Sunday, June 27, 2004

Dining in Downtown Celebration

One of the good things about living in the Kissimmee/Orlando area (or a bad thing if you pack on the pounds easily) is the fact that just about any kind of cuisine imaginable is available within a reasonable striking distance. From Chinese to Japanese to Indian to German to Cuban, that's all here and more. You can flash back to the 70s with fondue or eat in a tropical rainforest. You can watch an Arabian show, a jousting battle, or a friendly rivalry between the North and South, all while stuffing your face at the same time.

For most of these experiences, you have to leave Celebration and venture out into Tourist Land. But our fair town offers its own delicious cuisine choices. Often my husband and I are feeling lazy and don't want to venture too far. It's nice to know that we can head to Market Street and still have a plethora of choices without travelling more than five minutes from our home.

In this blog entry, I'll share my review of Celebration's restaurants. Keep in mind that all opinions expressed are solely my own, based on my fussy and particular tastes. Your experience may vary, so take what I say with a grain of salt. But for what it's worth, here goes:

Market Street Cafe: The Market Street Cafe, formerly known as Max's, was the first place I ever dined in Celebration. It's very easy to find, right on the corner of Market and Front Streets, across from the lake. It's an old-fashioned diner, complete with Art Deco decor and counter seating, in addition to booths and tables. There is also an outdoor dining area, which is a Godsend to smokers since Florida law prohibits all smoking inside restaurants. Personally, I love that law because now I don't have to sit in a "non-smoking" area that is right next to smoking; the smoke doesn't know it's supposed to stop at that invisible "wall" between the two tables.

The menu at Market Street Cafe is heavy on comfort foods, but there are some "fru fru" items, too, such as coconut breaded shrimp (one of my favorites). You can see a few of the menu items by clicking here. The entrees are missing from that link, but they include lots of burgers, chicken, meat loaf, etc.

The appetizers tend to be large enough for a meal, so often I order one or two of those instead of a traditional entree. Besides the shrimp, I love the nachos, and the pot stickers are quite delicious too. Try them with the orange sauce that is usually served with the shrimp. My husband is a big fan of the quesadillas.

I am an iced tea lover, and Market Street Cafe gets a big thumbs up for serving the fresh brewed variety rather than the Nestea swill that comes out of a tap. That crap is on a par with a true Southerner eating instant grits (those of you who have seen the movie "My Cousin Vinnie" will know what I'm talking about). Better yet, the iced tea is flavored. I don't like it sweetened, but a hint of flavor is fine. It goes down so fine on a hot summer day.

For entrees, I often opt for the taco salad, but with nachos instead of the taco shell bowl. It is huge and I almost always end up taking leftovers home. Another favorite, which is not on the menu, is the pulled pork sandwich. I've had it as a special, and it was fabulous! I wish that it was a regular menu item. Speaking of sandwiches, they have a Cuban sandwich that is a good choice, too. When you have a choice of soup or salad with your meal, you can never go wrong ordering the mushroom soup.

I am partial to ice cream sodas for dessert, but my husband usually opts for the fruit cobbler of the day. We used to be quite addicted to the cappuccino smoothie, but a while back they changed something; I don't remember whether it was the machine they use or the type of mix, but the quality declined. That drink used to be as smooth as velvet, but then we had a couple that were loaded with ice chunks. Finally we gave up, and I have replaced that addiction with Barnie's iced coffees.

Market Street Cafe serves breakfast, too. We are not typically breakfast people, but we've had it there once, and the chocolate chip pancakes were scrumptious.

At peak tourist times, there can be a lengthy wait to be seated, and they don't take reservations. I wish that there was some sort of Celebration resident priority seating, but no such luck. They do pass out beepers so you can wander a bit down the street while waiting for a table.

Once you are seated, you can count on decent and usually prompt service. My iced tea glass is almost always kept filled, and our food and desserts show up in a reasonable amount of time.

Market Street Cafe also has a free rewards program. You sign up and receive a card that earns you points for every purchase. When you reach certain levels, you get a freebie such as a drink, appetizer, or lunch entree. We have already worked our way through three or four levels.

Overall, Market Street Cafe is a keeper. When we just can't decide where to go, that's almost always where we end up, and we've never regretted it.

The Columbia: Before Florida's no-smoking law went into effect, we avoided the Columbia because it had a cigar bar. Even when a cigar area is separate, the stench tends to permeate all surrounding areas. With my allergies, that would not contribute to a pleasant dining experience.

Now that they are smoke free, the Columbia has become one of our regular haunts. It is a branch of the original Columbia Restaurant in Tampa's Historic Ybor City, and it features all of their famous dishes. One of my favorites is the 1905 Salad, which can stand as a meal in its own right. The menu is heavy on Spanish/Cuban dishes like empanadas and ropa veija. If you have a hard time choosing, you can easily make a meal of a selection of "tapas" (appetizers) that will allow you to graze on your own personal buffet.

If you select a full meal, plan on bringing leftovers home. If you are looking for something a bit lighter, but still more substantial than a salad, be sure to try one of their sandwiches. You will be served a wonderful loaf of fresh baked bread while you are waiting for your order. Be careful not to fill up on it; it's addictive!

I love to wash down my meal with a delicious glass of sangria. The only problem is that it goes down too smooth! Besides traditional sangria, the Columbia also offers a white champagne variety.

You can sit either inside or out. Because I don't like being around smoke, I always opt for indoors. The restaurant is decorated in an intriguing Spanish style. You'll enjoy pouring over the knick knacks and reading the newspaper articles on the walls that chronicle the Columbia's storied history.

Click here to see the Columbia's menu. You'll find it just past the movie theater on Front Street.

Seito is a Japanese restaurant with a sushi bar, which is guaranteed to attract my raw-fish-loving husband. Personally, although I'll eat beef so rare it's still mooing on the hoof, I won't touch uncooked sea creatures. He claims I don't know what a rare taste treat I'm missing, but I'm happy to continue living in the dark.

It's not that I am not an adventurous diner. I love escargot (snails in garlic butter), which taste a lot like sauteed mushrooms to me. I adore hackpeter, which is a German dish that is basically raw ground beef mixed with raw onions and a raw egg broken over the whole thing for good measure. I've tried a nibble or two of sushi, but it's something I know that I'll never develop a taste for.

Actually, my husband is not the most adventurous sushi eater. He sticks almost exclusively to tuna, and he wouldn't be caught dead trying something like eel or squid. Seito has the full range of offerings, so he can always find plenty of tuna to please his palate.

I don't suffer when we go to Seito, as I love vegetable tempura. It was actually my fondness for this dish that opened my husband's horizons to sushi. He had never been to a Japanese restaurant before we got married and I dragged him to one to indulge my tempura craving.

Don't confuse Seito with the many Japanese steakhouses that are dotted throughout the Orlando/Kissimmee area. Places like Kobe and Bennihana cook Teppan style, at a grill right in the center of your table. Many Americans consider that to be "Japanese," but Seito is much closer to an authentic experience.

Seito is not limited to sushi and tempura...not by any means. They have a variety of stir fry dishes, soups, salads, and teriyakis. Click here to see an example of the Seito menu.

Like all of the downtown Celebration restaurants, Seito has indoor and outdoor seating. It is located on Front Street, midway between Market Street and the movie theater.

Celebration Town Tavern:
Celebration Town Tavern is just past the Market Street Cafe on Front Street. It's a combination neighborhood bar and restaurant that features excellent clam chowder, plus a variety of steak and New England-style seafood. It's a little taste of Boston right in the middle of Central Florida. If you are married to a sports fan, like I am, he (or she) can watch the game while dining.

The Plantation Room (Celebration Hotel):
The Plantation Room is the restaurant inside the Celebration Hotel. It's a lovely, peaceful oasis of gourmet food served in an elegant atmosphere. The menu changes frequently, according to the season and the whim of the chef, but you can view a sample menu by clicking here.

The Plantation Room is definitely not a budgetary dining experience, but it is well worth the cost. We have been there once for dinner, but we like their special holiday buffets. They have a special offering on 4th of July (when they featured a picnic with a pig roast and a special fireworks viewing area), Easter, Mother's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

Like the regular menu, the buffets are on the pricey side (I think it was around $40 per person at Christmas), but it was definitely worth it. The soups and salads are so good that you'll have to remember to save room for the main courses. I loved the squash soup and the bourbon sweet potatoes, as well as the most godly mashed potatoes that I have ever tasted. You also received a glass of champagne with your meal. Meal cappers included cookies, pumpkin pie, and cheesecakes.

The only thing that made me cringe was the risk of germs from the unsupervised children putting their grubby paws all over the food, particularly the desserts. They would pick something up bare-handed, then plop it down again, and one even dropped a hunk of pumpkin pie on my good dress.

I did enjoy the ambiance of the piano player serenading the diners with carols. Years ago, before Eisner economics, my husband and I had a holiday tradition of dining at the Brown Derby in Disney-MGM Studio. There was a piano player who did carols there, and my Christmas season was never complete without hearing his rendition of the Snow Miser/Heat Miser theme. Now the piano is long gone, a victim of cut-backs. But as I dined at the hotel, I suddenly hear the familiar note: "They call me Snow Miser, whatever I touch, turns to snow in my clutch..." My sneaky husband had requested it for me when I wasn't looking.

Herman's, which is just before the movie theater on Front Street, is primarily known as an ice cream shoppe, but it has an amazingly robust food menu too. I am addicted to their bubble gum ice cream, but my husband has indulged in their pesto salad and pronounced it delicious. They also have a variety of soups and sandwiches. When the traditional sit-down restaurants are too crowded, Herman's makes a great option.

You can eat in at Herman's or take your food with you. I like taking my ice cream cone and eating it across the street, in front of the lake, rocking in one of the many scattered rocking chairs. Unfortunately, I can only do that half the year. The other half, the scorching Florida sun melts the ice cream almost instantaneously.

Barnie's Coffee:
I am firmly convinced that Barnie's puts addictive drugs in their coffee. How else can you explain the fact that I must consume at least one of their flavored iced coffees each day in order to maintain my sanity?

