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Lisa Bergerson and nephew Aidan Johnson, 4, rode the Back at the Barnyard Hayride at Nickelodeon Universe at the Mall of America in Bloomington.

KYNDELL HARKNESS, Star Tribune

Spring break bonanza

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER
  • Star Tribune
  • March 12, 2012 - 12:24 PM

Spring break isn't going to be a time of rest for those who work at family-oriented attractions. Multiple factors -- including higher airfares, terrifying government warnings about foreign travel and school districts cutting back on the length of their breaks -- have family-friendly locations in the Twin Cities gearing up for kids expected to be spending spring break at home.

"We're anticipating an influx of people," said Bridget Jewell, public relations manager at the Mall of America where, not coincidentally, two rides are opening just in time for a tidal wave of teens. Across town, the Children's Museum is expanding its hours and bringing in additional kid-centric concessions. And the Como Park Zoo is sponsoring a special exhibit.

A number of forces have intertwined to dampen spring-break travel fever. Not the least of them was the recent winter-that-wasn't, which dissipated much of our cabin fever. We were riding bicycles in February and jogging in shorts in early March. And why go to Arizona to play golf when driving ranges are open here?

Wendy Johnson of Minneapolis said her family didn't feel there was as much need for a "getaway" this year because of the mild winter.

"It didn't make sense to book a trip out of state when the weather here is likely to be as nice as it is there," she said in an e-mail.

Traditional spring break also is facing time pressure. With more parents complaining about the school year stretching well into June, many districts are opting to reduce the length of midyear vacations. Schools in Monticello and Roseau already have trimmed their spring breaks to long weekends, and the Sartell-St. Stephen district has served notice that it will do the same next year. Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools are polling parents to see if there's interest in following suit.

Travel itself is facing hurdles. The average airfare is 9 percent higher now than last year, according to the trade organization Airlines for America, which blames the jump on climbing fuel prices. In addition, the U.S. State Department has issued a number of sobering warnings about places to avoid. As of the end of last week, the list included 31 countries, including Mexico, where no travel is recommended to some cities, including Tijuana, and visitors to other tourist meccas, among them Cancun and Cabo San Lucas, are being told not to leave the areas where the resorts are. Violence connected to drug cartels was cited as the reason.

All of which is making many people decide to stay close to home.

"You don't have to go Florida to feel the warmth; you can come to the Conservatory," said Matt Reinartz, spokesman for St. Paul's Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, which is planning a spring-break-related Rainforest Revel for March 31-April 1. And if the weather is warm outside, that's even better, he said.

"You don't have to stay inside," he said. "As soon as it warms up every spring, we get double the amount of people."

The vacation schedule varies widely by school district. The breaks start as early as this week in some schools (including public schools in St. Paul) and continue through the first week of April (Minneapolis is among these). The schedule for colleges is just as diverse. That's good news for locations that are looking to spread out the rush.

"We expect it to stay busy for the next month to month-and-a-half," Jewell said of the Mall of America. And not just because of the new rides at Nickelodeon Universe. The Princess Diana exhibit, which opened in February and continues into June, has turned out to be a boffo attraction for young girls, she said. "It's a huge draw for them. After all, it's a real-life princess."

The Minnesota Children's Museum plans to add extra hours (it will be open Mondays, which it usually isn't, and stay open until 8 p.m. on weeknights this week and the week of April 2) and extra food. "We're going to have pizza and pop, which we usually don't," said spokeswoman Sophie Morelli.

The Science Museum of Minnesota is gearing up for bigger than usual crowds because of its "Real Pirates" exhibit.

"Because it's such a family-oriented event, we're expecting very good attendance," predicted spokeswoman Chris Bauer. "We're telling people to make their plans early."

The Minneapolis Parks Board is sponsoring a host of youth-oriented activities for the first week of April, including a ping-pong tournament (April 4, Powderhorn) and a trip to a play at Children's Theatre (April 5, Webber). For a complete list of activities, go to www.startribune.com/a1106.

With warm weather anticipated, the parks also are expecting a rush of visitors to the city's lakes, Stone Arch Bridge and, in particular, Minnehaha Falls.

"The falls are spectacular in the spring because of all the runoff," said spokeswoman Dawn Sommers. "We're always a focus for people taking a 'stay-cation,' but I think this year we're going to see a lot of people outside, using the parks and trails."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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