Thursday, December 22, 2005

Christmas Bonus

In our continuing quest to fit all our favorite Christmas activities into the rapidly waning holiday season, my husband and I headed over to Epcot tonight to see the special Illuminations finale. Since it's Christmas week, we expected the park to be mega-crowded, so we planned to just pop in for the show. We had been hoping to eat there, too, but all of the restaurants were fully booked at dinnertime. Thus, we decided to go to The Melting Pot in Dr. Phillips and swing by Epcot after dinner.

The Melting Pot is one of my favorite restaurants. It's a throwback to the 1970s fondue craze, but in a nod to the health conscious New Millenium, you can cook your food in broth rather than oil. Of course, there's no way to make the artery-clogging cheese appetizer and the thick, sugar-laden, chocolatey desserts appear healthy.

I am a fan of the broth-cooked meals. You can choose from a variety of flavors (my favorite is mojo). The food is served in bite-sized chunks that you spear with your fondue fork and boil in the bubbling cauldron at the center of your table. I get chicken and steak, while my husband tends towards sausage and seafood. The meat is high quality, but for me it's mainly a delivery device for the wonderful sauces. Teriyaki and curry are the best for the meat; you also get veggies like potatoes, mushroom caps, and squash, and those are most tasty when slathered with a thick coat of green goddess.

Of course, by the time the main course arrives, I'm already half full because I've imbibed in a cheese appetizer (served with veggies, apples, and bread for dipping) and a hearty salad. But I force myself to save room because no trip to The Melting Pot is complete without hot, melted chocolate into which you dip decadent dessert items like brownies, pound cake, fruit, marshmallows, and cheesecake.

Since it's Christmas week, there was a special holiday dinner on the menu. It sounded tempting: it started off with cheese that had cranberries and walnuts stirred in, an apple salad, and a special cranberry dipping sauce for the main course. The meats included chicken, steak, sausage, shrimp, and duck, and the dessert was Bananas Foster fondue. We chose the holiday decadence meal, although we swapped the dessert for Flaming Turtle, our favorite (although the name makes me think of a tortoise in Elton John glasses and feathered boa).

We had allowed two hours to eat, as meals at the Melting Pot typically run long. There are so many courses, and you can only cook a few pieces of meat at a time. It's not a good place for young kids because they tend to lose patience halfway through. But there will always be parents who put their own needs first, and sure enough, we had a party like that nearby. One of the little girls was so exhausted that she was falling asleep in the booth, with no interest in food. The other one kept reaching across the hot pot, despite Mom's admonishments (is it really smart to bring kids below a certain age to a place where you have a pot of boiling liquid right in the middle of the table?).

On the way out, I was in the bathroom at the same time as one of the moms. I could hear her urging the exhausted little girl to hurry up so she could go back and have chocolate, and the poor kid wailed, "I don't want dessert!" I think she just wanted to crash in bed. Oh well, that's par for the course in Tourist Land. Just visit any of the theme parks late at night and you'll see scores of teary children whose parents are threatening, "Shut up and enjoy it! I paid too much for this damn vacation to spend it at a hotel." How I'd love to snap sarcastically, "Wow, what magical vacation memories you're making for your family," but I just bite my tongue.

Other than watching the poor kids get tormented, we had a lovely meal. My husband normally doesn't like duck because it's fatty, but the chunks had been trimmed down without a trace of fat. It was wonderful in the special cranberry sauce. He ate the duck, shrimp, and sausage, while I claimed the steak and chicken. By the time our Romanesque feast was over, all we wanted to do was go home for a nap. But no, we reminded ourselves that Illuminations was the main reason that we were out and about. If we could just drag ourselves to Epcot, the brisk night air would surely wake us up.

After our last experience in the Magic Kingdom, I was expecting the park to be a madhouse. We had finished up at The Melting Pot more quickly than expected, so I wondered what we would do to kill time since the ride times would surely be an hour at least. But as we strolled to World Showcase, we noticed that the crowd density was extremely light. I don't know if the cold scared everyone off or if they were all over at the Magic Kingdom, but they sure weren't at Epcot. Oh well, that was fine with us!

