Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Never Say Never

While fielding some travel agent phone calls recently, I pondered the many times in my life when I've said, "I'll NEVER, do that!" God, with His wicked sense of humor, often makes me eat those words.

Regular readers of my blog may recall that I swore I'd never own an Aztek. When I first saw it on "Survivor," and after I was done retching, I swore I'd never own such a hideously ugly vehicle. Years later, here I am...with not one, but two Azteks in the family. I was won over by the attractive price tag, amazing gas mileage, reconfigurable seats, cavernous interior, and side air bags. After all, as the driver I spend most of my time inside, so it's not like I have to look at its ugliness. Nowadays, Azteks are pretty far down on the "ugly scale" anyway.

Cars are not the only area in which I've eaten my words. When I first met my husband, I'd have bet the farm that I'd never, ever marry him. He was hell bent on dating me, but at the time I was single, carefree, and not ready to enter a relationship. His attempts to entice me got on my nerves, and finally I developed a strong dislike for him. Several years passed, and we remained on the perimeter of each other's lives, since we had many mutual friends. My dislike slowly softened into tolerance, and finally into affection. I discovered that he grocery shops, cooks, and even does laundry. A keeper! Now, we've been married for over a decade. I look back on my journal entries from the old days, when I couldn't stand the sight of him, and marvel at life's surprises.

Another of my famous "I'll never do that" delarations was that I would never become a travel agent. Considering that I've taken well over 40 Disney cruises and have been to Disney World more times than I care to count (not to mention visiting dude ranches from Wisconsin to Wyoming and amusement parks across the U.S.), becoming a TA might seem like seem like a natural progression. But when anyone suggested it, I would roll my eyes and snicker at such a ridiculous notion. Why turn fun into work?

We'll have jump back in time a few years to understand my eventual change of heart. Back around the time of my first Disney cruises, I had developed a hobby website. That was in the late 1990s, when the internet was still new and largely uncharted territory. I am a designer and developer of corporate training, and at the time I'd been creating classes on CD-ROM. My employer directed me to study HTML, just in case the 'net was going to stick around for a while.

"Learn HTML" didn't necessarily mean formal training. It meant "buy some software and books, go forth, and create websites." Before tackling an actual course, I whipped up a personal website that covered everything from my pets and comedy/tragedy mask collection to my growing obsession with Disney Cruise Line. The Disney Cruise part of the site was by far the most popular; gradually, I eliminated the other sections and morphed my website into "The Platinum Castaway Club." The name was my own little in-joke, since "The Castaway Club" is Disney's designation for repeat cruisers. Considering how many times I had sailed, even before Y2K, I figured that I should be a platinum-level member. Better yet, Disney had not purchased the URL, so I snapped it up.

My website was non-commercial; it was meant strictly as a resource to help fellow Disney cruisers make the most of their experience. Websites like had been invaluable to me for planning and maximizing my Disney World vacations. I wanted to return the favor, and since Disney Cruise Line was fast becoming my area of expertise, it became my site's sole focus.

As the years passed, the Platinum Castaway Club grew in popularity, attracting an average of 600 unique users per day. Meanwhile, our ten-year plan to move to Florida had suddenly and unexpectedly accelerated. I knew we'd be moving to Celebration within a few months, and it didn't seem very likely that I'd be able to keep my corporate job.

Around that time, I was approached by an online travel agency about becoming an outside agent. Suddenly, the idea didn't seem so crazy. I could put an ad on my website; after all, visitors to the Platinum Castaway Club were a perfect target audience. I could focus on Disney cruises and Disney World, and my experience would add a great value for my clients. There wouldn't be much of an upfront investment. I already had server space, so all I'd need to do would be to buy a URL and develop a separate travel agency website. I didn't want to use as the business site; I wanted it to remain an independent information resource. I bought a cheap laptop, found a service to provide a toll-free phone number, and rented a P.O. box for my business mail. Thus, Platinum Vacation Planners was born.

With no advertising other than a notice on, I soon had a successful business on my hands. I could run it just as easily from Chicago or Celebration, and I realized that being in Florida was actually a plus. If I had clients at Disney World or in the Port Canaveral area who needed immediate help, I was literally only a few miles away.

Ironically, I ended up being able to keep my corporate job, telecommuting via my phone, laptop, and DSL. Even more ironically, one of the things I always swore I would do was suddenly placed on hold. Becoming a counselor is one of my lifelong dreams. Ever since I was in high school, I set my sights on a doctorate in Psychology. Life responsibilities intervened, but finally, in 1995, I began the ten-year path through B.A., M.A., and finally Psy.D., juggling my classes around one or more jobs. My internship at a social service agency made me even more determined to become a professional therapist. I had stayed on at the agency for a while after I earned my Masters degree, but the pressures of a full-time job, combined with classes for my Doctorate, forced me to throw in the towel.

When we decided to take the plunge and move to Florida, I thought my opportunity to start a counseling business had finally materialized. I'd have to leave my corporate job, and the travel agency hours are flexible. I could set up a practice in tandem with finishing up my last few Psy.D. courses.

But, as the magnet on my refrigerator says: "Make God laugh. Tell Him your plans." Surprise, surprise! Turns out I was able to keep my original job after all. Sure, I could have turned it down, but my practical side refused to throw away a steady income for the uncertainty of a start-up business. Launching a counseling practice isn't nearly as simple or inexpensive as starting an online travel agency. It would have been an easy choice if I didn't like my corporate job, but it's actually pretty cool. I design and develop online courses, which allows me to use a variety of skills, from writing to graphic design to Flash programming. I even get to toss in a little psychology while working out instructional strategies.

So here I am in Florida, still doing the same two jobs that I did back in Chicago. I finished my psychology degree this year, so now I am Dr. Barb, but goodness only knows when I'll be able to put all that education to use.

Perhaps God gives us a few little hints. I remember driving home from college one night, lost in my thoughts on the dark, winding highway. Suddenly I had the strangest feeling. For just a moment, I felt what it would be like to be driving down a highway in Florida. For that little blip in time, my reality was 1200 miles away. It was like someone had momentarily folded a gauzy curtain of the future over my present-day life. The feeling disappeared as quickly as it had come, but I never forgot it. At the time, I thought that Florida was still a decade away, but it wouldn't be all that long before I'd be heading down 417 to my Celebration home and feeling reverse deja vu.

At this point, I have no idea of what the future will bring. I'm very content with my present life; I live in Celebration, right next door to Disney World, in a state where "winter" typically means 50 degrees. I can visit the theme parks whenever the whim takes me, and the Disney Cruise Line terminal is less than an hour away. I'm not doing counseling, but I enjoy running my travel agency, and my corporate training job is fairly enjoyable too. I'm toying with plans to run life skills classes, and God willing, someday that will come to fruition. But I'm not going to say anything least, not until I figure out whether God has alternate plans.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

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