Monday, January 23, 2012

The Good Ship Axiom

Wall-E is one of my favorite Disney movies, but probably not for the traditional reasons. Yes, it's a cute unconventional love story, and yes, it's loaded with physical humor to make the kids (and plenty of adults) laugh, but I love its wry commentary on today's society. The only part I don't quite understand is the end.

If you're one of the dozen or so people who missed this movie, it's set in a future world where Earth is so badly contaminated that humanity loads up on luxury space ships to live in the cosmos while robots clean the planet. After 700 years the robots have pretty much all disintegrated into useless rubble piles, with the exception of Wall-E, and the planet is still a rotting monument to the dangers of excess and mass consumption.

Meanwhile, the humans on the Axiom, flagship of the starship fleet, live in happy oblivion. Through a combination of lessened gravity and doing pretty much nothing but eating and video conferencing, they're all immobile flesh lumps that get around on flying ECVs. They don't even have to chew anymore, since robots deliver slurpable delicacies like "cupcake in a cup."

Living in Celebration means visiting the theme parks a lot, and every day I see us move closer and closer to Wall-E society. The ECV percentage grows higher by leaps and bounds. Many are genuinely needed by people with obvious or hidden disabilities, but hang out at the parks long enough and you'll hear perfectly healthy people laughing about how they used to stupidly waste energy using their legs until they discovered they could simply drive around. I've literally seen entire groups driving around in massive ECV fleets. I figure that Brazilian tour groups on ECVs are not too far in the future.

Better yet, we're inching ever closer to Cupcake in a Cup. At Universal during the Christmas season, there was a food wagon serving delicacies like Taco in a Cone and Turkey and Mashed Potatoes in a Cone.

At the end of Wall-E, evidence of earthly sustainability, in the form of a lone plant, lures the Axiom back to the planet, where the human blobs suddenly gain the ability to not only walk but to farm, fish, and otherwise create a new society. Cue the Disney happy ending music.

The part I don't understand is, why the hell would they want to leave the Axiom? They're basically living in paradise, with robots attending to every need, and apparently with no need for work or money. Then suddenly they're opting for a hardscrabble existence on a hostile planet. It's not like they have any direct connection to Earth; they didn't even know it existed until the same day they go back. They've been in space for seven hundred years, which equals quite a few generations, so the Axiom and its lifestyle is what they know as home.

I've been on 80-something Disney cruises, and I like to joke that the ships are my version of the Axiom. There's food for the asking 24 hours a day and such a wide array of on-board activities that I rarely bother to get off at the ports, other than Castaway Cay. When you play Bingo, you don't even have to watch your card because an automated Bingo-bot does it for you. Let's see...I have the choice of staying on the ship for the rest of my life, free of charge, as compared to a rebuilding a post-apocalyptic Earth. Isn't it a no-brainer?

Disney loves making sequel after sequel to its movies, so I figure another Wall-E installment isn't too far around the bend. Forget the happy scenes on the closing credits of the original movie, where the humans miraculously turned into svelte, athletic types living in a world suddenly teaming with earthly and aquatic life and tasty crops. If they go with reality, the Axiom refugees will waddle out, take one look at their supposed home world, and mutiny for an immediate return to space. And I'd be right there with 'em.

I'm dabbling in the world of fiction now myself. Click here to read the first chapter of my romance novella series, Fantasy Land, featuring the Orlando theme parks as its backdrop. The town of Celebration will be making an appearance in the second book.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Every Show is Jerry

If you've ever seen the Sylvester Stallone/Wesley Snipes action movie "Demolition Man," you'll probably remember that in the future, every restaurant is Taco Bell. Apparently there was some sort of franchise war and Taco Bell won out. Thus, in a thinly veiled product placement move, the movie depicts a world where every eatery, from the most humble to the priciest gourmet hotspot, is called Taco Bell.

I'm afraid that something similar is happening in real life. Somehow every television show is becoming Jerry Springer (or Maury or take your pick of any other "I don't know who my baby's daddy is and besides I used to be a man and before that I was an alien and I'm in a polygamous semi-gay marriage to my own brother and sister" daytime sleaze show).

I'm not a big fan of mainstream television, other than (inexplicably) "The Office." I'm more about animated shows, like Fox's Sunday night cartoons, "South Park," "Futurama," and the new "Beavis and Butthead." TV is more of a guilty pleasure for me than an integral part of my life, sort of like mental corn chips.

My biggest guilty pleasure has always been the court shows, starting out with "The Peoples Court" and Judge Wapner back in the 1980s. Now, of course, my options have expanded into a crazed conglomeration of Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Alex, and the like. But alas, over the past few years, I've noticed a distinct Jerry-ization of my beloved court shows. Once upon a time they were all about cases of car crashes, store rip-offs, broken business contracts and the like...things you might really see in a small claims court.

Today, you're more likely to see "I caught my baby momma in bed with my best friend, so now I'm suing her for some money I have her that was a gift but now I decided it was a loan" or "I caught my boyfriend boffing my sister so he's suing me for pouring bleach all over his clothes, but the bastard deserved it." Worse yet, the court shows resemble Jerry et. al. to the point of screaming, fist-shaking arguments between the participants. I can't wait to see which show takes the Emmy-grabbing leap of having one side attack the other with a chair before the bailiff steps in with a taser.

