Playing in a Winter Wonderland

Make the Most of Your Outdoor Recreation

By Kelli Ra Anderson

A roaring bonfire. Mitten-hugged mugs of chocolate. Glassy ice sculptures sparkling in the winter sun. Crazy cardboard snow-sled races. Snowshoe volleyball. Sled hockey. Snowman competitions. Ice fishing. Cross-country skiing. Candlelit nature hikes under a frosty moon.

There is no shortage of creative attractions to entice people to bundle up and enjoy all that winter fun and recreation have to offer. Best of all, they can be a catalyst for significant economic growth, an opportunity for creating community partnerships, and even a ridiculous amount of fun to imagine, plan and enjoy.

While COVID-19 did its best to disrupt lives in 2020, outdoor winter programming was one of the few areas of life that not only survived better than most, but even thrived. In fact, veterans of sell-out winter events anticipate that the 2021/22 season could be just as popular or even better. Venues that had record number turnouts last year hope to further fuel the public's newfound hunger for all things winter wonderland with even more creative ideas.

But as with any program or event, a lot goes into making them successful, ranging from good management, and strategies for multi-seasonal use to new technology, vigorous brainstorming and smart research, to name a few. (Of course, a little cooperation with Mother Nature for optimum winter weather doesn't hurt, either.)

Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?

The Madison Winter Festival, now almost 20 years old, is proof positive that interest in winter outdoor activity has been on the rise for quite some time. In 2005, the fledgling festival was a simple, one-weekend, one-event attraction of free cross-country skiing around the Capitol Building started by a husband and wife team with a passion for promoting awareness about and experiencing the benefits of cross-country skiing.

Wisconsin certainly has no shortage of freezing temperatures. However, it doesn't always produce snow according to the dictates of the calendar. Solution? Artificial snow. "We had to make snow around the capitol square and scoop it all up after it was over," said Irena Komarova, the project's co-founder. "It was a spectacle but also so sad to make it happen and then just let it melt away after three days of activities. So we began contemplating if there was a way to make it last longer for the general public."

Within a few years, building on local business relationships with ski clubs and rentals, the city and the park district, the festival was transferred to a local park. Today, the festival has morphed into a nearly three-month-long snow-covered attraction that hosts a number of activities complete with lessons and rentals for cross-country skiing, sledding and ice skating. Most impressively, it has developed an extensive trail system for cross-country skiing in partnership with cooperative efforts of groups like the Central Cross Country Skiing Foundation, the city and other clubs.

"All that partnership generates a manmade loop of about one mile in the park that creates a draw and guarantees available snow people can hop on and start skiing on early on," Komarova explained about a well-conceived trail system that naturally connects to existing trails.

Between the daily and seasonal passes, rentals, lessons and community spending for restaurants and food trucks, there has been significant financial benefit for everyone involved as the attraction has grown year after year, adding one new festival feature after another.

Of course, the phenomenon of the winter festival isn't anything new. But its features don't have to be limited to a weekend celebration. For many park districts around the country, winter season competitions and activities are only limited by the imaginations of those who come up with them.

Seize the Day

COVID-19, however, has certainly made an impact. In 2020/21, rentals and registrations for winter events in Madison's festival quickly maxed out. Similarly, for the DuPage County Forest Preserve in Illinois, COVID made "every day a Saturday," according to Jay Johnson, district supervisor. "People rediscovered us, and as we got into winter programming, we did have to adjust. We saw a trend that there were more people." For their annual ice-fishing competition dubbed the "Hard Water Classic," this was an even greater boon. But not all their winter programming stayed the course.

"We couldn't offer all our original programming so we got creative with new things on the books including Fresh Air Fridays," he says about one of their most popular events throughout the winter and into the spring. Pulling the numbers, he verified that they pushed capacity during the coldest months.

Mother Nature also had a hand in the seasonal success that followed. Snowshoe rental and cross-country skiing took off, greater than in years past, in part thanks to a snowfall that stayed longer than usual.

Tell It Like It Is

One successful new venture, however, wasn't a program at all. It was better communication using Facebook to offer real-time updates and information to share with the public, eager to know about trail conditions. "I would jump on that daily, for a while, with pictures," Johnson said. "We had 2,000 to 3,000 hits a day with comments and usually very favorable. Of course, we did get one negative comment which was, 'Hey, why aren't you out here today?' (You know, we're not a resort, or like upper Michigan, where snow is just a regular part of our job.) But, it was good to hear they wanted more. It was definitely well received, and people loved it. It was a real pleasure for us as well."

Facebook has also provided the kind of eye-candy (photos of ice sculptures) that Komarova said helps to generate more interest, as well. "If we get enough sponsorship money we try to get as many ice sculptures as possible because we promote it on Facebook months before it happens," Komarova explained. "Ice sculptures generate a lot of excitement and people come and see it like last year in 2020 when an ice carver came out and did a demonstration out of a block of ice."

Know Thyself

One of the best ways any program is likely to succeed is to accurately identify staff interests, strengths and abilities. For Johnson's department, finding their niche meant looking at his staff of environmental interpreters, rangers and naturalists to come up with a series of "how to" programs that include the how-tos of fishing, ice-fishing, kayaking, camping and, newest to their lineup, making its debut this fall and winter, "Leave No Trace Cast Iron Cooking". This novel idea will teach a public, hungry to know more, how to prepare cozy, winter meals like chili in cast iron cookery over open fires in a way that leaves no yummy trace (inside the pot or outside in nature) when all is said and done.

Komarova agreed that it is important to know your strengths and limits. "It all comes down to what a venue has to offer," she said. "If you have to create things artificially, it can cost you time and money and it may not be so effective. There are several parks like this in Madison for example, but one is ski-focused and one is ice-skating-focused." Rather than trying to be all things to all people, each park develops and builds on its strengths, using its specialized equipment to expand on existing features and brands.

A Plan for All Seasons

This has been a particularly helpful approach in Sioux City, Iowa. Cone Park, which opened four years ago, created a year-round attraction centered, initially, around a tubing or sledding hill. It continues to evolve, however, as staff continually look for ways to make the most of its sound systems, lighting, fire pit warming/social sites, lodge, bathrooms and concessions to create an all-season experience that transitions seamlessly from winter to summer.

Ice rinks are particularly suited to multi-seasonal applications. From spray pads to basketball courts to disc golf courses, the number of ways communities use their off-season ice rinks is broad. Careful thought and research make all the difference.

Point of Difference

"Park departments don't have to be complacent. You can be unique to your region," said John Byrnes, recreation supervisor for the Sioux City parks and recreation department. "What is the point of difference? What makes your program different? This is applicable to anything in parks and recreation. You want a flagship program, and this is what Cone Park provided—a great point of difference year-round."

The park, located in far-western Iowa, is unique not just to its immediate area but to the Midwest and attracts people from more than two hours away. Thanks to snow generated by snowguns capable of 600 gallons per minute, the park can create all the snow it needs (if necessary) early in the winter season and keep it on the ground until early spring to ensure there is plenty of tubing and sledding activity all season long.

Even better, it was designed from conception to finish, to be a place where those with disabilities, their families, friends and caregivers could all share in the same fun. "Play is for everybody," Byrnes said. "It's certainly a priority for us." And, as with many accommodation designs for special needs, it doesn't end up helping just those with disabilities. Simple modifications for wheelchairs, for example, also benefit those with strollers. Open the doors of accessibility a little wider—above and beyond the minimum of the ADA—and so many more can join in.

After its first year and successful opening with 20,000 visitors, the park added an ice rink to build on their success but knew they wanted that space to be useful in the summer, too.

"We went with an outdoor refrigerated ice rink," Brynes explained about their design, which incorporates a spray pad into a concrete slab with a glycol-based freezing system beneath. Adding such well-loved attractions as sit-slide hockey, curling, and ?-sized hockey leagues, their programs bring in all ages and abilities. During seasonal transition, the freezers turn off, the ice melts and drains off into the spray elements before becoming a spray park ready to draw in the crowds for a summer attraction.

