Snowboarders came from Colorado or California, not from Jersey City. That’s what Omar Diaz, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, thought growing up in the 1980s in this city outside New York. As a child, Diaz swooned at images of faraway mountains in ski magazines. But it wasn’t until 1989, while working as a dishwasher at a hotel, that he discovered there were skiing and snowboarding hills just a few hours away — and joined some of the cooks for a trip to the Catskill Mountains.
“Wait, I need to get to the top of that?” Diaz remembers thinking as he first looked up at the hill. He spent most of the first day falling on his rented snowboard, but something about the experience left a mark. Soon, he was making the trek north every weekend. His parents and neighborhood friends didn’t understand. Wasn’t it cold? Wouldn’t he get sick? Diaz stopped trying to explain himself — he knew he would be a snowboarder for life.
Eventually, that love translated to the Hoods to Woods Foundation, a nonprofit Diaz cofounded in 2009 dedicated to getting underprivileged youth from the New York City metro area into snowboarding. It started with Diaz and his Brooklyn-raised friend Brian Paupaw, driving a handful of kids to New Jersey’s Mountain Creek in a 1990-something Honda Civic. Before long, the organization was busing dozens of kids to the mountains of New Jersey and New York state. The resorts became great partners, but the weekend drives were long and equipment wrangling was a constant source of frustration.
That all changed in 2019, when the mountains decided to come to them.
Big Snow American Dream is not your typical mountain. Set inside a New Jersey shopping mall just a few miles from Manhattan, it’s North America’s first indoor ski and snowboard area, fully climate-controlled to offer year-round snow sports on the fringes of the country’s largest metropolis. It taps into the two sports’ vastly underserved markets, partnering with organizations like Diaz’s to build a bridge into the mountains.
“What Big Snow has single-handedly done is allowed us to expand by providing the same services we had in a limited winter capacity throughout the year,” Diaz says. “It allows us to reach out to all these neighborhoods within 30 minutes of Big Snow. Now I can get kids from anywhere in the tri-state in there after school.”
The New Jersey snow center may be just the beginning. Big Snow has ambitions to open in other cities around the U.S., according to Hugh Reynolds, chief marketing officer of Big Snow’s parent company, Snow Operating. Other companies are planning to join the market. If they succeed, some predict, they could bring millions of new participants to snow sports — making the skiing and snowboarding industry more inclusive than ever before.
Indoor skiing “has the chance to create a blueprint for new pathways of winter sport participation,” says Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. And for young athletes, he says, better access to snow sports could create an opportunity for scholarships and jobs that “becomes transformational, both in the landscape of sport and beyond.”
Indoor ski areas have existed in Europe and parts of the Middle East and Asia for decades, but despite a handful of attempts, they didn’t land in North America until Big Snow. That could be because the U.S. ski industry has been slower to embrace the sometimes disconcerting feel of skiing indoors. It takes one quick glance at the concrete confines of a place like Big SNOW to see that it doesn’t have the same aesthetic appeal or experience as an outdoor ski mountain.
Plus, at only 160 feet of vertical drop and spread across just four acres, Big Snow is one of the smallest ski areas in the country. By comparison, nearby Mountain Creek, on the Kittatinny Mountain ridge of northern New Jersey, has 1,040 feet of vertical drop and 168 skiable acres, while industry giant Park City Mountain in Utah boasts up to 3,200 feet of vertical drop spread across 7,000 acres.
But what the new ski area lacks in size, it makes up for in an even more valuable amenity: proximity. Big Snow is just 7 miles from Times Square, a 30-minute ride from Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, and within an hour’s drive of nearly all 20 million people in the New York City metropolitan area.
Getting new populations into winter mountain sports has been a continuous struggle for the industry. Because they require expensive equipment and are typically set in mountainous and transportation-sparse areas, skiing and snowboarding are geographically and financially out of reach for large swaths of the world’s populace.
Participation is particularly low for people of color, who make up 38% of the U.S. population but only 25% of the 9.5 million Americans who ski annually, according to a 2020 survey by the trade group Snowsports Industries America.
Big Snow is just 11 miles from Times Square, a 30-minute bus ride from Manhattan’s Port Authority, and within an hour’s drive of nearly all 20 million people in the New York City metropolitan area.
Diaz says it was years before he saw “someone that looked like [him]” on a snowboard. That was part of the reason he and Paupaw started Hoods to Woods, working with a group of New York-based volunteers. When Big Snow opened just minutes from home, he saw a whole new world of opportunity.
“[Indoor skiing and snowboarding] can be provided to anyone, everywhere,” Diaz says.
The creation of an indoor snow center was anything but an overnight phenomenon. Construction on the snow ramp right off the New Jersey Turnpike, then part of a project called Xanadu, began in the early 2000s, then stalled because of lack of funding. Eventually, after bankruptcies and a collapsed wall due to winter storm damage, developers Triple Five Group bought the facility. To run it, they tapped Snow Operating, headed by Reynolds and Joe Hession, two New Jersey residents with long experience in the local ski industry.
