Exploring Destinations

The Ice Men Cometh!

By Debi Lander | Photography courtesy of Debi Lander and Gaylord Hotels

Starting this month, Chinese ice sculptors will transform Gaylord hotel properties into “icy” destinations for family fun.
If you are looking for a cool family friendly outing to get into the holiday spirit, check out the ICE!® events opening this month in several Southern cities. The Gaylord Palms Resort near Orlando, Florida, turns into “Christmas Around the World” while “A Charlie Brown Christmas” comes to the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville. The ICE! version of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” transforms the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine, Texas, into a storybook setting, albeit a frosty one.
ICE! has has been a signature event at Gaylord properties since it began 15 years ago.
To produce the elaborate ice displays, 35-to-40 Chinese artisans arrive at each location in October along with truckloads of specially produced ice. The ice men travel more than 6,000 miles (and bring their own cook) to hand-carve two million pounds of frozen water into a frosty fantasyland, often working 12-hour days.
The ice-loving artisans hail from the city of Harbin, China, located in Northeast China, where winter lasts nearly seven months. Temperatures in their hometown average only two degrees in the winter and sometimes plummet to minus 36. Ice lantern festivals began there centuries ago, and in modern times competitions were held among local families to carve the most elaborate frozen lanterns.
In the event’s early years, only crystal-clear ice, created by filtering deionized water for three days, was used. The more recent addition of food coloring offers the artisans a richer palette of ice blocks from which to build. The process is not as easy as it sounds; the mixture must constantly be stirred to obtain consistent color.
A behind-the-scenes peek to see how the themed projects evolve at the Gaylord Hotels is fascinating. Workers transfer measurements from detailed architectural blueprints and mark off the floor like a home building site. Ice blocks weighing 400 pounds each start arriving from the factory at a rate of two truck loads a day for 15 days.

A team begins assembling the blocks, adding tubular lighting between selected pieces and cutting others with chain saws. The Chinese carvers refer to the blueprints and denote points that guide them as they sculpt. Think of Michelangelo carving a frozen David. The sculptors rough out the figures, then work meticulously to etch fine details. Each artist brings his own set of tools, akin to a chef and his knives, including a variety of rakes, chisels, picks, and trowels.
The temperature in display areas hovers around nine-degrees, requiring the carvers to wear warm boots, coats, hats, and gloves. (Guests should, too, although Gaylord does provides oversized parka for visitors). ICE! visitors often feel frigid after half an hour, but the hardy Chinese come ready for the cold. The workers toil through four-hour shifts, taking warm-up breaks outside.
At Gaylord Palms in Kissimmee near Orlando, the 2017 ICE! “Christmas Around the World,” will showcase different cultures and their wintertime festivities. The event runs Nov. 21 – Jan. 7, 2018.
“We feel this year’s ICE! Theme and our other holiday events embrace cultural diversity and our unifying similarities, celebrating love and peace during this special time of year,” said Johann Krieger, general manager.
In Nashville, Gaylord Opryland’s A Country Christmas and its ICE! event featuring a Charlie Brown Christmas is set to open Nov. 10 and run until New Year’s Day. The iconic cartoon character will rediscover the true meaning of Christmas as the beloved classic story unfolds through interactive ice sculptures and displays. The ICE! display at the Gaylord Texan also runs from Nov. 10 – Jan. 1.
Scenes and characters in all the ICE! displays are constructed entirely from ice without any support from wood or iron. The interactive two-story ice slides, especially loved by snow-starved children, often become the highlight. Adults seem to appreciate stopping in the Frostbite Factory to watch one of the Chinese artisans demonstrating ice carving skills.
The bone-chilling experience through the frozen fantasyland ends up at the North Pole and a chance to see a frosty version of Santa’s toy workshop.
The only scene repeated every year remains the magnificent life-size nativity, created from sparkling crystal-clear blocks. One artist, chosen by fellow sculptors, receives the honor of carving the largest angel.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.