Indoor skiing has arrived in North America, bringing with it new skiers and riders and the promise of year-round turns.
The air was cool and damp and smelled like a hockey rink. It was a mild January day in New Jersey, and the gray sky and persistent drizzle of the mid-winter thaw made it feel much colder than a quick read of the thermometer suggested. And yet here I was, completely dry, slicing my skis like hot knives into perfectly uniform, dense packed powder. In the belly of the long-mysterious metal beast that towers high above the Meadowlands, I was skiing indoors.
The ski industry is facing an uphill battle on a number of fronts, and the efforts and capital invested in capturing a larger share of existing skiers and riders dwarfs efforts to attract new patrons to winter sports. In the past twenty years, the United States has averaged 9.3 million participants annually. Skier participation and visits have trended marginally better than flat during that period, despite the national population simultaneously growing by eighteen percent.
Small “feeder hills” that have reliably generated generation after generation of new skiers and riders now face a Sisyphean battle for survival to survive thanks to shorter, warmer winters and the consolidation of major resorts into, primarily, two giant conglomerates. While many of us who are already committed to winter sports have experienced decreased lift expenses and increased options thanks to this consolidation and its accompanying multi-mountain passes, the financial barriers of entry for first-timers remains prohibitively expensive. Between clothing, gear rentals, lift tickets, lessons, lodging and transportation, costs can quickly escalate well into the hundreds of dollars per person; all for an activity you may not like and may not wish to repeat—especially if the conditions during your winter sports debut are icy, rainy, frigid, windy, foggy, slushy, or bumpy.
In December, 2019, Big Snow American Dream opened its doors to the public after a long, multi-causal delay, and as the hemisphere’s first indoor ski area, it offers some unique solutions to each facet of this conundrum. Proximity and accessibility have always been an issue as skiing traditionally requires mountains (or hills, ridges, or massifs), and the closest ski areas are roughly an hour’s drive away, with any larger mountains located at least two and a half hours from town. Big Snow, on the other hand, is just a 20-minute drive from midtown Manhattan and, more importantly, it is easily and affordably accessible by train from Penn Station and nearby New Jersey cities and suburbs. Thanks to its convenient location in the American Dream Mall, a visit to Big Snow can even be incorporated into a day of shopping, or a concert or football game at neighboring MetLife Stadium. Big Snow in the morning, Big Blue in the afternoon.
Perhaps even more importantly for first-timers, the only things you need to bring with you to Big Snow are money and gloves. Everything else is included in their $69.99 lift-pass and rental package, including pants, jacket, boots, helmet, goggles, skis or snowboard and, of course, two hours of lift time. For those who already have their own gear, two-hour passes are available for as little as $29.99. Not only does this significantly reduce the cost of trying winter sports for the first time, but, in combination with its location in a shopping mall, it makes skiing or riding—otherwise considered a destination activity—an impulse buy. “Our mission is to establish ourselves as a place that takes never-evers and turns them on to a lifetime of skiing,” says Jim Haas, Big Snow’s General Manager. “We know that people aren’t likely to come back here every day, but what we hope to do is teach people in a safe, controlled manner, and in an environment that’s comfortable for them. We think that we have the perfect place for a person to learn skiing and riding. In turn we hope to feed the bigger resorts, keep turning over and get new people into the sport.”
It’s also important to note some of the things that Big Snow isn’t. With the greatest pitch at just 26 degrees, there are no steeps here. There are no moguls, no cliffs, no glades. There’s no off-piste, double-diamond sector that only opens on a powder day, because there will never be a powder day. However, there is also never any ice, there’s never any wind, and there’s never going to be a day that you don’t find two feet of man-made packed powder and 28-degree weather. Big Snow is not an ideal destination for advanced and expert skiers, save for being the only place in the Northeast where you can scratch your snow addiction itch in the dog days of summer without hiking the Rockies or hopping on a jet to the Southern Hemisphere. Being able to operate during the traditional offseason allows Big Snow to do many things that a traditional ski resort cannot. “During the summer or preseason it’s a great place to get the rust off,” says Haas. “We’re also able to offer demo days outside of the season.”
But make no mistake, Big Snow is best suited for beginners. And that’s not a bad thing because, as mentioned, the industry needs more beginners. While the 119-foot vertical and 1,000-foot length may seem diminutive to those of us who frequent real mountains, it’s more than enough for someone who’s working their way down the slopes in a falling leaf or honing their snowplow turns. For first-timers, there is even a terrain-based-learning area that incorporates banked turns to create a safe, easy environment to learn the most basic fundamentals of the sports. There are also party rooms, for kids’ birthday parties or other gatherings, and they host a camp program for children to learn how to ski during summer camp hours.
After seeing the unfinished structure looming next to Metlife Stadium dozens of times over the past decade, I was excited to visit Big Snow and see what awaited inside. After acquiring my ticket (actually an RFID bracelet), I entered a “tram cabin” where I watched a brief safety video. Afterwards, I was brought into the rental and locker room where, if I didn’t have my own gear, they would have measured and equipped me with skis, boots, poles, helmet, goggles, and even outerwear. After changing into my ski clothes and booting up, I got my pass scanned and walked through the automatic sliding doors and into a futuristic wintry biosphere.
I spent my two hours lapping the one chairlift; a fixed-grip quad that covers the ski area’s full vertical in roughly two minutes. The runs are short, but the snow is dense, smooth, and perfect for practicing all types of turns. I was there on an uncrowded weekday morning, and I took advantage of the extra space to practice my park skills, repeatedly hitting the small jump at the base of the main pitch with increasing speed and confidence. I worked on my form as well, practicing everything from hop turns to carving. Between runs I spoke with lifties and other staff, all of whom were friendly and welcoming, and they all seemed genuinely curious about what type of experience the guests were having.
As a New Yorker, I’m very excited that Big Snow exists in my backyard. I didn’t ski until I was 25; not out of any lack of interest, but rather because skiing for the first time seemed expensive and daunting. Had Big Snow been around when I was younger, I almost certainly would have picked up winter sports earlier, and I’m sure that I’m not alone. With its year-round operating schedule and accessible location, Big Snow has an incredible opportunity to bring a ton of new people to winter sports.