There are certain things one might expect to do in the Meadowlands of New Jersey, but skiing hasn’t been one of them, until last week. The area, primarily known for Giants football games and as the final resting place for many Sopranos characters, is now home to North America’s first indoor ski slope.
Big Snow, as it’s known, rises 16 stories at an angle from the surrounding marshland, like a massive cruise ship run aground. It’s a strange sight from the outside and even more surreal within, as skiers and snowboarders descend a 1,000-foot-long, 200-foot-wide expanse of snow, kept at a chilly 28 degrees year-round and serviced by a chairlift that ascends to the icicle-draped rafters — all within sight of the Manhattan skyline.
The slope is one of the anchor attractions in the American Dream mega-mall. For a decade and a half, drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike have witnessed the retail and entertainment mecca taking shape in slow increments. Conceived in 1996, it didn’t break ground until 2004, then targeting a 2007 opening. Delays, funding issues, and changes of ownership would push the total cost above $5 billion.
Triple Five Group, the company behind Minnesota’s Mall of America, anticipates drawing 40 million visitors annually to the three-million-square-foot space, set to be fully operational by March 2020. It is projected to include 450 stores and restaurants and 15 entertainment options, including a DreamWorks Water Park, a Nickelodeon Universe, a Legoland Discovery Center, a regulation ice rink, and an aquarium.
The ski slope opened on Dec. 5. By 11 a.m., an enthusiastic crowd was geared up for a VIP ski session that included professional athletes such as Lindsey Vonn and representatives from Head Skis and Burton Snowboards, the site’s primary gear suppliers. “We’re about to kick off the endless winter,” a DJ said, cuing up the song “This Is How We Do It” just as Vonn reached the top of the chairlift. “This is how we do it in New Jersey.”
After Vonn’s first run, filmed by numerous news crews, she rendered her verdict. “I’ve never skied indoors before, so I don’t have a reference, but it was great,” she said, noting that it was her first run since knee surgery in the spring. “Sometimes you hear about indoor snow being a little grainy, but it was actually nice, light, and fluffy.”
Asked if she’d be back, she gestured towards the faux ski lodge facades lining the bottom of the slope and said, “I’m excited for this lodge to open, maybe do some après ski.” Those half-finished spaces will soon be populated with a Yard House Brewery location, a Lucky Strike bowling alley, and even a Hard Rock Cafe, all with windows looking onto the ski hill.
There are more than 30 indoor ski hills around the world, but this is the first in North America. The idea has tended to flourish in places at a far remove from mountains and snow, or that are space-constrained — such as Ski Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates.
What’s here iapproximates a ski slope. At its steepest point at the top, the slope has a 26% grade, which is comparable to a solid intermediate run at any ski resort. Granted, it doesn’t last long, but it feels real. The 200-foot-wide slope mellows as it drops 160 feet over the 1,000-foot-long run.
A lower-angled beginner’s area is off to one side, and a small terrain park is on the other, plus a booth serves hot chocolate in the corner. The snow covers the full 180,000 square feet to a minimum depth of three feet. Unlike other ski resorts, it will not close for summer.
A hard cap of 500 skiers at any time has been instituted; users sign up for specific time slots, allowing them to use what executives call a “push-pull” system. “Every 15 minutes, 60 people come in and 60 people are leaving,” says Joe Hession, CEO of Snow Operating, which runs the site. “The main thing was, we didn’t want people to feel rushed. I want you to get settled, put your stuff away, get the attention you need with your equipment, and then get on the snow, and your two hours starts.”
The Snow Operating team estimates that of the expected 600,000 skiers this year, about 200,000 will be beginners, the richest target market for Big Snow’s offerings. “This is a tremendous opportunity for winter sports in general, because of the population base around here,” says Jon Rucker, president of Head Skis USA, who attended the opening.
“I love it, it’s definitely unique,” said Dumar Casbrillon, a house painter who took the afternoon off to come snowboarding. “The best part is that it’s five minutes from my house.”