Yes, we have terrible traffic, high gas prices and a housing market I never seem to be on the right side of, but when it comes to celebrating the holiday season, the Metro DC area knows how to do it right! Having spent the first two-thirds of my life celebrating Christmas in sunny Florida and California, those wintery holiday scenes in TV Christmas movies were quite foreign to me. So you can understand why I may have been the most excited member of the JavaFamily when MomzShare invited me to see Gaylord National’s ICE! at National Harbor.
If you live locally, you’ve been pelted with commercials and fliers about it, but nothing does it justice like seeing it in person. I had stayed at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center a few weeks earlier for the Blogalicious conference and even I was amazed by the transformation. The first thing to understand is that ICE! is part of an entire set of Christmas on the Potomac activities. It is indeed the centerpiece, but there is so much more!
Another thing to know is that previously you had to stay at the hotel to access many of the activities, but this year, the Gaylord National has changed the package pricing so members of the general public may join in the fun of meeting characters and decorating gingerbread houses. Because there are so many components, I will break down the events and the pricing as I explain our experience — keep in mind if you like more than one activity, you may want to look into a package.
Gaylord National’s ICE!
No doubt the sparkling gem of the Christmas on the Potomac experience, this ranked high with all members of the family. Each year 2 million pounds of ice, some clear, some colored, is carved to recreate scenes of a popular movie — this year it is Merry Madagascar. But what we didn’t know until visiting the web site beforehand is that the ice carvers are 40 artisans from Harbin, China, sharing knowledge from an old tradition of ice lantern festivals. There is a lot of science involved in how the ice is made — the differences between the processes for making the very clear ice, the cloudier white ice, and the colored ice. For example, clear ice is made using deionized, highly filtered water that is slowly frozen whereas white ice is quickly frozen. I highly recommend watching the videos available online beforehand so the kids can better appreciate the work that goes into building the scenes and know what to expect. Although it was not busy the day we were there, as part of their “crowd control” you will get a chance to see a video before entering ICE! but it still helps to read/watch video on the web site ahead of time. I think this made the difference between the kids just running through it and saying “oh yeah, neat” and us really talking about what was done, looking at the details, discussing the science involved, appreciating the hard work of each part of the process and truly enjoying the artistry.
It is truly cold, 9 degrees Fahrenheit in the ICE! Pavilion, which is a tent across the street from the Gaylord National. You will be required to wear one of their large, blue parkas (yes, ALL of you), because these are also what are used to slide down the main attraction — the lit ice slides. They had the parkas in all sizes, even for me as a plus-sized person. I recommend wearing long underwear under warm clothes, and bring your own gloves/mittens and hats. While we did have jackets and coats that fit under the parkas, you may find that you want fleeces instead to minimize your bulkiness, and scarves may help you keep your faces warm — a friend who had gone previously brought ski bibs for her kids, that would’ve been overkill for my family, you will have to figure out what your family’s comfort level is and I recommend a backpack so you can add and subtract layers as needed. Warm, comfortable walking shoes (no heels allowed on slides) are essential. Try to minimize how much you need to bring in with you. Keep in mind your camera may fog/freeze in that temperature. They will take a souvenir photo of your family in front of a green screen (and lay in a nice backdrop digitally) just before you enter, which is then for available for you to purchase ($20-30) in the large gift shop you pass through on the way out should you choose. Since we knew the kids did not get a decent photo of the two of us inside, we opted to buy the photo.
When it comes to the slides, it’s really simple — sit with the long, slick parka tucked under you, feet ahead (no high heels!) and whoosh off you go! JavaGirl was frightened at first, but once she got going, she didn’t want to stop. This was, of course, for the kids, their favorite part of the ICE! event. If I felt a little more graceful at the top and the bottom of the slide, I would’ve made more trips myself! This also seemed to be the coldest, so be prepared to either go up and down the stairs with them a lot (the slides aren’t that tall) or to stand at the bottom of the slides, taking lots of photos and perhaps getting little red in the cheeks from the chill.
In my opinion, one of the prettiest parts of the display was the crystal ice nativity scene with a quick narration and dramatic lighting to give an overview of the birth of Jesus. It was breathtaking and frankly, put me in the Christmas spirit. It is the last room of the ICE! display so if you have objections to the religious meaning, as I overheard one visitor exclaiming, you can quickly scoot out. Upon exiting, workers will help you return your parka and oh-so-conveniently hot chocolate and snacks are for sale. You can then exit or go on to ice skating, visiting the Madagascar Penguins or riding the train (extra charges apply).
