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How Rockefeller Center Ice Skating Rink Became a Holiday Tradition

BY: Shannon Grilli | Nov 13, 2018

rockefeller center ice skating rink

It's a winter destination that pulls a double whammy: the world's most famous ice-skating rink, nestled beneath the world's most famous Christmas tree. But did you know that the Rockefeller Center Ice Skating Rink may have never been built at all if it weren't for one very determined traveling salesman?

According to legend, the idea for the ice rink was born one day back in 1936 when Rockefeller Center was just three years young. The Rockefellers had no trouble drawing shoppers to the shops and businesses around the perimeter of the center, but they had a harder time convincing folks to travel down the steps to the sunken plaza. Even the installation of the Christmas tree wasn't enough to get people to stick around more than a few minutes.

Then, one day, a traveling skate salesman (yes, skate salesman) decided to make a pitch to onlookers by strapping on skates and taking them for a spin on the plaza's frozen fountain. John D. Rockefeller Jr. (who happened to be an avid ice skater, btw), just happened to see this and the idea for the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink was born.

The timing couldn't have been better, since the technology needed to construct the "artificial ice" had just been invented, and the idea of being able to skate all winter long, even on days when the temperature was above freezing, was still a novel one. ("Laugh at the weather man!", read one marketing pamphlet). And, of course, the idea was an instant hit, drawing not just skaters, but tons of onlookers, who found it was just as much fun to watch the rink as it was to skate on it, especially if you happened to be enjoying a martini in one of the many restaurants that overlooked the plaza. It was so popular, that the Rockefellers decided to make it a permanent fixture, and the rest is history.

Interested in learning more about ice skating in Rockefeller Center? Here's a quick by-the-numbers rundown of the world's most famous patch of ice:

12/25/1936: Opening day for the rink (which was originally called the "skating pond").

$0.99: the cost of a single Rockefeller Center skating session in 1937 (it's $25 today).

122'x59': the size of the rink.

150,000: the number of estimated skaters the rink welcomes every year.

150: the number of skaters the rink can accommodate at one time.

$80,000: the reported amount of money the rink was raking in every year by 1949 (as reported by the Saturday Evening Post).

$3,750,000: the estimated amount it makes per year today, factoring in the number of annual visitors and the average cost of a single skating session (but not taking into consideration the cost of skate rental).

$50: the cost of a private 30-minute skating lesson at Rockefeller Center.

16,000: the weight (in pounds) of the famous bronze Prometheus statue that overlooks the rink. It actually precedes the rink, having been created in 1934 by artist Paul Manship.

90: the length of time, in minutes, that each public skating session lasts (there are 8 sessions every day).

72': the height of this year's Christmas tree, which overlooks the rink (it weighs a reported 12 tons!!!).

1968: the year Senator Robert F. Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, hosted a "thank you" party on the rink for campaign staff. The party was such a hit, the Kennedys decided to host an annual party there for children from Brooklyn.