Three children swaggered out of the Build-A-Bear Workshop variously hugging a cuddly moose, a pink-skirted teddy bear and a grinning groundhog. They were palpably proud of the creatures they had helped to make. In their wake came their shopping-laden grandparents. Would the kids like to ride the Log Chute rollercoaster? Yes, they chorused. And then, they suggested (while the grandparents wearied visibly), they'd like to visit the aquarium to meet the stingrays. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the Mall of America.
It goes quite beyond the mere retail experience, which runs the gamut from Abercrombie & Fitch to Zales diamond store. There's a 14-screen movie theatre on the mall's top floor, a large Lego outlet (with life-size rhino creations), two games arcades, and set over the basement is the Underwater Adventures aquarium, which is home to more than 4,000 sea creatures. Meanwhile the entire central atrium, four storeys high and covering seven acres, is devoted to a Nickelodeon Universe theme park offering not only a rollercoaster but 29 other rides. Even on the relatively quiet weekday that I was there, it was buzzing with children, the air filled with shrieks of excitement.
Set in Bloomington, a 20-minute drive south of downtown Minneapolis and 25 minutes from downtown St Paul, the Mall of America opened in 1992. It now has more than 520 retail outlets set behind about four miles of shop windows. There are also 20 sit-down restaurants and 30 fast food stores.
All of which presents a dauntingly big picture. Yet this is by no means the world's largest mall. Nor, at the moment, is the Mall of America the biggest such precinct in US. But work is due to start on an expansion to the complex that will integrate a large Ikea at present positioned opposite, and will provide scope for 300 additional stores, making the Mall of America the largest enclosed shopping area in the US.
Size doesn't entirely matter, however, for the Mall of America is certainly the country's most famous retail complex. And its most popular, too, attracting around 40 million visitors annually. Tax, or the lack of it, is one draw: there is no sales tax on clothing in Minnesota. But location is also a key feature. This shopping venue is just a 10-minute taxi ride from a great junction of America, the Minneapolis-St Paul airport.
If there is no scope to visit the mall between flights on the same day, you can opt to break your journey at one of many accommodation options nearby. Minneapolis and St Paul make a good destination for a stopover: take your fill of retail therapy and then enjoy some of the country's most absorbing art galleries and liveliest theatre outside New York.
I had booked into the Hilton Minneapolis Bloomington, which opened in February. Alongside 260 modern rooms, it offers pool, gym, two restaurants and free shuttle to the airport and the Mall of America. Before ushering me off on the 15-minute ride to the mall, the concierge gave me detailed instructions as to how to proceed from there to downtown Minneapolis and the Walker Art Center. ("After about three hours of shopping you'll probably need an antidote," he said.)
But it takes a little more time than that to explore the entirety of this palace of consumerism – known to some less enthusiastic locals as "The Sprawl of America". Staff manning the information booths at the four ground-floor entrances may tell you proudly that Buckingham Palace and its 40-acre gardens would fit inside the mall; and, perhaps more impressively, that in the winter there is no need for heating (the complex is kept warm through the miles of electric lights and the body heat of its guests, even when Minnesota's temperatures drop to –20C and more). In summer, on the other hand, the mall whirs with 12,900 tonnes of air conditioning.
Getting your bearings is relatively easy. At each corner of the vast, rectangular building is a department store: upscale Bloomingdale's and Macy's to the south-east and south-west respectively; Sears, more keenly priced, to the north-east; and Nordstrom to the north-west.
The ground floor is generally where the most stylish outlets are located. Meanwhile, there are swathes of jeans and T-shirt outlets on both the ground and the second floors. But the third floor is where you'll find most of the real bargains and some real regional flavour.
Lake Wobegon USA is the merchandising arm of the works of local author, and local hero, Garrison Keillor. Here there are CDs and DVDs of Keillor's readings, T-shirts, mugs, postcards and, of course, books. I snapped up a copy of Keillor's latest hardback, Pontoon, signed by the author. Among the sprawl of rides and stores here, this personal touch was truly heartwarming.
Mall of America (001 952 883 8800; www.mallofamerica.com) is open Mon-Sat 10am-9.30pm and Sun 11am-7pm. The Hilton Minneapolis Bloomington (001 952 893 9500; www.hilton.com) is at 3900 American Boulevard West. Bloomington, Minnesota. Doubles start at $99 (£52), room only.
State Lines: Minnesota
Population 5 million
Area 11 times the size of Wales
Capital St Paul
Date in Union 11 May 1858
Flower Showy lady's slipper
Motto "The Star of the North"
Nickname North Star State