Sunday, May 27, 2007

Chicken of the Swamp

One of the hazards of living in or near a "touristy" area is the stunning sense of complacency that eventually numbs you like a dose of Novocaine. It happened to me in Chicago; even though I lived near a host of tourist meccas, there were many that I never (or rarely) saw in person. Although I visited the North Avenue Beach a couple of times, normally I eschewed the Downtown Chicago beaches, preferring to drive out to Indiana in order to swim in Lake Michigan. I never went to the Lincoln Park Zoo, nor did I visit the Field Museum. I never saw a Bears game in person and never made it to the top of the Sears Tower (although my husband and I did hold our Valentine's Day nuptuals on the observation deck of the John Hancock building). When you live close to things that inspire awe in outsiders, you learn to take them for granted yourself. You put them on a list of "Things To Do Someday," and often you never get around to them.

Now, I notice that the same thing is happening with our lives in Celebration. People tend to identify this area with Disney World and Mickey Mouse, but there are dozens of other sights and attractions within a stone's throw (or at least within a take-your-life-into-your-hands excursion down I-4). We often pick up coupon books to use at the local restaurants, and as I thumb through them, the glossy ads pop out at me. "Rent an airboat!" "Feed a gator!" "Ride a simulated top speed dragster!" "Soar through the skies in a hot air balloon!" "Get shot 300 feet in the air on a bungee cord 'sling shot'!" "Have dinner with gangsters!" "Pilot a stunt plane!"

Whew, who would have thought that the Orlando/Kissimmee area is an attraction all on its own? Even if Disney World was sucked into a freak black hole tomorrow, you could still visit our slice of Central Florida for several weeks without a hint of boredom. And of course, that doesn't take the other theme parks, like Universal Studio/Islands of Adventure and Seaworld/Discovery Cove, into account.

As I thumb through the tourist books, I make a mental note: "We've got to see this other stuff." But somehow, we always end up at either Disney World or Universal/IOA, as though drawn by a magnetic forcefield that blinds us to any other attraction.

My husband and I have made a commitment that we are going to force ourselves to expand our horizons. Each weekend, we will take turns picking an off-the-beaten-path attraction. We've had a few false starts, as it's hard to get excited about going somewhere where the lines might be outrageous when we can use our Universal Premier Pass and get unlimited Express Pass ride time every day after 4 p.m. They sure know how to addict Florida residents! But this weekend, we finally broke free of the "box" and did something totally and utterly different. We visited "Titanic: The Exhibit."

Actually, it's not entirely new for us. We saw the travelling exhibit when it was at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. That was the one museum that was near and dear to my heart; from the time I was a child and made a yearly field trip trek, I loved its hands-on exhibits and the really cool stuff, like the WWII submarine, the "underground" coal mine, Yesterday's Mainstreet with its authentic soda fountain, the giant dollhouse that was more detail and luxurious than most real homes, and (very creepy) the unborn babies suspended forever in formaldehyde, each at a different level of development from head-of-a-pin size up to impending birth.

The museum is also home to Mold-O-Rama, one of the most fascinating inventions known to childkind. You pop in your money, select a style, and a mini-sculpture is injection-molded right in front of your eyes. That melting plastic has a distinctive smell that I would recognize anywhere.

My favorite exhibit was always the oil well, where you could "drill" for your own black gold using a ball and flippers to guide it into an oil field. If you were lucky enough to strike oil, you won a gold-colored plastic medallion.

Sadly, that exhibit was removed, as were many of the most interactive ones, due to vandalism. Now, the museum is "okay," but it's a shell of its former self. It has been dumbed down to cater to the hands-off-or-they'll-break-it ADHD crowd. I still have one of the pseudo-gold oil medals, which I treasure to this day because it is the key to a trove of happy childhood memories of other exhibits long gone.

My husband and I were members of the museum, primarily so we could attend special events like sneak previews of new exhibits and overnight campouts where you spent the night locked in with a passel of other members, enjoying a selection of Imax features and all the other exhibits without having to be among the unwashed masses.

