By ATD’s Florida experts Susan & Simon Veness
There’s no doubt it can feel strange celebrating the Christmas season in the sunshine, and often at 21 or 22C! But there are also plenty of additional things to enjoy at this time of year – like the stunning ICE! celebration at the Gaylord Palms Resort.
We’ve written about the amazing Gaylord Palms before, as it is almost an attraction in its own right, built with all the craftsmanship and detail that goes into our fabulous array of theme parks, but it takes on a special dimension from mid-November and right through December.
Put simply, ICE! is one of the absolute must-see elements of Orlando’s festive season, and it gets better every year. For 2014, they have added live ice-carving demonstrations, the Ice Bar (21 and up only!) and – kids take notice – snow tubing along specially prepared ‘ice runs.’
It all adds up to the most mind-boggling array of wintry Christmas fun that truly appeals to all the family (we took Simon’s parents along for their first visit this week and they were absolutely amazed), and, with the additional seasonal entertainment in the Resort itself, you could easily make this a good half-day out.
So what is ICE!, we hear you ask. Good question. This annual festivity, set up in the vast Gaylord Palms convention centre, is a special representation of the great ice-carving tradition from the city of Harbin in north-east China, where the Siberian conditions lead to a celebration of the wintry weather in a city-wide demonstration of ice-carving and creativity.
The clever folks in Kissimmee (where the Gaylord Palms is situated – just on the junction of Osceola Parkway and South International Drive, and very easy to find off main motorway I-4 – just look for the huge, glass-topped building!) decided this would be a great idea for their part of the world, too. So, every year, they invite 30 or so skilled artisans to leave the snowy wastes of China behind and set up shop here in Central Florida.
It takes them almost a month to prepare and create, but the end result is a genuine eye-catching collection of memorable icy splendour.
This year’s theme is The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s famous Christmas-orientated ballet, and it builds through a series of different rooms and scenes, complete with the music – and the obligatory ice slides!
Visitors arrive in the Alpine Village inside the convention centre and there is a short film about the making of ICE! before everyone gets to assemble at the main entrance to be fitted with a full-length parka. ICE! is maintained at a decidedly chilly -12.9C (that’s 9F for those, like us, who still think in old-money terms!) and those parkas are absolutely essential to keep you warm for long enough.
And here’s a quick tip – if ICE! definitely appeals to you (and it should!) – bring gloves, scarf, a warm hat and thick-soled shoes or trainers, as this is a COLD experience, and the warmer you can dress, the longer you will be able to spend inside.
Once inside, you can walk through at your own pace and take as many photos as your camera can stand – at minus-plenty. The level of detail and breadth of the ice-carving, which is all created from a series of thousands of 181kg blocks of ice, adds up to a fabulous spectacle of giant-sized sculptures and buildings, from intricate figures to castle walls. There is also an artisan at work in the final segment, showing just how they create this wonderful array of artistry.
In all, it takes 907,000kg of ice – all brought in from three factories in different parts of the USA; variously clear ice, white ice and a multi-coloured variety – and the Chinese craftsmen turn it all into the ultra-magnificent display that is ICE!, complete with coloured lights fused into the different tableaux.
Half-way through is the Blocks ICE Bar, which is an additional opportunity to sample several alcoholic beverages in the icy confines (for an additional fee – pay at the main ticket counter, and be sure to have proof of age to hand), while the Nutcracker theme finally gives way to a traditional concluding room that features a Nativity scene.
But this is no ordinary nativity – the whole setting is constructed from clear ice that gleams with brilliant intensity. Every animal, every shepherd, all the Wise Men and the full manger set-up, it is a fabulous finale that positively dazzles the senses and warms the heart.
That is not the end of things for the chilly world of ICE, though. Not by a long chalk. Once you exit the Gaylord Palms freezer and Kissimmee’s own little version of Harbin, China, there is plenty more to enjoy, including Gingy’s Gingerbread Decorating (with the chance to design and decorate your own gingerbread cookies and meet Gingy from the Shrek films) and the ShrekFeast Interactive Character Meal, with a huge buffet breakfast (NB: both for a separate fee, like the Ice Bar and snow-tubing).
For those who like to be a bit more active, the four Snow-Tubing runs provide the chance to slide down another mock snowy vista on one- or two-person inflatable tubes that offer all the fun of bouncing down the Alps but none of the slushy landing!
There is then the extensive Market Square gift shop and Snowy’s, for hot chocolate and snacks. Children will surely want to visit Santa’s Workshop, for the chance to meet Father Christmas himself, or take Cookies with Mrs Claus, for another interactive character experience.
And the fun doesn’t end there, either. Take the escalator and walkway up from the convention centre to the hotel proper and you discover another winter wonderland of shops, decorations and free shows daily.
At the centre of the massive main atrium is a 54ft-high Christmas tree surrounded by two MILLION twinkling lights that come to life each evening in a special Lighting Ceremony with carolers. Stay after the lighting event and you can also enjoy the two stage shows, Luminescence, with a live band and aerial choreography, and Christmas Wonders, featuring contemporary songs and more festive spirit.
It all adds up to a seasonal extravaganza of the best kind and, if you have never been to the Gaylord Palms before, you can wander around their three main atriums and marvel at the trio of different Florida settings – St Augustine, the Everglades and Key West – with their elaborate theming. It is a unique world, including alligators, turtles and fish, and is about as scenic and photogenic as it is possible to be, plus it boasts three top-class restaurants if you fancy a stylish dinner, or the lively atmosphere of Wreckers sports bar, with its giant-screen TVs and tempting menu.
We think this is definitely one of the very best Christmas settings anywhere, and it is well worth investigating all the festivities taking place at Gaylord Palms before you travel.
PS: More Christmas highlights on our weekly blog soon…!
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