One of the most vivid winter memories from my childhood was going to the 1986 Ice Palace near Lake Phalen, built in honor of the Winter Carnival’s centennial celebration. As an impressionable 11-year-old, I was in awe that something made of ice could be so beautiful. I mistakenly thought there would be an ice palace—just like that one—every year during the Winter Carnival (the two were synonymous in my mind: Ice Palace = Winter Carnival; Winter Carnival = Ice Palace). The ’86 castle was nearly 128 feet tall, illuminated by a computerized lighting system, and built by 750 volunteers from the Minnesota Building Construction Trade Unions. It was spectacular.
I also went to the Ice Palace of 2004, built across from the Xcel Energy Center—that time as a newly-engaged St. Paul resident, so everything seemed extra romantic. It was the first time you could actually walk through an ice palace, and it was beautiful, too, in its own way.
This year, I brought my 6 and 9-year-old sons to the Stillwater Ice Castle in Lowell Park, right on the St. Croix River. I knew it wasn’t a Winter Carnival Palace (the Ice Castle is owned and operated by an independent event company), but other than that, our group really had no idea what to expect, other than a massive ice structure. And maybe some hot cocoa.
We pre-purchased our tickets for the 6:30-7 arrival window, and were so glad we did, as the tickets for that particular timeframe sold out. We parked on a hill and walked a few blocks, saving us the hassle of circling for a parking spot or paying for parking.
We were able to bypass the loooong standby line and use the much-shorter pre-paid line, which moved quickly. All four of us had our ticket confirmation on our cell phones, although my friend Amy’s phone died moments before she got to the ticket counter and they were able to look up her tickets by her last name. (She appreciated that what could have been a stressful situation wasn’t.)
Once we entered the Ice Castle, there was a fountain (the little ones needed an adult to pick them up so they could peer down into the colorful pink water in the river below), a dome room, a giant tower, ice slides, portable fire pits, and a maze that I crawled through—on hands and knees—even though I’m slightly claustrophobic and began questioning my sanity once I was inside. (I was doing it for the kids. I didn’t want to lose them in there! Thankfully there were no dark tunnels or I may have had a panic attack, but those tunnels were NARROW. Probably, you know, not meant for someone of my “advanced” age.)
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There was a realistic-looking Olaf carved out of snow, a favorite of Frozen fans, and a big ice slide that actually went through a little tunnel (a favorite of my boys). There were lines for photos with Olaf and lines for the big ice slide, but that was ok. We were dressed appropriately and the kids were having fun, so no rush to get in and out and on our way. After exploring a bit more, watching the kids go down more ice slides—this time little slides, more like the kind you’d find in a park—warming up by the fire pit, drinking some overpriced cocoa, witnessing a lost child become reunited with her mom (kudos to Ice Castle employees for quickly jumping into action to ensure the little girl’s safety), and being thoroughly entertained by fire dancers (“How many times a day do you think they set themselves on fire?” my friend’s daughter Greta wondered out loud), we were ready to leave. It was cold, it was dark, it was time to go. We all agreed that the event was well-organized, worth the money, and most of all, fun. I hope it leaves as positive an impression on my kids as the Ice Palace left on me.
HOW THE ICE CASTLE IS MADE:
This isn’t like the Winter Carnival Ice Palace, made of blocks of ice. According to event organizers, the castle was built with a combo of icicles placed by hand and running water. Nearly 15,000 icicles were grown and placed, one by one, each day during the “growing phase.” The icicles were then drenched in running water for hours, until new icicles formed on top of the old icicles. The process was repeated over and over until the walls were nearly 10 feet thick. The ice has a blue tint because there are no air bubbles in it.
• Don’t expect an actual castle, with a roof. These are more like frozen waterfalls, ice caves, and glaciers (all rolled into one). The brainchild of this process is artist Brent Christensen, ironically a California native who moved to Utah and started experimenting with ice “just-because” back in 2008, eventually realizing he could sculpt ice into complex formations. There are Ice Castles in Utah, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Canada, in addition to this one, so it’s kind of a big deal that our state was ‘chosen’ for this awesome, unique winter experience.
• The Ice Castles are completely weather-dependent, and when the weather warms up considerably, the Castle becomes a slippery, slushy, melty mess. **Due to the projected warm temps, the Stillwater location will be closed this weekend (Jan. 19-22), and likely into next week, reopening with the return of cold weather. Those who have already purchased a ticket to Ice Castles during this time period can contact firstname.lastname@example.org to reschedule their visit. Ice Castles is slated to run through March, weather permitting.
• Wear boots—not cowboy boots, not tennis shoes, God forbid not heels—the ground can get slippery, so you want BOOTS with traction.
• Wear your winter gear (yes, even snowpants), layer up if it’s cold, and make sure the kids are dressed warm enough—dress like you would if you were going sledding or skiing.
• Strollers are strongly discouraged because the ground is so uneven. If you have little ones, consider bringing a sled.
• The Ice Castle is open Monday-Thursday, 3-9 p.m., closed Tuesdays, and open Friday 3-10 p.m., Saturday noon to 10 p.m., and Sunday noon to 8 p.m. Online tickets range from $9.95 to $12.95, depending on when you go. Standby, at-the-door tickets are $5 more and you’re not guaranteed the time you prefer. (You may be standing there awhile, depending on when you go.) I strongly encourage pre-purchasing your tickets online.
• Photos are encouraged, but the organizers of the event ask that photography equipment (lights and tripods) stay at home/in the studio. Tag photos on social media at #icecastles
• Because these icicles are attached to one another, the base of the icicle is strong. That means the icicles won’t fall on you like an icicle could fall off a roof, but could definitely drip on you when melting.
• Check out downtown Stillwater before or after your Ice Castle experience. It’s a cool little river town with a whole lot of character.