Thursday, December 01, 2005

Christmas Next Door to the House of Mouse

I alway enjoy Celebration's close proximity to Disney World, but it's especially enjoyable during the holiday season. Way back when we were vacationers, early December was one of our favorite seasons to visit the Mouse (the other was the lull right after Labor Day).

We typically visited Disney World in the first or second week of December. All of the Christmas decorations were up, but the crowd density was surprisingly manageable. The teaming masses descend on the Mouse House for Thanksgiving, but then the crowd steadily decreases for a brief time. After Turkey Day, I guess they're busy getting ready for the holidays at home. Then there is another boom that reaches critical mass in the week between Christmas and New Years. If you manage to visit in the valley between the two attendance peaks, you can spend some quality park time without unreasonable waits and enjoy the holiday decorations and activities.

Now that we live only eight miles from the front gates of the Magic Kingdom, we can take full advantage of the lull. Today, we decided to make our annual pilgrammage to Disney/MGM Studio for the Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights. For ten years now, display has set the theme park ablaze with millions of multi-colored Christmas lights. It used to be set up on the "Residential Street" backlot, but that section as since been removed to make room for a new automotive stunt show. Now, the New York section is decked out in holiday finery, with soapy snowflakes drifting down on the oogling, gaping crowd.

Viewing the display has become a yearly tradition in our household. We've seen it for years, but my husband never gets tired of it. I have to confess that I enjoy it, too, as I've always had a fondness for tacky, overdone Christmas displays. Apparently the Osbornes horrified their neighbors with their over-the-top display in Arkansas. They supposedly even bought the houses on either side of their homestead in order to expand the extravaganza. Finally their neighbors sued, and the light show was shipped off to Disney World., where it has appeared for the last decade.

The display was slated to begin at 6 p.m., so we decided to have dinner at the Brown Derby, a restaurant in the theme park, and then go check out the lights. There is always a massive surge of people when the lights are first flicked on. We figured that we could enjoy a good meal and let the crowd thin out; then we could view the lights at our leisure, and maybe even sneak in a ride or two on Tower of Terror and Rockin' Roller Coaster.

I have a AAA Diamond Parking pass, so we got a good spot just past the handicapped parking. I don't mind parking farther away, but I hate the vicious free-for-all of getting on a parking tram. I think most of those people would trample their own mothers in a bid to grab a tram seat. Since Disney Security would probably frown on my carrying a cattle prod, I stick to the AAA parking spots; they're usually within reasonable walking distance.

After our bags were checked, we joined a line to enter the park. Even though it was late, hoardes of people were heading in from other parks to see the Osborne Spectacular. We got in the one line that appeared to be moving, but of course the moment we entered it, the people in front of us froze like a statue. I never figured out the hold-up, but thankfully we eventually made it in before the park closed.

We debated getting a Fast Pass for the tower or the roller coaster, but according to the information board, there was no wait for either. It was a chilly evening, at least by Florida standards, so it appeared that most of the crowd had bailed and those who had left were all heading over to the light show or Fantasmic. Fine with us...we decided to have dinner, see the lights, and then ride Tower of Terror and Rockin' Rollercoaster at our leisure.

Technically, our reservations for Brown Derby were still an hour away; that's all I could get when I called ahead. But we figured that there was a good chance of getting in early since the crowd was so light. Sure enough, they were able to seat us with only a brief wait.

I love the cobb salads at the Brown Derby, but for me it's always a melancholy place to visit during the holiday season. Once upon a time, it was our tradition to have dinner there while enjoying the live piano music. The pianist played a wide variety of holiday tunes, but he always slipped in the Snow Miser theme. It just wasn't Christmas at Disney without a trip to the Derby and a Snow Miser serenade.

Then, a few years back, they got rid of the piano. I imagine it was a cost-cutting measure, but it really destroyed the ambiance for me. I still enjoy the food and the Christmas decorations, but it's not as special without the live music.

