Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Year's Worth of Pie in One Weekend

Last weekend was the annual pie festival, and it's a darned good thing that it only happens once a year. Within the space of one weekend, you can eat enough pie to last you an entire twelve months. While there are various events, such as bake-offs, pie eating contests, a make-your-own-pie booth for the kiddies, and even a Pie King, the crowning jewel is the Endless Pie Buffet. And let me assure you, it is indeed endless...for $8, you are turned loose to consume all of the crusty, creamy, and/or fruity delights that your belly can hold.

In case you don't believe me, here's a pic of me with the Pie King:

You can attend the other events without doing the buffet, but that is the piece de resistance of the event. And if you get any ideas about crashing, there are ominous black-shirted Pie Police who protect the sanctity of the gorge-fest.

Although I've attended the festival before, this was my first year volunteering. I was hoping to work with a friend on the early shift, but I ended up worked from 3 to 7 p.m. at the pie buffet. My husband dropped me off so I wouldn't take up a precious parking spot (parking in downtown Celebration is even more endangered than the Florida panther). There was so much traffic heading downtown that I jumped out of Crush (our NEV) a block away and still made it to the pie fest area before he did.

As I approached the check-in area, dark, ominous clouds rolled in as if on cue. I unfurled my umbrella, which I'd brought for just such an emergency, and hustled a bit more quickly towards the shelter of the check-in canopy. All around me, people were scattered under overhangs and other sheltered areas as we were pelted with a typical Florida afternoon thunderstorm. Thankfully, like most of those storms, in only lasted for a few drenching minutes and then rolled out just as abruptly as it had arrived. It dropped just enough rain to soak everyone to the skin.

I had been issued my official Crisco blue volunteer t-shirt, so I hustled off to the Town Hall area to find my booth. I had been assigned to work with Bonert's Slice of Pie. My duties consisted mainly of replenishing the stock as needed and answering any questions. The most frequent, of course, was "What kind of pie is that?", and the answer was an ongoing challenge since we kept swapping out flavors. We also had to do a massive restocking, as the downpour had infiltrated some of the plastic pie containers, turning the crusts soggy. Quickly, we pitched those pieces and replaced with with pristine pies.

Bonert's sells a wide variety of pies...everything from conventional apple to more exotic varieties such as peach/pineapple empanadas. I was proudly able to inform our visitors that the company had won 16 blue ribbons in the bake-off.

The Bonert's booth turned out to be a perfect location, as it was right in front of Town Hall (with non-porta-potty bathrooms for volunteers) and right across from the bottled water station. On a day when the temperature is flirting in the 90s, it's good to be close to places where you can put lots of water in and then let it out.

Volunteers receive a free ticket to the buffet, and I had resolved to resist temptation on Saturday and return on Sunday to enjoy my reward. That lasted for a couple of hours, but then I succumbed to temptation. As I munched on a slice of award-winning cherry streusel, I told myself that it was my duty. After all, how could I recommend it to our visitors in good conscience unless I had taste-tested it myself?

I also had to indulge in a pie of French Silk from the nearby Baker's Square booth. That probably means nothing to Floridians, but Bakers Square is a chain that I grew up with in Illinois (it was originally known as Poppin Fresh). They make the best, most godly French Silk pie in the known universe, with a recipe stolen from the kitchens of Heaven. It's one of the few food items that I truly miss here in Florida. The photo doesn't do it justice:

French Silk isn't built to withstand the opressive heat; I only made it about halfway through my slice before the rest had disintigrated into a sloppy, melted mess. But oh, it tasted sooooo good! It almost made me homesick for Illinois...almost, but not quite.

The time raced by quickly, and soon it was nearly 7. I knew I would have to hustle, since my husband and I had tickets to see "Fiddler on the Roof," as presented by the Celebration Players, at 8. After four hours in the unrelenting Florida sun, I had to have a shower or I would likely clear out our whole section of the theater.

Hubby pulled up right on the dot, and I hopped into Crush along with a little stash. My husband adores strawberry rhubarb, so I brought some home for him (and some pumpkin for me).

I leaped into the shower for a quick body cleansing, and then we dashed off to Celebration High School for the play. We had excellent seats (second row center) and were duly impressed with the high-energy performance. There is a lot of talent in the Celebration area, and our community theater groups are a great medium for spot-lighting it. The casting was excellent, and I was quite impressed that the singing remained strong throughout. "Fiddler" is a three-hour, song-intensive show, but the actors showed no sign of fatigue even as the clock approached 11 p.m. The sets were minimalist, but through the artful story-telling I could easily imagine the little town of Anatevka onstage.

"Fiddler" has always been one of my favorite shows, dating back to my early childhood. When I was six, I got it into my head that I wanted to see it. I have no clue where I had heard about it or what it was even about. At six, I was more concerned with dolls and building blocks than the plight of Russian Jews on the eve of the revolution. But I kept insisting that I wanted to see it; fortunately, the movie version was released shortly thereafter, so I finally got my wish.

I didn't understand all the nuances of the story, although my mother tried to explain them in ways a young child could understand. At the time, I was still innocent enough to be puzzled about why some people would hate others, and even drive them out of their homes, simply because of their religion. Mostly, I focused on the dancing and singing; my mother bought me a soundtrack album, and soon I knew all the music by heart.

Since that time, I've seen the movie countless times and have also seen a dinner theater production of the play. In comparison, I'm proud to say that Celebration's version definitely held its own against the professionals.

