Thursday, September 30, 2004

Searching for Celebration

I created and this blog as a result of my own search for information about our fair town. My first media exposure had been the infamous Wall Street Journal article, "No Cause for Celebration," which lambasted the original school fiasco. That was long before I seriously considered moving here, and I don't have children anyway, so I filed it somewhere in the back of my mind.

After our initial visit in October, 2002, I suddenly had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of what would soon be my home town. I started off with the usual books and did a lot of Googling, but most of the websites I ran across were either outdated or authored by people who didn't seem to have much knowledge beyond the stereotypes. The one refreshing exception was With its unique and ever-changing photographs and its lively discussion forum, I got a picture of the "real" Celebration.

Now that my website has been around for a while, it's getting more well known and finding its way into search engines, which of course boosts the visitor count. Google, Yahoo, and their counterparts account for a majority of my "hits." So what exactly are people looking for when they hit my site? What search terms do they associate with Celebration? Of course, the most obvious is "Celebration FL" or "Celebration Florida," but what else are they curious about?

Since it's the end of the month, I'll share some of my September statistics to give you an idea of what people want to know. I doubt you'll find them surprising, but what the heck:

1) Celebration Covenants (or Celebration FL Covenants, or any similar iteration). This was one of the biggest that I wanted to find myself, and unfortunately it was sorely lacking. Now, I've been able to add a link from my website to, which has them online in .PDF format. Hopefully that will help convince potential residents that the "Porch Police" won't burn an effigy of Mickey on their lawn if they dare to hang off-white curtains.

2) Celebration Church (or Churches, or sometimes the specific name of a church). Obviously, religion is a priority for people who are interested in Celebration, or those who live here and use my website as a reference.

3) Searches on specific villages, such as "Celebration East Village," "Celebration Lake Evalyn," "Celebration Artisan Park," or whatever. If the people conducting those searches are potential residents, they're better informed than I was! Originally, I had no idea that Celebration was actually made up of multiple villages, each with its own character, amenities, pros, and cons.

4) Celebration Apartments (or Rentals or Garage Apartments). If my website statistics are correct, there is a lot of interest in our town from potential renters. It's a shame to see our rental inventory being slashed by the conversion of the downtown apartments to condos. Oh well, at least we'll always have garage apartments. My site features a link to, so if people don't know about that little aspect of our town, hopefully it helps them find out.

5) Celebration Homes (or other phrases related to purchasing a home and/or finding a real estate agent). This one is no surprise, as it's just the sort of thing I was looking for when I was doing my own home search.

I get lots of visits from people searching for specific business names. They're a pretty wide variety, but inexplicably the one that gets the most hits is "Salon 720." There are also many visits from those who are searching for information about specfic events, such as the falling leaves or the holiday snow.

I don't think I've never noticed a search term that has linked Celebration with Disney. I find this odd, since people I speak with almost invariably think of it as "The Disney Town." Perhaps the audience for my website is a bit more savvy and has gotten beyond the Disney connection to search for more specific information about the town itself.

I don't know what, if anything, this all means, other than the fact that it appears I am achieving my purpose. Hopefully the people who enter those terms and pay a visit to my website find up-to-date, useful information. For me, the website and this blog are therapeutic for the times when I am stuck 1500 miles away and longing for home. They help me feel closer to my hometown and give me a forum to share my love for Celebration with others. What the's cheaper than therapy!

My email address for questions and comments is

My website is located at

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Dog Days

"Dog Days" are traditionally associated with the hot, muggy days of August, but they've come a bit late to Celebration this year. With Hurricane Jeanne relegated to recent history, along with siblings Frances and Charley, discussions among residents and the issues on which they focus are getting back to normal.

One of the most interesting discussions is the debate over dogs on restaurant patios. In Celebration, most of the restaurants have outdoor seating areas on their sidewalks. These areas serve a practical function (all indoor smoking in eating establishments is banned by state law, so smokers have a place to light up while they dine). But they're also one of those quaint aspects of "small town" life, with people coming to socialize as much as to eat. In the past, many diners have brought along their dogs to share the experience. The pooches recline under the table, enjoying a cool drink and maybe a few tasty treats too.