Okay, so it's bad enough with the court shows. The drama llama content has driven me away from Judge Mathis almost completely, and Judges Joe, Marilyn, and Judy are teetering on the slippery slope (although Judy's still the most "I don't take no shit...shut up and stick to the case" of the bunch). But now Jerry-ism has invaded my one other bastion of television enjoyment: "Hoarders."

Having grown up with a hoarder, although in a home not nearly as bad as those portrayed on TV, and being a counselor, "Hoaders" and some of the other A&E and Discovery reality shows like "My Strange Addiction" fascinate me. Once upon a time "Hoarders" followed a simple, predictable, but enjoyable timeline. You meet the hoarder, plus some family and friends. You get a little of the background story. Professionals descend on the hoarder and house. The hoarder may or may not cooperate. The house either ends up cleaned or it stays a hellacious mess. An epilogue flashes on the screen. The End. Simple, easy-to-eat-and-digest junk food for the brain.

Of course, there were notable horrors like the woman who pooped in diapers since her toilet didn't work, then simply tossed them in a pile inside the house or the people in multiple episodes with dead cats and kittens buried among their hoards ("Hmmm, I haven't seen Fluffy lately. On an unrelated note, I wonder why my household stench is getting even worse.") or the family who said they never cleaned their coffee makers and that they simply got a new one when the old ones got maggots (how the hell do you get maggots in a coffee maker?!). That was plenty of drama for me.

Now "Hoarders" has hopped on the Jerry bandwagon. Every episode features some sort of talk show-esque surprise, like a long-lost estranged family member appearing out of the blue or the hoarder collapsing in the filth and being hauled away in an ambulance. The old poop and maggot shows are nothing anymore as the producers search for ever more horrifying homes. Poop bags in one room are nothing now that homes have been featured with human feces and urine in literally every room. Every week it seems that house has even more animals corpses than the week before or a greater variety of bugs and vermin.

I enjoy sensationalism as much as the next person, but for God's sake, stick to the topic at hand. Give me hoarders, not dysfunctional family fighting or animal abuse. I can watch other shows to get plenty of that, like Jerry and his ilk and "Animal Cops." Go a little more slowly rather than trying to top the last show every week. First, it eventually desensitizes the audience to the horror. Second, eventually you run out of ways to top yourself unless you feature a roofless house with trash and human waste stacked 10 feet above the roof line and entire zoo of endangered animals crushed to death in its basement.

I'm still watching "Hoarders," but pretty soon it's probably going to join the list of other Season Passes deleted from the Tivo. Maybe I'll just give in and start watching Jerry, Maury, and the rest of the clones since every other TV show mimics them anyway. Might as well just go to the source.

Cult of the Keurig

Normally my husband and I do an extravagant mutual Christmas present. For example, last year we did the Marine Mammal Keeper Experience at SeaWorld, an all-day affair that takes you behind the scenes and let you interact closely with sea lions, dolphins, manatees, and more. It's a fun but pricey proposition.

This year, however, tight finances dictated something smaller and more practical. We had no idea what to get. We thought we might even end up skipping the gift altogether. Duloc Manor is well equipped with everything we need, which is why past gifts were "we'd never do that otherwise" sorts of things. Then it happened: one pre-Christmas day as we strolled the aisles of Publix, we suddenly walked into the Cult of the Keurig.

Actually, it was only unknowing for me. My husband, who outpaces me in coffee drinking by a margin of 4 to 1, was already familiar with Keurig brewers, which use little pre-measured plastic containers to make fresh, hot, individual cups. Apparently his employer used to have a Keurig for the office. Back when I worked in an office, things were done the old-fashioned way. The cafeteria workers brewed coffee in regular pots, dumped it into air pots, and we pumped out cups for purchase. In Duloc Manor, I either used my little 4-cup machine or waited for hubby to brew some coffee in his aging and complicated Starbucks coffee maker.

I should probably mention that we're both flavored coffee fiends. I can't remember the last time a pot of plain coffee was brewed in our household. We were into flavors even before we moved to Celebration. Once we got here, the proximity of Barnies, with its wondrous array of tantalizing tastes like Sweetheart Blend (chocolate and cherries) and Cool Cafe Blues (don't know, but it comes directly from Heaven) kept us well stocked. The Celebration Barnies turned into a Starbucks, but we found two others within a reasonable striking distance where we could still stock up.

Anyway, on that fateful day I was off looking for something in another aisle while hubby headed for the dairy case. I found him stopped at a sample table, which is quite unusual. I'm usually game to try samples, while he almost always rejects them. Turns out a demo person was handing out fresh-brewed cups of coffee made with a Keurig, and his caffeine addicted brain couldn't resist.

I was mildly intrigued, since I'd seen many flavored Keurig packs in the coffee aisle every time we were down there (besides Barnies, we buy flavors from other brands). Turns out there was a sale on Keurig coffee makers...yes, a coffee maker sale at Publix. Not exactly the place I'd choose to come searching for one, but I've seen stranger things.

We'd been half-assed looking for a new coffee pot, mostly at my urging, since hubby's Starbucks brewer was looking decidedly aged. They don't sell that style anymore, and he's very precise about coffee makers, so even though we browsed the coffee maker aisle whenever we were in a big box store, prospects weren't good for actually buying one.

The demo person told us that the Keurigs were on sale, plus she had a coupon for additional money off. Out came the smart phone to compare prices. Sure enough, the Publix price was actually a very good deal. The Keurig was still a pricey proposition as far as coffee makers go. Could we justify it? We decided then and there that it would be 2011's mutual Christmas gift.

