A Look into the Magic That Is the Ice Castles

Photo fo the entrance to the Ice Castle
Entrance to the Ice Castle photo A.J. Mellor

Interview by Austin Nitschke

Going from the mild winters experienced in California’s Bay Area to the freezing and snowy winters of Alpine, Utah, can be a big adjustment. After having moved to the small city with his family, Brent Christensen decided to build an ice cave in his front yard: the founder was unaware, at the time, of just what his effort to entice his children to go outside would later lead to. Today, Ice Castles operates in five different locations across the United States and in one Canadian location – right here in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park.

Seeing the ice castles for the first time, it is difficult to believe that these structures that appear as if they were taken straight from a fairy tale have such humble beginnings. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear the castles being described as ‘Narnia-like’ or to have them compared to Elsa’s ice palace from Disney’s Frozen.

To better understand the process that goes into creating these over twenty-five million-pound castles and what attendees can expect to see, I spoke with Ritchie Velthuis, who is the site manager for Ice Castles in Edmonton and oversees the construction of the castle at Hawrelak Park.

Velthuis has been working for Ice Castles in a full-time capacity for the last three years; but, as he explains, his involvement with Ice Castles began much sooner.

“I was actually part of the Silver Skate Festival, and we approached Ice Castles to come here about seven or eight years ago, and it took a couple years to get them here.”

The building of an ice castle is labour-intensive, necessitating hundreds of man-hours. Between five thousand and twelve thousand icicles are farmed and harvested every day for the construction of the castle. Velthuis explained to me what this looks like and walked me through the process.

“So, we have a series of racks that we spray water through. On the top is mesh material, which the icicles form through. The spraying is done overnight, and it’s got to be minus ten or colder in order for good icicles to form. Each morning, one of our twenty to twenty-five crew members pick the icicles and then attach them using slush and snow onto existing walls, and they continue to grow from there.”

Photo Ice Castle Passageway by A.J. Mellor
Ice Castle Passageway
photo by A.J. Mellor

The ice castles and, to a lesser extent, the ice artists themselves are often at the mercy of mother nature. The duration the ice castle is exhibited for and the hours of operation are both dependent on temperatures, as is the actual castle. Although the ice artists guide the process, it is the weather that dictates the final form of the castle and the features contained within, from the degree of melting that occurs during the day to the wind speed and direction–these are all factors that affect the final form each structure takes, from the shape of the archways to the texture of the exterior walls (of which can be up to nearly three storeys tall). I asked Velthuis about how these factors might impact the structural integrity of the castle.

“Safety is our biggest concern, so we’re always looking at the way the castle is built, ensuring it is structurally sound. We perform safety checks regularly to address any potential hazards. As far as the structure of the walls themselves, there’s really no cause for concern; it would just be with anything overhanging. We do a safety inspection every day, and if anything poses a potential risk, we just knock it down.”

The above being reassuring, some may wonder if it is worth seeing the castle in its upcoming fifth season if they have already attended in the past. When asked if guests can expect the castle to be the same as last year, Velthuis had the following to say:

Ice Slide photo by A.J. Mellor
Ice Slide photo by A.J. Mellor

“No, in actuality, it changes every year. We always have feature elements. We always have three slides. We always have a maze, and a throne. This year, we’re having a specific sculpture room that we’re going to feature ice carvings in. So, that’s something new that’s never been done before, and the features are always done in different configurations: we always have a sky slide; we always have kids’ slides; we always have a large slide. And then, we also always have a maze, but it changes every year. We just want it to be a new experience for people every year.”

Beyond the wide number of features, guests who attend in the evening can expect an abundance of multi-coloured lights, housed within the ice itself, that are synchronized to music that plays over speakers–making the experience all the more magical.

Ice Castle Lights photo by A.J. Mellor
Ice Castle Lights
photo by A.J. Mellor

As one might expect, the ice castle requires a lot of planning and organization. Velthuis divulged to me how far in advance preparations generally begin.

“We, typically, will touch base in August. In regard to organization, we start with some preliminary designs–it’s very collaborative. A team of people have input when it comes to its design. And then as far as preparing to start spraying water, we typically start that again about the middle of the September, just ordering supplies. We’re on site October 1, and it takes about a month to get all the lines in and the infrastructure ready for building the castle.”

The build team is comprised of twenty to twenty-five local ice artists, with about a dozen members of the team having been a part of Ice Castles since the organization’s expansion into Edmonton. The opening date of the ice castle has yet to be announced, but those interested can visit https://icecastles.com/alberta and subscribe for updates on when tickets will become available.

Parking at Hawrelak Park, like Edmonton weather, can be unpredictable. While there is an overflow lot, it can fill up. Ideally, aim to go on a weekday if possible. Still, one can find parking on a busy weekend if they do not mind a bit of a walk.

Ice Castle is part of the Silver Skate Festival.
Location: Hawrelak Park
Opens: t.b.a. (Typically from late December/early January until late February/early March)

Tickets will be available for purchase online at https://icecastles.com/alberta