The great thing about Barnie's is that their flavored coffees actually taste like the names indicate. Too many flavored coffees tease you with their tempting scent, but when you brew them, they just taste like plain old coffee beans. In contracts, the chocolate mint coffee that you buy at Barnie's tastes just like a Thin Mint Girl Scout cookie, and Sweethearts Blend will have you convinced you are drinking a liquefied chocolate covered cherry.

My husband likes the hot drinks, but I prefer my coffes iced. There are two or three flavors available each day; I typically go for German Chocolate Cake or Santa’s White Chocolate, which has a seasonal name but is available throughout the year.

Click here to go to Barnie's website, which features a photo of the Celebration shop. Barnie's is on the corner of Bloom and Front Streets.

Sherlock's is located on Bloom Street, just down the street from Barnie's Coffee. You can spot it easily by the red English-style phone booth in front. It is well worth seeking out, especially if you are a tea lover like I am. And I'm not talking about run-of-the mill, everyday tea in a bag. When I was a child, my Hungarian grandmother brewed up fresh chamomile strained right from the flowers. At Sherlock's, the tea leaves are strained, not bagged, and the difference is as obvious as the difference between fresh brewed iced tea and the Nestea swill that comes out of a tap.

You may be overwhelmed by the choice of available flavors. Personally, I am partial to the rose and cinnamon varieties.

But no British tea shoppe would be complete without scones and pastries. I adore scones with Devonshire cream, while my husband usually opts for some type of cheesecake or fruit tart from the selection case. There are also some limited food selections, so you can easily enjoy a pleasant lunch at Sherlock's.

We've never had a full meal there; we'll probably try it someday, but I'm not too fond of the seating arrangements. The inside is, of course, non-smoking, but it adjoins a courtyard. The door is often open, and the smoke blows right into the building. Worse yet, once while selecting my scone, I was bowled over by the stink of someone puffing on a cigar out there! Ugh! Not exactly an enhancement to my appetite. I prefer getting take-out and eating it at home or out on the lakefront.

Sherlock's goes beyond tea and goodies to offer a vast selection of wine. We haven't explored that yet, but I know that we'll get around to it if I can every force myself to forgo my cinnamon tea.

Sherlock's also sells a variety of souvenirs and Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, as well as a selection of candies from England. Click here to view the Sherlock's menu. You'll be amazed at just how many varieties of tea are available!

Well, that about sums up my dining experiences in Celebration. Our town may not have as many options as 192, but the ones we do have are great. No sense in fighting the tourist traffic when you can eat right in your own backyard.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Front Porch Follies

People who live in Celebration might think that the title of this entry refers to the community intranet. Every now and then, certain topics like motorized scooters and school politics turn a relatively calm site into a hotbed of community debate.

But no, I am actually referring to the real, physical thing: that extension on the front of a house for the purpose of lounging around, relaxing, and maybe even socializing with your neighbors.

When I was a kid, the front porch was the place to be on lazy afternoons and balmy summer evenings. At our first house, in the city, there was no room for a chair, so our family would simply sit out on the steps. Our next door neighbors had nothing but a stoop, so they would wander over to share our more spacious facilities.

We eventually moved to my grandparents' house in the suburbs. Their porch was by no means palatial, but it was large compared to our previous home. There was enough room for two chairs, and they would often be posted out there like neighborhood sentries. Back in those pre-cable television days, you could often find more interesting "programming" going on outside than on your Radiation King floor model t.v. set.

My grandparents had access to a more interesting "channel" than most, since their house was right across the street from one tavern and across the alley from another. Of course, the best programming on that channel was usually confined to the weekends and didn't start until later in the evening.

When I eventually moved to an apartment, I was limited to a stoop like my long-ago neighbors. But fortunately I wasn't stuck in a large, soul-less apartment complex. I rented a studio apartment in a garage building, with another apartment above me. My landlord lived in the house in front and also rented out his upstairs. My next door neighbors were an elderly couple, and there was no fence between our yards. Between them and my landlord, the yard was always abloom with flowers, and I often brought my cats out on a leash and sat reading in the sunshine. Granted, it wasn't exactly a front porch, but it served the same purpose. Since all our backyards were close, and many were unfenced, it was still a good way to touch base with your neighbors.

That neighborhood was an old one, in a district with several historic homes, and it was still hanging on in something of a timewarp. We still had a corner store, although I think it was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and neighbors still came out to sit together and share a beer on the porch or in the backyard, or to exchange the latest gossip over the back fence. When the UPS man came and I wasn't home, he'd simply leave the box with whoever he could find, even if they were strangers living down the block. The neighbor would look up my name in the phone book and call me to tell me they had my parcel. I met a couple of people at the far ends of the block that way.

We had all the typical small town characters: the neighborhood gossip who knew everything that was happening with everybody, the elderly people who were always on the watch, the rowdy gang of kids that runs through everyone's yards. I don't mean any of this in a negative way; people were involved and knew what everyone else was doing, which was great for a single woman living alone. I never felt afraid because I knew that the elderly couple next door kept an eye on my comings and goings. The neighborhood gossip who lived on the other side was at my door within five minutes of a storm/power failure, making sure that I had candles. We all looked out for each other, and our whole neighborhood was our "front porch."

But once I got married and moved to a condo in a newer neighborhood of a different suburb, everything changed. Our condo building had twelve units, and we lived literally on top of each other (three floors with four units each). But I never really got to know anyone, with the exception of the biker who lived below us. The "Harley Man" was a wonderful, involved neighbor who really cared about our building and our condo association. He was known as the "Condo Cop," keeping things in line. I really missed him when he finally moved away, as the lack of caring by others quickly became apparent.

Back in the early days, our condo complex would have a yearly block party. But within two or three years, it died out from lack of interest. Once our Harley neighbor was gone, people in our building started grinding out their cigarettes into the hall carpeting, partying into the wee hours with bass so lound that people could hear it three floors down, and leaving coolers, clutter, and even garbage on their balconies. There was absolutely no sense of pride and no consideration for other people.

When we first moved into that building, back when it was brand new construction, I was pleased that our unit featured a balcony. Since it wasn't wide enough for a swing, I immediately purchased a glider so I could sit outside as often as possible. Each year, for the first few years, my husband would dutifully haul it upstairs for the summer and downstairs to our garage for the winter. But although I enjoyed my "front porch," being three stories up made it difficult to connect with neighbors, and some people seemed to purposefully avoid contact.

There was one couple who lived on our floor who would go out of their way to avoid even making eye contact, let alone saying hello. At first I thought I was imagining things. One day they pulled into the parking lot at the same time as I did and sat in their car until I left mine and entered the building. Okay, could be coincidence. But it happened again and again, and I found out from a couple of other neighbors that they'd experienced the same thing.

Then, in the winter, a freak March blizzard snowed us all in. In a display of building-wide cooperation, every person from every unit went downstairs to dig out our garages together. Since they were all attached in a row, a cooperative effort made this much easier. But one unit's occupants were missing; it was the anti-social couple. They were definitely home, but they didn't come out and join us. When we were all done, all of the garage doors were dug out except theirs. Finally, half an hour after the rest of us had gone inside, they came out and shoveled theirs all by themselves.

Unfortunately, as the years passed and people moved out and in, more neighbors had the attitude of that unfriendly couple than of those of us who had worked together. Eventually, it got to the point where I didn't even know the first names of most of the people in our building, and I would have been hard pressed to match the last names on the lobby mailboxes with the appropriate faces.

When we decided to buy a place in Celebration, and I thought the only thing we'd be able to afford was a condo, the most disappointing thing for me was that I wouldn't have a real front porch. I planned to dress up my balcony with a glider, flowers, and a fountain, but I knew it just wouldn't be the same. Then, when we found our triplex, I was estatic because our unit featured a lovely porch that even had enough room for the porch swing that I'd coveted for years.

Apparently, our building was originally supposed to be a Colonial style, which only has stoops on the end units. But somewhere along the line, it was switched to a Craftsman, which has a porch on each unit. The model was also a Craftsman, and the exact unit that we were purchasing, so I was able to see exactly how much room I'd have available.
I was pleased to see that a swing would fit in nicely, with room left over for a couple of rockers and various decorative items that I could change with the seasons.

Once our home was done, the quest for porch furniture began. It was easy enough to find the rockers, as I like the ones at Cracker Barrel. The only question was whether to get white or natural wood-colored. My husband lobbyed for wood because he thought it would be the best match for our beige building. His opinion won out (you gotta let men win the small battles so you can focus on the war), and one Sunday morning I drove over to the local Cracker Barrel and watched as the manager kicked a couple of tourists out of a pair of rockers where they'd been waiting to be called in for breakfast, greased them up (the rockers, not the tourists), and somehow squeezed them into my vehicle.

The porch swing was more challenging to find. We made the rounds of all the local Lowes and Home Depots, but unfortunately we were a bit too close to the Christmas season, which pretty much starts in September. At most of the stores, the porch swings and other yard items had been stashed away to make room for plastic Santas and Christmas trees. We found a few shabby, flimsy models, but we were holding out for something nice looking and sturdy so we could get several years of service out of it.

Finally, our quest was rewarded. At one of the area Lowe's, we found a nice plantation style swing that would fit on the porch, and also, more importantly, in the car so we could get it there.

We had a ceiling fan installed at the same time as the swing was hung. Even though it was fall, and the mild weather had chased out the pervasive mugginess, we knew that we'd be glad to have the fan next summer. I found some cushions at Pier One, and my outdoor relaxation area was ready for occupation.

Porches are a fixture on the majority of homes in Celebration. They range anywhere from a modest porch, like mine, with just enough space for a swing and chairs, to glorious wrap-arounds that embrace entire houses. My favorite home model is the Victorian with an enormous wrap-around porch, but that was definitely out of our price range. I also love the houses that have an upper balcony, in addition to the porch below.

One thing that always amuses me is to see a porch swing hanging in an area that is obviously too small. When biking or walking, I've seen more than a few houses with swings hanging on such narrow porches that they'd break a window if you actually dared to swing on them. I'm not sure of their purpose, since it would be hard to sit there and remain still. The temptation for motion would be too great, at least until you smashed through the glass. Oh well, maybe they're for decorative purposes only, but those windows are in danger if a strong wind storm ever blows in.