Of course, now that we had a fancy new coffee maker, we had to accessorize it. We headed out to Bed Bath & Beyond with a sheaf of coupons to get an attachment that lets you use regular beans in the Keurig (for hubby...I'm just fine with the special packets), a storage drawer that goes under the pot to keep a handy supply of Keurig packets available for fast caffeine fixes, and of course a smorgasbord of flavored coffees. Yes, it's a little weird to buy your coffee at Bed Bath & Beyond, but their regular price isn't bad and it becomes irresistible once you throw in the coupons.

Now that we've got our Keurig, I haven't brewed a regular cup of coffee since we brought it home. My 4-cup coffee maker is in a cabinet, and hubby's old machine went out in the trash. The Keurig sits faithfully waiting on the counter, ready to brew a fresh, hot cup within seconds. We don't have to fight over flavors anymore. We rummage around in the drawer and pick our individual selections. The only minor Keurig-related conflicts are, "You left your pack in the coffee maker" and "Am I the only one who ever puts water in this thing?"

The only downside to the Cult of the Keurig is that it's upped my coffee consumption. I used to drink a cup a day, and maybe I'd have a second one if hubby brewed up a flavor I liked later in the day. I wasn't tempted to have much more, since the Starbucks coffee maker had no warmer and the lid to the insulated pot got lost some time in the distant past. That meant drinking cold coffee unless I grabbed it as soon as it finished brewing. Granted, I could have used my own small pot, but the hot plate always scorches the bottom of the coffee and gives it that unmistakable "scorch taste."

Now the coffee is always fresh, hot, and exactly the flavor I want. I'm up to between two and three cups a day. I'm firmly in the Cult of the Keurig, and even though our Christmas gift this year was much more modest than those in years past, it's the gift that keeps on giving all year long.

I've got several books for Kindle out, including guides to SeaWorld and Disney World, as well as a guide to starting your own home-based travel agency. Click here for the list on Amazon,

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Worst Kept Secret

Once upon a time, many, many years ago, the Water Tower Place shopping center on the edge of Celebration, poised at Celebration Avenue and 192, had a grocery store called Goodings. It opened, stumbled along for a couple of months, then closed its doors for good. Sadly, it wasn't alone, as a whole parade of stores followed as victims of the poorly-planned commercial center. There was Planet Smoothie, a video store, multiple coffee shops and restaurants, an electronics store, a vitamin shop, a clothing boutique, and too many more to list.

Water Tower Place had several things working against it from Day One. First, its signs are nearly invisible from 192. Celebration doesn't have the population density to support the center on its own, yet the tourists who might bring their precious dollars never know it's there. Second, its design is insanely bad. The entrances are awkward, the buildings are arranged illogically, and a hunk of land, loosely known as a "park," was plopped down in the parking lot for no reason other than to further doom any chance of success.

A few businesses have managed to cling to life, among them two bank branches, Joe's Crab Shack, Chik-Fil-A, Mobil, and a Goodyear that recently converted to a Pep Boys. But overall, by starting a business in Water Tower, you were essentially conceding instant defeat. Ironically, stores like CVS and Starbucks thrive just across the street. I'm sure that has nothing to do with the fact that they're highly visible from 192, have easy entrances and exits, and huge eye-grabbing signs.

The game changed recently when one of the worst-kept secrets in Celebration leaked out. I heard about it early on, since I'm involved with the library and it required closure/moving of our little Celebration branch, which is located in Water Tower Place. Word was that a grocery store with a name beginning with the letter P was going to grab a massive hunk of space, including the former Goodings and the wing that contained the library. P...Publix...not hard to deduce.

Of course, there's a Publix just a few blocks away on the other side of 192, but who's to say it wouldn't move if Water Tower offered a sweeter deal? They don't own their current building, so moving would be inconvenient but possible. Employees I spoke to at the store when the rumors first gained steam acted like the new store was common knowledge

Speculation was rampant on The Front Porch, our community intranet. Dare we hope for a place to shop that wouldn't force us to leave The Bubble? Then, in October, someone dug up some interesting plans that pretty much confirmed the unspoken but widely known fact.

Now the Orlando Business Journal has picked up on our poorly kept secret. No one from Publix or Water Tower will confirm the information, but that's not really necessary anyway. If I had some big bucks to bet, I'd wager them on a grocery store finally returning to the derelict little shopping center. It's a good think for Celebration and also for the few remaining merchants, who might get some foot traffic to help them stay afloat. Of course, I'm banking on the fact that the Power of Publix will mean razing the pathetic little park, making some real driveways, and maybe even placing a sign among the huge, gaudy neon billboards proclaiming every other store and restaurant in the area other than those in Water Tower.

Will Publix break the Water Tower Curse, or will the curse claim Publix? We'll know in a year or two.

Yes, That Car Costs More Than My House

Duloc Manor is a modest place. It's a cute little triplex with plenty of space for me, my husband, our assorted cats, and bird. We luckily bought it before the real estate bubble had its nuclear bust and plunged people who were once awash in excess equity into the depths of Upside Down Mortgage Hell. It's worth about the same now as when we bought it, which is a big positive in these dark recession days.

