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Front Row Seat: Twin Ports places that are better than Disney World (according to Google)

The Orlando theme park has an average 4.7 rating from Google users. By that metric, Duluth and Superior have a few spots that can beat it.

File: Aerial Lift Bridge.jpg
Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge has a better Google rating than Disney World — better by only 0.1 star, but we'll take it!
Bob King / 2015 file / News Tribune
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DULUTH — When I was a kid in Duluth in the 1980s, Disney World seemed like the ultimate destination. The Disney Channel, then an exciting new network for me to access with our three-tier push-key cable box, hyped the park just as wildly as it does now. As much as I enjoyed my family's annual Madeline Island getaways, the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT were clearly on another level.

As a kid, I didn't make it to Disney World — or my other dream destination, the rotating restaurant at the top of the Radisson — but I have visited both as an adult, and it's safe to say both more or less lived up to my expectations as five-star experiences. These days, though, everybody's a critic, and Google encourages us all to use its five-star rating system to share our opinions.

Disney World, as of this writing, has an average Google user rating of 4.7. Not bad, given that 233,234 people have weighed in. The Apostle Supper Club, the restaurant currently occupying the Radisson's rotating berth, comes in at only a 3.8 — but with only 570 reviews, its sample size is somewhat smaller.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.

Once I started clicking around, though, I noted that Duluth and Superior do have a handful of spots that currently outrank Disney World as satisfying stops. Here's a partial list.

The Aerial Lift Bridge: 4.8 (2,189 reviews). Duluth's signature visual landmark does not disappoint. "All I can say is WOW!!!!" wrote Allison Olson. "If you get a chance to catch a ship going through, definitely take it!!!"

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Other five-star fans include Willow Munson, who recommended paddling under the bridge ("such a unique experience that I ended up doing it multiple times"); Keith Coffman, a self-described fan of lighthouses and covered bridges (check, check, sort of check); and a user going by "EJP" who seemed staggered to have actually caught the bridge in the act of rising. Come on back, EJP, because we have a lot more vertical action where that comes from.

One of the rare one-star Lift Bridge pans came from an Adam F., who opined: "Most inefficient process I've ever seen. The bridge is up a good 10-15 minutes before the ship even passes through. Get it together guys!"

Enger Park: 4.8 (2,155 reviews). Enger Tower may be the only local landmark more visible than the Lift Bridge, though it's not quite as often seen up close. Clearly, the people who make the climb find it worth their while.

"The tower is beautiful with breathtaking views of the lake," wrote Shane Blackledge. Abigail Deaver gave the park five stars despite not climbing "the ungodly tall tower," acknowledging "I hear the view from up there is pretty good." Esther Schultz said she can't understand "why it is often overlooked."

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People who make it to the top of Enger Tower come down with positive things to say about the experience.
File / Duluth News Tribune

On the other hand, a reviewer who goes by "GrayCadence" thought "this is not a 5 star area. It's good for sightseeing, but there's not much to do here except go up a flight of stairs, almost drop your phone because it's windy so high up, go back down those stairs and leave." That user's rating? Still four stars!

Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center: 4.8 (398 reviews). Across the bridge, the Bong Center doesn't disappoint the aviation buffs and proud Superiorites who make regular pilgrimages to pay tribute to their hometown World War II ace.

"Visually and historically a first-class place and experience," wrote Ronald Leino. "This museum is bigger than you would expect and has a great collection of WWII artifacts considering its size," noted Michael O'Leary. The helpful staff, high-quality audiovisuals, and restored P-38 airplane are all frequently cited in positive reviews.

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If anything, one of the few less-than-stellar reviews has it, the museum is just...too good? "Somebody had more time and money on their hands than necessary," wrote Amy Hall in a three-star review. A few local veterans might beg to disagree.

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Zenith Bookstore: 4.9 (302 reviews). In just five years, this West Duluth independent has won a lot of hearts, both locally and beyond.

Missy Isles came from out of town, and ended up visiting the bookstore twice in one day. "It has so much charm!" she wrote, praising the "inclusive and diverse selection." Andy Soto called it "the best selection I’ve seen in a bookstore this size." The words "quaint" and "cozy" come up multiple times; and the store also gets points for allowing dogs to enter.

Dream Cloud Coffee Roasters: 4.9 (52 reviews). This brand-new Superior Street shop is garnering early praise for its excellent specialty drinks and "lovely atmosphere" (Melissa Hann). "The bathroom smells like chocolate peppermint," wrote Katie Noel Lund, possibly the first time that's ever been said of any Duluth establishment.