Myself, I get as much use as possible out of my swing, with plenty of rocking motion. I do have to rein myself in a little, though. If I go too high, I eventually whack one of the porch posts. I've already branded them with a few chips in the paint, so I don't want to do any more destruction until I touch them up.

In one of the books I read on Celebration, the authors said that although the big porches and small front yards common to the town were designed to encourage people to socialize, this rarely happened in real life, at least outside of Lake Evalyn. Of course, if you've ever seen the yard sizes and proximity of many of the houses in LE, close interaction with your neighbors is unavoidable.

But happily, I haven't found their observation to be true, at least in my little corner of East Village. My neighbor in the mirror unit on the other end enjoys her porch even more than I enjoy mine. She was a lovely ceiling fan and comfy wicker furniture, along a fountain and all sorts of quaint little decorations. Often when I come out to relax on my swing, I see her across the lawn and we both move to one porch or the other and have a nice little chat. Our neighbors on the other side, who own a single family bungalow, have not one but TWO porch swings, which they brought with them from their former home. They are often outside, either alone or with company, and sometimes we wander over there to socialize. Our middle neighbor in the triplex has a nice porch, too, but with three little ones she doesn't have much time for hanging around outside.

Thanks to the miracle of laptop computers, cordless phones, and wireless internet, I can be out on the porch even when I need to work. Somehow working just doesn't feel as combersome when its done in the sunshine while swaying gently on a swing.

I don't know all of the neighbors on our cul de sac, but part of the reason is that we are still commuting back and forth to the midwest because of our jobs. But even in the limited time that we are at home in Celebration, I know my nearest neighbors better in nine months than I know the people in my condo building that I've shared with them for years. And once we're in Celebration permanently and never have to leave home again, I know that our social horizons will expand. I am very anxious to get involved in community groups, Neighborhood Watch, and the like.

Not far from us, on another street, there is a lively group that hosts an annual block party. It extends from their porches to the park area in the center of their group of homes, where neighborhood families all gather together. It's a wonderful chance to meet your neighbors, let the kids run and play together, have a cookout, and have some good old-fashioned neighborhood fun. This fall, my neighbors and I hope to host a similar gathering on the little park-like area in our cul de sac. We will have many new neighbors, as condos and townhomes are going up fast. It will be a fun way for us "old timers" who have been there all of a year to get together and to welcome the newcomers to our neighborhood.

Sometimes I worry that the same apathy that overtook our condo association will creep insidiously into Celebration. I was sad to hear that the Lights and Lemonade Committee disbanded because of poor participation. But there are still many well-attended community events, and I hope that there are enough like-minded people to keep them going strong.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Friday, June 25, 2004

The Bittersweet Saga of Skippy

According to popular Celebration lore, the Skippy saga should never have happened. After all, we have a reputation as a town that does not tolerate disorder. The houses all sit in orderly rows, with well groomed yard and white-shaded windows. Those who do not edge their grass are place in public pillories, and if you actually dare to do something as radical as parking a camper outside your house, you'll be branded with a scarlet R for "Redneck" (or would that be for "Randy Quaid"?).

If all of the rumored rules were true, Skippy would have been hauled to the junk yard many years ago. But the trusty brown Dodge Dart with the cancerous case of rust sat like a sentry at the entrance of town long before I arrived. I read about him in one of the Celebration books before I ever saw him in person (pardon me for referring to a car as a "him," but I can't help but personify Skippy as he had a personality all his own, and he was a true town character). I saw his photo on the internet, so when I finally "met" him in person, I felt like I was in the presence of a celebrity.

The first time I ever saw him, he was parked in his usual spot, on Celebration Avenue right past the entrance to town, in front of the Marisol apartment complex. His owner lived in the red house across the street, but Skippy was too much of a free spirit to confine in the garage or driveway, or even right in front of the house. I had heard that he occasionally moved around town, but every time I saw him, he was within a few inches of his accustomed spot. I always wondered how long he'd be around, as the house had a "For Sale" sign in its yard for as long as I'd ever known it. But eventually I stopped even noticing the sign, as it seemed that no buyers would be forthcoming any time soon. Perhaps Skippy scared them away.

When Skippy greeted visitors to town, they knew his name right away. You can see why for yourself if you click here to view a picture of him. He may have been mute, but he knew how to announce his name loud and clear. Perhaps his last name was BEE FUN; at least, that's what his license proclaimed.

My husband and I quickly joined opposite sides of the "Skippy Camp." Skippy was an issue that had apparently polarized Celebration residents for some time. One camp (of which I was a member) had come to love Skippy. These people considered him something of a town mascot and viewed him with cautious affection in the same way you view the crazy lady down the street with 20 cats or the man who wanders the sidewalks mumbling to himself. Characters like that can be a bit frightening when you first meet them, but then you discover that they're harmless and they become a part of the neighborhood landscape. Soon you know that you'd miss 'em if they were gone.

Those in the other camp (my husband included) hated Skippy and thought he was an eyesore. It was an additional insult that he was one of the first things people saw when they entered Celebration. Celebration is a land of Hummers, NEVs, and Minis, and the poor ancient Dodge Dart just didn't fit into that upscale image.

There are regulations in the covenants governing abandoned junk cars, but Skippy technically wasn't "abandoned" (his status as "junk" was debateable). Although I never once saw him move, I suspect that he moved around just enough to skirt the rules. He was properly stickered and tagged, so as long as he was drivable and was parked within the prescribed regulations, there wasn't much anyone could do.

All the while our home was being built, Skippy welcomed me back on each visit. It was like seeing an old friend waving a friendly hello to pass him on the way into town. My husband, sitting in the passenger seat of whatever rental vehicle Bill Shatner and Priceline had conferred on us, would mumble some suitable nasty words as I beamed, "Oh, look, dear, there's Skippy! Hi, Skippy!"

Once our house was done, we started the 1500 mile commute. We would typically arrive at the airport around midnight, so we didn't get to town until 1 a.m. But no matter what the time, faithful Skippy was still there to greet us. I always knew that I'd arrived home when I drove over the bridge and picked him up in my headlights.

I did hear that he was a proud participant in the 2003 Fourth of July parade, but unfortunately we weren't in town for that. Since our house wasn't done yet, we didn't want to pay the prime holiday rates to travel to Florida that week. I was quite sad that I missed the opportunity to see him actually moving.

Then, one dark and evil night, the unthinkable happened. Someone vandalized Skippy! They slashed his tires and stole his customized license plate. The whole town was outraged; even those who had objected to Skippy's unseemly presence condemned the act of violence. Was it the work of a renegade Skippy-hater who wanted to render him inoperable so he could finally be towed? Or was it a random act of violence on a convenient target? Perhaps we'll never know.

Skippy disappeared briefly, and I thought that he might be gone for good. But soon enough he was back, sporting a new set of tires and a note in his window indicating that he had been vandalized and that his license was applied for.

Unfortunately, his return was short lived. After over a year (probably much longer, but definitely a year that I know of, since that's how long it had been since we had put the contract on our home), Skippy's house was sold!! His owner moved away from Celebration, and the old faithful Dart went along with him.

On the internet, there was some sporadic joking about taking up a collection to buy Skippy so he could located permanently in Celebration as a town icon. I think he would make a much more interesting logo that the biking girl being trailed by a dog that is currently featured on the town seal. But saner heads prevailed, and Skippy was gone for good. His only legacy was a few leftover oil stains on the pavement by his old sentry post.

The next time we drove into town, I felt that something was missing. I thought that my husband would be happy, but amazingly he turned to me and said, "You know, I miss Skippy." He would probably deny it now, but once the old faithful car was gone, I could see that it made him melancholy.

No car will ever take Skippy's place. There was a rusty, battered, bird shit-encrusted MG parked in the downtown area that was briefly in the running. But whereas Skippy had personality, the MG was just nasty and annoying. Happily, it was soon towed away.

I haven't even lived in Celebration a year yet, but I can't help but feel that I witnessed the end of an era. Those who have come after me might hear the legend of Skippy, but it's something you had to experience for yourself. Oh well, at least he's immortalized in oil stains and a photo on the internet. And perhaps wherever his owner moved, he's polarizing a whole new townful of people.

Skippy old buddy, I miss you.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Disney Forever

Once upon a time, Disney proudly touted its ties to the town of Celebration. You couldn't miss the connection from the moment you approached the town on 192. The water town at the entrance announced, "Disney's Town of Celebration" in big, bold letters.

But running a real town populated by real people 24 hours a day is much different than manipulating the controlled environment of a theme park. Cast members on the payroll have to dress and act in a certain way mandated by the Mouse. People in their own homes don't, even if those homes sit on land that was once Disney property.

I won't go into fiascos such as poor construction quality on some of the earliest homes or the failed experiment in "innovative" education. Those have been documented ad nauseum by way too many authors and reporters.

Suffice it to say that Disney soon felt an urge to distance themselves from their creation. They say it was all part of their ultimate plan, but they tend to say that about everything ("Yes, the freak inland hurricane that just destroyed the Magic Kingdom was all part of our ultimate plan of rennovation."). Personally, I suspect that the many gaffes convinced Mama Bird (Mama Mouse?) to kick the fledgling out of the nest a little sooner than planned.

One day, a long time back, "Disney's Town of" suddenly and silently disappeared from the water town. As the years marched on, Disney continued to back off bit by bit. Now, they're almost totally withdrawn. The last village, Artisan Park, was sold off for development by an outside company called (at the time) Arvida. The workers at the Preview Center, who were once employed by The Celebration Company (i.e. Disney) were given the option of becoming Arvida staff.

The Celebration golf course was next; it was sold off to new owners, as was the entire downtown area. Now Market Street and the surrounding area are owned by a company called Lexin, although many people don't even realize it. Quite a few think that Disney is still in charge, and I've met more than a handful who still think that Disney owns the entire town.

Some Celebration residents see Disney's departure as a good thing, allowing the community to finally claim its birthright as a real, full-fledged town under the control of the people. Others are not so pleased about the changes. Only time will tell just how positive or negative the transition will ultimately be.