For many families, this is an “investment” event — is it worth it? I would say yes, but that it is up to you to maximize the value. Spend the time before your visit to look at what is involved in creating ICE! Walk over to the conference center to take advantage of the additional beautiful decorations and some of the free activities I’ll mention below. Take time to talk about the event afterwards and discuss as a family what you saw, what was your favorite, how do you think they made the different characters, how fast do you think you went on the slides, or whatever other extension activities you can think of. A week later my family is still talking about it and that to me means it was family time well spent.
Details: Hours and prices for individual tickets vary by the day so check web site for details but Adult prices range from $35-25, Seniors from $24-19, Kids (4-12) $30-20, Military Adult with ID $32-22, Military Child $27-17, younger Kids (3 and under) are free. There are also package prices that allow you to save by bundling other events with the ICE! tickets. Self parking is $10 for up to three hours with purchase of an ICE! ticket. You can buy a VIP Pass to bypass the line and get a cup of hot chocolate and a meet and greet with the Penguins of Madagascar for an additional $15, conditions apply. There are a variety of public transportation options including the National Harbor-Washington DC Shuttle, Alexandria-National Harbor Water Taxi, and NH-1 Metrobus from the Branch Avenue Metro Station Green Line.
Ice Skating, Potomac Express Train
While still inside the ICE! Pavilion, you can buy tickets to skate at the (smallish) indoor rink. $10 for overnight guests, $12 otherwise, includes skate rentals. This was the first ice skating experience for the JavaKids and the rink was probably just the right size for them. There are no lockers (or none we saw) so again, travel light. There were no buckets or gliders for new skaters (or that I saw) so it was the old-fashioned hang-on-to-the-rail-honey method as I tried to teach JavaGirl how to skate. It was towards the end of our day and we were rushing to get to the tree lighting so we didn’t spend much time here, but it was just enough for us to let the kids get the taste of ice skating, I am not sure how packed it gets on a busy day. In the same space is the Potomac Express Train, a small train similar to the types that run through many local malls, $3 per ride, or three rides for $5. Here you will see the Madagascar Penguins — as they were on break while we were there, I wasn’t clear whether you had to have the character pass to see them or not.
Activities Inside the Resort
Obviously you could spend plenty of time just inside the tent, but maximize your day and maybe even wear out your little ones (you will definitely be worn out by the end of your visit!) by heading across the street to the resort. If you really want to splurge, book a package for an overnight stay at the hotel so you can spread out the fun — the view of the harbor is truly gorgeous and the resort has 300 acres. But even if you don’t stay overnight, it is worth it to walk over to enjoy the decor and shows.
Several activities are free while others require tickets.
Nightly Tree Lighting Ceremony Featuring the DreamWorks Characters
There is a beautiful fountain in the atrium and suspended above it is a 60-foot Tree of Light made of synthetic “candy” glass. Although gorgeous by day as it sits in front of a large window and radiates from the sun, at night the tree is lit by single light source, one of the world’s brightest light bulbs. In a theme-park-worthy show, DreamWorks characters such as Shrek, Fiona, Alex the Lion, and others come out while the fountains behind them dance to music and change color leading up to a dramatic lighting of the tree. Though the lighting ceremony is at 6:30, my advice is to either get a seat in the atrium (there are a limited number of seats there) or pull a chair up to the glass railing at the Belvedere Lobby Bar one floor above the atrium to get the best view by 5:45 or 6:00 pm and as this is prime kid dinner time, either have snacks handy or order something from one of the many hotel restaurants and bring it with you. The production pulls out all the stops — including indoor snow! Apparently by the end of the season, an average 15 inches of snow will have fallen INDOORS at the Gaylord! This is FREE. If you do only one free show with your kids, this is the one and getting prime seating is key for maximum enjoyment.
Brightest Star Fountain Show
At the same fountain, the water “dances” while you listen to a narration of the classic Christmas story. We happened to be sitting at the National Pastime Sports Bar and Grill while this went on and saw/heard part of it from the patio, but I can’t really tell you how crowded the atrium was. I suspect any place that gives you a nice view of the atrium would be sufficient for this show, which begins at 9:30 pm, and that you don’t have to secure a spot as early as you need to for the tree lighting. This is FREE.
