Christmas at Gaylord Rockies offers hand-carved ice sculptures and a nod to a classic holiday tale

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This year’s theme for ICE! at Gaylord Rockies is “A Christmas Story”; the classic film turns 40 this year, Nov. 19, 2023.

The halls are decked at Gaylord Rockies Resort in Aurora. Local musicians and singers fill the air with holiday music, Mrs. Claus is sharing Christmas tales and hand-carved ice sculptures surround visitors with a frozen retelling of “A Christmas Story.” 

That classic film, which marks its 40th anniversary this year, is the theme of ICE!, one of the Gaylord’s signature holiday attractions

A team of 40 world-class ice artists from Harbin, China, worked for approximately six weeks — more than 12,000 man-hours — to create the nearly 17,000-square-foot frozen installation. Despite working in a room chilled to just 9 degrees, the artists stayed warm during their eight-hour days because carving the sculptures was so physically demanding. 

Artist Zenggang Yue joined the ice carving team in 2004. Before that, his background was in painting.

“The ice sculpture is certainly a form of art,” said Yue, speaking via interpreter Lei Cao. “He hopes that people in Denver can admire or share their happiness during carving and scouting and building.” 

After completing the sculptures, Yue gets to watch the amazed reactions of viewers, especially children, enjoying the team’s work. The colorful installation includes everything from Ralphie’s living room to the department store's Santa display. That element got an upgrade though — instead of just one slide down from Santa’s seat, there are four.

Cao explained that Yue feels really good about the work; “Especially, he loves to see children slide down the slides and they're having fun. That warms his heart.”

The holiday celebration continues in Gaylord’s Bubly Theater, with “Cirque: Spirit of Christmas” a custom production exclusive to the resort. Broadway director Neil Goldberg helms the show, which he describes as a balance between opera, ballet, and musical theater, with high-flying stunts, acrobatics, and a dramatic musical score.

Goldberg said a lot of shows have adopted the word ‘cirque,’ but explained what makes this one special.

“Where this show is elevated and separated from the rest is that there's a wonderful, beautiful story that revolves around Christmas, the story of a young child, Noel, who goes on this journey to find all the things about Christmas that she loves,” said Goldberg

The team includes 25 artists hailing from the U.S., Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Ethiopia, the Czech Republic, and Mongolia — a diversity Goldberg said enhances the power of its message. 

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Performers on stage for "Cirque: Spirit of Christmas", which tells the story of a little girl trying to recapture the spirit of the season amid the daily hustle and bustle, Nov. 19, 2023.

“We have so many challenges going on in the world today. There are so many different stresses.” Goldberg said. “I think that the holiday time is a time that everyone should come together and that everyone can share celebration, regardless of … your religion (or) cultural differences.”

Goldberg said the inspiration for much of what he does comes from children and his own childhood. 

“I was that child that was not afforded many of the opportunities that exist today for children in terms of expressing themselves creatively and artistically. And so I like to dream and I like to be able to deliver the message that anything is possible and dreams come true.”

The holiday events at Gaylord Rockies extend to every corner of the massive property. In addition to ICE! and “Cirque: Spirit of Christmas,” there’s also Mistletoe Village, where Mrs. Claus reads Christmas stories and leads a holiday singalong. 

Ticketed activities also include learning the secrets of becoming one of Santa's helpers from his top toy-maker, joining in the Reindeer games scavenger hunt with Rudolph and the misfit toys, and even a holiday-themed escape room.

Eden Lane/CPR News
A team of 40 ice artists created the ICE! installation, including this recreation of the department store Santa scene, with frozen slides for guests to zip down, Nov. 19, 2023.

Jordan Dyniewski, director of special events and entertainment at Gaylord Rockies, said the company has special hopes for the holidays. But for him, this is more personal than just doing his job; it goes back to early family memories of holiday celebrations at the Gaylord outpost in Texas. 

“Back then it was super impressive what was happening, and it just caught my imagination in that perfect way. I never forgot it. And every time I could get my family back together in some form, we would go.’ Dyniewski said.

Now in his second year on the job, he’s excited for what more is to come.

 “To just build that tradition and to build opportunities for people to get together and again, (to) escape a little bit and just see something that's over the top, I take it to heart and I love what I do.” 

Christmas At Gaylord Rockies runs through Jan. 1, 2024, and requires tickets for the various attractions and events.