But at present, The Celebration Company isn't totally out of the picture. It still owns many large parcels of land located along the Celebration Boulevard ring that it is marketing for commercial development. Someday I know that the area will be clogged with hotels and offices and whatnot, but for now I love coming home from Disney World on World Drive and turning onto the circle with its lush thickets of palm trees and wetlands. It makes me feel like I live on a secluded little island ringed by a buffering oasis of green.

Of course, no matter what happens, the Disney name will forever be entwined with that of Celebration just as surely as hordes of tourists will flock to Orlando each summer. 10 years from now, 20, and even 50, Celebration will still be known as the town that Disney built.

How can I state this with such confidence? Well, aside from the fact that in 50 years I'll either be dead or too senile to remember what I said today, I know that it's human nature. It's the same cosmic law that comes into play when you work at a company for many years, doing the same job, and then eventually change departments. Even if you stay in your new position for a decade, people will call you with questions related to your old job forevermore. You might not be listed in that role in the company directory anymore, but it doesn't matter. People who can't remember what they had for lunch two hours ago will remember that 15 years ago you used to handle insurance questions. It doesn't matter that you've worked in finance for 10 years now. You'll be hearing from callers with questions about insurance until you quit the company or retire.

This principle definitely extrapolates to corporations. Disney Cruise Line is a perfect example. Well over a decade ago, the Disney characters could be found on the Big Red Boat, owned by Premiere Cruise Line. But eventually Disney terminated the licensing agreement and started a cruise line of its own.

For a while, Premiere featured the Looney Tunes characters in place of Mickey and the gang. Eventually they went broke, and their ship was literally repossessed while in port, leaving the passengers and crew members stranded.

Disney's ships couldn't be any more dissimilar to Premiere's. Unlike the Little Red Barge, the Magic and Wonder are elegant ships with blue/black hulls and with Mickey's trademark profile on a "wave" on the smokestacks (which are the only red parts of the exterior). There was never any connection between the two cruise lines. The characters are the only thing they ever had in common.

I have cruised Disney an obscene number of times. If you'd like to know just how obsessed I am, click here to read my Disney Cruise Line blog. I consider myself an expert on the topic, and if you look at the blog, you'll see why. But I constantly encounter people who say, "I sailed on Disney Cruise Line in 1992." I point out that they were on Premiere Cruise Line, and they say, "No, it was definitely Disney Cruise Line," even when I explain that Premiere used to have Mickey. Pointing out that Disney Cruise Line did not set sail until 1998 does absolutely no good. Nothing can convince them that their memory is flawed, no matter how many facts I spout.

I am a true crime book buff, and many of the books I read contend that eyewitness testimony is generally the least reliable type of evidence. Juries give it high credibility, but it is notoriously inaccurate. I found this hard to believe until I thought about all the "eyewitness" accounts of trips on Disney Cruise Line in the 1980s and 90s that I've been told about. The people who insist that they sailed on the Magic or Wonder back then would pass a lie detector test with flying colors, because in their minds they know they are telling the truth.

Just as Disney's ill-conceived alliance with Premiere will haunt them forever, or until Western civilization collapses, so too will their association with our town. No matter what the water tower says, no matter who runs the downtown, we're Forever Disney for better or worse.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

A Bike Bike Here and a Bike Bike There

In Celebration, the car is king, but you can still find some unconventional means of transportation giving some competition to the autos. The more unusual choices include Segways (the two-wheeled "human transporters" that were supposed to revolutionize transportation) and glorified electric golf carts known as NEVS, or "Neighborhood Electric Vehicles." During certain times of the year, you can tour the town via house drawn carriage. There used to be lots of electric and gas-powered scooters until a Florida law prohibiting them was finally enforced.

Out of all of the above, the most fascinating for me is the Segway, although I doubt it will ever be more than a niche vehicle. It has some good applications for mobility impaired people, but for mainstream use it's never going to catch on. I remember its inventor making lofty statements about how tomorrow's cities would be designed around the Segway. He must have been sniffing some good white stuff, or else he was desperately trying to make a self-fulfilling prophecy. A Segway on the streets of any big city would be a trial lawyer's dream.

But they're fun to just bum around on. We've ridden them on several of our Disney cruises (they allow you to ride them in the lobby or on Castaway Cay, although the speed is cranked way down so you can't do too much damage, and the price is obscenely expensive for only a few minutes). I want to do the new Segway tour at Epcot, where you get to ride around World Showcase, or else go on one of the tours offered by Relay (the dealer in Celebration).

But overall, for me the alternate choice to the car is my good old-fashioned bicycle. Well, actually it's a new fashioned one. It has an obnoxious amount of speeds...something like 12, or maybe 15. It's a cheapie K-Mart model that has been fitted with a rear rack for transporting goodies that I buy downtown and little Mickey heads on the tire valves that light up when I hit a bump (good for my frequent after-dark jaunts).

In theory, Celebration is a bicyclist's dreams. There are miles of bike-friendly paths weaving throughout the town, and they are even lighted for night rides. In practice, navigating them can be rather challenging. The path near downtown is often choked with tourists who are too busy gaping to make some room on the path. And even the locals seem to love to walk five abreast, and many consider it a supreme inconvenience to move over and let a bike through. When I say the words "Excuse me," they give me a look like I've just made a rude comment about their mother's sex life.

Still, even with these challenges, one of my greatest pleasures in life is riding my bike around the town. My husband and I will both bike to the high school and then to North Village. Once, we got really insane and biked to the Logan's steakhouse on 192, then biked over to the nearby Publix for some light grocery shopping before pedaling back home.

There are lots of bike racks downtown in strategic locations, so we can easily leave our bikes while we bum around the farmer's market, have lunch at one of the restaurants, or enjoy a coffee from Barnie's or an ice cream cone from Herman's (make mine pink bubble gum, please). Sometimes my husband goes biking along while I putz around the house, and he's perfected the art of riding home with one hand on the handlebars while balancing an iced coffee in the other as a treat for me.

Biking is almost a necessity when there is a special event going on. Even though there is a large parking lot downtown, plus a generous portion of street parking, it all seems miniscule in size when the restless hordes descend upon the town. The streets are clogged with traffic, and the parked cars extend from the asphalt into the grass and finally onto any flat, or even semi-flat, surface in the general downtown area.

With my bike, the worst parking woes I have to worry about are finding the most convenient bike racks are already full. But I know where there are plenty of others, and my husband and I always manage to find some space. I remember reading in one of the Celebration books (by a couple who lived here a couple of years for the sole purpose of writing about it and then bailed) that the mother wouldn't buy bike locks for her kids. What planet is she from?! Even if I trusted my fellow residents implicitly, there are too many strangers in town for me to leave my bike unlocked. It way be an $89 K-Mart special, but I'm still rather attached to it and used to it. I've read enough blurbs on the community intranet about unlocked scooters that disappeared from racks and bikes that were stolen from garages for me to leave mine in such a tempting state.

I am a paranoid biker, and I always wear a helmet. I've had a lot of close brushes with cars blowing through stop signs or speeding and not watching where they're going, but so far I've never actually been hit, or even bumped. My husband and I did manage to survive a drive-by heckling once, though. In a big city, it would be a drive-by shooting, but people in Celebration are more civilized. Instead, the car just goes by while the driver shouts obscenities, with no weapon other than the words.

We were on Celebration Avenue, just passing Waterside, which is a common thoroughfare to get in and out of town. As we were preparing to cross the road, a car full of teenagers came screeching up. I don't think they liked the fact that they had to stop because we were crossing. Once we were past them, they peeled off in the opposite direction, yelling, "Rich Celebration bitches on your rich Celebration bikes!"

I guess I have to excuse them because it was pretty dark out, so that must be why they mistook my banged up cheapie for a "rich Celebration bike." And I'm sure that they considered the flashing Mickey lights on the tire valves as the ultimate in pimping out my two-wheeled transportation. My husband was offended that they'd mistaken him for a "bitch," but as I thought about it, I began to realize that they were actually complimenting us. Since we live in a triplex, I'd always though of us as the trailer trash of Celebration. After all, the woman I saw walking through the model when we were buying our home had shuddered at the thought of anyone living in such a tiny place. I'll never forget how horrified she sounded when she said to her friend, "Can you imagine someone actually living in one of these?"

Now I'd been mistaken for a rich Celebration bitch. Perhaps the kids in that car actually thought I was heading over to "Millionaire Row," the street lined with mansions that leads into East Village. Maybe they thought I was am independently weathly that I spend all my days and nights riding around on my pimpin' rich Celebration bike, forcing cars to stop at stop signs. Ah, what a lovely fantasy!

But unfortunately, the reality is that we only get to bike in our free time, and there's never enough of that. But at least we can do it most of the year, with no frigid Midwestern winters to force us to keep the bikes stashed on the garage rack at least half of the year. When you're out on the walking paths or driving around town, maybe you'll see me one of these days. You'll recognize me easily: I'll be the bitchy one on the rich Celebration bike.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Wildlife Encounters

I am no stranger to wildlife, having grown up near forest preserves that are teeming with deer, foxes, raccoons, possums, and coyotes, as well as the traditional birds and squirrels. I own horses and love to ride on the wooded trails, so I've spotted plenty of critters in my time.

But Florida is home to some interesting fauna that I had never encountered before. Sure, there are plenty of familiar animals. I've come upon deer while biking in Aquila Reserve at night, and I've seen lots of turtles (mostly dead in the road) and possums (also mostly dead). But the notable new sightings are the aramdillos and the alligators, both of which can be found quite easily in Celebration if you have a little patience and very sharp eyes.

The first time I spotted an armadillo was while I was driving through town after a visit to the construction site of our new home. It was busily rooting away on someone's lawn, right next to the alley. I gleefully pointed it out to my husband; up until that time, I'd thought the little critters were found only out west. Shows you how much I know. Silly northerner!

We pulled into the alley and stopped (typical tourist behavior, but we were still officially tourists at the time). We both watched, fascinated, as the aramdillo totally ignored our proximity and continued its destruction of the lawn.

Not long after that, on our next trip to town, we spotted lots of wild turkeys strutting on the flattened areas of East Village that would soon be new homes. The poor things were probably confused as to why their habitat was rapidly disappearing and being turned into "human nests." Happily, they have stayed in the neighborhood, and I still see them in Aquila and even, occasionally, closer to my home.

