Friday, December 30, 2005

Hurricane Season Redux

I thought that hurricane season was over on November 30th. No more compulsive weather-monitoring and daily visits to the NOAA website. No more listening for reports of the latest named storm lurking in the Atlantic.

But what a minute...tomorrow is New Year's Eve, it's a full month after the official end of hurricane season, and there is another freakin' named storm!!

Granted, Tropical Storm Zeta is 2700 miles away from Florida, and it poses no threat to land. But it's a symbol of just how screwed up the atmosphere is and/or just how vengeful Mother Nature is feeling towards the puny humans cluttering up her nice, tidy Earth. 2005 set some hurricane records, and now it's earned additional distinction as only the second year that has featured two named storms in December. If Zeta can hang for a couple more days, it will be the first storm since 1954 to span two calendar years.

Still, even with this last little blast, hurricane season seems so far away. In Florida, December's weather has been chilly but non-threatening, and the last two days have been gorgeous. I love it when it's just warm enough to open all the windows and let in a breath of fresh air, and that seems to be the note that 2005 will end on. We might even flirt with 80 degrees this weekend.

It's hard to believe that tomorrow is New Years Eve, and once we usher in 2006, the holiday season will be officially over (that is, unless you're Jewish, as Hanukkah runs until January 2nd this season). Our plans for New Years are pretty low key, since my husband will be chained to his computer from 10 p.m. on. He's a computer programmer, and there are lots of year-end jobs running, so he has to be available in case anything goes awry. Hopefully he'll be done in time for church on Sunday morning...I'd hate to anger God by playing hooky before the New Year is even 24 hours old. Thankfully, we attend the 11 a.m. service, so he should be done by then (barring any major disaster).

Since we have to stay around Duloc Manor on the 31st, we're having some friends over. As long as hubby is near the phone and his keyboard, he should be able to indulge in the partying. We'll probably have some snacks and champagne, then take a dip in the hot tub. It's not as exciting as going to a big party or heading over to Universal CityWalk (where Styx, one of my all-time favorite bands is playing), but I think we'll have a good time.

A quick side note on Styx: They started as a garage band in my old Chicago neighborhood, and they often played at the recreation center in the first suburb we moved to. They were also the band at my husband's prom. In those days, they went by the names "Tradewinds" and "TW4." I never saw them perform back then, and I never would have guessed that they'd become such a success and such a special favorite of mine.

I don't mind missing their Orlando show, since they're rather fragmented now. Only three out of the five current band members are original. Tommy Shaw is among them, but Dennis DeYoung (my other favorite band member) has struck out on his own. While Styx is serenading the crowds at CityWalk, he'll be performing a show called "The Music of Styx" in Reno. Oh well, give them a few more years and they'll probably all end up at Epcot.

As 2005 draws to a close, I've been trying to ease myself into my resolutions. I don't like to draw up a huge, oppressive list and leap into it headlong on January 1st. Doing it that way usually means getting discouraged by the end of the week. Instead, I go slowly, implementing small, non-threatening lifestyle changes that will eventually add up into something bigger.

Over the past few weeks, I've been gradually stepping up my exercise, taking vitamins, cutting down on food portions, and trying to meditate every morning and night. So far it's been "practice," but I'll start recording the workouts and meditation in a journal once the calendar flips over to 2006. If I backslide, I won't use that as an excuse to give up...I can always start again tomorrow rather than waiting until 2007.

I've been busy organizing my travel agency records, too. Since I'll be kicking off my life coaching business in 2006, I want to make sure that my other business records are in good order first. Planning vacations and teaching people cognitive/behavioral life skills are certainly two very different career choices, but I've always enjoyed variety. Over the years I've worked in retail, acted as an equestrian trail guide, wrote magazine articles, did news reporting/edited a newspaper, worked in corporate communications, designed and developed computer-based training, started several websites, done individual, family and group counseling, and taught management and personal development classes.

But none of those can compare to my most unusual job, which was leading funerals on horseback at an unconventional cemetery where peacocks and deer roamed free, children searched for eggs among the graves at Easter, and Santa listened to their Christmas wishes in the front office, across from the headstone display. The cemetery was located on the outskirts of Chicago, in a very urban neighborhood. The horse, Elegant Sam, was housed in the garage, in a stall next to the industrial lawn movers. He had an affinity for dog biscuits and was trained to fourth level dressage, so he performed sidepasses and flying lead changes with aplomb. I loved to exercise him in the back corner, adjacent to a busy street, and watch people's jaws drop as they passed by and tried to figure out if they were hallucinating. Compared to that, being both a travel agent and a life coach with a doctorate in psychology doesn't seem all that strange.

As you can probably guess from my job list, life has been quite an adventure for me. Living in Celebration, Florida, is the latest part of my journey, and I can't wait to see what new adventures the New Year will bring (hopefully less hurricanes that 2005).

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Splish Splash

Although I find it hard to believe, we've owned our hot tub for four months now. That means it was time to do the very first drain/refill.

A hot tub isn't too hard to take care of. We add some chlorine whenever we use it and toss in a weekly chemical cocktail. Other than that, we test the water regularly and add "pH-Up" or "pH-Down" as needed, and my husband cleans the filters every month. Not too terribly complicated.

But three times a year, we have the big chore. The water must be drained and refilled every four months in order to keep the spa in good working order. That means removing and replacing several hundred gallons of H2O. Neither of us was looking forward to it, but this morning we decided that we couldn't put it off any longer. We deemed it the dreaded Hot Tub Draining Day.

We had picked a lovely day; it had rained overnight, but by the time we woke up the sun was shining in a bright, blue sky. It was breezy, but the temperature was the warmest it had been all week...a perfect day to tackle a soggy task.

My husband went out to start the process, but I was stuck on the phone finalizing a client's cruise reservation. It was an odd situation that took me longer than usual; by the time I got outside, hubby already had the hose hooked up to start the draining process. Unfortunately, the water was trickling out in an anemic stream. At that rate, we'd still be waiting for the tub to finish draining in 2006.

My intrepid spouse had hurried up the process by manually bailing with a bucket. I slipped into a ratty t-shirt and shorts (knowing that I would get drenched) and joined him. At first, we simply leaned in and scooped out the water. I poured as much as possible into our mulch beds, hoping that the chemical-laden soup would kill the weeds, although my husband warned that it would probably make them stronger. Finally, the water level got so low that I had to climb into the spa to bail. I filled up buckets and handed them to hubby like an old-time firefighters' bucket brigade.

As I sloshed around in the ankle-deep in water, I found it hard to believe that I was outside in shorts, and soaking wet to boot, on the 29th of December. In Chicago, the water would have frozen instantly and I'd be a candidate for pnemonia. In Florida, the temperature was flirting with the 70s. It was balmy enough to open the windows in the house, and outside I was perfectly comfortable playing in the water. Both my husband and I were soaked to the skin, but we weren't chilly at all.

Pretty soon the water level was too low for bailing. While my husband cleaned the filters, I got a roll of paper towels and soaked up the rest of the liquid, wringing it into a pail. I was sort of hoping that Chad Sexington (the Burly Towels man from "The Simpsons") might show up to assist, but no such luck. (Click here to hear Homer, in the guise of Chad - it will open in a second window.)

Eventually, the spa was high and dry. I was happy to see that there were no scratches on the interior, but the chlorine had taken a toll on the pillows and other dark plastic surfaces. Once they were black, but now they're a blurry's just the natural toll of the chemicals. Overall, the hot tub was in excellent shape, considering all the use we've given it over the past four months. Of course, I won't discuss the crack in the outer shell where a certain someone (insert guilty expression here) tried to open the cover without unlatching it first. Thankfully, the panels are replaceable.

Stitch had been lurking near the back door, miffed that we were outside while he was on house arrest. It would have been impossible to keep an eye on him while working, but he didn't understand that; all he knew was that if we are outside, he should be, too. His day is not complete until he's had a roll in the sunshine. When I take him out, he collapses the minute he reaches the sidewalk and writhes like he's in the throes of a seizure, or perhaps possessed by demons. He doesn't stop until he's managed to cover his coat with as much dust and dirt as possible.

He sat in the window, peering out with his pitiful kitty face, until finally I felt sorry for him. I let him out, where he found a rude surprise waiting: The concrete patio was soaked. Icky, icky! He doesn't like water on his delicate paws. He gingerly picked his way through the puddle and headed out to the alley, with me following close behind. He managed to find a dry, sunny driveway to roll in, and I let him get good and dusty before plopping him back in the house.

