Making snowy magic

CLEARWATER

What's it take to make it snow in Florida? It takes a lot of sweat, it turns out.

Every year for the holidays, cities around Tampa Bay order up tons of snow for kid-oriented events with names like Santa Fest, Snowfest, Old Time Christmas or Winter Wonderland.

Where's all that white stuff come from? Crews roll in with refrigerated trucks stuffed to the ceilings with 50-pound bags of ice. They haul it all out and grind it up in wood-chipper-like machines and blast it through heavy-duty snow-blowers.

The kings of Florida snow are a handful of guys who own regular old ice companies in places like Bradenton and Gainesville. They spend the bulk of the year on the mundane task of ferrying endless loads of bagged ice to convenience stores so people can chill their beer in coolers.

But during the holidays, the icemen get to make a little white magic. Their workers turn into snow elves, striving to achieve just the right fine, powdery consistency.

"It is authentic snow. It's powder, just like you'd see up north. It's crisp when we blow it. It stays fluffy for a while, then it mats down and gets icy," said Rick Bunch, owner of Gainesville Ice.

His company supplied snow Friday night for "Miracle on Cleveland Street," which pulled a teeming crowd of thousands into sleepy downtown Clearwater.

The result: Florida kids who had never seen an ice scraper were suddenly sitting on toboggans, wide-eyed and giggling as they hurtled down a snow slide.

"That was awesome!" shouted 7-year-old Jenny Schultz of Dunedin. "It's just like on TV!"

For the ice industry, this is a glamorous side gig whenever December rolls around. But the economics of Florida snow dictate that only cities, theme parks and big, prosperous churches will shell out the money for it.

"It's a thousand dollars minimum just to roll the equipment. There's some expense involved in it," said Doug Morgan, owner of Manatee Ice, which does the honors for downtown St. Petersburg's Snowfest every year.

"You usually won't spend that kind of money for your kid's birthday party. People say, 'What do you mean it's going to be a thousand dollars for snow? It's free up north!' "

Morgan charges $250 a ton for small gigs, with discounts for big jobs. That covers the cost of making ice, trucking it in, powderizing it and spreading it into snowdrifts, "play piles" and slides.

Many of these companies' snow-blowing machines are decades old, originally designed for other purposes. Gainesville Ice's machines were once used to coat harvests of corn, broccoli and celery with ice to keep them fresh for shipping. Manatee Ice uses what Morgan describes as "100-horsepower snow cone makers." They once iced up the hulls of fishing and shrimping boats for the catch.

Now they shoot out flurries of Florida snow.

Event organizers have to keep a lid on snowball fights, as kids quickly find that this stuff packs into snowballs just like the snow up north. But the slides are always the main attraction.

"When kids get up on the slide, some are scared, nervous, mad, embarrassed," said Bunch, who's been doing this for 20 years. "The second you let the sled go and they start down that snow slide, they're smiling ear-to-ear. It's like the cure-all."

And for just a little while, winter looks white.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Making snowy magic 12/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 12, 2009 12:18am]

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