My first gator encounter didn't come until later. I had a pretty good idea of where the scaly creatures were hanging out because of the photos on, an excellent site about Celebration that features an ever-changing array of photography. Many of the past photos are archived on Tom's neat site - click here to visit. In addition to gators, you can see armadillos. birds, and other Celebration wildlife. And contrary to popular rumor, they are not Audioanimatronic.

At any rate, I knew that a gator was hanging out in the lake by the East Village walkway. My husband and I bike there frequently, so we started watching out for the "East Village poodle snatcher," as he was dubbed in the caption. Sure enough, one day we spotted him, looking for all the world like an innocent floating log. But when you looked closely, you could make out the cold, reptilian eyes and the little snout with nostrils protruding just above the water line. He was serenly floating around the lake, perhaps in search of unsuspecting prey or maybe just enjoying the cool water.

A few months later, there was a great photo of a gator sitting on the grass near a lake that we recognized as being pretty close to our house. The next time we were out biking, we stopped at the lake, and sure enough, there was Mr. Gator. But this one wasn't in the water. He was relaxing on the grass, just as he had been in the photo. Fortunately, he was the across the lake from us. He probably wouldn't be considered large by people who have grown up around gators, but to us greenhorn city folk he looked enormous! My husband was so thrilled that he'd seen his first gator. He didn't count the other one because it had been in the water; this one was much more up close and personal.

But more intimidating than the gators are the snakes. I know that there are poisonous snakes in Florida, and although I am not afraid of reptiles in general, I have a healthy respect for them when they might be venomous. I knew they were around, but I hadn't seen any in person. Then, one night, my husband and I were riding back from downtown on the trail that goes along the lake in East Village. I biked past some dark blobs in the path, and I could swear that one was shaped like a snake. I called back to hubby, "What was that?" He responded, "I think it was so garbage."

Not too much farther ahead, we encountered a woman and her dogs. She said, "Is the water moccasin still on the trail?" Yikes!! It turned out that what my husband thought was trash was actually doggy "potty" bags. The woman had been heading home with her dogs when a snake blocked her path. She tried to frighten it off the trail by tossing some bags at it, but it wouldn't budge. Finally, she gave up and started heading in the opposite direction. It was a longer way, but at least it was snake-free. I don't know for sure if it was a moccasin, but if it was, I shudder to think how close my husband and I both passed to it.

My second snake encounter was in Aquila Reserve. This time, I didn't even see the snake. I had biked over and stopped when I saw some people watching a gator that was swimming around the lake. We started chatting, and a man who was also gator-watching warned me that there was a water moccasin on the trail over on the other side of the lake. I quickly decided that I would return the way I had arrived, which was via the snake-free street.

We saw a jogger heading towards the area where the snake was supposed to be. Suddenly we saw him turn quite abruptly and come jogging back out way, and at a considerably faster pace! The man said, "I warned him that the snake was there." I guess he had to see for himself. Personally, I'll take someone else's word for it.

But although the snakes can be scary, they don't even begin to compare to the sinister turkey vultures. The vultures are the morticians of the animal kingdom. Every morning, if I'm out early enough, I see them cleaning up the remains of the previous night's road kill. And the turkey vultures and big and strong! I've seen a couple of them dragging a carcass nearly as big as they are, or even bigger, off to the side of the road so they can enjoy a leisurely meal without worrying about passing cars.

Other than that, most of the wildlife is fairly sedate. I've heard that there are still wild hogs, but I've never encountered one in person. Every now and then, I find a mini-frog attached by its sucker-toes to our back door, but they appear to be harmless. There are two dogs who live behind us who like to occasionally run over and run around my legs while yapping fiercely. But I know that they're all show, and they succumb pretty quickly to petting, so I guess they don't really count as "wildlife."

Our next door neighbor has a dog and a cat. The cat loves to come over to visit, and she'll even slip inside if you're not watching. She's a very social creature, and she loves to make the rounds of all the neighbors to receive her daily dose of admiration.

One night, I was sitting out on my porch swing when I heard a rustling in the bushes. I didn't see anything, so I decided that it must be my imagination. Then, all of a sudden, I heard the rustling again and a big, white creature leaped onto the porch! Just as I was about to panic and flee into the house, I realized that it was my kitty friend. She was out making her night rounds and must have noticed that I was sitting outside. Of course, that meant she had to stop by for a little visit. She curled up on the swing with me for 15 minutes of petting before continuing her prowl.

Interestingly enough, I never see birds or squirrels around our house. My neighbor put out a bird feeder, and the seed has remained completely untouched. In the midwest, we've got all sorts of feathered friends, like robins, sparrows, and mourning doves, flocking in the yards and christening our cars. And there is always a squirrel or two skittering across the lawns or up the trees. In Celebration, that's curiously absent, at least in our neighborhood.

But there is plenty of bird life once you venture off into the wooded areas. I am continually fascinated by all the new and interesting kinds of feathered friends that I've spotted. One of these days I'm going to have to get a book on Florida's native birds so I can put a name to them.

Animals are not the only creatures that fascinate me in my adopted home state. Florida has opened up a whole new world of amazing (and annoying) insects. The summer invasion of love bugs drove me crazy for a month. They seemed to be especially attracted to the color of our house, and they invaded our porch in renewed waves as fast as I could sweep them away.

I had encountered fire ants on previous visits as a tourist and had learned how badly they can bite, so I had our yard treated proactively. Thankfully, I've never seen any of the little buggers around there, and I hope I never will. I also never want to see "saw palmetto bugs," which I've been told is Florida-speak for roaches. I know that they are very common, but in the midwest you only get them in your home if it's very dirty. Having roaches there is a sure sign that you're a slovenly housekeeper. Quarterly treatments have kept them out of our Florida house so far, and I hope that it continues that way.

Of course, there's no way to ward off the mosquitos, despite the best efforts of the abatement team. I keep a steady supply of "Off" spray in the medicine cabinet, but I always forget to put it on before I go out on the porch. Interestingly enough, my husband can come out and sit with me in the same spot for the same length of time, and they never bite him one. He goes inside with pristine skin, while I have itchy lumps and bumps and welts on every exposed patch.

I'm sure my fascination with Florida wildlife sounds silly to natives who have grown up with it all their lives. But to me it's a whole new habitat to discover, and I'm enjoying every minute of the experience.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Monday, June 21, 2004

Founders Day Festivities

After closing on our home in August, we were anxious for our first Founders Day, which is celebrated in mid-September. It is a real, honest-to-goodness hometown holiay, commemorating the founding of Celebration. I'm not sure which "founding," since there have been a lot of milestones (the day the homes went up for sale, the initial groundbreaking, the day the first resident moved in, etc.), but it doesn't matter. To me, any reason is good enough to have a town-wide party.

The biggest item on my Founders Day agenda was to get in the town photo. It's an amazing feat, as the idea is to get a photo of every Celebration resident gathered all at once in Lakeside Park. Of course, not everyone shows up, but there is a respectable number. This year, there was even a carrot on a stick to help entice the reluctant people: a free raffle for everyone who participated, with prizes donated by the local businesses. The photographer goes up on a crane, everyone says "Cheese," and voila! Another year in Celebration's history is commemorated for the ages.

My husband could have cared less about the photo, but he knew that the local restaurants would have booths set up. That meant he could indulge in some sangria from the Columbia. Also, both he and I were looking forward to the unveiling of the bricks. Each year, at the base of the flagpole on Celebration Avenue, near the school, bricks are inscribed with the names of all the people who purchased new houses in the past year. We couldn't wait to see "our" brick, immortalizing our dream home. The unveiling was set for shortly before the town photo, so we figured we'd find our brick and then mosey over to Lakeside Park, a short walk away.

At the brick unveiling, we were as excited as kids at an Easter egg hunt, searching with all the other enthusiastic newcomers for our own little piece of immortality, Celebration-style. My husband searched in one area while I scoped out another, but we were having no luck. Our next door neighbors were there, too, so I told him to look for their brick as well. Someone heard me say their name and shouted, "Their brick is right here!" Sure enough, there it was. That gave me renewed hope that ours would eventually turn up.

We searched and searched, and photo time was rapidly approaching. Just when I was about to lose hope, we finally located our brick. Of course, we had to act like tourists and take a bunch of photos. In pondering the length of our search, I realized that the bricks could be used as an initiation rite for newbies, sort of like a fraternity initiation.

I can just picture it now: Tell all the new residents that there is a brick in their name, but of course there are NO new bricks. Have a few shills planted among the crowd to occasionally yell out, "I found mine!" so the newbies won't get suspicious too quickly. Finally, after they are ready to go crazy from fruitless searching, let them in on the joke. Perhaps the last person to give up the search could even win some sort of prize. I know, I know, I have a cruel sense of humor!

At any rate, we found our brick in time to head over to Lakeside Park for the raffle and photo. As you headed to the photo area, you received your free raffle ticket. Then you staked out your spot among the others who were rapidly gathering to be a part of the 2003 town picture. There was an area marked off on the grass with tape in which we were all supposed to position ourselves.

I noticed that several people had interesting strategies for standing out in the crowd. Loud clothing seemed to be the most common (myself, I was wearing my yellow Celebration shirt), but one enterprising woman was wearing a set of rabbit ears. I've seen "Stitch ears" at one of the Disney stores, so maybe I'll make my own fashion statement next year.

My personal strategy for easy location was to choose an end spot. Hubby and I jockeyed for position as the crowd continued to swell. Finally, it was photo time, and the photographer on the crane somehow managed to get us all in the picture. Of course, we didn't get to see the results right away, but the print showed up in the next issue of Celebration News (the official Town Hall newsletter), and copies were available for purchase. Since it was our first year, I had to buy one. I went all out and purchased a large copy, despite an obscene price, that is now framed and hanging in our hall.

I highly recommend displaying your Founders Day photo if you have one. We quickly learned that guests love to play "Where's Waldo?" and try to find us among the crowd. Surprisingly, many of them don't ever manage to locate us; I thought we were pretty easy to spot, since we're right on the end. Maybe that's a bit too obvious, and they're thinking it will be more of a challenge.