When the sun goes down, the 19-story atrium sparkles from 6:00 pm to midnight as more than two million lights illuminate the atrium and garden. If you put all the strings of lights in a row, they would equal 12.27 miles! Walking around the hotel and enjoying the ambiance is FREE.
DreamWorks Character Passport
Buy your tickets and cross into a tiny village where you can meet your favorite characters from Madagascar, Puss In boots, Kung Fu Panda, and Shrek. In addition to meeting characters in six locations, children get a keepsake passport stamped at each location and can participate in the Puss in Boots and the Quest for the Magic Beans Scavenger Hunt, which takes you throughout the indoor gardens on an interactive scavenger hunt (warning, lots of counting involved!) My kids thoroughly enjoyed the scavenger hunt and were thrilled with their prize. Check web site for dates and times as there are some blackout dates. Tickets are $35 for ages 4 and up BUT one complimentary guardian or parent is allowed per paying child. Professional photographers will take photos of your kids and you may buy them online (they give you a card with a barcode on them) but you are also allowed to take your own photos. Note that not all characters are available for all meet and greets at all times — read all the fine print and make sure you are comfortable with it before booking. I’ll note here that my kids are very wishy-washy about meeting characters – sometimes they’ll run up to, say, the Easter Bunny, but they didn’t care to wait in line to see a character at Disney, perfectly content to watch from afar. Yet they thoroughly enjoyed this particular experience and are still talking about it days later (my 5-year-old mostly). So you will have to gauge for yourself whether this is worth your time and money or not.
Gingy’s Gingerbread Decorating
Decorate either a gingerbread family or a gingerbread house at Gingy’s workshop and then meet Gingy! Prices start at $29.95 (plus tax) and are based on the item you decorate rather than by the number of people doing the decorating. We did not have time to try this out, but plenty of families looked like they were having fun when we quickly walked through this area.
Santa Souvenir Photo
Although we did not take our photos there, several of our friends did and were thrilled with the results. A very jolly old elf indeed has taken up residence at the Gaylord National and with photo packages starting at $20, quite competitive with the rising prices of pictures with Santa at the mall. A photo purchase is required in order to gain audience with this Santa, but I’m told he’s quite a good listener.
There are many, many more activities, including a Brunch with Santa, a ShrekFeast, and spa treatments I would kill for!
My husband and I are customer service fanatics. Nothing infuriates us more than rude service and nothing catches our attention faster than excellent service. Every single employee, literally every one of them we came in contact with at the Gaylord National, was polite, friendly, and attentive. Down to details such as noticing that my parka was snug and insisting on getting me a different size, seeing upon exiting the ICE! exhibit that the warm air made my daughter’s nose start running and bringing her a tissue, packing up a Diet Coke in a to go cup for me for the ride home at a restaurant and so on. Wherever we were in our day, each employee asked us if we were enjoying our stay, even the parking attendant as we left asked if we had a good time. The kind of customer service that is rare these days. But imagine my surprise when the next day I discovered I had left my wallet at the Gaylord and didn’t know where after traipsing all over the 470,000 square foot center, the customer service continued at the same level. I was certain there was no hope and yet within hours, they found it for me, all contents intact, and had it at the bell hop desk waiting for me. It is perhaps for this reason the most that I think my family found it quite fun and relaxing to spend many hours at the Gaylord National — we felt truly cared for and away from the hustle and bustle for a while and could focus on just having fun as a family, and have built priceless memories we’ll cherish forever. It was a great reminder that for those of us lucky enough to live in the Metro DC area, you don’t have to travel far to give your family a special experience they’ll remember for years.
The entire Christmas on the Potomac event runs from now through January 8 and you can find more details at www.ChristmasOnThePotomac.com or by calling 301-965-4000. If you are doing multiple events, packages such as the Freeze and Fun Day are the way to go. Look online to see if they are running special web deals at the time you want to go.
Disclosure: My family and I were provided with complimentary tickets to the Gaylord National’s ICE!, character passports, ice skating and parking as part of a MomzShare media event. This did not impact my opinion of the event or what I wrote about it (I always tell it like it is), but it did give me an opportunity to share a local event with you with firsthand knowledge. Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and all related characters and properties © 2011 DreamWorks Animation L.L.C. Merry Madagascar © 2011 DreamWorks Animation L.L.C. All photos are mine.