ICE!: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

December 1, 2010  I always thought that the first time I would marvel at ice would be when I fulfilled my long-held dream of walking on a glacier (sub-dream: making snow angels on one). Little did I know that the first time ice would massively impress me would be in an inflatable dome in a hotel parking lot. And I have a troupe of Chinese craftsmen, two million pounds of colored ice, and a children's storyteller dead some 20 years to thank for it.

I know it's great for chilling beverages and naming rap stars, but I've never given much thought to ice. However, for a whole subset of people, ice is apparently a viable artistic medium. Or an attention-getting one, I imagine. Nobody comes running when you carve a bear out of wood, but carve that same bear out of ice and we'll put it in a giant bowl full of spiked punch and theme a party around it.

The appeal is obvious, I guess. Ice is beautiful, a bit daunting, and extremely ephemeral. I actually think that last is the biggest appeal of ice sculpture. Because we're petty. The Germans probably have a single word for it, but here are 40-odd to explain what I mean. Some talented artisan creates something that it would take most of us brain and hand transplants to accomplish, but, in turn, we get the pleasure of knowing it will soon melt into a sad puddle not worth even stepping over, leaving the sculptors with only memories, pictures, and freezer burn to remember it by. Ha. That's what they get for dedication to an art form. Now, what's happening on Facebook with that girl who sat three rows away from me in third grade?

For the past few years, the extravagant Gaylord chain of resort hotels has been erecting gigantic colorized ice sculpture displays called ICE! on their properties, with each of their four hotels hosting different Christmas story themes. This year, they're doing A Charlie Brown Christmas in Grapevine, TX; ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas in Kissimmee, FL; and the Rankin-Bass Santa Claus is Coming to Town in Nashville, TN. In fact, I highly recommend doing a Flickr search for Gaylord ICE! to see all those displays. I do not, however, recommend using semi-colons in your own writing. Few things will make you feel less a writer and more an editor than using semi-colons.

I happened to recently be near the Gaylord hotel in National Harbor, MD, where they had carved 400-pound blocks of special factory-created food-dyed ice into scenes from Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Taking all four different Christmas story themes into account, I think I’m the winner, but I’m not sure. They’re all strong. Still, The Grinch is stylistically more interesting than Peanuts, has more brand loyalty than Night Before, and Rankin-Bass has better story offerings in its library. Had they done Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or The Year without a Santa Claus, either of those might have been the winner. I mean, a gargantuan Bumble or the fractious Miser Brothers in full-Technicolor ice? I’d have to get a plane ticket right now, backscatter radiation and TSA gropings be damned.

For this mammoth and frosty undertaking, Gaylord Entertainment imported master ice carvers from the city of Harbin, China, a Siberia-bordering snow-land that is famous for its annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, where they carve entire city blocks of elaborately styled buildings out of ice and then colorfully light them in creative and awe-inspiring ways. Once again, Flickr that.

I'm not sure what percentage of the Chinese populace celebrates Christmas, nor what they think of the Grinch or how really translatable Seuss is in general, but according to a video they were playing on a big screen at the entrance to ICE!, the carvers didn't know the story of the Grinch, so they relied on drawings provided by Gaylord. Once again, dedication to one’s craft means less TV watching, so it’s all in your priorities. Would you rather know the story of the Grinch or be able to carve a 10-foot ice sculpture of him? Either answer is fine by me.

After hanging out for a while in the Gaylord hotel itself, which featured a handful of bronze statues of various popular Seuss characters in its large glass atrium that was opulently decorated for Christmas, we walked out into the parking lot, where was erected one of those large white inflatable dome-ish things that they put over some year-round swimming pools, only this one was much larger, of course. It also might not have technically been inflatable, but text is more interesting when that word is used.

When we reached the entrance, I was sharply reminded of one of the benefits of seeking out more obscure travel destinations. I get to avoid crowds. And lines. And crowds in rough approximations of lines. We had to stand in three to enter ICE!, one to get into the building, one to pick up our advance-order tickets, and one to get into the attraction itself. I think it was just bad timing on our part, though, because once we were inside ICE!, the crowd wasn’t bad, and on our way out the line had completely disappeared like there was a crazed shooter in a tower nearby.

