GALVESTON — Houstonians willing to submit themselves to arctic temperatures are normally a rare breed.
During the holidays, however, that doesn’t stop them from streaming through Ice Land at Moody Gardens to the tune of roughly 10,000-15,000 visitors per day.
And, maybe it’s not a surprise that many of these Gulf Coast residents don’t always arrive prepared.
“We suggest maybe don’t wear shorts or flip-flops, although I have seen people do it,” says Alexis Shelly, public-relations coordinator for the Galveston resort.
Rest assured, Moody Gardens provides each guest with a complimentary parka to offset the temperature inside the exhibition, set at a frosty 9 degrees. Yes, 9 degrees. Hats, gloves, and hand warmers also are available for sale. A hot-chocolate stand is strategically positioned just outside the exit of the 17,000 square-foot exhibition space, which sits inside a tent about the size of a small hockey arena (or a big barn) temporarily erected in the Moody Gardens parking lot.
Tip: Bring your own if you must, but do not skip the gloves. According to Shelly, the average walk-through time for Ice Land is between 30 and 45 minutes; uncovered human skin, particularly in extremities like hands and feet, begins to go numb in quite a bit less time than that.
Now in its fifth year, Ice Land is indelibly linked to the ice-sculpture capital of the world: Harbin, metropolitan hub of northeastern China and host of the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Two dozen craftsmen from Harbin’s CAA Ruijing Ice Carving Team came to Galveston in late September, and little by little, they whittled 2 million pounds of ice into all manner of flora and fauna suited to this year’s theme, “Pole-to-Pole.”
“It’s an interesting process to watch, pretty impressive,” confirms Shelly. “They’ve got it down to a science.”
It took the carvers about a month. One 18-wheeler at a time, 30 trucks’ worth of ice headed down from Moody Gardens’ supplier in College Station. “Pretty much every day for a good two, two-and-a-half-week period we have ice deliveries,” Shelly says. “We want to make sure it’s not just sitting here; pretty much as soon as it gets here, it gets out and starts to be carved.”
In all, Ice Land consists of 6,000 blocks of ice, each weighing 300 pounds. Wielding chain saws and ice picks, carvers created larger-than-life Russian nesting dolls — signaling next year’s theme, “Christmas Around the World” — orcas bigger than a school bus, or a humpback whale the size of a ceremonial fountain.
Some of Ice Land’s more than 100 sculptures reach 35 feet high. The level of detail is amazing, down to the beluga whale’s tiny pointed teeth or the multicolored bulbs adorning the multiple Christmas trees. There are dolphins, walruses, Santa Claus and Rudolph, snowy owls, Arctic foxes and a tunnel featuring illustrations of the polar food chains.
Penguins have pride of place at Ice Land this year. Once visitors have checked out a parka and (hopefully) gloved up, a tableau featuring 50 or 60 of the flightless birds is the first thing they’ll see. This is the South Pole portion of Pole-to-Pole. Nearby, in a nifty bit of cross-promotion, is a model of Moody Gardens’ Aquarium Pyramid, which houses many actual penguins.
“I love the penguin back there that looks like it’s singing,” Shelly says. “It’s got its head back and its mouth is open.”
Just past the pyramid, between the elephant seals and albatross, is a mosaic of flags featuring the countries who ratified the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which set aside the world’s only naturally uninhabited continent for “peaceful purposes only.” Coloring the ice involves mixing in Tempura paint, then adding milk to obtain the proper consistency and opacity.
“It’s an interesting process — we actually toured the facility where they (make) the ice,” says Shelly. “We went on purple day, so I saw them making all kinds of purple ice.”
Beyond the North Pole portion of Ice Land — onion domes, giant candy canes, burly reindeer — lie scowling seahawks and other brightly colored imagery marking the entrance to Shiver’s Ice Bar. Patterned after a trading post in the far Pacific Northwest and serving appropriately frigid libations, like flavored vodka, this polar watering hole is likewise constructed entirely of ice. Even the barstools.
Not far away, polar bears stand as silent sentinels over one of Ice Land’s most irresistible attraction: the Glacier Ice Slide. Three lanes across, the slide is not terribly steep but it is about slick as you might expect. Do watch your step as you fold your body into the proper tobogganlike posture. The rush of excitement can’t entirely be chalked up to the freezing conditions.
“I did it about a dozen times last year,” admits Shelly. “I’ve already gone down it once this year, so I’m trying to break my record.”
Now, imagine sloths, parrots and jaguars standing in for king penguins, elephant seals and Arctic terns. That was the scene at “Rainforest Holiday,” last year’s theme. Recalls Shelly, staffers would joke about shivering in the 9 degree temperatures while surrounded by an environment that averages about 90.
“Yes,” she laughs. “It was very strange.”