This has been going on for at least as long as I have been visiting downtown Celebration (October of 2002), and I'm sure it's been happening years and years before that. I never thought anything of it; it just seemed to be another aspect of life, like kids riding bikes. As a matter of fact, our town seal features a pig-tailed girl on her bicycle, passing a picket fence and being trailed by a dog.

Of course, I am an "animal person." I current have cats and a bird (not to mention a couple of fish and horses), and I would happily have a dog, too. Unfortunately, my gypsy lifestyle isn't compatible with the responsibility of caring for a canine. I don't eat outside because I don't like being around cigarette smoke, but if I did, it wouldn't bother me to have dogs at the tables around me. Of course, I wouldn't like seeing animals indoors, but to me, outside is no biggie.

Turns out that it is a big issue for at least one person in Celebration, and it's also against the law. You can read more about this saga at, but basically Max's (i.e. Market Street Cafe) got reported for allowing canine "patrons" on the patio. Note: When you follow the link, don't be thrown off by the deceptive title, "Goodings in Celebration." It started out as a discussion of the grocery store on Market Street that is slated for closing and morphed into something entirely different. Some of the "doggy" posts have been edited, but you'll be able to pick up the gist of things.

The official announcement that appeared on the Front Porch intranet was as follows:

Notice to Pet Owners
Due to circumstances beyond the control of Celebration area restaurants, Lexin Capital and Celebration Town Hall, pets are not allowed in restaurant patio areas due to a complaint response from the Florida State Department of Health.

Many people are up in arms because, due to one person's complaint, they can no longer enjoy a meal with their canines in their own home town. Many others disagree, saying that a law is a law and that no one is above it. There are at least two threads on the intranet discussing this issue, with some rather nasty words being exchanged.

Myself, I don't have any strong feelings either way. As a dog lover, I sympathize with the pet owners because canines have never been a bother to me. The barn where I keep my horses used to have four large, bouncy, mega-sized dogs that pretty much permanently desensitized me to being jumped on, drooled on, shed on, etc. As long as the dog was not leaping into my lap and stealing the food off my plate, it wouldn't bother me. But I can see the point about the law, too; no matter what, it's never a good thing when people start picking which ones to obey.

Last year, there was a debate that was very similar in principle, if not in subject matter. When I first moved in, Celebration was rife with youngsters on electric and gas powered scooters. They zipped around town, some of them very quickly (many had souped up the motors to attain speeds that probably could beat any NEV). Many of the scooters had been purchased locally at NEVrland/Relay (which, ironically, is closing; I'm sorry to see them go, as they were a fixture downtown and I always wanted to try one of their Segway tours...that would have made an interesting blog entry).

People starting complaining because many of the kids were reckless, as children will often be. Problem is, when they're moving that quickly and riding in the street, carelessness can lead to an encouter with a car...and that's an encounter that the scooter and its rider won't win. There were one or two minor accidents, and then suddenly it came out that riding unregistered scooters is against Florida law. Ironically, there is no legal mechanism for registering them. Hence, they are illegal.

The sheriff started enforcing the law, and there was a big hue and cry. On one side, people were glad that the "scooter menace" was gone and that kids were saved from impending death and destruction. On the other, parents who spent big bucks were not at all pleased that their kids' pricey "toys" were now useless. Still others pointed out that the law is the law, no matter how you ultimately feel. Hmmmm, sounds familiar...

The scooters are still gone, and most of the controversy has died out, although it rears up every now and again. Meanwhile, goodness only knows how long the lastest "doggone" issue will go on.

Actually, dogs have been at the heart of several Celebration controversies. The most common is the discourteous owners who don't pick up after their pooping puppies. I can't see how people can be that rude. If your dog craps, pick it up. What's the big deal? How hard is it, really? A few years ago, I used to walk a neighbor's dog for exercise (both mine and the dog's), and I never would have dreamed of leaving home without a poop bag. It wasa simple matter to stoop down, scoop it up, and drop it in the dumpster when I returned home. Not being couteous with your dog's leavings is just plain rude and lazy.