Inside was an ice rink, a gift shop, a chance to get your picture taken with a person in a Grinch suit, a giant Christmas tree made from green tree-shaped Peeps (there was a Peep store in the National Harbor shopping complex) and, of course, ICE! itself. I really hate exclamation points in names and titles. I keep reading that word as a shout in my head.

The path to ICE! first meandered through a twisting hallway that featured on its walls Dr. Seuss art from various stages of his career, as well as images from the Dr. Seuss Memorial in Springfield, MA, which I wrote about here. Then you get to the coat station, where instead of checking yours, you get handed an extra one.

I already had on two layers and a winter coat, but they still insisted on me taking one of their calve-length sky-blue parkas. The coat made me feel like a scientist in some secret underground facility and made me feel some strange sense of solidarity with the rest of the visitors. Inside, though, I discovered why they made us take them. They have to keep the ice at nine degrees, which I knew, but apparently that’s a much colder temperature than I realized, and you feel the bite as soon as you entered the ICE! area.

However, the positive side of the cold is that the physical sensation makes the ice scenes more immersive and otherworldly, akin to one’s ears popping on a mountain or the first surrounding wetness of a dive. It also ensures that people don't dawdle too long and clog up the various rooms. Still, it was perfectly bearable considering what we were seeing, and the adrenaline from the excitement helped keep us warm, as well.

And, honestly, it was pretty amazing. I felt like Jack Skellington on his visit to Christmas Town running around yell-singing “What's this?”, except that I kept saying “Look at this!” in wisps of condensation vapor to whoever was around me even though they were staring at exactly the same thing I was with the exact same condensation vapor pouring out of their dropped jaws.

I mean, as many people as were there and as “attraction-y” as it was, I couldn't help but be wonder-struck. True, it helped that the subject matter was the Grinch. You could carve him out of mechanically separated meat and I would marvel, but still, it was the size of the sculptures, the bright popsicle colors, the Christmas feel, the fact that they were within touching distance and surrounded you instead of being separated from you like at an exhibit.

Based on the animated television special more than the book, the display showcased some ten different scenes arranged throughout a series of rooms in chronological order, from the Grinch staring down from his cave with a sour, Grinchy frown to the Whos down in Who-ville playing with their jing-tinglers, flu-floopers, and zu-zitter-carzays to a befuddled Max getting an antler tied to his head to Cindy Lou Who, who was no more than two.

In one room they even incorporated a two-story ice slide within the milieu. I stood there for 10 minutes waiting for some other adult to “break the ice,” but since only children were using it while I was in that room, I chickened out and just admired the artistry from afar like a good adult. But there was a lot to admire. All that was really missing was a loudspeaker piping in a chorus of Fah Who For-Aze or that guy who does the voice of Tony the Tiger singing You’re a Mean One. An ice Boris Karloff or Pete Townshend would have been welcome, as well.

Once we passed the Grinch-he-himself carving the roast beast, the final room was a gigantic nativity scene, all sculpted in crystal-clear, colorless, deionized ice. It was just as beautiful as the previous rooms, but for its own reasons. Kind of like the difference between an elegant Victorian Christmas tree and one filled with home-made ornaments. Both are cool lifestyle decisions with me. Maybe because of all the candy colors of the previous rooms, but the inclusion of translucent Baby Jesus & Co. felt like a palate cleanser of sorts.

Like everything in life, the attraction eventually emptied into a warm gift shop, this particular one full of Christmas trinkets. Somehow I managed not to buy anything, but, like the Grinch and his triple cardiomegaly, I am a changed man as a result of it all. That ice swan at your wedding reception no longer impresses me.


  1. J.W. - What a fascinating and wonderful story! Thank you for sharing your visit to our ICE! attraction with your readers/fans. We were a little sad when we read that you didn't hop on the ice slides and whiz down the mountaintop for yourself, because the slides really ARE the very best part of the attraction! (After all, who wouldn't want to be a kid again and have fun, right?!!) But, regardless, it sounds like you still had a fantastic time. Would you be OK if we posted a link to your story on our hotel FaceBook page? We just cannot resist sharing it with our own Fans, who will certainly love reading your take on the experience. Let me know. Thanks so much!

    -Amie Gorrell
    Director of Public Relations
    Gaylord National Resort