Meanwhile, hubby was getting ready to perform the refill. First, he poured in a bottle of Metal-B-Gone to protect against staining. Now we were ready to add the H20...thankfully, our neighbors allowed us to use their hose as well as our own, so we had double the water pressure. Still, it took a good hour before the massive tub was finally filled.

While it was filling, hubby called the spa dealer to find out the proper amount of chemicals to add to the new water. The dealer has been great about hand-holding us through the learning process of how to care for our hot tub. First, hubby asked for our salesperson, but she happened to be off. Next, he asked for the manager, since we chat with him whenever we stop in for our bi-monthly chemical stock-up. The person who had answered the phone panicked at the word "manager." She must have though we were calling with some monumental complaint. My husband quickly assured her that we are very happy with our hot tub and that he just had some simple questions on spa care. Soon, his query was answered and he headed back outside to monitor the fill-up.

It was soooo tempting to jump right in as soon as the water level reached the top, but we managed to restrain ourselves. The thermometer read 70-some degrees, so it would have been a very chilly dip. Instead, we closed the cover so the heater could do its work and bring the temp back up to a nice, toasty 99 degrees. Many people set their thermostats over 100, but we've discovered that 99 is perfect for everything from hot summer days to chilly winter nights. When the water is a bit cooler, you can stay in the tub a lot longer without getting dehydrated or woozy.

While the new water percolated, we headed off to Red Lobster for a hearty late lunch to celebrate the end of the monumental task. It took the better part of the morning and early afternoon, but it was well worth it...I'll happily trade a three-times-a-year refill for the countless days of relaxing in the watery cocoon of heat and the jets massaging my achy muscles. And better yet, we don't have to worry about it again until after the Easter Bunny's visit. In the meantime, we'll have four months of pure enjoyment.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Monday, December 26, 2005

Extending the Christmas Season

I love Christmas, but it has its downside. There's a month (or more) of build-up, climaxing on the 24th and 25th with a mad frenzy of presents, partying, and palate-pleasing feasts. Then, on the 26th, you're forced to go cold turkey (both figuratively and sometimes literally, depending on what you had for Christmas dinner). Sure, there's always New Years Eve, but it's just not the same. By the time TBS has aired its last showing of the "Christmas Story" 24-hour marathon, I'm generally feeling pangs of post-holiday malaise.

Thankfully, you can let yourself down more easily when you live in the heart of Tourist Land. Now that I live in Celebration, I can cling to Christmas just a little bit longer. Because of all the holiday vacationers, the special events typically run until January 1st or beyond. That gives me an additional week to slip in a few more Yuletide activities. For example, Ice at the Gaylord Palms runs until January 2, and I can sneak over to Epcot to hear the story of the Nativity yet again at the Candlelight Processional until New Years Eve. The Osborne lights will blaze at Disney-MGM Studio until January 8, and the special show at the Dixie Stampede should be running at least until early January.

There are remnants of Christmas closer to home, too. I thought that the Celebration snowfalls ended on the 25th, but they actually run until New Years. They're not quite as impressive as they were during the peak season; my husband rode his bike downtown tonight and reported a light crowd and a barely-soaped-up street, but it's still better than nothing. At least it's a gradual let-down rather than abruptly pulling the plug.

It's a little easier to remain in my personal Fantasyland now that I work at home. When I used to go to an office every day, the stretch of time between December 26th and 31st was a weird Twilight Zone period of emptiness when over half the company was out on vacation. The hallways were a vast wasteland, and most of the offices and cubicles remained dark. The few employees who actually showed up didn't do much work, since business always seemed to go on hold just before the New Year. Instead, we'd all sit around indulging in leftover holiday treats and commiserating on the post-Christmas letdown.

Now, I can boot up my laptop and click the cable TV box to "Sounds of the Season" before I get down to business. As I work, I can list to carols and pretend it's still Christmastimewhile plan a fun holiday event for the evening.

But I can't stave off reality forever. After the first week in Janaury, I finally have to accept the fact that the Christmas season is over and a fresh new year has begun. Even when you live next door to Mickey Mouse, you can't stop the onward march of time. Oh well, I still enjoy those few extra days...just another advantage of living in Florida.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Traditions Old and New

2005 was our first Christmas living in Celebration full-time, which meant that we added some new traditions to our usual holiday revelry. It wasn't too big of a change, since we always visited Disney World in December every year anyway. Living in Celebration made some of our usual traditions easier and gave us the opportunity to start a few that are brand-new.

Among our old traditions was the Candlelight Processional at Epcot, which we managed to see twice this year, the Illuminations holiday finale, the Osborne lights at Disney-MGM, and a walkaround of the Magic Kingdom to see the decorations. A newer "old" tradition is the snowfall in downtown Celebration, which I managed to attend multiple times. In 2003 and 2004, we were here on a limited basis, so I only saw it once or twice. Now, I can simply walk downtown any evening I take a notion.

It still tickles me to live next door to Disney World. When we first put a contract on Duloc Manor, back in the days when it was still a sandlot pockmarked with deer tracks, I remember phoning our real estate agents one evening. They answered via cell phone and told me they were on their way to Epcot to see the Processional. They had taken a notion to go, so they simply jumped into their car and headed off to see it. Sitting in Chicago, in the midst of subzero temperatures, I thought longingly of how wonderful it would be when my husband and I could do that too. Now, that's finally become our reality, and I feel like one of the luckiest people on earth.

Back in Chicago, we had many Christmas traditions, too. My favorite was our yearly "Christmas Carol" meal at Lawry's. Located in the heart of the city, Lawry's serves the best prime rib on the planet. Actually, I should say the best prime rib sauce...they mix unsweetened whipped cream with horseradish, and the result is heaven on earth. For me, the meat is merely a sauce delivery delight. I can feel another artery harden every time I eat there, but the shortened lifespan is worth it.

In December, Lawry's hosts several "Dickens Dinners," where you eat a pre-plated meal while watching scenes from "A Christmas Carol" performed in the banquet room. It's an ADD verison of the classic tale, performed in-between courses. They tell enough of the story to allow the audience to follow the basic plotline. We've been attending for several years now, and it's become a favorite Christmas event in my family.

Since Lawry's is located right off Michigan Avenue, we often combined the dinner with other holiday activities, like strolling through the crowd to see the decorations or taking a carriage ride on Lake Shore Drive. I think I enjoy visiting the downtown Celebration snowfall at the most crowded times because the mod scene reminds me of of downtown Chicago in December.

Unfortunately, my husband couldn't find a reasonable airfare in December (and I must confess, I didn't push him too hard, since I had no great desire to fly off into single-digit temperatures), so we broke that longstanding tradition this year.

Still, we managed to see a live performance of "A Christmas Carol" presented by a Celebration theater group. It was held in the Black Box Theater at the grade school. Our next door neighbors had tickets, too, so we all went out to dinner beforehand and then headed off to see Scrooge and the ghosts.

There are a lot of talented people in the area, so our community theater tends to be top notch, and this show was no exception. The stage sets were minimal, but the performance was amazing. We loved the acapella singing, and actors all did a wonderful job. I was very pleased to have gotten my yearly "Christmas Carol" fix.

This year, we also broke out of our usual Christmas Eve/Christmas Day schedule. In Chicago, we generally visited my brother's family on Christmas Eve. We would eat at his house (if you can call a buffet-style free-for-all with eight kids and two grandkids, plus a variety of assorted significant others, "eating"), participate in the present-grubbing frenzy, and immerse ourselves in general dysfunctional family revelry. When the chaos grew too great to tolerate, we'd head home to turn on the 24-hour marathon of "A Christmas Story" typically broadcast on TBS.

The next day was a recovery period. On Christmas Day, we'd spend a nice, quiet holiday at home. My husband would cook up a turkey breast with all of the trimmings, and we'd scratch lottery tickets (our traditional gift to each other) before stuffing ourselves with turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, veggies, and hot rolls fresh from the oven. We usually managed to squeeze in a screening of "Christmas Vacation," too.

