Like many parents, I dream of having a home that is more of a cozy little landing pad for our adventures than a storage facility for our stuff. I love the trend of experience gifts over more plastic toys. So I have been collecting up ideas for clutter-free gifts of adventure in our own Twin Cities. These are all fun activities we can do without leaving Minnesota.
Lucky for gift givers, November and December are the best time to think about memberships, because several places offer pre-holiday or end-of-the-year discounts.
Hello Grandparents: Experience Gifts are the New “I Love You!”
If you are an out-of-town grandparent, membership gifts are ideal. It is not just a toy that will be forgotten in the pile of of toys. Your grandchildren will look forward to your visits so you can enjoy your gift together; plus they will enjoy it with their parents the rest of the year. Furthermore, your children will tell all their friends that you are so much cooler than the grandparents who bought loud, battery-powered, plastic toys that end up in the garbage heap we call a toy box. Trust me on this.
Experience Gifts for the Whole Family
We’ve found our favorite local experience gifts below. Some of these ideas may seem a little expensive until you take a walk down the toy aisle of your favorite store and realize that these gifts last all year — not just a couple days after Christmas. According to Romper.com, the average parent spends almost $500/child and the average grandparent spends over $200/grandchild. With the exception of the teen package, which is just for the one child, we’ve put together packages for the entire family that all come in at less than $500.
Also, if you qualify for any government assistance programs (including WIC), you may be eligible for additional discounts.
We’ve put together some themes gift packages, but you can mix and match these ideas to fit your families interests and your budget. Some of these ideas are free while others are perfect for gift splurges.
If you are looking for something to unwrap with your experience gifts, we’ve created a list of our favorite guidebooks to the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota. These are always fun to look at while planning family time.
Gift Package #1: Experience Year-Round Art
We parents love letting our kids be creative, we just don’t love paint in our carpet, marker on the walls and glitter EVERYWHERE. This is our plan for exposing our kids to art and giving them the chance to be creative, but keeping the mess somewhere else.
Start with a membership to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Why? Because you pay what you feel you can. If you you feel you can’t pay anything, you can still be a member. We visit the MIA often and am constantly in awe at the size and scope of this museum. We can come back over and over and not be bored. Sometimes, with the smaller kids, we don’t get past the “block room”, and we love that, too. Besides exhibiting some of the best art ever created, the MIA offers classes and public programs to encourage creativity in children. Family Membership cost: FREE or more. Membership perks: NEW points and rewards program, ticketing privileges, and discounts at the store and at the restaurants — even just for coffee. Plus communications. invitations a personal My Mia online account, and more. How to become a member: Sign up at the help desk when you get to the museum. (Do this before you stop for coffee, because your membership gets you discounts.)
Next, add a family membership to the Walker Art Center. Honestly, the best family-friendly parts of Walker are already free (First Saturdays), but with a Walker membership, you always have a place to take out-of-town guests; and the films that they show are a nice alternative to going to a movie for a date night. Family Membership cost: :$85.00. Membership perks: Free gallery admission. Up to 50% off event tickets (two per event). 10% discount at the shop and dining at the Walker. Invitations to special members-only events and screenings. Additional discounts. How to become a member: Membership can be purchased online HERE or in person at The Walker.
And you want to bring art home right? Don’t tell anyone this little secret – beautiful wall art can be yours for FREE! You just have to bring some ID with you to the Minneapolis Art Lending Library‘s 4 seasonal events and pick out the art you will display for the next three months. Then take it back and pick something new. You will have to create your own gift certificate for this. “I promise to take you to all four art lending events in 2020!”
Finally, you need a place to drop in to make this art. A Crayola Experience membership is a really simple way to have access to art supplies. Annual passes are $99.00 for four people and allow families to drop in anytime the mall is open.
Or if you would like to get more local and more creative, any of the studios in our Arts and Crafts for Kids Around Town article would be great additions to this gift. Most offer drop in arts and crafts programs and most offer gift certificates. Gift certificates are hard to quantify, but $120 would allow for one drop-in visit per month at most of these places. What you will love about these visits is the passionate staff who will encourage creativity.