Today, hubby had a chance to drive a sweet Lamborghini Superleggera (pictured below) at the media preview of the new Exotic Driving Experience at Disney World:

The experience kicks off officially on Jan. 16 at the Walt Disney World Speedway, which is also the longtime home of the Richard Petty Driving Experience. You can still drive a NASCAR vehicle if you want pure speed, but now you can book a few rounds in a Lamborghini, Ferrari, Porsche, or Audi and feel a combination of land-flight on the straightaway and superior handling on a new course addition.

Prices start at $199, although the car my husband tried costs $339 to drive. Out of curiosity, I looked up its MSRP online, and it starts at $260,000. Yes, that gorgeous hunk of sports car costs over a quarter of a million dollars. If I sold Duloc Manor right now for market price, I'd still have to rustle up some big bucks to put that baby in my garage. Oh wait, I wouldn't have a garage anymore! Still, I'd look pretty cool living in it over in the parking lot near Publix where all the truck cabs and campers hang out.

The Porsche, which is the $199 car, is a relative bargain-basement vehicle with a $100,500 purchase price. That's still pretty rich for the blood of someone who drives a four-year-old Saturn Vue and who makes the car dealers cringe when she whips out her paperwork and boldly declares, "I'll pay you a little over invoice, but I won't pay for the overpriced tint and pinstripes, so you're going to have to throw them it in since they're already on the car. That ridiculous rip-off 'dealer fee' had better be deducted somewhere in the paperwork, and don't whine that you're not making any money when I know you get a holdback."

Still, even though I'm an automotive miser when it comes to my personal vehicle, I can certainly admire the power and majesty of high-end exotic cars that would do a dozen rings around my sputtering Vue before I could even press the accelerator.

I let my husband drive the Lamborghini today because he didn't get to go to Mainstreet in Motion last year. Mainstreet in Motion is a massive test drive at Epcot, sponsored by GM but featuring cars from a wide variety of manufacturers. I got to drive a muscle car there, although the short course, set up in the parking lot, didn't give me space to really open it up. Hubby was able make the Lamborghini show its stuff, since the Exotic Driving Experience uses part of the existing speedway track to feel the raw speed, as well as a new addition where you can test the handling.

I posted a video of hubby's ride experience in my Examiner column. I'll admit to feeling just a bit jealous as I watched him whip around the course, but he's a die-hard NASCAR fan so I figured he'd have the most appreciation. I know there's a big difference between race cars and exotics, but with guys it usually still comes down to speed, and the exotic cars at Disney have plenty of that.

Now we're back at home, slumming it at Duloc Manor. Just down World Drive, there's well over a million dollars worth of automotive luxury waiting to welcome the first paying riders on Monday. The kids have Autopia at the Magic Kingdom and Test Track at Epcot, and now the "big kids" have a car ride, too.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Dark Icon

Since Downtown Celebration's earliest days, it had a bright neon icon: the Art Deco-style towers of the AMC Celebration movie theater. Like neighborhoods of the past, Celebration featured its own movie theater. Its sign became a symbol of Celebration, appearing in countless tourist photos and news stories about the town.

With only two screens, the AMC Celebration was downright tiny by today's MegaUltraPlex 100 Screen monstrosities. It reminded me of my childhood in Chicago, when it seemed that every city neighborhood and suburb had its own movie house.

I grew up going to movie theaters with names like the Roseland, State, Normal, and Lyric. They were small affairs, with only one screen each, but their artery-clogging butter-clotted popcorn was a taste treat unlike the sterile kernels served up today, and you got a double feature for your money.

If you went to a weekend matinee and liked the movies (or just wanted to hang out with your friends), you could stay to see them again and no one would kick you out. The seats were ragged, the floors were sticky, but those old-time movie theaters were neighborhood staples.

Alas, as the years progressed, they closed down one by one as the March of the Shopping Mall Cineplexes ground them down under its boot heels. For a while, you could still find one or two ancient theaters struggling for survival, but they'd be showing second-run dollar-admission fare that was already released on DVD.

The AMC Celebration was an anomaly, especially with the Downtown Disney AMC theaters just a hop, skip, and jump away. Even in its earliest days, it was never crowded, and the handful of people dwindled each time I went there. The last time I ever saw a movie there, I think there was only one other party in the whole theater.

Its fate was sealed just as surely as the fate of those other neighborhood venues. The AMC Celebration finally shut its doors for good. It was soon a blight on the face of downtown, with ripped, faded posters and a general look of abandonment and despair. Worse yet, someone threw the switch on the famous neon beacons. The unofficial town icon was dark, shabby, and desolate.

In a way, I supposed it was somewhat appropriate. The pre-real estate bubble Celebration I'd known many years ago had given way to a post-bubble wasteland. While it certainly doesn't look as bad as some Florida neighborhoods, it's not uncommon to see at least one unkempt, disheveled foreclosure on just about every block. You'll see a row of pristine homes, and smack dab in the center of them is a place (or two) with faded paint, a jungle lawn, mildew-encrusted stares, and blank, empty-eyed windows. Celebration might be just eight miles from the Magic Kingdom's gates, but it's certainly no Fantasyland immune to economic troubles.

There's been an ongoing local outcry about the theater. It remains empty and lonely because of a rumored legal battle between AMC and Lexin, the downtown's owner. Nothing else can locate there as long as it's tied up in strangulation-tight red tape. Meanwhile, the icon stayed dark, a victim of cruel circumstance and the economy.

