It was a charming winter tableau, suitable for a postcard.
On a weekend evening, on the rooftop of the William Vale, a hotel in Brooklyn, families, friends and couples all bundled up in parkas, hats and gloves giggled as they skated on a rink. Some fell; others raced. When it got too cold, they retreated to a heated enclosure for cocoa and warm cocktails.
But something was just slightly off about this wonderland: The skaters were gliding on polymer panels that simulate the slip and feel of ice. On what is essentially plastic.
“The rink showed up in a big, giant truck,” said David Lemmond, the hotel’s general manager.
Made by Glice, a company based in Lucerne, Switzerland, this rink requires no cold weather, special blades, electricity or water (other than for cleaning). When skating season is over, the panels can be stacked and stored. In fact, Glice makes skating season a year-round affair.
It’s still slick, but Glice has a bit more “give” than real ice, so it’s less punishing if you fall hard. “We have never ice-skated before so for us, this is better,” said Bibi Haniff, who is from Guyana and was visiting New York and the William Vale rink with her young daughter and son. “It feels safer that it isn’t real ice.”
Nearby, a group of enthralled millennials chanted “Glice, Glice, Baby” as they skated.
‘It Struck Me as Sad’
Founded in Europe eight years ago, Glice now has 1,800 rinks worldwide, according to the company. In mid-December, before the rink at the William Vale opened, the government of Mexico City installed one in Zócalo, the main square there, that can fit 1,200 skaters (Rockefeller Center, New York’s renowned tourist rink of regular ice, accommodates approximately 150). A few years ago one was put in the Canadian Embassy in Rabat, Morocco, so diplomats could feel closer to home. Viktor Meier, a founder and the global C.E.O. of Glice, said a shopping center in northern Iraq recently commissioned one. “We are trying to figure out who to send as a supervisor,” he said. “No one wants to fly there right now.”
Glice arrived with little fanfare in the United States in 2017, when the Detroit Zoo installed a rink. There are already 22 others in retail centers, hotels and public parks across the country. The Mark Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan offers a private one in its penthouse suite that is approximately 70 feet long and 11 feet wide. And over 300 American homes, mostly in the Midwest, have Glice rinks, which start at $1200 for a small one, in their garages, basements or backyards. Only 5 percent of Glice’s business is in the United States, but Mr. Meier said he expected that number to rise to 30 or 40 percent in the next few years.
Glice is arguably more ecologically conscious and certainly more convenient than traditional ice rinks, which require large amounts of water and electricity, as well as noisy, cumbersome machines including refrigeration systems and compressors.
“In the past I worked for a hotel that had a traditional ice skating rink,” Mr. Lemmond said. “You wouldn’t believe the logistics of it. It requires an enormous amount of infrastructure to keep frozen water frozen”: water tank, refrigerated pipes, 24-hour compressor and the famous Zamboni, which re-cuts the surface after it gets marked up and lays down a new layer of water to freeze. As the weather warms, ice turns to slush, of course—and tourists’ thoughts turn to swimming pools.
But just as heated pools can make swimming appealing in Northeast winters, synthetic rinks can now bring the pastimes of “ice” skating and hockey to warmer areas. “We now hope to get one in Guyana,” Ms. Haniff said. “It would be fun to have something new there.”
But the disconnect from nature inherent to the creation of such artificial pleasure biomes can also unsettle. We can ski indoors in a mall in New Jersey, surf in an artificial wave pool in Lemoore, Calif., and ice skate in shorts in Mexico City. Should every place, even in the Caribbean, offer winter sports?
“It struck me as sad,” said Sydney Mineer, 27, who works in casting and lives in Los Angeles, of happening upon a synthetic ice rink (made by PolyGlide, a Glice competitor) at the Westfield Century City mall while shopping for Christmas presents. “I was bewildered because it was so out of context.”
Synthetic rinks, though, have been part of the infrastructure of ice hockey for at least 40 years, said a spokesman for USA Hockey, the governing body for the sport. Companies like Xtraice, which put a rink in the John Hancock Center in Chicago in 2010, and PolyGlide, which appeared on the reality show “Shark Tank” in 2016, have been trying make the product more consumer-friendly ever since.
A decade ago, Toni Vera, a professional ice hockey player in Spain and engineer, was unhappy with the state of synthetic ice. He spent eight years testing different ingredients until he found a surface that met his expectations.
