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MEGA MALL OPENS IN MINNESOTA

OK, so you hate malls. In fact, you hate shopping.

But take a leap of faith. Forget for a moment that the Mall of America is the biggest shopping mall in the United States. Forget the more than 330 stores.For now, just think of Mall of America as an indoor entertainment center where you can spend a day or more doing lots of fun things, including shopping.

Still with me?

Consider this, as the Japanese travel agencies now booking trips to the mall no doubt have: Your whole trip to Mall of America could be cheaper than Walt Disney World or Disneyland. Short of shopping, there's lots to do, from riding a carousel to singing karaoke. And there's no need for sunscreen, bug spray or an umbrella.

The centerpiece for this big entertainment place is Knott's Camp Snoopy, modeled on Knott's Berry Farm just down the road from Disneyland in California. The seven-acre amusement park is smack in the middle of the mall, where Metropolitan Stadium, former home of the Minnesota Twins and Vikings, once was.

History is commemorated there by a bronze plaque on a walkway marking home plate and a bleacher seat affixed to the wall marking where Harmon Killebrew hit a 522-foot home run in 1967, the longest in Twins history.

Besides being indoors and having no cover charge, Camp Snoopy feels different from its big theme park cousins. It's tamer, with more of a mid-America warm, fuzzy feeling.

It doesn't really feel indoors, either. The air seems fresh

and there are hundreds of real plants and trees and fish-stocked brooks.

During the day, skylights provide natural light and shadows. At night, it's illuminated by thousands of twinkling lights and old-fashioned streetlights.

If you ignore the eight cash machines, the Ford playhouse, the Brawny Log Chute ride, the Pepsi Ripsaw roller coaster and the Hormel Cook Out restaurant, it almost feels like a rustic northlands town during the county fair.

There are just so many nice things about this park. There is Knott's Berry Market, with its preserves and gift baskets. There's the simulated mine ride, where young tykes are told they can stop and get out any time if they get too scared. There's Mrs. Knott's Restaurant, featuring old Mrs. Knott's fried chicken, from a 59-year-old recipe, and boysenberry pie. There are live animals to meet and touch, and the roaming comic strip characters Snoopy, Linus, Charlie Brown and Lucy.

This is not the place for daring, thrill-a-minute rides. The roller coaster climbs no higher than four stories. The log ride is designed to keep people relatively dry so they can return comfortably to shopping. Most of the 26 rides, attractions and live entertainment venues are kid-oriented. They cost from $1 to $2.50 each, which is deducted from a "smart card" visitors buy from machines in $5 and $10 increments.

The size means it takes less than a day to do Knott's Camp Snoopy. I wouldn't travel to Minneapolis just for the amusement park, but there's still lots to do at the mega-mall before you get to the shopping.

- The Lego Imagination Center is a four-story, free-standing structure that looks like it's made from giant Lego beams, columns and arches. It features dozens of large Lego-made creatures with animation and flashing lights, a play area where kids can build their own models, and a retail area where parents can buy every Lego kit and product made. Free admission.

- EnterTRAINment is the model railroader's dream: 30 moving "O" gauge freight and passenger trains on more than half mile of track. It's laid out on five levels, with bridges, stations, town and country scenery, daylight and moonlight. Admission: $3.50 for adults, $2.50 for children under 12, free for children under 3.

- The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, who run casinos on two nearby reservations, have a mall storefront and daily bus service from the mall to day or overnight gambling sprees. The two-hour bus ride is free until Sept. 11; $10 per person after, including either an all-you-can-eat buffet or a $5 roll of quarters.

- Upper East Side offers a 14-screen movie theater and nine nightclubs with live acts, comedy, dancing, sports TV viewing and sing-alongs. Pay-once cover charges vary from $3 on weeknights to $6 on weekends and allow visitors to travel between clubs. It's a pale, forced version of a real downtown entertainment district.

OK, now to the stores. Despite its size, the Mall of America feels like a big mall, not another planet. But it's better than a big mall because so many of the stores are fun - even if you were not born to shop.

There are $3 stores, two made-in-Minnesota stores, several native American artisan shops, a store devoted to holograms, one devoted to shells and several dozen funky carts - the kind you find in festival marketplaces - selling everything from bingo paraphernalia to "genuine" family histories and coats of arms.

Warner Bros. and Disney have stores here. Oshman's Super Sports store has play areas for basketball, racket sports, ice and roller skating, and archery. Arts & Kids sells art supplies and creative toys, with demonstrations. Animalia sells whimsical animal art. The Nature Co. sells science- and nature-inspired things. Bare Bones sells anatomical and skeleton stuff. Boogie's Diner sells trendy clothes and accessories and healthy diner fare.

And, for those who were born to shop, there's Nordstrom, Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Filene's Basement, the likes of which the upper Midwest has never seen.

I found myself - a mall-weary, married-without-children career woman - getting caught up in the excitement of the mega-mall in spite of myself.

Is it too, too much? I don't think so. Bring your kids, if you have any. Bring lots of money. And don't forget where you parked.

*****

(Additional information)

Here are directions to get there

Mall of America is five minutes from the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport in Bloomington, Minn. From I-494, take the 24th Avenue South exit. Buses run every 20 minutes 6 a.m.-midnight between the mall and the St. Paul-Minneapolis International Airport. Buses run every 30 minutes between the mall and downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. Call 1-612-827-7733.

Mall of America has its own Tourism Office to arrange group tours and individual visits. Call 1-612-883-8850.

Through March 31, Northwest Airlines is offering weekend packages that include airfare, two nights' hotel stay in Bloomington and a Mall of America value book, starting at $259 from Detroit based on double occupancy, and earning 500 WorldPerk bonus points. Prices subject to change. Call 1-800-692-8687.

There are dozens of hotels and motels in Bloomington along I-494. For information, call the Bloomington Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-612-858-8500.