Few things melt my frosty heart faster than the cartoon creations of Charles Schulz, so it was an especially welcome early holiday present to be invited to this year's media preview of Christmas at Gaylord Palms and ICE!, featuring A Charlie Brown Christmas. The original animated television special, with its iconic Vince Guaraldi musical score, is one of my fondest childhood favorites, and the skilled ice carvers Gaylord Palms imports from Harbin, China, for their annual event have outdone themselves in sculpting Snoopy and the gang, crafting a tribute that Schulz's descendants (some of whom were in attendance at the opening) should be proud of.
The effort involved in chilling a room (in Florida, no less) to 9 degrees Fahrenheit and filling it with 2 million pounds of hand-carved H20 is always impressive, but the last two ICE! exhibits, themed around 'Twas the Night Before Christmas and The Nutcracker, didn't really ignite my imagination. On the contrary, this year's larger-than-life dioramas – including Snoopy's crawl-through doghouse, Lucy's psychiatry stand and Linus reciting the Nativity story – were so cool that I wanted to linger long after I lost feeling in my fingers. I even took a ride down the ice slide (set in the center of the story's climactic Christmas pageant) despite having sworn off it years ago, and survived with minimal frostbite.
While I happily give two numbed thumbs up to Gaylord's Charlie Brown ice sculptures, this year's live seasonal entertainment is again a mixed bag. A Christmas Wish is a new LED light display on the Emerald Plaza atrium's imposing 60-foot-tall tree synced to classic holiday music. At only six minutes long, it won't make anyone forget Disney's defunct Osborne Family Spectacle, but the show is well worth the price of admission: It's completely free.
Gaylord Palms' headliner holiday show is a reprise of Cirque Dreams: UnWrapped, which debuted last year. I've seen several Cirque Dreams shows, from Busch Gardens Tampa to Broadway, and as in all their productions, this show's rotating cast of jugglers, contortionists and acrobats from around the world is first-rate. This year's aerial acts are enhanced by a higher flying apparatus, allowing for some truly heart-stopping maneuvers. But what keeps Cirque Dreams from achieving the same renown as a similarly named circus troupe installed at Downtown Disney is not their performers' skills, but their directorial decisions.
Exhibit A: Despite being explicitly marketed as a more family-friendly replacement for Gaylord's former Luminescence rock concert, last year's Unwrapped was among the most flamboyant things I've ever seen outside a Parliament House drag revue. While some of the more suggestive use of phallic props was toned town this season, there's still an inexplicably pantsless snowman cavorting around the candy-colored stage, a leering ringmaster who recruits audience members for an interminable musical segment, and a curious amount of innuendo-laden choreography for a Christmas show.
In spite of the aesthetic confusion, Unwrapped draws large crowds, which have only partially been alleviated by an expanded viewing area. While some seats are offered free on a first-come, first-served basis, they fill up fast. That pushes guests to pay $15-$17 for upgraded viewing, but even from the VIP seats our sightlines were semi-obstructed. I'd advise saving your money instead for one of the many other extras Gaylord Palms offers, such as an Elf on the Shelf scavenger hunt ($10), Charlie Brown character breakfast ($33) or gingerbread decorating class ($23-$30). I really enjoyed Mrs. Claus' Christmas Traditions show, where we sat on beanbag chairs as Santa's better half and her humorously ham-handed helper led the audience through interactive seasonal stories and sing-alongs. The warm chocolate-chip cookies were a wonderful touch, though for $15 I wish there had been an adult alternative to the T.G. Lee-provided beverages.
That's the problem with Christmas at Gaylord Palms; like a lusted-after toy that you open on Christmas morning only to discover it demands an endless supply of expensive accessories, it's all too easy to find your wallet drained by all the holiday cheer. If you start with the basic $30 adult entry to ICE! ($3 cheaper for Florida residents with an online code), then pay another $20 for Alpine tubing down a manufactured snow mountain and another $10 to throw a bucket of snowballs – insanely overpriced, but both a blast if you didn't grow up in a cold climate – pretty soon you'll need a $16 cocktail flight from the ice bar as you add up the damage. Combo tickets and play-all-day passes are a better value at $46 to $75 dollars, but even they don't include all the extras. By that point you're approaching the price of a ticket to the Magic Kingdom's Christmas party, which includes many more entertainment offerings for your buck.
If you love Charlie Brown like I do, ICE! is this season's must-see attraction, but beware the bottom line or you'll feel like Lucy yanked away your football.