Wearing a parka and snow boots, Yu Zheng Qiang looks as if he's headed to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus.
Instead, he's bringing Santa to Florida.
Since early November, Yu and more than 40 other ice sculptors from China have been creating hand-carved displays for the Gaylord Palms Resort's annual holiday attraction ICE!, which opens Saturday.
"It's takes a village [to create ICE!]," said Aaron Mendelson, special events director at Gaylord Palms.
Now in its eighth year, ICE! is an indoor winter wonderland that features dozens of three-dimensional figures made from more than 2 million pounds of colored ice. This year, ICE! tells the story of the classic holiday tale, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."
Also this year, the Palms will reveal a new attraction called SNOW!, featuring more than 40 tons of real snow, an indoor sledding hill and winter-themed carnival games.
Last week, about a dozen ice sculptors scurried around the display, preparing for the large crowds expected to walk through the attraction. Using hand-made chisels, specially designed scrapers and chain saws, Yu and his fellow artists were busy making sleeping children, a smiling moon, sugar plums and Santa's sleigh.
Most of the men, including Yu, 57, are from Harbin, a city in northern China that's known for its annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Like many of the others, Yu went to college to learn how to carve in wood, stone and ice.
"As long as you have an imagination, it's not too difficult to learn how to carve," Yu said through a translator.
The artists, who speak very little English, create the displays using detailed blueprints, written in Chinese.
Each November, dozens of men from Harbin travel to the U.S. to create the holiday displays at the Gaylord Palms as well as at other Gaylord sites in Nashville, Dallas and Washington, D.C. They stay about a month, and most return home when ICE! opens. A few stay in Orlando until the display closes in case it needs a touch-up or a guest breaks something.
Since its first appearance in 2003, Mendelson said ICE! has become a holiday tradition for many Central Florida families because of the displays and the winter experience. The exhibit, which is housed in a large tent and kept at a see-your-breath, can't-feel-your-toes 9 degrees, gives Floridians a rare chance to feel ultra-low temperatures.
Most people can withstand about 25 minutes in the cold before bolting outside to warm up in the Florida sun. Yu said the cold doesn't bother him.
"While I'm working, I don't feel it," Yu said.
Jon Busdeker can be reached at 407-420-6226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ICE! and SNOW!
When: Gaylord Palms Resort, 6000 W. Osceola Parkway, Kissimmee
When: Opens Saturday through Jan. 2; hours vary
Price: ICE! tickets start at $9.99; SNOW! tickets start at $7.49
Details: 407-586-4423 or http://www.gaylordpalms.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun