Christmas on the Potomac, Sans Ice

All aboard the Potomac Express at Gaylord National Resort

Let me start this post by clarifying the title:  I’m in no way suggesting you shouldn’t visit ICE!, the signature holiday attraction at the National Harbor.  What I am saying, however, is that Christmas on the Potomac at the Gaylord National Resort is pretty cool even without the frozen amusement.  I know this from firsthand experience — that’s how our family did the holiday celebration at the resort sprawling along the Potomac in Fort Washington, MD.

Through my neighborhood parents’ group, friends who have visited, comments on previous posts, and reviews on other blogs and local websites,  I’ve been hearing mixed things about ICE! at the Gaylord.  Usually, I like to experience something for myself rather than rely on hearsay; but at nearly $75 for our family of four (free admission for Sasha under 3), we decided to forego the Grinch-inspired ice park this time.  Besides, we could always go back another day if we really wanted to check it out.

The “lite” version of the Christmas on the Potomac worked out quite well for us.  The Gaylord Hotel itself is pretty spectacular anytime of the year, and even more so with the atrium transformed into a holiday wonderland.  The decorations are brilliant — long strands of sheer fabric lined with glimmering lights hang overhead, indoor trees and street lamps are adorned with colorful twinklers and shiny ornaments, and ruby red poinsettias line the walkways.  And the centerpiece of it all is the giant glass Christmas tree, standing 60 feet tall in front of a wall of windows overlooking the Potomac.  Just taking in the the beautiful scene is an activity in itself.

For the kids, however, the best parts are just below the tree.  The Polar Express, an adorable little train, circles a small track and offers $2 rides — a big highlight for my babes.  Just next to the train, Santa is waiting for photo ops, and just around the corner up a few steps a lovely fountain shoots up sprays of water, delighting kids of all ages.  This is all set among what feels like a little village in the atrium.  Walkways are lined with aforementioned trees (real ones) and lamps, stores look like little houses, and restaurants like outdoor cafes.   Scattered throughout are bronze sculptures of Dr. Seuss characters, and finding them became a bit of game.

We experienced all of this on a Saturday afternoon, and found it a really nice way to enjoy some family holiday time.  An evening there sounds like it might be even better.  Nightly, the atrium becomes a greater spectacle as Northern Lights sparkle overhead, the fountain “dances” to holiday tunes, the Christmas tree is illuminated, and “flurries” drift down on Snowfall Lane.  Surely, this is the kind of thing kids would find magical.

The festivities at the National Harbor aren’t limited to the hotel. Guests can glide on green ice at an indoor ice skating rink located in the ICE! pavilion (rates start at $10, including rentals). There’s an outdoor holiday market on American Way, where vendors sell handmade crafts, holiday gifts, specialty foods, treats, and more. The National Children’s Museum Launch Zone has regular activities for kids (check the website for details).  The many retail stores and restaurants, most of them family-friendly, offer holiday shopping and dining options.  And, if you go on Christmas Eve day, you can catch Santa and his elves waterskiing on the Potomac at 1pm.

So, if like us, you aren’t quite sure about ICE!, the holiday scene at the National Harbor is still worth a visit. It’s running through January 9, including December 25, so keep it in mind for the winter break from school as well as a Christmas Day treat.

And if you are keen on the ICE! exhibit, check out this review on the No Monsters in My Bed blog as well as this promo code for a discount.


Filed under All ages, Christmas, Festival, Free, Holidays, Hotel, Maryland, Seasonal, Shop, Trains, Weekend, Winter

4 Responses to Christmas on the Potomac, Sans Ice

  1. Jen T.

    Thanks for posting this! I was just wondering if you could visit Gaylord without having to pay for ICE! since I’d heard it was kind of meh. I’ll definitely go check out the non-ICE! sights and sounds when my family comes up for Christmas.

    BTW, I’m guessing you did have to pay for parking? I wasn’t sure if the ICE! parking voucher was valid if you don’t actually go to ICE, but the self-parking rates aren’t really that bad themselves either.

    Merry Christmas and thanks again for the lowdown on Christmas on the Potomac!

  2. Linda @ KidFriendly DC

    Hi Jen – Yes, you can visit Gaylord without ICE! for free. We did pay for parking, but there are meters on the streets or garages, which aren’t too pricey. We went to ICE! last year, you can read about it here: As you’ll see, I somewhat agree on the “meh.”

  3. LSB

    I took my 20 month old daughter today and while she did enjoy the fountain, the train was closed and Santa was not in residence at noon on the Frifay before Christmas. Also, no Dr Seuss characters this year. We went over to River Farm instead: gorgeous decorated trees in every room of the mansion and the day was warm enough to play in the Children’s Garden.

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