Ice On Whyte All Grown-Up

Note: This article is about the 2018 Boardwalk Ice On Whyte but still tells the history of its transformation.

It’s hard to believe that the Boardwalk Ice On Whyte Festival has been Edmonton’s winter favourite for only 15 years. From its original location at McIntyre Park, to End-of-Steel Park, to this year being right on Whyte Avenue, the festival has gone through several changes.

Let’s go back 16 years before Ice On Whyte began. Back in 2002, the closest ice carving festival was over 3 hours away, if you’d brave the unpredictable winter driving conditions to travel to the Ice Magic Festival at Lake Louise. It was a costly experience, as you’d not only need to account for the price of fuel, but also the Banff National Park fee, as well as write-off the entire day driving there and back again.

“Illusion” at Ice On Whyte 2018.

Move ahead one year to 2003 with Wanda Bornn, the Ice On Whyte festival producer who had the vision to bring those world-class ice carvings to our city. It was a grand vision to put Edmonton on the map as a winter destination alongside our sister city of Harbin, China, which has the world’s most incredible ice festival.

The first few festivals began with displays of ice sculptures with entry by generous donations only. A few years down the road, as its popularity grew, it was necessary to begin charging admission, both to bring in talented artists, but also to pay for sculpting-grade ice, and of course the overhead.

2006 Ice on Whyte in McIntyre Park.

Bornn’s vision began to catch on as Ice On Whyte moved to a larger, more visible location at End-of-Steel Park. It was a gamble that paid off, especially during a time when Edmonton was still a place to be avoided all seasons of the year. From that move on, the Ice on Whyte Festival has continued to transform and shape our city beyond ice carvings and slides.

In 2012, there were two sites as Ice On Whyte partnered with the one-time Heilongjiang Winter Festival at the Alberta Legislature grounds. Heilongjiang, China is Alberta’s twin province, where the city of Harbin is located. Visitors were able to hop on the Edmonton Radial Railway to travel between the two sites along the High Level Streetcar line, which was perfect timing to celebrate the centennial of Strathcona’s amalgamation into the city of Edmonton.

From then until 2017, Ice on Whyte continued to remain at End-of-Steel Park, waiting for the rest of the city to catch up to embrace winter.

During this time, our city tried to find a winter-oriented identity. There was the Metropolis Winter Festival which cost a cool $1.2 million to run. For months, a giant white eyesore stood in Churchill Square, with the structure blocking that year’s First Night celebrations. Needless to say, it never returned.

The city poured money into other winter events, such as Winter Light, and I Heart Yeg winter festivals. Both were flops compared to the continual success of Ice On Whyte.

This year’s 2nd place ice carving, “Magic”

Then with the advent of social media and the Winter City Edmonton initiative, the City was finally ready to catch up with the vision to make Edmonton a winter destination. Ice On Whyte was a pioneer in the City’s winter focus. Today there are some other popular winter events such as Flying Canoe and Silver Skate Festivals. With the onslaught of an ongoing winter events calendar in Festival City, Ice On Whyte is once again forging ahead.

It’s not surprising that the community-oriented festivals like Deep Freeze and All Is Bright often find more success than city-run festivals such as the Winter Cities Shake Up Fest. The Old Strathcona community has backed Ice On Whyte in this way right from the start.

The new format of Ice On Whyte continues the community spirit, and brings in another vision Wanda Bornn has for the festival. Now that we have so many family-oriented winter festivals on a circuit here to stay, Bornn sees that there is a need to include an audience which has been marginalized – the adults who have have grown-up alongside Ice On Whyte.

Last year’s Canada 150 celebrations gave Ice On Whyte the opportunity to test out some of her initiative to attract adult festival-goers. There was a change in festival days, moving to only extended weekends. The extra funding meant that the $60,000 ice slide was paid for, which brought in more entertainment for a demographic who wanted to spend a night-out in Old Strathcona.

