Package ice is also sometimes called "practice" ice, and is run by the club or the rink, but the key point is that it isn't public-- there are restrictions based on skating level, club or class enrollment, and number of people allowed on the ice at any given session (generally fewer than 30, not counting coaches).
In the Chicago area, where ice is abundant, one rarely needs to resort to the public sessions, because the restricted ice is cheap-- generally under $10 an hour, and often as little as $5. It's simple economics--the rinks are packed so tightly that they have to keep this ice cheap to attract customers.
But many skaters have to resort to the public, unrestricted sessions, because of access, schedule, cost or other factors.
And then you're dealing with
- the unsteady dad carrying his screaming toddler
- the hotdogging teens
- the hockey dads screaming at their 8 year-olds to "just plow right through them if they're too slow!" (true story)
- the giggly high schoolers flirting with the guards (who are flirting right back, thus ignoring the above situations)
So how do you practice on a crowded, minimally supervised session where the mission is, of course, not to accommodate serious work, but simple family fun?
The center area
Even in minimally crowded public sessions, the guards will "cone off" or can be asked to cone off, a large center area that is reserved for practice and lessons. You're probably not going to be trying axels in there, but you can work on most Moves patterns, basic skating, spins, and even single rotation jumps. The people in the center watch out for each other.
But kids keep cutting through the center area
And you don't have to tolerate it. Police it yourself, or ask a guard. Every rink I've ever seen has rules posted, and one of them is always "no cutting through the center coned area."
Skating with the hoi poloi
In all but the most crowded sessions, you can actually get a fair amount done even outside the cones--you can certainly work on stroking, and you can get a good aerobic session in. Depending on the tolerance of the guards (which we have established is fairly high), you can work on edges and turns in the end zones.
What about the guards?
I wonder this myself. For the most part, they are high school hockey players who don't quite get the policing aspect of the job-- they can tend to view it as a chance to flirt, hot dog with their non-guard friends, and generally ignore the bloody mayhem around them. At least at places like the Ice Rink of the Damned they receive no training, and I don't think that's unusual. However, if you bring clear rule infractions to their attention (like crack-the-whips, backward spirals, dangerous hotdogging, cutting through the cones, etc.) they will generally step in. There is also often an adult guard semi in-charge who can be appealed to.
Use some common sense
If you show up at a Sunday afternoon session in January expecting to finally nail that flip, think again. Winter weekends are going to be crowded. Don't go, or if you do, don't get all bent out of shape because the people there don't understand that you are a serious skater and they are just wasting your time. Public sessions can be great for practicing, but they are not meant for that.
Weekend afternoons are going to be crowded in the winter. But not in the summer! Rinks are empty in the summer, and even starting around spring break time they begin to empty out. It's an ongoing mystery to me why skaters continue to attend the crowded practice ice sessions all summer, when public ice just sits there. If you're lucky enough to work or go to school close to a rink, think about using your lunch hour to skate a couple times a week. Most rinks have midday sessions, sometimes restricted to adults even, that are empty all year round. (Just be aware of school holidays)
How have you made public skating sessions work as practice time?