Washington, DC is a truly wonderful place to experience the joy and magic of Christmas, with literally countless events for kids, adults and families spread across a huge region that stretches from Baltimore to Richmond. Living in the ‘burbs as we do, we face a barrage of local holiday events, so many, in fact, that it would be easy to forget that just 25 miles down the road is a metropolitan city with the very special designation of being a national capital, as well as an exciting, up-and-coming cultural destination.
We have many fun holiday events and experiences to share with you, but the Gaylord ICE show is up first.
How to Get there:
ICE is located at the Gaylord National Harbor, a very large and still growing complex of shopping, restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions located just before the Wilson Bridge on the Maryland side. The Gaylord Hotel sits on the banks of the Potomac with views to Alexandria. From Annapolis, take Route 50 West to I-95 toward Richmond. Follow the road, staying in the local lanes. The exits are very clearly marked. When you get off the exit, follow the signs to HOTELS and park in the public parking just behind the hotel. Alternatively, stay to the right to visit the Capital Wheel and main street shopping.
What is it?
Gaylord Hotels, a division of Marriott International, hosts a totally unique annual holiday extravaganza at four locations across the country. Visitors (many arriving in snow pants, hats and gloves) don special oversized and very warm coats before entering a 15,000 square foot tent filled with spectacular ice sculptures.
The sculptures are created by a team of artists from Harbin, in Northeast China, an area that borders Siberia and that I suspect breeds a special kind of resiliency to cold that frankly, I am not sure I have. While the average summer temperature in Harbin hovers at a moderate 70 degrees, winter temps fall dramatically to an average of only 2 degrees… sometimes plummeting to -36. Harbin stays below freezing for almost half the year. The carvers spend nearly a month of 12-hour shifts inside a 9-degree freezer, transforming two million pounds of ice into 5,000 10 inch-thick blocks that together, will form a breathtaking winter wonderland.
Each year ICE features a different theme. We have visited Shrek (2012) and Twas the Night Before Christmas (2013). The theme at National Harbor for 2014 is Frosty the Snowman. Other locations have different themes, including The Nutcracker.
The ice used in the show is perfectly smooth and truly beautiful, especially the crystalline and luminescent sculptures of the Nativity. The ice is so clear that it obviously didn’t come from the Potomac, which flows just feet from the exhibit.
According to Gaylord, the ice for ICE! is created using a special “recipe”, and arrives in approximately 36 truckloads over a three-week period – two trucks a day for 15 days, which is about as fast as the ice factory can produce it. Large blocks of ice are delivered on pallets via refrigerated tractor-trailers, then moved into place by forklift.
Good to Know:
- Strollers are not allowed in the tent
- Bring hats and gloves. Children do well with ski pants. The price is steep so if the exhibit isn’t crowded, you can take as long as you want to explore. The ICE show is maintained at just 9 degrees, and believe me, you won’t want to stay long if you don’t take this advise.
- Let me say that again in another way: 9 degrees may not sound too cold, especially when you are wearing your own gear plus Gaylord’s loans. Even so, when the excitement begins to die down, the cold seeps in. When we stepped outside on a 36 degree day, it felt like we were in Florida. The better prepared you are, the longer you can withstand the cold, and the more bang you get for your buck. If you want to avoid crying babies, whining toddlers and pouting teens, come prepared. You can also return your gear to the car after the show.
- Before you enter the ICE tent, have your photo taken by the photographer. You can check it out at the coat-check. Plan to pay $25 if you want a print. We actually like to go after we visit ICE, when our cheeks are rosy and the kids are still excited. Those photos show just how fun this event is for the entire family.
- The attraction is fully interactive, allowing guests to roam inside, around and on-top of holiday scenes. Even so, make sure little ones are respectful of what is truly art. There are many employees in the exhibit to ensure that no one climbs on things they shouldn’t.
- Plan to spend about twenty minutes in the exhibit. If there isn’t a line, you can go out and then back in again—but only if you stick around by the door. You can’t return your coat and decide later to visit again unless you buy another ticket. The weekends are packed, with some 1000 visitors going through each hour during peak times. I am not sure I would wait in line for a second go-round.
