When Miami Freezes Over: Ice Skating Among The Palm Trees

Dec 22, 2015

For many people the holidays conjure images of sledding, hot cocoa and fireplaces, even with the unusually warm winter up north this year. Of course, none of that makes much sense in Miami -- ever.

But there’s one aspect of the wintry holidays that’s here in Miami despite the 82-degree weather we’re expecting all week: outdoor ice skating.

In downtown Miami, at the InterContinental Hotel nestled between palm trees and Biscayne Bay, is an unusual sight for the area. About two-dozen people glide over the white rink. It’s not that plastic stuff people try to pass off as ice; this is a three-inch-thick slab of frozen water.

Lucas Mauricio, 5 years old, "freezes" sitting on the ice.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

Five-year-old Lucas Mauricio is “faster than flash, faster than nobody” on his small, blue skates, he says.

This ice skating rink outside the InterContinental Hotel in downtown Miami is his first foray into the seemingly impossible -- ice skating outdoors in South Florida.

His technique of push, push, glide works most of the time, except when he’s sliding on his stomach. Still, he’s fearless; he just says he’d add a few more palm trees to the mix.

“I wish there was a palm tree everywhere and when we stop we can go like this,” Lucas then slams into the side of the rink. He wants a palm tree to crash into – stopping is not his forte.

His dad, Jason Mauricio, got Lucas a Florida Panthers hockey jersey last time they went to a game and now, being on the team is a new career goal for Lucas. “That’s why I’m practicing every day,” Lucas said.

Ice skating among the palms.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

Just for some context: the southernmost city any of the current players is from is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But dad is in full support, despite the obvious challenges.

“What’s cool around South Florida… is roller hockey,” said Mauricio, the elder. “I find actually if you can become a good roller hockey skater you can be a great ice hockey skater and so I’d love it if he picked up roller hockey.”

For now, Lucas is sticking with the novelty of the frozen.

“I like with Miami that it’s hot out there and it’s freezing cold,” he says. Freezing cold when you’re sitting on the ice, and that’s about it.

Kids make snowballs with the shavings left in the wake of skates, but they melt before even the base of a snowman can form.

Still, there’s something about watching people glide over ice with holiday music in the background that makes the fir trees that line the rink smell just a bit better.

“Everybody loves to skate in Central Park or Rockefeller Center in New York for the holidays;  it’s kind of tradition,” said Robert Hill, general manager of the InterContinental Hotel. “Why not do that here in Miami, where it’s ice but you know it’s 70-, 80-degree weather outside?”

The big cooler that circulates glycol gel under the ice is to keep it frozen.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

There’s at least one reason: Making ice seems hard when it’s not freezing outside.

“It takes a lot of work and a lot of planning and it’s not an inexpensive feat to pull off at an ice rink in downtown Miami in this weather,” explains Hill.

He estimates the costs to run about $100,000, most of that going to rent the system that keeps things frozen. Super cooled gel circulates under the ice through a network of tubes that looks like the coils on the back of a refrigerator.  A massive chiller runs out back to keep the gel cold. There is a tent, but while people are skating, it's main function is to keep the rain off of revelers.

It took three days of pouring water over tubes of the gel to build up enough ice to skate on. They just kept layering the water and waiting for it to freeze, water, freeze, water...

“We don’t have a Zamboni,” said Hill, “it’s not quite big enough to need that. It gets scraped down several times a day. Then another layer of water gets put on top of that and then it freezes back on top”

Lucas Mauricio suggests putting a pool in the middle of the rink - maybe next year?
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

Over the course of the week the rink is up, the ice gets thicker. By the time the rink closes on Jan. 10, the ice will be about five inches thick, he says. While people up north sometimes wait till April or even May for the snow to melt, breaking this rink down will just be a matter of switching off the cooler and waiting a few hours.

Hill hopes to bring the rink back next year – a good thing for Lucas Mauricio’s career aspirations, but the budding athlete has a design critique Hill might want to consider:

“I wish half can be [ice] and then in the middle can be water so if we fall in, we can dive in.”

A swimming pool in the middle of the rink, just in case you get a bit too warm shredding the ice. So Miami.

The ice rink at the InterContinental Hotel is open every day until Jan. 10 from noon to 11 p.m.