Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Horrors of Spring Break

When my husband and I were tourists who visited Disney World a couple of times a year, we became experts at avoiding the peak season and visiting during the slow times. Our favorite periods were just after Labor Day, when most kids are back in school, and right inbetween Thanksgiving and Christmas, when people are recovering from turkey overload and busy preparing for Santa Claus's pending arrival. We became very spoiled; any wait over 15 minutes was considered too long, and often the rides were walk-on.

When we moved to Celebration, things got even better. Now we can head over to the theme parks for a couple of hours virtually any time we choose. In the off season, we can ride to our heart's content. When it's busy, we grab a couple of Fast Passes and have a leisurely dinner, then saunter over to ride at the appointed time. But "busy" is a relative term, and we never visited the parks during a true peak time.

Right now, we're in the midst of one of those peaks: Spring Break. Normally, I would stay far from the Mouse House, but several of our friends are in town this week. My husband is in Chicago until Friday, but I arranged to meet one set of friends (a couple and their daughter) at the Magic Kingdom this afternoon. They planned to arrive right at opening, but I had a web conference and some work before I could leave the house, so we arranged to meet at the "Partners" statue in front of the castle at noon.

On the way, I decided to stop at our P.O. box, which is a little ways outside of Celebration. It's not far from the super-secret backdoor entrance to Disney World, so I figured that I could avoid the 192 traffic and slip over to the theme parks. As I drove to the box, which is in the opposite direction of the main entrance, I marveled at the bumper-to-bumper traffic heading the other way. I've seen the holiday crowds before, at Christmas and New Years, but this was as bad as it's ever been. If I didn't know the backroads, I would probably still be sitting out there in Canyonero instead of typing this in my family room right now.

While turning out of the shopping center where our box is located, I managed to get behind a van with Michigan plates. It contained one of the most dangerous types of the genus Tourista Erratica: the tourist who knows that there's a shortcut but has only a vague idea where it might be. This sort of driver firmly believes that crawling along at 20 m.p.h. will somehow miraculously cause the location of the shortcut to be revealed.

The Van O' Morons almost creamed me because I got into the left lane to turn onto the backroad, and they suddenly decided that that's where they needed to go, too. I've lost count of the times poor Canyonero has nearly been sideswiped. I'd love to get a set of those wheels with the blades that come out to slice up other cars that get too close, just like in the movie "Grease." But alas, I can't find them anywhere, not even on Ebay, so I have to back down when the tourists attack.

I was stuck behind the van all the way onto Disney property. Even though there was a line of cars snaking down the secret street, which twists and bends like the road in "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," the Tourista Erratica in front of me was still not convinced that he was going the right way. Apparently, sporadically stopping in the middle of the road helps with navigation. I managed to avoid being rear-ended by the annoyed conga line of cars behind me, and finally I was able to pass the van when we reached the multi-lane Disney streets.

It didn't take long to find good old World Drive and head off to the Magic Kingdom. I had allowed an hour, thinking it would be plenty of time to park and make it to the appointed meeting place, so it was around 11 a.m. when I passed the toll booths and headed towards the Ticket and Transportation Center. Unfortunately, half the population of the United States appeared to have the same idea. This is the first time that I've ever had to stop once I passed the booth. The line of cars was solid all the way down to the parking lot, and it seemed to move an inch every 15 minutes.

As Canyonero slowly crawled forward, I watched the minutes tick away on my wristwatch. Soon enough, half an hour had passed, and I wasn't even close to the Promised Land of the Parking Lot. I had hoped to use my AAA parking pass to park in the Diamond area, but I could tell that I'd be lucky if I got a spot in the same county as the Magic Kingdom.

Things were looking bleak for making the noon meeting, so I called and left a voice message for my friends. They called back a couple of minutes later to tell me that their daughter was sick, and they were planning to leave the park. How God loves bitter irony! I could picture Him up on a fluffy cloud, having a good laugh at my expense. "So, Barb, you're never going to visit the parks during the peak season, eh? Well, here, let me help you keep that promise, but at least you'll have a thrill-packed visit to the Great Parking Lot Attraction."

At that point, my survival instincts took over, and all I wanted to do was find an exit and hightail it back home to Celebration. Unfortunately, to get out, you must first get all the way in. I continued to crawl along at the pace of an arthritic, three-legged turtle until I finally reached the parking aisles. I buzzed pass the line of cars pulling into their hard-won spaces and headed for the exit. It was blocked by the endless stream of cars coming in, and none of them seemed to likely to let me cross their path. They seemed to suspect that I was somehow trying to cut in front of them. If only they knew the truth...nothing short of five figures in cash could have lured me back into that asphalt hell.

Finally I summoned my Chicago moxie and cut off the most wimpy looking drivers I could spot. My ears burned from the curses that they were surely uttering, but I finally managed to escape. Poor Canyonero was running on fumes by that time, so I pulled into the nearby Hess gas station. It was only slightly less crowded than the parking lot, but after circling a few times like a vulture stalking a wounded deer, I managed to zip into a row with a newly open pump.

Once my trusty Aztek had a full "belly" of the precious golden fuel, I was on the road to Duloc Manor. It's a straight shot down World Drive, although it can be like a demented driving game that you might play on Xbox: avoid the plethora of rental cars that is attacking you from all angles.

Before going home, I decided to drown my woes at Herman's Ice Cream Shoppe. I had been looking forward to my favorite taste treat at the Magic Kingdom, a vanilla/orange juice twist cone from Sunshine Terrace in Adventureland. But fighting the crowd wasn't worth it, so I settled for a cone of Heath Bar crunch. At least parking in downtown Celebration wasn't too bad...or should I add, not too bad for now. Soon most of the parking areas will be plowed under and turned into townhomes. Parking is bad enough during major events like Fourth of July, when ever square inch of asphalt, dirt, grass, and sometimes even sidewalk is covered over with cars. I can't imagine the sheer horror that will occur when what little parking we have is but a hazy memory.

The parking situation is Celebration is a lot like an elephant sitting in the living room. Everyone knows it's there, but no one knows quite what to do about it. Some people studiously ignore it, while others fret without coming up with any solution. I am one of the fretters, and I am as clueless about what to do as anyone else. Oh well, it will make an interesting blog entry somewhere down the road.

Later, I joined my friends for dinner at D'Antonio's downtown. It sounded like I didn't miss too much by missing the park. They had managed to get in several rides in the morning by arriving when the gates opened, but as the day wore on, the crowd swelled like an evil tumor. There were even lines to use the restrooms. Hearing their description reminded me why I've spent years staying far, far away from Disney World during the peak season.

We had a lovely meal, topped off with ice cream at Herman's. I was actually good and skipped the ice cream, since I'd already had a cone in the afternoon. Now that I am committed to my workouts, I am more conscious of what I eat because I mentally translate it into the exercise time required to burn it off. Sometimes I wonder what our forefathers would think about health clubs. After all, they toiled all day at back-breaking physical labor. Now, so many Americans sit on their rapidly spreading butts in front of computers, then pay good money to go to a place where they can hoist weights and physically exert themselves in other ways. Surely people from past centuries would think that we're all insane.

Oh well, soon the kids will be back in school, and my jaunts to the park can resume. One thing is certain: I have renewed my commitment never to go near the Mouse House during the busy season. If I ever entertainment the thought, I'll think back to my parking lot adventure today, and I know that the craving for a ride on Space Mountain or a whirl on the Carousel of Progress will be instantly cured.

My email address is barb@mailblocks.com

My Celebration website is www.celebrationinfo.com

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