Lake Geneva’s Ice Castles are a winter playground

For a couple months each year, thousands flock to Lake Geneva to explore the Ice Castles.
two people standing in blue ice castles
Ice Castles in Lake Geneva (December 2021)
Photo by Nikki Hansen

With hand warmers shoved into my gloves, I granny-shuffled my way across a frozen parking lot through the stinging winter wind. When I arrived to see an illuminated play space complete with icy slides, frozen tunnels, fountains and frigid thrones, my winter blues melted away. The bright glowing lights, changing from blue to purple to green, glimmered from within a towering, frosty maze that called me in to explore. Looking up, I saw the moon and the stars in the night sky, but this mesmerizing experience made me forget where I was.

“Once you enter through the first archway of ice and through the tunnel, you come out into a world unlike anything you’ve been in,” says Brent Christensen, who founded Ice Castles, an interactive destination experience in Lake Geneva. He compares the attraction to being inside a glacier, which is something most people haven’t experienced, he notes. And even if they have, the glaciers “probably didn’t have LED lights inside them.”

The lights, music and massive structures built from thousands of hand-placed icicles are meant to create a magical experience that’s different for everyone. “It’s a very interpretive thing depending on your mindset,” explains Christensen. “The goal is to create a very ethereal, magical experience that’s very enveloping.”

little kid sliding through a tunnel

Founder Brent Christensen says the Ice Castles are like being inside a glacier. Parts of the Ice Castles include ice slides, a maze, crawl tunnels, frozen thrones, caverns and archways. The castles are covered with hand-placed icicles and decked out with LED lights.
(Photo by Nikki Hansen)

I visited the Ice Castles in Lake Geneva in late January 2019. The trip was inspired by my severe winter boredom after the holiday season had passed, and I was itching for a reason to get out of the house. Wisconsinites, myself included, were collectively trudging through the second half of a brutally cold winter. I managed to take just a handful of photos at the start of my visit before my camera died in the 4-degree weather.

What I didn’t know at the time was that I was experiencing the brainchild of Christensen, just a dad who’d been trying to keep his California-born children occupied in their new, snowy Utah home back in 2010.

Christensen says that seeing the Ice Castles idea go from a fun project in his yard to a tourist attraction in six different locations across the country is surreal. Each site attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year and significant media attention, thanks to the allure of the glowing structure and complexity of
the weather-dependent architecture.

two people walking in front of rainbow wall

Photo by Nikki Hansen

Photo by Nikki Hansen

“It’s humbling to think about — to think that people will fly in to [one of the sites] and make a trip out of it,” Christensen says. “It’s like, ‘Well, we better be on our game’ because there’s a lot of anticipation every year and we want to make it better every year.”

Ice Castles first came to the Badger State via Wisconsin Dells in the winter of 2016-17 before moving to Lake Geneva. This will be the fourth season at Lake Geneva. Stephanie Klett, president and CEO of Visit Lake Geneva, says people monitor the Ice Castles coming to life at Geneva National Resort & Club. “It’s almost like a weather report, where locals get daily reports from different people on the process of it,” Klett says. By the time the attraction is ready to open, she says residents are at a “fever pitch.”

Wisconsin weather poses a significant challenge for the build crew. Christensen recalls one year when the Ice Castles shut down due to too-warm and too-cold weather within the same week.

After growing icicles on trailers and special racks, almost daily the crew hand-places a new layer on the formation, which consists of thousands of individual icicles. They spray the additions with water at night to fuse everything together. It’s a tedious process that can be erased quickly (and distressingly) with a temperature swing.

group of people close to the wall of the ice castles

Photo by Nikki Hansen

Christensen is still involved in the design process at each location, but he credits his team members and managers at each site for the increasing complexity, which he says is “well beyond” his intellectual capacity.

If you visit the Ice Castles at the beginning of February, your trip will coincide with Lake Geneva’s 27th annual Winterfest, which features the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Championship, hovercraft rides and ice sculptures scattered throughout downtown.

“A lot of times in winter, people think, ‘Oh, you have to go north for skiing. You have to go north for snowmobiling. You have to go north for cross-country ski trails,’ ” Klett says. “But Lake Geneva, in our region, is a huge winter destination.” There are three ski hills within 25 miles of Lake Geneva, as well as ice skating rinks, ice sailing and cross-country skiing. “So we’re telling people, ‘Don’t go north for winter — go south.’ ”

Klett describes the Ice Castles as “the hottest ticket in the Midwest.” In addition to Wisconsin, Ice Castles are located in Minnesota, Colorado, New Hampshire, New York and Utah. Tickets are pre-sold online and are usually gone within hours of being posted. One of the upsides of online ticket sales is that, in the event of weather-related closures, staff can contact all ticket holders in advance for refunds or exchanges.

The Wisconsin Ice Castles open in January 2022 and last until the end of February (weather permitting). A pro tip from the creator himself: Take a foot warmer with adhesive and stick it to your cellphone case to keep your battery warm. He adds that you should plan on overdressing and wearing boots with good treads on them. “Don’t wear Uggs,” he says.

Melissa Behling is a Madison-area freelance writer.Footer that says Subscribe with covers of Madison Magazine