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.
Last year, as our family made the rounds of DC holiday activities, we decided to skip ICE!, the Gaylord National Resort’s spectacle of Disney movie-themed ice sculptures. Despite its popularity, we’d heard mixed reviews and found the admission price ($35/adults, $25/children) somewhat steep for something that might be less than wonderful.
As this holiday season rolled around, I still felt ambivalent about it, wondering if the expense would be worth it. So, when LivingSocial recently had a deal on the ICE! experience, I jumped on it. The discount, combined with my curiosity about the venture, made the offer a no-brainer, and I scooped up two adult and two child tickets for $58 total, a savings of more than 50%.
An icy scene from Merry Madagascar
And here is where I tell it to you straight: I’m really glad we got that deal, because if I’d paid full price for ICE!, I probably would have felt like I’d been ripped off. It’s not that it was a bad experience – we did have fun, and I can appreciate the imagination, time, and artistry that went into creating the exhibit – but, generally, I found it overpriced, underwhelming, and too loud and cold to fully enjoy.
But that’s just my opinion, and I’m aware that we all have different ideas of what is “worth it,” so here’s a more detailed account of our experience to help you decide if ICE! makes the cut for you…
With some blackout dates looming and a “no Saturday” restriction, I wanted to use the deal soon and decided to visit on a weekday after school. It turned out Sasha didn’t need a ticket (free for ages 3 and under) and my husband couldn’t come, so friends joined us and used our extra tickets. The timing worked out perfectly. We got there around 4pm and parked easily in a garage next to the ICE! venue, where it’s just $5 for two hours. (There is an “official” ICE! lot across the street where you can park for $10 all day, but it’s really no closer than the garage.) We also arrived to find no lines and redeemed our vouchers for tickets easily and quickly.
The preview of the exhibit and the flick
From there, we made our way to a preview room for an intro to both the exhibit and Merry Madagascar, the 2009 TV movie that provides the theme for ICE! A staff member gave us a quick rundown of what to expect before we watched a short video about how the ice sculptures were made, then a trailer of the film on a giant screen. We continued on from there to yet another area, where long blue parkas were distrubuted to every guest. We donned these over our own jackets, as we were told temperatures would be extremely cold.
Bundled up in blue, we finally entered the exhibit and got an initial eyeful of the icy wonderland, which admittedly is quite impressive upon first sight. Scenes from Merry Madagascar whittled from ice surrounded us, and the bluish lights made it dazzle. But the other thing that struck me was the noise. With so many machines working to keep the air chilled, it was hard to hear anything – and hard for the kids to hear us adults. Luckily, it wasn’t very crowded, so we could keep up with them as they zipped through the displays, but requests for them to slow down were futile. Because of this we wound our way through the exhibit rather quickly, but to be honest, it was more of the same most of the way through, just minus the initial wow factor.
Then we came upon the slides about five minutes into the tour. These five icy lanes where guests could whiz down on their bums were easily the highlight of ICE! for the older kids. With barely a wait, they got to ride down many times until we encouraged them to move on after about 20 minutes, as the cold really started to set in while we stood there with the little ones watching them come down.
I figured there would be more interactives, but it turned out the slides were it. We meandered through more frozen Merry Madagascar scenes for another five minutes until we came to the final display, a large nativity scene sculpted in ice. It was somewhat unexpected after viewing so many cartoon characters, and seemed an odd closing piece to an exhibit that, until then, had featured big, playful displays in brilliant colors.
A post-ICE! ride on the mini-train
The ICE! exhibit might end there, but the larger experience continues, which can be a good or bad, depending on how you look at it. There are many more activities, which also means opportunities to fork out cash – concessions for sale on the way out, an ice skating rink, min-train rides, meet and greets with costumed characters, and a souvenir shop you have to walk through to exit. Our kids rode the train for $2 a pop, but we managed to get them to forgo the rest (after convincing them to put back all the candy and toys from the store they insisted they needed), as it was time to get home.
Later, when I asked the kids what they thought about ICE!, Owen raved about the slides then noted that he “got cold so fast.” Sasha just gave a “brrrr.” I give it about a 6.5 out of 10, but if I’d paid the full price, it would definitely be less. And that seemed to be a shared opinion among the friends who accompanied us.
ICE! will be at the National Harbor through January 8. Tickets are $35/adults, $30/kids during peak hours and $25/adults, $20/kids during non-peak hours. They are available for advance purchase online.
Some things to be aware of if you plan to go:
*It’s very cold in the exhibit, so along with a warm jacket to wear under the provided parka, bring a hat and mittens, preferably in bright colors or distinctive patterns, so you can easily spot your kids among the sea of blue parka sporting guests.
*Adults are not allowed to ride the slides with kids, which might upset younger children and discourage them from going (as was the case with Sasha).
*Look for garage parking before heading for the official ICE! lot. There is one located right next to the venue where it’s just $5 for two hours, $11/max. I can’t see a visit going beyond a couple of hours, though it’s just $1 more than the ICE! lot if you do end up staying awhile.
*Be prepared to pay for the extras you will encounter when you exit ICE! There’s too much there to say no to everything.
*Visit on a weekday if possible, as the crowds are guaranteed to be smaller.
I know many people have wanted to experience ICE!, the frozen wonderland at the Gaylord National Resort, but have been deterred by the high price of tickets. If that’s the case with you, then this new LivingSocial deal will make your day:
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.