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Ice Palace opening marks start of Winter Carnival
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The Winter Carnival Ice Palace features a sound and light show which takes place every 30 minutes when the palace is open. The lights make the palace glow in different colors. (MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)
For the 118th year, the people of St. Paul are reveling in winter by holding a citywide celebration. The centerpiece of this year's Winter Carnival is, of course, the walk-through ice palace that opened in the middle of downtown Thursday night. It's the first time in more than 60 years that carnival-goers have been able to step into an ice castle.

St. Paul, Minn. — Many Minnesotans enjoy wallowing in winter -- celebrating the hardy spirit required by the season here in the northland. But deep down, many of those same hardy souls are anxious for the season's conclusion. When asked about the Winter Carnival, Kevin of Maplewood didn't offer his last name, but he did offer a glimpse of a conflicted relationship with the year's fourth season.

"I think it's a toast to everybody in Minnesota that enjoys and relishes the winter," Kevin says. "And since we're already at the end of January, it's almost springtime and we can enjoy the lakes, too."

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Image Purple palace

Does the end of January really qualify as almost springtime?

"Getting close," insists Kevin. "Getting close. We're counting it down."

The temperature was barely above zero as Kevin and his wife, Terri, stood in the castle forecourt -- looking up at the 75-ft. turret at the center of the five-acre palace grounds. Twenty-seven thousand blocks of ice cover a steel frame, and are wired for a computerized light and sound show occuring every 30 minutes during visiting hours. Most of the time spent on the palace's construction was volunteered.

At an opening ceremony dedicated to those volunteers, St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly said it's a fitting start to a year that marks the 150th anniversary of the city's founding.

"Even in tough economic times that we've had in the last couple of years, St. Paul is made up of people who believe in rolling up their sleeves, getting the hard work done, and going out and having some fun," Kelly said.

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Image Spectators

Historians say it was 14 degrees below zero on the night St. Paul opened its first ice palace in 1886. Palaces have made periodic appearances since then. In recent versions, the risk of falling ice kept carnival officials from letting visitors walk through.

But this palace belongs to a new milennium. It is monitored by sensors that continuously report its temperature and conditions to authorities.

Falling ice is really not a problem, though, when the fingers in one glove outnumber the Farenheit temperature. This is the kind of bitter weather that might normally keep people isolated from one another.

Bonnie Vogel attended the palace opening with members of the Winter Carnival's ambassador corps, the Vulcan Crewe -- easy to spot in their red snowsuits, ski goggles and black greasepaint. Vogel says part of the carnival's charm is its role as an antidote to cabin fever.

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Image Vulcanus Rex

"It's just something to do in the winter when it's cold, and there's nothing to do but stay home and cuddle up in front of a warm fireplace," she says. "This is something different to do to get out with the people."

For Winter Carnival regulars, the annual events hold a comforting familiarity. A little like the State Fair, perhaps. Except colder.

St. Paul native Kathy Lantry has been enjoying the outdoor children's hockey tournament at Lake Phalen since she was a kid. Now Lantry sits on the City Council. She says the carnival generally -- and special events like the building of this year's palace -- help the city feel good about itself.

"It's absolutely gorgeous," Lantry says. "But I think the best part about, though, is how everybody comes together to do it. Sometimes in St. Paul we get all corny about what makes a community. Well, this isn't just a bunch of ice that looks pretty. It's how we build a community. And it's wonderful."

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Image Ice sculpture contest

Winter Carnival organizers estimate one million people will pass through this community of ice during the 16 days it exists. Some will skate on the rink contained inside it. Others will listen to music performed on one of its stages. Some may visit nearby museums or eat at St. Paul restaurants.

Millions of other people will see televised images of the palace and the city on national news programs, or when the National Hockey League All-Star game is broadcast from the arena across the street in a couple of weeks.

The ice palace occupies a site that St. Paul is pushing as a new home for a major league baseball stadium. Mayor Kelly says the work that went into the palace will pay off for the city.

"It brings a great deal of attention to our community," says Kelly. "It gives us an opportunity to show what a family-friendly city we are, and how we come together to create and build things. From one standpoint I think it will help us with our stadium effort, that we're a city comprised of people that are builders."

St. Paul's Winter Carnival continues through Sunday, Feb. 8. The ice palace is open through Saturday, Feb. 7.

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