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Endion Station in Canal Park is a five-room hotel, with views of Canal Park, the Aerial Lift Bridge and Lake Superior.
Steve Kuchera / 2019 file / Duluth News Tribune

Endion Station Inn: 4.9 (16 reviews). "Neat place," writes Gary Douglas, and I don't doubt it. This is the five-bedroom "brewtique" hotel on Duluth's Lakewalk: an 1899 train station moved to Canal Park in 1986, recently struggling as a cider bar until going Airbnb in 2019. The included sauna is a big perk, according to Google reviewers.

Duluth Cider: 4.9 (273 reviews) and Wild State Cider: 4.9 (275 reviews). The Twin Ports' copious creators of craft beverages generally tend to do well with reviewers — on Google and elsewhere — but Lincoln Park's two cideries stand out for their near-perfect records. The Duluth Cider reviews lean a little more toward praising the product while the Wild State reviews more often mention the atmosphere, but reviewers generally agree that if you're a fan of hard cider, these neighboring spots on West Superior Street make a can't-miss combo.

Colorful sign for Doc Witherspoon's Soul Food Shack with image of smiling Black man and the words, "All are welcome at our table!"
Doc Witherspoon's Soul Food Shack sports a colorful sign at 319 W. First St.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

Doc Witherspoon's Soul Food Shack: 4.8 (136 reviews). Just around the corner from City Hall, and across the street from the YMCA, this restaurant opened in 2021 to diners' raves. "Like down home at grandma's place. The collard greens took me way back," wrote Karen Villalva. "I live in AZ and if I could I would have them fly me out dinner every other weekend."

Casket Quarry: 5.0 (19 reviews). Officially known as Quarry Park, this former quarry sports a 100-foot wall that's regularly iced over due to seeping groundwater, now "among the premier ice climbing locations in the Midwest," the News Tribune's John Myers wrote in 2020. It's also a "great place to crawl your RC cars," according to Google reviewer Jean Dallmann — and, note several other reviewers, a first-rate spot to play disc golf.

Chico's: 4.8 (5 reviews). Yes, Chico's, as in our local retail outlet in the self-described "chic" women's clothing chain. It may not be the kind of place most people think to review on Google, but when they do, they have only good things to say.

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On a rainy late afternoon last week, I drove up Central Entrance myself to see this 4.8-star Chico's for myself. The exterior is unassuming, to say the least, but as soon as I stepped inside I was greeted by a riot of color — and by not one, not two, but three staffers who all turned simultaneously to greet me with friendly hellos. When I explained what brought me to their establishment, the clerk behind the counter shrugged and smiled. "It's a happy place," she said.

Leave the "happiest place on earth" bragging to Disney. Duluth just quietly delivers.

Short cuts

My dad still marvels at memories of seeing the 1958 movie "Windjammer" in Cinerama, a giant curved-screen experience developed by the movie industry to counter the growing threat of television. Several decades later, cinemas are fighting harder than ever to draw eyeballs away from the functionally infinite array of content streaming onto home screens, and they've now pulled out their old playbook.

ScreenX, advertised as "the world's first multi-projection theatre technology that provides moviegoers with a 270-degree panoramic viewing experience," is finally coming to the Mall of America's B&B Theatres (no, you don't get a bed or breakfast, unless popcorn counts) on Wednesday, July 13, after a construction delay a B&B representative describes as "disappointing" in a news release. The theater originally hoped the ScreenX rollout would be near-simultaneous with the May 27 release date of "Top Gun: Maverick," a movie featuring 56 minutes of full ScreenX photography.

Remember the 3D movie comeback? And the high frame rate "Hobbit"? I'm just saying.

We won't have a ScreenX situation in Duluth any time soon, but we do have the very excitingly named Zeitgeist Zinema, which has a unique booking coming to Superior Street on Aug. 5.

In "Memoria," the theater noted in a news release, "Tilda Swinton stars as a woman traveling in Colombia who begins noticing strange sounds. This film will never be available digitally, streaming or on Blu-ray. It will travel the world and exist only in theaters with a limited release (one week) in a handful of theaters at any given time. At this moment, we are the only theater in Minnesota who has it scheduled, outside of a pair of screenings that recently took place at the Walker Art Center."

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This story was updated at 9:30 a.m. July 6 to substitute an alternate, higher-resolution photograph of the Aerial Lift Bridge. It was originally posted at 12:35 p.m. July 5.

Related Topics: DULUTHSUPERIORTRAVELTOURISM
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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