Thursday, July 28, 2005

Free Gas!

Although I didn't know it when my day started, I'd soon be ending up with free gas. No, not the sort you get when loading up on beans at Moe's Southwest Grill...the expensive liquid gold that you feed into your ravenous SUV.

My husband and I were on a mission to go to Home Depot for 20 gallons of paint. We've finally gotten sick of the chalky builder's paint that comes off when you rub your finger against it, let alone trying to clean it with a rag. Soon, Duloc Manor will glow upstairs and down with a brand-spanking-new coat of Behr Semi-Gloss. Currently, it's all white, but we're adding some color now, too.

Since we knew it would take a while to mix that quantity of paint, we decided to combine the trip with a late lunch at Ruby Tuesday. We go to the Home Depot on Orange Blossom Trail, just off 417, and the restaurant is adjacent. We could drop off our paint chips, enjoy a leisurely meal, and then load up Canyonero.

The paint department was busy, but eventually our turn came up and we overwhelmed the poor guy behind the counter. We handed him our rainbow of paint chips, with the appropriate number of gallons noted on each. As he headed out, he plaintively asked, "Are you sure you'll be back?" It stuck me as an odd question...why wouldn't we? It's not like we stopped in on a whim ("Hey, Honey, look! A Home Depot! Don't we have a bunch of paint chips in the glove compartment? Let's stop in and pimp the paint clerk!") We'd just driven all the way to OBT, and the painters are scheduled to come on the weekend, so it wasn't like we had any choice.

I offered to leave a deposit, or even to pay the bill in full upfront. The clerk said he couldn't do that because paint has to be rung up at the front counters. Seems like requiring some money down on a big order would eliminate the "paint fraud," but oh well. I swore on my cats' lives that we'd return, and we headed off to Ruby Tuesday.

The restaurant was mostly empty, which was fine by me. I love their salad bar, but it's always a turnoff when they're crowded with hordes of people coughing, sneezing, and pawing the food. Since child-laden families make up a large percentage of Orlando's restaurant patronage, I am very careful about buffets. I've seen too many kids paw, and even lick, an item, then chuck it back onto the plate. Ugh! The worst thing I ever witnessed was a kid literally licking the spigot of the ice cream machine at a Ponderosa (in Illinois, not Florida), but the kid who licked all the syrup dispensers on his table at IHOP was a close second. At some restaurants, I feel like getting some sort of immunization shot before I even sit down.

But Ruby Tuesday appeared to be relatively safe from contamination, so I was able to indulge my love of salad bars. I always get their salad/loaded baked potato combo, while my husband indulges in the Black and Blue Burger (not sure what the black is, but the blue involves bleu cheese...yum!). Due to the slowness, our waiter warned us that he was the only one working. But even though he was tending all of the tables, he managed to keep our iced tea filled and provide us with quick service.

The meal was good, but quite a change from the day before, when we're tried Seasons 52 for the first time. It's one of those places we've been meaning to try forever; finally, since we were going to be in the area, I made a reservation for dinner. We were going to a hot tub showroom and could easily swing off I-4 onto International Drive on our way home for a good meal.

This was our second visit to the Vita showroom. We had wet tested one of their tubs and got a glowing review from a fellow Celebration resident who owns the same model. Since I've heard some scary things about Rec Warehouse (the dealer for the other brand we like), we were leaning strongly toward Vita. Now, I just wanted to be sure that we were getting a good price. They had told me that some items, such as the cover lifter and electrical box, would be extra, and my research indicated that they're usually included. The saleswoman said that if we came in, she could talk to the manager about price. We hadn't wet tested the Rec Warehouse model yet, but we figured if we got a good deal, we'd just go with Vita; my husband was impressed with the power of their jets, and I liked some of their features.

Unfortunately, they lost (or at least delayed) the sale by turning on used-car-sales tactics. The saleswoman said they could throw in the lifter at cost and gave us a total price that wasn't too much more than the Caledera at Rec Warehouse. But then her manager came in and launched into a long, drawn-out spiel. I assume it was supposed to convince us to seal the deal, but it did the opposite.

