll be heading next for the last of three summer daycations to one of the best Renaissance festivals in the nation, which just happens to be here in Minnesota.

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