Then one day, as Christmas was approaching, the people of Celebration looked up into the sky and saw a miracle. No, it wasn't the Christmas star, It was the Art Deco towers once again shining in all their neon glory. I don't know how or why, but somehow they got turned on again. Perhaps it would've just looked to shabby to have them darkened for the nightly holiday snowfalls. Tourists who come to Celebration want to embrace the fantasy of the “Disney town,” not be slapped in the eyeballs with the reality that we're just a hard-hit place like anywhere else in this recession.

I have no idea what the theater's ultimate fate will be. Since I've moved to town, Downtown Celebration has been a veritable revolving door of businesses, with shops closing their doors with roughly the same frequency as gators are spotted in the lake. Thus far, another shop usually springs up to replace the casualties, but you can see obvious vacancies now, in addition to the theater.

In the meantime, the icon still lights of the night, a memory of what once was...and, dare I hope, what might be again in the future.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Cult of the Black Cat

As I wrote yesterday, my husband and I went to Disney's Hollywood Studios for one last taste of Christmas in the form of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. I don't like to go right around the holidays, since I'm not fond of feeling like I'm being smooshed like a pancake in the midst of a massive press of humanity akin to Times Square on New Years Eve. Granted, there were still a lot of people, since some of the marathon runners who were down for the event this weekend wandered over, but it was only a miniature mob scene.

There are so many wonderful additions to the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights this year. I'm sad that its originator, Jennings Osborne of Arkansas, passed away earlier this year and didn't see the latest incarnation. When he started decorating his home Clark Griswold style many, many years ago, and eventually sent his millions of lights to Disney World to avoid being chased out of the neighborhood by pitchfork and torch wielding neighbors, I'm sure he never imagined what the display would grow into. This year, in addition to solid sheets of LED lights covering the buildings and just about everything else possible, there's a canopy of dancing lights and screens inside some of the building's window playing animated scenes. Every now and then, a soft snowfall drifts down on the dazzled people below.

It's hard to walk steadily through the Osborne lights because people keep stopping abruptly in front of you. You'll see their heads cock like the RCA Victor dog as their attention goes first one way, then another. You can almost hear their brains chanting, "Shiny!" before they burst from sheer sensory overload.

My favorite part this year was the canopy, which kicks into high gear every few minutes when the lights perform their "dancing" to music by such luminaries as the Trans Siberian Orchestra. Some of the dances are subtle, but my favorites are vicious, flashing, strobing disco shows that make people drop like flies around me as they go into epileptic fits. I don't consider it a successful visit to the Osborne lights unless at least half a dozen people drop to the ground, frothing at the mouth from the light show's intensity as the bulbs pound off and on to the hellish beat.

Of course, not all of the songs have the same effect as a Pokemon cartoon. There are jaunty but tame ditties, like Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad," that are done in a calm and clever way. Every time the words "I want to wish you a Merry Christmas" blared from the loundspeaks, the words on the banner stretched across the street, that says Merry Christmas, would light up its words in perfect timing. A red LED heart in a "peace, love, and Mickey" decoration pulsed with the "from the bottom of my heart" lyrics.

We had one last thing to do before we officially put Christmas 2011 out of its misery. We had to gawk at the famous black cat, hidden each year among the Osborne light display. As I explained in my previous blog entry, the cat was originally sent from the Osborne's household in error along with the original Christmas shipment. He was dutifully erected with the other lights, and now he's hidden in a new spot every year so hard-core fans can ferret him out. You can see his 2011 spot below:

I thought we might be the only ones gaping at him that night, but there were plenty of others. We stood on the curb, craning our heads back and forth to get the best possible view, since he's in a very tricky position. Then we noticed other people heading over to the same area, squinting up at the building tops until they had their "Aha, there he is!" moments. We even commiserated with some of them on the sneaky hiding spot, since you pretty much have to look on an angle and it's hard to see his whole body at one time. I realized that we were something of a spiritual fraternity: The Cult of the Black Cat, seeking out a bit of Disney trivia just for those in the know.

I wonder how many black cats there have been over the years. I doubt the original one could still be functional, and if that's the case, thank goodness Disney continued the tradition with a duplicate. I never realized that so many people were members of the Cult of the Black Cat until last night. Now I know there would be countless disappointed fans if he ever went away for good.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Christmas Redux

Yes, I know it's January 6. Yes, I know that Christmas 2011 is a mere memory for most of the country, and that memory is likely blurred by the more recent excesses of New Years Eve last weekend. But next door to Celebration, Christmas continues unabated for two more days in a little niche of the Walt Disney World Resort. There, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights will continue to blaze in all its glory until the glow gets turned off for another year on January 7.

I haven't seen the Osborne lights yet this year, although my husband was there pretty much as soon as the display opened. I'm not big on mob scenes, so every year I bide my time until the holidays are over. Most of the mass of humanity leaves after New Years, and the people who remain aren't all that interested in Christmas anymore. Instead of wedging your body through a nearly solid wall of hostile strangers, you can take a leisurely stroll among the lights and enjoy the musical show and the host of little details, like LED scenes in the windows.

Another tradition that works better when the crowds die down is finding the black (well, purple) cat who gets hidden among the lights each year. Supposedly one of the Osborne family's Halloween decorations was accidentally mixed in among the original shipment to Disney World. He was put up with the original display, and now, every year, he gets hidden in a new spot for sharp-eyed Disneyphiles to find. I posted his location this year in one of my Examiner articles if you didn't get to see him for yourself.

