Thursday, March 17, 2005

In Search of a Spa

Close proximity to Disney World is one of the best perks of living in Celebration. But when your home is in a tourist area, you have access to some other neat things, too. For example, name a type of food and it's available within reasonable striking distance. Better yet, you won't have to pay full price; just grab a coupon book at one of the racks you can find in virtually any store and chances are good you'll find a discount for your restaurant of choice.

Food aside, I just love the fact that any time I've got a hankering for a spa treatment, I can almost always get a same day appointment somewhere nearby, be it in Celebration, at one of the Disney World hotels, or a resort/spa in the surrounding area. In Chicago, there is an excellent spa just minutes from my condo. Unfortunately, in order to indulge in a hot rock massage or a pampering pedicure, you need to do some advance planning. Generally, you must call at least two or three days in advance; if you want a weekend appointment, you're got to book it at least a week ahead of time. With my busy schedule, I don't always know when I'll have a time gap until it actually occurs, so that makes it difficult.

In the Disney World/Kissimmee area, it seems like almost every major resort hotel has a spa. Since most tourists are in town for a limited amount of time, they are geared to short-notice callers.

Celebration itself also has some options, most notably the spa at the Mirasol apartment complex. But since that one caters to a local clientele, it generally requires more advance notice than the touristy locations. The fitness center at Celebration Health also offers massages, but again, they tend to be patronized by the local crowd so last-minute appointments are hard to come by.

I learned this when I embarked on a search for a spa yesterday afternoon. My back and shoulders had been nagging me all week, but by Wednesday they had stiffened into hard, cold marble. It hurt just to move my head. I carry all my tension in my shoulders, even at the best of times, but I suspect that all my work on my laptop is provoking my problem areas more than usual.

When I worked on location in a business office, my set-up was at least halfway ergonomic. I had an adjustable chair with a back support, a wrist rest for my keyboard, and blocks to adjust the height of my monitor. Now, my "work station" consists of the family room couch, and the height of my laptop is pretty much limited by the height of my lap. I don't think there's any way known to man to make a laptop keyboard and touch pad ergonomic. I feel pretty comfortable while working, but apparently it's taking a toll (or maybe my back is just just being persnickity this week, since I've been working at home for over a month, and this is the first time it's been a real problem).

At any rate, I decided that I needed a good deep tissue massage to work out the knots and impart some flexibility back into my stiff, aching muscles. If I had been back at my Chicago condo, I would have slipped into a tub of soothing hot water and kicked on the whirlpool jets. Unfortunately, the bathtub in Duloc Manor would make Mini-Me feel crowded, and it most certainly doesn't have jets. Massage was my only workable option, and it was already mid-afternoon, so I knew I'd better pull out the phone book and start dialing.

I have always been a "spa person." When my husband asked me to marry him, in the interests of full disclosure I warned him that I am very high maintenance. I've never been one to mess with my hair or take the time to apply artful makeup. The only "hair styles" I bother with are those that require a brush and no more than 10 minutes with the blow dryer. Makeup is something that I reserve for special occasions (and I mean very special, like a wedding or funeral).

But while I'm not high maintenance on things that affect my outward appearance, I totally indulge my inner self. Massages, reflexology, facials, pedicures, body wraps...ahhhhhh, that's the life! I wanted my poor husband to know exactly what he was getting into; what I didn't realize was that he would quickly become as bad as me. Now, he loves massages just as much as I do, and when we're on a cruise, he will schedule a seaweed wrap every day if I let him. We both work hard, but we make sure to play hard too. When you have lots of day to day stress, it's all the more important to focus on your inner well-being.

In my search for a massage, I struck out on my first two calls (Mirasol and Celebration Health). I had been prepared for that; Plan B was to start working my way through the various massage offerings at the Walt Disney World hotels. I started with the Animal Kingdom Lodge, since it's not as well known as the locations with full-blown spas, like the Grand Floridian and Saratoga Springs. Unfortunately, after listening to an endless recorded message, I discovered that I would have to leave a message for a call-back. Not a feasible option when time is of the essence.

I tried the Contemporary, another lesser-known massage place. I managed to get a human being on the phone this time, but unfortunately they were all booked up. Next up was the Yacht and Beach Club, where I was denied once again.

It was time to start calling the actual spas; I started with Saratoga Springs, which is conveniently located right by Downtown Disney. It's actually the revamped/rebuilt Disney Institute, which had a spa in its original incarnation that survived the transition to Disney's newest DVC resort.

Like the Animal Kingdom Lodge, Saratoga Springs had the Long Intro Recording From Hell. I don't need an ad nauseum recitation of the spa services; I already know that I'm calling a spa. Can't they have an option at the beginning: "To skip the boring, 20 minute spiel, press 1"?

I managed to make it through to the recitation of the menu options and gamely pressed the magic number that would connect me to the appointment line. Of course, "all agents were busy assisting other guests," so I settled in for a wait. A minute or two later, I was abruptly disconnected without ever speaking to a human. I hit redial, secure in the knowledge that I could cut off the spiel by punching the designated number again. Once again, I pressed it, and this time I didn't even spend any time on hold before promptly being cut off. Grrrr! A spa is supposed to be a place that reduces stress. I hadn't even made an appointment yet, and already I was gritting my teeth into powder. I tried one more time, and this time I got the "stay on hold for a while before we hang up on you" treatment. It almost became a vendetta, but I restrained myself by remembering that valuable time was wasting away.

Next up was the spa at the Grand Floridian. As I was clicked into the scary netherworld of Hold yet again, I wondered if perhaps there was no one at any of the Disney World spa switchboards. Perhaps the spas really didn't exist at all; instead, it might part of an elaborate marketing ploy.

I didn't get much further in that train of thought, as someone finally came to the phone. (Actually, I know quite well that the Grand Floridian's spa exists, as I have been there before, as well as at the spas at the Marriott World Center and the Gaylord Palms, and I've also had an aromatherapy massage at the Animal Kingdom Lodge). But all my trouble was in vain, as they were completely booked up too.

It was beginning to look like I'd have to leave the Bosom of the Mouse for my massage. Many of the surrounding hotels have spas, too, but I didn't really want to drive too far. I racked my brain and remembered that there are some upscale non-Disney hotels in the Downtown Disney area that might have some spa offerings. I tried the Hyatt and the Hilton without success, and the Wyndam, like AK Lodge, had recorded instructions to leave my name and number. In a business that caters to tourists on the go, that seems like an oxymoron. I'm sure that visitors to the Orlando area really feel like sitting around their hotel room waiting for a call-back.

I toyed with calling the Marriott World Center or the Gaylord Palms. The Gaylord in particular has a wonderful spa that is affiliated with the famous Canyon Ranch. Unfortunately, their prices reflect their upscale affiliation. I wasn't too thrilled about paying a premium; it wouldn't be so bad if I had the time to lounge around their sitting area, drinking tea and snacking on fresh fruit, or if I could take a dip in their hot tub, but my schedule was too tight for an hours-long full-blown spa experience.

It looked like my only other option might be to raid the bottom of the bird's cage for an old Sunday newspaper. The massage ads in the Sunday Sentinel never cease to amuse me. Sadly, I get the impression that many of them are thinly veiled ads for prostitution. When you see words like "All Female Staff, We'll Make Your Dreams Come True!", flanked by a photo of half-dressed women with porno-flick-pseudo-ecstacy expressions on their faces, it's hard to imagine that the services are legitimate. There are some real massage parlors mixed in among the places that cater to lonely businessmen looking for a happy ending, but I didn't feel like sifting through them.

Then it dawned on me: What about the Swan and Dolphin, the red-haired stepchildren of the Disney World hotels? Even though they are in a prime location in the Epcot resort area, they often get shunted aside in people's minds because they are not directly owned by Disney.

I dialed the Dolphin and struck paydirt. They had a massage appointment only one hour away! I'd have just enough time to take a quick shower and buzz over to Disney World. Once you leave East Village, it's a short jaunt to World Drive via Celebration Boulevard. Just pass under the magical arch and voila! You're on the Mouse's property without ever having to face the gaudy neon wasteland of 192.