We had already premeditated splitting a cobb salad, but we decided to split a couple of appetizers, too. We settled on crab cakes and portabello mushroom/goat cheese tortellini. We were planning to be teetotalers, but the waitress tempted us into splitting a drink by describing the mouthwatering holiday specials. We chose a delicious minty creation that involved ice cream and peppermint schnapps. Not only was it tasty, but it was also lovely eye candy (at least until we dove into it). The beverage was pink and white, topped with green and white whipped cream infused with mint flavoring. It was so attractive that a fellow diner passing our table did an abrupt about-face and exclaimed, "Mmmmmm! What is that?!"

We enjoyed both of the appetizers, and the cobb salad was as wonderful as always. A lot of restaurants offer a cobb, but I've never found an authentic version like the Brown Derby's. It contains the usual items, such as lettuce, tomatoes, avocados, bleu cheese, eggs, turkey, and bacon. All of the ingredients are finely (and I do mean finely) chopped, and the server tosses it right at your table. The portion is large enough for two people to share or for one person to have as a hearty meal.

Even though we knew that our calorie-laden tummies didn't need any more food, we couldn't help ordering the dessert special out of curiosity. It was a chocolate and orange concoction created in honor of the new stunt show. The plate was artfully decorated with a castle and tire tracks stenciled in chocolate, and the dessert itself was apparently meant to resemble a wheel, complete with white-chocolate "flame." It was very rich and very tasty.

As we dined, I observed the people around us. I don't think there were many locals; we were surrounded by tourists flush with excitement, enjoying their holiday vacations. There were parties of every size, from couples to families with gaggles of children to three-generation tribes. I could feel their glee as I tried to visualize the scene through their eyes and recall my own excitement back when I was a tourist, too. The childlike wonder of people who see Disney World for the first time is a real delight.

I always wonder if living in Celebration and visiting Disney will ever become old hat for me. Thankfully, it looks like that time is still far away, if it ever even comes at all. I reveled in the happy atmosphere, and I smiled a secret smile, knowing that I never have to leave. No day counting, bag packing, and end-of-vacation malaise for me. I never have to go home from Disney World; I just have to go next door.

As we left the restaurant and headed to "New York," we marvelled at the absence of people. Most of Disney/MGM was deserted; apparently, there had been a mass exodus, and the only people left were either at the Osborne display or watching Fantasmic on the other side of the park.

The crowd density increased when we reached our destination. Even though I've seen the light show countless times, it still gives me goosebumps when I catch my first glimpse of the year. Imagine Clark's house in "Christmas Vacation" multipled by several hundred and you'll start to have a mental picture. Add animated figures and a giant spinning globe, plus soapy snowflakes dancing down from the sky, and you'll have a good visualization.

If you happen to visit the display, don't get so dazzled by the millions of colored lights that you miss the other little details. Look in the windows of the decorated houses, and search the tree lot for the Charlie Brown tree.

After we'd had our fill of Christmas finery, we headed off to drop in on the Tower of Terror. On our way, we noticed that the usual tree and train set were absent from the area in front of the giant sorcerer hat. It was a real disappointment; I don't know if they had been moved elsewhere in the park this year or if they've been eliminated altogether. I hope they haven't gone the way of the Brown Derby's piano.

Both the Tower of Terror and the Rockin' Rollercoaster were walk-on, so we chose the Tower first. There was only a handful of people in the pre-show room, and soon we were rushing through the "basement" to board the out-of-control elevator for a few cheap thrills. We were seated in the front row and sent off to the chute, where we were jostled up and down in the darkness. The highlight was when we reached the top and the doors burst open, revealing the Christmas lights glowing far below in a blazing palate of color.

Next, we headed to the rollercoaster, but unfortunately it had "temporarily ceased operation." Since we didn't know whether "temporary" meant a few minutes or the rest of the night, we decided to call it a day. Progress was slow, since we got caught in the post-Fantasmic herd, but we weren't in a hurry. It had been a nearly perfect evening...a good meal, a lovely holiday display, and a fun ride. The only slight damper was missing Rockin' Rollercoaster, but as hubby pointed out, we can always come back the next day.

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