Meet the artisans who carve the larger than life ice displays for Gaylord Ice!

You don’t usually need a parka inside a hotel, but most hotels aren’t chilled to a frosty 9 degrees Fahrenheit. That is unless you visit one of the five Gaylord Hotels across the U.S. during their annual Ice! experience. Ice! brings favorite holiday stories like “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” “The Polar Express” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to life with immersive walk-through displays created entirely from ice — 10 million pounds (5,000 tons) of it to be exact.

Taking that much ice 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 should come as no surprise that some of the world’s most prolific ice carvers originate in Harbin. The city’s temperatures regularly average 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 artisans from Harbin, China, made the long journey to Gaylord Hotels across the U.S. 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” displays at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center near Washington, D.C.

Each location has a different theme, and the themes change annually. This year’s Ice! themes include:

1. “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” at Gaylord Rockies in Denver, Colorado.
2. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at Gaylord Palms in Kissimmee, Florida.
3. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at Gaylord National in National Harbor, Maryland.
4. “The Polar Express” at Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee.
5. “Elf” at Gaylord Texan in Grapevine, Texas.

You don’t have to be a Gaylord Hotel guest to visit Ice! as there are individual attraction tickets 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 a little more than a month creating the ice installations, but their work began long before they even left China.

“Usually, it takes a couple of months to prepare ahead of time. We receive a 400-page book with hand-drawn, to-scale illustrations that show everything we will be constructing,” Rui said. “We also spend a lot of time watching the movies the installations are based on to analyze the characters so we can best display them in our work,” he added.

Like many of the artisans, Rui grew up in Harbin. “Harbin is a very cold place, and we are always surrounded by ice,” he told TPG. “I showed an interest in ice sculpting, so my dad, who is also an artist, taught me from an early age. I started learning oil painting and sculpture and then moved into ice carving and sculpting,” he continued.

Being an ice artist, you first have to learn the same skills you would use in traditional sculpting,” Rui explained. “Ice artists often start as sculptors, so when you see a block of ice, you can envision what it will look like when it’s sculpted and use your tools to create the finished product,” he added.

Each Ice! installation is incredibly elaborate and detailed, from the multi-story walls, slides, and ice caves to the intricately carved fur on the Grinch’s face.

“We usually start with common tools like chainsaws and chisels,” Rui said. “But over the 40 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve also collected customized tools to do the irregular shapes and detailed carvings.”

One aspect of the event that does not fall to Rui’s team is creating the vivid colors in the more than 33,000 blocks of ice used across the five resorts. The colors are specially created by a chemist using a proprietary formula to closely match some of the character’s specific colors, and the ice blocks are already dyed when they arrive on-site.

Once the installations are complete and open to the public, a handful of artisans stay on-site for maintenance and to demonstrate their craft to visitors. During these daily demonstrations, guests can see exactly what it takes to create these masterful ice sculptures, view some of the tools the carvers use, and even touch blocks of ice to feel just how cold they really are.

Speaking of cold, Gaylord provides one of its signature blue parkas to Ice! guests, so you can stay warm while you explore. While the frigid temperatures may shock some visitors, Rui is accustomed to cold weather.

“Harbin is a very cold city, so from a very young age, you are used to the cold,” he explained.

Rui and his coworkers bundle up as well, but that isn’t the only thing that keeps them warm while they work.

“We are able to work all day long because of the warmth we feel from the visitors,” he shared. “We feel honored and proud to carve such beloved characters. That warmth in our hearts is what keeps us inspired and motivated to work in such a cold environment.”

The Ice! experience at Gaylord Hotels is a unique and magical way to celebrate the holiday season. From the incredible artistry and skill of the ice carvers to the immersive displays that bring beloved holiday stories to life, it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed. So bundle up in your parka and step into a winter wonderland like no other.

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