There's a winter wonderland in Palo Alto, and it's right off of Middlefield Road.
Winter Lodge, a nonprofit ice skating facility housed in an old-fashioned wood lodge, offers festive trees, holiday lights, cocoa and fireplaces, all in addition to the main draw, an outdoor ice skating rink that's held its own against Palo Alto's Mediterranean climate and the threat of development for more than 65 years. For generations, it's served the community as a special place where kids can go to have fun and play on the ice.
The ice skating rink – which claims to be the only permanent outdoor ice rink west of the Sierra Nevada – has had its run of challenges since it opened in 1956, surviving a developer's plan to turn the land into condos in the 1980s, and most recently a global pandemic that shuttered the facility for seven months.
Leading the show at Winter Lodge is Linda Stebbins Jensen, who has been executive director of the rink since 1986, when it became a nonprofit entity.
The rink opened in February 1956 as The Winter Club, created by San Jose State University engineering professor and former Wisconsinite Duncan Williams. He developed a "refrigerant system with a brine solution in the pipes and some strategically placed shade" to create an outdoor rink, according to an article on PaloAltoHistory.org authored by former resident Matt Bowling.
Williams, a father to three boys, leased the property on a bit of a whim to see if he could make the rink work, Jensen said.
By 1983, Williams planned to retire when the lease was up and owner Richard Peery planned to redevelop the property and build condos there, according to Bowling. Ultimately, a 1985 voter initiative was brought before Palo Altans in two measures: one to authorize a land swap, and the second to permit a Geng Road parcel to be swapped for the Winter Lodge property, he said.
Both measures passed by a historically wide margin, according to Jensen. Now the nonprofit leases its land from the city of Palo Alto.
In 1986, Jensen, who had once been a high school employee at the Winter Club, was named executive director of the newly renamed Winter Lodge.
Over the years, the facility has developed into what it's best known as today: one of the largest skating schools in the country with a reputation for old-fashioned fun.
"You just feel welcome when you walk in," said Jenna Bay, a manager and all-level instructor at Winter Lodge. "It's a cozy, family place. Everyone comes here and can relax."
She said her favorite part of the job is seeing the enjoyment her young students experience when they master a new skill on the ice. "That's what's worth it — when they get it and, you know, land a hard jump. It's like,'Oh, that's what I've been working for.'"
'It takes a village'
Winter Lodge had been humming along under Jensen's leadership — until COVID-19 struck.
"Clearly, you can't run an operationally funded nonprofit when you're not allowed to run," she said. "We were shut down for seven months."
The damage would have been worse, Jensen said, had the team at Winter Lodge not been able to work with Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park) and his office to iron out the language in California's COVID-19 restrictions. State and county COVID regulations clearly stated that all ice rinks must be closed until a county reached the "yellow" tier, she said, in which the risk of infection was determined to be "minimal."
Yet outdoor rinks, like other outdoor activities, pose far less of an infection threat than indoor activities. "They didn't think about us," Jensen said of the state officials who made the regulations. "There aren't any other permanent outdoor ice skating rinks in California."
"I was more than happy to make the case to the California Department of Public Health that outdoor ice rinks provided a safe – and desperately needed – opportunity for fun and recreation at a time when there weren't many of those," Berman said.
"I have many fond memories of parties at Winter Lodge as a kid, and I'm glad that even during COVID, children (and adults!) were able to have those fun experiences in a safe way," he said.
Berman's office, Jensen said, helped to alter the wording of those regulations to permit outdoor ice rinks like theirs to reopen – albeit under a number of new restrictions – in late October 2020, she said. Capacity was limited to roughly 35% of what the nonprofit rink offered during a regular season, "which is not sustainable," she said.
However, between being able to open in October 2020 and receiving federal, state and community financial support through the pandemic, Winter Lodge was able to make it through the last two years with its management team intact, Jensen said.
Community Skating, Inc., the name of the nonprofit organization that runs Winter Lodge, received a total of $289,065 in two rounds of federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, which have since been forgiven. The rink also received funding from a triple-matching grant from the Anne Wojcicki Foundation, Jensen said.
"It took a village," she said.
Just when things were starting to feel darkest during the pandemic, in November 2020, the rink was announced as the top-voted ice skating rink based on Yelp results, as reported by USA Today, Jensen said. The announcement, she said, felt "extraordinarily good" and gave the team inspiration to keep going, she said.
"We need to keep doing it and have faith that we're going to get back to ... our mission, which is just being a really fun family place for kids, families ... recreation (and) wholesome fun."
That mission seems to also resonate with a number of the staffers at Winter Lodge. In interviews, each spoke of their own childhoods spent at the rink and the friendly atmosphere they found there.
Corey O'Farrell, a college-aged man who helps manage and maintain the ice, said he grew up playing hockey at Winter Lodge and has been working there since he was a high school sophomore, when he began handing out skates and "ice guarding" — like being a lifeguard, but on ice.
Maintaining the outdoor rink requires a "constant dance with the weather," according to Jensen. That means keeping tabs on the sun, rain, wind, humidity and how it'll change every hour. While she was explaining this, the outdoor rink was covered with a thin insulated tarp to keep the sun off the ice and reflect heat.
"This place is like a community," O'Farrell said. "It's kind of like walking into a neighborhood of a bunch of people that you know."
Karie Nanez, assistant director at Winter Lodge, said she'd skated at Winter Lodge since she was 9 years old and had worked there since she was 13. Her aunt coached there once, and her sister also coaches. The place, she says, "feels like a home away from home. ... It's a very comforting atmosphere here."
She coaches the performing teams and says she's been working with many of her students since they were little. Working with the same girls from roughly age 4 through high school, she's developed a bond with them and enjoys how rewarding it is to see them develop through higher levels of skating. It feels like a luxury to not have to compete, she said.
"The only thing we're about is being supportive and having fun doing your sport that you love. I don't know that you get that everywhere. "
If you go
Winter Lodge, located at 3009 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto, is open this season through April 10, with planned closures for the holidays on Dec. 24, 25 and 31, and Jan. 1. Admission is $16 per person and skate rentals are $5 per person. Public sessions are offered from 3 to 5 p.m. every day, from 8 to 10 a.m. on Wednesdays through Fridays and from 8 to 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. An additional adult session is offered Wednesdays from 8 to 10 p.m., and an additional family session is held Sundays from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Skate rentals are available from a toddler size 6 up to a women's size 14 and a men's size 15. Classes at Winter Lodge are available for ages 5 and up.
Go to winterlodge.com for more information.