The first attempt to create an indoor space with a kind of fake snow in it dates back around a century, whilst it is 70 years since the first structure with real snow in it opened, and more than 30 years since the first refrigerated building for skiers did so. Here we list some of the key events in the history of indoor snow centres.
The first ‘indoor snow centre’ was created as a temporary attraction in the Berlin’s Automobilhalle in the summer of 1926 gaining worldwide attention. The following year a planned more permanent facility – complete with ski jump – opened in a disused railway station in Vienna. Both used an English patented fake snow mixture which included sawdust and soda crystals. Initially capturing the world’s imagination, they closed quite quickly as people realised the fake snow wasn’t very slippery.
The first facility to bring snow indoors for skiers dates to 1959 when a facility at Sayama in Japan began operating. It has been renewed several times since, most recently in 2020, but continues to operate. Originally blocks of ice were brought in and broken up in to a skiable surface, but the centre now has all-weather snowmaking machines. The centre is not refrigerated and has plastic curtains at its sides rather than solid walls.
Australia’s Alfio “Alf” Bucceri is believed to be the first person to start working on the concept of indoor snow centres. Three years later his Permasnow indoor snow system, patented in 1985, is working in the first indoor snow centres to open on three continents. Mr Bucceri’s company has influenced many indoor snow and related projects through the past for decades.
The modern era of indoor snow centres began with the first facilities opening in Australia (Mt Thebarton pictured above), Belgium and Japan within a very short period. The centres used refrigerated buildings with sub-zero temperatures but were yet to find ‘real’ snow for the surfaces and had a reputation for being ‘sloping ice rinks’. The precise dates of opening seem lost in time but Mt Thebarton claim work began on their indoor snow centre in 1987 and that it opened in 1988, Belgium’s Casablanca claim they had a dry ski slope converted to an indoor snow slope in 1988. Japan’s Ski in Tsudanuma also claims a 1988 opening. All three claim to the “world’s first.”
Indoor snow skiing gained rapidly in popularity, particular in Japan but also in Belgium and The Netherlands. By far the world’s largest indoor snow centre at that point, and still one of the five largest ever built to this day, LaLaport Skidome SSAWS, opened in a suburb of Tokyo less than five years after the world’s first centre. Built on earthquake-proof piers to avoid the danger of an indoor avalanche in a quake the centre cost $400m US and was 500 metres long, 100 metres wide. Built just as Japan’s bubble-economy and ski-obsession ended, it closed 10 years later having never broken even.
Tamworth Snowdome opens in the UK. Using a patented indoor snowmaking system pioneered by Malcolm Clulow and his company Acer Snowmec, it claimed to be the first ‘real snow’ indoor snow centre using snow made without additives. The owners also trademarked the name ‘Snowdome’ so that no other company could use it for an indoor snow centre. Today The snowdome is one of the world’s longest-surviving indoor snow centres. Acer Snowmec had previously operated a small facility in nearby Telford to perfect their snowmaking system. This had begun operating in 1988 and in its later years hosted children’s parties.
As people began to think more about what might be possible on indoor snow some interesting concepts began to appear. Ski-Trac was invented by Australian Kevin Ferris in the mid 1990s and a development prototype model unveiled in Sydney in 1997. The idea was a revolving indoor mountain with powder snow constantly falling in one section and skiers eternally descending the slope as it moved towards them, creating an endless powder run. The main Ski-Trac design envisaged a 200m diameter deck, weighing approximately 2,500 tonnes and rotating using Mag-lev technology with permanent magnetic support units enabling the entire moving snow-field to “float” soundlessly on a 15mm space, with zero vibration, noise or maintenance requirements for moving parts. Mr Ferris travelled the world seeking development partners and constantly improving the design of the finished product over the next two decades but as yet a Ski-Trac has not been built. The same fate has as yet been the case for a similar Scottish project, Snowvolution.
Japan was home to the most indoor snow centres in the 1990s, most of which have now closed but some remain open to this day. Most were run by or in association with the SNOVA Company who in 1996 submitted a patent for a “natural-seeming and stable artificial snow.” SNOVA snow is a polymer that has been coated with a special treatment and made to absorb water and freeze it.
In 1997 the Finnish resort of Vuokatti became the first to construct an indoor snow ‘ski tunnel’ to allow for year-round cross-country skiing. In their case they also build a sloping tunnel with a halfpipe in it for snowboarders. About 12 more ski tunnels have been built since in China and Europe. Some incorporate shooting-ranges for biathlon training.
SnowWorld (Landgraaf) opens on a former coal mine site in The Netherlands. With a wide 500m+ slope it becomes the largest in Europe, and the largest in the world as the SSAWS centre in Tokyo ceases operations ahead of its 2003 demolition. It later becomes the first indoor centre to stage top-level ski and snowboard races sanctioned by the FIS International Ski Federation. The SnowWorld group grows each year and by the early 2020s operates more than six centres, most in the Netherlands plus Germany and has plans for centres around the world.
