Before we headed out to the high-ropes course at Mall of America, I told my 8-year-old son to tie his shoelaces.
"Because if I don't, I'll fall and die?" he said.
Well, not exactly. But I didn't like the idea of him tripping while on a tightrope three stories above the ground.
The Flying Dutchman Ghostly Gangplank Ropes and Adventure Course is a high-ropes course, a relatively new type of attraction at theme parks. It was installed in a corner of Nickelodeon Universe in 2009 after the park's general manager Dave Frazier tried one at Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells. He envisioned a two- or three-level course, but "our owner said make it as high as you can get it."
At 56 feet, it was the tallest course in the country until a New Jersey amusement park built one 2 feet taller. When you stand on the top, you're just a few yards from the steel girders that hold up the Mall of America roof.
But first, you have to get there.
On the ground, staff secured each of us into a harness. It's similar to a rock-climbing harness, with thick straps that go over your shoulders, around your waist and between your legs. One end of a safety rope snaps into a metal loop at your waist, and the other end slides into a metal track above your head. You pull it along wherever you go, and if you fall, it holds your weight until you get your feet back under you.
The course consists of six massive posts, one in each corner of a rectangle and two in the middle of the long sides. Each post is ringed at four levels by platforms several yards across, like a crow's next on the mast of a sailing ship — except without railings. You get from one platform to another by walking across various formations of ropes and planks.
We climbed to the first level on narrow wood steps, balancing ourselves by holding onto ropes that stretched between the overhead track and the steps. My 8-year-old and 11-year-old would have run up, if sprinting were allowed. My 5-year-old daughter crept up cautiously with her dad.
Once we reached the first platform, my sons hopped across a half dozen wobbly boxes strung onto three cables. I followed them, grabbing an overhead rope for security. And as soon as I reached the other side, I lunged for the platform and hugged the green post as if it were a mast and I were in danger of being swept out to sea.
My husband, who doesn't like heights, agreed to stay with our daughter. She wanted to walk only to the second level. By now, my two sons had worked their way across several other sections. The 8-year-old was practically prancing across the ropes. This is the same son who likes
ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?
The section in front of me consisted of three taut cables crossed with short planks like railroad ties. I made my way carefully from one to the next, but halfway across, I got nervous and my legs tensed and the whole bridge started rocking and shaking. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. (Those deep-breathing techniques from childbirth class came in handy. I use them in the dentist's chair, too).
I somehow made it across and again lunged to hug the green post. I wouldn't say I was having fun, but I was determined. Staff are positioned throughout the course to help or blow the whistle on kids who run. One of them gave me a sympathetic smile.
Many of the sections would have been easy if they had been on the ground. I have no trouble walking across steppingstones in the garden, but when octagonal wood "pavers" are 30 feet in the air, they are hard to navigate.
I tried to tell myself that walking along a narrow plank was just like walking on the curb of a sidewalk, but it was hard to ignore the thin air on either side.
Other elements were challenging because they swayed and jiggled. I inched across a single rope and crept sideways along a large net. Most of the time there were overhead ropes to hang onto. It also helped to hold onto my safety rope for balance.
Sometimes, I'd yell across to one of my sons, and we'd arrange our routes so we would meet on a platform.
TIME TO TAKE IN THE VIEW
My 8-year-old son was the first to reach the top. I watched him from a level below as he walked out onto a plank, four stories in the air. He pulled two red ropes. A second later, we heard the low drone of a foghorn.
I got to the top a few minutes later. Walking onto the plank was terrifying because there is no rope to hold for balance. I took a deep Lamaze breath and did it.
When I got back to the platform, I put my back against the post and took in the view. I could look down at the entire route of the Pepsi Orange Streak roller coaster and watch people scream at the top of the Rock Bottom Plunge. I even spotted my husband and daughter walking far below. They had made it to the second level of the ropes course before deciding to go back down and ride the carousel.
On my descent, I met my older son coming up.
"I'm going to pull the horn a second time," he said. "I went almost all the way down, and now I'm coming up a different way."
We stayed on the course for more than 45 minutes. My 8-year-old didn't want to leave, even with the promise of stopping by the Lego store on the way out. And by the end, I was even having fun. I found myself getting more comfortable the more I practiced. I even tried crossing a plank without holding onto anything. It was almost as easy as walking on a curb, as long as I didn't look down.
What: The Flying Dutchman Ghostly Gangplank Ropes and Adventure Course
Where: Nickelodeon Universe, Mall of America, Interstate 494 and Cedar Avenue, Bloomington
Hours: Noon to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $5.95 ($4 with park wristband)
Target audience: Anyone 48 inches tall or taller (or 42 inches with chaperone)
Crowd pleaser: Getting to the top and sounding the foghorn
Avoid: Long lines. Arrive when it opens to avoid waiting.
Tip: Wear snug, closed-toe shoes and be prepared to leave purses and loose objects in a locker.
Info: Read previously published family outings under "family fun" at MinnMoms.com.