Winterlude is run by the National Capital Commission and was started in 1979. The event is one of Ottawa's most important tourist draws, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. In 2007, it set a new attendance record of an estimated 1.6 million visits to one of the four Winterlude sites.
The focal point of Winterlude is the Rideau Canal Skateway which at 7.8 kilometres (approximately 5 miles) is the largest skating rink in the world.
Other primary sites include the Snowflake Kingdom, which is located in Jacques-Cartier Park in Gatineau. This site is turned into a massive snow park with ice slides and snow sculptures and hosts numerous events and activities for children. It is the home away from home of the friendly IceHog family, the Winterlude Mascots.
Confederation Park, better known as Crystal Garden, is the site for the ice sculpture competition, the ice lounge and musical concerts. Marion Dewar Plaza at City Hall (across from Confederation Park) is the site of the Rink of Dreams, an ice-skating rink that hosts skating shows, DJ dance parties and interactive art displays throughout the Festival. Dow's Lake also has a large skating area and hosts various activities.
Related activities include special exhibits at numerous Ottawa museums, special events in the Byward Market, Sparks Street, a 'loppet' type race in Gatineau Park and a variety of other events throughout the city.
The event lasts for three weekends, usually the first three weekends in February. Very few events take place from Monday to Thursday in between weekends 1 and 2, and weekends 2 and 3. This means that the skating rink is much less crowded and that the ice stays in a near pristine condition for much of the day, with only a thousand or so skaters sharing it instead of the greater numbers during the weekend. The skate changing shacks and food catering kiosks scattered along the length of the skateway, at the same level as the ice, are open day long during the week.
The weather in Ottawa is notoriously unpredictable, and Winterlude often is hampered by mild weather. Mild weather is the bane of the Canal, as proper ice conditions require -10 degrees Celsius for proper freezing. The length of the skating season, (which extends longer than the Winterlude weekends) is therefore unpredictable. However, most events are usually not affected other than premature melting of ice and snow sculptures. The length to which the canal is open for skating varies greatly, in the 2001-2002 season there was a record low 34 days open. The very next season, 2002–2003, the canal was open for a near high-record of 72 days.
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