Chinese artisans turn 2 million lbs of ice into Charlie Brown Christmas

When the Gaylord Rockies Resort debuts its “Ice!” exhibit on Nov. 18, bundled-up guests may very well feel as though they’ve stumbled onto a frosty live-action set of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Kept at 9 degrees Fahrenheit, the resort’s frozen attraction includes 10 immersive scenes from the nostalgic holiday story that stars Charlie Brown, his canine sidekick Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang. Plus, there’s a two-story icy slide framed by a yellow wall of ice with a zigzag pattern — a nod to Charlie Brown’s signature T-shirt.

But how exactly does the Gaylord transform a 17,500-square-foot blank slate into a colorful storybook landscape that’s made of ice, yes, but will melt your heart nonetheless? To say it’s a “miracle, Charlie Brown!” would be oversimplifying things.

Rather, the production starts with sourcing 6,700 massive ice blocks weighing 2 million pounds from three different manufacturers because one maker alone couldn’t churn out that much ice on deadline. A chemist mixes food coloring with the blocks using a special formula so that the ice maintains its bright colors throughout the entire season — i.e. Sally’s yellow cluster of curls don’t fade and Snoopy’s house retains its cheerful red hue.

Then, the real magic happens.

A team of 40 ice artisans from Harbin, China — which is known as “the Ice City” because it hosts the world’s biggest ice and snow festival — arrives in Aurora. It takes the crew six weeks to bring a 300-page design book filled with sketches to life. Similarly, in 2019, master artisans traveled across the globe to carve scenes from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at the Gaylord Rockies ICE! exhibit. But then with travel restrictions in place amid the pandemic, the production has been on hold for the past two years. This is the first year the crew is back.

The artists, each with their own specialties, use chisels, chippers, handsaws, grinders and chainsaws to carve away at the blocks, with ice flurries flying about as familiar faces take shape.

On a recent afternoon, lead detail carver Qing Liu is finetuning the characters’ faces. In an interview through a translator, Liu reveals he wasn’t familiar with Charlie Brown or his Peanuts pals until taking on the project at the Gaylord. Still, he’s taken fastidious notes on how Charles Schultz’s characters have squiggly lines for smiles and varying facial shapes and, with a chisel in hand, he’s contouring more than a med spa in Hollywood.

  • Chinese artisan Qing Liu, detail carver leader, puts finishing touches on a Charlie Brown character at "ICE! A Charlie Brown Christmas" themed interactive ice holiday scene, part of Christmas at Gaylord Rockies, on Nov. 03, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

  • Chinese artisan Amila carves finishing touches on an oxen at "ICE! A Charlie Brown Christmas" themed interactive ice holiday scene, part of Christmas at Gaylord Rockies, on Nov. 03, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

  • Work continues on a hand-carved interactive holiday scene at Gaylord Rockies on Nov. 03, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

  • A colorful ice Christmas wreath at "ICE! A Charlie Brown Christmas" themed interactive ice holiday scene, part of Christmas at Gaylord Rockies, is ready for display on Nov. 03, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

  • Chinese artisans Hongyou Zhang, left, and Guanghui Chen position ice blocks on a purple wall at "ICE! A Charlie Brown Christmas" themed interactive ice holiday scene, part of Christmas at Gaylord Rockies, on Nov. 03, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

  • Chinese artisan Qing Liu, detail carving leader, left, goes over plans with detail carver Shi YouYu to put finishing touches on a Charlie Brown Character at "ICE! A Charlie Brown Christmas" themed interactive ice holiday scene, part of Christmas at Gaylord Rockies, on Nov. 03, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

  • A carved ice sculpture of Charlie Brown sits atop the slide room at "ICE! A Charlie Brown Christmas" themed interactive ice holiday scene, part of Christmas at Gaylord Rockies, on Nov. 03, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

  • A colorful ice design and snowflake at "ICE! A Charlie Brown Christmas" themed interactive ice holiday scene, part of Christmas at Gaylord Rockies, is seen on Nov. 03, 2022 (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

  • Colorful ice sculptures behind Charlie Brown characters are under construction at "ICE! A Charlie Brown Christmas" themed interactive ice holiday scene, part of Christmas at Gaylord Rockies, on Nov. 03, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

  • Chinese artisan Qing Liu, detail carving leader, puts finishing touches on a Charlie Brown Character at "ICE! A Charlie Brown Christmas" themed interactive ice holiday scene, part of Christmas at Gaylord Rockies, on Nov. 03, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

In the interview, Liu, 68, told The Denver Post that he started carving first with jade at age 17 and moved on to working with ice at age 25. The artisans who come to Colorado bring with them skills that have been passed down over generations as well as tools that are handmade and custom. Liu favors his own tools so much that when one carving utensil broke in the first few weeks he was on site, he arranged for a welder to come fix it.

When ICE! featuring A Charlie Brown Christmas is finished, the grandiose display will include scenes that soar higher than 30 feet tall, as well as details as tiny as a coin. About a half dozen of the artisans will remain at the Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center through Jan. 1 while the exhibit is on display in case any sculptures need touch-ups or repairs. Some may also provide ice carving demonstrations.

“Ice is more challenging than other materials; it’s time sensitive,” Liu says. “You only have a short period of time to see the beauty of it.”

The ICE! exhibit is part of the holiday programming at the Gaylord, which includes high-flying stunts and acrobatic feats at the “Cirque: Spirit of Christmas” as well as Glacier Point, an outdoor playground with snow tubing, ice skating, ice bumper cars and a “Snowball Build & Blast” that’s new this year. Tickets to ICE! start at $19.99.

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