Fortunately, this hasn't been too much of an issue in my little corner of East Village. One evening I found some poop near my garage. I tossed it into the alley, loudly voicing my opinion; if it had been left by anyone living nearby, there's no way they could have missed it. Happily, I've never had a problem again.

It might not even have been someone living nearby. I often see people walking their dogs through the alley. It amazes me that the dogs are usually off their leash, and often far ahead of their owners. On more than one occasion, I've had a dog run up to me in my back yard, making me think I had a stray on my hands. Then, usually several minutes later, the owner will show up on foot or on a bike. The poor critter could easily have been flattened by a car or construction truck in the meantime.

The only other East Village issue was the people I dubbed the Quaid family (think Randy and crew in the "Vacation" movies) who were letting their dog and naked baby swim in the public pool. Eating on a patio is one thing, but I don't feel like swimming in hair and dog drool, not to mention potential baby-ruths. I never witnessed that personally, and hopefully the Quaids have gotten a clue and discontinued their rudeness.

The other doggy controversy surrounds the potential building of a dog park. Actually there would be two, so big dogs wouldn't have to mingle with their smaller counterparts. Remember, according to the song "Celebration, FL," we pamper our dogs so much that they even have face lifts, so a dog park is actually small potatoes.

A feasability study was conducted, and surprise surprise! The results were totally NIMBY...people said, "it's a great idea, as long as it's not in my back yard." The issue is not dead, but the trick is finding an appropriate chunk of land that doesn't border on anyone's home.

That issue has another counterpart, too: the perennial discussion of building a skate park. The skateboarders can frequently be seen in North Village, near the Pavillion, and downtown in the Lakeside Park area. They're in plenty of other areas throughout Celebration, too. Personally, I've never had any problem with them, but there have been reports of dangerous and disrespectful behavior. That was another topic that burning up the intranet forums for a while, although now that we've been through three hurricanes, it's gotten pushed to the back burner.

But the dog issue is going hot and heavy, and it will be interesting to see how it all turns out. Will people take to acts of blatant civil disobedience? With dogs disappear from Celebration's downtown area just as the scooters have faded into oblivion? Are we powerful enough to change the law? It's anybody's guess.

Oh well, as silly as it all may seem, I'm glad to see that things are getting back to normal. Soon I can resume my own "silly" cause: the triplex/duplex/townhome lawn crusade...but that's another story.

You can email me with questions and comments at

My Celebration FL information website can be found at

Monday, September 27, 2004

Out of the Bad There is Always Some Good

Seems to me that if the hurricanes don't stop ravaging Florida soon, everyone in the state will be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This year, there hasn't been time to recover from one hurricane emergency before the next one is upon us.

Celebration has fared much better than other areas of the state. I thank God and the new, solid, hurricane-code construction for that. I suppose that being inland has helped somewhat, too, although not as much as popular belief would dictate. Never again will I believe that anywhere in Florida is safe from the brunt of the destruction...not after driving through post-Charley Kissimmee and seeing some buildings without roofs while others were literally flattened.

I'm not sure how much stress the average human being can take. One hurricane threat in a season is management, but two or three? And, in some areas, four in one year?! It has left many people shell shocked and dazed; they thought they'd be able to salvage something out of their damaged homes until the next storm, and the next, came along to finish off what they still had.

Sadly, situations like this can bring out the worst in some people. You could see it in the crowds fighting over supplies at grocery stores and Home Depots. People were willing to trample others for that last piece of plywood or a roll of duct tape. After the storms, the looters came skittering out of their slimy holes to compound the human misery.

But out of misfortunate arises the acts of kindness that give you faith in your fellow human beings. I'd like to share the tale of a person who really exemplifies that kindness. There has been so much negative news that I think we can all use some positive, uplifting stories.

