BETHEL — A few thousand smiling faces lit up Bethel’s WinterFest playground on opening day Saturday under a cloudless blue sky.

Most came to try the 12,000-square-foot snow maze created earlier this month by Newry engineer Jim Sysko and volunteers at Festival Plaza on Cross Street.

After that, children and adults reliving childhood fun hit the 20-foot, winding sliding hill at the base of which ice and snow sculptor Ed Jarrett of Avon, Conn., was carving a 2-ton, 8-foot-long laughing penguin sliding on its belly.

The winter playground also offered a 120- by 80-foot ice skating rink, on which children learning how to skate were using chairs and snow shovels for balance.

Others simply skated or practiced hockey with pucks and plastic soda bottles.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” Amanda Turcotte of Lisbon said of the snow-carved playground as she watched her 4-year-old son, Connor Turcotte, play along the rink with his cousin, Aubrey Trefethen, 4, also of Lisbon. 

Turcotte and her husband Kevin said they’d heard about the maze and came up to try it with the two children, who were born two days apart.

“We’ve been through the maze twice, and the first time it was pretty hard, actually,” Amanda Turcotte said.

“The second time, I was following them and they thought I was a monster chasing them,” Kevin Turcotte said. “Too much ‘Scooby Doo.'”

Amanda Turcotte said they take the children sledding and skating every weekend.

“Anything we can do outdoors,” she said.

“It keeps them off the video games,” Kevin Turcotte said.

Gloria Crockett of Bethel stood outside the maze, watching people trying to navigate the half-mile of passages, atop which blue and red paint spells “Bethel” to anyone flying by overhead

“It’s quite interesting, but I don’t dare to try the maze,” Crockett said. “I have someplace to be on Monday.”

Inside, colorful balloons bobbed along the 4-foot-high walls, denoting small children. Occasionally, adults looking in could see only the tops of helmets or children’s arms outstretched over heads to high-five a playmate after finding the way out of a dead-end passage.

“It’s a half-mile without any detours,” volunteer Bud Kulik of Bethel said. “With detours, who knows? We may have people in there for weeks.”

“It’s fabulous,” Deb Webster of Newry said, getting up off the snow after zipping down the sliding hill on a sled with a young child at about 2:30 p.m. “We’ve been here since 10 o’clock and aren’t ready to go home yet.”

“My older daughter did the maze in six minutes and said it’s easier to do it when there’s not as many people in it,” Webster said.

At 11 a.m., there were so many people, lines formed to try both the maze and the sliding hill, WinterFest co-organizers Robin Zinchuk and Jim Bennett said.

“We had a really good crowd for a long time,” Bennett said.

WinterFest will continue through Jan. 31, offering a variety of activities and events throughout the area. On Sunday, the Bethel Nordic Ski Center will host a beginner biathlon clinic from noon to 2 p.m., followed by a race.

For a schedule of events, visit www.bethelwinterfest.com/winterfestschedule-2.html.

“People are having a blast,” said Zinchuk, executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce. “There was a time when pretty much the whole maze was filled. I was tromping along and I thought I was on the right track and I didn’t know where I took the wrong turn.”

“It was very fun,” Jen Merrill of Andover said, exiting the maze. “It took a lot of imagination to do that and a lot of hard work. My hat goes off to them. It’s fun and something different to do.”

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