Welcome back to Gothamist Reviews, in which a many-year resident of New York City voluntarily visits famed tourist destinations she has purposefully avoided all this time, for journalism and for kicks. Today we visit the Rink at Rockefeller Center.

Rockefeller Center may, possibly, make for a perfectly fine tourist trip like 330 days out of the year. Crowded, sure, because you'll want to see that large golden Prometheus sculpture from the 30 Rock opening credits, or the Today Show's Hoda Kotb, or whatever other wonders a famous office building holds. At times (namely, during the holidays) the entire compound and streets that circle it can become impassable as the festive masses thirst for lights and seek out their arboreal God.

But once we've passed that aggressively merry stretch, Rockefeller Center's greatest treasure, a smallish skating rink that sits at the bottom of a pit ringed with international flags, continues to draw crowds. This is the crown jewel of Midtown, or at least a crown jewel, and you will pay dearly to see it. At maybe half the size of a regulation hockey rink (30 Rock's measures 122 feet by 59 feet, as compared to the 200-by-85-foot NHL standard) and able to hold an intimate 150 skaters at a time, 30 Rock's skating facilities will invariably be mobbed, I mean absolutely, stagnantly, you-will-move-from-this-spot-when-the-crowd-decides-it's-time-to-move packed. At least between Thanksgiving and New Year's, the best time to go to the Rockefeller Center Ice Rink is never.

That's just my opinion, of course. But absent any intel on visitation rates from the rink's rep, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, you will just have to trust me. I have been to the rink; braved its peak-holiday hordes and absorbed the chaotic human churn, and what I can confirm is that it was never supposed to be this way. "It" in the larger sense of life, person-to-person interaction, but also in the immediate sense of the rink itself: Originally opened on Christmas Day in 1936 as an artificial "skating pond," the facility was supposed to be temporary, a little treat for Depression-era New Yorkers who just wanted to practice their night moves. Apparently, there were many many more of these types than planners expected, and the rink has stayed open. Between October and the end of April each year, it reportedly "welcomes" over half a million visitors, i.e., roughly the number of people who showed up on December 16th, 2019, alone. Just a ballpark estimate.

That's the day I chose to visit, operating under the mistaken impression that it might be "fun" or "more authentic" to just show up randomly, rather than having a PR person plan an itinerary that minimized the more unsavory, exasperating components of the trip. I did bring along a more clear-eyed and unflappable Companion, which I cannot recommend enough, especially to those of you who think I'm exaggerating about the 30 Rock holiday situation described herein. Having stayed off skates for probably about a decade now, I thought the Companion would be useful in keeping me upright on the ice, but I way underestimated the sheer volume of tourists who would still be milling around 30 Rock at 4 p.m. on a Sunday. The rink stays open from 8:30 a.m. to midnight each day, meaning the space around it likely reached its saturation point on, I don't know, Thanksgiving Eve? and now people just pile up, human sandbags stacked against the flood, blocking every inch of sidewalk and plaza.

If you do not experience claustrophobia, this level of overcrowding might feel like a relief, as it absolves you of the obligation to think for yourself: Once you release your body into the swirling throngs, they chart your movements for you, and you just bob on their pedestrian current like a loon.

Having done absolutely zero planning in advance of... your job, you will have arrived at the ice rink simply by following the flow of foot traffic, which sweeps you over to, then mashes you against, the rink's edge. You will wonder why it is so small when the swarms are so big, forgetting once again that it was never supposed to be this way, and then you will spend your last moments of full brain function puzzling over the entrance. How to get down there, when everything is just people, as far as the eye can see? Where is an ENTRANCE; why are you only seeing EXITs marked with flimsy, laminated signs on sticks? Where is IN, when everything is OUT, but also you're standing in the middle of a human squall, no one moving in any one direction but still this rabble teeming all around you?

You stand there, agape and unfocused and deafened by the triumphal music thundering from unseen speakers, until your resolute Companion grabs your wrist and tows you into an elevator bank. You wedge inside with two tubas and commence your descent, slow and measured in a machine reminiscent of the one that deposited Katniss in the Hunger Games arena, or at least its cinematic depiction.

Or so my Companion observed; I dissociated from my body on contact with the crowd, watching all of this unfold as if floating over it like a disinterested ghost.

The elevator will take you down below the street, to 30 Rock's marbled underbelly. It may reek of fish, thanks to the (now closed) Rock Center Cafe's culinary sorcery. You will find yourself finally on eye-level with the rink — thisclose to your goal! encouraging! — but, perhaps, confused as to how one actually gets onto the ice. You will stroll around this basement lobby in search of a still-elusive rink entrance until you spot a white tented vestibule festooned with (probably, fake) crystals. This is the VIP Igloo, and entering into it will cost you and your Companion $150 each, please. For this price, you will enjoy all the skate-renting and machine hot chocolate-drinking and complementary cookie munching you can cram into a 1.5 hour window, and you won't have to wait in the General Admission line with however many hundreds of plebes showed up in the last five minutes.

A fair and worthwhile deal, I'm sure you won't agree, and you will shuffle off to join your people, disheartened.

