A longtime tradition at Albany’s Empire State Plaza is open for the season ahead of New York’s holiday tree lighting on Sunday. WAMC’s Jesse King stopped by while the state Office of General Services placed the finishing touches on the plaza ice rink.
OGS spokesperson Heather Groll likens preparations for the Empire “Skate” Plaza to a well-oiled machine. The outdoor skating rink has taken the place of the plaza’s fountains every winter since 1976, giving skaters a free place to play from noon to 8 p.m. While a Zamboni polishes the ice, Groll says the rink’s construction starts at summer’s end.
“Once we start draining the pools and get all that dried off, we put some coils down that are filled with a vegetable-grade glycol – and what that does is it freezes underneath, we have two giant chillers on each side of the rink," she explains. "They put up the wooden dasher boards that surround the rink, and then they flood it with water and use the chillers to freeze it.”
“Flood” might be a bit of an overstatement – while perfectly safe, Groll says the ice is only half an inch thick, with mesh stencils of the OGS, Hannaford, and “I Love NY” logos sealed inside. The bright white color, she adds, is also not what it seems.
“A lot of people don’t know that the ice is actually painted white – otherwise it would be sort of like a gray color," says Groll. "So we paint it white so all the logos pop off. The ‘I Love NY’ logo centerpiece is a very popular place for people to get engaged over the winter.”
In a glass pavilion by the rink’s edge, skaters can store their belongings and thaw out with hot chocolate – but for now employees are spraying and stacking skates in preparation for the opening. Hannaford is again sponsoring “Free Skate Rental Saturdays” all season. Groll says employees handle over 950 pairs of skates on their busiest day, and Hannaford spokesman Brian Fabre says attendance is growing.
“Since the partnership began in 2012, we’ve enabled almost 30,000 people to get on the ice for free, so we’re looking forward to another successful year," says Fabre.
BlueShield of Northeastern New York is hosting monthly skating clinics for those looking to sharpen their skills. It’s also presenting this year’s state holiday tree lighting on Sunday. Groll says the rink will host caroling, arts and crafts, carriage rides, and a number of performances.
“We have the Hudson Mohawk Valley Figure Skating Club come in, and they do figure skating demonstrations with their young students, which is always a super popular thing here," notes Groll. "We have ‘Tuba Christmas’ – if you’ve never seen a bunch of tuba players together, it’s pretty fun, gets you really in the holiday spirit.”
The holiday tree will be lit at 5:15 p.m., with fireworks and, of course, skating to follow. Groll says this year’s tree, a 45-foot blue spruce from Sharon Springs, boasts nearly 2,500 LEDs. All in all, she calls the ice rink a holiday staple.
“People who got engaged when they were young got married, had children, and now are bringing their grandkids here to skate," she says. "So it’s a real family tradition, and especially the tree lighting here on Sunday.”
The Empire Skate Plaza is open daily until March 15, weather permitting. It will close early on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. For more information on Sunday's event, go to the city's website.