This year, we planned to attend the 11 p.m. service at church on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, we would do our gambling ritual, with lottery tickets from our new home state instead of Illinois. Then we'd start a new tradition by eating dinner at Jiko (the restaurant in the Animal Kingdom Lodge). Jiko was one of the few Disney World eateries that still had space available; thankfully, it's also one of our favorites.

But our plans changed rather spontaneously when some friends invited us over on Christmas Day. I couldn't refuse, since they were planning to order Chinese food in homage to "A Christmas Story." How could I not agree to pay tribute to my favorite Christmas move of all time?

Thus, we flip-flopped the order of our holiday celebration, switching our Disney World meal to Christmas Eve. Somehow I managed to get reservations at Ohana in the Polynesian (another of our favorite Disney restaurants). We'd indulge in their wonderful all-you-can-eat skewers of meat, accompanied by salad, wontons, shrimp, and chicken wings, and topped off with bananas foster for dessert. Then we'd attempt to divert enough blood from our stomachs to our brains to keep ourselves awake for the 11 p.m. service. Then, on Christmas Day, we'd feast on egg rolls, fried rice, and other Asian taste treats.

When Christmas Eve arrived, we spent the morning and early afternoon finishing up last minutes shopping, banking, and the like. In Illinois, December 24th is usually a madhouse at any place of business. In Florida, Publix was a little more crowded than usual, but not to the holiday level that I'm used to. Amazingly, the bank was nearly deserted.

We took a dip in the hot tub before heading over to the Polynesian. The traffic at the Magic Kingdom toll plaza was heavier than usual, but not as bad as I had expected. I think most people had headed to the theme parks early, so by 5:30 p.m. we were caught amongst the stragglers. We were seated almost immediately, although I noticed that our table was in a danger zone. At Ohana, there are various games for the kiddies, including coconut rolling and hula hoops. If your table is on the outer rim, and especially if it's in a corner, you're a prime target for errant coconuts or out-of-control plastic hoops. There aren't a lot of tables for two, so our choices were limited. But we've eaten at Ohana enough to have honed our self-preservation skills, so I made it through the evening with only two cononut strikes on my chair.

After a delicious but heavy meal, we headed home. I took the long way, making a pass through downtown Celebration to marvel at the snowfall crowd. I knew that when we returned for church at 11 p.m., it would be a ghost town by comparison.

Actually, we left our house at 10:30 p.m., and by the time we arrived five or ten minutes later, downtown was deserted but the area about Community Presbyterian Church was hopping. I didn't think that such a late service would be well attended, but our fellow worshippers were out in droves. We managed to find a decent parking spot and headed into the sanctuary, clutching the candles we'd been issued at the door.

The service was a lovely blend of traditional and contemporary Christmas music and readings of the Christmas story. My choice of church was reaffirmed when a movie clip was used as the lead-in to the was the "Santa" sequence from "Christmas Story." At the climax of the service, we lit our candles and held them high as we sang the closing carol. It felt odd to leave church in the darkness, and even more odd not to be clutching a cup of Barnie's coffee. Soon, we were back in East Village, snug in our warm beds, awaiting Christmas Day.

The next morning, we started off with the traditional lottery ticket scratching session. We had a few small winners, but nothing higher than $20 (most were free tickets or $1). Then we called my brother and sister-in-law to share holiday greetings before heading out.

We had volunteered to pick up the Chinese feast on the way to our friends' house. They had ordered a variety of tempting dishes, although I was sad that "smiling duck" was not among them. Still, we had egg rolls, shrimp fried rice, orange beef, a shrimp dish, and two chicken entrees (including one with the insidious name of Ho You Gai Pu). The spread was quite impressive, and we all dug in with gusto. I had heard good things about the Chinese restaurant we'd ordered from, but it's a bit of a drive outside of Celebration so I hadn't gotten around to trying it yet.

Everything I tried was delicious. I hate all varieties of Chinese shrimp, but the beef and chicken dishes were more than adequate. The egg rolls were quite yummy, too. Then, as I shoveled in my chow, it noticed it: a long, black hair soaking serenly in the bowl of orange beef. Since none of us had matching locks, I suspected that it had been deposited by the cook. Should I say something or just ignore it? Should I try to subtly remove it so as not to horrify my fellow diners? What if someone got a hankering for a second helping of beef? I had to do something!

Finally, I decided that the direct route was best, so I announced, "There's a big ol' black hair in the beef." Since we own three cats, I knew that my husband wouldn't be overly distressed; he'd think it was yucky, but he wouldn't lose his lunch. Thankfully, our friends are both pet owners and parents, so they don't stress over minor grossness either. We plucked it out and examined it...due to its length and color, we determined that it was definitely Chinese in origin. There was no hair in any of the other entrees, so we figured it had to be a fluke.

Actually, the perverseness of the situation appealed to me. No, we didn't get a duck served to us with its head on, with a grostesquely smiling beak, and we didn't have Chinese waiters serenading us with, "Fa ra ra ra ra." But finding a hair halfway through the meal definitely ranked right up there in unique experiences.

My finding slowed us down only temporarily. Since the rest of the food appeared to be untainted, we re-commenced shoveling it in. Perhaps we would have been more rattled if we hadn't already consumed large quantities of cheap Publix wine with the meal. The label describes it as "Fine Wine Product," which makes me think of how Velveeta is described as "Cheese Product" lest anyone make the erroneous assumption that it bears any resemblence to actual cheese. The blackberry merlot that we traditionally imbibe in is more like alcoholic Koolaid than wine. It goes down oh so smooth! Better yet, it apparently has tranquilizing properties that chilled us out enough to ignore foreign protein in our food.

We had one more "Christmas Story" moment when the kids were opening their presents from various relatives. One of their uncles works at an alligator farm. He didn't send a pink bunny suit (nor a green gator suit), but he did send an alligator-themed vanity set complete with scale-patterned mirror!

On the way back to Duloc Manor, we drove around looking at Christmas lights. We've been doing that throughout the season, and there are a quite a few good houses here in town. Unfortunately, although some come close, none has quite surpassed the three best ones near our home in Chicago. Sadly, all three of those homes have stopped doing their displays anyway, so at least I don't feeling like I'm missing anything now that I live in Florida.

One was a house that rivaled Clark Griswold in the sheer volume of lights. It was literally completely covered with light strings...the roof, the side walls, the fence...everything. The people who lived there installed hooks that stayed up all year 'round, just to make their Christmas decorating easier. Their garage door opening was covered with a sheet of plexiglass, and they set up an animated scene inside. There were various little cottages set up in their yard with moving scenes, too. They even produced a video on holiday home decorating. You could easily find their house, even if you didn't know its exact location. Just drive to the general area, listen for the tick of a spinning electric meter, and then follow the sound to the traffic jam. The glow of their rooftop was visible several blocks away. Unfortunately, they moved and the poor slobs who bought their house were plagued with disappointed visitors for years thereafter.

The second home was a showcase of little houses containing figurines, put up by a family to honor their son who was killed in Vietnam. They ended up continuing the tribute for decades. Finally, a few years back, the homeowners posted a sign that it would be the last year for the extravaganza because they were simply too old to do all the work involved.

The third home was my favorite for its unabashed tackiness. In the Chicago area, there is a chain of stores called American Sales that sells all manner of tacky plastic light-up Christmas figures, from Santas to snowmen to complete nativities. I don't know if the owner of the home had burglarized an American Sales or what, but the house was a vast bastion of glowing plastic. Legions of hideous Christmas figures were lined up on the lawn on wooden risers. The risers covered nearly every inch of available space. The home owner wasn't content to have one of each figure. Instead, there was something like a dozen or more of each. There were rows of elves, teddy bears, snowmen, polar bears, gingerbread men, candy canes, penguins, Santas, reindeer, and anything else you can name. I still marvel at the fact that they never had an electrical fire. I don't know why they stopped erecting their tacky wonderland, although I suspect that the neighbors got an injunction.

Oh well, Celebration might not be able to match the insane outdoor displays of Illinois, but it's sure got the Chicago weather beat. And our traditions here might be a little different, but they're good ones nonetheless. To all my blog readers, I hope that your Christmas was as merry as ours, and have a happy new year!

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Friday, December 23, 2005

Wall to Wall

It's the night before Christmas Eve, and downtown Celebration is wall to wall people! I don't think I've ever seen it so crowded, even on the Fourth of July.

