Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Big Chill

Where else but in Florida would people who have fled from frigid states pony up $16.95 a head (not to mention $7 for parking) just to subject themselves to mounds of ice and single digit temperatures?

I'll admit that we were among the throngs who headed to ICE!, the exhibit at the Gaylord Palms Hotel, just down the street from Celebration. It's a gorgeous hotel, but I hate to mention its name in polite company, as it always brings out snickers and lecherous sneers.

We had wanted to go to the ice festival last year, but somehow we never quite found the time. This year, it was on our irrevocable list of things to do. As New Years Eve drew closer, I was beginning to worry that once again we'd miss it. Between our jobs and Disney World play, both my husband and I have been insanely busy this week. Then, last night, the poor man tried to install a Norton upgrade and melted down his PC. He was on the phone with tech support for literally almost three hours. Thank goodness it was a toll-free call. And of course Symantec farms out their call center to India, so the language challenges were just more fuel on the fire. Finally, at four a.m., hubby got his computer to boot so he could uninstall the errant program. After all that, I figured that he wouldn't be conscious until the afternoon, let alone in the mood to go galavanting in a freezer.

Amazingly, he was up even earlier than me. We both had work to do, but by afternoon he was ready to drag me over to the Gaylord. I wanted to see the exhibit, but I thought that the admission charge was a little excessive. Still, when in Rome you do as the Romans do, and when in Tourist Land, you make P. T. Barnum proud. We've only owned our home in Celebration for a little over a year now, so we've still got a bit of tourist in our blood.

As I mentioned earlier, to add insult to injury, you have to pay $7 to park. Even the hotel guests were paying; that fee must be a real detriment to day guests who might visit to eat at the restaurants or patronize the spa. Oh well, who am I to question to policies of the mighty Gaylord?

There were helpful parking lot attendants guiding visitors into spots. We managed to get a good one, not too far from the entrance, so off we headed to experience winter's chill in the midst of the Sunshine State. The line to purchase tickets wasn't too bad, but the queue to enter the actual exhibit would rival anything you might see at Disney World. Okay, so maybe it wasn't two hours long, but we waited a good 20 minutes just to get to the table where parkas were being handed out. Yes, I swear, they were handing out coats! I guess that a lot of vacationers probably don't pack their winter wear when they come to visit Mickey and the gang. Somehow, people in other parts of the country get the idea that Orlando is perpetually 80 degrees or above. Since the temperature at the ice exhibit was 9 degrees, they would have been blue with frostbite by the end without some sort of protection.

My husband and I had brought our jackets, but we took the parkas anyway, since they seemed more substantial. Then there was another wait to enter the exhibit itself. Once inside, you could pretty much wander around at will, oooing and ahhhing at the amazing array of sculptures. According to signs on the walls, they had been created by Chinese artisans. One of the sculptors was inside, demonstrating his craft. If you'd like to see some samples, click here for photos of several of the sculptures, including an awe-inspiring church, complete with stained glass windows.

The church and a gorgeous nativity scene were my favorites. Of course, it's rather ironic when you realize that they were created by people who are most likely athiests, since they are visitors from Communist China. But whatever their beliefs, they still created some striking works of art. I was dazzled by how the backlit stained glass in the church cast a kaleidoscope reflection on the ground.

Another big favorite for me was the ice slide. Actually, there were four slides; two little ones for the kiddies and two full-sized ones for the braver souls. You hike to the top on carpeted stairs. When it's your turn, you sit down (or crash down if you're wearing slippery shoes like I was) into launch position. An attendant then gives you a push and you whoosh down the slide at blinding speed.

Having ridden a fair number of water slides in my day, I've experienced the annoyance of coming to a dead stop. That's a common hazard at water parks, often caused by a combination of low water pressure and the fact that they usually make you sit up rather than lie down. Heels (especially when clad in water shoes) are not terribly conducive to forward motion. It's much better to be lying down in the forbidden three-point position.

Since you were required to go down the ice slide in a sitting position, I expect the same mobility issues. I was wrong! That ice is so slippery; I felt like a runaway bobsled as I whooshed down and crashed into the poor soul below whose job it apparently was to act as a human "brake run" and prevent the sliders from crashing into the wall.

There was also a horse and sleigh made of ice where you could have your photo taken and then review it for purchase at the end of the exhibit. Of course, we had to do it, and it actually came out quite good. There was also the requisite gift shop, but the merchandise was very picked-over. The ice exhibit has been running since November, and the last day is January 2, so I don't think they're replenishing anything anymore.

As you exited, you received a coupon for a free cup of hot cocoa and 10 percent off dinner at any of the Gaylord restaurants. You had to head into the hotel itself to redeem your cocoa voucher (the ice exhibit is in the convention area). When we got there, a wave of memories washed over me. The Gaylord Palms was the place where my husband and I stayed when we found our home in Celebration, way back in 2002.

Originally, we had made the decision to buy a house in Celebration in October, when I was in the area for a convention. My husband had tagged along so he could play in the Disney parks all day while I slaved away at the convention session. Eventually, we bought a condo long-distance, and in December of 2002 we had come to town to see it (or, more accurately, its foundation). On that trip, we met our real estate agents, Richie and Betsy, and ended up buying our triplex instead. That was a real stroke of luck; I love having a yard instead of just a balcony, as well as a big porch with a swing, and I adore our neighborhood in East Village.

On that trip, we had gotten a room at the Gaylord Palms on Priceline for some ridiculously low price. I think it was under $100. Amazingly, they gave us a primo room with a balcony overlooking the Key West section. It was a great hotel. There were only two things I didn't like: 1) there was leftover trash in our room from the previous guests; and 2) they had a neat do-not-disturb system that you activated on your door, but even though we had it on, the maid knocked to find out when she could disturb us. Kind of defeats the purpose!

Interestingly enough, the Gaylord was originally supposed to be called the Opryland Hotel. For several years, I watched them build the massive structure as I passed it on my way to Disney World. It truly is an impressive place, more like a huge compound than a hotel.

We had decided to stay for dinner at Gaylord. Their restaurants tend to be pricey, but what the heck...we'd already popped an obnoxious amount of money just to park and look at a bunch of frozen water. May as well have a good meal too. We briefly considered the buffet, but it's always too darned much food. You might have the best intentions of eating moderately, but the yummy choices can break the resolve of all but the most iron-willed.

Instead, we opted to eat at Key West, in the restaurant right across from the balcony of our former room. It serves delectable seafood, and there is also entertainment with a Key West-sunset celebration flair. As we ate, we saw stilt-walkers, jugglers, and even a fire eater, not to mention a live band playing Caribbean tunes. Quite a pleasant way to end our outing. We split a combination appetizer, which featured such items as crab cakes, shrimp cocktail, shrimp "cigars," a cold scallop salad, lobster skewers, and tuna tartar. As if that wasn't enough, we topped it off with lobster salads featuring a generous helping of chopped lobster meat, citrus fruit, pistachios, and goat cheese over a bed of field greens. I sure hope that my shivering in deep freeze burned off some calories, because goodness knows I replenished them and then some at dinner!

We've managed to cross our last holiday activity off our list. All that remains is a New Years party tonight, and then the 2004 holiday season will be officially over. Happy 2005!

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