Much like Santa’s elves at the North Pole, the Gaylord Texan has team members who focus year-round on getting ready for the holiday season and making the resort’s Lone Star Christmas production a jaw-dropping spectacle.
“We are all very passionate about Christmas,” says Amanda Taylor, director of special events. “We watch everyone come through and love to hear all the kids ooh and aah.”
Now in its 11th year, the exhibit draws crowds in the half-million range, with many of those coming from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Although the Gaylord is designed primarily as a convention hotel, Martha Neibling, director of marketing and public relations, says the holiday events have helped make it a staycation destination as well, drawing visitors and guests when few conventions are scheduled.
“For most convention hotels, the fourth quarter is the slowest,” she explains. “For us, it’s the strongest.”
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Chris Gonzalez, production and design manager, adds that Lone Star Christmas and its annual ICE! display have become part of many local families’ own yuletide traditions. “We have families who come every single year, and they look for things that have become special for them, like our toy soldiers.”
That would be the 25-foot toy soldiers that flank the model train display in the atrium. Other notable features include the 20-foot, faux fur-trimmed boots and 15-foot hat left behind by a gargantuan Santa Claus, the 54-foot atrium Christmas tree and an 8-foot real gingerbread house created by the Gaylord’s executive pastry chef, Art Surman.
Then there are those items that come in what Taylor calls the Gaylord’s “lucky number” — the 2 million twinkling lights, the 2 million pounds of snow for the 12-lane tubing hill and the 2 million pounds of ice for this year’s Frosty the Snowman-themed ICE! Other impressive numbers include the exhibit’s 5,600 feet of garland and 2,000 live poinsettias, as well as a 14,000-square-foot warehouse in Coppell where Gaylord team members use 2,000 pounds of glitter to create holiday magic for 500,000 visitors.
12 months of Christmas
Before all the decorations are stored away for another season, Gonzalez and Taylor begin planning for the next Christmas season. While the halls are still decked out, they’ll review individual areas and take photos of zones where updates or additional decor might make the holidays brighter.
In January, they attend the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market to spot the coming trends, and from January to March, Gonzalez, a self-taught artist, gets busy creating renderings of new features to include in displays.
This year, look for the “See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” trio of snowmen carved with chainsaws from giant blocks of high-density foam, oversized toys and colorful toy factory equipment props near the entrance to ICE! and the waiting area for the snow tubing lanes, plus reindeer in the display’s Riverwalk made from delicate wires and LED tubing.
While Gonzalez and Taylor spend the year’s first quarter working out the details and budget for the upcoming holiday displays, five full-time employees are assigned a slew of warehouse chores that focus on updating decor staples.
“From February to March, it’s all about garlands,” Taylor says.
As the year progresses, the warehouse staff grows to more than a dozen employees who carve giant toys with chainsaws, grinders and routers; apply pounds of glitter to tree bases; paint reindeer in a 40-by-40-foot spray booth; and decorate the hotel’s 150 Christmas trees.
In the fall, Gonzalez can be seen every Wednesday wielding a chainsaw or a paint brush. In October, a company installs lights throughout the hotel and on 500 trees along the entrance road, while staff members begin to transport boxes loaded with decorations back to the Gaylord. They work to get everything in place by early November, so the Gaylord is decked out in its Christmas finery several weeks before Thanksgiving. All told, six rented semi-trucks make a total of 30 runs a day for about a week, then the displays themselves are set up by Gonzalez and his staff.
“Since we built it all, we know how it works, and there’s some ownership and craftsmanship involved,” Gonzalez says.
This fall, the crew at the Coppell warehouse was working on faux logs and foam rock pillars to decorate the entrance to the tubing hill at Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Resort, and they sent 15-foot candy canes and beach ball-size ornaments to the Gaylord Palms Resort near Orlando.
Crediting Gonzalez and Taylor with making the Lone Star Christmas shine, Neibling explains that now they’re even designing items for other company properties.
As the artist behind many of the larger display pieces, Gonzalez taught himself to create ceramics and sculptures after getting his start painting murals.
He was hired in January 2004 before the hotel opened to paint murals and set up displays in an “aesthetics and engineering department” — reportedly after Nancy Ross, the hotel’s head of human resources, saw one of his murals at a salon in Las Colinas and recruited him. Now he’s the hands-on leader of the design and production team.
When not on company time, he creates colorful acrylic paintings of celebrities like Willie Nelson, Van Cliburn and Tom Landry and sells them on his website, www.cjosephart.com, and at public events like ArtsGoggle Fort Worth.
Taylor handles a lot of the Gaylord’s grand display’s logistical and budgetary issues. Equipped with a degree in advertising and apparel design, she was hired in 2000 at the Nashville resort to decorate the Wildhorse Saloon and work on special events.
“I fell in love with the creative process,” Taylor says.
Since 2001 — the year after ICE! started in Nashville — she has been involved in selecting themes and scenes for all the Gaylord hotels. In Texas, she directs a lot of the tree trimming and yuletide carols during the Christmas season, and notes that her favorite decorations include a Western-themed tree with bandana-patterned horses and Grapevine “Wine Country” wreaths crafted from wine corks recycled from the hotel’s restaurants.
To help keep everything running smoothly during Lone Star Christmas, the Gaylord Texan hires 300 seasonal employees and employs more than 2,000 people.
Organizers say getting ready for the seasonal spectacle is a year-round process, but Gonzalez, Taylor and Neibling say the effort is worth it. On their days off, they say they’ve been known to run into each other taking family and friends to the festivities.
“We have things you can’t see anywhere else in the world,” Neibling says.
ICE! and more
Like an overstuffed stocking, the Gaylord Texan’s Lone Star Christmas is chock-full of sights, sounds and seasonal sensations.
Inside the hotel, visitors decorate gingerbread houses with Gingy from DreamWorks’ Shrek and share cookies and milk while reading Christmas stories with Mrs. Claus. Of course, there are always opportunities to pose for pictures with the big guy, and a light show in the atrium happens four times each evening — hourly from 6 to 9 p.m. Strolling entertainers include a nutcracker on stilts, a juggling elf on a unicycle and a little drummer boy, plus a performer named “Elvish,” who (yes, Virginia) is an elfish Elvis impersonator.
In a tent adjacent to the hotel, guests can borrow parkas in order to stay warm while stepping into the 9-degree world of “ICE! featuring Frosty the Snowman” and its tour of scenes from the 1969 Rankin/Bass television cartoon (one that many parents recall from their childhoods). Adults often enjoy a beverage at a bar made from ice and families watch ice sculptors in action at the new “Frostbite Factory.” Nearby, a 12-lane snow tubing hill is a child-friendly zone.
Prices: $12-$30 for admission to ICE! (based on age), and on nonpeak days, a combo ICE! and snow tubing ticket is $29-$40. Open through Jan. 3.
Info: 817-778-1000; www.christmasatgaylordtexan.com