After the play, we went to Perkins for a very late dinner. As we sat at our booth, awaiting our food, I suddenly had a flashback. Arrgh! Post Traumatic Stress Disorder! My husband quickly figured out the ad for bakery-fresh Perkins pies on the table. Normally I loved their baked goods, but after a day of handing out pie slices (and imbibing myself), I wasn't ready to be confronted with any more pie.

The next day, I was toying with the idea of not returning to the buffet. Even though I had a complimentary pass, I had reached my saition level the day before. After church, we headed out to our favorite Indian buffet, so by the time we were done with that, I wasn't in the mood for any more food.

But as the afternoon wore on, the idea of another slice (or two...or three) was sounding more and more tempting. Pie for dinner would be a nice counterpoint to the spicy curry lunch. Our friends, who had eaten at the Indian buffet with us, convinced us through a bit of arm twisting. Thus, I soon found myself downtown again, flitting among the tables laden with sugary delights. I had some sugar cream pie and of course another slice of French Silk, and I commendeered half of my husband's slice of peanut butter pie. Here is the impressive aftermath of our pie binge:

Okay, okay, so maybe we didn't really eat all of that, but you've got to admit that it makes an impressive picture. And to top off the day, the Bonert's rep. at the booth where I had worked the previous day gifted me with a company t-shirt. I lorded it over my friend, who had worked at the booth next door and who hadn't been gifted with anything. She marched over to her former "employer" and returned with a tote bag, and we spent some time bickering over whose free premium was superior.

But alas, the Pie Festival was ending for another year. Slowly we dragged our curry- and pie-filled bodies back to Crush for the drive home (in restrospect, we should have walked as we could have used the enforced exercise). It had been a fun time, but I knew that I wouldn't be wanted a slice of pie any time soon. I figure I should be ready in about twelve months...right around the time that the endless pie buffet rolls into town once again.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

New Easter Traditions

Ever since we moved to Florida, we've been creating new holiday traditions. In Chicago, our holidays alternated between going to my brother's house for dinner or taking a cruise to avoid going to my brother's house to dinner.

In theory, when we came to Celebration, I thought that we might return to Chicago for the "big" holidays. In practice, I discovered that I have no desire to do so. That may be influenced by the fact that the "Big Three" holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter) fall during times of the year when sunshine, heat, and palm trees are preferable to cold, snow, and bluster. With free long distance and unlimited cell phone minutes, it's easy to reach out and touch northern family members aurally while physically revelling in southern comfort.

Last Christmas, we started the "hair in the Chinese food" tradition (loosely based on a "A Christmas Story," although the hair part is pure can find full details in a previous blog entry). Now, for Easter, we started a ritual called "Breaking and Consumption of the Politically Correct Praying Hands."

The day actually started on a relatively low-key note. We were planning to attend the 11 a.m. church service, as usual, but friends urged us to opt for 9:45 so we wouldn't be buried in the massive church-twice-a-year-at-Christmas-and-Easter crowd. Our church normally holds services at 8:30 and 11 a.m. The 9:45 service had been added to accommodate the holiday masses; since it is at a non-standard time, it tends to be the least crowded. Humans are creatures of habit, and many don't want to take the leap of resetting their internal schedules for a week. No problem...all the better for those who are flexible!

After the service, we planned to join our friends for lunch at Carrabba's, a wonderful Italian restaurant that is normally open for dinner only. It only serves lunch on holidays, so we planned on an early meal after church.

Both the service and the lunch were non-eventful (chicken with sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese...mmmm!). The only slight excitement was a spirited disagreement between my husband and I on which direction to turn on 192. For some reason, I continually confuse Carrabba's with Pacini's, which is to the right. But the correct way is to the left, as my husband vigorously reminded me. I followed his directions, mumbling dissention the whole way as I inched through the bumper-to-bumper tourist traffic, and soon he had the pleasure of chanting, "I told you so!" (It's a rare pleasure for him, so it was especially sweet.)

Once we returned home, we decided to take a dip in the hot tub. We were just about to don our swimwear when the phone was the friends we had just dined with, inviting us over for a capper of Publix Fine Wine Product (aka Wild Vines blackberry merlot) and a dip in their pool. It sounded like a good plan to us, so we put on our swimsuits and hopped into Crush (our NEV) for the journey to West Village.

Even though I've turned from a heaty Chicagoan polar bear to a Floridian wimp where water temperature is concerned, the solar heater had warmed to pool to a comfortable level. As we paddled around, I marveled at the wonder of living in a climate where Easter is a time for pool parties.

But we did give proper deference to the season by the ritual "Breaking and Consumption of the Politically Correct Praying Hands." Our hosts had Easter chocolate in a variety of sacred shapes (in the photo below, their son is enjoying a chocolate cross sucker in the "holy waters" of the hot tub):

And what better way to honor both the religious and secular aspects of the holiday than to cap it off with chocolate praying hands? Better yet, politically correct praying hands! Below, I am holding the sacred plate containing both Caucasian and Person of Color praying hands:

Why bite the ears off a pagan-inspired cholate bunny when you can chew on a Christian finger or two? The hands didn't last long in their pristine state. Within moments of the photo, they were broken into pieces and consumed in the spirit of the day.

I am an Equal Opportunity supporter, so I made sure to consume both milk chocolate and white chocolate hand chunks. They made a lovely topper to the earlier Italian feast.

As I floated in the cool blue water, chewing on a last hunk of chocolate, I pondered the interesting turn that our holiday traditions have taken. I knew it would be a big change to move to Celebration, but somehow I never pictured finding a hair in the Chinese beef on Christmas or chowing on praying hands in a pool on Easter. Yes, I have a vivid imagination, but those ideas were beyond even my warped mind.

