I really don’t belong here, I tell myself nervously. I’d rather be at a museum. Or reading a book. Or sharing a candlelit dinner with my husband alongside a lake. But our 6-year-old son has been begging for amusement park thrills, and our budget won’t stretch to Florida. So here I am, strapped into the Avatar Airbender, a skateboard ride inside one of the world’s largest shopping malls. I’m afraid of heights, but the bright colors at Nickelodeon Universe—and no lines early this morning—lure me onto this ride in Mall of America, just south of Minnesota’s Twin Cities in Bloomington.
We’re three of 40 million people who visit the mall each year—more than twice the number who visit Disney’s Magic Kingdom. And we know a few more. Colin runs into his classmate Grady, and we see our old neighbors, all from West Des Moines, Iowa, roughly 240 miles south. After the initial fancy-meeting-you-here, we gush about the easy drive, the affordable fun and the opening of the Euro-sleek Radisson Blu Mall of America, connected to the mall’s second floor by a sunny hallway dotted with local artwork. We shop the 500-plus stores, eat a brownie volcano topped with sparklers at Rainforest Cafe and shuttle to the indoor Water Park of America to zoom down a 10-story-tall water slide in a family-size raft. Twice. “It’s nice to be indoors when it’s cold outside. And if you get the [unlimited-ride] wristbands, you can leave, go do something else and come back,” says Alisha Stewart, Grady’s mom. “And the hotel is stylish, but I wasn’t afraid the kids were going to break anything.”
Opened last March, the 500-room, 13-story Radisson Blu adds a sophisticated sheen to a mall getaway. Impeccable service, playful furnishings and soft beds only begin to define the first hotel connected to this retail behemoth. We can drop off shopping bags, rest, go for a swim—all without lugging puffy winter coats. Staying in a place like this tempers some of the mall’s famed busyness.
Maybe that’s why I find myself on the Avatar Airbender. The ride begins, whirling my cranberry-painted toes above my head to within inches of the glass atrium and pulling uncharacteristic shrieks from my throat. It eventually comes to a stop, and I stumble into my husband’s steadying arms, my short hair blown up, adrenaline surging through my body. Turns out this getaway suits our family better than I ever imagined.
More one-stop trips!
Bloomington, Minnesota Country Inn and Suites Mall of America Across the street from the mall—a walkway opening in 2014 will stretch over busy Killebrew Avenue—this hotel’s American Dream package (from $230) makes a family getaway easy on your wallet. The deal includes a guest room, an on-site breakfast, four unlimited-ride wristbands to Nickelodeon Universe, four passes to Moose Mountain Mini Golf, four passes to the Flying Dutchman Ghostly Gangplank Walk ropes course, a mall coupon book and more. See Midwest Living's review.  (952) 831-9595; countryinns.com 
Wisconsin Dells Kalahari Resort Sheer size can make this African-theme hotel with 756 guest rooms a little overwhelming. Wisconsin’s biggest indoor water park and resort offers an indoor theme park, a bowling alley, a zip line, a spa, live lion and tiger cubs in the lobby, and a 15-screen movie theater. Get free in-room delivery of the owners’ signature pizza—their first business before their booming water park empire. From $350. See Midwest Living's review.  (608) 254-5466; kalahariresorts.com 
Chicago The Ritz-Carlton Luxury brands are competing for kids’ love; here, every afternoon, kids can help bake cookies with chefs in the massive hotel kitchen. Another big draw: Water Tower Place’s American Girl store on the ground floor (the hotel uses floors 15–30, and a staffer will even deliver your American Girl purchases to your room). Also, a pinstriped candy man brings a cart of sweets to guest rooms. From $455. See Midwest Living's review.  (312) 266-1000; fourseasons.com/chicagorc 
Schaumburg, Illinois AmericInn Price sells this no-frills former Hampton Inn just west of Woodfield Mall and the Streets of Woodfield, a shopping, dining and entertainment complex that includes a Legoland Discovery Center, a GameWorks (a restaurant and bar with video games) and a 20-screen multiplex. Located 30 miles northwest of Chicago, the hotel serves free breakfast in the lobby. From $90. (847) 619-1000; americinn.com