One of the impressive frozen scenes sculpted in ICE!
The Gaylord National Resort at National Harbor goes all out for the holidays. Their annual Christmas on the Potomac extravaganza has festivities galore that capture the spirit of the season. And the best part is that there are activities for all ages at varying price points (even free!).
The seasonal celebration began this past weekend, and we had a chance to preview it the evening before it opened to the public. But this wasn’t our first time experiencing Christmas on the Potomac; we’ve actually enjoyed many of the attractions for several years — and one not as much. But I went back with an open mind and fresh perspective and, hence, have revised my view a bit.
The Gaylord Hotel itself is still pretty spectacular this time of year. The atrium is transformed into a holiday wonderland with stunning decor all around — long strands of sheer fabric lined with glimmering lights hang overhead, indoor trees and street lamps twinkle with lights and shiny ornaments, and ruby red poinsettias line the walkways. Hanging from the ceiling is a huge Christmas tree sculpture constructed of metal with colorful lights and stars adorning it. Just taking in the whole dazzling scene is an activity in itself.
There are also “dancing” fountains that light up with colors and ebb and flow to rousing music. The Polar Express train offers rides around a small track. A nightly indoor “snowfall” is magical for little ones. And there are several dining options, including a hearty buffet at Pienza Market.
And then there is ICE! The popular holiday spectacle presents a holiday-themed story told through a tour of massive, vibrant ice sculptures, this year featuring “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” If you’ve been reading KFDC for awhile, you might recall the first (and only) time we visited four years ago, I wasn’t exactly the biggest fan.
But four years can make a difference, especially with young children. Back then, Sasha was just two years old and couldn’t get over being so cold. Owen, who was five at the time, kept running ahead, and I couldn’t find him among the sea of blue parkas that everyone wears, and he couldn’t hear me call for him because it was loud.
This time was a much different experience. It was still extremely cold (9 degrees!), but the kids (now 6 and 9) didn’t seem to mind at all, so strolling through the frozen scenes wasn’t stressful, and we could really take in the artistry of the sculptures and follow the whole story.
To boot, we all had fun whizzing down the ice slides. We spent about 30 minutes in the exhibit, then the kids took a carousel ride on the way out. I do have to acknowledge that, since we were there during a preview, it was less crowded. And it was a complimentary tour, so I can’t complain about cost (rates start at $28/adult, $20/children).
So, here’s my new view: If you’re up for splurging on a unique holiday attraction, ICE! is pretty cool — literally and figuratively. But if you don’t feel like throwing down, there is still a ton at Christmas on the Potomac that will give you a warm and fuzzy holiday feeling.
Christmas on the Potomac, including ICE!, runs daily through January 3 at the Gaylord National Resort at National Harbor. As noted, many activities in the atrium of the hotel are free or a small fee. ICE! rates are $35/peak, $28/non-peak dates for adults; $28/peak, $20/peak, $15/non-peak for ages 3-11; free for ages 2 and under. There are discounts for groups and military — see the website for details.
Disclosure: This post is sponsored by National Harbor, however, all opinions expressed here are entirely my own, and I only promote programs, activities, and products that I truly believe in and/or think would appeal to KFDC readers.
Season's Greenings at the USBG opens Thanksgiving Day!
Monday – Visit Santa before the rest of DC does at Tyson’s Corner. Along with photo ops, get a free gift from St. Nick. And while you’re there, hit the National Geographic-sponsored play area on the third floor next to the food court.
Tuesday – Thanksgiving is the theme of story time at many public libraries this week. Deanwood is hosting one at 10:15am, and Georgetown will read turkey day-inspired books at 3:30pm. Find a story time near you by checking out your local library — this early KFDC post contains links to DC-area county libraries.
Wednesday – Glide in the fresh air at an outdoor ice skating rink or practice your spins and axels at an indoor venue. This post has all you need to know to get started.
Thursday – Experience Season’s Greenings at the U.S. Botanic Garden on opening day! Go while the turkey is cooking at home (with someone staying behind to watch it, of course) or head over for some post-feast holiday cheer.
Friday – Get into the holiday spirit at Christmas on the Potomac, the Gaylord National Resort’s spectacular season attraction. Enjoy the decor and festivities at the hotel, then head to the water for the kick-off of the Harbor Lights Festival, the National Harbor’ annual tree lighting and lights show, at 5pm.
