Monday, November 14, 2005

Another Founders Day

It's hard to believe, but my husband and I celebrated our third Founders Day in Celebration this year. For the uninitiated, Founders Day is a pseudo-holiday created by Disney to "create a tradition" and foster a sense of community. It is held each year in early November, and as the name implies, it celebrates the founding of our town.

The festivities typically start on Friday night with a community carnival that is reminiscent of an old-time fun fair. For the past two years, hubby and I missed the carnival because we were still commuting from Chicago. We had to fly to Florida after putting in a full work day, so we didn't land until somewhere around midnight, when the carnival was long over.

This year, I was looking forward to attending it for the first time. The nice thing about the Friday event is that it's mainly for residents. I don't mind big, crowded tourist extravaganzas, but it's nice to have some happenings that are geared primarily towards the locals. Unfortunately, I soon realized that our timing was off for yet another year. We were scheduled for a Disney cruise the week of 11/5, so on the day of the carnival we would be sunning ourselves on Disney's private island.

Oh well, at least we'd be back on Saturday for the main festivities. These include "Taste of Celebration" (mainly, the same old food booths from the same downtown restaurants that are trotted out for every special event), and the flag raising/brick unveiling ceremony. We like to watch the mad "brick stampede" each year, as new residents frantically search for the little red rectangle commemorating the purchase of their home. You have to purchase new construction in order to get a brick, and the new additions for the past year are unveiled each Founders Day. They're in no special order, so once the blue tarp is thrown back, it's every new resident for themselves as people scatter in search of their names.

It took us so long to find our brick way back in 2003 that I was half convinced it was all a big practical joke. I suspected that the people who were shouting, "Wow! There is is!" were merely shills, planted to give the rest of us poor schmucks hope. After an hour or two, the old timers would form a circle around us, laughing and chanting, "Suckers!" Then I found my next door neighbors' brick, and finally I located ours, strategically located between the "D" and "I" in the word "Florida" that rings the flagpole.

Back then, most of the other names didn't mean a thing to me. Now, when I drag unsuspecting visitors to the brick patch, I recognize many of the names as I direct them to the one that commemorates "Barb & Tony's Place" (while most people have their family name, you can put whatever you want on it).

But my favorite part of Founder's Day is the town photo, where as many Celebration residents as possible cram onto the lawn at Lakeside Park, smile, and say "Cheese" for a group shot that is taken overhead from a crane. Or at least that is the practice, the crowd has gotten progressively smaller each year. The first year we took part, everyone had to get up close and personal in order to fit into the designated area (the grass is marked with tape strips that mark the camera's boundaries). Last year, the crowd was markedly more sparse. Both shots are hanging on the wall in my hallway, and different is quite striking.

This year, the amount of people was even more anemic. But still, it's a matter of pride for my husband and I to take part. We wore our Bunny Brigade headgear (monorail "ears" and green diddly-boppers), as did several other members of the Brigade. I can't wait to see how it turns out, with fuzzy ears sticking up amidst the sea of faces. The photo appears in Celebration News, and Town Hall typically sells prints, so yet another piece of artwork will soon be added to my hallway. It's sad that the trio of photos is also a chronicle of the dwindling attendance.

I wonder if bribery has anything to do with it. At our first Founders Day, there was a big raffle with all sorts of tempting prizes, ranging from a stay at the Celebration Hotel and golf at the local course to gift certificates for local businesses and restaurants. Leave it to me to win the golf, since I've never played anything other than Putt-Putt in my life! Fortunately, I was able to swap with someone for a Seito gift certificate, which I knew that my sushi-loving husband would appreciate. The raffle tickets were handed out just before the photo was taken, and the prizes were awarded afterwards (not just after the photo, but at the end of the community service awards ceremony), so there was a captive audience. There were lots of speeches that year, but I doubt that many of the residents really heard them; they were inwardly salivating at the prospect of snaring a prize.

Last year, there was another raffle, but on a decidedly smaller scale. There were several items, but you had to select just one of them and enter your ticket in the specific drawing for that item.