Mr. Meier, who is from Lucerne but got an M.B.A. at the University of Dallas, learned about Mr. Vera from a BBC show about inventors and persuaded Mr. Vera to go into business. They formed Glice, a portmanteau of “ice” and “glide.” Their first client, in 2012, was BASE Hockey, a Canadian company that operates small hockey training centers.
Mr. Meier is as secretive as Willy Wonka when it comes to the Glice formula. “But I will tell you, the ingredients, we ship them to Germany where they get pressed by a special process of high pressure and high heat,” he said. “Then the panels get cut with numeric, computerized machines to create a tongue-and-groove connection, allowing them to come together seamlessly.” The biggest cleaning challenge is getting into those grooves, with a pressure washer.
Those portable panels make a Glice rink is feasible for places like Shelby Farms, a 4,500-acre park in Memphis, where keeping the ice frozen even on a limited basis would be prohibitively expensive. A Glice rink there drew 100 skaters a day this season.
By using Glice instead of ice, the Mexico City government says it saved 49,000 gallons of water and 95 tons of carbon dioxide.
Mark Winter, chief executive of Glice USA in Boulder, Colo., said he was in talks with ski resorts that want rinks for their lodges but have made sustainability commitments (and need most of their water allowance to make snow). “I believe going into the next winter season we will have three Glice rinks at U.S. ski mountains,” he said.
Critics argue that Glice rinks are still bad for the environment because they are made of, well, plastic. But the company replies that this plastic is durable, with panels lasting 12 years, after which you can flip them over, and use them for another 12.
Glice’s relative affordability also makes it appealing. Many ice rinks across America were built in the 1960s and ’70s and desperately need repairs. The news is full of examples of local rinks closing or cities having to raise piles of money to save them. The Central Park Conservancy announced in the fall it would have to spend $110 million fixing the Lasker Rink, which is actually two 195-by-65 feet rinks, among other improvements, at the north end of the park.
In comparison Glice rinks cost $80,000 to $150,000 for a 2,000 to 4,000-square-foot rink, the range of sizes most shopping malls use. Venues can also rent the 2,000-square-foot rink for $32,000 for a winter season. “Every morning we just pressure-wash it and squeegee it,” said Nathan Moore, 32, a rink guard at the William Vale who grew up playing ice hockey in Detroit.
Could a rink near your kitchen sink be far behind?
In December, Kimberly Clavin, 45, a products engineer in Columbus, Ohio, had a Christmas surprise for her 9- and 12-year-old sons: a 9-foot-by-13-foot Glice rink in their basement. The family had seen a synthetic ice rink at Woodloch Resort in Pennsylvania, and she thought it would be the perfect addition to their home.
Her youngest, who just started playing goalie on a hockey team, uses it to practice before and after school, and doesn’t feel it’s appreciably different from the real thing. The older one likes to play on it with friends. “When I mention it to people, they look at me cross-eyed, but I tell them, it’s not more than a pool table, and it’s a lot less than a hot tub,” Ms. Clavin said. “People will start to realize this is just like any other recreational thing.”
But skating on a Glice rink is not a perfect substitute for the romantic capades of yore. There are no grooves from skaters or marks that show where a turn was made. There are no timeouts for the Zamboni, or cold air coming off the surface. Flushed cheeks, sparkling eyes and visible puffs of breath are not a given.
“It definitely takes some getting used to,” said Mr. Moore at the William Vale. “There are some differences. It doesn’t quite bite as much when you dig into the ice, so most people find it more slippery at first.” It takes about 15 minutes for skaters to adjust, he said. Many people do a shuffle-like motion until they realize they can make longer strides.
In Memphis, dozens of people would show up nightly at Shelby Farms Park to gawk at the rented Glice rink, but they were hesitant to participate, said Caroline Norris, director of sales and events there. “We find that when you add something new, it takes a minute for people to say, ‘O.K., what is that, now I want to try it,’” she said. “We probably focused too much on the messaging about Glice, and how it is a new thing, when people needed to associate it with ice skating.”
And Mr. Lemmond had a few customers complain because they were expecting traditional ice.
Still, he plans to roll out the Glice more often in the future. “Maybe we will do Christmas in July, and have people skating in shorts and T-shirts on the roof,” he said. And if some find that out of place or sad? “We aren’t going to force it on people. If that isn’t the experience they want, that is totally fine.”