How Colorado's Ice Castles became a fantasy attraction

By Seth Boster Updated: January 14, 2018 at 4:09 pm • Published: January 13, 2018 0

DILLON - The family entered the icy wonderland through an archway, and the father's response was much like his young son's. 

"Whoa, this is not what I expected," said Colorado Springs' Mark Galley, who with his family was first in a line that got longer as the sun dipped behind the Summit County mountains. He and hundreds of others gazed at the glossy cathedrals and spires forming a maze in the town's Little League field.

The nationwide attraction Ice Castles has returned to Colorado, inspiring the same awe it did in Breckenridge four years ago.

"Wow!" Galley said, seemingly unable to control his laughter as he touched the bluish, soaring walls around him that at night glow all the colors of the rainbow. "This is amazing!"

His toddler, Asher, spoke over the orchestral Disney music: "Is this all real?"

Often, Brent Christensen can't believe it is. What started as a personal project in his Utah yard - a glamorous fort for his six kids to enjoy during winter - has become a multimillion-dollar company.

"It's been a wild trip. It's miraculous in a way," he said from Winnipeg, one of Ice Castles' six locations, which are each expected to draw tens of thousands of ticket-paying visitors over the cold months.

After a late opening date because of warm temperatures, Dillon Ice Castles has been drawing thousands opening December 28.. Ice Castles is a Utah-based entertainment company that specializes in large-scale events handcrafted from ice. Friday, January 5, 2018(Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)  

Christensen never had specific aspirations growing up. He only knew he liked to create. He liked building toy airplanes and cars in his father's workshop.

"I think maybe I've always looked at things a little different, maybe from a little bit of a different angle," said Christensen, who before Ice Castles was running a business that fixed lawnmowers - one he started and operated out of a van, so customers wouldn't have to haul their lawnmowers anywhere.

That was a good idea, he thought, despite having never fixed a lawnmower. "I just kind of Googled and researched my way into it," he said as he recalled Jim Henson, the Muppets creator.

"He wasn't a puppeteer, but I remember reading something he said once about if you come into something already with too many ideas of how a thing is supposed to be or how something's supposed to happen, that kind of limits what could happen."

Stalactite icicles hang from the ceiling of an ice cave at the Dillon Ice Castles on Friday, January 5, 2018. Ice Castles is a Utah-based entertainment company that specializes in large-scale events handcrafted from ice.(Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)  

Christensen said he was just "goofing around" in his yard when he discovered that he could stack icicles by using slush-like mortar. He learned that the icicles would grow taller during the overnight chill.

And in the months after passersby and TV cameras stopped to admire his yard's 20-foot structure, he let his imagination run free.

By installing pipes and letting water spout and freeze on top, the walls would grow even taller. And by installing hundreds of LED lights, the scene would be truly magical.

"They're the souls of fairies in glass jars," Dan Beck likes to say of the colors. He's one of Ice Castles' longest-tenured employees since Christensen began enlisting partners after a breakout 2013-14 season.

Christensen credits that year's release of Disney's "Frozen" for the busy season at Midway, Utah, the first town that granted him space to build the castles after he was turned down by countless others.

"It was insane," Beck recalls. Now he's overseeing sellout crowds in his sixth winter as a site manager.

At Dillon, he's yawning after consecutive overnighters - necessary, as he and his team of 12 full-time builders had to take advantage of frigid weather that has been tough to come by.

After midnight, they'll take bags of icicles from their harvesting place in a cold trailer. They'll fill buckets of slush. And they'll scale ladders to build onto the structure higher than 30 feet in some places.

Before the crowds descend on the Dillon Ice Castles, Kyle Shaw grooms the ice to make it more safe on Friday, January 5, 2018. Ice Castles is a Utah-based entertainment company that specializes in large-scale events handcrafted from ice.(Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)  

Other times, they'll take chainsaws into the maze to carve any walls intruding on passages. "Without constant maintenance, this place would pretty much close up like a wound," builder Glenys Hunt told a curious bunch in one chamber, where ice dangled under a star-shaped ceiling.

Elsewhere, people gathered around a shimmering fountain that shot water dancing high toward the sky. Elsewhere, kids and grownups alike flew down icy slides.

"Seeing people get that much joy out of something we've done," Hunt said, "that's incredible."

The feeling is the same for Christensen, who isn't as hands-on with the castles any more. "I spend more time in planes and airports than I actually do at the sites," he said.

But he still does the designing, letting his imagination run free.

"If you ever have the chance to create something that's never really been created before, especially if it's something beautiful and something people will enjoy, that's what was really driving me at the start," he said. "I wanted to see this rolled out to its full potential, which we're still working on."

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Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332

Twitter: @SethBoster­­

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