Photos by Gary Crow
Early in October, 160 artisans boarded planes in China headed for the four Gaylord hotels in the U.S. where they have been hard at work creating the magic known as ICE!, part of the holiday presentations that transform the Gaylords into winter wonderlands each year. The Gaylord Texan, in the Dallas suburb of Grapevine, invited me in for a sneak peek behind the scenes before the attraction officially opens. Here's the scoop on how it all comes together.
The carvers arrive
The carvers hail from Harbin, Heilongjiang, China, where China’s International Ice Sculpture Festival began. The holiday sculptures they create at each of the Gaylords are a blend of art and engineering. The work of ice carving is a tradition, often handed down through generations. Forty carvers go to each of the four Gaylord properties, where they are treated like celebrities on arrival. The entire hotel staff greets the bus with applause. They bring a translator and a chef with them and are treated to fun activities as time allows. The crew in Texas enjoys Dallas Cowboy games and Six Flags Over Texas during their time off.
The ice is made
Job one is producing the ice in blocks. The Gaylord Texan rents out a nearby ice plant where the carvers themselves start the project by making the 1,000 tons of specialty ice needed for the display. They produce colored, white, and crystal-clear blocks that will eventually become the themed holiday art.
It all goes in a tent
That's right. A tent. Outside. In the Texas heat? It sounds crazy, but this is not your typical tent. Attached to the hotel, this 14,000 square-foot mega tent is converted into a giant deep freeze with massive chillers. Cold air is circulated and sealed in tight, keeping the temperature a bone-chilling nine degrees. The blocks are quickly unloaded from trucks (thirty-six truckloads in all) and stacked inside where they will be transformed into a themed village for visitors to enjoy through January 1.
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We were allowed to watch the carvers at work with chainsaws, chisels, specialized scrapers, and forklifts. They have detailed drawings, but seem to rely on artistic talent in most cases with quick glances at the schematics to keep them on track as the work progresses. Individual pieces, like hands or heads, are made separately, then masterfully glued together with water. Building the event is an enormous undertaking and touring the construction left us not only shivering, but eager to see the finished product after it opens on Nov. 10.
The guests arrive
A tunnel will connect the tent seamlessly to the hotel's convention center, which will serve as both the entrance and exit for the event. Decorations and activities line the walkway, making the wait time part of the festivities. Guests are provided with parkas before entering the cold zone, but are advised to bring their own mittens and ear muffs. I'm chuckling as I think about exactly where Floridians will come up with mittens and earmuffs for A Charlie Brown Christmas at the Gaylord Palms in Kissimmee.
Each hotel has a different theme each year. The Gaylord National in National Harbor, Maryland will present Christmas Around the World. Gaylord Opryland will feature scenes from the classic Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This year's theme at the Texan is Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. The village inside the tent will include an ice bar serving specialty drinks to the over-21 crowd. How about a Merry Margarita with Milagro Tequila or a Jolly Mint made with Jackson Morgan to warm up with? Five ice slides for all ages are under construction and the finale is a crystal-clear Nativity scene. Music and lighting will complete the spectacle.
Beyond the ICE! tent, the event at the Gaylord Texan will also include an outdoor skating rink, indoor snow tubing, and two million lights twinkling throughout the resort. The hotels are offering discounted stays and package pricing that includes entrance to ICE!