From the hill above downtown Stillwater, the ice castle on the St. Croix looks like mounds of plowed snow colored green and blue. Up close, it’s something much different.

“I felt like a little kid being in there,” said Ruthie Milker of Stillwater, who spent 45 minutes at the attraction on opening day Friday. “I thought, this will be 15 minutes and we’ll be done, but we wanted to stay and check out every crevice.”

Stillwater’s new ice castle represents something more, however, than just 25 million pounds of ice piled high next to the river in Lowell Park. It’s central to the city’s hopes to redefine itself as a winter destination by creating cold weather attractions to counterbalance the city’s summer and fall tourism.

“You get swept away when you walk inside,” said Amanda Roseth of Woodbury, promoter for Ice Castles LLC. “You forget about the world around you. You’re surrounded by this beautiful ice and the lights changing color and listening to the music, and it’s peaceful and magical inside.”

The ice castle, Mayor Ted Kozlowski said, is part of “an overall strategy to recreate Stillwater as a 12-month destination. From my standpoint, downtown weekends in Stillwater, cold as it is, usually aren’t that busy.”

On the weekend after the castle opened, he said, “There was definitely an uptick.”

‘Good clean fun’

Ice castles created by Utah-based Ice Castles aren’t new to Minnesota. Eden Prairie had one in the past two years, drawing 85,000 people the first winter. Another was built before that at the Mall of America.

If the company’s one-year contract with Stillwater is renewed next year, it wants to move the attraction farther north of the Lift Bridge to the space occupied this year by the upcoming Hockey Day event.

Roseth, a Mahtomedi native, is director of event operations for Ice Castles, which owns the Stillwater attraction and other ice castles in New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Alberta. She thought of Stillwater as a potential site right away.

“They saw the economic impact potential,” she said of city leaders.

From the outside, the ice castle doesn’t look like the traditional structures built in St. Paul of frozen blocks. Inside, it’s both a storybook fairyland and a Northwoods fun land made of a half-million icicles.

Interest has been driven in part by the Disney movie “Frozen.” In Stillwater, visitors will see the Enchanted Frozen Sisters who live inside the ice.

“Ours is more like a combination of a frozen waterfall, ice caves and a glacier, all in one,” Roseth said. “We have tunnels and passageways and mazes and ice slides and dome rooms. It’s like an outdoor winter playground.”

Milker, who explored the castle with her husband, their daughters and two friends, described it as “like a fortress without the super high peaks.” Inside, she said, they found pathways, colored lights, fire pits and even a little bakery.

“Going in with a good playful attitude is good,” she said. “If we’re going to live in this state where we have frigid temperatures, we need to get back to simple ways of entertaining ourselves. I thought it was good clean family fun.”

Other winter events

The ice castle will remain open into March if temperatures allow it. Other winter events include a major Hockey Day Minnesota event on Jan. 21 that’s expected to draw thousands of participants and spectators, and an outdoor ice cream social on Jan. 28 hosted by the Washington County Historical Society.

Hockey Day, Kozlowski said, “is the most exciting thing I’ve seen happening in this town” because it’s a popular established event held on a professional rink built partly on the St. Croix River.

The ice castle, meanwhile, is expected to fare well, said Robin Anthony, executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce. And so far it seems to be working.

“All the restaurants, the storefronts, are pretty busy,” she said Tuesday.

Business owners were selling drinks and dinners and other products with ice castle themes. Leo’s Grill and Malt Shop were full of customers at the normal closing time Saturday.

“People are talking about it, it’s all over social media, pretty magical,” Anthony said.