American Dream, New Jersey’s retail and entertainment megaplex, on Thursday debuted North America's first and only indoor, real-snow, year-round ski and snow park.
Billed as “the most fun you can have indoors,” Big SNOW marked the ceremonial first chair and ribbon-cutting with Olympians Lindsey Vonn, Red Gerard, Donna Weinbrecht, and Kelly Clark. The media also was invited to take a first look at the 16-story, 180,000-square-foot complex.
Big SNOW and the rest of American Dream inhabit the massive building from the failed-project known as Xanadu. The once-psychedelically painted structure was an eyesore near MetLife Stadium and drew the ire of locals and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who once called it "the ugliest damn building in New Jersey and maybe America."
After a decade of sitting vacant, the notorious building opened to the public in October as American Dream with its first phase: the Nickelodeon Universe and The Rink at American Dream. Yahoo Finance visited then and returned this week to bring you what skiers and riders can expect to find at the home of the endless winter.
What it got right
Arguably, one of the biggest barriers to entry for equipment-heavy skiing or snowboarding is the price. The minds behind Big SNOW nailed it on attractively pricing the cost of admission. (Full disclosure: Yahoo Finance visited on media day, so the day pass and equipment rental were gratis.)
Two hours of slope access at Big SNOW starts at $29.99 when you bring your own equipment. For $49.99, a visitor gets two hours plus rental equipment that includes a helmet, skis or snowboard, boots, ski poles, snow pants and snow jacket.
If you’re committed to hitting that fresh — er, man-made — powder, a three-day package is available for three anytime visits for $149.99, or $129.99 when you buy online.
To underscore what a great deal Big SNOW is, a full-day lift ticket for an adult at Mountain Creek in Vernon, New Jersey, is $79.99. That’s a bargain compared with the $209 Deer Valley in Park City, Utah, charges for a one-day adult lift ticket on a holiday weekend. And neither price includes the cost of equipment rentals or outerwear.
American Dream has a history of stumbling on pricing. When its first phase opened in October, there was a public outcry over the eye-watering parking fees. These have since been eliminated, so that’s a boon for all drivers.
Helpful staff and omnipresent security
First-day jitters from some of the 300 new staff members were noticeable, but even in the presence of VIPs, Olympians, TV cameras, and reporters – not to mention wrestling a glitchy point-of-sale system – the staff was unflappable. The spirit of graciousness and excitement was infectious and everyone I encountered was eager to please.
Even for the most proficient skier or rider, gliding down any slope — indoors or outdoors— is always dangerous. There were at least a dozen uniformed ski patrol members positioned all over the slope. Thankfully, no one was injured on opening day, but the squad appeared ready to jump into action should someone need assistance.
Big SNOW is run by SNOW Operating, a global training, support and service firm for ski resort operations.
Use of technology
One of the pain points of skiing and snowboarding is hauling your heavy gear or waiting in rental lines to get your equipment. Big SNOW ingeniously made the entire gear and rental experience frictionless.
Benches, private changing stalls and lockers, that open with a wave of your microchipped wristband, are abundant in the gear area.
Your microchipped wristband also stores your full profile with relevant information like age, height, weight, jacket, pants and helmet size used by the gear technicians to appropriately outfit every visitor. A Big SNOW technician said that every visitor will have their sizing preferences recorded, meaning you can bypass tedious fittings, grab your gear, and go for all subsequent visits.
Opening day ran with a skeleton crew, but at full force, gear technicians will be 10 to 12 strong to help skiers and riders quickly get outfitted.
Great, powdery snow
Any East Coast skier worth their salt knows that trail conditions typically oscillate from ice to ice; powder is a luxury reserved for skiers on the West Coast. Navigating any slope covered in a sheet of ice is a skill gained out of necessity for East Coasters when skiing on their home turf, but not while skiing at New Jersey’s Big Snow.
At Big SNOW, the 5,500 tons of snow rivals what you’d find in Utah or Colorado. To simulate the ideal snow consistency, radiant cooling in the flooring of the ski slope helps refrigerate the snow from below along with the climate-controlled temperature of 28 degrees. The dry “powdery” snow has an average depth of 2 feet.