But the new traditions are so much fun! I knew I'd love life in Celebration, but I never expected such a surreal adventure. I don't even try to imagine what the next new tradition or adventure will be. I just sit back and enjoy the ride.

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Sangria, Hot Tubs, and Hot Mommas

Last Friday was the latest meeting of the Mickey Mommas, Celebration's premiere social group. It was a rather low-key gathering, considering that in the past we've done everything from stalk Davy Jones to visit the Cypress Cove nudist colony. But it involved sangria, snack food, and a hot tub, which was more than enough to keep the Mommas happy.

We met at one of our member's homes; since it was a potluck, I made a stop to Perkins first. My expertise in the kitchen extends to punching a microwave button, so I generally pick up a fresh-baked Perkins pie when a food item is called for.

Actually, to be fair to my inner-chef, I do make good chili and Mexican fideo, as well as decent cookies and cup cakes. "Foods" was one of my favorite classes in high school; I had two kitchen mates, but one was always getting suspended and rarely even spoke to us. Thus, my other partner and I would cook up elaborate creations like home-made German chocolate cake or flaky-crusted pies brimming with fresh fruit, and we'd make the poor "outcast" wash the dishes. Then we'd cut her a piece of whatever we had whipped up, and we'd split the rest between ourselves. I had study hall right after Foods class, but I was a student aid so I got to spend the period in an empty classroom with the other aides. We were probably supposed to do something useful like grade papers, but instead we all sat around, gossiped, and chowed down on my kitchen creations.

But alas, that was many years ago; now I leave the household cooking to my husband and the potluck chores to Perkins or Publix. I selected an apple/carmel pie as my contribution to the Mommas buffet.

I arrived at the appointed time, and our hostess produced two pitchers of libations, one containing margaritas and the other brimming with sangria. I had to opt for the sangria as it looked so tempting, with chunks of fruit floating enticingly on a ruby red river of liquid.

Despite the fact that our High Priestess/Official Photographer likes to take photos of me with at least two drinks in my grubby little paws, let me assure my readers that the margarita in the photo below is for prop purposes only:

There was a large turn-out of Mommas, and we all gathered around to enjoy the rapidly spreading buffet. There were all sorts of appetizers and some pasta dishes, a lovely fruit plate, and little cream puff pastries. I quickly became addicted to the crackers topped with a yummy cream cheese mixture. We all imbibed in food and drink, then moved the party over to the pool.

Even though it was a lovely, warm evening, the Mommas gravitated to the hot tub. What is more quntessentially "Florida" than luxurating in a hot tub, with a round of mojitos in hand?

Better yet, I reminded myself that it was mid-April. Back in the midwest, I would most likely have been holed up our condo, suffering from cabin fever and cursing the blustery winds extend winter's chill and delay spring's arrival. In Chicago, you don't even start thinking about using an outdoor pool until June. But here in Celebration, "winter" is a short snap of 40-degree nights and 60-degree days that is Heaven on earth for someone who is sick of cold and snow.

Still, as Floridians, we gravitated away from the rather chilly pool water to comfy 95 degree environs of the hot tub. We spent some very pleasant time chatting while the evening sped away...before I know it, it was 11 p.m. We had promised to drive our neighbors to their cruise pick-up on I-Drive the next morning, so I knew I would need to reluctantly drag myself away from the fun.

I had driven Crush (my NEV), so just in case the effects of sangria and mojitos had transformed me into a danger on the road, I figured that the little plastic vehicle wouldn't pose much of a danger. (Actually, I had only had a couple of drinks in total, so I knew it would be safe to drive back to East Village...otherwise, I would have called hubby to pick me up in Canyonero.)

Sure, it hadn't been a celebrity stalking (although Davy is due back at Disney next month, so I suspect we'll be on our way to Epcot soon) or a romp among naked bodies, but it had been great fun. Sometimes it's nice just to laze around, munch on goodies, have a drink or two (or three) and relax in the warm, bubbling water. The Mommas chalked up another meeting success!

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Gee Gee and Paw Paw

Once upon a time, back in the days when Duloc Manor was little more than a sandy lot spotted with deer tracks, my husband and I would try to imagine what our little cul de sac would someday become. We have vivid imaginations, but I don't think either of us could have ever pictured the neat little neighborhood that would spring up around the "croquet field" park or the neighbors who would someday populate our world.

When we bought our house, we had a choice between two units. Triplexes have two mirror-image units on the end and a larger unit in the middle. We had already ruled out the middle because even though it had an extra bedroom, I am a sunlight fanatic and didn't like the fact that it only had two outside walls. Thus, we were left to choose between the right- and left-hand sides.

Originally we chose the right-hand unit because it had a larger side lot. In Celebration, many homes are so close that you could reach out a side window and shake hands with your next-door neighbor as they reach out theirs. But due to the curve of the property, there was a vast space between the right-hand unit and the house next door. Even though it wasn't built yet, the space was plainly visible on the plans. Also, due to the placement of the garage, the backyard would be longer.

But somehow we weren't quite sure of our choice. Even though the left-hand unit would be right up next to the neighbors, that didn't really bother me. I had grown up in Chicago, where rows of brick bungalows are routinely placed inches apart. I liked the fact that the left side would have a single garage vs. a shared building for the middle and right-hand units. Then we discovered that the left unit would have french doors to close off the front room, while it would be an open space in the other. I liked the idea of being able to close it; if we got a futon, it would make a nice guest room with a little privacy. The decision was made...I contacted the builder and flip-flopped our choice.

