Faking the slopes
Around the world, snow domes take the slopes to skiers 365 days a year
By Aurelie Gaudry
(CNN) -- The warmth of the spring sun on the winter's last snow usually signals the end of the ski season. But for some skiers in Europe and parts of Asia, it means it's time to hit the indoor runs at the local snow dome.
Snow domes house realistic snow and ski slopes for powder hounds who seek year-round fixes. Most contain one slope, which is sometimes divided into a couple of runs. From the outside, the large refrigerated structures, measuring up to 2,000 feet long and 330 feet wide, resemble sports arenas or airplane hangars.
Some of the estimated 50 snow domes around the world are built into hillsides, while others have been built as high as 12 stories, according to travel writer and researcher Patrick Thorne, who tracks snow dome activity on the Web site he co-runs, Snow365.com.
The majority of these structures are in Europe and Asia. The Netherlands has seven and Japan has at least a dozen. Skibaan Casablanca near Antwerp, Belgium, which opened its doors in 1988 and continues to operate to this day, claims to be the earliest pioneer.
There are no snow domes in North America, but at least one is being planned, amid legal battles over land development. According to Elizabeth Parlett, spokeswoman for the Mills Corporation, construction on Xanadu in New Jersey should begin by the end of March with a projected opening date of Spring 2007.
The $1.3 billion Xanadu plan includes a 140-foot high snow dome that covers an area of more than 250,000 square feet. Slopes will be divided to accommodate different skill levels with a separate area for snowboarding. Xanadu will feature other recreational activities such as skydiving and car racing, in addition to numerous retail areas, entertainment venues and dining options.
Convenience is key
The flat topography of northern Europe means traditional ski slopes are scarce, driving many Europeans to the Alps for winter sports.
If they choose to drive to the Alps, British skiers and snowboarders must travel 10 to 20 hours, crossing the English Channel by tunnel for a weekend on the slopes. With ski domes such as Xscape Castleford in Yorkshire, fresh powder is only 20 minutes away by car for people living in Leeds. Another Xscape dome is 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) northwest of London in Milton Keynes.
"Having these things on their doorstep so they can go and practice a bit on top of their one week in the snow every year, I think that makes them quite successful," Thorne says.
Alex Eeles, a public relations account executive in London, England, finds the domes convenient. "I live in London, and it's not like I can drive two hours and go off a mountain and ski, so this is a very viable alternative," he said. He looks forward to testing a new pair of ski boots at the Milton Keynes snow dome.
"I can just drive up to Milton Keynes and test them out for an hour, and then if they're not right I can obviously go and change them."
Wide appeal for domes
A skier catches some air off a rail at Xscape Castleford in Yorkshire, England.
The Castleford snow dome in England attracts a variety of people, says Sarah Porteus, marketing director for Xscape. "It's very much a mixture of people that are already into extreme sports that come for the ski slopes, the skate parks, things like that."
Snowboarders make ideal clients for snow domes. "They can build half pipes and jumps and they can practice their tricks sort of indefinitely. So it works very well for them," Thorne says.
"Out in Japan, there's a few that are for snowboarding only," he adds.
Thorne suggests that beginning skiers work on their skills in a dome before hitting real slopes. "Take your first few runs and practice your techniques before you go out to a conventional ski resort," he says.
Not quite the great outdoors
Skiing inside presents limitations that don't exist on the mountain. Runs tend to be short and the slopes themselves pretty easy, according to Thorne.
"They try to ... add slalom courses and things to make them more difficult but they're not really, in truth," he said.
Eeles also finds the runs at the Milton Keynes snow dome to be quite short.
"Someone who's skied a lot would get bored very quickly, I would think because it's just these two very short runs," he said.
A structure called Ski-Trac, which has never been built, would make dome skiing more challenging, says Thorne. The Ski-Trac snow dome design consists of a large-scale rotating snowfield comparable to a treadmill.
"The theory there is that as it goes a little bit faster, then the skiing gets a little bit tougher," he says.
According to Thorne, the Australian inventor of the Ski-Trac signed letters of intent with many prospective builders but none of these projects have made it off the ground.
Still, Eeles describes his experiences at the Milton Keynes snow dome as "very realistic" even though the wetter snow packs down quickly and the scenery isn't quite the same. "It's quite fun in a novelty value kind of way. I'm inside and I'm skiing, which is quite cool!"
Giant leisure complexes
Fireworks light up the sky outside Xscape Castleford in Yorkshire, England.
The Milton Keynes snow dome serves as Eeles's choice slope on the home front. Xscape's two snow domes offer more than skiing. These complexes offer a cluster of leisure activities, shopping and restaurants.
"We've got rock climbing. At Xscape Castleford, we've got an ice climbing wall, skateboard park, and then there's cinema, bowling", says Porteus, the marketing director.
Both snow slopes operate seven days a week from 9 in the morning until 11 at night. Skiing prices range from $24 to $37 for juniors and $30 to $32 for adults. Special short sessions offer reduced rates.
While skiers may get more bang for their buck at conventional resorts, they can often hit the slopes for less time, money and effort at the domes.
"If you do go to a conventional ski area, you would pay for the day usually because you spend so much effort getting there -- say $50 -- whereas with a dome, you might only pay for an hour or two hours at say $15 an hour," says Thorne.
"It's different in that you haven't got to factor in so much -- so many different things -- as you do in real skiing," says Eeles.
The future of fake slopes
While some developers build stand-alone domes, Thorne says building domes within large restaurants and shopping complexes seems to be the trend.
Thorne estimates it costs from $1 million to build a stand-alone snow dome up to $1 billion for the bigger leisure complexes. Funding aside, developers must also gather support from the community.
"For every one that actually gets built, there must be at least 50 or 60 proposals that don't happen," says Thorne. "There's five or six built around the world every year and if anything, you know there's a couple more being built every year, rather than a couple less."