You usually don’t need a parka inside a hotel, but most hotels don’t freeze to 9 degrees Fahrenheit.
That is unless you visit one of the five Gaylord hotels across the United States during their annual snow! Ice experience! Bringing beloved holiday stories like “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” “The Polar Express” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to life in an immersive walk-through display made entirely of ice – 10 million pounds (5,000 tons) of it to be exact.
Related: Save up to 50% on Ice! at the Gaylord Hotel for 2023
Taking that much snow and transforming it into a themed winter wonderland takes a level of creativity, skill and precision that can only be found in one place – Harbin, China. It’s no surprise that some of the world’s most prolific ice carvers have their origins in Harbin. The city’s temperatures regularly stay below freezing, and it is home to the world’s largest snow- and ice-carving festival, the Harbin Ice Festival.
In early November, approximately 200 master ice craftsmen from Harbin, China, made the long journey to Gaylord hotels across the United States to begin this year’s transformation. With the help of an interpreter, TPG spoke with one such ice carver, Xu Rui, who is part of the team creating this year’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” exhibit at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center near Washington, DC.
Each location has a different theme, and the theme changes every year. Snow this year! Themes include:
You don’t have to be a Gaylord Hotel guest to see Ice! As individual attraction tickets are available. However, if you stay at one of the hotels, you can save money on a room and ticket package.
Rui and the other artisans spent more than a month building the ice structures, but their work began long before they left China.
Reward your inbox with the TPG Daily Newsletter
Join 700,000 readers for breaking news, in-depth guides and exclusive deals from TPG experts
“Typically, it takes months to prepare ahead of time. We get a 400-page book with hand-drawn, two-scale illustrations that show what we’re going to build,” Rui said. “We also spend a lot of time watching movies based on the installation to analyze the characters so that we can best showcase them in our work,” he added.
Like many artisans, Rui grew up in Harbin. “Harbin is a very cold place, and we are always surrounded by ice,” he told TPG. “I showed interest in ice sculpture, so my father, who is also an artist, taught me from an early age. I started learning oil painting and sculpture and then moved on to ice carving and sculpture,” he continued.
RELATED: 10 Vacation Destinations for Festive Family Fun
Other sculptural mediums are similar to working with ice.
“Being an ice artist, you first have to learn the same skills you would use in traditional sculpture,” Rui explains. “Ice artists often start out as sculptors, so when you see a block of ice, you can imagine what it will look like when sculpting and use your tools to create the finished product,” he added.
Every ice! The installation is incredibly elaborate and detailed, from multi-story walls, slides and ice caves to the intricately carved fur on the Grinch’s face.
“We usually start with simple tools like chainsaws and chisels,” says Rui. “But over the 40 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve also collected customized tools for carving irregular shapes and details.”
One aspect of the event that doesn’t fall on Rui’s team is creating bright colors on the more than 33,000 ice blocks used across the five resorts. The colors are specially created by a chemist using a proprietary formula to closely match certain colors of the characters, and the ice blocks are already colored when they arrive on site.
Once the installations are complete and open to the public, a handful of artisans remain on site to maintain and demonstrate their craft to visitors. During these daily demonstrations, guests can see exactly what it takes to create these masterful ice sculptures, see some of the tools the carvers use, and even touch the blocks of ice to feel how cold they really are.
Speaking of cold, Gaylord provides the ice with one of his signature blue parkas! Guest, so you can stay warm while you explore. While the freezing temperatures may shock some visitors, Rui is used to cold weather.
“Harbin is a very cold city, so you are used to the cold from a very young age,” he explained.
Rui and her colleagues also bundle up, but that’s not what keeps them warm while working.
“We are able to work all day because of the warmth we feel from the visitors,” he shared. “We feel honored and proud to engrave such beloved characters. It is that warmth in our hearts that motivates and inspires us to work in such a cold environment.”