ICE!: Behind the scenes at Gaylord Hotels’ holiday exhibit

Each holiday season, the four Gaylord Hotels in the United States import about 100 master ice carvers from Harbin, China’s Winter Festival to carve elaborate, life-size exhibits for the resorts.

I recently got to peek behind the curtain and watch the artists at work at the Gaylord Palms Resort near Orlando, Florida.

The ICE! exhibits are a wonder to walk through, with room out of room full of sculptures where everything – even walls and stairs – are made out of ice.

ICE! gets its start months before the exhibit premieres in November, with a theme and technical drawings to plan the exhibit. The carvers start their work about 30 days before ICE! opens.

Bringing in the ice is a logistical feat in itself. Each sculpture starts as a 400-pound ice block trucked to Orlando from Adel, Georgia. The timing of the ice’s arrival is carefully planned because all of the colors in the exhibit are added when the ice is frozen and not on-site.

Larry Walter, one of the show’s on-site producers, said two to four trucks of ice are delivered each day, with largely clear and white ice being delivered at the beginning of the process and the colored ice coming to add the finishing touches later.

The artists start the carving with chain saws to shape the ice. Fine detail work is done with small chisels and other hand tools.

All this work happens in rooms at the hotel’s convention center that are chilled to 9 degrees Farenheit. Visitors to the exhibit are loaned parkas to walk through.

This year’s ICE! exhibit at the Gaylord Palms has the theme “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The rooms are set up as if you are walking through the poem. The whole thing is lit and musically scored like a show.

Once the exhibit opens, most of the artists return to China. But a team of about 10 stays behind at each resort to do touch-up work and be on call to take care of any mishaps. Walter said guests usually can’t resist touching the sculptures, and things do wind up breaking off from time to time.

The other Gaylord hotels have different ICE! themes. The Gaylord National near Washington, D.C. has “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee has “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” And “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the theme at the Gaylord Texan near Dallas, Texas.

There are a couple of popular features that make their way into each ICE! exhibit, regardless of the theme. There’s always a “slide room” with ice slides for kids (and some adventurous parents) to play on. And ICE! always ends with a life-size Nativity, done completely in crystal clear ice.

The ICE! exhibits all open in mid-November. You can save a few bucks on tickets if you buy them online in advance at the Gaylord Hotels Web site.

Here’s a video look at my behind-the-scenes visit to ICE!:

I asked Walter what happens to the sculptures after the exhibit closes in early January. He said everything is bull-dozed, crushed and moved out to an area of the resort’s parking lot to melt, which usually takes just two days in Florida.