Saturday, December 17, 2005

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

With Christmas just one week away, Celebration, Florida has taken on a definite "Holidays in Tourist Land" aura. Things were tame downtown this morning as the day dawned gray and dingy. We met our former real estate agents (now friends/neighbors) at Max's for breakfast, and other than the usual timeshare salesmen squiring hapless victims like lambs to the slaughter, the streets were mostly barren. Ten hours later, Market Street was a mob scene; I doubt that the crowd was much worse on Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom.

I found myself among the crowd when I took a walk downtown to check out the holiday madness this evening. According to the local radar, the rain had mostly cleared out, so it was a gorgeous night for a stroll. The temperature had dropped along with the sun, but there was just enough humidity to make the air feel thick and warm.

My husband had gone out biking earlier, so I called him on his cell phone when I left the house at 6:30 p.m., aiming to get downtown in time for the 7 p.m. snowfall. He was buzzing North Village, so we arranged to meet at Barnie's for coffee. The walk only takes about 20 minutes, so soon I was heading down Front Street, ready for a chilled peppermint mocha treat. Hubby opted for a hot cup of flavored coffee, and soon we were following the music and squeals of delight to Market Street, where the soapy snowfall had already started.

I was amazed at the constant stream of cars that flowed down Front Street, looking for non-existent parking spots. When we arrived at Market Street, I was amazed. The bodies were wall to wall! I've been going downtown occasionally ever since the nightly "snowfalls" started for the season, and the crowds were certainly respectable. But this time, I had no doubt that Christmas was right around the corner because the annual tourist influx was obviously in full force.

It's still such a novelty to realize that I live in a tourist-destination town. People actually go out of their way to visit the place that I'm lucky enough to call "home." That's just so darned cool! Yes, Chicago is a tourist town, too, but my original home was on the outskirts, a good half-hour away from downtown. Even though we were technically in the city, our neighborhood could easily have passed for a suburb. Then we moved a few miles away and ended up officially in the suburbs. I lived in four different Illinois 'burbs over the years, and all of them were dull and nondescript. None had the fame and notoriety of Celebration, a.k.a. the "Disney Town."

Now, when I tell people where I live, their eyes almost always light up with recognition. Most have never been here, but at least they know that we live near Disney World. I love it when friends visit and I can play "tour guide," chauffering them around town. I show them examples of the varied architecture and point out major sites, like Celebration Health, the golf course, and Water Town Place. I take them downtown for coffee at Barnie's or lunch at Max's, and we always stop at the lakefront rockers.

The rockers hold a special place in my heart. Long before I ever thought that moving to Celebration was even a remote possibility for me, I met a resident on a Disney cruise. I mentioned my interest in the town, and she told me how much she loved it. One of the things she described was rocking by the lake downtown at sunset. I thought, "How nice that must be!" In my Illinois town, we had some downtown chairs, but there were train tracks instead of a lake and every chair was chained to the concrete. Compared to that, Celebration sounded like paradise. I wonder what my past self would say if I could go back in time and tell her that someday in the not too distant future she'd have the luxury of relaxing in those rockers, too.

On our very first visit to town, we instantly knew that we wanted to live here. I remember turning to my husband and saying, "Let's buy a house." I expected an "Are you crazy?!" but he simply replied, "Okay." Now, seeing the dozens of people jamming Market Street, I wondered if any were future neighbors. Surely among so many bodies there had to be a few who felt the instant connection.

There were all sorts of activities going on downtown; besides the snowfall, the NEV train was making its rounds, and four horse-drawn carriages were doing a booming business. Santa was in his "office," listening to the pleas of good little girls and boys. I noticed the Celebration Trolley idling at the curb, ready to depart on a holiday light tour. I quickly convinced my husband to pony up $5 a head and hop aboard; we've already explored the lights around town on our own, but we thought we might find some that we'd missed.

At first, we were the only people on board, but once the 7 p.m. snowfall ended, a decent-sized crowd descended on the trolley. I hadn't realized it, but in addition to the lights, I was in for some additional entertainment. I can explain it best in terms of a Visa commercial:

Barnie's specialty coffee drink: $4
Trolley tour fare: $5
Tourist comments: Priceless

The lights had me so dazzled that I forget we were surrounded mostly by out-of-towners. We made the rounds of Main Village, West Village, South Village, East Village, and Roseville Corner, passing such holiday sights as the house with lights that flashed in sync to music; the Griswold house (and a few others that gave it a run for its money); the house done in lights in an eerie shade of blue; the cute little bungalow enclave in South Village; the mansions on East Lawn; Santa in his car full of presents; and many, many other notables. But as I gaped, some of the more interesting comments penetrated my consciousness.

At a few of the houses, people would come out onto their porches and wave. A person sitting near us nudged their companion and said, "Look! Wow! Those are real people." I bit my tongue, resisting the urge to say, "No, actually Disney tests out their most advanced Audioanimatronics here before installing them in the parks."

As we passed clusters of Cottage and Village homes, another person explained to their companion, "See those? Those are Bungalow homes." (For the uninitiated, Bungalows are the smallest single family homes in town. Garden homes are next, then Cottage. The only homes bigger than Village are Manor and Estate.)

There was also a spirited debate over whether the Spring Park Terraces were condos or apartments. When we reached the townhomes, someone explained, "See those? They're single family homes." I guess I shouldn't be surprised, as more than one person has mistaken our triplex for one big house, too. With the townhomes, I would think that the multiple entrances would be a dead give-away, but maybe they were too dazzled too notice.

One person wondered whether dogs are allowed in Celebration, but another person was quick to point out that they must be because he'd seen someone walking one. One again, I was tempted to interject with my wry sense of humor, "Sure they are, but they have to wear diapers like the carriage horses," but I managed to hold my tongue again. How I love hearing the "outside view" of's better than any sitcom!

A fellow passenger lamented the fact that he didn't have his GPS with him. I could understand how he felt; even though we were in South Village, only two blocks from Celebration Avenue, I remembered from my own early days how easy it is to get lost on the twisting, turning streets of town. While our house was being built, we would get cheap hotel rooms via Priceline, rent a car, and drive aimlessly through Celebration. Even then, we didn't learn all the nooks and crannies until we actually lived here for a while.

Finally the tour was over, and the trolley made its way slowly through the Front Street gridlock to disgorge us back at our starting point in front of the Town Tavern. It was time for the 8 p.m. snowfall, and the crowd had grown even larger. A sense of excitement crackled in the air as the kids cavorted in the soapy snowflakes. But it was time to head back to the calm of East Village; hubby retrieved his bike while I set off on foot. As I walked, I marveled at the endless stream of cars that was still pouring into town. Little knots of people dotted the sidewalks, stapping kids in strollers or consulting maps.

As the week goes on, the crowds will grow even more intense. Thousands of tourists will fly into Orlando, seeking some holiday fun in the sun; most of them will stick with the theme parks, but we'll get our fair share here in Celebration. I plan to make several more trips downtown, reveling in the contagious excitement until it reaches its crescendo next Sunday. When it's over, I'll enjoy the peace and quiet, but I'll also miss the hoopla that reminds me I live in a special place and lets me see our town through fresh eyes once again.

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