DC doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the holidays. There are options galore for celebrating the season, many of them annual events that quickly become family traditions. See model trains wind through miniature Christmas villages, drive through dazzling light displays in the woods, have a cool experience (literally) with interactive sculptures in ice. Some of the fun begins as soon as this weekend, so bookmark this page (along with this one featuring live entertainment) and start making some holiday plans.
Season’s Greenings Where:U.S. Botanic Garden When: November 24 – January 2 Admission: FREE
If my blog stats are any indication, this is easily DC’s most popular holiday attraction; searches for the Botanic Garden’s seasonal exhibit exceeded all other topics last year. And I can’t say I’m surprised. Season’s Greenings is an annual delight for all ages. The conservatory exhibit features Washington landmarks constructed from plant materials and one of the city’s largest Christmas trees. But the highlight, hands-down, is the garden railway, which never fails to impress and enchant with intricate, imaginative designs. This year, try to guess “Who Lives Here” in the whimsical animal houses along the mini-train route. For even more holiday magic at the garden, there are concerts most Tuesday and Thursday evenings in December, when the USBG stays open until 8pm. For more on the seasonal favorite, read this KFDC review from last year.
Holiday on the Ellipse Where: The Ellipse, President’s Park When: December 1 – January 1 Admission: FREE
This should have a permanent spot on everyone’s DC holiday repertoire. The National Christmas Tree, the National Menorah, Santa’s Workshop, plus trains and displays representing all 50 states are a must-see during the season. Kids will especially love visiting Santa in his adorable little cottage for a peek at his operations and a photo op on his lap (read about our experience there last year), which is open at select times, usually through Christmas Eve. And the rest of it lit up at night with the White House and Washington Monument glowing in the distance makes for a dazzling holiday scene.
Trains loop the National Christmas Tree
Christmas on the Potomac Where: National Harbor When: November 18 – January 8 Admission: FREE, though some activities cost extra
National Harbor goes all out during the holidays. ICE! might be the big attraction, but there’s way more to do there to warrant a visit without the frozen entertainment. Most of it takes place in the Gaylord National Resort, which is transformed into a winter wonderland, complete with a spectacular glass Christmas tree, nightly tree lightings starting November 25, the Potomac Express train offering rides for guests, photo ops with Santa, indoor snowfalls, fountain shows, and more. (Read about our experience there last year.) Afterward, shop the holiday market on American Way (open Saturdays & Sundays November 26 – December 18 or grab a bite at one of the Harbor’s many restaurants.
ICE! Where: National Harbor When: November 18 – January 8 Admission: Mon-Thurs $25/adult, $20/kids; Fri-Sun $35/adults, $25/kids; 3 and under are free.Get 50% off with this LivingSocial deal while it lasts!
Technically, this is part of Christmas on the Potomac, but it’s supposedly such a huge spectacle in itself, that it deserves its own write-up. And since I have yet to experience it myself (as explained in this post last year), here’s the description from the website: “Gaylord National’s popular ICE! winter holiday attraction returns with an all-new, hilarious theme: ICE! featuring DreamWorks’ Merry Madagascar. From Nov. 18 to Jan. 8, the DreamWorks Animation holiday TV special will be brought to life in an interactive world of colorful ice sculptures carved entirely from TWO-MILLION pounds of ice. Relive the story as you stroll through this amazing attraction featuring scenes such as how Santa and his reindeer crash-landed onto the island of Madagascar, and why Alex, Marty, Gloria, Melman and the wacky penguins must figure out how to save Christmas by delivering all the presents themselves. Even the mischievous lemur King Julien learns the true meaning of the holiday and manages to get himself off the “naughty list” once and for all. Tickets can be purchased in advance online, and there are timed entries are every half-hour. Hours vary by day, so be sure to check the schedule when you plan to go.
National Menorah Lighting Where: The National Ellipse When: December 20, 4pm Admission: FREE, but you must request tickets
As I noted in this post from last year, it’s tough to find family Chanukah events open to the public in the area. But they do happen, and this is a nice one. Along with the lighting, there will be entertainment by the U.S. Marine Band as well as Dreidelman and the Macabees. If you don’t mind waiting in line afterward, stay for latkes and donuts. Tickets are free, but you need to request them in advance. Go here to get yours.
