Can Christmas at Gaylord Palms still be an annual tradition without its popular ICE! attraction? We spent two days at the resort trying all that’s on offer and came to a resounding conclusion.
The “Florida freezer” has been closed since 2019 due to the pandemic and its international travel restrictions, which made staging Christmas at Gaylord Palms’ headliner attraction impossible. But this year a little holiday magic took place, and there are now more than a dozen ways to celebrate the season at the resort’s annual extravaganza.
The highlight of the event, and the attraction that replaces ICE! and last year’s “I Love Christmas Movies,” is Mission: Save Christmas featuring Elf, based on the hit holiday movie, “Elf.” Like its predecessors, this walk-through experience features successive themed rooms, this time filled with scenes from the movie and activities that will help generate enough Christmas spirit to regenerate the Kringle 3000 jet engine that powers Santa’s sleigh.
It all starts in the Candy Cane Forest, where Leon the Snowman sends adventurers off on a mission to help Buddy the elf bring the holiday spirit to his dad — who is on Santa’s “naughty” list — and the people of New York City.
As we made our way through the attraction, we encountered favorite animated characters from the movie, paid a visit to Santa’s workshop, explored the area Buddy decorated in Gimbel’s department store, took part in an epic snowball fight in Central Park, walked around the Greenway Publishing Company mail room, and, finally, took selfies in front of Santa’s sleigh.
There are eight rooms in all, some with interactive games, including mixing the ingredients for Christmas cookies (through wooden blocks and with touch-screen technology) and watching the stove send up a cloud of steam when they’re ready. A Clausometer in each room lets you know how much “spirit” has been generated.
Trying to figure out the Christmas cookie mixing definitely confused us until we got some elf help, and a guitar hero type game with popular festive songs was another challenge, while the snowball fight was outrageously good fun, and the depth of theming throughout was hugely entertaining.
Mission: Save Christmas featuring Elf ends in the Market Square Retail space, where visitors can purchase holiday gifts and decorations.
Arguably, the event’s most photogenic area outside of Mission: Save Christmas is Snow Factory, which is all about wintery fun in the heart of the Sunshine State and designed for selfies and family snapshots.
Enter a snowfall plaza, where more than a dozen Christmas trees glitter with holiday lights. Guests can even add a mini blizzard to their shots by stepping on foot pedals at various snow-fall towers.
This is also the location of Snow Flow Mountain, and while groups of children raced past us with the boundless energy and enthusiasm of youth as we slowly hauled our inner tubes up a ramp to the top of the frozen conveyor belts (ice slides), we had as much fun as they did — maybe more! — rump-bumping our way down the slide before bouncing off a padded wall at the bottom. Tickets are $21.99 per person for unlimited rides, and we think it’s a must-do experience for the return-to-childhood joy of it all. You will laugh like a kid all the way down!
Mountains of snow doesn’t just happen, of course, and Snowball Build & Blast is the engine that keeps Snow Factory’s snow-making machinery running. Here, participants say a few magic words and hard-working elves provide them with a bucket of real snow, which can be packed into snowballs and thrown through the openings of colorful tubes to earn points that boost the machine’s power. Tickets are $11.99 for each bucket of snow.
The Snow Factory area is cool enough for a sweater or light jacket, but there are winter warmers on offer at Snow Bar, which features a selection of beer, wine, and specialty cocktails, notably the Mistletoe Margarita, which was definitely a hit with us.
Just around the corner from Snow Factory are three more interactive activities. Gingerbread Decorating Corner encourages participants’ inner artist to shine through, with the choice of two decorating kits. Choose a pre-built gingerbread house or two gingerbread people. Nutmeg the gingerbread man holds a meet-and-greet here, too.
Feel the warmth of the season at Mrs. Claus’ Christmas Traditions, with a retelling of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a holiday sing-along, and that most comforting of combos, milk and chocolate chip cookies ($12.99 per person). We especially enjoyed the lively style of Mrs. Claus’s supporting cast, who kept up a fun level of interaction throughout.
No Christmas event would be complete without photos with Santa, and the jolly old elf is on hand to hear wish lists and pose for a keepsake snapshot. Packages start at $35.
Surely Secret Santa Scavenger Hunt must be just for kids, right? Wrong! This family-friendly challenge requires teamwork and perseverance, in the best possible way. Participants should plan for a couple of hours’ searching for clues — and some legwork getting around the resort — but there’s a reason why scavenger hunters (including us) were in such a merry mood. It’s another must-do, and a festive way to enjoy an indoor activity if the weather turns chilly.
Additional activities include Sugary Sweet Storytime, Elf Training Academy, and the Christmas Tree Trail.
Two major shows round out the merrymaking. “Cirque Spirit of Christmas” takes place in the resort’s interior atrium on select dates, and centers around the story of Noel, a child who has lost her Christmas spirit. While she sleeps, she is visited by acrobats who each add their energetic sparkle to a special Christmas tree ornament.
The cirque-style spectacular features the elegance of aerial silk acrobatics, a hula hoop artist, a daring trapeze duo, and a captivating cloth twirling display, which sounds odd, but is an eye-catching act. Date-specific tickets range from $4.99-19.99.
When Cirque Spirit of Christmas ends, the atrium’s enormous Christmas tree begins its own performance. “Shine Light Show” pairs aerial light curtains and a seasonal soundtrack as the tree’s own lights and decorations dance to holiday-themed music. The show is free for all visitors.
We sampled several “tastes of the season,” too, including a juicy Tomahawk steak and our new favorite libation, the Ruby Red Old Fashioned, from the resort’s Old Hickory Steakhouse, plus Wreckers Sports Bar’s wintertime combo of bacon grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup, finishing with the bar’s decadent Naughty & Nice Nightcap of Baileys Irish Cream, peppermint schnapps, and hot cocoa.
The event’s motto is “So. Much. Christmas.” and with such a wide variety of activities to choose from, it’s easy to make it a full day’s experience.
With that in mind, the Gold Play & Save Pass allows access to Mission: Save Christmas featuring Elf, Snow Flow Mountain, Snowball Build & Blast, Secret Santa Scavenger Hunt, and Gingerbread Decorating Corner at a 30% savings.
The Platinum Play & Save Pass adds Elf Training Academy, Mrs. Claus’ Christmas Traditions, and Sugary Sweet Storytime, for a savings of 40%.
It is important to note that tickets for each show or activity must be purchased online in advance. There is no onsite box office.
Was Christmas at Gaylord Palms worth adding to the annual yuletide lineup, even without ICE!? The answer is a definite “Yes!” Although we eagerly await the return of ICE! at some point in the future, we laughed (and ate) our way through each day with nary a parka or warm boots in sight.
For more information, visit ChristmasatGaylordPalms.com.