Once of the "members only" events was a preview of the travelling Titanic exhibit. Having taken nearly 60 Disney cruises (well, probably closer to 30 at the time), this was the sort of thing that appealed to us. Thus, we attended and gazed in awe at the various artifacts plucked from the mighty ship's oceanic gravesite.

That was several years ago; now, we thought it might be interesting to compare a permanent version with the travelling exhibition. Thus, we loaded into the Family Truckster and headed off to I-Drive for a quick "sail" aboard the doomed liner.

We had a general idea of its location; turns out it is in a creepy, semi-abandoned I-Drive mall called "The Mercado," not too far past the convention center. There is a building close to the road where you buy your tickets, and although it looks large enough to hold the whole exhibit, that is not the case. Instead, you are directed to hike through a disreputable-looking courtyard where you'll find the actual attraction in a different building, surrounded by the shells of long-closed stores and an occasional still-open-but-possibly-soon-to-be-condemned-by-the-health-department restaurants. Some of the storefronts still bore the ghostly imprints of former signs, but their papered-over windows gave mute testament to the fact that their heyday was long over.

We arrived just as the tour was starting. A Titanic "passenger" greets you, checks your ticket, and welcomes you into the "shipyard." The Orlando version is quite similar to what we saw at the Museum of Science and Industry, although at the museum we had a celebrity guide: The Unsinkable Molly Brown. At both locations, your ticket lists the name and details about a particular passenger. At the end of the tour, you can check a chart and see if your passenger survived or perished (hint: if they happen to be in third class, they're almost certainly a goner).

In Chicago, my husband had gotten Bruce Ismay, the head of White Star Lines, who ignored the "Women and children" first rule to secure a spot in the lifeboats. I told him with derision, "Gee, I wonder if he's gonna make it!" Hubby, who was clueless about the name despite seeing the movie "Titanic" more times than I care to count, looked at me blankly. I guess that the sight of Kate Winslet's bare chest crowds out everything else from his brain.

In Orlando, he was a reverend in second class, and I was a crew member working in the spa (perfect place for me). We trooped through an exhibit about the ship's construction and were then led aboard through a "gangway." There was a recreation of a first-class suite and various exhibits and artifacts. I was hoping to see items from the Titanic itself, but most were from its sister ship, the Olympic. I was surprised that the permanent exhibit had less authentic items than the travelling version, but hubby pointed out that the roadshow probably needed more of a draw. The permanent location has somewhat of a captive audience, since it is located smack in I-Drive, in the midst of a daily tourist stampede.

After viewing the artifacts, we were led into a room with a wall of ice representing the fatal 'berg. Everyone had a chance to press their palms to its deathly-cold surface. Our guide (who had switched now to another "passenger") reminded us that the bitter cold we were feeling was equivalent to the temperature of the water on that deadly night in 1912. Contrary to popular belief, most passengers died of the cold rather than drowning.

Next, we were led to a dark, chilled area representing the Promenade Deck on the night of the sinking. Ghostly strains of "Nearer My God to Thee" played in the background as we all looked down from the deck into the inkwell of black, freezing water below and a black velvet sky above. The cheerfulness of the twinkling stars belied the grim reality of the tragedy below. Although it was silent, save for the music, my mind drifted back to survivors' accounts I had read before. Those drifting far off in the lifeboats likened it to the roar of a crowded stadium that slowly diminished and fell silent as the desperate people, crying for the rescue boats to come back for them, finally sucumbed to the deadly embrace of the cold.

Afterwards, there were more exhibits, and we were allowed to go back and look more closely at the sections we had already passed through. First, hubby and I checked out the fate of the poor souls on our tickets (his had perished, mine had lived). Then, we wended our way back through the various rooms, pondering the impact of a tragedy so profound that it still fascinates the public nearly 100 years after its occurrence.

