By Grainger Editorial Staff 2/18/22
If you’re an animated princess, movie magic and perhaps a hit song are the only tools you need to craft a dazzling ice castle. Real life is vastly more complicated. But with irrigation lines, shipping containers, sprinklers, lights and power tools – not to mention oversized helpings of curiosity and inspiration – Brent Christensen and his teams build as many as a half-dozen Ice Castles across North America each winter and open them to visitors. Here he explains how it started, and how it happens each year.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I moved with my family from California to Utah back in about 2000. So, living in a place where there's cold winters was kind of new. One year we had a neighbor down the street who put a sprinkler on a pole out in the front of his yard and just turned it on and let it run all year. What resulted was this large pile of ice that just grew throughout the winter. And I thought, that looks mildly entertaining.
So, I built a wooden tripod, put a sprinkler up there and ran a hose from my basement out the window and ran the sprayer and sure enough, anything that got hit would cover with ice. I was throwing bicycle frames in there and the go-cart got engulfed in ice, and it was just fascinating to watch the ice grow.
In the spring when all the ice melted, it all crumbled the down to the ground and my lawn was covered with this big mess of ice and broken wood. It was really kind of a hassle to clean up. And I thought, I wonder if there's a way to build an ice structure with nothing but water. So, the next winter I bought some blocks of ice from the gas station and made a little igloo. And then I started spraying water on it and putting on snowballs and things like that.
And partly through that process, I started fusing icicles to it and watching them grow. They're really beautiful. They look like flowers. Then I started connecting those in different patterns and watching those grow and pretty soon it went up like 20 feet in a matter a week.
I knew it was popular because we had a couple of local TV stations come out. I went to all the local towns and resorts in Utah and eventually I did find one that let me build our first public ice castle in front of their resort. And then the next year I built one in the town square. At the end of that second year, after building an ice castle by myself, I was completely exhausted mentally and physically.
I was really fortunate to find a great business partner. After a couple years, we expanded to two and then three. The key is really finding these amazing employees who stay with us, who share the passion about what we do. We're now at five locations. It's been a long road, a lot of fun, lot of trial and error, a lot of cold fingers and frozen pipes and things like that. But it's amazing to look and see where we're at now, considering where it started.
Finding a location, we have to consider a ton of variables. First of all, weather. Can we get a lot of water? Will there be a place for that water to go when it melts? And is it going to be close enough to where it can be enjoyed by the masses?
When it comes to actually designing and planning an ice castle, we meet as a management team every year. We go over what worked really well, what people loved, what didn't work so well. And we come up with a list of features that we want in an ice castle. Then we go and we look at the piece of land.
We say, "OK, which way is the sun going to shine?" Because that affects the growth. "How does the prevailing wind come into play? Where are we going to put our shops, our workspace? Where can we access plumbing for the water and guest parking?" We have to change it all up, throw it all up again and see where it lands. Getting the final design takes a while and it takes a lot of collaboration.
They tend to be about an acre in size. We try to maintain a lot of walking area. There's courtyards and slides. But the overall footprint is quite large.
The very first thing we do when we're allowed to come onto the land is we bring in our workspaces. Typically, we have these shipping containers that we buy. We modify them. For example, there’s one that sits with the plumbing works. The water main comes in and it goes through a series of valves, and all those individual irrigation lines run all over this acre footprint. That’s one of the things that has to be set up first.
We have another little container that controls all the electrical, the lighting, the music, the sound, and those have to go into place. All of the irrigation lines, all of the electrical lines, those go on grass in the fall. We test everything out, and then we hope and pray for cold weather. And once the weather turns cold, we turn the water on, we start growing an ice castle and we hope that it stays cold.
To build and maintain the ice castle, a lot of it is done by hand. We're up there with spikes on our boots and basically placing icicles. The heavy equipment comes with the grooming of the walls and the floors. There's a lot of excess ice, a lot of chainsaws going all day. We have little tractors with milling drums on the front that chew up the ice. And then we come in with skid steers and plow it out.
A typical ice castle season will be four, five or six weeks. Eight weeks would be a really long season. These are very ephemeral – they're here, and then they're gone, which actually we love. We'll watch the weather. We'll keep an eye on the condition of the castle. Once it starts getting too drippy and melty, it's not as magical in our opinion. And so, we pick an end date, we shut the gates and we say goodbye, and look forward to another season.
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