If you're not lucky enough to live in Celebration, Florida, or somewhere else within driving distance of the parks, my husband took a video of this year's display if you want to join me vicariously. The weather will be a little more temperate tonight, with lows in the 50s, and if there's a chill, it will only make the experience more genuine. I'm not quite ready to say goodbye to this year's holiday season, and thanks to Disney World, I can cling to it for that one extra week in January.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

V 3: Attack of the Sentient, Oversexed Floridian Lizards

If you're a science fiction buff, you might remember the corny 1980s science fiction series V, featuring humanoid aliens who were really lizards in disguise. They pretended to be benevolent, but they actually had an insatiable taste for human flesh, much as a boa likes to eat a mouse. The original V had two parts and then became a TV series. If you're not as oldy-moldy as me, then you know it as a 2009 reboot.

I used to doubt that there were sentient alien lizards among us until I moved to Florida. If you live here, or if you vacation at Walt Disney World, you know that the sunshine state is overrun with small, skittish lizards that love to hang out on sidewalks, walls, and wherever else they feel like it. They look innocent and not-too-bright. In fact, they have so little brain power that when you're biking, you might accidentally run one or two over because they're not good at getting out of the way.

Well, at least I thought they didn't have brain power, but now I'm starting to wonder. We have a ton of them in our yard, and a month or two ago I noticed that one of them was hanging out on the window of my family room, right where the cats sleep on their perch. At first I thought it was coincidence, but soon I realized that the lizard was purposely tormenting my cats! It would sit just above them, a smirk on its little lizard face as they went crazy trying to get at it. They'd smack against the glass, and that lizard wouldn't move. It knew full well that they couldn't get to it.

Okay, you're saying, that's pure coincidence. The lizard just happens to like hanging out in that spot. That's what I thought at first, although it seemed odd that its head was always pointed down as though it wanted to watch the poor cats' acrobatics. Then I noticed that if they ignored it, it would move around to attract their attention. Once it got them agitated, it would be still and watch the show. It hasn't been around in a while now, no doubt because of the cold temperatures. Alternately, perhaps it was called back to its home planet.

The alien lizards here in Florida apparently come from an oversexed society, and they've created an interesting mating structure here. My hot tub in the backyard apparently overlooks an official lizard hook-up site, which happens to be the corner of my house, which is next to the hedge. My husband and I will be soaking and relaxing, and suddenly a lizard will appear. The little horny creature will stare down at the hedge while doing an odd, bobbing dance. Then it puffs its throat out into an enormous bubble. Apparently, in lizard parlance, a giant throat puff is equivalent to what people say about guys with big noses, or big feet, or whatever bodily feature is rumored to be linked to a big...well, you know what.

The lizard mating ritual typically goes on for a few minutes before the creature gets lucky and launches itself down into the hedge. I don't know what happens then, but I assume the hedge is the reptile equivalent of a singles bar, or perhaps more like a brothel, and some female lizard has just agreed to a romp in the leaves.

Not all the lizards who use the corner-of-the-house pickup spot get lucky. Some dejectedly head back up the building after their elaborate ritual, but most seem to score. I'm waiting for the lizard vice squad to show up someday and slap a pair of tiny handcuffs onto one of the lizard Johns.

Maybe I'm reading way too much into the lizard antics here. After all, given their size, their brain can't be much larger that a fingernail. Still, I've witnessed some interesting things while out in the yard or looking out the window. If the lizards suddenly speak someday and claim to have a cure for cancer, which they'll give me in exchange for unfettered access to my hedge, I'm not taking them up on any offers of a free spaceship tour.

I'm busily adapting some of my most popular old blog entries into a Kindle book, but in the meantime I've got a few other titles out, including credit repair, becoming a travel agent, and tips and tricks for visiting Disney/Orlando. I've also started two new blogs to go with two of the books: Free Credit Repair at and Starting a Home-Based Travel Agency at

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Am I a Bad Person for Not Missing Jaws at Universal?

Jaws, a rare original attraction at Universal Studios in Orlando, closed down for good this week. The very last boat did its rounds on the night of January 2, and already construction walls are concealing the Amity area for construction on a top secret (cough...more Harry Potter...cough) project.

The closure announcement had people up in arms. "No! You can't do that! Jaws is a classic!" the angry masses shouted while lighting their torches and sharpening their pitchforks. I'm not sure where these rabid fans were when the ride was actually running these past few years. The only lines I ever saw on Jaws were when they were running a limited amount of boats and thus had very little capacity.

Still, it always sounds good to join in on the Cause of the Day, so the angered Protectors of Classic Universal started petitions and peppered the theme park's Facebook page with rants and threats to never darken its gates again (good, that means less wait time for me and the other saner minds). I wonder if they realized it was all wasted bandwidth. Parks plan their new attractions months, or even years, in advance. The Amity makeover was already a done deal long before they announced it, with a ton of money already invested in it. It's just a bit presumptuous to think a theme park's going to say, "Well, hell, no one rides that thing anymore, but we've got a couple dozen people bitching on Facebook. Let's eat the $1 million we already have invested in the new thing and keep Jaws open for the whining minority."