Over the weeks and months of construction, we visited the burgeoning Duloc Manor as often as we could. In Celebration, it's a tradition for the builder to erect a "Sold" sign listing the names of the buyers. My husband wouldn't let me put anything "cute" on ours, but people often choose to put nicknames or other amusing appellations. One day I noticed the sign on the house next door, which boldly declared "Gee Gee and Paw Paw." Yikes! What on Earth could a Gee Gee and a Paw Paw be? I couldn't help but picture a doddering old couple making their way shakily onto the front porch to wave their canes and holler at us whippersnappers for causing a ruckus. I never could have imagined the real Gee Gee and Paw Paw or that fact that in a couple of years we'd be out partying with them at Buca di Beppo in celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary.

Fast forward to the present day...Duloc Manor is long since built and has lost that "model home" look and new construction smell. It's looking rather lived-in, which is a nice way of saying that cat hair tumbleweeds float lazily across the floor and we're constantly scrubbing cat barf off the carpet.

We have become quite close to Gee Gee and Paw Paw, who are indeed older in chronological years but who have been known to wear me out. I've visited Epcot with them, and they ran me into the ground! They're always on the go, in the center of a whirlwind of activity...everything from watching their granddaughter ride in horseshows to jetting off to England. They often stop by for a cup of coffee, or we pop over to their place for homemade waffles. It's the quintessential Celebration, with friendly neighbors knocking on the back door or gathering to chat on front porches.

This year was their 50th wedding anniversary, and their daughter was planning a surprise family get-together at Buca Di Beppo (an Italian restaurant geared towards large groups). She invited us to attend, since they've all but adopted us. Unfortunately, I didn't tell my husband that it was a surprise, so he nearly let the cat out of the bag.

We were chatting in the backyard, and our neighbor said, "Maybe we can go to the Indian restaurant buffet on Sunday." Hubby piped up, "Oh, no, that's Buca day!"

"Uh, DEAR," I snapped, shooting him a death look, "I think it's time to water the flowers in front."

"What's Buca?" asked our neighbor.

"I think it's time to water those flowers NOW!" I said a little more forcefully...thankfully, light dawned in hubby's eyes and he refrained from further comment, even though she asked, "What's Buca?" once again.

Later in the week, while my husband was out of town, my neighbor stopped by to chat about Sunday. "I know we're doing something," she said, "and I want to get a photographer, but my daughter won't tell me where we're going."

"Uh, yeah, sure," I said, standing in the family room with my arms crossed in a posture of body language that subtly stated, "It's time for you to leave now."

"You mentioned you have a friend who's a photogapher."

"Oh yeah. Well, give me your daugher's phone number and I can talk to her about it." (Inside, I was feeling paranoid. Had my husband's Buca comment tipped her off? Was she trying to get more information out of me? How the heck was I going to get rid of her before she asked me outright?)

Having picked up on my uncharacteristically inhospitable attitude, she finally retreated. Little did I know that she had tried to contact her daughter, who was also avoiding her so she wouldn't be tempted to spill the secret! Even though Gee Gee and Paw Paw knew they were going to some type of dinner, there were going to be a few "surprise" guests, including a grandson just home from the military and their surrogate "mom." Their daughter was afraid that she wouldn't be able to keep it to herself for much longer, so she wouldn't return their phone calls.

On the appointed day, hubby and I were out in the hot tub when our neighbors piled into their car to head to the restaurant (they had directions but still didn't know full details). We waved goodbye until they were out of sight, then hustled out of the tub and ran upstairs to shower and change.

We had directions from Mapquest that got us there quickly and expediently, but our neighbors had gotten lost. Ironically, they arrived at the exact same moment as we did...and cut me off in order to grab the sole remaining parking spot in the main lot! My husband laughed as the car cut in and said, "Oh, look, that's them!" Since they had no idea that we were coming, they hadn't recognized Canyonero. We later learned that Paw Paw had muttered, "Sorry, buddy, but I need that spot!" After getting lost and burning up time searching for the restaurant, he didn't want to spend any more time searching for a spot.

We parked in the back and caught up with them at the entrance...the look on their faces was priceless! "Hey, weren't you just in the hot tub?!" they exclaimed. Now I could finally explain while I'd nearly slugged my husband on that fateful day when he was babbling about Buca and why I was so unfriendly when my poor neighbor had tried to visit.

Soon we were all gathered inside, enjoying a champagne toast, house wine, and a variety of delicious Italian dishes while listening to amusing tales of the half century that Gee Gee and Paw Paw had spent together. As we tucked into our meal, I couldn't help but think back to those pre-construction days when I had wondered what life in Celebration would be like. Would we have a good street? Good neighbors? Had we made the right choice in picking our unit? Little did I know that we had made the best choice possible and that not too far in the future we'd be partying with some of the very best neighbors in the whole town.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Oops! (A Tale of Forgetfulness)

I am one of those people with a built-in alarm clock in their brain. If I need to wake up at a certain time, I will invariably do so. I might not be all that conscious, and it might be a struggle to actually force my body out of bed, but at least my eyes will open and my brain will be functional enough to note, "Oh, it's 6 a.m." (or whatever).

I usually set my alarm clock anyway, but it's pointless because I wake up a few minutes before the annoying buzz. Only once in my life did my internal alarm ever fail me. It was like one of those dreams where you oversleep and miss something really important, only that time it was real. It happened many years ago, when I used to ride my horse in local shows. I was at a friend's house, spending the night with a group of people before a show. We stayed up till the wee hours playing Colecovision (yes, I am that old) and slept right through wake-up time the next morning. By the time any of us rolled out of bed, half the show was over. I was able to ride in a couple of classes, but I missed the ones I had been looking forward to most.

