On the Rocks

For a winter skating rink in Houston, just add ice. And that's the problem.

Frosty the Snowman was a jolly, happy soul. Until a mean little guy locked him in the greenhouse and he melted into mush. There was nothing left but his hat, pipe and a puddle. Anybody who watches Christmas cartoons knows that the idea of an outdoor skating rink in this hot, humid town isn't going to work.

The rink (or "ice plaza," as PR people like to call it) is meant to transform the Theater District into a winter wonderland, since outdoor ice-skating is essential to having a cuddly Campbell's soup-commercial Christmas. Even if there is more ice to be found in the daiquiris at the Hard Rock Cafe across the street, the skating area is near enough to decked-out trees and toy soldiers that people can squint and pretend they're in Rockefeller Center.

On a recent afternoon, a group of five-year-olds splashed around the rink. Their pants legs were soaked, and they seemed to be doing more swimming than skating.

Houston's outdoor rink has suffered meltdowns.
Deron Neblett
Houston's outdoor rink has suffered meltdowns.
Houston's outdoor rink has suffered meltdowns.
Deron Neblett
Houston's outdoor rink has suffered meltdowns.
Houston's outdoor rink has suffered meltdowns.
Deron Neblett
Houston's outdoor rink has suffered meltdowns.

"I wish I'd remembered to bring towels," said one mother, Ann Wooldridge.

About 7,000 people have skated -- or waded -- the rink so far this season. Formerly located next to Foley's, it was forced by construction to move to outside the Wortham Center. Hot coffee and cocoa are served up rinkside -- but where's the fake snow? Hell, where's the ice?

The fundamental problem with having an outdoor skating rink is simple physics; Houston is hot, and ice thaws. You can't import winter. The skating surface melts just like when Dorothy threw the bucket of water on the Wicked Witch of the West.

The rink's refrigeration equipment doesn't have a high-powered freeze-it-solid switch. "It controls itself," says Daniel Osborne, a 16-year-old rink guard. "It goes as fast as it can on hot days."

"The year before last we had some big problems with the ice freezing," says Viola Gunn-Blazek, an information specialist with the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "They were trying to get someone to skate on it, but it was just slush. It couldn't freeze up fast enough to keep up with the heat."

The Houston Chronicle and radio and TV stations, which regularly promote consumer fraud investigations, are sponsors of the rink -- part of the collective civic charade touting this slushy puddle as real outdoor ice. The temporary facility is the domain of the Aeros' Chuck Watson, the last Houston sports franchise owner not to get a new government-funded arena built for him.

Since it opened in November, the skating attraction has had to close on a couple of unseasonably warm (read: typical) days, and workers spread out sun-reflecting sheets. "You know those things you put on your windshield to keep the heat out of your car?" Daniel asks. "That's what we roll across the ice."

They try to keep about four inches of ice above the pipes containing the refrigerant. But when that buffer melts down to only about an inch, the rink closes so nobody will crunch through to crack the pipes.

Houston has plenty of indoor ice rinks, but the al fresco aficionados defend the conditions here. A slushy cement pond is more authentic than cutting figure eights inside a mall or on a rink that actually stays frozen.

"This is what true skating is," says Diane Zdunkewicz. "A long time ago, people skated on lakes that weren't [totally] frozen." (And they fell through and crashed to their freezing deaths. Ah, memories.)

Still, there are different degrees of just how frozen the ice can be. Hockey players like hard ice, frozen to about 18 degrees, so they can skate faster. Figure skaters like it about four degrees warmer, so that the ice is softer and can cushion landings. But when the ice gets up another ten degrees, it melts and people fall more often. "It's way too soft," Daniel says. No one likes wet ice, it's bad, he says.

"They fall and they just slide," Daniel says. Even decent skaters get soaked, splashing as they try to stop or turn in a puddle.

"It's very slippery," says Jennifer Schwing, skating with her two-year-old daughter, Emily, in her arms. "There's no crunchy stuff. You're scared to fall."

"You wish they could sweep some of the water off," says Robin Reed.

Amanda Hellmann's daughters got so wet when they went skating two weeks ago that she had to strip off their clothes and drive the girls home naked. On a recent day, her five-year-old, Clare, was back at the rink in bare legs and water-resistant shorts.

Soon after the Hellmanns left, the operators closed the rink because the pipes were nearly exposed. But that night the temperature dropped below 65 and a cold wind whistled across the water. It was like when Santa appeared in front of the melted snowman and blew a minty-fresh York Peppermint Patty breath that brought Frosty back to life.

"It's totally frozen," Daniel said a few days later. "It's not wet at all."

But you might want to phone him and make sure.

For rink conditions, call: (713)225-0027.

 
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