During the holiday season, many families dream of going somewhere a bit warmer to celebrate. But for some, the perfect way to get into the Christmas spirit is to visit an ice-filled place where the temperature drops to nine degrees Fahrenheit and bundling up in parkas is a requirement for entry.
Samantha Sidoriak, a Pasadena, Md. mom of two, visits Ice — an elaborate display of holiday ice sculptures — each holiday season at the Gaylord National Hotel near Washington, D.C. It's become a chilly-but-wonderful tradition for Sidoriak and her family. "I had no idea about this until I was a mom," she tells Yahoo Life. "Now, it's a mini getaway for us ... Ice itself is freezing, but you throw in the sculptures and ice slides and the kids love it."
The very first Ice debuted at Gaylord's Nashville, Tenn. property in 2001. Today, over one million visitors flock to Gaylord's five properties across the U.S. to experience it. But what exactly is Ice?
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gaylord would feature one intellectual property each holiday season across all of its resorts. From Santa Claus is Comin' to Town to Frosty the Snowman, millions of pounds of ice were hand-carved by artisans into colorful sculptures and scenes from the beloved holiday films and arranged for guests to walk through and experience. The artisans behind the magic were unable to travel due to pandemic restrictions, but after a two-year break, Ice is back for the 2022 holiday season with a twist: Each of the five Gaylord properties is offering a different holiday film-themed display.
At Gaylord Rockies in Denver, Colo., ice sculptures of scenes from A Charlie Brown Christmas are on display. At Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, Tenn., Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer appears. Stephanie Jarrett, who blogs at Everything Arlington, TX, recently visited Gaylord Texan for the first time since the pandemic to see its The Polar Express Ice exhibit with her three daughters.
"I think it's a unique experience unlike any other ... years ago, it felt like Ice was the holiday event and if you couldn't afford that, you just drove through neighborhoods to see free lights," says Jarrett. "It's fun and magical — so fun to put on a blue parka and get bundled up and see the intricately-carved ice. My girls enjoy inspecting the ice and watching the story unfold as we wander through."
Niko Nickolaou is senior director of special events and creative for Gaylord Hotels. He says the artisans who carve these elaborate sculptures hail from Harbin, China, a town known for its famous ice sculptures. "Harbin is the ice capital of the world," says Nickolaou, "so they do a complete ice festival every year and they carve multi-story structures, slides, houses — all out of ice. This is an incredible artist talent that is passed on generation to generation."
To see the sculptures, guests must walk through a series of rooms kept at a cool 9°F. "There's two million pounds of hand-carved ice," says Nickolaou. "That's an insane perspective, but it all comes in 300-pound blocks. We get almost 6,000 to 7,000 300-pound blocks that are carved and transformed into what you see when you walk through the experience. That process takes 35-40 days and 40 artisans to really get it to where it is at the end when our guests see it."
Tickets to view the sculptures vary in price, averaging about $20 for children and $40 for adults. But Ice isn't all that's offered as part of Gaylord Hotels' yearly "So Much Christmas" celebration. Additional packages and tickets can be purchased for activities like snowball-making, milk and cookies with Mrs. Claus, snow-tubing and holiday stage shows. There are ornaments, snacks and holiday cocktails for sale and the option to splurge to stay a night or two at the hotel, where there's stunning Christmas decor and a nightly holiday light show.
Sidoriak and her family spent more than $1,500 booking their Gaylord visit this year, planning two nights of accommodations on top of their holiday activities. "The memories we made with the kids [in previous years] was what sold it for me," she says. "And, we're super excited to see this years theme of A Christmas Story: It's one of my husband's favorite movies."
My own family has visited Ice almost annually since my kids were little. We've toured the 2015 Santa Claus is Comin' to Town display at Gaylord National with friends, and my daughter's school chorus performed at Gaylord Palms before we walked through that year's A Christmas Story display. Ice has become synonymous with the holidays for us, and the years of memories (and photos) are something I treasure.
This year, we were thrilled to see the chilly event return and we're not alone. NSync member Chris Kirkpatrick and his family visit Gaylord Opryland each year for Ice. Kirkpatrick says he's excited to take his 5-year-old son through the exhibit, as he was a toddler when COVID-19 brought the tradition to a halt.
"Ice is back with a brand new addition," he says, making an all-too-appropriate "Ice Ice Baby" pun. "No better way to get into the holiday spirit then walking into nine-degree weather to see all the beautiful ice sculptures and ice luges."
And, Kirkpatrick says the rest of the holiday events at Gaylord are how his family guarantees a "Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays."
"[The Gaylord is] our favorite place to meet Santa Claus, watch all the beautiful lit up trees and enjoy all of the wonders of Christmas," says Kirkpatrick. "We haven't missed a season and look forward to taking our son every year."
Nickolaou says Gaylord Hotels sees families come back year-after-year for the tradition of walking through this winter wonderland. "When you travel with your family at that time of year, you want to experience something unique," he says. "Everyone has a different story and connection to the experience. Some are just building traditions, but it's very common to see someone that has been there and watched their kids grow up visiting our attractions over the last several years."
As a repeat Ice attender, I can confirm. Even my husband, whose Christmas spirit ranks a little lower than mine at times, says his favorite way to kick off our family's Christmas season is a weekend trip to the Gaylord. And yes, even he goes down those giant holiday ice slides.
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