Brent Christensen, the founder of Ice Castles, discusses how his multistate winter wonderland came to be and the joy they bring
What’s your background?
I have a degree in social science human development, which has nothing to do with ice or engineering. But I’ve always been an inventor and enjoyed tinkering, so the Ice Castles came from that.
How did this all begin?
My family and I moved from California to Utah in 2000; snow and ice were a new medium for me to have fun with. I would spray water onto wooden frameworks to create large ice structures. By the second year, I got ambitious and made one with small rooms, caves, and places to climb. It was quite a hit.
The problem was when it melted it created a big mess of wood and ice. So the next year, I bought a bunch of ice blocks, built a fort, squirted water on it, and placed pieces of snow on it. When I started fusing icicles in vertical and horizontal formations, I discovered I could build towers. The engineering took over, and it became more of a science project. But it was also beautiful. It was on the local news, and people would stop and take pictures. I realized we could be bigger and if I could create this at a public venue, it could be something spectacular.
How did you sell your vision?
That was difficult because I had only built one in my front yard. I took some nice photos and showed them to resort managers, offering to build one in front of their buildings. No one even considered it, so I gave up. A few weeks later, I decided to try one last resort in Midway, Utah. They had a manager who thought outside the box and said, “It sounds crazy, but let’s do it.” Early on, it was a lot of trial and error. There were no engineering studies or instructions for keeping the water lines from freezing, putting lights inside without them getting crushed in the ice as it grows, or maintaining the ground to keep it safe to walk on. The first few years were tough but also a time of discovery and fun. Now we’ve got a solid process in place.
When did you decide to expand?
It was a good, cold winter in Utah in our first year. The second year, it wasn’t until Christmas morning that I was able to start making the castle. The frustration of waiting for winter to arrive compelled me to find someplace very cold after year two. I connected with my first business partner, and we were able to get a location in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. We then branched out to Mall of America. We were in six cities before COVID-19.
What’s the process for making the castles? When does it begin?
The process is year-round because we’re always planning, designing, and working with the cities. But we start setting up in the fall, typically by late October. It varies by location, though. The water-delivery system is miles of poly tubing that runs all around the park. Our building materials are water and these frail, little icicles; on any given day, we will hand-place about 5,000 to 7,000 icicles. We then turn on a bunch of valves, direct the water flow to where the castle will be, and go home. At night, as the water collects and freezes and cascades, Mother Nature creates all the beauty. If we have the right temperatures and manpower, we can grow a castle twenty feet tall within a week. It’s pretty incredible.
Can the weather be your worst enemy?
Definitely. One year, we had to close a location because wind chills were negative 40 degrees. Then, within about a week, we shut down that same location because it was too warm. A couple of years ago, we built a castle in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and it melted away four times. We also had an amazing castle in Lake George, New York, in 2022, but at the start of the year, it still wasn’t built because it was so warm. The people who love working on the castles are super resilient, very patient, and good problem solvers.
How long are the Ice Castles open?
It’s weather dependent. Our shortest season was three nights in Midway several years ago. Some seasons will go for six or seven weeks. Depending on how long we’re open, we usually get between 60,000 and 100,000 visitors.
Do the castles change?
Our management brainstorms new ideas every year, but we also talk about things that work well. We bring in feedback from our guest-services teams and determine what was well received and what wasn’t, and we adjust accordingly. But we try to have some common elements in each castle, such as the fountains and slides. The designs are created by nature, so they’re going to be very different at each location. Plus, each team likes to put its signature on its castle. Every location ends up with a drastically different layout, even from year to year.
How high are they? How much do they weigh?
We’ve speculated that each castle weighs about 25,000 tons. The walls around the castle are usually a minimum of twelve to fifteen feet high and eight feet thick, and the towers stretch up to thirty-five feet high. They’re massive installations.
How much of this is art versus engineering?
It’s definitely both. There’s a lot of engineering involved. For example, when we want to build a tunnel, we know how high we need to build it before we do the arches, how thick the ice will be, and how to build railings so our people can safely work. And running the water and lights requires logistics. But there’s art in the design as well. For example, when we lay a castle out, if the sun is on the south, we want it to face north to make the entrance beautiful.
Which features do visitors love the most?
We can’t open a castle without slides. We always try to have a cool throne in each castle for photo ops, and people love all the various lights embedded throughout the castles.
What is the best part of this experience?
I am blown away by how far it’s come. To see the impact it has on a community—cars filling the town, restaurants filling up with guests who’ve come to see the Ice Castle—and the smiles it’s brought to millions of people over the years, I’m just humbled to have had a hand in it. Not everyone gets to say that, and I don’t take it for granted because it’s amazing that we can have a positive effect on so many people, especially during such a bleak time of year. In fact, I’ll occasionally walk through a castle to experience it firsthand. Almost without exception, everyone is smiling and having a good time. And it’s all because we have ingenious, artistic, and amazing people who are a joy to work with. I’m so grateful for them and for the people who come out and support us.
For more info, visit icecastles.com