Saturday, August 06, 2005

Shopping in Tourist Land

When I lived in Chicago, I always hated to go shopping in and around the mall. We actually had two large malls that were equally close to our home, but I avoided both of them as much as possible due to the crowds. Actually, weekdays were relatively quiet, but on Saturday and Sunday the people were jam-packed wall to wall. You needed a taser just to get from one end of the mall to the other.

Little did I know that Florida would be even worse. Here, there is no real "weekend," since the tourist population is so high. When you're on vacation, every day is a weekend. Thus, the malls and major stores tend to be almost as crowded Monday through Friday as they are on Saturday and Sunday (at least during the peak season).

My husband and I are forced to venture out of the Celebration "bubble" a couple of times a month to stock up on cat litter, household items, garden stuff, and other necessities that cannot be purchased at a grocery store. We vary our shopping between Wal-Mart, Target, and sometimes K-Mart; for hardware, it's Lowes or Home Depot. My husband tends to prefer Wal-Mart, but the problem is that I classify all of the local Wal-Marts as "evil." I base that classification on the ease (or lack thereof) of getting a parking space in the same county as the store, of managing to maneuver through the crowd without having to attach a cow-catcher to your cart, and of finding someone who actually knows the answer to the question you are asking.

We used to vary our shopping between the Wal-Mart on 192, near Medieval Times (a tourist destination almost as popular as Disney World itself, judging by the continuous crowds; one day, I fully expect to find a queue line just to enter the store) and the one on 27, just off 192 (still touristy, but cleaner and more organized, although its rating slips farther every time we go there as more people discover it).

Then, not too long ago, a new Wal-Mart opened on Osceola Parkway. For me, it had a built-in an advantage from Day tends to be quicker to get to because it's so easy to hop into Osceola from Celebration. Once you're on the road, there is rarely any traffic worth speaking of, especially when compared to 192.

The first couple of times we went there, the crowds weren't too bad. But now people know that it's open, and it's become a clone of the 192 location. Sometimes I actually get dizzy from continually circling the parking lot, looking for a vacant spot. Usually, I just park at the bitter end of the row (when you live near Disney World and enjoy the convenient restaurants, a little extra walking will never hurt you). Unfortunately, I've been to that Wal-Mart when no spots are open, including the far-flung ones. On those cases, you just stalk the lot like an urban predator, ready to leap the moment you see a car backing out.

That was the case this weekend, when we headed down Osceola Parkway to pick up some caulk, hangers, furniture casters, and other odds & ends. The lot was wall to wall people, but after some futile wandering up and down the aisles, I lucked out...a car had just backed out. Before anyone else could notice, I jammed down the gas pedal and raced to the precious parking spot.

With Canyonero safely tucked away, we headed into the store. Even though the masive amount of cars should have forewarned me, I was still awed at the sheer size of the crowd inside the store. I suspect I could retire comfortably on the proceeds of just one week of sales at that store...heck, one day's profits would probably be sufficient. The tourists definitely outnumbered the locals, although both groups were well represented. Once you've lived in Florida for a while, you develop a sixth sense for telling the two groups apart. Of course, sometimes it's obvious: I pegged the young woman parading around in a wet bikini, a towel loosely draped over her shoulders, as a visitor right off the bat.

Our shopping excursion started off surprisingly well. Normally, any Wal-Mart in the greater Orlando/Kissimmee area only has one or two bags of the cat litter we use. This weekend, we lucked into the Mother Lode...half a dozen bags. Granted, it takes us a while to go through that much litter, even with our trio of oversized, messy felines. But since I hate shopping so much, I'd rather load in as much litter as Canyonero's shock absorbers can take so I don't have to return to Wal-Mart for as many weeks as humanly possible.

Unfortunately, our shopping trip quickly went downhill. We wandered aimlessly, trying to find the furniture casters (actually, they're more like discs that allow you to move large items like desks, entertainment centers, etc. without getting a hernia). We exhausted several theories on where they might be located...the most logical was my husband's guess that they might be near the paint section, since people who are painting would be likely to want to move furniture. No dice. Finally, he found someone who pointed him in the right direction. Inexplicably, the discs were located next to screw-in wall hooks and chains.

Next up, I was on a mission to find another cat hair "miracle brush." I found one previously at the 192 Wal-Mart, but someone had tossed it in the wrong place and I just happened to run across it lying among the plant pots in the Garden section. I never found its correct location, and therefore I couldn't buy another one. Unlike a lint roller, the brush is reusable, and it picks up pet hair like a magnet. It's the only thing that keeps my couch from disappearing under a huge clump of cat fur, never to be seen again. By running it over my clothes before leaving the house, I also manage to avoid being mistaken for a short Wookie.

After a long, futile search, I asked a worker in Housewares for assistance. She looked at me as though I had grown two heads. Finally, she beckoned me to follow her, and we did a strange Ring-Around-The-Rosie from Housewares to Garden to Furniture and back again. Then she suddenly stopped and informed me that I needed to go to Automotive. She pointed to a clerk milling around the Automotive counter. Unfortunately, the Auto clerk didn't speak a word of English and had to find a second person to translate. After some confusing bilingual back-and-forth, the translator said that I needed to go back to starting point. Sigh! The only worker putzing around among the household goods was the woman I'd spoken to originally. I aborted the wild goose chase and resigned myself to looking like a cat hair-covered Cousin It.

At least we found most of the items we'd come for; I breathed a sigh of relief as we headed for the checkout counters. While my husband tended to the payment process, I slipped off to the restroom (I'd unwisely indulged in an obscene amount of iced tea at Chevy's a couple of hours earlier). CLOSED! Arghhh! Apparently it was being cleaned. I wish I'd had my camera, as I strongly suspected that I'd run into a sight as rare as Bigfoot. I've been in plenty of Wal-Mart restrooms, and none has ever been what I'd call "clean." Their normal condition leads me to suspect that someone runs a mop around the floor and wipes off the sinks maybe once or twice a year.

My husband suggested that I could wait to see if the cleaners would finish soon, but I quickly rejected the idea. Considering the absence of workers in the main part of the store, I had visions of a wild Wal-Mart associate party going on just beyond the cleaning cart. They were probably in there skating around the tile on furniture disks, dueling with lint brushes and tossing handfuls of precious crystal cat litter around like confetti.

Instead, we retreated to the parking lot, eager to return to the safely of the Celebration bubble. As we loaded Canyonero, another vehicle hovered anxiously, ready to swoop into our spot the moment we abandoned it; other cars passed him jealously, shooting death glares because he'd gotten there first.

I can't complain too much about the crowded stores. After all, I knew that I was moving to Tourist Land, where crowds and traffic are an everyday part of life. I don't want to be like the people who move to an "airport-adjacent" home (in the immortal words of "Reno 911") and then complain about the low-flying planes roaring overhead. But it does indeed make shopping an adventure; it feels like I'm on a scavenger hunt in the pages of a "Where's Waldo?" book. And where else would I get such a strong sense of accomplishment from something as simple as finding furniture disks? I know that someday I'll score another lint brush, too; I just hope that it happens before the cats die of old age.

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