After the photo, everyone crowded around to see if they were holding a lucky raffle ticket. But in order to see if you were a winner, you had to pay a bit of "tribute" by sticking around for the award presentations that came first. Various people were honored for their community service, and a number of new rocking chairs were dedicated. Everyone waited politely, if a bit impatiently, and soon enough it was time for the part that everyone was waiting for: PRIZES!

The grand prize was an overnight stay and dinner at the Celebration Hotel. There were also two first prizes of golf at the Celebration Golf Club. In addition, there were dozens of other items such as gift certificates from various local restaurants and shops like Barnie's, Herman's, and Seito.

As we waited for the numbers to be called, I nudged hubby and said, "Just you watch. I bet I'll win the golf!" I firmly believe that God has a sense of humor; I have never golfed in my life, and neither has my husband, unless you count the miniature variety. So I figured it would be a good divine joke if I won the one prize that I would have no real use for.

The winner of the hotel package was announced, and then came the first golf award. The number was announced, I looked at the ticket in my hand...and, lo and behold, I had won!! I was totally in shock. As I walked up to get my award, I just kept mumbling to myself, "But I don't golf! I don't golf!" I'm not familiar with golfing prices, but apparently I had just one a relatively valuable award.

My husband and I are much more into fine dining than learning to play to new game, so I stuck around while the rest of the prizes were awarded and traded with someone who'd won a Seito gift certificate. It was worth considerably less than the golf, but it didn't matter to me. I just wanted something we could use, and the golf went to someone who would appreciate it properly. My nephew, who is a golfer, would have probably loved to play on the Celebration course, but unfortunately he wasn't coming to visit until the following summer, when the certificate would be expired.

Founders Day festivities continue throughout the day, and the big capper is a fireworks display over the lake. This year, it was sponsored by the developer of Artisan Park, and we were optimistic that they'd put on an impressive show.

After bumming around town until early evening, we headed home for a while, planning to return for the spectacular in the sky. That night, we decided to walk back to town. It's a good way to avoid traffic, and the walking paths that wind throughout most of Celebration make it easy to get downtown. There is a path in East Village that starts near the pool, heads past Lake Evalyn, and takes you right into the downtown area. It's only a few minutes by bike and about 20 minutes on foot. We had recently purchased some collapsible camp chairs, so we decided to bring those along.

When we reached the path, we found that many others had the same idea. Despite the darkness, we encountered lots of people heading in the same direction. We arrived downtown shortly before the fireworks were slated to being. The crowd had grown substantially, but for some reason most of the tourists hadn't wandered onto the grass around the lake. They were clustered in the downtown area, which was fine with me. I don't know if the "Residents Only" sign at the entrance to Lakeside Park's parking lot had intimidated them, but I seriously doubt it. I think they were doing the usual "human sheep" behavior and sticking with the rest of the crowd.

We set up our camp chairs and settled in. The fireworks show began with a loud bang, and suddenly the sky was alight with color. We had an almost perfect view, and we really enjoyed the dazzling show. It was well worth the 20 minute walk and a perfect capper to our very first Founders Day.

All too soon, the fireworks were over. We figured that the party would wind down soon, and we were worn out from a long day of fun, so we packed up our chairs and headed home. There were a lot of people on the walking path between downtown and Lake Evalyn, but they thinned out considerably as we neared East Village.

I don't know if there will be another Founders Day in 2004. Since Disney sold the downtown area, it has been nearly impossible to find firm information on which special events will remain. Hopefully this event has become a tradition that will last as long as Celebration, but even if it's gone, at least we got to celebrate once. The photo in our hallway brings back lots of fond memories of those first wonderful weeks in our new home.

Next time: Wildlife Encounters

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Living With Tourists

When you purchase a home in Celebraton, you receive information entitled "Living With Gators," in addition to a warning about pesky critters like snakes and mosquitoes. I don't know about the gators, but I think that a document that should be required reading for all potential Celebrationites (Celebrants?) is "Living With Tourists."

I made the decision to move to Celebration with my eyes wide open. Having been a tourist myself for years, I knew exactly what I was getting into. But every now and then I meet people who complaint about the constant stream of out-of-towners and the inconveniences that they cause.

I'll admit that I've had some annoying encounters of my own. Sure, it's irritating when I can't get a table at Max's or one of the other downtown restaurants because the "outside" crowd has pushed the wait up to over an hour. And I hate it when I buy an iced coffee at Barnie's and then wait to use the restroom in a line of half a dozen people, none of whom has made a purchase.

But overall I don't mind the tourists all that much. I see them as a part of the mix that makes Celebration, and the entire Orlando/Kissimmee area, such a vibrant place. I also remind myself that they bring in dollars to support the downtown area and the special events, such as the autumn leaves and snowfalls, that I enjoy so much. I try to support the downtown stores as much as possible, but since they are geared more to visitors, a lot of my money is spent outside of town. Hopefully the tourists make up the slack because I'd hate to see the stores shuttered and the streets bare.

I've learned the side roads to avoid most of the traffic, and when a major downtown event is going on, I bike or walk rather than search for a parking place. I allow plenty of extra time to get anywhere in the peak season, and I eat at places that take reservations during the special events or busiest times of the year.

Most of the tourists I've talked with are very nice and polite, if a bit befuddled by the existence of Celebration Boulevard, Celebration Avenue, and Celebration Place. I try to help them because I remember when I was a newbie and was befuddled by trying to get around town, too.

Usually, when I encouter a carload of lost people, they are looking for a downtown event, so it's relatively easy to get them pointed in the right direction. But sometimes they've ended up in Celebration totally by accident due to its proximity to 417 and I-4. I once encountered a poor guy, caught in the midst of the snowfall traffic, who only wanted to find 192 and his hotel so his exhausted family could fall into bed. Then there was the nice British family who wanted to know if they were in Winter Park or Winter Garden (I forget which one). They had no idea where they were or how they had gotten there. At that time, I was too new to be of much help, although I pointed them to downtown where I hoped someone could assist them.

Perhaps the Tourist Annoyance Thermometer is higher or lower depending on where you live. My husband and I have most of our lost tourist encounters while out biking or walking between North and South Villages. I've noticed that for the most popular events, like the snowfall, North Village seems to get a steady influx of people who, for some unknown reason, feel compelling to turn left into NV rather than continuing down Celebration Avenue. Perhaps they are attracted by the brightly colored lights on the 300 foot catapult tower.

On our street in East Village, it's extremely rare to encouter a tourist unless they are more hopelessly lost than usual or are simply driving around town. My husband has assisted a few who have made too many wrong turns and have wound up in our neck of the woods, desperate to escape but making an endless circle. But generally our neighborhood is immune from most of the hullabaloo.

I think that will be even more true once Artisan Park is complete. Before it existed, Celebration Avenue ended at the street that leads to our house. Anyone who followed it to the end had to either make a U turn or turn left and head towards our neighborhood. Now I suspect that they will continue down the avenue and end up somewhere in Artisan. Perhaps they will gather on the clubhouse lawn and wait in vain for paper leaves or soap bubble snow to fall.

So far, I've only had one memorable negative encouter with tourists since I've moved to Celebration. My husband and I were dining at the Columbia, and there was a huge Spanish-speaking tourist family seated nearby. Their kids were running amok in the restaurant while the adults talked and drank. One little boy kept literally climbing into our booth and running his toy car along our seats. At first, one of my patented "death stares" drove him way, but he was back a few minutes later.

When I said something, he played the old "I don't understand English" game. When I was a teenager, I babysat for a Mexican family, so I can still spit out enough to make myself understood. He looked totally shocked when I told him to go play somewhere else in his native language. When the shock wore off, he went off to bother other patrons and left us alone for the rest of our meal. Eventually, all the kids from the family left the restaurant. The adults didn't seem to care a bit; they just went on eating and drinking. I have no idea where the kids went, but they were rather young to be off on their own in a strange town, especially if they really couldn't speak English. I don't know if they ever made it back because the adults were still there when we left.

That one rude incident is more than made up for by the amusement of watching tourists by the lake trying to figure out if the birds, fish, and turtles are real (heck no, they're Disney Audioanimatronics). I even had one worried person ask me if he had to pay to park on the downtown streets. I assured him he didn't, but he still seemed skeptical. I guess he had spent too much time being nickled and dimed to death at Disney World, and he couldn't believe his luck at finding a prime (and free) spot on the street downtown during the autumn leaf fall.

Even when there's no special event going on, the tourists are easy to spot. They're the ones driving 10 miles per hour in the 25 zone, with a marked propensity to make abrupt stops and/or U turns. It's annoying, but I definitely prefer them to the impatient locals who think that speed limits don't apply to them and who blow stop signs as though they are invisible. A poky tourist is much less likely to hit a child who runs out into the street or to rear end someone than the Type A residents who tailgate so close that I'm convinced they'll soon be forcing me to go faster by pushing my car.

I've learned through experience that when you live in Celebration, you learn to work around the busy season at Disney World, too. Besides learning the back roads to avoid the WDW traffic, you learn how to have a good time at Disney World itself.

When you live in the Mouse's backyard, you don't feel the compulsion to arrive at the parks at opening time and to stay until close, trying to pack in as much as possible in the precious hours inbetween. I have learned that the water parks start emptying out a couple of hours before closing time, so that's when you'll find me enjoying relief from the heat and an absence of lines at Typhoon Lagoon. I make a priority seating for lunch or dinner at one of the parks, and we grab Fast Passes before our meal. By the time we're done, it's time for a quick ride before leaving. And of course, who can resist the singles lines at Test Track and Mission: Space before watching Illuminations from one of the little-known prime spots? I am also an expert in fun things to do around the WDW resort without ever going into the parks.

I feel sorry for the tourists because they can't enjoy all the wonderful attractions on a daily basis. I also hate to see how they get fleeced by some unscrupulous companies. We fly a lot, and I almost always hear people being blatantly lied to at the car rental counters: "Florida law requires you to buy our insurance." "You're the only person today who wasn't smart enough to buy our coverage." "The car size you rented is too small for your party. You're going to have to pay for something larger." (They like to use that last one when they are out of the size the person rented, meaning they should be upgraded for free.) And don't even get me started on the used ticket resellers and the time share scammers!