TOTAL PRICE FOR A YEARS WORTH OF ART = $200.00 (more or less)
Gift Package #2: Experience Gifts for Builders and Innovators
As with art, parents want to encourage innovation, we just don’t want to step on tiny LEGOs at 3 am. With this gift package, you can encourage the need to build while reducing the number of tiny plastic building pieces strewn all over the house. Here is our idea:
The Works is an engineering museum in Bloomington that hopes to inspire kids to be innovators and problem solvers. They offer all sorts of hands-on exhibits and annual events to inspire the creator in your child. Family Membership cost: $80 for up to two adults and their children or $125 for Family Plus. Membership perks: All memberships are tax-deductible. Enjoy unlimited visits all year. The savings over one-day admissions add up quickly. Take 10% off on purchases in the Gift Shop. Receive $25 off birthday parties. Discounted admission to special events. For Family Plus: Visit over 250 participating science centers across the country and around the world for free or discounted admission through the ASTC Passport Program. How to become a member: Online, mail or phone.
Combine this with a membership to Snapology. This program teaches STEM concepts through play with using LEGO® bricks, K’Nex and technology. But what you will love in the membership is drop in open play in the discovery center. Open play is $8/visit. A membership pays for itself if you visit once a month with one child, but the savings grow with your family. Membership cost: $99 Annual Unlimited Play Pass (per family). Membership perks: Besides unlimited play, members get 10% off the price of all programs, like classes and camps. How to become a member: Contact Snapology for more information.
TOTAL PRICE FOR A YEARS WORTH OF INNOVATIVE BUILDING FUN = $179.00. This leaves a little something leftover for some LEGO torture devices, if that’s your thing.
Gift Package #3: A Rock-n-Roll Family Gift
As a musician, my husband’s two favorite museums are The Bakken and Pavek Museum. Both have an Earl Bakken tie, and while we think of medical innovation when we think of Bakken, he was passionate about electrical and radio sciences, both of which are useful things to understand if you love creating modern music. This ends up being one of the more expensive packages, but it comes with a guitar and amp for under the tree.
A membership to the The Bakken Museum will introduce the family to electrical sciences. The museum is housed in a historic South Minneapolis mansion and features unique collections encouraging scientific exploration. Family Membership cost: Household: $65.00/year. Membership perks: Free admission all year, including the popular Discovery Days, gift shop discounts, special member offers and discounted tickets to other museums. How to become a member: Online.
Pavek Museum houses over 12,000 square feet of antique radios, televisions, and broadcast equipment. Anyone who has worked with modern P.A. Systems will find this collection fascinating. Family Membership cost: Become a Group Sponsor for $75. Membership perks: Free admission and three guest passes, plus 10% off all gift shop purchases and early notification of classes, seminars, and special events. How to become a member: Online.
Finally, you need some lessons. You could choose among the listings in our Guide to Family Music Classes. If you want to stick with the electric theme, The School of Rock offers a Beginner Rock Camp Package (that comes with a little clutter of a Fender guitar and amp) for $238.00. The guitarist in my life tells me this amounts to pretty much the cost of the guitar and amp with the camp tossed in. However, you can also do the camp without the guitar/amp for $119. This two-day camp starts the day after Christmas 2019, but they offer other year-round packages and so do the other schools we list.
TOTAL PRICE FOR A LIFETIME OF SCREAMING GUITAR MUSIC: $378.00
Gift Package #4: Experience Gifts for the Pre-K Family
Got Toddlers or Preschoolers. We think the best memberships with the little ones focus on play and exploration. These are among some of the higher-priced memberships, but even one of these three ideas would keep your preschooler amused for a year. We recommend these young family favorites:
The Minnesota Children’s Museum sparks imagination through play. It has two locations included in membership – downtown St Paul and Rochester, Minnesota. Qualifying families can take advantage of need-based memberships. Family Membership cost: $129. Membership perks: Unlimited admission for 12 months for two adults named on the membership and all children under age 18 residing in a single household. $2 off admission for up to six guests per visit. Discounts on programs, seasonal events. Sneak Peaks at the St. Paul location. How to become a member: Visit the Minnesota Children’s Museum website. They also offer gift cards for a more budget friendly gift of family fun.
Every young family I know who has had a membership to the Minnesota Zoo has loved it. In the winter, you have the tropical indoor exhibits to explore, Farm babies in the spring, acres of exotic animals all summer long and zoo boo in the fall. Family Membership cost: $139. Membership perks: Free Zoo admission and free parking during regular Zoo hours, plus special member events. Discounts to zoos across the country. Guest discounts. Discount on classes, camps, and overnights for named members. Discounts at Zoo store. Advance sale of a limited number of “Music in the Zoo” concert tickets. How to become a member: You can purchase your membership online HERE.