The tour ends in the requisite gift shop, and we purchased "Titanic" shirts to wear on our August transatlantic crossing on the Disney Magic (yes, I have a warped sense of humor). Then we wended our way through the maze of abandoned shops to locate the Family Truckster. On the way, I noticed a forlorn-looking set of public restrooms, The men's room was open; the women's was locked, with a sign "Obtain Key from Titanic Giftshop." But I knew that would be futile, as the woman in the shop had directed a restroom seeker to the Goodings grocery store when he inquired while we were making our purchase.

Since it didn't look like there was any eminent danger of a crowd descending on the area, I posted hubby to stand guard and went inside the men's room. Ugh! After checking half a dozen stalls and finding everything from seats wrapped like an old mummy in toilet tissue to festering bodily wastes in plugged commodes, I finally found a "throne" upon which I could sit my derrierre without too much fear of disease. On the way out, I hazarded a glance at the urinals, which were just as disgusting as the toilet stalls. Oh well, at least I wouldn't have to spend our impending drive with my legs crossed.

Since we had successfully resisted the allure of Universal/IOA and embarked on a new adventure, we decided to continue in that vein for dinner. We randomly chose an I-Drive restaurant called Ran-Getsu, which we soon discovered featured Japanese cuisine. It had the usual sushi and tempura, but it also featured some more unusual items...including Florida gator! Hubby and I had tried gator before, but it was blended with other meat. A Japanese restaurant was truly one of the last places where I would have expected to find 100 percent, unmixed gator meat, but there it was, right on the menu: Deep fried gator bites (forget the "Man Bites Dog" the Sunshine State, it's "Man Bites Gator").

We had a lovely table by the window, overlooking a serene koi pong. Hubby ordered a selection of four appetizers, including the Gator Bites (he also chose tuna sushi, Chilean sea bass, and fried shrimp). I opted for vegetable tempura, two ounces of Kobi beef with the house sauce, and pork dumplings with hot mustard. The menu was so intriguing that we promised ourselves we would return someday to explore it further.

I of course had to try the Gator Bites, and dare I say it? They do taste like chicken! If I had closed my eyes, I could easily have imagined that I was biting into a somewhat chewy Chicken Tender. I felt like I had somehow managed to pop over another Floridian hurdle, even if it was in the confines of a Japanese restaurant. I have eaten gator!

To add to my sense of amusement, our server presented hubby with the following card:

Now, if anyone dares question that we ate, Florida gator, we have wallet-sized proof.
The meal was very tasty and uneventful, save for two little incidents. First, I somehow managed to knock over my waterglass, bathing myself and my half of the table. Then, a while later, the hostess was seating a party of three (man and two teen boys). The diningroom is huge, but they were seating people in a particular section, presumably for ease of serving. She led the trio to a table near other other diners, and suddenly the man piped up loudly, "Geez, a whole empty restaurant and you're going to sit us by other people?" He spat out the last two words as though they were something filthy. "We do not want to sit here. Take us to something more suitable."
Now, I can understand not wanting to sit near a brood of unruly children or a screaming 120 decible baby or a tour group from the local leper colony, but none of these conditions existed as far as I could see. Maybe they had an immune disorder and had forgotten their bubbles, or perhaps they all suffered from a raging social anxiety disorder which the man covered up through extreme rudeness. His tone of voice towards the hostess was the sort usually reserved for someone who has murdered your mother and desecrated her corpse. As a customer, we all have the right to ask for what we want, but why not do it in a polite and respectful way?
At this point, hubby and I had tucked into our desserts (apple tempura-friend ice cream with mint sauce for him and mini trio of cakes for me...despite the name, one item in the trio was actually a green tea creme brulee, which was unusual but very tasty).
We headed out with full tummies and contented tastebuds, glad that we had stepped outside of our Disney/Universal comfort zone. We had visited a new attraction, discovered a new restaurant, and added a uniquely Floridian experience. Now, when I hear someone say "Tastes like chicken," I can nod in true assent, knowing firsthand that gator meat is truly Chicken of the Swamp.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is a Mold-O-Rama machine at Gatorland. That place is a hoot and if you haven't been by now, you should add it to your list.

Love your blog!