He told us that he pays more for his cars because he buys at a dealer who offers good service (I'm not sure of his point...the service department is separate from Sales, so a smart consumer buys where they get the best deal and then patronizes the good dealer's service department). He told us about how he went in to clean up the mess at another Vita dealer, how people pay hundreds more at fancy showrooms, and all sorts of other long, drawn-out stories. He kept reminding us about Rec Warehouse's bad reputation (which I already know, since I'm savvy enough to check out businesses before I buy a big ticket item...Rec Warehouse may be bad, but the Caldera tub gets better online reviews than the Vita). Then he said that we were obviously not ready to buy a hot tub (yeah, that's why we had made our second trip down I-4 Hell and why I've already submitted my plans to the Architectural Review Committee).

My husband had been very gung-ho to buy the Vita, but when I asked what he wanted to do, he said, "Test the Caldera." I was surprised but said "Fine," figuring he'd go into detail when we left. In the car, he said he hated the high-pressure car-dealer tactics. I suppose the manager was trying to make the sale, but he ended up doing the opposite: his monologue drove hubby out the door. We may still go with the Vita; we put down a refundable hundred dollar deposit to hold the price until July 31. That way, we won't have to go back to the store if we decide to buy it. But who knows...the Caldera might win out, and we might even check out a couple more brands.

After all the stress, it was nice to settle down to a delicious meal at Seasons 52. Although they are owned by Darden (of Olive Garden and Red Lobster fame), they are definitely several notches above a typical chain. They don't fry any of their foods or use fatty items like butter, and the menu continually changes based on the season. None of their items are more than 475 calories (that's not as impressive as it sounds...if you have an appetizer, main course, and dessert, you're pushing 1500 calories without even factoring in a beverage).

But I wasn't there to diet; I was looking strictly for flavor, and I was not disappointed. I had a turkey skewer while my husband had plank salmon, and we were both very pleased with our choices. My appetizer was a spinach salad with peaches, pine nuts, and bleu cheese, while my husband went with mussels. And of course we saved room for dessert, which is served in small portions that allow you to either be semi-dietary or to try more than one (we went the latter route). I had red velvet cake and cheese cake, while my husband had carrot cake and pecan pie. Every item was divine!

But although Ruby Tuesday is no Seasons 52, it made for a nice, quick meal. By the time we returned to Home Depot, our paint was ready (and I'm sure the clerk breathed a sigh of relief). We selected some furniture movers and a weather radio (a nod to hurricane season) and loaded up Canyonero. As I watched the cargo compartment fill, I wondered how I used to get along with a teeny-tiny Neon now that I've been spoiled by an Aztek.

We decided to zip over to Valvoline, which was only a few blocks away, for a long-overdue oil change. It's adjacent to a Citgo gs station, and as I pulled in, I saw a man frantically waving a sign saying "The Prize Patrol is Here!" In my view, anything called a Prize Patrol has potential. I figured we could drop off the car, then walk to the gas station to check it out.

The guys at the oil change place said, "They're giving away free gas over there!" One of them had actually won $100 worth! Sounded almost too good to be true, but I'm always game for freebies. I walked over to the brightly marked Prize Patrol Van and asked what was going on. They said, "Just reach into the box, pull out a chip, and you win whatever it says." Every chip was a winner, and the minimum amount was $ could I lose? They didn't even require a purchase.

I reached into the box and pulled out a chip...$10! I signed the list of winners with my name and city, and they handed me a pre-paid $10 Citgo card. Profitable and painless! I ran back to the oil change place to send my husband over. He wasn't quite as lucky, pulling out the minimum ($5), but what the's still free gas. As we were leaving, I heard someone shouting with glee that they had pulled out $50. A van that hands out free can you beat that?

We topped off our gas tank with one of the cards and headed home to Celebration. As we left, we noticed the man with the sign waving at cars that ignored him and pulled into the strip mall across the way. How could they pass up such a good deal? But in all fairness, there are lots of supposed "contests" that are scams such as timeshare pitches in disguise. It's a shame that the bad reputation of bogus prize giveaways scares people away from legitimate promotions.

It had been a busy, productive, and profitable day. We were ready for the painters, Canyonero's life blood had been transfused, and we'd covered our gas, tolls, and then some.

When I got home, I visited Citgo's website, hoping to find out where the Prize Patrol would be next. Unfortunately, their stops are random. Apparently, the stars were aligned correctly, so we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It reminded me of a Shell gas station we used to patronize in Illinois. Although they never gave away gas cards, they had a prize van a couple of times with a spinning wheel game that allowed you to win hats, shirts and other promotional merchandise.

The moral of this story is: If you ever see a van that says "Prize Patrol" at a Citgo gas station, STOP! They might just have some free gas for you.

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