The 1960s Dry Ski Slope Made Up Of 1.3 Million Plastic Tiles

In the long history of creating non-snow surfaces to ski on, one of the most ambitious projects was a centre known as Ski Villa created in California’s Carbon Canyon.

Like many of these facilities throughout the 20th century, the project appears to have been ambitious, expensive, but ultimately short-lived because of key flaws in the plan meaning that the return on investment did not live up to expectations.

Ski Villa was conceived in the mid-1960s and was one of the largest dry ski slopes ever built and probably the biggest in the world at the time of its opening in 1966.

The slope consisted of 1.3 million interlocking 15cm (six inch) square plastic tiles with plastic bristles to hold the skis affixed to a concrete slope measuring just under 400 metres (1,300 feet) in length and covering an area of just under three hectares (7 acres). 

There appear to have been three surface tow lifts of 60m (200 feet), 120m (400 feet) and 335m (1,100 feet) in length designed for different abilities.  The maximum vertical drop was reported to be 85 metres (280 feet).

The plan was to make the facility much larger still, increasing more than tenfold to but it appears to have closed within a year without any further expansion.

The ski slope had a base area that included a rental shop and restaurant and with summer temperatures in the area regularly in the 90s Fahrenheit (30s Celcius) it operated during the evenings under floodlights on weekdays and all day at weekends. There were also two swimming pools, a shuffleboard deck, and a roller skating rink on the premises but some of these may have been left over from a previous country club business.

Contemporary reports from 1966 indicate the slope was the brainchild of local resident John F. Kramer who with other investors sunk $750,000 into the project (equivalent to around $6.8 million today).  Investors hoped the centre would lead to a franchised network of similar centres across the US.

Rather than using one of the recently invented Dendix style surfaces from Europe, the ski surface was specially produced and patented by Californian plastics business Randazzo in the city of Gardena, about 40 miles away. In the company’s 1966 patent filing they note that approximately 1,250,000 of their small tiles are needed to make up the surface and that these will be designed to be interlocking as the labour involved in nailing down over a million tiles would make the slope non viable.

Each tile was reported to be made of Dow polypropylene and feature 408 x 4cm (1 1/2″) long bristles with an expected tile life of three years.

Reports from the time also make repeated reference and comparison to the Funabashi dry ski slope built in Japan in 1963. It was located thirty-five miles from Tokyo – a similar distance to Ski Villa’s proximity to Los Angeles.  Funabashi was later developed in the 1990s into what was the world’s largest indoor snow centre, the SSAWS facility which closed in the early 2000s having failed to turn a profit.

The attachment of the ski surface to the sublayer was noted with Funabashi opting to nail its tiles to wood below but ski Villa initially laying its surface on top of Asphalt but then finding this caused melting so switched to laying concrete below the tiles.

An April 1966 reports the slope as due to open “within a couple of days” but the date slid and a late-June report suggested a “grand opening in July”. A final push for a July 4th opening seems to have succeeded and reports in the early months of the operation initially included enthusiasts making the rather unlikely observation that the surface was “like skiing fresh powder”. By the end of the year this had been toned down a little to being like “mid-morning spring snow,” and then “hard-packed snow” …but with the advantage of no tramlines left by previous skiers.

Injuries were reported to be few with friction burns on bare flesh the most common problem when skiers hit the slopes in T shirts and shorts.

Reports in the autumn of 1966 indicated the centres backers were facing up to the fact that “business was slow” and that the centre was “operating in the red” and it is unclear if it made it into 1967.