Come light the National Menorah
Christmas at Mount Vernon Where: Mount Vernon Estate, Museum, & Gardens When: November 25 – January 6 Admission: $15/adults, $7/ages 6-11, free for ages 5 and under
The special daytime holiday program at George Washington’s homestead includes 12 Christmas trees, a gingerbread Mount Vernon, historical chocolate-making demonstrations (and tastings!), and more. Guests will also have the chance to tour the rarely opened third floor of the mansion to learn how the first First Family celebrated Christmas. And outside, Alladin the camel will be on view to recall the camel ol’ George himself bought for 18 shillings in 1787 for his guests’ enjoyment at Christmas.
Holiday Train Show Where: Union Station When: November 22 – January 2 Admission: FREE
The Holiday Train Show located in the Main & West Halls features a new model train display for the first time at Union Station in 15 years. MTH Electric Trains, a leading model train manufacturer in Columbia, Md., is providing the locomotive exhibit that consists of model trains from every railroad era and includes trains from Europe and other parts of the world.
Holiday Festival of Trains & Toys Where: B&O Railroad Museum When: November 25 – December 31 Admission: $14/adults, $12/seniors (60+), $8/ages 2-12 free for B&O members
This is a venue dedicated to locomotives, so you know the holiday model train exhibit is going to be special. So much so, it changes throughout its run featuring new displays from various Model Railroad Exhibitors every few days. The exhibit opens the day after Thanksgiving with the arrival of Santa in the Roundhouse at 10:30am. On weekends through December 18, guests can enjoy train rides with Santa and Frosty the Snowman along with crafts and choral performances. Train rides are $2/adults, $1/children, free for B&O Members.
Holly Trolley Fest Where: National Capitol Trolley Museum When: November 26 – December 18, Saturdays & Sundays only Admission: $7/adults, $5/ages 2-17 (includes unlimited rides)
Guests can ride with Santa on the street cars and enjoy the model garden railway and holiday village inside the museum. Of course the est of the museum, offering a glimpse into the history of street cars, including a Hall displaying different cars from around the region and Europe. Visit the website for directions museum.
ZooLights Where: National Zoo When: November 25 – December 11, December 16 – January 1 Admission: FREE
Every year, thousands of environmentally-friendly light and animal exhibits transform the Zoo into a holiday wonderland. The highlights are dozens of animal light displays, and this year there will be an “iceless” skating rink (made of an eco-friendly synthetic skating surface) in the Picnic Pavilion Guests can also enjoy entertainment and a special train ride for children, special talks by animal keepers, Zoo-themed model trains displays, and the gingerbread habitat contest entries on display in the auditorium. The Small Mammal House, Great Ape House, Reptile Discovery Center, Think Tank, and Kids’ Farm will be open every night. Skating and train rides cost extra: $5 to skate, $2 skate rentals, $3 train rides.
Watkins' drive-thru light show
Festival of Lights Where: Watkins Regional Park When: November 25 – January 1, 5-9:30pm nightly Admission: $5/car, FREE on December 25
This spectacular holiday drive-through event of more than one million twinkling lights has been dazzling holiday-goers for 25 years. This is great way to get into the holiday spirit from the comfort of your car – pop some holiday music into the CD player, turn on the seat warmers, and take in the illuminated scenes. New festival features include Santa flying a helicopter and driving a fire truck.
Symphony of Lights Where: Symphony Woods, Merriweather Post Pavilion When: November 21 – January 1, 6-10pm nightly Admission: $20/car
Called a “woodland wonderland,” this beautiful display of more than 70 larger-than-life, animated and stationary light creations is a local holiday tradition for many. Cruise along the 1.4-mile route through the Symphony Woods in downtown Columbia and enjoy the twinkling lights as you go.