Big, Big Snow’s mascot
Big, the eponymous yeti mascot of Big SNOW, is an undeniably adorable creature. Before heading up to the slope, skiers and riders watch a short video on the slope’s rules, but it’s Big and his elaborate backstory who steals the show.
Viewers learn that Big moved to the city from points elsewhere and he missed his native habitat so much that he built a ski slope to quell his homesickness. The charming story and life-sized, waving mascot endeared me, and Big secured a lifelong stan.
Mountain town ambiance
No two ways about it: Indoor skiing is strange. To compensate for the lack of sun and natural scenery, Big SNOW’s designers recreated the look and feel of a wintery ski resort. The bottom of the slope is painted to resemble a chalet. Three other walls that are still blank will eventually be painted with landscape murals, and trees also will be added, Don Ghermezian, CEO of American Dream’s developer, Triple Five, told NJ.com.
The interior is chilly, but comfortable in the absence of wind, while bright lights simulate the sun’s rays. There’s music pumping through the slope’s sound system and the energy is high.
Wonderful retail presence
In case the presence of a yeti, powdery snow and chair lift transported your mind someplace other than a retail megaplex in New Jersey, the developers adroitly designed Big SNOW so visitors enter and exit through the gift shop.
Equipment shops are a part of the scenery in ski villages, so Big SNOW followed suit. Branded merchandise and apparel, Burton snowboarding gear, equipment and token hand warmers are available for purchase.
Ample opportunities for guests
A 16-story slope is intimidating, so Big SNOW will eventually offer introductory lessons, private coaching, and children’s programs to appeal to a wider audience. The slope will also be available for corporate team-building and private events.
Where it missed the mark
To call Big SNOW a resort is a bit of a stretch. A resort typically implies an all-day or weekend destination. Each access pass is good for two hours and that’s an appropriate amount of time before the runs get monotonous.
Joe C.’s Hot Cocoa is Big SNOW’s cafe that caters warm (and highly caloric) treats like Unicorn Horn waffle and Peanut Butter Pretzel hot chocolate to the chilled masses. But what skiers and riders really want after a day on the slopes is a place to lounge, ideally by a fire, and let their tired muscles unwind. Big Snow lacks a true apres-ski lodge, and unfortunately, there’s no substitute for the real deal.
Trail options at Big SNOW are limited. The complex boasts four trails over four skiable acres and each is categorized using the universal slope difficulty rating system to identify beginner, intermediate, and advanced runs: green circle, blue square, and black diamond.
At Big SNOW, there is Lil’ Dipper, commonly referred to as a bunny hill. The single-chair lift services Switchback, a blue square; Northern Lights, a black diamond; and The Park, a terrain park for those seeking extra thrills and heights.
The difference between Switchback and Northern Lights is negligible, but that’s about to change. For advanced skiers and riders, a double-black diamond run and moguls, or bumps punctuating steep trails that require the skier to make sharp and technical turns, is coming next week. For novices or those just looking to have fun, sledding and tubing are also in the works.
Big SNOW is definitely a novelty, but it would be incorrect to put it in the same league as an actual ski mountain. Advanced skiers and riders could easily get bored after two hours of gliding over the same terrain. For East Coasters who can’t swing a trip out West or to a nearby ski slope or want to perfect their skills in the offseason, Big SNOW fits the bill.
Big SNOW is perfect as a microcosm of a ski slope that excels in exposing skiing, snowboarding, and snow activities to a broader audience. For the snow-curious, it’s a great lower-cost, low-commitment option for adults and children who think they might want to learn how to ski or snowboard.
Where Big SNOW can really get a piece of the market is if it advertises itself as a boutique fitness facility. Similar to how fitness buffs pay upwards of $36 for an indoor cycling class or $38 to row indoors, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that skiing or riding at Big SNOW could become the next ‘it’ workout.
Big SNOW is open daily from 10 am to 10 pm. The Dreamworks Waterpark at American Dream was initially scheduled to open Nov. 27, but no word on when the park will launch.
Stephanie is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.