Still, in four decades of life, only one major screw-up isn't such a bad track record. But recently I nearly had another one...not because my alarm clock failed, but rather because my memory did. If my mental alarm hadn't gone off and saved the day, my poor husband would have been crammed in a middle seat on his flight home, probably cursing me under his breath the entire way since a weather delay stretched it out an extra hour.

When hubby returns to Chicago, he flies on Southwest Airlines. For those who aren't familiar with SW's boarding routine, they don't have any assigned seats. It's a first come, first served cattle call more akin in a Greyhound bus than an airplane.

But there is one small bit of organization in the midst of the chaos. SW boards in groups, which are designated A, B, and C. The first 40 people to check in get A, and so on. The As get to board the plane first, followed by Bs and Cs respectively. Thus, if you are an A, you'll have your pick of seats. If you're towards the front of the line, you can probably even score an exit row.

If you're a B, you'll generally still be able to get an aisle or a window, although it might be towards the back of the plane. If you're with a group of people, your chances of sitting together are still pretty good.

If you're a C, forget it. Resign yourself to sitting in the next to last row of the plane, in a middle seat between two professional football line backers. Behind you will be a hyperactive child who only pauses long enough to refuel with another dose of sugar before kicking out Morse code messages on your seatback for the duration of the flight, and the man in front of you will recline in your lap the entire way (and you'll soon realize, as you watch his dandruff flake off into your lap, that he forgot to use deodorant). There will be at least one screaming baby in close proximity, and if you're really lucky, its mother will decide to calm it by changing its poopy diaper on her tray table.

With all that bad C karma, an entire industry has sprung up around garnering a coveted A pass. There are websites where travelers actually pay to have someone check them in as soon as the clock ticks over at the 24 hour mark, when online check-in opens up. During the busiest times of the year, if you don't check in within the first hour (or sometimes even 30 minutes), you'd better resign yourself to lowly B or C status.

Hubby checks himself in when he can, but he doesn't always have access to a computer at the appointed time. Since both of my jobs revolve around my laptop, I'm almost always online, so I take care of it when he can't. That was the case on his last trip, and I set my mental alarm clock to go off precisely at 6:35 p.m. Florida time. I could simply toggle over to the Southwest website and snag him a coveted A. Then, with any luck, he could get his favorite exit row window seat.

I filed these thoughts in the back of my mind, and apparently the paperwork slipped behind the drawer in my mental filing cabinet. A friend called to ask if I'd like to have dinner at Max's, and I said, "Sure!" I had been thinking about running to A & W for a hot dog (which would have given me plenty of time to get home by the magic check-in moment), but I never realized that a sitdown meal would not fit into the timeframe.

We climbed into Crush (my NEV) and headed downtown. Soon we were busily tucking into delicious, cheesy chicken casserole. As we ate, I happened to mention my husband...and boink! The mental timer popped up, just like one of those plastic gadgets that pops out of a Thanksgiving turkey when its done.

"Oh my God!" I gasped, staring at my watch in horror. It was already five minutes past check-in time, and there I was in the middle of Downtown Celebration, nowhere near Duloc Manor and my trusty PC. In the time it would take me to get to Crush (parked a block away) and to rush home (I use the term "rush" loosely, since my turtle-NEV typically tops out at 23-24 MPH), I knew that the A passes would most likely be history.

In a panic, I told myself, "Think! Think!" Surely there was somewhere downtown with internet access. I would have called someone to do the check-in for me, but unfortunately all of the information was in my email. I needed to pull it up before I could actually do anything.

Since it was nearly a quarter to seven, most offices were closed. Next, my mind started frantically searching for people I know who live within walking distance of Max's. Bingo! One of my friends is an original Celebration resident, way back from the distant days of the lottery, and she lives on one of the very first streets. It was a few blocks away, but if I jogged I might still have half a chance to score a precious A.

I whipped out my cell phone and dialed her number...she wasn't home, but thankfully her husband was. He probably thought I was insane as I babbled out my tale of boarding passes and forgetfulness and the need for immediate internet access, but he said, "Sure, come on over."

I left my purse as a token of good faith and shouted to the waitress "I'll be back, I swear!" as I burst out the door like a mad woman. I must have been quite a sight, jogging down the street in capris and flip flops. I whipped down Market Street, across Celebration Avenue, and out behind the church, covering the distance in record time. Blocks had never seemed so long before; I felt that the rows of houses were stretched out to infinity, like a mirror reflecting a mirror reflecting a mirror...

Finally I reached my destination, and my friend's husband had a laptop all booted up and waiting. Quickly I retrieved the information, plugged it into the Southwest site, held my breath, and clicked the mouse. I felt like I was playing a slot machine...come on A, come on...victory! I had managed to squeak in as #34 of 40. Since you line up at the gate in the order you arrive, not in the order you check in, #34 was just as good as #1.

I sprinted back to Max's...not as frantically but still at a brisk pace so my dinner companion and the waitress wouldn't think I had skipped out on the bill (although I supposed they could have raided my purse). I had made it in 10 minutes, and my dinner was still relatively warm.

