Curling brightens the dark winter months at Franklin Square

The iceless curling lanes at Franklin Square. (Courtesy of Historic Philadelphia)

The iceless curling lanes at Franklin Square. (Courtesy of Historic Philadelphia)

Franklin Square in Philadelphia’s Center City is dipping its frozen toe into winter sports, offering curling through February.

Two curling lanes created by Street Curling have been set up adjacent to the tented beer garden in the park, operated by Historic Philadelphia, the organization that maintains and programs Franklin Square.

Curling, similar to shuffleboard involving teams sliding large granite stones across a sheet of ice and knocking each other out of a target zone, is a Scottish winter pastime dating back centuries. It gets its name from the technique of putting a slight spin on the stone to send it on a curved path.

It grew in popularity in the United States when it debuted as an official Winter Olympic competition in 1998, and again in 2018 when the U.S. team won the gold.

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The raised curling lanes at Franklin Square — about the height of an air hockey table – are iceless, meaning players launch “stones” across a slick sheet of plastic synthetic ice. The Street Curling “stones” are made of hollow plastic, about 8 inches across weighing about one pound. Standard curling stones are made out of solid granite, about 11 inches across weighing about 42 pounds.

Players can reserve a court in half-hour time slots for $40. Up to eight players can play a game, as two teams of four players each.

The iceless curling lanes at Franklin Square. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Because there is no ice, players are not able to use brooms to manipulate the path of the stone, as seen in the Olympics, but the plastic ice sheet is banked to mimic the behavior of a heavy stone spinning on real ice.

“Much respect to the actual, real curlers of the world: this is not that,” said Historic Philadelphia CEO Amy Needle. “This is something that we think will bring some fun. You can imagine yourself in an Olympic situation, but, you know, we’re far from it.”

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Even iceless, Franklin Square has the only curling game in town. There are at least four “real” curling clubs in the greater Philadelphia region with their own ice courts: the oldest, founded in 1957, is the Philadelphia Curling Club in Paoli, Pa.; the newest is the Diamond State Curling Club in Newark, Del., founded in 2016.  The Bucks County Curling Club is in Warminster, Pa., and the Jersey Pinelands Curling Club is in Pennsauken, N.J.

The clubs offer league play, competition tournaments (aka bonspiels) with other clubs, and classes for beginners. However, none offer public drop-in play. For the newbie who has never touched a curling stone, Franklin Square has the lowest rung into the sport.

“Obviously there are lots of winter activities that are wonderful throughout the city. You can go ice skating in many different locations. We wanted to do something different,” Needle said. “You can warm up in the tent, which is right next door, get a hot beverage, go out and curl, have a spiked drink, curl. It’s proven to be a lot of fun for people.”

Curling is the latest addition to what had been a pandemic pivot for Franklin Square. Historic Philadelphia normally shuts down all programming during the winter months, wrapping up its light show after New Year’s Eve and staying dark until spring. But during the first winter after the pandemic shutdown in 2020, Needle decided to provide the public with some outdoor activities, even in the dead of winter.

“One of the things that COVID taught us is that even if it’s cold, it’s so important to get outside and get some fresh air and be able to run around a little bit,” she said. “Especially if you’ve got small kids in the house.”

The water fountain in Franklin Square has been shut down for the rest of the winter, but its light show will be active nightly, and winter Chilly Philly miniature golf is open through the season populated with inflatable holiday characters.

Later in January, the park’s ice princess weekend will return with iconic Disney princesses, and in February the park will be programmed with Valentine’s Day themes.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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