With the opening of Big SNOW, the United States joins a short list of countries with its own indoor ski and snowboarding hill, and it’s right in East Rutherford at the American Dream megamall.
Big SNOW employees worked through the night Wednesday into Thursday to open Big SNOW on time.
“Yesterday was a long one. It went down to the wire,” said Patrick Hession, one of the owners of Big SNOW. “[It was] a lot of construction that we just said ‘it may not be done yet, but we’re going to open the doors if we can’, and the inspector said ‘yeah, we agree.'”
The skiers and snowboarders don’t care about the minor bits of construction that haven’t been finished yet. They care about one thing — getting good runs in.
“They care about the snow,” Hession said. “And this is really good snow.”
The ski industry has an 85 percent failure rate, according to Hession. When someone shows up for the first time, 85 percent of them will never show up again. Big SNOW is largely geared toward “never evers” (the people who have never skied before), and geared toward bringing them back via terrain-based learning, a concept coined by Patrick and his brother Joe.
“We built terrain that keeps you in a controlled environment and allows you to learn from the guided terrain instead of getting overwhelmed and freaked out by the hill that you don’t want to slide on because you don’t know how to stop, but you can’t learn how to stop without learning how to slide,” Hession said.
Below Big SNOW’s 1,000-foot-long, 160-foot-tall hill is a piece of terrain called a mini-pipe, which looks like a little like a skate ramp covered in snow.
“[The mini-pipe is so] the first time you ever slide, you slide from side to side,” Hession said. “You know you’re not going to go anywhere, so you feel comfortable, and it gives you the sensations of sliding without getting overwhelmed to essentially ease you into the experience, instead of just starting at the top of the hill saying ‘No, no, no, no, no!’ ”
The slope has a 26 percent maximum, 3 percent minimum grade. It provides 4 acres of skiable terrain, and the air temperature is kept at a consistent 28 degrees Fahrenheit.
The 5.5 tons of snow are refreshed, as needed, each night when the room is brought down to 25 degrees, and pure water – “It’s just normal water. There’s nothing special, there are no chemicals in it, that’s a misconception sometimes” said Joe Hession, another Big SNOW owner – is sprayed at a high pressure through small nozzles in the ceiling, creating snow that’s then shaped by snow groomers Jeffrey “Jeb” Anderson, James Dexter, and crew.
Joe Hession started his ski industry career in 1994 as a parking attendant at Vernon Valley Great Gorge (now Mountain Creek Resort), moving up the ranks to cover just about every position on the property, opening up his terrain-based learning company SNOW Operating Inc. with his brother and a few other partners, and eventually having a homecoming of sorts when he bought Mountain Creek in 2017.
The Hessions connected to American Dream operators Triple Five Group, led by Don Ghermezian, about four years ago.
Having a sport attraction inside the mall, rather than just entertainment, expands the mall’s reach through “excitement,” according to Ghermezian.
“It’s not just about having kids go in a theme park or water park, now we’re giving people exercise. When you think about kids watching iPads…and there are times you want to take them to a theme park and ride rides, but they’re not getting exercise doing that.
We wanted American Dream to be a little bit of everything, and this in my mind is the best way to get kids out there exercising and having fun, not just riding rides,” Ghermezian said. “It’s more exciting than going for a jog.”
One size fits all
Experienced snow athletes shouldn’t turn their nose up to Big SNOW, though.
Five-time Olympian, three-time Olympic medalist and the winningest athlete in snowboarding history Kelly Clark said that often, when people go to a mountain, they spend the whole day trying to perfect one run.
“Being able to progress their tricks is a huge advantage I think [of a place like Big SNOW], and when you’re dealing with outdoor winter sports, there are so many variables with weather and conditions,” Clark said. “When you come to place like this, they’re always going to be the same. You know what you’re going to get. You won’t get snowed out, rained out, it won’t be too warm…not to mention you can do it all year round.”
Clark was one of four Olympians in attendance at Big SNOW’s grand opening, including Red Gerard, Lindsey Vonn and Donna Weinbrecht..
“It’s really cool because you can ride it in the middle of the summer, come in and actually snowboard and get really good conditions, which is really awesome, and that’s the fun part for me,” said Gerard, who won gold in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games and is the youngest snowboard gold medalist in Olympic history.
Even working through the night, some decorative features on Big SNOW’s wall, fitted to look like a chalet, appeared unfinished ahead of its grand opening on Thursday.
“We were struggling to get that piece done in time, and we had the date, and we had the snow and the lifts and everything else, and this project, so much work went into it, so I wanted everyone to see what it was like while we were building it. You get the whole experience. You’ll get to see it when it’s done, and now you get to see it when it’s 98 percent done,” Hession joked. “If the facade is what they care about, we didn’t do it right.”
Big SNOW opens officially to the public at 3 p.m. Thursday. A maximum of 500 riders can ski or snowboard each day. Equipment rental is available, and ticket prices vary.