That night, I told my husband the story of my senior moment and the adventure of the A pass. He is a very laid back person, so it didn't phase him in the least. Still, I'm sure he was glad that I'd managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat when he was on his flight the next day. That was the day that tornados ravaged Tennessee and the surrounding states. The storms went up over 50,000, so hubby's flight had to be totally rerouted. Normally it's a two hour flight, but it stretched out well over three hours. I'm sure he was glad to be in his usual roomy spot instead of cramped in some undesirable C seat.

It will be a while before I need to do an online check-in again, but you can bet that I'll never lose track of the time again. I may have a swiss-cheese 40-something-year-old mind, but the memory holes of online check-in will be forever plugged with a vivid recollection of running down Market Street in a panic. There's nothing like a little trauma to keep your memory at its peak.

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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Gaylord Taco in a Bag

Yes, I know that the title of this blog post looks like a weird combination of words. But it actually describes one of the highlights of this weekend's "Relay for Life," held at Lakeside Park in Celebration.

The Relay for Life is a fund-raiser to fight breast cancer. Various teams have walkers who participate in an overnight relay event. Here in Celebration, the teams set up tents at Lakeside offering food, games, raffles, silent auctions, movies, and various other ways to raise money. Team members also set up tents to camp out for the all-nighter.

I didn't even realize that any festivities were going on until a friend called me. I had thought it was simply a walking event. Once I found out there was more to it, I hopped into Crush and headed downtown.

Ah, the delights of owning a NEV! Even though parking was rather atrocious, I found a spot that was too small for a car but perfect for my little Neighborhood Electric Vehicle. It was still a bit far from Lakeside, but I figured that if there were food booths, I could use the extra hike to justify an extra calorie or two (or 200).

So what does all this have to do with Gaylord Taco in a Bag? Well, one of the booths was sponsored by the Gaylord Palms resort hotel (that name alone conjures up all sorts of vivid mental images). They offered Mexican style food, including something with the intriguing name "taco in a bag." That name is even more interesting than the name of the hotel itself!

Since I hadn't had dinner yet, I decided to go on a culinary adventure. I had seen others with taco in a bag, so I knew it was a creation prepared in a bag of Fritos. Apparently they open the bag, toss in typical taco fixin's such as salsa, sour cream, lettuce, etc., and shake the whole mess up. Tada! A portable taco facsimile.

I forked over $2 and received my official Gaylord Taco in a Bag. My friend, who was immortalizing Relay for Life via digital camera, snapped a photo as I stuffed the Frito-laced mix into my mouth. The photo is below, and please note that the word alongside my head does not describe my personal orientation (it does, however, appeal to my warped sense of humor):

We then decided to do a Flat Stanley-style photo-documentary of my experiences with Taco in a Bag. It was disappearing quite rapidly, but we did manage to get an artsy-fartsy shot of me and my Frito bag posed in front of the lake at sunset that will be featured at next year's Art Festival:

Alas, my portable taco sack didn't last much longer. I had managed to fish out the condiments, and all that was left was a clot of soggy Fritos at the bottom, so I put it out of its misery in the nearest trash can.

I had a cupcake for dessert and tried my luck at some of the games. My favorite was the Easter egg game, where you chose two eggs for $8 and received the prizes named inside. Every egg was a winner, containing a gift certificate for at least $5, so at the very least you'd come out $2 ahead. But the amounts ranged all the way up to $25, so you had a chance to triple your initial investment. While I didn't manage that, my investment in four eggs ($16) yielded two $10 IHOP gift certificates, one $10 Village Merchantile certificate, and a $5 Starbucks card, for a total of $35. In Celebration, the value of plastic eggs shoots up almost as quickly as the house prices!

By that time, night was falling, and colorful party lights twinkled on the tents, adding to the festive air. Unfortunately, the bugs were out in force to enjoy the human blood buffet, so I decided that it was time to return to Duloc Manor. I'm glad I discovered that Relay for Life is more than just a walk around the lake, and you can be sure that I'll be back next year.

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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Road Closed

Ah, the never-ending entertainment of the Disney area at peak season! It's spring break, so the roads are packed with tourists putting on a continual road show on 192. One of the best spots to witness the amusement is on a neat little shortcut road from World Drive to west 192. I'm withholding the name because I'm well aware of the internet's reach and my blog's large readership numbers. If you're ambitious enough to do a little research and find the street, then you deserve to use it...but I'm not going to hand it out on a silver platter.

It's an obscure-looking little road that runs between a cow pasture and swampland. Natives know its value, but visitors tend to avoid it because there is no signage to declare its status as a quick and easy way to Disney World (us locals have to keep some secrets or we'd never get anywhere in the summer). Better yet, as you make the turn from 192, there is a sign stating "Road Closed." It frightens off a lot of the more adventurous drivers looking for shortcuts.

Unfortunately, now that I-4 is under construction, the secret road is an official detour to get to the expressway. When I first saw the giant flashing sign directing traffic onto the secret street, I cringed. Now people would find out about it and carry it with them in their memory banks, clogging it up for years to come.

But interestingly enough, even with the detour sign, people still seem to avoid it like the plague. It looks so obscure that they seem to think it's some sort of trick. Better yet, the "Road Closed" sign is still there; its mixed message blows the circuitry of their already overloaded minds, which are filled to capacity with commando theme park touring plans.

Over the past week, my husband and I have seen several amusing entertainment spectacles on our little road. The two best were two separate carloads of people who were both flummoxed by the discrepancy between the flashing detour sign and the ominous "Road Closed" that came into view as soon as they made the turn. The first occured one afternoon as we waited to make a left onto 192. A rental vehicle came whipping around the turn off 192, then screeched to an adrupt halt before swerving off to the side of the road. The dust cloud they kicked up bore a swirling testament to Florida's month-long drought.

