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11-13-2011, 09:06 PM
It's the time of year at Gaylord Palms when business should slow down. Conventions are waning and business travelers sticking closer to home as the end-of-year holidays approach.

But the sprawling hotel in Kissimmee has found a way to pack its house for the holidays, and it's a profitable one. Gaylord's holiday extravaganza called Ice! is expected to draw more than 250,000 people this year. With several new additions this year, the hotel's holiday offering will be the biggest yet.

The attraction, which features 2 million pounds of ice carved into elaborate sculptures, started as a way to fill some empty rooms. But it has grown into a profit center for Gaylord. This year, a new partnership with DreamWorks Animation means Ice will have a number of new features, including Gingerbread Decorating With Gingy, 3-D movies with Puss in Boots, a play area called Kung Fu Panda's Awesome Snow, and meet-and-greets with characters such as the Penguins from the animated movie "Madagascar."

To create Ice!, Gaylord brings in about 40 artisans from Harbin, China, a region known for its annual International Ice & Snow Festival. It takes them six weeks to carve the attraction; for the hotel, it's a multimillion-dollar investment.

"We originally designed Ice as a break-even event. We just wanted to fill rooms," said Johann Krieger, vice president and hotel manager. But, now, he said, "it's extremely profitable. It does very well."

Ice started in 2003, a year after Gaylord Palms opened. Admission was $16.95 for adults, $7.95 for children. After creating that first winter wonderland of solid ice, the hotel was hoping for a turnout of 75,000 people. The display attracted 125,000.

Last year, the hotel added its first story line to Ice: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. And it tacked on a snow playground, which will be expanded this year.

This holiday season, the options have multiplied, largely because of the DreamWorks partnership. Now, Shrek is the star of Ice, and the attraction will re-create the TV special "Shrek the Halls."

Packages that include an overnight hotel stay start at $149 a person based on double occupancy, and $69 for children. Optional events, including the snow and the Puss in Boots movie, mean guests will likely spend even more while they're at the hotel, helping Gaylord increase its revenue per available room.

"Our packages are ahead 20 percent compared to last year. We've seen package guests starting to book much earlier this year, once we kind of released that we were going to have a DreamWorks experience here at the hotel," Krieger said earlier this month. "A lot of those weekends that are typically our busier weekends are filling up very quickly."

At least one other local hotel has followed suit with a similar holiday event. Last year, Nickelodeon Suites Resort launched Let It Snow. The event proved so popular with guests that the hotel is expanding it this year. It will include an 80-foot-long ice slide, snow falling nightly by the pool, holiday lights that dance to music, and poolside fire pits with s'mores for snacks.

That event features characters of its own: SpongeBob, Dora the Explorer and, of course, Santa Claus. The Disney-area hotel's goal is to offer something special during the holidays for its guests, many of whom are repeat customers.

"Let It Snow was such a tremendous success last year that the hotel has decided to make it an annual holiday event on property," said Jim Struna, the hotel's director of marketing and revenue management.

Gaylord, too, knows the importance of pleasing guests who return year after year for Ice!.

"As this becomes more popular, we've tried to add value every year to make sure that the customers continue to come back," Krieger said. "We do have a lot of loyal guests that come back year after year and have kind of made this a family tradition."