We decided to make a round of World Showcase to burn off a few calories; then, we could decide what to do until Illuminations time. We paused in the United Kingdom to see Father Christmas talk about local customs, and then we hiked off around the lake. As we approached America, I realized that it had to be close to the start time for the last Candlelight Processional of the evening. Normally, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning in Florida than of getting into the Processional as a stand-by person during Christmas week, especially ten minutes before the show. But amazingly, the line was short and there still appeared to be plenty of seating. We hopped in, figured that if we made it in, fine. If not, we'd find something else to do.
We made it in with no problem...what a Christmas bonus! Even though we'd seen it once already this year, I never get tired of it. It's such a beautiful telling of the Christmas story; the stirring narration and swelling music always gives me goosebumps.

The theater was filling up, but it wasn't near capacity yet. We chose a bench in the back so we could beat a hasty retreat, since it would be over 15 minutes before Illuminations and we wanted to get a good viewing spot. The guest reader was Marilee Matlin, who did the reading in sign language while it was also read out loud. Normally, the guest reader is a celebrity who reads it vocally while an interpreter does sign language off to the side. My husband chuckled at the irony of having an "interpreter" for the hearing guests.

It was fascinating to hear the words while watching Marilee's hands do their graceful air ballet, and of course the music was lovely as always. How ironic that she was standing right in the midst of the orchestra and choir, and yet she couldn't hear it. I'm sure she could feel it, though...not just the vibrations of the music but the spirit in the air.

I was still marvelling at our luck in catching a "bonus" performance of the Processional. I love live music, but so many of the shows at the Disney parks are pre-recorded. The live band is one reason why "Tarzan Rocks" is a favorite, but that's a rarity. With the Processional, you can't help but feel uplifted as the orchestra reaches a cresendo and the voices of the choir rise up to Heaven.

We slipped out towards the end of the last song and headed to Morocco, which is a decent viewing spot for Illuminations. I thought that the park might be more crowded because people who have gone to other parks often return to Epcot at night for the show. But even though it was only 15 minutes until showtime, there were still plenty of prime spots available.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten my shooters headphones (I have hyperacusis, so sounds at the pitch of fireworks hurt my ears). That meant I would have to plaster my hands over my ears, which annoys me because I miss some of the music. Oh well, I knew that the light show would be worth it. The "regular" Illuminations show is lovely, and the Christmas finale is not to be missed. At the end, the ground literally shakes as the sky explodes with an atomic armamanet of fireworks. We've been hearing it at Duloc Manor since Thanksgiving, so now we were anxious to witness it in person.

As we waited for the show to begin, I shivered in my sweatshirt and jacket, and hubby mocked me for being such a Floridian. The temperature was in the 50s, which would be a heat wave on a December night in Chicago. In less than a year, I've been spoiled by the warmth, but at least I'm not as bad as the people we saw who were wearing gloves!

The area around us filled in as 9:30 p.m. drew near. Finally the music and fireworks burst forth, while the globe lit up and the fountains surged. I know the music by heart, so even though I had to keep my ears covered during part of it, it was playing in my head. I have the Illuminations CD, and my husband bought the Candlelight Processional CD, too, so now we can enjoy a scaled-down version of both whenever we want. My CD is the Millenium version, which also has the music from the now-retired Tapestry of Nations parade. When I first heard it, it drove me crazy, but eventually it grew on me. I'm glad I can still listen to it, but I sorely miss the live version (especially the giant drum floats).

After the normal Illuminations presentation, the music segued into "Let There Be Peace on Earth," complete with bonus fireworks show. I remember the end being quite spectacular in 2004, and it didn't disappoint me this year either. At the finale, the sky exploded in sound and color while everyone watched in awe. Even with my hands clamped firmly over my ears, I could tell that the noise level was deafening.

Finally the sky went dark...the show was over. We joined the cattle herd heading out to the parking lot, smiling in contentment. We could chalk up another holiday tradition that we'd managed to complete, and we'd also managed to score a Christmas bonus. It would have been enough just to see Illuminations, but the Candlelight Processional was the icing on the Christmas cookies.

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