Yes, tourists can be annoying, but I'm also flattered to live in a place so wonderful that people from around the world want to visit it. Like the gators, snakes, and mosquitoes, it's all a park of living in Florida. And like gators, you have to watch out for the tourists, but you can learn to co-exist peacefully.

Next time: Holidays and Celebrations

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Furniture Hell

Once we had closed on our new home, I thought that the worst was over. The closing itself had been worrisome, since I had to coordinate so many things long distance. I had to juggle Fed Ex envelopes full of documents that had been signed in triplicate and notarized in all the right places. I nearly panicked when there was a last-minute glitch in the funds transfer, especially considering that I was working with a six figure amount. But somehow it all came together, and now the house was officially ours.

It was a literally frustrating that although we were the official owners, we wouldn’t be able to spend our first night there for a couple of weeks. The closing was on August 21st, but we wouldn’t be returning until Labor Day week. We had the keys in our possession, but we were 1500 miles from the door they would unlock.

At that point, the only utility glitch was the phone service. Even though we planned to rely mainly on our cell phone, we needed a phone line for DSL service, and we thought it would also be a good idea in case of emergency. Even before going to the house, we called the line to test it, and we kept getting a message that it was not in service. Smart City, the phone company, insisted that it was working. When we got to the house, we discovered that it was not. There was quite a bit of back and forth before they finally got it functional. For a while, I became convinced that I was really dealing with Hooterville Bell and that I’d be like Eddie Albert, scaling a utility pole every time I wanted to make a call. But finally once day we chanced upon a person who actually knew what he was doing, and our phone service has been reliable ever since.

Speaking of telephones, one interesting aspect of phone service in Celebration is that you might have a different area code from your immediate neighbors. I had expected that our area code would be 407, with a 566 exchange, like every other Celebration number that I was familiar with so far. Imagine my surprise when we were assigned a 321 area code and a 939 exchange. I was a little dismayed; I didn’t feel like a “real” Celebration resident. But one of my neighbors cheered me up by pointing out that I had a NASA/Disney World number. She said, “321 is the countdown and 939 spells WDW.” I just had to smile, and now I’ve learned to like my phone number. But it still feels strange to call someone a block away and have to dial a different area code.

With the phone sorted out, it was time to turn our attention to furniture deliveries. We’d ordered much of our furniture prior to closing on the house, and we’d dealt with stores that offered Saturday delivery since our weekdays in Celebration would be few and far between for the rest of the year. Most of our furniture was ordered from Rooms to Go near the Florida Mall. We purchased our family room furniture, bedroom set, and dinette set from them. Interestingly, my husband chose almost all the furniture for our new home. My only selection was the kitchen set, and little did I know that the decision would soon come back to haunt me.

We had also ordered a couple of futons in preparation for the company that seems to inevitably invade the household of every transplanted Northerner in Florida. On our first day in the house, we rented a truck to pick them up so we’d have something to sleep on. Our purchases from Rooms to Go were set to be delivered the next day.

On that day, we learned the First Rule of Deliveries in Florida: Add at least two to four hours to the time window that you are given. That wasn’t a big deal, as we’d pretty much counted on spending the whole day waiting for the furniture. I did start to get worried when it was almost 10 p.m. and the furniture still hadn’t made its appearance. But soon enough the truck pulled up, and our barren rooms started to look cozy and furnished. I thought that surely we must be the last stop, but the drivers said they still had one more delivery in Celebration that night.

As it turned out, they couldn’t assemble my kitchen table because some critical parts were missing. I know now that I should have made them take it back and exchange it. But they must not have wanted to haul it back, as they talked me into keeping it and promised to send out a serviceman promptly with the missing parts. Thus ensured a comedy of errors: Three times, we received a box of parts via UPS. Three times a serviceman came out to install those parts, and three times they were the WRONG parts. It was becoming a major inconvenience because they kept sending the parts directly to us, and we weren’t home to receive them. They would be delivered on a weekday and sit on our porch until our next weekend visit or until our caretaker took them in.

Finally, it got to the point of utter ridiculousness. When the serviceman opened the box and found the wrong parts for the third time in a row, he called the store and told them they had to do an exchange. Once again, we spent a day waiting, and the delivery truck rolled up late in the evening. As the deliverymen carried in the new table, I overheard my husband say something about the parts being missing again. I almost went ballistic! Happily, I had misunderstood him, but I think I scared the poor deliverymen to death. I reassured them that I wasn’t upset with them (they thought I was mad because they were late). I was just pleased that I finally had a kitchen table after weeks of staring at a skeletal base surrounded by four lonely-looking chairs.

But the Saga of the Kitchen Table was nothing compared to the Odyssey of the Master Bath Cabinets. In our original walk-through, the builder’s rep. pointed out to us that one of the kitchen cabinet doors didn’t match the others. It was almost identical, but the inlay had square corners instead of round. He had already put through a work order, and the oddball door was soon replaced. One day, in the master bath, I realized that the same thing had been done with one of the cabinets under the sink. I dutifully reported it, and the cabinet company sent out a repairman to confirm the problem.

The kitchen door had been fixed quickly and painlessly, so I thought that the master bath would be the same. No such luck. Literally four times the repairman brought out a new door, and literally four times it was the wrong door. What made this worse was that, unlike the Rooms To Go repair people, the cabinet company would only send someone out on weekdays. At this point, it was now 2004, and we had wasted four precious vacation days for service appointments, only to be told each time that the problem couldn’t be taken care of because they’d sent the wrong door yet again.

At this point, my patience had worn thin. I called the cabinet company and insisted that they would either schedule the next appointment on a Saturday or reimburse me for having a house sitter let them in. They agreed to a Saturday, which was still bad enough since we’d have to waste yet another day. Believe it or not, they FINALLY delivered the correct doors. I guess they didn’t like the prospect of an indefinite string of Saturday appointments.

There were several more “fun” experiences, and some, like the cabinets, are still ongoing. Another saga that we’re still waiting to conclude is the saga of Rhodes Furniture and the Wardrobes. In Florida houses, storage space is at a premium. There are no basements, and garages are typically too humid to store anything but the most durable of items. To increase our available closet space, we decided to buy a couple of wardrobes to place in the large, empty space at the top of our staircase.

We found a pair of perfect wardrobes at Rhodes Furniture on Orange Blossom Trail. We had stopped in to buy some Saunder pieces for our entry foyer, and we saw the wardrobes just as we were leaving. We ordered two and were told that since they were a special order item, it would be several weeks before they came in. That was fine; we were in no hurry. We explained to the salesman that we would have to have a Saturday delivery, and we confirmed that it would be no problem while signing the paperwork at the counter.

The weeks went by, and finally one day we received a phone call that our wardrobes were ready for delivery. I rattled off the Saturdays that we would be in town; we were in Celebration at least two weekends each month, so they had plenty to choose from. The person on the phone said, “Oh, but we don’t delivery on weekends.” Confused, I said, “But Rhodes told us that they DO deliver on Saturdays.” She responded, “Maybe they do, but these items are coming directly from the factory, and we only deliver during the week.” Worse yet, she said that they only deliver to Celebration on certain weeks, and you can only find out which weeks a week or two ahead of time. Of course, none of the upcoming weeks happened to be when we would be in town.

I called Rhodes and was connected to our salesman, Anthony. He had been quite friendly and personable when we made our purchases, but now he literally started yelling at me. I was shocked, as I hadn’t even said anything nasty or adversarial. I had simply called to see what could be worked out. At the very least, I thought that my delivery charge should be refunded; that would reimburse me for the inconvenience of finding someone who could waste a day waiting for the wardrobes.

Anthony called me a liar when I said that I had been told that the furniture could be delivered on a Saturday, I reminded him that my husband was a witness, and he changed tactics and started yelling that he was new and couldn’t be expected to know that the wardrobes would be delivered by the factory, I bit my tongue, even thought I wanted to point out that it was his job to know those things. But I knew that it would accomplish nothing to let him draw me into an argument. Instead, I asked to speak to the manager. At first, he refused and kept yelling about how he was new and how the situation was my fault because I had expected him to know the delivery details. Finally I told him that if he didn’t connect me, I would simply hang up and call the manager back. He put me on hold and returned in a few minutes to announce that the delivery charge would be refunded. That didn’t change the fact that I’ll still have to arrange a weekday delivery, but at least it was some small consolation. The wardrobes are still sitting on a dock somewhere, as my weekday trips to Celebration over the past several months have never coincided with the weeks the delivery truck is in the area. I have some neighbors who can handle it, but they are out of town until the fall, so it looks like I won’t have my wardrobes any time soon.

There is one more furniture saga that is still being played out. At Haverty, which is almost right next door to Rhodes, we found the perfect entertainment center for our family room. We had to order it from a catalog, but in the photo it looked like the wood color was almost a perfect match for our coffee table. I knew that it would vary in real life, but it would be close enough to fit in with the rest of the furniture.

Haverty called when our item was ready for delivery, and they cheerfully set up a date for the very next Saturday that we’d be in town. The delivery truck showed up just a bit later than we’d be told, and certainly much more promptly than any delivery so far. When the entertainment center was set up in our family room, I saw that the wood color was even closer than it had appeared to be in the catalog. It almost looked as though we’d bought it at the same time as the other furniture. For once, was everything going to work out smoothly? Of course not!

The deliverymen said that although they assemble most of the item, we would have to install the glass shelves ourselves. Then they hightailed it out of our house. I realized that they were probably trying to get out of there before we realized that the shelves on the left side were wedged so tightly into the cabinet that it would be impossible to remove them without either breaking them or dismantling the whole side of the unit.

I called the store and arranged for someone to come out and remove the shelves. But my husband, always the tinkerer, was determined to get them out himself. I warned him to leave them alone, but he just had to keep trying. Unfortunately, the deliverymen were in such a rush that they’d installed the bridge above the television incorrectly. It came crashing down and dented the television casing. Fortunately, we hadn’t gotten our “good” t.v. yet, but I still wasn’t happy.

