Icily, the ultimate block party
Crowds swarm -- and warm -- to frozen Christmas extravaganza at National Harbor

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The shepherds are shrinking. Their hands have gotten bony-looking and weird as the ice they're made from passes from solid to gas despite the frigid temperature. Mary's fingers will go next -- her knuckles are already knobby -- and Baby Jesus, even Baby Jesus's swaddling clothes will eventually need a touch-up. He'll be sprayed with mist to restore him to holiness.

The ice is essential to the celebration of Christmas at National Harbor in Prince George's County. There are 2 million pounds of it, carved into 10 massive tableaux in a climate-controlled tent held steady at a merry 9 degrees. There are also two-story ice slides, a crystalline Santa's Workshop, a penguin village and every other holiday tradition and trope, scooched up right next to one another.

Think of it all as an EpiPen filled with Christmas spirit, a jolt to the system after an autumn of doldrums. Witness Victorian Christmas, Polar Christmas, Religious Christmas -- all at this explosion of holiday festivity known as ICE! As many as 8,000 people have been shivering their way through the exhibit every day since it opened in late November.

To tend the ice, which is American Big, you need carvers with American know-how, except that it turns out Americans don't know how to deal with ice of this magnitude, so in very American fashion, carvers have been imported from China. A small colony of artisans from the northern Chinese city of Harbin works in shifts to keep the ice crisp. .

Early on a recent Saturday, before ICE! opens to the public for the day, master carver Guo Bai Wei deftly amputates the hands of a shepherd, replacing them with ones he spent the morning fashioning.

He is replacing the hands, his translator explains helpfully.

When you think about Christmas, you think North Pole, maybe? You think 34th Street, or Rockefeller Center and ice skates and hot chocolate?


The Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center, sponsor of ICE!, wants you to think "Christmas" and then think "Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center." They have been trying on a slogan: "The New Capital of Christmas."

* * *

Let us make a pilgrimage into the frigid 15,000-square-foot refrigerator that is ICE!

First, let us put on the fluffy blue parkas that the Gaylord provides everyone who comes to ICE!, which makes everyone look like the kid from "A Christmas Story," the one who can't put his arms down.

"Hope y'all are ready to be cold!" a parka-dispensing employee calls out cheerfully.

Let us open the doors.


* * *


Here is Christmas. Here is Christmas if Christmas were sponsored by Haagen-Dazs and Coca-Cola and if you were celebrating it on one of those speeding airport walkways. Straight ahead is a monumental Christmas in Washington (the Washington, the Lincoln); beyond that, some frosty frolicking woodland creatures and a bridge made of ice. It's covered in carpet, but the point is that underneath the carpet it is made of ice. To your left, a serene forest canopy; to your right, the cavernous slide room.

It's Antarctica, with giant blue dancing ice penguins! It's a sleigh ride, perfect for your Christmas-card photo! It's a Dickensian hearth scene with small Victorian ice children! God bless us, every one.

"I've never seen anything like it," says Lisa Johnson of Upper Marlboro. "All of the lights, and Santa, and . . . " She breaks off, and stares in amazement at a two-story slide made entirely of ice. At the bottom, a crowd of parents, cameras in hand.

"Marlon, slide down here," a father directs his son. Maybe, he suggests to his wife, this slide can take the place of sledding. Another winter experience, checked off the list.

It's Christmas in a box, or at least a really giant tent, packaged and delivered in a 20-minute stroll, which is exactly how you want it this year, no? Because it hasn't begun to feel a lot like Christmas yet. People say it's the weather, but Washington weather is always like this, isn't it? People say it's the economy, but the economy was trashed last year, too, right? People say that even though the economy might be rebounding a little bit now, they still want to get back to the reason for the season -- skip the presents; instead, make memories and experiences together.

What memories?

The Gaylord is glad you asked.

"We pulse people through the attraction," says Gaylord public relations director Amie Gorrell. She cannot say how much it costs to produce, other than that it's a "multimillion-dollar investment," or how much it makes, other than that it's a good business move for that slow time in December and January when business season drops off.

ICE! is new at National Harbor this year. It's the latest part of the celebration that the hotel shrewdly calls "Christmas on the Potomac." Across the parking lot from the tent, inside the largest hotel/convention center on the Eastern Seaboard, there are fountains that spurt in time with Christmas carols. There is snow, fake snow, falling gently from the ceiling twice an evening. It tastes like shampoo (don't eat it). There is a 100-person choir that performs in the atrium, beneath a suspended 7,000-pound Christmas tree. There is brunch with Mrs. Claus, and the Gingerbread Family Experience, in accordance with the theory that adding "experience" to the end of any noun makes it more awesome. (And here Gorrell has a concern: "We've been talking a lot about Christmas," she says, "but we are open and sensitive to all other holidays." There's a menorah near check-in.)

ICE! is part of the Gaylord brand -- sister locations in Orlando, Dallas and Nashville have been putting on their own versions since 2001. Gaylord's National Harbor was recently named one of the top 10 Christmas hotels in the country by Orbitz. ICE! in Nashville helped that city's Gaylord earn the title of "Most Christmasy Hotel" in America from the Travel Channel last year. Can the National Harbor branch take the top title? "Give us a couple of years," Gorrell says. "They have the Rockettes and Louise Mandrell."

* * *

"Last night we did the water show, and the ordering of the milk and cookies to the room, and the brunch with Santa, and the Christmas movies right in the pool," says Heather Hawkins. She's a preschool director in Richmond, and has come to ICE! with her family for the weekend -- bought a special package that comes with a hotel room, admission tickets and other goodies. "We are Christmas people," Hawkins says.

She stands in her parka and cute earmuffs; her daughter is about to do the slide.

After this, they will go through the re-creation of Santa's workshop, complete with ice guitars and teddy bears. And after this, it's an ice cathedral with a 20-foot ice angel.

Notice how the cathedral almost feels spiritual. Notice how the 9-degree temperature seems to still the air, as if we are literally frozen in time, as if there is nothing to do but stand and absorb Christmas, breathe it in and out in icy puffs of air.


"Fun, pretty, cold." Kristen Horn of Centreville has just been asked what she liked about ICE!, and what she likes is how it hit all of the important Christmas buzzwords.

Perhaps this explains the 8,000 daily visitors and the sold-out blocks of tickets. What we want out of this holiday season is very simple, really. Brunch with Santa would be nice; so would the ability to give your children everything they asked for while simultaneously reminding them that presents have nothing to do with the meaning of the holiday.

But in the end: Make it fun. Make it pretty. Make it cold.

The final tableau of the exhibit is the Nativity scene, with Mary and Joseph, the Magi, the sheep and the shepherds, who now all have proportionate hands, which they extend reverentially toward the manger.

Some ICE! visitors take a moment here and pause, solidifying their Christmas memories before returning their parkas, wandering into the gift shop and then toward the exit. There, banks of computers are set up with survey questions, asking whether ICE! had fulfilled all of their Christmas expectations, whether they'd had a complete Christmas experience.

Outside, the temperature felt practically balmy.

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