This year, there was no raffle at all. Once the photo was over, most of the people scattered to the four winds before the awards ceremony. It's a shame because they missed the official naming of our downtown lake (now dubbed Lake Rianhard after a very special, inspirational member of the community). After that, the small crowd headed to the downtown stage, where the awards would be handed out. It was still early (there is a "residents' preview" before the "Taste of Celebration," i.e. the food booths, are officially opened to the general public), so there weren't too many people in the Market Street area yet.

The spouse of the Bunny Brigade's High Priestess was one of the award recipients (no, not because he is married to the founder/leader of Celebration's premier social organization; he is a very active community volunteer). After applauding the winners, we headed to a lakeside table to down some sangria; it wouldn't be a downtown Celebration event without the Columbia Restaurant's sigature alcoholic concoction.

Our next door neighbors had shown up for the photo too (and, as good Bunny Brigade members, at least one of them donned the sacred ears). They joined us for a drink, and since they hadn't had dinner yet, we piled into Canyonero and headed to Logan's Roadhouse, just across 192. Yes, I know it was "Taste of Celebration," but there's only so many times you can eat food from the same vendors. We've been attending downtown festivities since 2003, so I could find the booths with my eyes shut and recite their menus from memory.

We made it to Logan's just before the massive dinner rush. We only had to wait about 10 minutes or so, but my neighbor didn't mind because she'd grabbed a bucket of peanuts. While we waited, she munched on the tasty goobers, tossing the shells on the floor (which is the accepted custom at the roadhouse). Even when we were ushered to our table, she clung possessively to her nut bucket.

We all enjoyed a delicious meal of various styles of dead cow. There is a cattle pasture just down the road from Logan's, and as I enjoy a tasty steak, I can't help but picture the chef slipping out the back door with a sledgehammer and crooning, "Here, Bossy! Come here!"

We debated heading back downtown after the meal, but parking was scarce so we gave up and called it a night. Hopefully the proliferation of cars meant that there was a good turnout. One of the big draws of Founder's Day was absent this year: The fireworks. People tended to head downtown early to secure a good lakeside table, which they would guard against all comers until showtime. Now, with nothing to look forward to, I wonder if attendees stayed as long. And I wonder how many still thought they were going to see a fireworks display and who got a rude surprise at 9 p.m.!

The continued shrinkage of the crowd worries me. Special events are one of the things that makes Celebration unique; losing them will push us a few notches closer to being just another Florida subdivision.

Sunday was much more heartening for the future of community events. After church, we headed to the Farmer's Market, which recently moved from the vast wasteland of the 851 Building parking lot to Market Street, and I was pleased to see a steady stream of browsers wandering among the booths.

When the Farmer's Market first returned to town after its summer hiatus, it looked like yet another Celebration institution might go the way of the Beach Party, pedal boats, downtown apartments, and Lights & Lemonade. Its old location on Front Street had been made impractical by construction work on the controversial downtown condos. Initially, it was moved to the 851 Building because there is a large parking lot and access to restrooms at the school gym.

Unfortunately, while the facilities might have been technically better, most people had no clue that the market was even there. It needs foot traffic to survive; not just Celebration residents, but the tourists and visitors who frequent the downtown streets over the weekend. The new location was much too far from the beaten path to attract any of those critical customers.

We visited the market a couple of times while it was in exile. The second time, the number of merchants was noticably less (customers were virtually non-existent both times). Thankfully, the public outcry brought about a move, and now it's back in the midst of the foot traffic. Actually, the present location, right in the middle of Market Street, is even better. It's convenient for locals to walk over after church, and it's right by the shops and restaurants where it can attract the patrons who are just visitng town.

As we headed towards the cluster of booths so I could get my fresh lemonade and pastry fix, I quickly noticed that it looked like a lively, thriving market rather than a motley, abandoned afterthought. If it remains in the new location, I think it will be with us for a long time to come.

If you'd like to see photos from Founders Day (courtesy of Jan and Charlie), click here (note: there are lots of pics, so it will load slowly).

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