I’ll be the first to admit that planned communities and “town center” mini-metropolises aren’t really my thing. I find them rather soulless and frankly a little creepy, so I tend to steer clear. But on a recent snowy Saturday, I was lured over to Maryland’s National Harbor—that relatively new complex of colossal convention centers and hotels, shops, eateries and a man-made “beach,” site of the relocated Awakening sculpture that I loved to crawl atop as a kid (at its former Hains Point home).
The draw this past visit? A mini-city of ice created by forty Chinese artisans flown over to sculpt 5,000 blocks that cumulatively weigh two million pounds. I was intrigued. Despite fears of rambunctious tots dominating this surreal ice world, the experience was a pleasant one. Visitors purchase timed tickets to enter Gaylord National’s ICE!, housed in a tent on the resort’s property that contains a 15,000-square-foot “cold room.” To combat the nine degree inside temps, guests borrow XXL blue parkas before entering, turning the masses into a sea of super-size Smurfs (wee ones shriek in horror as they attempt to wiggle free; adults belly laugh, delighted by the silly scene). Groups then get their photo snapped by staff as if about to board a cruise ship, before slipping beyond the warmth into the winter wonderland. The vibe’s a bit cheesy, but charming all the same.
In October the master artisans who created ICE! arrived at National Harbor from Harbin, the capital city of China’s northernmost province Heilongjiang. (If I experience a bit of culture shock at National Harbor, imagine their impressions!) Harbin residents have hosted a world-famous “Ice and Snow Festival” for the past 25 years, the 100-acre walk-through ice park and frozen “city” attracting some 800,000 visitors each year. More than 2,000 sculptors convene to carve Harbin’s annual extravaganza using blocks from the nearby Songhua River.
Ice for the DC-area exhibit, custom-ordered from a manufacturing plant in Ohio, arrived in three different formats—clear ice made using deionized, highly filtered water that’s been frozen over a three-day period, white (or “snow”) ice, frozen quickly and resulting in an opaque look, and colored ice (there are eleven different hues here) using precisely pigmented dyes.
The ice arrived in mid-October, and artists worked their magic for more than 30 days. Watch their amazing talent in action in this video. The venue’s nine-inch-thick foam walls function as a large cooler and kept the internal temperature just right for carving conditions (too cold, and the ice becomes brittle; too warm, and it won’t properly chip). Some artists sculpted the ice blocks with mind-boggling attention to details, while others focused on the lighting and electrical systems embedded in the sculptures. (More than 1,500 specially-designed light tubes were frozen within the ice.)
The finished product is breathtaking. The walk-through attraction includes 10 “larger-than-life, three-dimensional holiday scenes,” first greeting visitors with carvings of iconic DC monuments (ideal family Christmas card material). Sites include a walkable “ice bridge,” a North Pole igloo complete with a row of playful, dancing penguins, a sleigh and carriage (climb on in!), a Nativity Scene with a 25-foot-tall ice angel and a Christmas Castle featuring four two-story-tall ice slides (I may have lost in a race to the bottom, but the momentary, nostalgic rush was refreshing all the same!). Word of advice: use restrooms at the Gaylord before heading to the ICE! tent if outdoor “facilities” don’t appeal…
ICE!, along with the Gaylord’s seasonal decor of more than two million sparkling luminaries, nightly indoor “snowfalls” and a 60-foot-tall “tree of light,” helped the resort gain its recent ranking on the Orbitz list of “Top Hotels Decked Out for the Holidays.”
ICE! stays open till January 10. Adult tickets start at $20; kids cost $13. Booking in advance is highly recommended. Visitors can also rent skates and take a spin on a next-door rink. Visit www.ChristmasonthePotomac.com for more info.
So go on and experience something totally different—get lost in a world of ice…before it all melts away!