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Frozen fun: 7 tips for experiencing Ice! at Gaylord Hotels this Christmas

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Visiting Gaylord Opryland in Nashville is quickly becoming one of my family’s favorite holiday traditions. With its magnificent glass atriums, lush landscaping that magically brings the outdoors in and endless activities and restaurants, it’s beautiful any time of year, but even more so during the holidays.

There are other Gaylord resorts in Kissimmee, Florida; Aurora, Colorado; Grapevine, Texas; and National Harbor, Maryland, and together they light up the holiday season with more than 7 million Christmas lights (that’s 295 miles of lights if you stretch them out end-to-end), 110,000 feet of garland, 600 Christmas trees and 30,000 poinsettias.

Related: 9 holiday destinations for festive family fun

That’s a whole lot of Christmas — but, wait, there’s more.

They also create life-size, walk-through winter wonderlands using 33,500 blocks of ice, hence the name of Gaylord’s flagship holiday event — Ice!

If you are planning to add this to your lineup of holiday traditions, here’s everything you need to know before you ho, ho, go.

Each property’s Ice! event is unique

Christmas tree scene carved from ice
Ice! at Gaylord Palms is themed to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” TARAH CHIEFFI/THE POINTS GUY

Gaylord Hotels has five properties across the U.S. Each one invites guests to experience their own immersive (and cold!) walk-through displays themed to various popular Christmas movies. While each display is different, they all have one thing in common — they are made from thousands of blocks of ice colored and carved by world-renowned experts into holiday masterpieces that will delight guests of all ages.

Across all five properties, expert carvers from Harbin, China, traveled to the U.S. to transform 10 million pounds of ice into whimsical and surprisingly realistic holiday displays up to 30 feet tall. The highlight of the event for kids (and kids at heart like myself) is sailing down a frosty slide made of ice. There’s even a shorter slide designed for kids too small (or frightened) for the full-size slides.

This year’s Ice! themes include:

There are a lot of festive activities

GAYLORD PALMS

The splendor of Ice! may be what gets you through Gaylord’s door, but the walk-through displays are hardly the only thing you can do when you visit a Gaylord Resort during the holiday season; there are enough activities to keep your family entertained for a full day or an entire weekend.

The offerings vary slightly from property to property, but you’ll find experiences like snow tubing, holiday-themed scavenger hunts, gingerbread decorating, ice skating, ice bumper cars, family-friendly escape rooms, horse-drawn sleigh rides, photos with Santa, holiday character breakfasts and more.

After two years of visiting, our favorite activities are the Ice! walk-through (obviously), ice skating (they have pushchairs that you can use for balance and to help young kids), the scavenger hunt and the ice bumper cars.

Most activities require an advance ticket purchase, but during my family’s recent visit to Gaylord Opryland, we spent as much time strolling through the atriums and marveling at the dazzling decor and dozens of Christmas trees (which costs nothing at all) as we did building snowballs and sliding down the tubing hill.

Dress appropriately

TARAH CHIEFFI/THE POINTS GUY

Spoiler alert: Ice! is cold. Very cold. Nine degrees Fahrenheit to be exact. The kind folks at Gaylord will provide you with one of the lovely blue parkas pictured above, but you’ll also want to make sure you are wearing closed-toe shoes, pants and gloves so you can comfortably enjoy the experience.

The jackets do have hoods, but you may also want to bring a hat to hold in some of that much-needed body heat. If you have them, bring touchscreen-friendly gloves because there are photo opportunities around every corner and frozen fingers don’t take the best pictures.

If you are also planning on tubing or ice skating during your visit, you’ll be happy you packed your cold-weather gear, even if the temperatures outside are warmer than they are inside the attraction. If you happen to forget a hat and gloves, you can purchase them at the resort.

Build in some downtime

TARAH CHIEFFI/THE POINTS GUY

This year was our second time visiting Gaylord Opryland during the holidays and we learned a few things from our first go-round that influenced this year’s itinerary. Both years, we stayed at the resort for two nights, but last year we packed almost every available second of time with the above-mentioned activities. When our youngest son was too exhausted to swim at the indoor water park and fell asleep in his stroller, I knew we had probably tried to do too much.

Related: 10 cool Nashville hotels to consider for your next trip to Music City

It’s also worth mentioning that the sheer size of most Gaylord resorts means lots of travel time between your room and whatever fun activity you are headed to, so it can start to feel like you never stop to rest unless you intentionally build in some downtime.