Now my husband finally agreed that he should have left it alone, but I was stewing about the dents on the t.v. and the gouges on the wooden bridge. Sure enough, when the repairman came out, he had to dismantle half of the entertainment center to get the shelves out. He confirmed that the bridge had not been installed correctly, and he had to order a new one because of the way the fasteners had gouged the old one. The bridge is still on order, but at least our shelves are in place. The delivery was a fiasco, but I’m still pleased at what a perfect match the piece is with the rest of our family room furniture.

Besides all the fun I’ve previously described, we had a few little items that we had to call the builder about, such as a sticking front door lock and a driveway that was slanted the wrong way for our one-way alley. But happily, all of those items were fixed promptly and to our satisfaction. The only other major problem was when we discovered that the neutral had not been hooked up to our meters. We had noticed that our lights kept strobing every time we used our new washer and dryer. We didn’t think much about it; my husband said it was probably normal, but I figured it was worth a call to the electrician. It just didn’t seem right that we should have to deal with strobe lights in a brand new house.

I reported the issue to the builder, and an electrician was duly dispatched. As soon as he located the problem, he turned off our electricity and told us to call Florida Power immediately. I don’t know anything about electricity or wiring or meters, but he said that it wouldn’t be safe to have the power on until the problem was resolved. Apparently, the neutral was dangerously loose and could have caused a fire. Florida Power sent someone out to take care of it, and being a fire paranoiac, and I shuddered that the thought that we could have easily had one.

Speaking of the washer and dryer, we also did have one delivery go pretty smoothly. We were going to shop for appliances at Home Depot, but then the world’s most annoying television commercial caught our attention. The commercial was sometimes short, and sometimes it was a half hour infomercial that we’d run across while channel surfing. We didn’t have many viewing choices, since we had no cable or satellite and were limited to what we could draw in with our dinky television set-top antenna, so sometimes we were masochistic enough to watch the infomercial for 10 minutes or more.

APPLIANCE DIRECT!! APPLIANCE DIRECT!! The two announcers, who appeared to be on some kind of major uppers, would keep shouting gleefully as they romped through a forest of appliances. THE FACTORY ISN’T OPEN ON SUNDAY, AND NEITHER ARE WE! We looked at their website, but it was pretty sparse, so we decided to visit them in person.

We located one of their stores, which was located in a former grocery store. Like the commercial, it was loaded with row after row of appliances, but thankfully the manic announcers were nowhere to be found. We did get lots of amusement, though, when we noticed that they had a coin operated model on display. My husband tried to convince me that it would be the perfect thing for house guests, but I shot down that idea.

As we browsed among the wide variety of brands and models, the salesman told us that their prices on some brands were the same as Home Depot, but that they had much better prices on others. This turned out to be true, as we discovered when we purchased a Kitchen Aid washer and dryer. When we got home, we prices the same appliances on Home Depot’s site, and we had saved a couple of hundred dollars.

The salesman said there would be a discount if we selected floor models. They had many choices among the same model, so we selected two that appeared to be in good shape except for a minor flaw in the paint. I made a note of the flaws so I could be sure that we received the same units we had selected. They were tagged for us, and delivery was arranged for the next day.

That next evening, the delivery truck pulled up (later than we’d been told, but we’d learned that was a fact of life), and the deliverymen brought in a washer and dryer. I was ready to go over them with a fine toothed comb to make sure it was the set we’d selected, but I got a pleasant surprise. We’d received brand new models from the warehouse! I don’t know why, and the deliverymen didn’t know either, but I certainly wasn’t going to argue. After all the other trauma with furniture, it was nice to have a pleasant surprise for a change.

I’m just glad that our home is just about furnished. Once we get the infamous wardrobes and a new television (which we haven’t selected yet, as I want to wait until the entertainment center is prepared), we will be done and I will breath a long sigh of relief that will probably be heard all the way to North Village.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

The "Real" Celebration

Celebration is a special town. Maybe it’s not physically special, but there is an odd mystique that has sprung up around it. Countless news articles have been written about it, in everything from the Orlando Sentinel to the Wall Street Journal. It has been the subject of multiple books, and it even starred under the pseudonym “Jubilation” in a short story in Playboy magazine. People still write research articles about it and it still makes the news with some regularity, although not as frequently as in the early days.

Celebration is lauded by some and reviled by others. Incidents that would be considered run of the mill in any other town are big news when they happen in Celebration. The more I’ve come to know about my adopted hometown, the more I wonder why. The myth has taken on a life of its own, but it bears no relationship to the reality. I think the only people who know the "real" Celebration are the ones fortunate enough to live here. The others, who know it from what they've read or perhaps even a short visit downtown, never discover the real town beneath all the hype.

If you had never visited Celebration before and somebody blindfolded you and drove you there, you’d never be able to tell it apart from other, similar planned communities. Well, okay, maybe the logo on the street signs and manhole covers would give it away, but in terms of houses and people it’s not much different than dozens of other places.

Perhaps the expectations and beliefs sprang from the association with Disney. Because it was developed by the Mouse, perhaps people believed that Market Street would always be as squeaky clean and controlled as Main Street in the Magic Kingdom and the houses would be as tidy as the facades on Residential Street on the Disney MGM Studio backlot tour.

But Celebration is a town of real people who live there 24 hours a day, not tourists who come between specified hours. The homes and stores and streets are real. Sure, Disney used to own them once, but they sold the land for development just as countless other corporations and development companies do every day across the country. Even if Celebration sat in the exact same spot, I doubt that the media would have shown it any interest if it had formerly been Farmer Joe’s cattle ranch or its developer had been Acme Land Conglomerate or some similar faceless, generic corporation.

Of course, Disney played its brand name for all it was worth, but who can blame them? Like any other corporation, they are in the business of making money. If surrounding the launch of Celebration with hoopla will drive up demand and prices, it shouldn’t be surprising that they did what they did. After all, this is the same company who made such clunkers as Cinderella 2 and Little Mermaid 2 to squeeze extra dollars out of those franchises. Whether the commodity is cartoon characters or land, it’s not surprising that the basic business practice remains the same.

But Disney doesn’t own the land anymore, or at least not most of it. The downtown has been sold to Lexin, and the golf course was sold to a private partnership. Someday the land still controlled by The Celebration Company (i.e. Disney) will all be under new ownership and full of hotels and resorts.

If you walk down Market Street on any given day, you’ll see trash and cigarette butts on the streets, and you might hear teens cursing as they hang out near Lakeside Park. Keep looking and you’ll spot junk vehicles (although the town’s most famous junker, Skippy, an old tan Dodge Dart that used to welcome all comers right at the entrance to town, his gone now because “his” owner moved away). Drive down the residential streets and you’ll find faded paint and occasional messy yards. There is dog doo and even the occasional splotch of graffiti. If you happen to come to a construction site, you might think that you’ve inadvertently wandered into a fast food wrapper graveyard.

I don’t mean to imply that any of the above problems are rampant in Celebration. I simply mean that they do exist, no matter what the media hype and the mythical tales would have you believe. The Disney association doesn’t mean that Celebration is any more immune to real life problems than any other similar town.

Crime happens in Celebration, too, from thefts of mail to auto theft, burglary, and even armed robbery. Criminals don’t say, “Oh, wait a minute, this is that Disney town. I can’t do anything here.” The affluent demographic, coupled with the town’s proximity to major roads like 417, 192, and I-4 make it a tempting target; the nearby pixie dust of Disney World offers no special protection.

But for all its faults, I still love Celebration. Any town will have its problems, but for me the negatives are far outweighed by the positives. Some of the positive traits have nothing to do with the town itself. I’d enjoy living in any town located so close to a plethora of tourist attractions. Disney World is just one part of the Orlando/Kissimmee Tourism Juggernaut that grows larger each year. Sure, that attracts droves of people and causes traffic jams that snarl the roads for miles. But where else could I watch an Arabian horse show, watch a gator “jumperoo” show, surf in a wave pool, swim with dolphins, go on a simulated mission to Mars, fight criminals with Spiderman, do a reverse sky dive in a wind tunnel, or be shot 300 feet in the air, all within minutes of my house?

And of course there’s the famous Central Florida weather. Sure, the summers are intolerably muggy (although there’s never enough humidity to suit my husband), and during the rainy season a short but torrential downpour is a daily occurrence. But for me, that is balanced out by the wonderful, mild winters. I’ve lived all my life with snow, so if the only snowflakes I ever saw again were the soap bubbles at Disney World and in downtown Celebration, blowing in the balmy 70 degree air among the palm trees, I would be perfectly content.

But Celebration has its own special attractions. It’s a friendly, welcoming community full of people who care. They’re involved with the community and committed to making it a better place, even though they might disagree on what “better” means or the best way to accomplish it. Better to have bickering among passionate souls than to live in a place mired in apathy.

It also seems that people move to Celebration specifically because its friendly reputation, which makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Within weeks of closing on our home, we were closer to some of our new neighbors than we ever have been with people we’ve lived literally on top of for almost a decade. Our midwest home is in a twelve story condo building, and we were one of the first families to move in after it was built. We’ve outlasted almost everyone, and even the handful of original residents are nothing more than vaguely familiar faces to us. We say a quick hello, but I don’t even know their names or anything about them. When our condo complex was new, we used to have an annual block party. That lasted perhaps two years, and then it died out due to lack of participation. Once upon a time, elections for the condo board were hotly contested races. Now, the board literally has to beg for new members.

I hope that the same thing will never happen in Celebration. I love the block parties and the events like Founders Day, the Holiday House Walk, the Farmers Market, and the Fourth of July Parade that embody that small-town spirit. Many towns try to do things like that, but most don’t succeed. Our original hometown started a Farmers Market and put out some chairs so people can sit in the downtown area, near the fountain (a traditional one, not a cool run-through fountain like Celebration’s). But there is one big difference that embodies the thing that draws me to Celebration: In my new hometown, the rockers downtown are loose, and you can move them anywhere you want on the lakefront. In my own home town, all of the chairs are chained down to prevent theft.

No, Celebration isn’t perfect, but it’s about as close as I’ve found. Don’t believe what the media says, neither good nor bad. You’ll never know the real Celebration until you come and experience it (the whole town, not just the downtown area) for yourself.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: