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Pleased to freeze

Floridians get a rare treat at ICE!: cold weather. Forget sweaters; you’ll want the hotel-issued parka.

By JANET K. KEELER
Published December 3, 2006



Jack Frost doesn’t much nip the noses of Floridians, and for most of the winter, we are grateful for that. We do so like our shorts and sandals.

When the holidays come around, though, a little North Pole chill is appropriate. It’s nice to imagine a more comfortable climate for a velvet-and-fur-bedecked Santa Claus.

A short trek to Gaylord Palms Resort, just on the other side of Interstate 4 from Disney World, dishes out a seasonal dose of cold in a place aptly called the “Florida Fridge.” It’s 9 degrees there, dangerously close to zero.

For the fourth year, the sprawling convention resort has turned an 18,000-square-foot hall into  ICE!, a frozen showcase of phenomenal ice sculptures, including a crystal clear, larger-than-life nativity scene. The chilly temperature is needed to prevent a rip-roaring flood.

One-, two- and three-night packages include other holiday activities such as making a gingerbread house and a nightly musical show in which children’s toys come to life. It plays four times a night, and I think I might be able to recite some of the lines.

Some of it is a bit corny for jaded adults, but over Thanksgiving weekend there were plenty of smiling children, especially in the Orange Blossom Ballroom where the gingerbread houses were being assembled. What’s not to like about a bowl of gum drops and a pastry bag of icing?

It was lovely to spend a few days with family and not in the mall duking it out over the season’s must-have electronic gizmo. There is plenty of time for that.

Nice ICE!

A team of sculptors from Harbin, China, home of the renowned International Snow and Ice Festival, carved 2-million pounds of ice into a winter wonderland for Gaylord. That’s enough cubes to chill all the mojitos from here to Key West and back again.

There’s a colorful toy train big enough for visitors to walk through the cars, a Victorian Christmas scene complete with glowing fireplace, a lovely little church, ducks on a pond and thousands of twinkling lights. A photo opportunity on a frozen sleigh is impossible to resist. The payoff for kids, and lots of adults, comes at the end. Three ice-cold chutes have a steady flow of merry sliders.

There’s no extra charge for repeat sliding, and tissues are conveniently positioned at the exit for sniffling visitors.
Left your heavy coat where winter is real? No problem. ICE! visitors who need extra protection can wear a complimentary midcalf blue parka into the “Fridge.” Tip for sliders: The resort-issued parka makes the slides smoother and faster. We saw people in jeans clawing their way down. Another tip: Don’t lick or touch the ice. Didn’t you see A Christmas Story?

A holiday getaway

Gaylord Palms, with its 1,400 rooms, is a prime spot for conventions, but in December the focus is on Christmas. Hundreds of poinsettias line walkways in the 4-acre, glass-domed atrium, and there are several decorated Christmas trees amid the gorgeous and well-tended palms. If ICE! isn’t enough cold weather entertainment, visitors can ice-skate, too. (The yin to that yang is the two pools, one for families and the other adults-only, open for year-round swimming.)

Santa Claus invites tykes to share their wishes, and shy kids can e-mail from a centrally located kiosk. Mrs. Claus brunches at the Villa de Flora on Sundays.

Hotel pastry chefs lend their expertise to gingerbread house contruction. We had a great time decorating our house, which was reminiscent of Clark Griswold’s amped-up abode in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Weirdly, Travelocity, the Internet travel planning site, provided the most entertainment. And except for a parking fee, it is free.

Twenty of Travelocity’s signature gnomes are hidden throughout the atrium. Find 10 and you can enter a giveaway for a cruise. That’s not really the fun, though.

Armed with clues, we went gnome hunting and got a kick out of finding them in plain sight.

We left without spying all 20 but were looking the entire way to the car. Maybe that’s reason enough to go back.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or jkeeler@sptimes.com.

Gaylord Palms
The Gaylord Palms Resort is at 6000 W Osceola Parkway in Kissimmee. 
Call (407) 586-0000 or go to www.gaylordpalms.com.
Free transportation to Disney theme parks.

• The ICE! attraction is open 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. through
Jan. 2. Adult admission is $19.99 weekdays, $24.99 Friday through Sunday ($3 less if booked online); seniors $16.99 and $21.99; children ages 4 to 12 $9.99; ice-skating, skates included: $5. Parkas are supplied.

• The one-, two- or three-night Best of Florida Christmas packages begin at $239 a night and include two tickets to ICE! plus priority entry, a gingerbread house making session (only available as part of the package) and other perks including dining coupons and free self-parking. If we had it to do over again, we would request an atrium view room on the fourth floor or above. Our “Florida view” room looked out on the parking lot and a horizon of hotels near Disney. Quiet but not picturesque.

• There’s food aplenty at Gaylord, but you’ll pay resort prices. The best value is the all-buffet Villa de Flora, which features Spanish and Italian menus for lunch and dinner. Breakfast is everything from bagels to hash, crepes to omelettes, fruit to cereal. Prices are $9.25 for children at breakfast (adults $17.50) to $12.50 for dinner (adults $26.50).

The Old Hickory Steakhouse is upscale, and dinner for two easily tops $100. Splurge on the Jumbo Lump Crab Cocktail ($14); there’s enough to share.

Java Coast is open 24 hours for coffee, soda, salads, sandwiches and snacks, and the H20 Sports Bar and Grille is a good place to grab a meal, especially if you need to know the scores.

• For more information on holiday activities in the Orlando area, go to  www.orlandochristmas.com.