At the National Zoo’s annual ZooLights holiday festival, the skating rink resembles a typical winter scene. Crowds of children skate across the rink, laughing and occasionally taking a fall. Because of Washington, D.C.’s mild climate, though, there’s something unusual about this rink, which skaters might not notice until they lace up their skates and start skating. It’s not made of ice.
The rink is a high-tech innovation, created by the company All Year Sports Galaxy, and made of a recycled acrylic material. “It’s really very similar to an ice skating rink,” says Joe Sacco, Associate Director of Education at the Zoo. “The way an ice skating rink works is that you’re really skating on a thin layer of water—as the blade cuts across the ice, the friction melts the ice. This is a very similar process: as you skate across the plastic, you’re skating on a lubricant that’s caused by the friction.” The acrylic polymers that make up the rink are specially designed to release the chemical lubricant in the presence of friction.
Despite the unusual material, skating on the iceless rink is very much like skating on a conventional rink. Visitors rent normal ice skates and have a very similar experience as they traverse the rink. “If you’re an experienced skater, I think what you’ll notice is that you’ll have to push a little harder,” says Sacco. “But if you’re a skater like I am, you’ll notice nothing—you’ll be down as much as you’re up.”
The Zoo chose the iceless rink for a number of reasons, including the ease of setup and installation, but the problems posed by warm weather for a traditional ice rink were the deciding factor. “This type of ice rink really fits our climate better. Last weekend was warm, it was over 60, so if we had a regular ice rink it really would have been water skating,” Sacco says. “This skating rink can be used in any kind of weather—it can be 90 degrees, or it can be 20 below.”
The environmental benefits of this type of rink were also appealing to Zoo staff. “It’s made of recycled acrylics, and they’re non toxic,” says Sacco. “It’s really great to think of that with all these plastics that we’re throwing out, that they’re used, and not put in the trash.” In a traditional rink, the cost of temperature control and adding water can add up.
Setting up the rink is also much easier than installing an ice rink. The pieces of plastic are 4 foot by 8 foot, and fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. No zamboni is necessary: the rink is cleaned simply by vacuuming or using a leaf blower to remove debris, and can be returned to a like-new condition with a pressure washer.
This is the fifth year of the ZooLights festival, but the first with a skating rink, and the iceless rink is the first of its kind in the area. “Every year we try to have something new and exciting, and since ZooLights is a celebration of the winter, having a rink where people skate was a great fit,” Sacco says. “I was talking to some kids earlier this evening, and they were just having a great time. There really aren’t many places to skate nearby, so this is a great option.”
Visit ZooLights, the Zoo’s free holiday light festival, from 5 to 9 p.m. through January 1st. The ice rink is $5 for a 30-minute session, and skate rentals are $2.