I love Minnesota Transportation Museum for letting the kids explore. I can grab a cup of coffee and find a strategic place to sit and remind them not to run, but otherwise, they spend their time going from train to train playing some elaborate make believe game. The museum set up just lends itself well to that type of play. For the smaller kids, there is a toy train area. The downside of this membership is the limited hours and it is the same thing every visit so older kids get bored after several visits. We recommend this membership most for young families with two or fewer children and, rather than purchasing the family membership, purchase 2 Supporting memberships. Family Membership cost: Dual: $40; Family: $100. Membership perks: Free admission. A family day pass for a friend. 10% off gift shop. Contributing or Sustaining Memberships also receives 2 or 4 coach ride passes for Osceola & St. Croix line. How to become a member: You can purchase your membership online or at the museum.
TOTAL PRICE FOR A YEAR OF EXPLORATORY PLAY: $368.00
Gift Package #5: The Brand New Baby Family
Babies are sweet and it is so fun to buy them stuff, but they’ll be done with it before next Christmas. You could choose to offer mom and dad the gift of sanity instead. See our Ultimate Baby Guide for more ideas.
Start with Do Good Diapers package. This is the Twin Cities only diaper service and they offer both a cloth service (the kind where you don’t have to wash your own diapers) or delivery of and composting of compostable diapers. Perhaps the 52-week package for $1089.00 is a bit out of reach, but 13 weeks for $299 would be a blessing. Check out all the packages here.
Add an Amma Membership for $75.00. This is a way mom and dad can affordably test out various services for new parents all in one place.
Finally, a box of Mostly-Made Lasagna or Enchilada Fillings give mom and dad easy meals ready to go. Created by a local mom, we tested out these recipes and loved them. Find our Skillet Pasta from the Lasagna Filling Recipe Here and a Burrito Bowls from the Enchilada Filling Here. $69.95 for 5 meals. Mostly-Made has just informed us that they have discontinued shipping. This is good news if you would like to buy fewer meals at once. Either way, you can find local grocery stores here.
GIVE NEW PARENTS SOME MUCH NEEDED BREAKS FOR: $443.95
Gift Package #6: Experience Gifts for Older Teens (16+)
Teens can be expensive to entertain and harder to pin down as a group. I’ve tried to keep the options down in price and things they can easily access by public transit, because they’ll want a little more freedom to sometimes do these things on their own. Note that these are individual, not family prices, although the Film Society does offer a family membership. You may also want to use these ideas as a place to bounce from. I know my teen would prefer a swim membership of some sort over a ski membership.
First load up a Metro Transit Stored Ride Pass. You can go as low as $5.00 (2 rides), but I’m going to add on a nice even $50.00 (20 rides). If your teen is lucky enough to attend a school that participates in the Student Pass program, than you could take advantage of that for unlimited rides at a discount.
Como Town Amusement Park is the seasonal amusement park located adjacent to Como Zoo. If carnival-type rides is your family’s thing, season passes may be the perfect gift. Season Pass prices: 2020 Regular Season Pass – $72.95 (this is individual, not family). Membership perks: Each Season Pass includes unlimited zipline rides. How to become a member: You can purchase your membership online or by calling 651.487.2121 ext. 106.
The Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul brings independent and international films to the Twin Cities and hosts the annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. Members receive discounts on tickets year round, discounts to the film festival and FREE screening offers throughout the year. Student Membership Cost: $35.00. Membership Perks: Up to 40% off tickets to year-round screenings, special series, film society merchandise, and the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. Invitations to Members-only free screenings. Discounts on tickets to partner events and screenings year-round. Advance-purchase period for tickets to the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. How to Become a Member: Purchase a membership online. (If you decide to go the Family Membership route for $130.00, you are not limited to bringing your own children, so you can bring your teen and several friends – then sit somewhere else.)
All cross-country skiers on ski trails in State Parks or Forests, or on State or Grant-in-Aid Trails, who are aged 16 and above must have a Minnesota Ski Pass. Membership cost: One-season ski pass: $25. Minneapolis Parks ($50 aged 12+) and Three Rivers Parks ($55/skier). Membership perks: Once you have your Minnesota Ski Pass, you can ski on any trail on the 135 ski pass trails in Minnesota, including 20 in the Metro area. How to purchase your pass: Passes are easy to purchase. You can purchase in person at parks, electronic licensing stations and at the DNR License Center. You can also purchase online or by phone. Details can be found HERE. Duplicate passes are available via any of the above purchasing methods. Duplicate passes are $2.50. (This does require them to have their own skis. If you are looking for
A YEAR OF INDEPENDENT FUN FOR YOUR OLDER TEEN = $182.95. That leaves you a bit extra to throw in some iTunes.