Your feelings of leaden disappointment will grow yet heavier when you learn, from the Igloo's manager, that the General Admission line begins way up on the sidewalk, across from where you are now, obligating you to muscle your way along Fifth Avenue and over to the rows of bugling angels. This is not a trivial or quickly accomplished task. Still, your Companion thinks she knows the way, and she leads you out onto 49th Street, where calamity is brewing. You watch the red and blue lights from a cop car stream across the face of a weeping woman, huddled in a doorway in the arms of a large man, and you wonder if someone has just done a crime. The intersection, you see, is a densely packed meat wall, and soon you will become just another brick.

A thin trickle of cars forms an artery down the avenue, its walls crusted by the pedestrian plaque clinging to police stanchions. A woman shouts a plea into the night — "Does anyone have mom??" — and a man hollers back that yes, he has your mother. Whether or not they mean the same mom will not be clear, but that is not your concern; your concern is how to get back onto the sidewalk now you and your Companion have been corralled into the street by strollers bashed repeatedly, pointedly into your calves, and although you think that if you could simply beat your way over to the building and hug the wall, the tide might wash you into the safety of a revolving door, a neighboring woman eavesdropping on your conversation informs you that your plan amounts to a pipe dream. She has been trying to reach the Lego store, across the street, for like 20 minutes now. She has not moved during that time. It's the lights, she explains. We're all waiting on the lights.

As if the universe were humoring you, for the first goddamn time that day, a castle made of fairy lights will explode to life on the side of Saks Fifth Avenue. The ice palace glows arctic blue and crystalline white; a sweeping, melodramatic purple blows in, skittering across the department store's facade, which eventually turns an angry Yule log red. You wait, suspended in the tourist sea, for the building to exhaust itself and resume its resting face. And then you launch yourself vigorously toward the corner, buoyed by your single-minded Companion, who has spent Showtime mapping out exactly where you need to go. In the however many minutes it takes you to get there, the lights will scream into action once again, only this time, you will have barreled down a corridor toward the plaza and find yourselves swimming upstream. You will be perfectly positioned to absorb the hundreds of faces, every eye empty and lavender-glazed, reflecting nothing but the spectacle of consumerist glory Saks has dangled into this ocean like an extra-sparkly fishing lure. You will notice and scoff at the way all these dazzled jaws hang totally, unabashedly slack — until you check in with yourself and realize that your mouth has mostly been open this whole time, and then you will come back into your body long enough to demand a break. The General Admission line, you now see, wends up from the rink and out nearly onto the street, and even if you did feel prepared to shell out $35 to skate and $18 to rent the footwear, you somehow lost an hour and a half to mere navigation, and now you require one (1) alcohol, STAT.

Your capable Companion drags your disoriented corpse back to the elevator bank, where a self-described lifelong New Yorker listening to your babble informs you that she, too, is disoriented. "I know I say I love to come here for the holidays but I really can’t take it,” she says to her partner, for your edification. You ask the elevator attendant if it’s going to be this way forever. Yes, he says, “It’s going to get crazier and crazier and crazier," his eyes shining like two baubles, adamantly and involuntarily and maybe with a little bit of fear. It has been a very long time since you saw anybody blink.

rock center cafe

Rock Center Cafe (now closed)

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Rock Center Cafe (now closed)
Yelp

Downstairs once again, you will follow the fish smell into the Rock Center Café. You will rasp at the host about the bar situation, and she will flag you toward the back of the restaurant. There, the booze pen will be as packed as every other part of this hellhole, and woefully understaffed. In the approximately 40 minutes it takes to order two $18 hot toddies, you will find yourself frustrated at a wait time that cannot rightfully be blamed on the bartenders, only one of whom has been assigned at-the-bar orders; you will find yourself more stubbornly resolved to Get Those Drinks with every passing minute, because this has now become a matter of principle; you will, I hope, find yourself taken under the wing of a kindly and outspoken New Jersey family, the matriarch of which sounds sort of like Big Ang (RIP) from Mob Wives and hustles powerfully on your behalf, outraged since she noticed you'd been fed zero alcohol units in all this time and sloshing her cranberry martini wildly to illustrate the depth of her indignation. She may become your benefactor, situating you in one of her many stools when her family retires for the evening, so that you may — eventually — pay upwards of $40 for two over-sweet beverages and the privilege of sitting basically ringside while a troupe of young men glide over the now-vacant rink, smoothing the ice with handheld snow shovels like a manual Zamboni brigade.

There will be a regular Zamboni, too, but the thimbleful of whiskey will have made you sleepy and the lines will have gotten neither longer nor shorter and you won't have the will to try anymore. Your body made malleable, and therefore more impervious to injury, by the cocktail, you will fling yourself back into the milieu and let them bundle you back onto the train. You will not be fulfilled, and you will not have come anywhere close to achieving your objective.

Or so I imagine. I, of course, blacked out immediately. But I think common sense tells you all you need to know about going to Midtown in mid-December. Way too many people, most of them visitors, everybody engaged in sidewalk gawking, really there is no need for you to do this. Why would you. Stay away. Stay far far away. Even now that the holidays have passed, because it's still Rink Season, after all, and will be through April 19th.

The 30 Rock Ice Rink gets two arbitrarily awarded skates — it did its best, I don't know.