Since it takes forever to get a green light to make the turn, hubby and I had a while to observe which sign the tourists would decide was the true gospel. Apparently, they weren't gutsy enough to see if the road was indeed closed, as they whipped around and made a right onto 192, driving off for parts unknown. Where was their sense of adventure? Didn't they want to see why the road was closed? Did they fear that it was infested with man-eating gators? Did they think they might hurl off a bridge that would suddenly disappear beneath them, plunging them into a bottomless swamp? Were they afraid that it might lead to a secret backstage area of Disney where they'd catch a quick glimpse of a headless Mickey before Men in Black descended on them and turned them into Audio-Animatronic figures for the revamped "Pirates of the Caribbean"?

In Chicago, "Road Closed" signs are view not as a warning, but as a challenge. In my old hometown, shortly before I moved, a road along the railroad was shut down for reconstruction. I could see it from the company where I worked, and I lost count of the people off-roading on the jackhammered blacktop, dodging chunks that stuck up like boulders, to save the whole extra minute that a one-street detour would have cost them. On closed-down expressway lanes, I've seen vehicles nearly plummet off missing overpasses because they didn't heed the twenty or so signs proclaiming "Bridge Out!" "We Mean It!" "We REALLY, REALLY Mean It, You Idiot!"

But I guess that the stress of a family vacation negates an adventurous streak. And besides, here in Florida, we can shoot anyone who we feel poses a threat with impunity. Natives like myself might view those who learn about the shortcut as a threat...after all, they do threaten our ability to get around traffic jams in the summer. For all the poor tourists know, a tribunal of armed natives could be waiting at World Drive with their rifles. "You know too much!" BLAM! Any judge who lives near a theme park would let the shooter off with a slap and a wink.

The second occurrence was at night, as I turned onto the pitch black road from 192 to return to Celebratation from a Red Lobster dinner. That in itself was quite an adventure; when we pulled up, the dozens of people milling out front with menus and pagers almost made us bailed. But at the check-in podium, they said they could seat us right away. Turns out, we were the only party of two, and there are a number of booths that are only large enough for a couple. We were probably done with our meal before the people we had passed on our way in had even ordered their drinks and appetizers.

Back on the secret road, a carload of people in front of us hit the "Road Closed" sign with their headlights and panicked. I knew they were going to do something dumb, so I was well prepared to avoid them, but I still gave them a taste of the horn when they slammed on the brakes and spun around in front of me. I figured they were already so befuddled that they didn't even see me behind them. In the blackness, they probably thought they were about to plunge into a river or a quarry. With any luck, that honk was the final straw to make them lose bladder control.

Most of our encounters are nowhere near as dramatic. Most people simply pull onto the median in the middle of the road, consult a sheaf of maps, and then turn around and drive off more confused than ever. Hopefully they eventually make it to their destination, albeit by a more circuitous route.

Meanwhile, even though the theme parks will be far too crowded to enjoy, with average wait times of an hour or two, I know I'll have plenty of entertainment. No need to wait 180 minutes in the midst of a travel group comprised of the National Association of Deodorant Boycotters to see "Festival of the Lion King." I'll just zip off to the secret road, pull off to a side, and watch the show.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Playing Hooky on Saturday Morning

While working at home has many advantages, one of the major downsides is that it's difficult to draw boundaries. Both my husband and I frequently fall prey to the 24/7 nature of computer-related jobs. I run two online businesses (a travel agency and an online counseling practice), and both of them willingly consume as much time as I am willing to put in. One of the selling points of my agency is being available on evenings and weekends, and with the online counseling, I am available whenever I log into the system. Yes, I could limit that, but since it's impossible to predict how many clients I might get on a given day, longer hours of availability means more potential business.

I have several regular clients, both online and in-person, but one big advantage of the online counseling site that I work with is that it offers immediate assistance to people in crisis. I've had many people catch me at odd hours who needed help right now. Counseling is a business to me, but it's also something that I take very seriously. I find it fulfilling to help people who are struggling with life issues, and I like to be available at the point of need.

But I'm not good at making time for myself, and when it gets too overwhelming, I have to throw in the towel and play hooky for a day (or at least for a few hours). That's what I did this Saturday, along with my husband and three fellow Celebrationites. This morning, we all headed to Disney World for a morning of pretending to be kids again as we immersed ourselves in a cloud of Magic Kingdom pixie dust.

One of our companions has been working on putting together a social group for outings to theme parks, movies, etc. via the Front Porch (Celebration's community intranet). The Front Porch is a great way for people in town to connect. It's been used to plan everything from a hurricane-drenched picnic to a community camp-out to an impromptu wedding for Louisiana refugees. Now a fellow resident is trying to pull together some fun outings.

This was the first such event, and since my husband and I have been meaning to get over to the Magic Kingdom anyway, this seemed like the perfect excuse. We're almost always game for a theme park outing, and if we committed to going with a group, we knew that it would prevent us from being waylaid by work-avoidance guilt.

We all met at Barnie's Coffee at 9 a.m., the appointed time. Since the Art Festival was slated to start at 10, which would probably render downtown parking all but impossible to find and elevate the traffic level to epic proportions, we decided to carpool in Canyonero. The others dropped their cars off back home, and we headed down World Drive in my trusty Aztek. Since it's still technically spring break, I wondered whether we'd be able to do much more than crowd watching. But the parks are great fun, even when they are crowded, so we decided to play it by ear as to what our touring plan would be.

The parking plaza wasn't too backed up, which was a positive sign. I flashed my AAA Diamond parking permit, which allows me to park in a "special" area just past the handicapped spots. It's so much better than parking 20 acres from civilization and fighted off crazed, frothing commando tourists for a coveted spot on the tram. Our little group hopped onto the giant ferry boat for the ride to the Magic Kingdom gates. For those who have never experienced Disney World, the parking is across the lake so you must take either a boat or monorail. Once upon a time, those were the only options, but many years back bus stops were added to people staying onsite can ride a bus from the more far-flung resorts.

We passed through Security, where my fanny pack was given a cursory search, and then through the turnstyles and into the Promised Land. We decided to get Fast Passes for the Buzz Lightyear target shooting ride and then play it by ear as to what else we would ride in the meantime. We trooped off to Liberty Square, where the Haunted Mansion is located; most early park arrivers tend to head into Tomorrowland, which is on the righthand track, or to make a beeline for Fantasyland so the kiddies can spin around on Dumbo or bounce with Tigger and Pooh. The area around Mansion was sparsely populated, and there was no line at all. We filed in and hopped into our Doom Buggies for a tour of the home of the ill-fated Master Gracey.

The person who had organized our outing is also a Disneyphile with an endless repertoire of trivia. Even though I've ridden through the mansion countless times and have taken the Keys to the Kingdom tour, he pointed out all sorts of little details that I had never noticed. For example, the small hand on the grandfather clock that a love, with has a big 13 on the face and a devil's tail pendulum, also has a severed little finger for the small hand.

Next, we headed off to Big Thunder Mountain railroad, where the line was amazingly short. We took a run through the mountain, rode the train, Jungle Cruise, Carousel of Progress, Wedway People Mover, Buzz, and even Space Mountain, for which we also managed to score a Fast Pass. Pretty darned impressive for a Saturday morning/afternoon in the busy season. We also had a couple of adventures, as both Wedway and the Carousel managed to break down while we were riding them. We were hoping that we might have to be evacuated from Wedway; being insane Disneyphiles, we would all classify that as a fun, unique experience. Our flickering hopes were fanned by the rapidly passing minutes, especially when the work lights were turned on. But no such luck...eventually the ride started up again and we had to be content with a typical end.

The carousel went through the first three scenes just fine, but after the fourth one, it started to rotate to the exit and then stopped with a hideous grinding sound. We had just been talked about the terrible fatal accident at Disneyland in "America Sings" (the show located in the old Carousel theater there, which has a similar rotating set-up) and we had brief visions of some poor cast member caught in the murderous mechanism of the killer theater. And worse yet, we were trapped for an encore performance of the very dated final scene of the show. I love Carousel, but one viewing of Granny shooting the nincompoops in an 80s-looking virtual reality game while Dad burns the Christmas turkey is more than enough for one day. Fortunately, the theater resumed its spinning in the middle of the scene and we were able to escape.

I must have an affinity for killer rides, or at least those who cull the population at Disneyland. In addition to the Carousel theater, the Wedway at Disneyland has claimed several lives. It is slow moving and seemingly innocent, but apparently some people can't resist the urge to change seats in motion. Unfortunately, this has led to several incidents of being mangled in the bloodthirsty contraption's propulsion system.

The Disneyland version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is a murderous ride, too, but thankfully Disney World has a much higher guest survival rate than its California counterpart. We made it safely through the rides and decided to celebrate with lunch at Kona Cafe, a restaurant at the Polynesian hotel.

As we made our way to the front of the park, we noticed that the crowd density had increased, although it still wasn't as bad as I had thought. Our timing had been perfect; coming early and taking the opposite track from the crowd had paid off in big dividends. In four hours we had racked up quite an impressive list of rides.

Kona is usually pretty quiet at lunchtime, but I called ahead for a reservation anyway. 407-WDW-DINE is a very important number to remember to firm up spontaneous dining plans. Unfortunately, the background din in Tomorrowland rendered my cell phone nearly useless, so I slipped into a restroom to make the call. It was still pretty noise, with amplified voices echoing off the tile, but I managed to make myself understood well enough to book us in for 2:35. It had been a fun morning, but I was definitely ready for some food; on our last ride, Space Mountain, my head graphically reminded me that my blood sugar was low by tossing in a couple of head rushes as we whipped around the bends and bounces.

We took a boat over to the Poly and trooped upstairs to the restaurant. Sure enough, only a few tables were occupied, but it still felt good to know that we'd have had a table even if it was packed. We enjoyed a nice, relaxing lunch...the perfect cap to a fun and active morning of theme parking. Since the Poly is located right next to the Ticket and Transportation Center (i.e. the Magic Kingdom parking lot area), we were able to simply walk to Canyonero when we were done. The organizer of our outing pointed out his inscribed walkway brick. It was in a perfect, easy-to-find spot. The bricks are very cool, but somehow my husband and I never got around to buying one. We did, however, purchase a spot on the Epcot Millenium Wall, where they placed a digital silhouette photo (sadly, in those days I still sported coke bottle glasses, but a few years back Lasik remedied that ugly situation).

We zipped down World Drive and back to Celebration, sad to end our morning of fun but pleased that we'd managed to have such an active day. We had all gone without any expectations, ready to play it by ear, depending on the crowd size. I don't think that things could have gone any better; we managed lots of ride time, got some exercise hiking around the park, and topped it off with a yummy lunch. Hopefully this will be the first of many Front Porch social outings. The next one isn't even planned yet, and I'm already looking forward to it.

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