Gift Package #7: Fun in the Parks for the Outdoor Family
At first glance, the Friends of Wood Lake Nature Center Membership seems like it would be best for those living in Richfield or near enough to visit often as the main benefit is free admission to weekend programs and a few seasonal events. However, what makes it a great deal is that members can borrow skis and snowshoes for free to ski Wood Lake’s free trails. For a family who likes to cross country ski but may only get out once or twice a year, this is the best deal I’ve found in the Twin Cities. Membership cost: A basic family membership is $50/year and includes 2 named adults residing at the same address and their dependent children or grandchildren under age 18. Membership perks: Besides the free skiing and snowshoeing, enjoy Saturday and Sunday events at no charge. Special seasonal events throughout the year are also free or discounted for members. How to purchase your pass: Sign up for memberships here.
Don’t let a vehicle permit keep you from exploring the 76 State Parks in Minnesota. Daily vehicle passes are $7.00. That would add up to $532.00 to visit each park once. It only takes 5 visits to earn back the cost of an annual pass. This is a good pass to combine with the Minnesota Historical Society Membership and/or the Great Minnesota Ski Pass. Membership cost: Annual Pass: $35.00 (There are discounts for disabled veterans and active duty personnel.) Membership perks: A year-round permit provides unlimited access to all 76 Minnesota state parks and recreation areas for a full year from the month of purchase. By purchasing a permit, you help maintain and improve the natural resources, facilities, and education and outreach programs that make Minnesota’s state parks among the best in the nation. (This isn’t just a brag. I’ve been to other states’ parks, Minnesota State Parks are amazing in comparison.) How to purchase a pass: The online option is probably the best way to purchase a vehicle permit as a gift. If you want to toss in a State Park gift card, you’ll find it on the same page.
Three Twin Cities counties require vehicle permits to enter their parks: Anoka, Washington, and Carver. However, they are reciprocal, so you only have to buy one and you can visit all three park systems. (Your State Park pass is NOT reciprocal.) A daily permit is $6.00 for Carver and Anoka and $7 for Washington. Five visits in a year will pay for an annual pass. Also, note that increases usually happen at the new year, so you may be getting a better price this month than you will in January. Membership cost: Annual Pass: $28.00 for Carver and $30 for Anoka & Washington. There are discounts for disabled veterans and active duty personnel. Membership perks: A year-round permit provides unlimited access to all the county parks for all three counties. How to purchase a pass: Purchase an annual pass at the park office the first time you visit a park or click the links above to order online.
A YEAR OF HASSLE-FREE PARK FUN = $182.95. For this price, you can combine it with the next package.
Gift Package #8: Gifts for Minnesota History Buffs
The Minnesota Historical Society consists of 26 historical landmarks all over the state — six of them are right in the Twin Cities. You can get your money’s worth without leaving the Metro area or you can use it as an excuse to explore this great state. Family Membership cost: Household: $79; Household Plus: $99. Membership perks: Free general admission at 26 MNHS historic sites and museums in Minnesota. Free or discounted tours, family activities, pub crawls, classes, and other special events. 10% discount at all MNHS museum stores, Cafe Minnesota and Mill City Cafe, on Gale Family Library services and MNHS Press purchases. Award-winning Minnesota History magazine and app, and MNHS magazine to keep you updated about upcoming events. Exhibit previews and members-only events. Discount on Minnesota History Center parking. Time Travelers reciprocal benefits at nearly 250 historical societies nationwide. A portion of your membership is tax-deductible. How to Become a member: Membership can be purchased online HERE.
Pair this with the State Park Vehicle Permit that we described above, because many of these historical places are near State Parks. $35.00.
PLENTY OF OPPORTUNITIES TO EXPLORE MINNESOTA HISTORY = $114.00. Not local, but for that price, you could toss in an Audible membership and listen to Minnesota History (or other) books together while traveling the State. A one-year membership is $150.00. If you buy through that link Family Fun Twin Cities receives a small commission.
Gift Package #9: The Variety Pack
In all honesty, I ran out of steam here and still had several really good memberships to list, but this mixed bag of memberships will keep your family entertained all year long. They would each also make great stand-alone gifts.
In the past, I have considered the Science Museum to be mostly out of my budget; but I’ve discovered memberships are really quite affordable and something we use often. The Science Museum also offers needs based discounts. If you are even on WIC or Medical Assistance, you qualify for discounted prices that bring membership down to below the price of most the other museums I’ve featured. Two perks I love about the Science Museum are 1) the discounted parking. Often when I have to attend something else in the area, the rest of the family goes to the Science Museum and we take advantage of discounted parking; 2) I love the Omnitheater admission. This makes for a cheap Friday night out with the family and, if the toddler doesn’t want to sit through a show (which she doesn’t), I can take her to the museum while the rest of the family catches the show. Family Membership cost: $139.00. Membership perks: Museum admission for all members. One Omnitheater admission for all regularly scheduled films for each member each time you visit. Discounts on special exhibitions. Free advance reservations. Discounted reservation fee when buying tickets online. Discounted parking rates. 10% discount in the Explore Store. Free exhibit admission to over 350 museums around the world. Household memberships are tax deductible. Subscription to member emails. Priority registration for youth camps and classes. Discounts on youth camp, classes, and birthday parties. Discounts on Computer Education Center classes. How to become a member: Memberships may be purchased online, via phone at (651) 221-9444, or at the Box Office.
The American Swedish Institute is located in a the old Swan Turnblad Mansion. Founded in 1929, it serves as a gathering place for people to share stories and experiences around universal themes of tradition, migration, craft and the arts, all informed by enduring ties to Sweden. Daily Admission is $10.00 for adults and $5.00 for children 6 and up. So, depending on your family size, the membership will pay for itself in 3-4 visits. Family Membership cost: $75.00. Membership perks: Free admission to the Turnblad Mansion during open hours. 10% discount at the ASI Museum Shop and ShopSwedish.com. Subscription to Posten newsletter. Free or discounted admission to films, lectures, concerts, dinners, and special events. Reduced tuition for classes and workshops. Reciprocal admission privileges to eight Swedish museums in the United States and Sweden (including Gammelgarden Museum in Scandia). How to become a member: Join or renew here.
The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is always free for children under the age of of 16, but the adult admission of $15 still adds up to $30 for two adults and their children. If you plan to visit once per season as a family, you’ll get your money’s worth on a dual membership. If you plan on attending story times as a parent/preschooler activity, you only need to attend 4 times to recoup a solo membership. There are additional membership levels for families with older teens or additional adults, as well as those who want to bring their dogs. Membership cost: $60 Solo Membership; $100 Dual Membership. Membership perks: Free admission, reciprocal admissions to other gardens, free gardening and plant advice, discounts, EZ Pass Lane Admission, free magazine subscription. How to become a member: Purchase a membership online.
Gift Package #10: Books & Toys (Without All the Clutter)
You don’t have to completely give up on the idea of books and toys when gifting experience. First of all, everyone knows that books don’t count as clutter, or at the very least, they are the BEST kind of clutter. We suggest this very affordable plan for giving books and toys without the clutter.
First, a membership to the the Minneapolis Toy Library. Membership is $40 ( or you can choose to donate more). This gets you a year’s worth of revolving toys for your family and the knowledge that you are helping to reduce global toy clutter. Besides toys, they keep a selection of costumes and offer members recycling opportunities year round for things that can be hard to dispose of properly.
Second, join Red Balloon Bookshop in a Box Program for monthly hand-selected books delivered to your child. Red Balloon factors in your child’s age, reading level, and interests and keeps records of prior books sent. Membership costs as low as $22 for one month or up to $292 for a full year of monthly books.
Lastly, to keep the clutter down and the reading up, pair this with the recycled book program at Wild Rumpus, kids can keep the “book-clutter” down and save up for new books with store credit They try to keep around a selection of used books priced at $1.00 so your credit adds up quickly.
TOTAL PRICE FOR A YEARS WORTH OF BOOKS & TOYS: $332.00
Other Gifts of Fun to Consider From Some of Our Favorite Community Members:
- Rockin’ Jump Trampoline Park: Gift Cards available. $25 and up.
- Goldfish Swim School: Gift Packages Available: One-month – $130. Two-month packages – $216.
- Wheel Fun Rentals: Annual Passes save you 50% on each rental.
- Cascade Bay: Waterpark in Eagan – Season Pass $65/resident, $75/non-residents; Discounts for additional family members.
- Pinwheel Play: Gift Cards Available from $5-$500.
This is NOT a sponsored article. While we have or have had financial partnerships with some of the businesses mentioned here, this article is not part of any paid package. We simply felt these would make good gifts.