Sunday, December 26, 2004

The Magical Town of Celebration

As I type this blog entry, the sounds of the Disney World fireworks are rumbling outside the family room windows. No matter how long I live in Celebration, I don't think I'll ever outgrow the novelty of hearing that distant thunder and rejoicing in how close I live to Mickey's playground.

It's the day after Christmas, and my husband and I finally made it to the "snowfall" in downtown Celebration. Before the holiday, we were insanely busy. We had family visiting us, so of course we had to show them the parks and the Disney World resort. It's impossible to explain Disney World to someone who has never experienced it firsthand. I usually liken it to a town, but no matter how graphically I try to paint a word-picture, they still picture Six Flags on steroids. They have no idea that Disney World is an entity unto itself.

Then we headed out to Port Canaveral to spent Christmas on the Disney Wonder. We typically head out to sea for Thanksgiving, but this year I gave in to my husband's nagging and set up a Christmas cruise, too. Our nephews and nieces are getting older, so it's not as exciting to be at the traditional family gathering. Actually, since everyone is at or near adulthood (with the exception of two grandnephews), we had our family get-together a week before Christmas because almost everyone had other commitments on the holiday itself.

This year, God smiled down upon us and made the weather nearly perfect on December 25th. Captain John told us that the weather on Disney's Bahamian island, Castaway Cay, had been quite cold for the last three weeks, and definitely not suitable for swimming. But on the holiday it was gorgeous, with plenty of sunshine and a high hovering right around 80. The water was a bit chilly at first, but fine once you got used to it. All in all, it was one of my best Christmases.

Of course, there were plenty of Disney-esque Christmas activities. The terminal, ship, and island are all extravagently decorated. There was milk, cookies, and egg nog, and Mrs. Claus read stories to the children each night. After his journey around the world Christmas Eve, Santa took a detour before heading back to the North Pole to stop on the ship with presents (elf hats) for all the children. There were presents for the "big kids," too: a lovely lithograph poster and a box of chocolates in each stateroom. For Christmas dinner, there was a holiday menu with special items like lobster (in addition to the traditional turkey and ham) and a decadent chocolate yule log for dessert.

I love Disney-style celebrations; I enjoy all the fun (and sometimes corny) shows, parades, and attractions. That was one of the things about Celebration that appealed to me: Disney's ownership of the downtown area, and their events like the paper "leaves" falling on Market Street in autumn and the soap sud snow during the Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years season.

Of course, now a company called Lexin is at the helm, having purchased downtown from Disney. This year, I was anxious to see how the soap sud spectacle would measure up. Last year, the announcement before each hourly snowfall prominently mentioned that it was presented by Disney before launching into several tinny Christmas carols while the blowers mounted on the light poles showered the tourists (and a few intrepid locals) with "snowflakes" that had the distinct smell of baby shampoo.

This year, we didn't manage to make it downtown before Christmas, but since the snowfalls last until New Years, we figured we'd get there sometime between December 26 and 31. On Sunday the 26th, which was the day we returned from our cruise, the sky was gray and murky and the weather was windy and cold enough to almost convince me that I'd somehow been transported back north. That night, my husband and I decided that it would be an appropriate time to see the snowfall. With the temperature low enough to make our breath visible, we figured we'd almost be able to convince ourselves that it was the real thing.

We hoofed it downtown rather than driving. No sense in fighting the tourists for a parking spot when it's only 20 minutes away by foot. Besides, we figured that a little exercise would make us feel less guilty for all the food we'd consumed on the cruise, not to mention the dinner we were about to have at the Columbia.

We arrived about 15 minutes before the hourly snowfall, so we parked ourselves in a bench to do some people watching. Tourists pushed baby carriages back and forth endlessly up and down Market Street. Kids romped in the layer of "snow" that already covered the blocked-off road. In the distance, horse-drawn carriages ferried couples and families on a brief tour of the streets surrounding downtown. Vendors sold candied nuts and other confections, although I noticed that steaming Barnie's coffee and the hot chocolate from Herman's ice cream shop seemed to be the biggest hits.

Eventually the piped-in generic Muzak stopped, and after a breathless pause, the announcement of the hourly snowfall blared out to the ears of the expectant crowd. I have to admit it...Lexin definitely out-cornied Disney this year. The tinny speakers blared out the story of the "magical town of Celebration" and how the wishes of the children brought about the snowfall. Ugh! Cornier than the Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue, and you don't even get barbeque ribs and strawberry shortcake.

I liked Disney's old pre-snow announcement better. They didn't slip in a backstory; they just made sure to work in their name so you knew who was sponsoring the event. Lexin never mentioned their name at all. Of course, considering how messy the downtown area looks these days, maybe they want to remain incognito.

We watched the children romp and play in the blizzard, which still smells like baby shampoo. As the carols finally died away, we headed down Front Street to Columbia for dinner (I would have preferred Max's, but it was packed to the gills with snowfall refugees). I know there really isn't much difference between the Disney and Lexin versions of this event, but somehow I still couldn't help feeling melancholy and missing the Disney connection.

I sort of get the feeling that Lexin is milking their purchase for all they can get and that they will discard it someday. I got that impression when they announced their plans to convert all of the downtown apartments to condos. The apartments over the stores and restaurants were a quaint Celebration trait that I enjoyed. Now, they will soon go the way of the dinosaurs, and the same thing is happening with virtually every other apartment complex in town. Some people are happy about the loss of the rentals and the elimination of any events that attract tourists, but personally I think that it's taking away a big chunk of our town's character.

By the same token, while it drives me crazy to be known as the "Disney Town," I liked some aspects of Disney's ownership of the downtown shopping district. I was impressed by their upkeep and enjoyed the special events, which I fear will dwindle and die out like the apartments. This year, Lexin reduced the number of weekends for the falling leaves to only one, and other downtown events have been "postponed." We'll see what happens with the snow next year. Oh well, if I want my dose of Disney-style Christmas, at least the Osborne Spectacle of Lights or the snowfall on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom is only a short drive away.

In the Lexin backstory, the children of our "magical" town got their holiday wish. I have a holiday wish, too, but only time will tell if it is granted: No matter who owns the downtown or what they do to try to change it, I wish that Celebration will never lose that small-town flavor and the character that makes it unique and such a wonderful place to live.

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