There was blues music, date night events, and a burlesque show was introduced in the beer tent last year, all receiving high praise. Now that the extra government grants aren’t available, it’s obvious Ice On Whyte still needs to fill the missing gap for this cohort in the population.

The burlesque show at Ice On Whyte.

The new shift brings Ice On Whyte back to its roots, now that it hosts one of only three International Ice Carving Competitions in Canada. The location this year is front and centre, right along historic Whyte Avenue, at the same site with its counterpart the Boardwalk Sand On Whyte festival.

Looking across social media, it’s clear that Ice On Whyte’s new format is a hit with the community and businesses in Old Strathcona. Bornn knows that the downsized festival site may take some time getting used to, but she knows that it will be better for to complete the Old Strathcona Experience.

Cherie Klassen, executive director Old Strathcona Business Association also agrees.

In an interview with Edmonton Made, she says, “It’s a win-win really for both the festival and the business district. The festival looks like it’s got greater value — you go in and you buy a ticket and you can also get a discount at a local business. For the businesses, they actually know now that people that come down to Ice on Whyte will shop.”

In the past, people have jam-parked residential streets all hours of the day, spent half their time queuing up for the ice slide, warmed up in the entertainment tent, then left without ever engaging with the businesses in the area. It was an expensive endeavour to host such a large site.

This year, Ice On Whyte is hoping visitors will be able to be a tourist in their own city; to really explore and enjoy what the community has to offer. There are deals with GoAsAGroup, where local Old Strathcona businesses have partnered up for night-out and date night events to complete the Old Strathcona Experience. The entertainment has moved into the supporting businesses themselves, which includes a burlesque brunch and the annual stew-off.

The focus is back on the ice carvings themselves, and that’s a good thing. It’s in line with the Ice On Whyte Festival Society’s objective to advance the public’s appreciation of the arts. The International Ice Carving Competition moved into a gallery tent, the same as what Ottawa’s Winterlude has done. More competition-grade ice has been shipped in, and the festival has been able to bring in more artists, while supporting home-grown talent.

Adult festival-goers spending a night-out at the Ice Bar.

The Ice Bar has received great reviews by the adult crowd, with its ice luge for drinks, and hot alcoholic drinks to keep warm in the cozy atmosphere. It’s featuring our local distilleries right from our own city. Visitors are also enjoying Meat Street pies as they spend more time admiring the ice carvings in the gallery.

Even though there is a shift to attract the adult audience, it’s not completely void of things for families. The Little Chippers program is still here, for kids to make their own carvings to take home (there’s also a Big Chippers at night). During the ‘off’ days, the site will be hosting school visits and non-profit organizations.

Yes, I’ve heard some of the feedback in regards to the lack of ice slide, and the mere $7 adult entrance fee. But let’s be real here, no non-profit organization (or even for-profit for that matter) could continue to remain free forever. Without government grants, some free festivals would not be able to continue annually. The $7 is barely enough to pay for an hour parking, were it held downtown. Let’s be honest, to fly artists (whom also can’t work for free) from around the world here to spend 35 hours in the cold carving spectacular works of temporal art is absolutely worth it.

Premier Notley unveils the Canada 150 Mural, created during Ice On Whyte.

So while it may be a change some may not be expecting from the Ice On Whyte of their childhood memories, the festival is preparing us for new memories and winter experiences. Many other winter cities have already embraced this new metropolitan shift; it’s only a matter of time for Edmonton to catch up.

The ice carving art gallery at Ice On Whyte 2018.

This post was not sponsored by Ice On Whyte, nor by the Old Strathcona Business Association. As mentioned, there are some changes to the format of the festival, so be sure to visit to maximize your visit before you go. The festival opens its last weekend this Thursday, February 1, and will run until Sunday, February 4, 2018.

Update: The 2020 Boardwalk Ice On Whyte runs from January 23 to February 2, 2020.