I've been taking a walk almost every evening since the nightly snowfalls began. It gives me an excuse to burn a few calories hiking from East Village to Market Street, and it gives me a daily dose of the Christmas spirit. So far, the crowds have been big on the weekends, but they dwindle down on weekdays.

Tonight, I was aiming for the 8 p.m. snowfall (the soapy "snow" is sprayed onto the street every hour from 6 to 9 p.m.). I left home at 7:30, intending to get a peppermint mocha coffee at Barnie's before I watched the snow on Market Street. As I hiked downtown, I enjoyed the Christmas lights adorning so many of the houses. In the distance, I could hear the whistle of the NEV train and a low hum of distant voices.

As I approached the coffee shop, I could see that the crowd was larger than usual. I popped into the Barnie's courtyard...and stopped cold. The line stretched all the way back to the door! There was no way I could get a drink and make it to the 8 p.m. snowfall. With that mass of bodies in front of me, I would have been lucky to make it by 9 p.m.

Reluctantly, I decided to forgo my coffee, so I headed down Front Street along the lake. I noticed that Sherlock's had set up a refreshment table, with hot cocoa as one of their offerings, and mecifully there was no line. I got a steaming cup of cocoa topped with whipped cream and marshmallows. It tasted so good in the chilly night air! Cup in hand, I maneuvered towards Market Street...and once again I was in for a shock. The people were lined up wall to wall; I've never seen such a crowd in Celebration! I doubt you could have shoe-horned another body in. Usually I take up a position behind the snow machines so I get a good view of the merriment, but I decided not to wedge my way into the mass of humanity. Instead, I observed from a safe perch on the Front Street curb.

I was rather surprised that Front Street hadn't been closed to traffic from Barnie's to the Columbia Restaurant. That wouldn't have cost much parking space, since most of the curbside area was already blocked off for the trolley, NEV train, and horse-drawn carriages. But the street was open to traffic, which made for some compelling entertainment that rivaled the snowfall itself.

On the street, there was an ongoing battle between bedazzled pedestrians and lost drivers. The tourists on foot regularly stepped out in front of cars without hesitation. They were dazed by the hypnotic powers of the soapy snow, which instantly put them into a zombie-like state and drew them out into the road with no regard for oncoming vehicles.

Technically, drivers should yield to pedestrians in the downtown crosswalks. Unfortunately, most of the drivers were either a) completely lost ("Dang it, Mabel, it's snowin' over yonder. I thought we were supposed to be in Florida!"; or b) under the delusion that they might actually find a parking spot within five miles of the downtown area. Thus, they were either totally unsympathetic to the people on foot or else their eyes were too glazed over to notice the vulnerable bodies stepping in front of their cars.

Some of the cars appeared repeatedly like the loop from "The Truman Show." I could imagine the thoughts of the poor slobs inside them, caught in an endless drive to nowhere. After their fifth round of Front Street, some of them probably figured they had died without realizing it and gone to their own version of Hell, which was circling Celebration in the midst of a mob scene searching for a non-existent parking spot for all eternity.

Although there were some close calls, fortunately no one was run over (or at least not in the time I was downtown). I watched the soapsuds engulf the eager crowd as scratchy music blared overhead. It was a little sad to realize that the phenomenon will be over in another couple of days. After Christmas, the nightly blizzards cease, so I'll have to find a new form of entertainment.

Finally I tore myself away from the scene, since I needed to get home in time to finish up some work. Since I am a night owl, I do a lot of my travel agency phone calls and paperwork in the evening.

The downtown decorations, the music, and even the mob scene had put me into a Christmasy mood. It was being reinforced by the colorful array of lights and decorations on the houses as I headed back to East Village. Unfortunately, my mood was shattered by the sight of graffiti on a sidewalk. Ugh! I know that Celebration isn't Stepford, but those little doses of reality are still an unpleasant shock.

When we visited Celebration for the very first time, I was struck by how clean and tidy it was. That's one of the reasons that I think of it as Duloc; the first time that I saw downtown, it was as pristine as the main street in Farquaad's village. The only thing missing was a passel of puppets singing, "Celebration is the perfect place." The streets and parks and boardwalks were eerily immaculate, too.

Now, I notice the little imperfections, like trash tossed along the walkways and floating in the lakes or grafitti on the buildings, signs and sidewalks. I'm not sure if it's because the upkeep of the town has diminished over the past three years or if I'm just so familiar with Celebration that I notice the little details now. I suspect that it's a combination of both. But after reveling in the holiday atmosphere, it was a definite letdown to see the paint-sullied sidewalk.

Happily, as I drew closer to home, I noticed something that restored my cheery mood. As I walked past the East Village swimming pool, I could hear children's voices lifted in song nearby. Across the street was a group of young carolers, going door to door to serenade the neighborhood.

I thought back to the last time I'd ever seen carolers. I was only about four years old and was visiting my aunt's house. Her home was a typical Chicago bungalow, but to me, in my youthful inexperience, it was wildly luxurious because she had two whole bathrooms (with clear bars of soap, which I found endlessly fascinating), a big front porch, and a pool table in the basement. It must have been around Christmas because carolers came knocking at her door. I had never seen such a thing, and I oogled in fascination as they sang for us on that cold Chicago night.

Now, nearly four decades later, it was over a thousand miles away and decidedly warmer, but I was hearing the voices of carolers once again. It was such a nice little homey thing; my annoyance at the trash and the vandalism melted away as I was reminded of the good things in Celebration. There's no place I'd rather call home.

Merry Christmas or Happy Whatever You Celebrate to everyone!

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Matter of Perspective

Watching the weather forecast tonight, I was reminded that so many things in life are simply a matter of perspective. The weatherman is solemnly warning that a cold snap is on the way. I've learned that cold in Central Florida is typically defined as overnight temperatures in the 40s, with wind chills in the 30s. Right about now, I'm sure that people in Chicago would argue with that definition; I suspect they would kill for anything above freezing.

As I type this, the mercury in my old home town is hovering at 15 degrees. At least that's up from a bitter single-digit snap that engulfed the city earlier this week. By Christmas, they might be flirting with a daily high of 35, while Celebration and the rest of the Disney World area will be basking in the 60s and 70s.

If it weren't for the Christmas lights, I'd find it hard to believe that the holiday is less than a week away. The grass is still vibrant and green, and only a handful of trees have lost their leaves. Flowers still bloom in gardens throughout town, and even though the native Floridians might be shivering, tourists and new residents still parade proudly in shorts.

I remember the "old days," when my husband and I made our annual pre-Christmas pilgrimage to Disney World. We'd be bundled in heavy coats, breath puffing like smoke as we hustled into the airport to escape the frigid Chicago winter air. We were happy to leave the bleak, icy land of bare, skeletal trees and dirty-gray snow.

Our excitement always grew as our plane winged its way south. Slowly but surely, the landscape below would change from gray to vibrant color like the scene in "The Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy opens the farmhouse door and her black-and-white world turns to dazzling Technicolor splendor. As the plane prepared for landing, we'd spot the green grass and foliage-laden trees below and breath a sign of relief. After a month of winter, I can't describe how good it felt when the humidity hit me on the jetway, enclosing me in a cocoon of welcome sticky heat.

Now I can bask in mild winter weather every day. It's been almost a year since we moved full-time to Florida, and every time I hear a Chicago forecast, the wisdom of our decision is reinforced.

Of course, it's been a little sad to lose my Northern heartiness. Because my husband still has to go north frequently for work, he still has a Chicagoan's resistence to the cold. But he laughs at me because my blood has already thinned. This afternoon, it was bright and sunny so I donned shorts before we walked over to a friend's house a few blocks away. We stayed for a couple of hours, and the sun was hiding behind the clouds and starting its descent when we headed back to Duloc Manor. I was cold! He snickered at me for shivering while he was comfy and content in shorts. Damn smarmy Northeners!

Last year, when my blood was still thick, I swam in the neighborhood pools late into the year. The pool at Lakeside Park is heated, but the rest of the pools in Celebration are at the mercy of the outside air temperature. At my level of heartiness, I could swim down into the low 70s, but now I won't even go to Lakeside. Instead, I stick to our steamy 99 degree hot tub, and I make a mad dash into the house when I finally have to force myself out.

Cold, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and I've cheerfully embraced the Florida definition. When the mercury dips below 60, look for me in my mittens and earmuffs. Here in Central Florida, that's arctic.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

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.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Monday, December 12, 2005

Duloc Manor and the Holiday House Tour

Click here for a pictorial tour of Duloc Manor decked out for the Holiday House Tour.

Let me preface this blog entry by saying that I love the holiays. Not just Halloween and Christmas (my two favorites), but all of the holidays throughout the year. Life is too short not to seize every chance that you can to celebrate. That's probably why I ended up in a town called Celebration.

At our condo in Chicago, I was known as the Holiday Balcony Lady because I decorated my balcony at every opportunity. In January, I had strings of New Years lights that gave way to a giant light-up heart and strings of red heart lights for Valentines Day. Next up were shimmering shamrocks and green light strings in honor of St. Patrick, and then those gave way to the Easter Bunny and his entourage. In June and July, my giant flag made of lights and red-white-and-blue strings of light-up stars led me up to a two-month dry spell. I put out plenty of flowers in August and September, but I could barely wait for October so Halloween ghosts and pumpkins could haunt my balcony. They were replaced with light-up turkeys and pilgrims, and the finally the grand finale of the year: Christmas!

In December, I literally jammed every inch of my limited space with plastic snowmen and Santas, spiral trees, and a full light-up nativity, complete with holy family, wise men, animals, and a giant star blazing overhead. Our condo was on the third floor, and our unit had two stories, so my husband braved a neck-breaking fall to mount that star at the peak of our vaulted roof every year.

My husband and I had a yearly debate over whether to keep Baby Jesus inside until December 25th, since that was His official birthday, or whether to leave Him outside to brave the bitter Chicago cold from Thanksgiving on through Twelfth Night. Each year I won the battle, and poor little Baby Jesus had to shiver in His manager for the whole drawn-out holiday season.

Still, the blaze of countless light bulbs probably kept Him warm. With all my light-up figures and strings of lights festooning the railings, you could spot the glow from our balcony two streets over. The array of extension cords and plug adapters was like the scene in "A Christmas Story" when the dad plugs in the tree and is sprayed with a shower of sparks. But somehow we managed to avoid getting electrocuted or burning down the house, and my display blazed brightly until January, when I started the whole cycle over again.

Our purchase of Duloc Manor threw a crimp into my holiday madness. It was hard to spend time on decorations when we were busy commuting back and forth to Florida, so my balcony remained dark and bleak. All of our original neighbors in Illinois had moved away over the years, so none of the newcomers to our condo building had any idea that I had once decorated with such vigor and devotion.

Long ago, I swore that I would always have a Christmas tree, no matter where I was. In that first hectic year, our Celebration tree was a tiny tabletop model that came complete with decorations. We had closed on the house only three months earlier, so things were too hectic for a proper holiday display. But the second year, I was determined to have a suitably tacky tree, even if there was nothing else. We brought our silver aluminum tree to Florida, complete with its three groovy color wheels. I felt much more at home with its gaudy branches shimmering in 1960s glory in the front room.

Even though our own decorations were sparse, we made it a point to do plenty of holiday activities to keep us in the spirit of the season. One of our favorites was the Holiday House Tour, a yearly event in Celebration sponored by the Womens Club. It's a charity fundraiser in which 10 or so homeowners volunteer to open up their houses for the weekend. People can purchase tickets and tour the participating homes.

For two years, we've gotten a kick out of going on the tour. The participating homes can be anything from cozy little bungalows to massive mansions scattered throughout town, from North Village all the way back to Artisan Park. We love seeing the decorations, and being able to check out the inside of various styles of Celebration homes is a bonus. I'll admit it...I'm insatiably curious about house interiors, and a lot of people have the same vice. The tour is a great chance to satisfy your curiosity.

Last year, at the time of the tour, I was counting down the days until we would be permanent residents of Celebration. I was also stressing out about the logistics of moving a husband, three cats, two fish, and a bird 1200 miles in Cayonero's close confines. At that time, I decided that in 2005 I'd like to particpate from the other side. It felt good to look beyond the immediate chaos and imagine our next Christmas, when we'd be comfortably settled in and be able to play host to others.

After our years as looky-loos, I thought it would be fun to open up Duloc Manor and let the masses check out the inside of a triplex. Sure, it's not big and fancy, but I planned to come up with a theme for every room to capture the tour-goers' interest. I love tacky decor, so this would be my chance to share my "unique" taste with others and perhaps give them a chuckle or two.

Now, it's a year later, and we are indeed settled in. The stress of the 2004 holiday season, and driving to Celebration in the infamous Atlanta ice storm, is but a vague memory that has taken on the status of a family legend. And we did indeed participate in the Holiday Home Tour, an experience that will no doubt become a family legend, too.

Actually, our preparation for the tour began last spring, when I began scouring the internet for Christmas items to add to my collection. I already had a number of Rankin-Bass figures, a genuine "Christmas Story" leg lamp, and of course my silver tree. But I knew that I needed to flesh out my collection in order to dud up Duloc Manor in proper tacky 1960s holiday style.

I told my husband that I didn't want any Christmas presents in 2005; instead, I would choose my own presents early: items for my Holiday Home Tour display. I found more Rankin-Bass goodies, from Heat Miser and Snow Miser bobbleheads to a singing Rudolph and Santa. I decided that they would go in the family room, while the front room would become a tribute to "A Christmas Story." I located figures and bobbleheads from the movie (my favorite was poor Flick with his tongue stuck to the lamp post). I also found a set of "Charlie Brown Christmas" figures, so I decided that Charlie, Snoopy, and the gang could take over my Disney Cruise Line-themed bedroom. I also had vague plans for a Chrismahanukwanzakah room, but I wasn't sure where to put it. I was leaning towards the upstairs foyer, but that seemed a little precarious. I still needed a theme for the powder room, too, but I had faith that it would all come together as the Christmas season approached.

Before I knew it, Halloween was looming...then Thanksgiving...then Christmas! The tour was scheduled for the weekend of December 10 and 11. The pressure was on; it was time to finalize my plans, purchase the last few items, and get Duloc Manor ready with a tacky display that was sure to shock and awe the poor, unsuspecting tour participants. Target had some Rudolph paraphernalia, so I rounded out my Rankin-Bass collection. My husband and I made a late night trip to load up on garland and ornaments and other essentials (I wouldn't shop during primetime because I hate shopping in holiday crowds). I decided on a South Park/Mr. Hanky theme for the powder room based on two points: 1) I already had a collection of "South Park" dolls; and 2) What could be more appropriate for a bathroom display than Christmas Poo?

For the Rankin-Bass room, I of course used my silver tree. For the front room, nothing less than a real tree would do, decked out with big, old-fashioned fire-hazard lightbulbs and festooned liberally with silver tinsel, just like in the "Christmas Story" movie. My husband made me swear to water it faithfully, as visions of a dried-out tree torch like the one in "Christmas Vacation" danced through his head.

In addition to the themed decorations in each room, I planned to have an appropriate video playing on a television or portable DVD player for each display. Visitors to my home would see the leg lamp in person as they watched Dad dig it out of its carton on the small screen. They would see a Mr. Hanky doll perched on the toilet while he danced and sang "Howdy Ho!" through the magic of digital video on the sink.

I decided to put Chrismahanukwanzakah in the laundry nook; I could place a menorah on the washer and a nativity on the dryer, with my laptop on the shelf above, looping the Virgin Moble commercial to indoctrinate the uninitiated into "an all-inclusive celebration, no contractual obligation."

There were only two final details troubling me. I had enough themed items for each room and all of the appropriate movies and cartoons, but I still coveted two special props. How could my "Christmas Story" room be authentic without a genuine Red Ryder BB gun? And how could Charlie Brown fit properly in my bedroom without a sad little tree, complete with a hunched-over posture, shedding needles, with a single dangling red ball?

Fortunately, in Celebration friends and neighbors can be counted on to come to the rescue. My next-door neighbors produced a perfect Red Ryder rifle. They also loaned me an adorable "kitchen tree" decorated with implements like rolling pins and whisks that would be perfect as a countertop display. A friend created the quintessential Charlie Brown tree, complete with crossed-wood stand and sad little tufts of drooping needles. We added a big, red ornament, and it looked like it had been plucked right from the frames of the cartoon. His wife even provided a little blue blanket to wrap around the base. They added a pair of shattered glasses to set by the Red Ryder rifle for that extra little authentic detail.

Better yet, on the Friday before the home tour, when I had to pick my husband up from the airport, they descended on Duloc Manor with boxes of ornaments, garland, Santa figures, and other decorations. I gave them carte blanche to do a holiday makeover, and by the time I returned with hubby in tow, our home had been transformed into a Christmas wonderland. They had artfully draped decorations from the railings, television, and even the kitchen light fixture. Cute little Santa figures and ornament displays filled out shelves and furniture tops. My giant Figment and Stitch in the foyer were now sporting Santa hats. They even loaned me a Rudolph train that I set up in the family room, with Bumble topping a tree in the middle. Unfortunately, the cats thought that the tracks were an official feline play area, so I had to keep shooing them out.

Another friend had given me a stuffed Disney Cruise Line ship and Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Goofy figures. We rigged up two floating platforms, intending to launch them in the hot tub on Saturday afternoon along with a light-up cloth Christmas tree hat (remember, I said I wanted my decor to be tacky).

Someone else had donated four bags of monorail "ear" hats like the one my husband wears to Bunny Brigade outings. Picture a Steve Martin arrow hat, but with monorail cars running through your head. I decided to hold a contest, with the hats as the prize. We have a sign above our front door that says "Duloc Manor," and the word "Duloc" also appears inside the house. Anyone who was able to find it won their very own monorail headgear.

Since I spent most of my time by the front door, where we have an enormous framed monorail poster, I donned one of the hats to go along with the theme. By Sunday night, I'd given away all but one of the hats. Of course, we'd been a bit liberal...we weren't adverse to giving hints to the people who really, really wanted one.

There are typically hundreds of people who take the Holiday House Tour. Thus, I had to be prepared for a mass of humanity trekking through Duloc Manor. We roped off the main displays with gold garland so people could get close but would be dissuaded from touching anything. We would keep the spare bedroom closed, since it functions as my husband's office and isn't set up for people to easily maneuver through. We also planned to close off the master bathroom and closet, where the cats and bird could be sequestered in safety. The crowds would have sent Tooncinator and Farquaad over the edge...Stitch would have loved it, but it would have been impossible to keep him in the house. I didn't want him lost outside among the crowds and traffic.
Our last little detail was to don appropriate t-shirts coordinated with our respective areas. I wore a "Christmas Story" shirt emblazoned with a picture of Ralphie and the tagline "You'll shoot your eye out!" My friend, who manned the kitchen and family room, sported Hermey the Elf with the legend "I Want To Be A Dentist!" Upstairs, Charlie Brown and the gang partied on my husband's chest. Our relief volunteer, who worked the Saturday night shift, donned a custom Chrismahanukwanzakah shirt.

I was hoping that Duloc Manor would be viewed as quite a spectacle. Each home on the tour is staffed with volunteers to keep things under control. A lot of homeowners opt to avoid the mayhem and make themselves scarce, but my husband and I both volunteered to stay. We wanted to be in the thick of things and to see the reactions to our Christmas extravaganza firsthand. I was looking forward to seeing jaws drop as people entered the splendid tackiness of 1960s Christmas specials (not to mention the modern-day tackiness of Mr. Hankey).

Believe it or not...people liked it! Most of them weren't horrified...they were delighted!

Sure, there were a few looky-loos who gaped in confusion and left shaking their heads. But the overwhelming majority left with big smiles on their faces. I spent most of my time greeting the arrivals at the front door, and I could instantly spot my fellow "Christmas Story" fans. They homed right in on the leg lamp and chuckled about the pair of broken glasses perched on the rifle butt. Most people liked the Rankin-Bass room, but there were some who loved it. You could spot them instantly...their eyes would light up the moment they spotted the singing characters lined up on the kitchen table or caught sight of Snow Miser dancing with his entourage of mini-mes on the big screen TV. I imagine that they were reliving childhood memories of gathering around the Radiation King color TV for the yearly treat of watching Rudolph, Bumble and friends.

Actually, some of the Rankin-Bass fans were a good decade younger than me, and most of the kids on the tour squealed with delight when they reached the family room. They were instantly able to identify the DVD as "The Year Without a Santa Claus." It was gratifying to see that the appeal of classic stop-motion animation has spread across multiple generations.

I had several people ask where I'd gotten my silver Christmas tree and color wheels. I explained that it had been a floor model at a holiday outlet in Chicago. It was the very last one, so I pretty much refused to leave the store until they sold it to me. They dragged out a spare box and dismantled it right there on the showroom floor. It still had a few shreds of fake, cottony snow clinging to the branches...a leftover from the display that it once proudly capped.

I had been a bit worried about Mr. Hankey, especially since the DVD prominently features the classic song "Kyle's Mom is a Bitch," but I needn't have troubled my mind. As visitors peeked in the powder room, I heard the delighted cries of, "Oh, look! South Park! And there's Mr. Hankey on the toilet!" There was one innocent soul who thought they were the Rugrats, and I thought it was best not to correct her.

They also saw the humor in my hot tub display (especially when they realized that we are Disney Cruise Line fanatics), and my husband, who manned the upstairs, reported that they loved the Charlie Brown tree. He did have to point it out many visitors who were so dazzled by our cruising momentos that they totally missed the scraggly little pine with the Charlie Brown characters spread out around it on the floor.

Not everyone knew Chrismahanukwanzakah (Virgin Mobile isn't showing the original commercial this year; their campaign is centered around the 1-888-ELF-POOP gift giving hotline), but those who did appreciated the humor. Even some who didn't still liked the idea, and most of the visitors thought it was way cool that I'd transformed a washer and dryer into a multi-faith display. I had been worried about the propriety of displaying a Hanukkah symbol next to a nativity, but we had some Jewish visitors who told my husband they enjoyed seeing the menorah.

Almost everyone left with a smile, and some of them (the ones with the same sense of humor as me) were laughing out loud, agreeing that I had earned the title of Tackiest House on the Tour. I also received many compliments on the level of detail worked into each themed room. I couldn't take all of the credit for that; my friends who helped us decorate added many of the finishing touches. It was neat to see the "Aha!" expression spread across a visitor's face as they blurted, "Oh, look at your shirt! It's Ralphie!" or "Cool! The glasses by the Red Ryder gun are broken!" or "Wow! There's even pine needles scattered around the Charlie Brown tree!"

People were also impressed that we'd managed to place a TV or portable DVD player in each of the rooms with an appropriate audiovisual accompaniment. It was a pain to scurry from room to room, restarting the movies and cartoons when they reached the end, but the positive reactions made the work worthwhile.

I also received many compliments on something I had added as an afterthought. When I was shopping at Joanne Fabrics for their 50 percent off Christmas sale, I noticed a rack of candles on my way out. They weren't as heavily discounted as the holiay merchandise, but one of them caught my fancy. It had triple layers scented with Cookie, Marshmallow, and Hot Chocolate. Mmmmmm! Should I burn it or eat it? On impulse, I bought it; I didn't think the scents would be as spectacular as they sounded, but it would add a nice candlelit ambiance to the kitchen during the tour.

Amazingly, the candle scented the whole first floor with a delicious cinammon essence. I lost count of the people who asked, "What's that wonderful smell?" I quickly became immune to it, but visitors noticed it immediately when they walked in.

If it made them hungry, I was prepared with a plate of cookies, and my friend had brought lollipops for the kids. In previous years, I'd noticed that some of the homes handed out candy canes, cookies, or other goodies, which I thought was a nice touch, so I wanted to do that, too. It was fascinating watching the various reactions to the cookie plate, which was set out on the counter near a Christmas cookie cookbook and a holiday cookie jar. Some apparently thought they were part of the display and avoided them. Some instantly realized that they were meant to be eaten and dove right in without hesitation. Some hesitantly asked, "Is it okay to take a cookie?" and their query was rewarded with a treat.

On both Saturday and Sunday, the crowd flow started slowly, then swelled into a steady stream. On Saturday, many of the people waited until nightfall so they could see the decorations in the dark. I do have to admit that my hot tub display was much cooler after dark, with the red-green disco lights imparting a glow to the steamy water where Mickey, his friends, and the cruise ship bobbed along on their foamboard "islands." I hadn't done much decorating out front, since I'd directed most of my efforts to Duloc Manor's interior, but I did have a light-up Rudolph and the Misfit Toys propped up on the front lawn.

Sunday was particularly busy, since it was the last day. There was a rainstorm during the first hour, so that kept people away. But as soon as the skies had cleared, the mass of humanity descended. Once it started, the crowd never subsided until 5 p.m., when the tour officially ended.

Every now and then, we would have a mega-crowd when the Celebration Trolley pulled up and disgorged a full load of tour-goers. They would file inside in a conga line and hustle to check out all the rooms before the trolley bell summoned them back. Twice, I had to shout up the staircase for a few stragglers who were engrossed in chatting with my husband that time had slipped away from them.

I was amazed at the number of people who headed upstairs and disappeared for a long time. Sometimes other members of their party would have to go up and drag them away. I never realized that my husband was capable of making such fascinating conversation! Actually, he said that when people went into the master bedroom and saw the photos on the dresser, they realized that he wasn't just a volunteer...he was the actual homeowner. That was the catalyst for a flurry of questions. Sometimes they asked about Disney Cruise Line, but often they were full of questions about our house. How many bedrooms and bathrooms did it have? What was the total square footage? (Although officially dubbed the "Holiday Home Tour," many people take it primarily to see the inside of the various Celebration home styles).

Those who realized that I was also an owner peppered me with questions, too. Many had never been all the way back to Roseville Corner and East Village, so they didn't even know that there were duplexes and triplexes in Celebration. They wanted to know how many units were in our building, whether the soundproofing was good, and all sorts of other logistical questions. I was more than happy to answer; since I've done the tour twice as a looky-loo, I understand their curiosity. I always liked the houses where the homeowners were on hand, as I got a kick out chatting with them. Now I was on the other side, so I could repay those previous years.

It was an exhausting weekend, but so much fun! My only regret was that I never managed to slip away to see the other houses. I was having such a blast greeting people at Duloc Manor that the day was over before I even realized it. Both Saturday and Sunday whizzed by at lightning speed.

My favorite compliment came from one visitor who said, "We toured all of the huge mansions, but your house is my favorite. The mansions were nice, but most of the decorations were cold. I love the personal touches here. This is the kind of place that a person can live in."

Yes, Duloc Manor is a lived-in and much-loved little home. I'm glad that the tour-goers picked up on that warmth and that we were able to share our love of the holiday season with a few hundred people this year.

If you haven't already, click here for a pictorial tour of Duloc Manor decked out for the Holiday House Tour.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Home for the Holidays

This is my first holiday season living full time in Florida. After being born in the Windy City and living there all four decades of my life, I wondered if I would be lonely for my hometown. We're returning in January to see our family and friends, but my worries were piqued by Christmas song propaganda: "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays," and other such cheery tunes. No matter how much I love Florida, I wondered...would the holiday season bring a sense of melancholy? I remember the (brief) sense of sadness when we loaded the pets into Canyonero last January and set off on our 1200 mile trek to Celebration. Would it possibly resuface in stereotypical holiday style?

Amazingly, I don't feel one whit of homesickness! I love Christmas in Florida, with festive activities around every corner. The Osborne lights at Disney World, Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, the nightly soap-snow downtown, the Christmas show at Dixie Stamplede, the Ice display at the Gaylord Palms...those are just a few small examples of holiday activities in the Celebration area. How can I feel homesick when there is so much to do?

If I do feel a nagging bit of longing for my northern roots, it can easily be salved through the power of the internet. For example, one of my yearly Chicago traditions was listening to radio stattion WLIT, which plays 24 hours of Christmas music non-stop throughout the holiday season.

I don't know if there is an equivalent station in Orlando, but my husband pointed out that I don't need to find one. I can stream WLIT on my laptop, and not only am I serenaded by Christmas carols, but I can also revel in "local" commercials and news items about Mayor Daley's power struggles and multi-car pileups on the Dan Ryan to help me feel at home.

The shivery weather forecasts remind me of just how lucky I am. I was a bit miffed this morning to wake up to gray, rainy skies and a temperature of 70. In Chicago, it's 18 arctic degrees, and it will drop into the single digits overnight before rising to a blazing heat wave of 22 by the weekend. Better yet, tomorrow they're expecting an inch of snow. Ugh! I'll take 70 degrees any day, even if it's damp and murky.

So far, I've enjoyed the music selection today, although Shakin' Stevens and Elton John have been conspicuously absent from the mix. They haven't played "Mary's Boy Child" either...I know that the Little River Band version is obscure, but Harry Belafonte is a classic. Oh well, at least they tossed in "Do They Know It's Christmas," and they're played John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" three times already.

One thing I've never understood is why WLIT plays "My Favorite Things" from "The Sound of Music" as a Christmas song. Huh?! Sure, it has a few references to things like silver-white winters, sleigh rides, warm woolen mittens, and brown paper packages tied up with string, but that's really a stretch. Raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, and bright copper kettles just don't put me in a holiday mood. Worse yet, the dog bites and bee stings are downright depressing.

Today, I discovered another bit of Chicago nostalgia online that not only transports me geographically but also sends me on a journey back in time. Windy City Baby Boomers grew up with Frasier Thomas and Garfield Goose on WGN-Channel 9 and spent their noontime watching Bozo the Clown. At Christmas, their eyes were glued to the screen as some old friends returned to town: Suzy Snowflake and a trio of elves named Hardrock, Coco, and Joe. If you're not from Chicago, this probably means nothing to you. If you are, I'm willing to bet that strains of "Ole olady olday i oh" are dancing through your brain.

Suzy and the elves star in two scratchy black-and-white shorts. Their primative stop-motion animation makes Rudolph look like Pixar by comparison. Worse yet, the slanty-eye Santa with his tongue sticking out is the stuff of nightmares! But when you're a starry-eyed tot, caught up in the magic of the Christmas season, these cute little dittys becomes a beloved part of your holiday. Like clockwork, you can count on them to return year after year.

I think that Hardrock, Coco, Joe, and Suzy might have taken a hiatus during my teenage years and on into my twenties. Fraiser and Garfield had left the air, but I heard that the Christmas shorts were occasionally resurrected on the Bozo show. I was too busy getting on with life to spare much attention to old childhood "friends."

Now, through the magic of the internet, I can immerse myself back in nostalgic memories. If you're a fellow Chicagoan who would like to see those Christmas clips again, click here view them on WGN's website. You'll have to sit through a commercial first, but don't'll get to see the whole song.

There's an irony in watching Suzy Snowflake dance across a white powdered landscape while palm trees sway outside my window. As a kid and young adult, shivering my way through frigid Chicago winters, I never imagined that someday I'd be basking in balmy December sunshine next door to Mickey Mouse. I spent many pre-Christmas weeks at Disney World, and it always broke my heart to head back to the wintery north. How I wished I could stay forever!

It's no wonder that I don't feel in Celebration, I am home.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Teeming Holiday Masses

The teeming holiday masses have arrived!

They're a little early this year, although I suspect that the crowd might thin out next week. Maybe there are still some leftovers from Thanksgiving who rolled the long holiday weekend into an extended vacation. Usually the first two weeks of December are relatively slow at Disney, but last night the Magic Kingdom was packed wall-to-wall with revelers.

We've been to Disney-MGM to see the Osborne lights already, but hubby was itching to visit Mickey on his home turf: the venerable Magic Kingdom. His Christmas is never complete without seeing the decorations on Main Street and oogling at the giant tree. We decided to go on Saturday, since the park was open till 11 p.m. (during this season, it often closes early to make way for Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, a separate, ticketed event).

Hubby was hoping for a ride or two; at the very least, he figured we could grab a Fast Pass and walk around until the appointed time. He wanted to ride one of the roller coasters; my preference was Space Mountain, as I like rocketing around in the darkness. But I wasn't very hopeful, as I suspected that the crowd density was going to be much higher than he thought.

With Annual Passes in hand, we headed down World Drive towards the toll gate. Once you turn off Celebration Blvd., it's a straight shot to Mickey Land...only eight miles from our front door. I love driving under the ornate red- and purple-lit archway that announces my arrival at Disney World. As I head towards the toll gate, I always notice the Epcot monorail track that parallels my journey. Often, a sleek monorail train will whoosh by overhead. It's an ambiance that I'll never get tired of.

It was after 7 p.m., so I was surprised by the number of cars ahead of us at the toll plaza, and the parking lot was still jam-packed with cars. That didn't bode well for the crowd density.

Once you have parked, you can get to the Magic Kingdom by boat or monorail. We opted for "Disney's highway in the sky," which turned out to be a time-consuming prospect. For some reason, the train before the one we boarded sat in the station for an interminable amount of time. In my mind, I could hear "Jeopardy" music as I waited for the darned thing to go on its way. Finally it left, and another train glided up a few minutes later. We packed in like Japanese subway riders and pulled out of the station...only to come to a stop. Sigh! Another wait.

I knew we'd reach our destination eventually, but between my sweatshirt and the mass of bodies, I was ready to die of heat prostration. Finally we resumed our journey and pulled into the Magic Kingdom station.

I've always loved the monorails. On my old computer, the shut-down sound was "Please stand clear of the doors. Por favor mantenganse alejado de las puertas." If you don't know that that is, you've never spent any time on the Disney transit system. After a week's vacation zipping around on the monorail trains, you'll be hearing that phrase in your sleep.

We joined the cattle herd tromping towards the park, and I (a master of stating the obvious) said, "Hmmmm, I don't think we're going to be riding Space Mountain." I'm also a master of understatement; a more accurate observation would have been, "I don't think we're going to be doing much of anything." With such a mass of humanity, even moving a few feet without being bowled over by a stroller piloted by a vacation-stormtrooper parent was questionable.

As we maneuvered down Main Street, we noticed people staking out parade spots. Hubby consulted his time guide and discovered that the parade didn't start until 9 p.m. It was only 7:30! I'm sorry, but no parade is worth killing an hour and a half risking hemorrhoids sitting on the cold cement and warding off potential spot-stealers with the zeal of a rabid pit bull.

We were quite disappointed to see that the Christmas tree had been moved. Overall, the park decorations were much more sparse than in years past. I guess we should have been prepared, since we'd already discovered the absence of the train at Disney-MGM, but the Magic Kingdom is the Crown Jewel Park. Even if there are cutbacks elsewhere, we had hoped that at least one park would still be decorated to the standard of years past.

My husband said he just wanted to make a round of the park. I'm always game for people-watching, so I agreed. We headed for Tomorrowland, where the Fast Passes were all gone and the wait for Space Mountain was nearly an hour. We did manage to sneak in a ride on the Wedway People Mover (it has some other god-awful name now, but it will always be Wedway to me).

The PeopleMover rarely has a line because it's a slow-moving, scenic attraction that doesn't appeal to the ADHD Instant Gratification Adrenaline Junkie culture. It takes you on an overhead tour of Tomorrowland, with suitably corny narration along the way. Its tame appearance belies its true viciousness...between Disneyland and Disney World, multiple people have met their gory end on Wedway. Of course, they were jumping out of the moving cars at the time, so it's hard to muster much sympathy.

My favorite part of the ride is the journey through Space Mountain. You can see the roller coaster cars maneuvering around the track in the darkness. When you're on them, it feels like you're moving fast, but watching them reveals that it's really a low-speed ride (28 m.p.h., just three miles faster than Celebration's speed limit).

The PeopleMover also takes you past a lighted model of Walt Disney's vision of the perfect community of the future. No, it doesn't look anything like Celebration; I often wonder just what old Uncle Walt would think of our New Urbanism-turned-Old-Suburban town.

I surpressed my urge to jump from car to car in mid-ride, and we managed to survive the Death Ride intact. We headed off towards Fantasyland, pausing along the way to buy necklaces with multi-colored flashing lights. They are very bright and have a replaceable battery, so they'll be perfect for night biking. Better yet, they were only $5 each. That's a real bargain for a Disney World souvenir.

We were hoping to hop onto Small World, but no such luck. Due to its obnoxious, brain-melting song, it often has no line. Unfortunately, the queue line was jam-packed with holiday park-goers. We passed it by, knowing that after Christmas it would be back to its normal walk-on status.

We headed into Frontierland and circled into Adventureland, which took us back to Main Street. Sadly, the Christmas decorations were few and far between. We always used to visit Disney World for the holidays, and the twinkling lights and wreaths and garland that thickly covered the parks always put me into a festive mood. Now, once we got past Main Street, I had to strain to see the sparse decorations. Celebration's Market Street is decidely more festive than the Mouse House.

Another thing I miss is the red and green lights at the Contemporary. All of the balconies have white lights, and at Christmas time, they used to be changed to red and green. Now, the white bulbs remain, and another special "Disney touch" is lost to the ages.

By this time, we had worked up a healthy appetite, but the sit-down restaurants in the park were fully reserved and not taking walk-ups. We popped in to Guest Services to see if we could eat at one of the Magic Kingdom area hotels.

Our first choice was Ohana, and the Guest Services agent couldn't help but snicker at our wide-eyed optimism. Sure, Ohana might have an opening...and I might find a lump of gold in the cats' litterbox too. Both restaurants at the Poly were fully booked, but we managed to snag an opening at Artists Point in the Wilderness Lodge.

We decided to take a boat to the hotel. After our meal, we could sail back across the lake to the Magic Kingdom and then hop a monorail to the car. It was a beautiful night, with just the mildest hint of a chill...perfect for boating on Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon. In the darkness, our strobing necklaces had turned into epilepsy-inducing annoyances, so we turned them off before they triggered a group seizure in the tight quarters of the nautical conveyance.

The Wilderness Lodge is one of my favorite Disney resorts. It was the first one that hubby and I stayed at together, many years ago. I originally wanted to book the Contemporary, but it was full. The Lodge had just opened, and the cast member at CRO sang its praises in glowing terms. He said he had stayed there during a cast preview, and he described the rustic hewn logs, the enormous fireplace, and the shooting geyser. I acquiesced to his suggestion, and boy was I glad that I did! When my husband and I arrived, our jaws dropped as we stood in the lobby and gaped at the beauty of the National Park lodge replica. It was exquisite! We stayed there many more times, and now that we live in Celebration, we return frequently to partake of the godly mushroom soup at Artists Point. I never get enough, since they unfortunately don't sell it by the vat.

The restaurant was sparsely populated...a welcome relief from the sea of humanity that we'd left back at the Magic Kingdom. We indulged in mushroom soup, along with buffalo steak (hubby) and pan-seared scallops (me), with seasonal sorbet for dessert. We hiked back to the boat dock, moving slowly in deference to our full tummies, which were trying to redirect the bloodflow from our legs and brains.

It was past park closing time, so the crowd had slimmed down considerably. We trooped up the monorail ramp, where we only had to wait for a couple of trains to pass before we reached the front of the line. Unfortunately, we were stuck behind a blockage of strollers whose pilots gaped in mute awe, apparently unable to comprehend the simple task of either a) boarding; or b) getting the ^!%@# out of the way to let others do so. We couldn't get past them to enter the boarding chutes.

Finally, we managed to pass the gapers, but the chute gates were starting to swing closed. Being from Chicago, I pulled a Rachel Barton (for those unfamiliar with the Windy City's famous lawsuit, Rachel was a concert violinst who was boarding a commuter train as the door was closing. It closed with her on the outside and her violin inside. Rather than simply let go, she clung doggedly to the expensive instrument and lost a limb...but she did win the What's Personal Responsibility? Lottery, receiving a mega-million-dollar settlement for her lack of common sense). Both hubby and I slipped through the closing gates without losing any important appendages, and soon we were on our way to the parking lot.

The ride home was more exciting than a roller coaster. At park closing time, World Drive resembles the world's largest open-air bumper car course, with vehicles whipping wildly across the lanes or braking abruptly for no apparent reason other than to cause a crash. The excitement dimishes proportionally as you pass I-4 and get closer to Celebration, but it doesn't disappear. There are always one or two lost souls who make it all the way to Celebration Boulevard. Sure enough, we had a pair in front of us that managed to reach Water Street before realizing their mistake and suddenly U-turning in the middle of the road.

Our park visit wasn't quite what we had planned, but it was still a fun evening. Next up is Epcot, where I hope that the decorations at World Showcase will be up to traditional Disney standards. If not, the special holiday Illuminations finale will be worth it. We saw it last year and gaped in awe as the sky lit up bright as daytime and the ground shook from the mass explosion of fireworks that rivaled the Big Bang. This year, we can hear it each night from our house, and the distant explosions assure me that it's going to be just as good this time around.

Click here to visit my Life Coaching website or Click here for Flash resources to add interactivity to your own site.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: