Although Lake Geneva is most famous for its summer fun, many people don’t realize that there are plenty of diversions in the “Newport of the West” during the winter season as well. This February will mark the 20th anniversary of Lake Geneva’s annual Winterfest celebration, which centers around the US National Snow Sculpting competition. (The competition itself will celebrate its 30th year this winter, but it has called Lake Geneva home for the past two decades.)
Each year, about 15 teams of expert snow sculptors from around the country (last year there was even a team from Alaska!) compete to become the US National Snow Sculpting Champion. They are provided with large, uniform blocks of snow from the Mountain Top ski area at nearby Grand Geneva Resort and they have about three days to create a work of art in the park in front of the Riviera Pier. The contest is peer-judged, so each team votes for its top five choices that year, and the winner is decided on a points system. (For those teams that don’t win, there’s still hope! A people’s choice award is also given.) The public is invited to watch the sculptors as they work throughout the week and attend the awards ceremony on Saturday afternoon. The sculptures are left on display as long as weather conditions permit.
Wisconsin has a strong tradition of snow sculpting. Last year, a Wisconsin team won the event. And the Wisconsin State Snow Sculpting Competition takes place in Racine in the beginning of January each year, allowing teams to hone their designs and skills for the national contest.
Lake Geneva’s Winterfest began 20 years ago as a partnership between the Lake Geneva Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (LGCVB) and several area businesses, including Grand Geneva Resort. Steve Magnuson, then-manager at Grand Geneva, was instrumental in establishing the partnerships that have allowed Winterfest to thrive in Lake Geneva. “It was all about coming together as a community to bring more visitors to the area,” he says.
Today, Winterfest is a popular winter tradition. The LGCVB has expanded the weekend’s festivities in recent years to include such events as a human dog-sled race (in which people take the place of sled dogs and pull a sled and rider through a racecourse), a local restaurant showcase, a Bingo night and community laser tag activities. Additionally, several area businesses and restaurants feature special activities and events during Winterfest. Last year, the Baker House hotel and restaurant set up an ice bar outside to serve cocktails al fresco. The Big Foot Beach State Park sponsored a candlelight snowshoe hike. Grand Geneva Resort sponsors its own Winter Carnival each year in conjunction with Winterfest, offering special activities at its ski area, which is open to the public.
“It’s a great event,” says Chicago resident Kevin Elliott, who has attended Winterfest in previous years. “The artistry that goes into the snow sculptures is really pretty incredible. It’s fascinating to watch [the snow sculptors] work.”
Darien Schaefer, president and CEO of the LGCVB, describes how Winterfest has expanded in recent years due to popularity. “This last year in 2014, we added a week’s worth of events on the tail end of Winterfest,” he says. “We had bonfires on the beach with s’mores and more community activities throughout the week following the snow sculpting competition. And this is a combination of events we hope will grow and evolve each year.”
Winterfest is not the only reason to visit Lake Geneva in the winter. Although the lake is perhaps best known for its summer diversions, there are many winter activities to keep visitors busy throughout the season. Ice fishing and ice boating are popular pastimes when weather conditions permit (nearby Williams Bay was once known as the “ice boating capital of the world”) and there are several cross-country ski trails available in the area. In addition to Grand Geneva’s Mountain Top Ski area, downhill skiing is also available at nearby Alpine Valley Ski Resort.
“Winter in Lake Geneva is a great opportunity to enjoy all that we have to offer here year-round,” Schaefer continues. “It’s worth the trip alone to make a weekend out of it, because there are plenty of indoor activities here, too. You find yourself with fabulous lodging in top resorts, fantastic spas and so many wonderful restaurants.”
Lake Geneva’s Winterfest will run Jan. 28 through Feb. 7. The awards ceremony will take place on Jan. 31. For more information on specific Winterfest events as the event approaches, visit lakegenevawi.com.
This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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