Chill out (literally) with this unbelievable, interactive holiday experience

Now who's frozen?

By A.D. Thompson,

After visiting a host of other countries, guests will pass through Santa's homeland — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson

"You know, when I was a kid..." 

Yes, I really do find myself beginning sentences this way in 2017.

"…if we missed The Year Without A Santa Claus when it aired, we had to wait a whole year to watch it again!"

My kids – born in the new millennium – are largely unmoved by such things, of course, but predictably, sometime just after Halloween, one of them will break the seal on the December holidays.

"Will we get to go to ICE! this year?"

This Orlando holiday staple has become, in ways, what A Charlie Brown Christmas and all those great stop motion classics were to me: a wonderful tradition and the gateway to twinkling lights and cocoa and – in my house at least – Dean Martin singing “A Marshmallow World” as I sashay about the kitchen.

The holidays, and how we celebrate them, vary widely around the globe.  But the fact that so many of us celebrate during the season unites us, and so the theme for this year’s ICE! at the Gaylord Palms, “Christmas Around The World,” departs from some of the pop-culture-infused themes of the recent past but resonates just the same. Perhaps more.

Freeze tag: Children from around the world join hands in unity — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson

"We’re excited to bring this theme to Central Florida, especially since the Orlando area hosts millions of visitors from around the world each year," said Johann Krieger, general manager for Gaylord Palms, when the theme was announced. "We feel this year’s ICE theme and our other holiday events embrace cultural diversity and our unifying similarities, celebrating love and peace this special time of year."

And don’t tell your kids, but they might even learn something. If not from the placards accompanying each beautiful, colorful ice vignette that describe the traditions of the nations they depict – Mexico, Ethiopia and the Netherlands, to name a few – then perhaps in the Frostbite Factory, where they can watch artisans from Harbin, China, carving live.

Each year, these carvers, who hail from the home of the world’s largest ice festival, spend between 30 and 40 days turning 2 million-plus pounds of ice – that’s trucked in from Georgia – into a holiday wonderland.

Wanna maximize speed? Lift your feet a bit. Whoosh! — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson

This year’s event  opens with enormous, flag-laden ornaments and vivid, international Christmas scenes, leading into the interactive part: the two-story ice slides!

Guests are provided with knee-length parkas that serve double-duty as your sled.

Buttsicle 2017: the author's ice slide "footsie" ushers in the holiday season. — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson

"The slides are one of the biggest thrills for the kids," says Christopher Brumbaugh, director of public relations. "We have a smaller slide for the smallest kids and larger ones so mom and dad can race them down! Safety is especially important and so the carvers maintain the slide. At night, they spray it and smooth it after closing."

A beyond-frosty 9 degrees is the billed temperature, but Brumbaugh says it does vary a bit.

"Nine is where we target it," he explains, "but it can go as low as 4 and as high as 16, as the temperature will vary depending on how many people are inside."

It’s another factor that makes maintenance necessary. Over time, the ice can sweat. Just like landscapers in our gardens, the carvers come in and sweep and trim and chisel and chip, making sure it all stays beautiful.

And it really does.

As guests move through the exhibit, they’re treated to the "Peace Wall," a massive depiction of a soaring dove with an olive branch that adorns the back side of the slide, before seeing the Big Man himself in the North Pole area.

The spirit of the season — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson

If your camera is the sort that freezes in extreme temps, you’ll want to keep it insulated and warm for a bit beforehand.

"It’s begging you to take photos!" says Brumbaugh. "You could come in with your family and take your whole holiday card picture in here. And when you see the detail, it’s really astonishing; the talent of the artisans who carve here.”

It’s true, but you’ll notice the talent way before you make it to the North Pole! The grass skirt on the little girl representing Samoa, for example, was feathered much like the real thing.

At the North Pole, ice doppelgangers of classic toys are impressive and massive photo-ops, like a humongous sleigh filled with toys, abound.

Regardless of the theme, the final room is always a crystalline nativity scene, complete with towering angels that bid you farewell as you exit. And be warned, your camera and glasses will fog up when they hit that warm, wonderful air outside the exhibit. If you wear specs, be sure to take them off for some information you might find helpful:

An amusing – and helpful – sign that guests see upon exit — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson

Now through Jan. 7: More Xmas on tap

Snow stuff. The Gaylord Palms has a host of other Christmas activities besides ice. Snow tubing, for one. Real snow (machine-made, of course), real hills (man-made, of course) and all inside (of course). It is super-fun, though, and the tubing room is also loaded down with a snow-based arcade, lots of treats and cocoa, doughnuts, Italian ices and even a bar for some Christmassy adult beverages.

Light 'em up. This part’s free! Out in the atrium, the entertainmant is colorful and soaring in multiple formats, one being the immense, twinkly tree that’s the centerpiece of the property and the lovely "Joyful" show.  It's a spectacle that combines music, storytelling (with a multicultural theme) and a choreographed light show that we’d call showstopping, if not for the soaring performers of Cirque Dreams Unwrapped. The spectacle returns this year with some all-new acts, beautifully costumed performers who seem to defy gravity and physics (keep a good lookout for the roller skating team!) during a 25-minute show. 

Tell him what you want. Oh, these modern-day kids. While you're telling yours about how you had to send letters ("...with stamps and everything!") back when you were little, they'll have fired off a scanned one straight to St. Nick's inbox from the Reindeer Express Post Office. The "stamped" postcard they'll write becomes the keepsake of the event because modern tech allows these requests to be sent virtually, of course. What a world we live in.