Sure enough, Jaws closed right on schedule on January 2. Personally I hate mob scenes, so I said my own personal goodbye a couple of weeks earlier. I actually like Jaws myself, but not with the passion of the "Oh my God, I'll die if you close it, you're spitting in the face of history," types. It was enjoyable for what it was: Universal's requisite cheesy ride. There must be an unwritten theme park rule that every park has to have a cheesy boat or Jeep ride. Witness Disney's Jungle Cruise and Rhino Rally at Busch Gardens. Those kinds of rides are fun, but they don't inspire deep passion within me.

Honestly, I was much more sad about the closure of the surrounding Amity area. I'm a carnival games addict, and I particularly love the goblet toss. Although luck plays a big role, you can increase your chance of winning with a little knowledge of bounce and backspin. Over the years I've won enough jumbo prizes to prove that; one day at Universal, I even one three big goblet prizes in one day.

Now, alas, the games were disappearing along with Jaws. Since I rode Jaws once every half-dozen visits or so vs. playing the goblets on every visit, it's easy to see what I would miss most.

I decided to make my last visit at night since Jaws has always been much better after dark. Also, visiting after 4 p.m. means that I can use the express line benefit of my Premier Pass. I figured (and was correct) that they'd only be running a few boats, meaning a long wait otherwise.

Of course, my goodbye trip was twofold. It was also a farewell to my beloved goblet game. I went there first to try my luck before taking my last-ever shark spotting cruise. I started off with one tray of balls, and alas I was stone cold. I didn't even manage to win a small prize, let alone a jumbo.

Normally I'd quit there, but since it was my last-ever fling, I decided to buy another tray. This time, I landed a ball in both a red (medium prize) and blue (small prize) cup. Better yet, the blue was only two spots past the lone yellow cup, which is the big winner. Now, if I could only bank a ball off the one in the blue spot, I could end my Universal goblet game run on a high note. I only had a few balls left; my aim was off with the first couple, although one came close. Then, I hit the sweet spot. The ball spun lazily on the rim of the yellow cup before neatly dropping in:

I was rewarded with a big Scooby Doo, and my husband and I headed off to the next order of business: say goodbye to Jaws.

Once thing I've always loved about Jaws isn't the ride itself, but rather the queue video. It's full of cheesy humor like the kids' show host with a shark puppet and a crazy TV appliance salesman who destroys all the (old-fashioned) TVs with a sledgehammer so the accountants will let him lower the prices. That video is the part I'll miss most. I only got to see a bit of it on my last trip, since the express line moves quickly.

Soon enough, Scooby and I were in our seat, and my husband snapped one last photo for posterity:

You can see that the woman on my left is standing up; it's not just because she's getting into the boat. She tried to stand up for the entire ride. I have no idea why, but she popped up and down like a jack in the box. She'd stand. She'd be told to sit down. She'd reluctantly lower herself, then pop right back up again. Honestly, she was more amusing than the shark battle.

Still, it was a night ride, so that made the fire effects all the more impressive. One thing I have to give to Universal Studios is that they love their fire. Probably the best proof of that fact is the flaming ceiling in Revenge of the Mummy, but Jaws still used up a respectable amount of propane.

All too soon the ride was over. We escaped Bruce the shark once again, and this was the last time I'd ever be that close to falling into his clutches. I'll admit, I did feel a bit melancholy walking away from Jaws and Amity in the darkness, knowing that I'd never experience this little bit of classic Universal Studios again.

On the flipside, I was cheered by the fact that I love most of their newer rides. Yes, I know it's a travesty to say it, but Revenge of the Mummy is a hundred times better than Kongfrontation, and look at Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Islands of Adventure next door. If the new ride is anything like Harry in terms of technology and awe factor, I'll help them level the Jaws/Amity area myself.

It'll be a long, long time until the new section opens and people can judge whether it's worthy of replacing the classic shark. For now, I'll get my "corn factor" on Jungle Cruise and Rhino Rally.

Ever wanted to be a travel agent? My new book (free for Amazon Prime members, $5.99 for others) tells you how to start your own business in five steps (I've been doing it myself since 2004).

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

No Sympathy

When I woke up this morning, the outside temperature was in the 30s, and all four of our resident cats had sought refuge on the bed, creating a big, warm human-and-cat pile. Yes, our heat pump is on, but that little electric contraption is no match for sub-freezing temperatures. This sort of weather needs a big, bellowing gas furnace to keep the cold at bay.

The sad thing is, I get no sympathy when I complain to family and friends back home. Right now, as I type this, it's 19 degrees in Chicago. Instead of looking out at palm trees and green grass, they're starting at a barren waste land. Eventually (although it might take days) it will warm up into the 70s here. Their "warm up" there will probably be in the 40s. I'm sure they'd trade places with me in a heartbeat.

Of course, my concept of "cold" is very skewed now, since my once Heinz-ketchup-thick blood has thinned out to the consistency of cherry Kool-Aid. I handle the heat and humidity like a pro, but let the mercury drop below 70 and I'm shivering like I'm at the North Pole.

I guess I should be grateful that no matter how cold it gets, it's unlikely that I'll ever seen snow again, outside of the theme parks, the Gaylord Palms snow event, or the "snoap" that rained down from the light posts nightly in Downtown Celebration for the holiday season. I just hope things warm up here before January 21, or these brave souls doing the Polar Plunge at SeaWorld might just end up floating around encased in blocks of ice. Me? I'll be the one in the Eskimo parka cheering them on from the sides.

Monday, January 02, 2012

But Do You Actually Visit the Theme Parks?

