STILLWATER, Minn. — After the pandemic hit, the Zephyr Theatre in downtown Stillwater started hosting outdoor, socially distanced productions in the parking lot.
But when the weather turned cold, the plays and concerts stopped.
That’s when the theater’s artistic director, Calyssa Hall, and her father, Franz Hall, began brainstorming ways to make money and keep employees on the payroll this winter. Their solution — a massive lighted ice maze — is now taking shape in the theater’s south parking lot.
Set to open to the public on Jan. 22, the ice maze, made of 450,000 pounds of clear ice, is the coolest of the attractions designed to bring tourists to town this winter. It’s believed to be the largest ice maze in the United States.
“We were looking for ways to be creative in an artistic way and be outside and COVID-safe,” Calyssa Hall said. “This is an art and a visual-arts project, but it’s also something we can do for the community.”
Afton architect Franz Hall, who serves as the theater’s director of operations, designed the frozen labyrinth, which features two slides and more than a half-mile of twists, turns and dead ends.
“We made it as tricky as we possibly could,” he said. “We wanted something that was an activity for people — as opposed to an ice palace, where you just walk into it and look around or just look at it from the outside.”
More than 1,500 crystal-clear ice blocks have been shipped from a manufacturing plant in Michigan; each block weighs 300 pounds. Construction is being overseen by Noel Molloy, the owner of Crafted Contracting in Stillwater. It’s Molloy’s first ice project. “It’s just like building a masonry wall, except we’re using ice,” he said.
The challenge, Molloy said, is to get the ice blocks, which aren’t uniform, to look straight. Crews use a special studded block grapple to grab and lift the ice blocks and put them in place. They then use chainsaws to level off the tops and a mix of slush and snow to get them to stick together.
“At the end of the day, we go around and mist them with water, so that helps join them as well,” Molloy said.
Workers also have been wrapping the stacked blocks in weather-resistant barriers to keep the sun from doing too much damage, especially to the south side. “Next week it’s supposed to be colder, so it will work a little better for us,” Molloy said.
Molloy said he has become a regular weather-forecast checker during construction. The maze “should make it into March at some point, I would imagine, as long as we don’t have any record-hot temperatures,” he said.
Thirty-two degrees is the magic number, according to Franz Hall. “It’s a win-win for everybody as long as the temperatures stay below freezing,” he said. “I’m checking the weather forecast every day, every hour on the hour.”
Franz Hall said he studied a number of corn mazes and ice mazes to create the Zephyr’s maze, which fills the theater’s south parking lot. “It took time, but it wasn’t that difficult,” he said.
He’s also designed an ice bar and two 36-foot ice slides. An actress dressed as Elsa from “Frozen” will be making the rounds. Hot chocolate and s’mores will be available for purchase at the train trolley parked on site. They’re hoping the Vulcans and the Winter Carnival Royalty will be stop by. “It’s an outdoor family-friendly event,” Calyssa Hall said.
Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children ages 5-12; reservations are limited to 100 people per hour.
Zephyr employees are already working on plans to make next year’s ice maze “bigger and better,” Calyssa Hall said. “Maybe we’ll go nationwide next year,” Franz Hall joked. “It’s quite the little side hustle.”
What’s the plan for all the leftover ice this year?
“Once it gets to the point where it is no longer safe, we will come in and demolish it,” Franz Hall said.
Some of the ice may need to be transported off of the property to melt; the rest may hauled to the theater’s north parking lot, “where we will just let it sit and melt,” Franz Hall said. “I’m guessing that will be well into June.”