I know the roads at the Disney World resort quite well, but even if I didn't, it's nearly impossible to miss the Dolphin and the Swan. You can see the gaudy pink and teal pyramid rising up in the sky in the distance almost as soon as you enter Disney property. Those hotels were under construction the first time I ever visited the Orlando area, and I remember cringing at their gaudiness even then. Michael Eisener must have a weakness for giant, tacky icons, as so many sprang up while he was in charge.

I could have lived with the Swan and Dolphin, which are actually quite low-key as far as Disney tackiness goes. But to this day I consider the Value resorts (the All-Stars and Pop Century) to be hideous eye sores. To me, "Theming" means something tasteful, like the Polynesian or Port Orleans. It does not mean taking a Motel 6, slapping on primary colored paint and tossing giant icons around the property willy-nilly.

The iconic horror is not limited to the hotels. It broke my heart the day they erected the uge sorcer's hat in front of the replica of Grauman's Chinese Theater in Disney MGM Studio. To me, Grauman's equated Hollywood; it was an appropriate icon. Same thing with the Earful Tower, a replica of the water tower at the Burbank Studio. Not that I have anything against Sorcerer Mickey, but what does he have to do with studios and film making, other than being in a movie? It takes away from the original character of that park and it's old-time Hollywood (of course, I suppose it's not much of a studio anymore anyway, especially since they shut down the animation production facility there).

Ah, but I digress. I didn't care what the Dolphin looked like, as long as there was a message therapist waiting for me inside. I, of all people, know not to judge something on its ugly tacky outside; after all, remember that I drive a Pontiac Aztek.

Besides, I knew what to expect, as I had been to the Dolphin before. Ironically, it was while attending a conference there that I ended up visiting Celebration, which of course led to buying Duloc Manor. I pulled into the parking lot and found a spot near the convention center. As I walked past the banquet halls and meeting rooms, heading toward the rotunda lobby, I couldn't drifting through these hallways, blissfully unaware that her future self would someday return as a Celebration-dwelling Floridian.

Finding the spa was like making my way through a twisting, turning maze. Down two floors, then follow the signs to the pool. Once there, I had been assured that I would find the fitness center, where the massage therapy rooms were tucked inside. Sure enough, I found it with 15 minutes to spare. I as given a robe, slippers, and a locker key so I could prepare for my hour in Heaven.

Promptly on the hour, the massage therapist escorted me into a treatment room. Since I had chosen an aromatherapy massage, the first order of business was to choose my oil. They all had optimistic, promising names, like Rejuvination, Balance, Stress Rejuvination, and Relaxation. Generally, I like lavendar (which is found in most relaxation blends), but I decided to go out on a limb and choose something totally different. I went with Balance because it smelled quite intriguiging, although I have no idea what sort of essential oils it contained.

I spread out on the bed and lapsed into a coma of relaxation. I could feel her working my resistant muscles, and their cracks and creaks made me cringe. But somehow she managed to pull out the knots, and by the time she was done, it felt soooo much better. The pain wasn't completely gone, but it was at the lowest level that it had been in days.

I didn't want to up, but I knew that I had no choice. Reluctantly, I dragged my carcass to the locker room, where I decided to wash my hair before heading back to Duloc Manor and more time at my PC keyboard. I hated to take a shower and slough off the wonderfully scented oil, but I also didn't want to walk around looking like my hair hadn't been washed in weeks and like it might catch fire if you lit a match nearby.

Fortunately, the shampoo and conditioner were even better smelling than the oils. They were some sort of spa brand that I had never seen before, so I lavished them on and reveled in the hot water and the profusion of blissful-smelling suds.

All too soon it was time to drag my carcass home. Thankfully the rain that had been threatening all day had held off so I didn't have to get soggy on my way to the car. As I drove back to Celebration, I realized how good felt not to have my shoulder tendons throbbing. Things had been looking bleak during my first several phone calls, but I knew that eventually I'd find a spa and I'd been proven correct. Just another reason to love living in the Tourist Capital of the U.S.A.

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