IMPORTANT TO NOTE: There is a two-story ice slide in the middle of the exhibit. This is where parents who have to stand in one spot watching their kids get cold, where children refuse to wear gloves and so whine about numb fingers and where grandpa throws his back out zipping down the ice. It is also where every single person has the most fun.
The slides aren’t steep, and there is a wee one for the toddlers.
Good to Know
Slide down on your Gaylord coat with your feet up for the fastest ride. Both my kids like to go down on their bellies, feet and chin up, as they say this is the best, most crazy way to go….
After you’ve visited ICE, warm up with a hot cocoa (Swiss Miss $3) at the coat return, then visit the souvenir shop (or sidestep it altogether by exiting the door to the outside and walking back into the hotel through the rear entrance, thus saving yourself the “I Wants”, tantrums and cash.)
Beyond ICE, the hotel atrium itself is dressed out in seasonal finery. The centerpiece of the atrium is a huge tree made of glass. According to Gaylord it is 60 feet tall and weighs 7,000 pounds. By day the tree looks like a stained glass work of art. But at night, after being lit in a fabulous ceremony, it glows beautifully and is a sight to see from the Potomac.
A small train ($2 per ride, per child) curls around a short track underneath the tree. This is a great spot for parents to sit for a minute and for kids to take a deep breath. There is a fountain here, which periodically spouts brightly colored dancing water. Each night at 6:30, the tree is lit to a choreographed, heart-warming narration of the classic Christmas story while the fountain spouts quite high and fake snow falls. Kids and adults love the lighting and it is well worth staying to see.
Good to Know:
A crowd typically gathers in the atrium for the tree lighting. Stake out a spot near the fountain or on the second floor (ballroom level) balconies for a good view.
The fountain’s spray extends beyond the surround. Little ones wanting to be close to the water will leave with the mist, and risk slipping on the floor. This is a good time to sit in one spot or else away from the fountain.
Gaylord has partnered with DreamWorks in a variety of other events, each a la carte. There is a ShrekFeast character dinner, a Crack-A-Lackin Cook-In character breakfast buffet, a cake pop class, a scavenger hunt ($9.99) and Gingy’s Gingerbread Decorating, which is located on the third level.
The gingerbread making is quite expensive ($35.95 for a four piece Gingerbread Cookie Family Kit (this is an outlandish price for just 4 small gingerbread boy cookies, some frosting and a few candies) and $49.95 for the Gingerbread House Kit, which is also incredible, but somehow my kids always get me to pay it.
In truth, the gingerbread house is my favorite part of the entire experience (with the tree lighting being a close runner-up), and I think, the most memorable for all of us. The kids are licking fingers and stealing candy and are so excited about their designs. A couple of times Gingy himself has shown up to greet the kids. This year #2 asked what Gingy is made of, so I wonder how much longer the kids will be thrilled and excited by a movie character.
Also on the third level is a photo op with Santa. He’s a lovely guy but the prices (starting at $22 for a lame small photo) are just crazy, so we’ve never taken advantage of that opportunity.
- The food options at ICE are limited. The hotel has a couple of restaurants and a coffee shop, but both are expensive and subpar. The entire event can be reasonably completed in 2 hours, not including the tree lighting. My advise is to go through ICE and any other experiences you choose, walk over the any of the many small restaurants or chains now open at National Harbor, then return for the tree lighting.
- ICE is open through early January
- I recommend buying tickets online. Tickets are timed so crowds move along at a reasonable rate. Mid-week visits are not at all crowded and I think are much better if you can swing it. Everything about the experience is stiulating, to both little ones nad adults. Crowds make total meltdowns and poor behavior nearly inevitable. My best advice is to go mid-week.
- The show opens at 1 PM midweek, which is perfect because it is after lunch but not great in that it is in the middle of naptime. You could very reasonable go after naptime, stay for the tree lighting, eat some dinner and leave the property thereby missing traffic hour and getting home just in time for bed.
Bottom Line? This is an expensive endeavor, with pricing just for ICE running at $27 per adult and $20 per kid. But your kids will remember all of it, there will be moments of absolute joy and wonder, and many memories made. The expression on everyone’s face as they watch the tree lighting ( FREE) is priceless. And isn’t that the holiday season is all about?