Slip, slide, and enjoy the delightful ice sculptures at Gaylord Hotels. (Photo: Gaylord Hotels)

Culture + Style

How Chinese Artists Came to America to Sculpt Holiday Spirit from 2 Million Pounds of Ice

In Harbin, China, ice is a way of life, and when winter comes, it is celebrated. “Since ancient times, to celebrate winter’s arrival, the Harbin people would pour out the water-ice from a bucket; take it outside, put a candle in the hollow core, and let a flame shine through the crystal clear ice,” says, Xi Rui, a Harbin artisan ice carver and head carver of Gaylord Hotels’ signature annual holiday ICE! extravaganzas. 

Rui is the leader of four teams of nearly 40 Harbin ice carvers that, each October, arrive in Orlando, Nashville, Dallas, Denver and Washington, D.C., to build magnificent monuments to frozen water in the form of general holiday cheer and classic holiday tales.

Each Gaylord Hotels resort will feature more than 2 million twinkling lights, 15,000 ornaments and dozens of larger-than-life decorations embracing a specific holiday theme and unique Christmas entertainment for all age groups. 

Every year, the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, in Nashville, Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center, in Kissimmee, Fla. near Orlando, the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center, the Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center and the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, outside Washington, D.C., each has their own special theme, filled with classic characters of our favorite holiday stories.

The Harbin carvers put an American spin on a centuries-old craft, creating small scale versions of China’s iconic International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.

“We have the same artisans for ice sculptures in Harbin and in the U.S. As the themes featured are different, the ice shows in both countries basically cannot be compared,” Rui says.

“In the U.S., we use color ice — the application and connection of colors is the most complicated process. The other difference is the ice. In Harbin the ice is natural; we use a whole big block of ice for carving that turns out to be so clear and transparent, while in the U.S., we use man-made ice blocks. We need to stack a dozen or dozens of ice blocks for carving one piece of work.”

(Photo: Gaylord Hotels)

Gaylord Hotels entrusted this spectacle and creative collaboration to Hotopp Associates, an entertainment design firm well versed in designing theme parks, network broadcast sets and theatrical sets.

But translating beloved holiday stories into ice? It was a challenge that thawed Hotopp’s president and creative lead Gary Wichansky’s vivid imagination.

“We actually start the old-school way, with pencil sketches,” Wichansky explains. “Those sketches morph into color renderings and then 3-D technical construction drawings. Then we send our team of architects, graphic artists and lighting designers to meet with the carvers in Harbin to discuss the feasibility of the whole thing.”

With the construction details determined, the carvers come to the States for a six- to seven-week stint to work in a space that is kept at a balmy 9 degrees Fahrenheit, using a 300-page design book to guide them as they chip, shave and carve the ice into an indoor wonderland of holiday scenes. 

And even though they work 10 hours a day for 35 straight days to bring an ICE! show to life, it’s a labor of love for these artisans, many of whom have been trained since childhood to become masters in their craft.

(Photo: Gaylord Hotels)

“The reason we love ice sculpting is that ice, a crystal clear material, when exquisitely carved, its visual effect is incomparable to anything else,” Rui says. “In the sunshine, it shines like valuable diamonds capturing the imagination of guests.”

Some guests are so captivated that they linger in below-freezing temps, parkas wrapped tightly, to get a closer look as ice carvers demonstrate their skills in the aptly named “Carver’s Showcase.”

They’ll see that there is a beautiful artistry in what they [the carvers] do, but they may not understand the role that each carver plays.

“There’s a definite hierarchy,” Wichansky says of the ice-carving teams. “There are builders and carvers, a master and apprentice. If a member of the team is an expert animal carver, that’s what he’s going to do to maximize the quality of the show. They each have a very specific role.”

Seeing the artisans at work here might pique your interest in visiting Harbin to see the city’s 20-year-old ice festival, and based on Rui’s description, it would be well worth the trip.

(Photo: Gaylord Hotels)

“The first thing comes to sight are the magnificent and grand pavilions, terraces and towers,” Rui says. “What makes it so impressive is its ice-carving area is more than 100 times that of the ice show in the U.S., plus it is shown in the open air. The human labor involved is 2,500 versus dozens of sculptors in U.S., with 300,000 cubic meters of ice used verses several hundred cubic meters of ice in the U.S.”

Impressive, to say the least, but the popularity of the Gaylord Hotels attractions show that ice is big here, too, attracting nearly 1,000 visitors per hour at the peak of the holiday season, warming the hearts of guests and the artists that brought the whole thing to life.

“As an ice artist working on the annual Gaylord Hotels ICE! shows, I am very impressed by every piece of themed design, and they remain fresh in my memory,” Rui says. “More and more guests are coming for a visit, which shows the American people are very fond of ice sculptures. We feel most proud when our work can be enjoyed by the guests.”