Germany’s Alpincentre had opened in 2001 but extensive work in 2004 created the world’s longest ski run at 640 metres, although this is disputed by the French Amneville centre (see below) which is 620m long but claims the 640 metre measurement at the Alpincentre includes some flat sections. The slope also has some curves whilst the French slope is straight. The Alpincentre’s uplift is provided by one of the world’s longest sloping conveyor lifts which unusually runs outside the building.
The first French indoor snow centre, the Snowhall in Amneville, immediately claimed to be the world’s longest and probably still has the biggest indoor vertical too – some 92 metres. The slope was extended to 620 metres long in 2008 in order to maintain the ‘longest in the world’ title claimed by the Alpincentre at Bottrop in Germany (above)
The concept of being able to take an entire indoor ski holiday became reality with a luxurious Kempinski hotel offering “ski chalets” within Ski Dubai. Hotels adjoining a number of other larger indoor ski slopes including SnowWorld Landgraaf in The Netherlands also appeared.
World Record for Blind Speed Skiing indoors
In November 2006 British speed skier Kevin Alderton set an indoor world speed ski record of 90.7kph (56.36mph) at the SnowWorld Landgraaf. Kevin, who was left blinded by a vicious gang attack when he tried to aid a woman who was being threatened, also holds the world speed ski record for blind skiers of 169.4kph which he set at Les Arcs in France.
The first races officially sanctioned to take place on indoor snow by world governing body The International Ski Federation (FIS) take place at SnowWorld Landgraaf with a special three-run slalom Europa Cup slalom event. Indoor snow centres are increasingly used by race teams from around the world who appreciate the guaranteed conditions and long hours on snow possible compared to glacier training.
The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver were a milestone for indoor snow centres as firstly snowboarder Nicolien Sauerbreij, who had trained mostly in indoor snow centres, won the gold medal on the women’s parallel giant slalom – the first Dutch medal at a non-ice skating event in the Winter Olympics, and the 100th Dutch gold medal at the Olympic Games. Although he did not win a medal, Kwame ‘The Snow Leopard’ Nkrumah-Acheampong, who had not even thought of skiing until he got a job on the reception at Milton Keynes Snozone in England eight years before, became the first skier to represent the African country of Ghana at the same Olympics. He finished 53rd of 102 entrants in the Olympic Slalom.
The SnowArena which opened in Lithuania in August was a world first in that as well as the 600 metres in total of indoor snow slopes that are open 365 days a year, there’s another 640m long outdoor slope that can be accessed from the inside and opens when it is cold enough outside.
After many dozens of ski areas had opened in Europe and Asia and a few in New Zealand and Australia, Snowland in Brazil became the first in South America, the fourth continent to open an indoor snow centre (North America had one built but not yet open in new Jersey, USA, at this point, see below).
Africa became the sixth continent to build an indoor snow centre (and with the only one built in North America still closed, the fifth continent to have an operational one) with the opening of Ski Egypt in March from the company that created Ski Dubai.
In July the world’s largest indoor snow centre ever built, so far, opens in the Northeastern Chinese city of Harbin. At 500 metres its longest slope is not the world’s longest but with an indoor snow area of more than 70,000 square metres and multiple runs for different abilities, as well as its own indoor piste map, it has more than twice the snow surface area as the few European centres that can claim longer slopes.
The Dutch company Indoorski Revolution propose an indoor conveyor slope with snow constantly deposited on it. This is currently yet to be built.
Pigeon Forge Snow in Tennessee became the first indoor snow centre to open in North America, however it offers snow tubing, not skiing or snowboarding.
More than a decade after it was built, and after more than 30 years of various planned indoor snow centre projects on the continent not coming to anything, Big Snow American Dream finally opened in New Jersey, USA. This means Antarctica is now the only continent not offering year-round indoor snow sports. The centre was originally built in 2008 but the massive mall project it was a part of was a victim of the global economic crash and it took more than a decade and various huge corporate owners to get the mall, with a price tag variously estimated between $4 and $7 billion, finally open …only to close again a few months later due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A new indoor snow centre at Guangzhou in China, one of the world’s three biggest by snow area, is the first to feature an indoor gondola lift. However it is reported this is later removed when it is decided a chairlift would be a more efficient way to move people up the slopes. By January 2021, 6 months after it opened, it was reported that nearly 2 million people had visited the centre.
Norway’s first indoor snow centre, SNØ, opens near Oslo. As well as being one of Europe and the world’s largest, it has a unique new feature – a cross country ski trail suspended in the air above the downhill ski slope.