The local news channels love to cover any little happening at Disney and the other theme parks, even if it's as small as Mickey farting. If it's a slow news day, you'll get breathless promos and break-ins to shows: "Live coverage! A dozen children are under mental evaluation for trauma. Tune in at 10 for an indepth analysis of the length, smell, and decibel level." I guess with the Casey Anthony trial over, they have to grab their news where they can get it.

Unfortunately, this means blowing the tiniest incidents out of proportion and doing some very sloppy research. Last night, Universal had a breakdown on both Revenge of the Mummy, which is a combination dark ride and roller coaster, and the classic E.T. dark ride. Breakdowns are routine. Rides don't run on magic and pixie dust and sunbeams. They're mechanic behemoths that have glitches regularly. It's not at all uncommon for guests to have to be evacuated from those rides if it's more convenient to take them off than to force them to wait for a fix. The only thing odd about yesterday's incident is that two rides in the same park both broke down and needed evacs on the same day and within the same time frame. The malfunctions were so minor that both rides reopened shortly thereafter.

Being a slow news day, the TV stations went to town. You'd have thought that hundreds of people were in grave peril, danging by their fingertips and praying the fire department would rescue them in time before the sweat from their terror caused them to slip and plummet to their bloody deaths. My favorite was WESH 2 because it was painfully obvious that the reporter didn't know the first thing about Universal and was likely relying on a combination of rumor and Wikipedia for her report.

The first thing that made me bust a gut was when she claimed that the poor souls on the rides had waited multiple hours in line to get on them. Uh, on January 1? At Universal? Anybody with even an ounce of theme park savvy knows that January 2 is the start of the off season, and people are already bailing in droves on January 1st. Even at the busiest times, multi hour waits at Universal are rare because everyone's next door at Islands of Adventure clamoring to see Harry Potter.

But the thing that made me use Tivo to go back and make sure I heard it correctly was when she claimed that ironically, Revenge of the Mummy is located in the building that used to house E.T. Say what? Mummy took over Kongfrontation's old location, while E.T. has resided in its present spot in the kids' area since for ever. All I can figure is that she or her writer pulled up Wikipedia or some other online source, read that the Mummy replaced E.T., and missed the small but very relevant point that it happened at Universal in CALIFORNIA. Yes, dear, you're reporting the news in ORLANDO, and you just made yourself look like an idiot to anyone who knows even the most rudimentary facts about Universal.

When I became the Orlando Theme Parks Examiner for, I just assumed that I should have annual passes for all the Central Florida parks and, better yet, actually visit them so I'd know what I'm talking about. Apparently the TV news stations don't feel the same.

Speaking of theme park knowledge, I'm putting together some ebook theme park guides. My first guide is about Walt Disney World, but it's more of an insider's view than an actual "This ride is here, that show is here" tour of the park. I hit on things like common ticket scams and other Orlando con jobs, where to find coupons for location attractions, things to do for free, and the like. The next ebooks will be more in the traditional vein, and I promise that none will claim that the Mummy replaced E.T.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Illogical Shortcut

When I moved to Celebration, Florida, I knew that traffic would be a constant headache because I was moving into the heart of Tourist Land. It's manageable most of the time, but at peak times like the holidays it's best to stay home as much as possible or learn all the alternate routes, since main roads like 535, 192, and I-4 turn into veritable parking lots.

Ironically, one of the best shortcuts is driving through Disney property. You'd think that traffic would be worse right in the Belly of the Beast (or, better yet, Belly of the Mouse), but that's not really the case. I know it sounds illogical, but Disney World is actually the best shortcut during the peak season.

Most of the people who stay on site at the Disney World hotels seem to depend on the internal transportation system. Those who stay offsite clutter up the roads outside the resort much worse than they do around the theme parks. When I use Disney property as a shortcut, I mostly avoid the parks anyway. I tend to cut from Celebration to Crossroads (535) if I-4 is backed up and I'm heading to SeaWorld or Universal, or I bail off of West 192 at Black Lake or Sherbeth and take the back roads back home. The tourists are trying to get TO Disney World rather than wanting to drive THROUGH Disney world, which makes the illogical sounding shortcut a real time saver.

Of course, when you drive on Disney property, you're one of a tiny minority of locals in a sea of lost, confused tourists. The stress you save by not being in traffic is somewhat replaced by being surrounded by a predatory forest of cars that might "attack" by swerving into your lane, abruptly coming to a stop from 40 m.p.h., or some other type of dangerous behavior at any time. After a while, you actually develop a sixth sense on what a tourist is likely to do and the spots where they're most likely to do it.

I do pity the tourists a bit. Florida is famous for lanes that suddenly turn into "right turn only" or "left turn only" with literally no warning. I can just imagine some sadistic Sunshine State traffic planner saying, "If we have to deal with their tourist antics, we'll at least make them suffer a bit. The locals will learn where those lanes are, and they can laugh at the out-of-towners who get suckered into making turns they never wanted to make."

Fortunately, all of the mayhem is over for a while now. Peak season ended today, and the tourists are all heading back to real life after their holiday vacations. The streets are already blissfully deserted and I can take the main roads without relying on Mickey for my shortcuts. Still, I don't mind driving through Disney, even if it adds a bit of time to my trip. I've lived in Celebration for years now, yet I still get that little thrill at driving through the Walt Disney World gate. I guess a little part of me will be a tourist forever.