Winter in the Edmonton area is cold. But it can also be stunning, especially at the spectacular ice castle just inside the entrance at Hawrelak Park.
The all-ice castle reflects nature in all its glory. As water frozen in time, its organic curved walls look dramatic, slightly intimidating and certainly jaw dropping.
Spanning close to two acres, this incredible ice castle speckled with stalactites and stalagmites appears carved by the hand of a god.
Instead, with the aid of a man-made complex sprinkler system, icicles are fused onto ice. The rest is up to nature as temperature and wind velocity sculpt the structure.
The partnership between nature and man can leave a visitor gobsmacked. For some, the terrain is the incarnation of Narnia’s endless winter. For others it embodies Antarctica’s frosty volcanoes or the Rockies’ magnificent waterfalls, motionless ice-covered cascades trapped by low temperatures.
On a sunny day, the fantasy ice walls (10 to 15 feet high at any given point) sparkle a deep glacial blue. During a snowfall, snowflakes partially obscure the castle. It appears to almost float from its base creating a mysterious, enticing vibe.
Night visits are the most popular. A silver moon peeps around two storey walls and towers while thousands of rainbow LED lights illuminate thick ice formations forming a remarkable panorama.
Almost twice the size of the 2015-2016 debut ice castle, it features numerous focal points: a throne room, fountain, courtyard, arches, mazes, 14 tunnels, an 80-foot slide and an elevated ramp that circles the castle perimeter.
“This is one of the largest, fun areas of all our castles,” said Cory Livingood, Ice Castles project manager. “You can stand on the ramp and look down on the castle.”
Ice Castles is a Utah-based entertainment company that is the brainchild of ice creator and architect Brent Christensen. Back in 2006, he moved his family from California to Utah.
An outdoors-kind-of-guy, Christensen was eager to get his children out into Utah’s crisp winter and built them a backyard ice rink. A tinkerer-inventor at heart, Christensen let his imagination run free and added an ice cave, a 20-foot tower and luge that banked off his neighbour’s fence.
Experimenting in his back yard, he fused icicles to the main structure and was surprised at how quickly an inverted icicle freezes when sprayed with water.
“In four or five days you could make a bridge or tunnel strong enough to support a person,” said Christensen.
After a series of backyard triumphs, Christensen took on Ryan Davis as CEO to deal with administrative details while he continued as the creative architect. Almost the first thing the new partners did was patent the method.
Building a castle from the ground up involves growing about 5,000 icicles per day that are harvested and sculpted onto the main structure using a sprinkler.
“We have over 100 water lines,” explained Livingood. “To keep the water from freezing in the lines we keep the water moving and sometimes we use hot water to assist us.”
Chris Caputo, manager of distribution services with EPCOR, said that last year’s smaller ice castle required about 46,000 cubic metres of water to build and maintain. He added this year the castle might use more metered water.
Caputo compared the 46,000 cubic metres as equivalent to the “daily use of a golf course.” To add more perspective, an average home uses about 10 to 12 cubic metres in a month.
The estimated weight of an ice castle is about 25 million lbs. (11.4 million kilograms), a weight almost too vast to visualize until you see the build.
CEO Ryan Davis noted that an estimated 90,000 people passed through the gates last year.
“We plan for the same numbers and we deal with the weather as it comes,” he said.
With cellphone cameras and professional lenses so readily available, photo taking is a major pastime.
“It’s incredible to see the different photos people take. Some come dressed as their favourite Star Wars character or Superman. Frozen is popular. People get dressed up as random princesses, fairies or as Darth Vader and Storm Troopers. One Christmas I even dressed up as Santa Claus,” Livingood chuckled.
Although no weddings have yet happened inside the castle, its romantic, otherworldly aura prompts numerous proposals.
“We’ve had a lot of proposals in the castle. Lots of time you don’t even know about it. They come to the gate and say, ‘We just got engaged.’ My little brother proposed four years ago in the castle at Colorado. I climbed around the towers trying to get pictures. They just laughed.”
Although food and drinks are not permitted inside the ice castle, this year organizers are introducing a separate courtyard that will serve mini-donuts, hot chocolate and possibly hot dogs.
“We received requests in the past and we’re trying it out. Most people are pretty clean. We just don’t want them walking back and forth with food.”
The ice castle, which costs several hundred thousand dollars to build, provides certain economic spinoffs for the area, added Davis.
Approximately 60 people are employed to build the castle and an additional 40 are hired to take tickets and provide security.
In addition, the castle donates a portion of the proceeds to the non-profit Silver Skate Festival taking place Feb. 10 to 20.
As project manager, Livingood has been living and breathing the ice castle for months. He views the build as an art project as opposed to a playground and hopes people will respect the ice structure’s integrity.
At the same time, “What I like to achieve is people going into a different world feeling like they can come in here and be someone else or be somewhere else.”
Organizers encourage visitors to purchase tickets online, as there are very limited ticket sales at the gate. To avoid crowding, a maximum of 300 people are allowed into the ice palace every half hour.
“One of our biggest complaints last year was the tickets. When you buy a ticket for a specific time slot, you don’t need to wait in line. However, if you come early, you have to wait until it’s time to go in. This way, the ticketing paces people through so it’s a great experience for everyone. If it’s too crowded, it’s not fun for anyone.”
The ice castle will remain open until warm weather creates safety issues. Hours are Sunday to Thursday 2 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 10 p.m. Ice Castle is closed Tuesdays.
General admission ranges from $9.95 to $15.95. Tickets are available at www.icecastles.com.