Garden of Lights Where: Brookside Gardens When: November 25 – January 8, with noted exceptions Admission: $20/car Mon-Thurs, $25/car Fri-Sun
Visualize close to one million twinkling colorful lights shaped in imaginative displays throughout the gardens. Enjoy the four seasons illuminated as giant summer sunflowers, autumn leaves, winter snowflakes, spring flowers, rain showers, and more. Walk along the easily accessible paths and you’ll see what sets this light show apart from others; it’s the hundreds of wrapped trees and shrubs, beautifully lighted gazebos, cascading fountains, and the individually formed displays in the shapes of blooming flowers and wild animals. Look for moving displays such as a flock of geese, or an 11-foot giraffe covered with 9,000 lights. Open weekdays 5:30-9pm, with last car admitted at 8:30pm, weekends (Friday – Sunday) 5:30-10pm, with last car admitted at 9:30pm. Closed December 24 & 25, and January 2-5.
Alexandria Boat Parade of Lights Where: Alexandria City Marina When: December 3 Admission: FREE
Alexandria’s harbor lights up when more than 50 illuminated boats cruise the Washington Channel to the historic waterfront. Pre-parade festivities at the Alexandria City Marina begin at 4pm with Santa arriving by fireboat at 4:15pm. The boat parade begins at 6pm. The Marina is located at Cameron Street in Old Town.
Winter Lights Festival Where: Seneca Creeek State Park When: November 25-26, then nightly December 2-31 Admission: $12/car Tues-Thurs, $15/car Fri- Sun
The 16th Annual Winter Lights Festival will feature more than 380 illuminated vignettes and 65 animated displays in a 3.5 mile drive through beautiful Seneca Creek State Park. Theme areas include Winter Woods, Teddy Bear Land, Victorian Village, North Pole, Toyland, and Penguin Cove. Proceeds Benefit Local Charities.
Holiday Trains and Planes Where: College Park Aviation Museum When: December 17 – December 23 Admission: 4/adults, $3/seniors, $2/ages 2-18, under 2 are free
During the holiday season the College Park Aviation Museum gets ready for the festivities as miniature trains, villages, tunnels, and depots spark the imagination and bring history to life. The National Capital Trackers bring a fascinating and constantly moving display of model railroads.
Take your pick of The Nutcracker productions, see Ebenezer Scrooge on stage, rock out or sing along to holiday tunes, discover celebrations around the world — there are shows to suit all theater preferences, ages, and wallets. See this recent KFDC post has details on live entertainment to be enjoyed this holiday season.
The tree is decorated, the presents are wrapped, the cookies are baked, the menu is planned, and you’re ready to kick back and enjoy the holiday… right?? Okay, I know today is probably one of the busiest for many as you get ready for festivities tonight or the big day tomorrow. But if you’ve got some time to get out with the kids, there are plenty of activities, both holiday-themed and just plain ol’ fun, to enjoy this weekend. There are even a few happening tomorrow, if you’re looking for Christmas Day recreation. However you spend your holiday, may it be a merry one. Happy Holidays!
Santa on the Ellipse – Today is the last opportunity to get a glimpse of Santa’s operations and a free photo op. Santa’s Workshop, part of Holiday on the Ellipse is open from 11am – 3pm, then it will close for the season. However, the rest of the Ellipse exhibits – the National Christmas tree, model train, Yule Log, and more — will remain on display through January 1. Read more about it in the post from yesterday.
Bright Lights – Many of the area light displays that help make the holidays dazzle will be open for viewing on Christmas evening. Pack the family in the car for a drive-thru light show or layer up and visit a walk-thru twinkling exhibit. For a list of light displays, see this post.
Chugga Chugga Christmas – No, I’m not suggesting a holiday kegger (but I’m not NOT suggesting it either), rather this is a reminder about all the great model train exhibits around town, many of which will be open al weekend. To find our where you can see them, check out this post.
Museum Time – Most Smithsonian museums are open today, but closed for Christmas. And many will have special extended hours when they reopen after the holiday. Visit the Smithsonian website to view schedules.
Kwanzaa Celebration – Treat your family and friends to a Kwanzaa Celebration. Hosted by Juanita “Busy Bee” Britton and EZ Street, this inspirational holiday event will honor local community leaders, activists and youth mentors. Featuring performances by The Black Notes, Farafina Kan, Maimouna Yousseff, Gods’illa and the Ballou High School Choir. Tickets are $20/general admission, $10/youth, $15/seniors and are available through Ticketmaster or at the Lincoln Theatre box office.
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.