Smack in the middle of American Dream, a suburban shopping mall on the edge of the Meadowlands sports complex, Big Snow is a 180,000-square-foot facility with four distinct slopes. Dimly lit, with the hazy shimmer of frozen snow particles in the air, Big Snow’s concrete confines could be mistaken for a refrigerated warehouse, were it not for the brightly colored fencing, the on-slope coffee stand, and the dancing Yeti mascot, Big. One four-person chairlift shuttles skiers and boarders to the highest point of the ski hill, where patrons can choose between an intermediate blue square trail and a more advanced black diamond. Blue-clad instructors wander the base, helping beginners access the mellower terrain along the center’s left-hand side as well as a pair of magic carpets (surface level lifts that operate like an uphill conveyor belt).
Inside the ski area, the temperature is kept at 28 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The facility makes its own conditions: It can convert and spray out 1,100 gallons of frozen water and compressed air as snow every hour.
Guests pay for ski access in two-hour time slots, which run as low as $40 — a far cry from the outdoor skiing day ticket that averages around $100 (at Deer Valley, Utah, it’s $249). Big Snow also offers a monthly pass, like a gym membership, that provides unlimited skiing and riding for $79 a month.
Within its first year, cut short by the pandemic, Big Snow hosted 90,000 first-time skiers and snowboarders, nearly 1% of the total new skiiers and snowboarders in the entire country over that time. Sierra Shafer, editor-in-chief of Ski Magazine, says there’s more to that boom than sheer location. While an easy commute is one part of the availability puzzle, she points to the facility’s service rental shop — where you can walk in with sandals and a T-shirt and walk out with full outerwear, skis, boots and a helmet — as a catalyst for increased numbers.
“It’s not just skis and boots, it’s all of it. That’s huge,” explains Shafer. “Suddenly it’s not this big threatening environment, where you feel like you need to have the right gear and to protect yourself against the weather.”
“I wanted to start snowboarding, but my mom doesn’t have a lot of money,” says Luis Diaz, 14, from Paterson, New Jersey. Luis — who isn’t related to Omar — started riding this fall as part of a five-day Hoods to Woods clinic at Big Snow. “It’s lit because it’s indoors, so I could go there every day, get better at snowboarding, and meet people to have fun with on snow.”
Omar Diaz says Big Snow has given Hoods to Woods free lift tickets and event support. He also credits the business’s equipment rental program with helping Hoods to Woods nearly double its capacity, to over 100 riders.
This October, the organization teamed up with Big Snow to run an on-snow program around Hispanic Heritage Month, when other chairlifts around the country sit dormant. ParkAffair, a New York-based organization that promotes women’s and non-binary involvement in board sports, also ran summer programs out of the center.
Control over the weather can make a big difference for a small organization. Diaz says that in years past, big nor’easters have knocked out power and buried roads, making it dangerous to drive groups to the mountains. His nonprofit could count on at least one weather cancellation every season, a setback that could throw a serious wrench in itstypical six-week program.
Now, thanks to Big Snow’s consistent season, Hoods to Woods runs its program for nearly five months per year, nearly double the season of years previous.
“We can plan out and maximize our time because we know what weather we’re going to get, what the snow is going to be like,” Diaz says.
And Big Snow’s season doesn’t end when temperatures start to rise — or ever, really. In 2023, the facility plans to stay open year-round.
The combination of price and accessibility, Diaz says, means thousands of people from all walks of life have been able to make snow sports just a part of their day. In addition to his Hoods to Woods visits, he meets up with a group of parents and 9-to-5ers to ride on Tuesday nights. On a September visit to the center, a transplanted Utah skier was busy dialing in his tricks in the terrain park. A lift operator counted down the hours until he could score runs during his work break, and an octogenarian from Asbury Park, New Jersey, decided Big Snow was the place to pick up skiing again after 20 years off snow.
Because of indoor snow sports’ appeal to so many demographics, Reynolds says, Snow Operating is working to open new indoor mountains near other cities. Alpine-X, another U.S.-based indoor snow sports resort developer, aims to open a 400,000-square-foot snowdome near Washington, D.C., by 2024 and has announced plans to build up to 20 indoor centers throughout the country.
Reynolds predicts that the market will accommodate the competition. “You’d be surprised how many people are picking up these sports by going to a place like Big Snow,” he says. “Where you used to get a day or a month to progress and learn, now you can go every day. It’s cultivating a new breed of skiers and snowboarders.”
That rising group of snow enthusiasts includes the younger Diaz, who lives just 15 minutes from the indoor snow center.
“Last time my mom came to watch, and she wants to buy a snowboard,” he says. “I like hyping up my friends to get up and try again. I like that you can just be you on the snow.”