This year, we scheduled only two to three activities per day. We left time in between to return to our hotel room for a snack or, after visiting the Ice! walk-through, for snuggling in our beds to warm up. Even if you aren’t staying overnight and are only visiting for the day, I would recommend choosing only a few activities instead of trying to do it all. Part of the fun of being at a Gaylord resort is exploring the shops, eateries and gardens that span the gorgeous glass atriums — you want to leave plenty of time for spontaneous wandering while you are there.

If you are staying on-site, I recommend taking an hour or so after you check in to do a lap around the resort and get the lay of the land. It’ll help ease the stress of trying to make it to any activities with time-based tickets at the correct time.

Hotel guests receive extra perks

TARAH CHIEFFI/THE POINTS GUY

Other than the obvious perk of being able to earn and redeem your Marriott Bonvoy points at all Gaylord properties, overnight guests receive Ice!-specific perks, as well. All overnight guests can utilize the “Chill Pass” for front-of-line access and shorter wait times when visiting Ice! This complimentary perk is included with your stay, so you don’t need to do anything additional to utilize it, but you do still need to purchase a ticket for Ice!

Overnight guests can also take advantage of “Extra Cool Hour,” a benefit that allows hotel guests to enter Ice! one hour before it opens to day guests. Fewer crowds means shorter lines and more trips down the ice slide.

The easiest way to gain access to the event during Extra Cool Hour is to make your room reservation before you purchase your Ice! tickets. When you purchase your Ice! tickets, filter the ticket type to “Overnight Guests Only” and choose your preferred date and time. You should receive a code in your pre-arrival confirmation email that you can enter during the purchase process if you choose a time during the first hour of the day. Alternatively, you can purchase a room and Ice! ticket package and you will receive email instructions on how to reserve a day and time to visit the attraction.

Because entry to Ice! is timed, it didn’t feel overly crowded when we visited during normal operating hours, but as we near the holidays or if you visit on a weekend, the Chill Pass and Extra Cool Hour may come in handy.

Book an atrium-view room

TARAH CHIEFFI/THE POINTS GUY

The unique glass atrium design is what makes staying in a Gaylord resort so special. My family loves to wake up in the morning and throw open the balcony doors to listen to the rushing waterfalls and see the decor. We usually eat breakfast out there, as well. When the sun sets in the evening and the atrium darkens, the twinkling lights and glittering decor take on an entirely different — and magical — appearance.

Staying in an atrium-view room can cost anywhere from around $70 to $100 more per night than staying in a standard exterior-view room, but I was able to get it for no additional cost — and you can, too. As a Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite member, I am eligible for a complimentary room upgrade when I stay at a Marriott Bonvoy property, based on availability. You can earn Gold Elite status with 25 eligible stays per year, but you can earn it much quicker with a credit card that automatically grants you Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite status (you will have to enroll online or by calling your credit card’s customer service and giving them your Marriott Bonvoy number), like The Platinum Card® from American Express.

Related: Guide to Marriott and Hilton elite status with the Amex Platinum and Business Platinum

I decided to roll the dice and booked an exterior-view room with the hopes of being upgraded to an atrium-view room. The upgrade typically can’t be guaranteed until check-in, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to call prior to our arrival and have them make a note on the reservation. I spoke with a friendly customer service agent who made a note on my account. I expected to have to wait until I checked in for the upgrade to be confirmed, but the next time I opened the Marriott app, my room type showed as being an atrium-view room.

I’m not a huge gambler, but this one paid off and I saved some cash.

Book early and look for discounts

GAYLORD PALMS

As I mentioned earlier, some events have timed entry, including Ice! and character breakfasts, so the earlier you purchase your tickets, the better chance you’ll have of getting the exact date and time you are hoping for. This is especially important if you are visiting on or right around a holiday or on weekends when the event is busier.

Booking early also opens you up to more opportunities for discounts on Ice! and the other activities at Gaylord. This year, Gaylord Palms ran an early bird special in August for 35% off Ice! tickets and another in September for 30% off. On Veterans Day, Gaylord National said “thanks” to veterans and service members with a code for 50% off Ice! tickets.

Similar offers pop up throughout the holiday season and the best way to find these offers is to follow the Gaylord hotel you are planning on visiting on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. If you are staying overnight, you can also check the “Offers” page for the location you plan to visit to see what deals it is promoting. You’ll often find specials for Marriott Bonvoy members, AAA members, teachers, seniors, first responders and more. Groupon deals also pop up from time to time, like this one for 30% off Ice! tickets at Gaylord Palms.

Bottom line

With five resorts across the country, there’s a good chance you aren’t too far from a Gaylord resort. Each one has festive activities, decor, treats and drinks (scientifically, a hot toddy can help you warm up after you’ve been in the cold) to help your family create holiday memories and traditions that will keep you coming back to Gaylord year after year.