"It was an instant impact," Byrnes said about its success. "You don't know how many will use the hill or rink, but it was an insane amount of popularity. It was like 80% on the hill wanted to try skating. It worked. We run it the entire season during highs and lows of cold, and try to keep it going from September to March. The community loves skating outside in the elements. It came together easily."

Celebrity draws and crazy competitions like the cardboard sledding race, or annual police versus firefighters broom hockey game are just more examples of Brynes' and his team's constant quest for new ideas to draw in the crowds and bring the community together.

Bigger players, too, like Yellowstone National Park, have found great success in turning their summer attractions into unique winter ones just by making them more accessible. Asked about their winter programming, one park representative explained that touring by snowcoach or snowmobile has been a unique way of visiting the park and offers visitors a very different experience than the summer months.

Grab Your Partner

Although just in its fourth winter season, Cone Park has already generated a great deal of cooperation from local businesses to create a variety of unique events and reached its goal of being in the black after just three years of operation. Happily, the community is seeing the financial benefits of the attraction, too, as hotels, restaurants and rentals join in the action.

Cross-promotion has made for a win-win in many cases. Partnering with the local yoga instructors, for example, they have created a popular summer event, Beer Yoga, where moms enjoy leisurely yoga on lush green lawns (with a little refreshment) while their kids enjoy the spray pad. Or, partnering with the YMCA, they offer their perfect assortment of amenities to host a yearly summer camp.

Switch It Up

Even making small changes to an existing program, however, may be all it takes to get noticed. Add a disco ball or lights and music to an evening of ice-skating. Or place paper lanterns along a night time snowshoe or cross-country ski trail. It only takes the addition of a few relatively cheap elements and a couple of staff to draw a whole new demographic to an existing feature.

The hard part is coming up with the ideas in the first place. Regular brainstorming is a must to tackle the short attention span of a fickle public who are quickly bored with the status quo. It helps when staff are naturally inclined to enjoy the process of creative thinking. Brynes attributes a recent summer tubing idea at Cone Park, for example, to frequent fact-finding missions. "I stumbled upon it while doing research," he explained about a plastic-based product normally used for summer snowboarding. "I pride myself on adding three or four new things, and you never know if one or two will take off. I always encourage our team to brainstorm once a quarter."

Patience Makes Perfect

One of the trickier parts of winter recreation, however, is the weather. Whether you are reliant on Mother Nature for your programming or make your own snow for more control, being flexible is essential. Have a plan B.

When the weather doesn't cooperate, for example, a well-advertised plan B gives the public an early heads up and the staff a clear plan of action in case it does or does not snow or get cold enough. (Schedule a snowshoe hike if there's snow, for example, or just a regular walk through the woods for a guided nature tour. Roasted marshmallows will be welcome regardless of the weather.)

For those who use artificial snow, there is still a challenge. "It's a hard rule of thumb," Brynes confessed. "In March the weather is so volatile. You may be in a 20-degree blizzard and then the next thing it's 60 degrees and time to get out the clubs. It's hard to balance as we ask how long can our season go? What's the cost? What's the return on that investment? You hit that point naturally with seasonality. But what does the length of the season look like with artificial snow? How much do you stockpile? It's a daily and weekly decision."

It's not news that outdoor programming has its ups and downs. The trick is knowing how to make the most of the hand each season deals you. And that just takes time.

If there is one thing most veterans can tell you about any new project or program, it's that everything is trial and error. Everything takes time to iron out the kinks, to tweak and to perfect. Winter programming is no different. "There were lots of busy stressful nights," Brynes recalled about Cone Park's first year. "You don't know what you don't know, like how many people will come? Have patience. When you are starting these operations, you have to change up on the fly. But I promise—at times it will feel like the sky is falling—it will come together." RM



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