This one is about a woman named Shirley, my wonderful friend in Cocoa Beach, who is truly an angel on earth. She owns a floral and gift basket shop (if you've ever looking to buy a gift basket, visit her website at and I promise you won't be disappointed). Not only has her business been negatively impacted by the hurricanes, and the subsequent disruption of cruise schedules (much of her business is making gift baskets for people on the ships), but both her home and store have been damaged in the storms.

But in each hurricane, this selfless woman has worried more about others, with no thought for her own welfare. Click here for an article from Port Canaveral magazine to read about one such incident.

When the storms come, she looks in on elderly neighbors, even though she is getting on in years herself. And, most amazing and admirable of all, she helps out total strangers too, even when she is in the midst of the danger. During the hurricanes, she placed an offer on a popular Disney Cruise Line discussion board to assist displaced cruisers, and even posted her personal cell phone number. She invited anyone in need to call! Quite a generous offer, especially when placed on a public forum, but that's just the kind of person she is. I think of her has my grandmother, and so do dozens of other people who have been blessed with the opportunity of getting to know her. Click here to see a photo of this angelic woman and her wonderful husband, Norm.

I know of many times that Shirley has assisted strangers in need, even before the hurricanes; she is one of the most genuinely good-hearted people I know. She helps others selflessly, with no thought of reward other than the warm feeling that comes from doing good deeds. When I think of looters and that ilk, it makes me fear for the future of the human race. But then I think of people like Shirley, who are always there for others, and I know that there is some hope for us after all.

You can email me with questions or comments at

Visit my Celebration website at

Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Real Windy City

Chicago is known as the Windy City, but this year Florida is definitely earning the title of "The Windy State." With three hurricanes striking in the Orlando/Kissimmee area, and four in total striking the state, I don't think that Hurricane Season 2004 will ever be topped (at least, I hope not).

My husband has already changed our plane tickets so we can get home next weekend. We were planning to skip that weekend, but we won't rest easy until we see that our house is safe. Even though it looks okay from the outside, I can't help but have visions of leaks and waterspots and damaged drywall lurking on the interior.

Early in our marriage, my husband and I had our house destroyed by a flood, so we know just how much damage water can do. It's as bad as fire in many ways; our flooded-out townhome had to be totally gutted and rebuilt, displacing us for three months. That experience gives me a lot of empathy for the people whose damaged roofs haven't been repaired yet, leaving them open to the destructive forces of Frances's rain. With one disaster, at least you can pick up the pieces and go on. With two, and now a third, things just keep getting compounded.

Cookie Kelly, a Celebration, FL, real estate agent, captured some impressive photos of whitecaps on the downtown lake and the sign of D'Antonio's Restaurant down on the ground. Click here to see them. The downtown area held up really well during the last two storms, so the winds must have been particularly fierce this time around. Or maybe everything is just getting a little weaker with each strike.

If you'd like to compare the destruction of Frances to Hurricanes Charley and Jeanne, Tom has plenty of photos on his site,

Throughout all the turmoil of this year, I contemplated whether we would have still bought our house if we were looking right now. I really don't think it would have made a difference, especially seeing how well Celebration has held up compared to many of the surrounding areas. Plus, I know that this is an anomaly. I've visted the Orlando/Kissimmee area often enough to know that hurricanes are usually not this frequent and destructive. I know that "past performance is no indicator of future probabilities," to paraphrase a stock prospectus. But I'm hoping we've gotten it all done with in one season so we can have many years of peace, calm, and good fall weather.

Feel free to email me with questions or comments at

My Celebration website can be found at

Video of Hurricane Jeanne

Thanks once again to my wonderful neighbor, here is a link to a video of Hurricane Jeanne. It will open in Windows Media Player:

Click here to see Hurricane Jeanne's visit to Celebration

The wind looks pretty vicious, but amazingly enough, the poor little tree in front of my house is still standing. It was knocked down in both Charley and Frances. After Charley, it looked like it might actually survive, but I think that Frances was too much of a shock. It's pretty much a bare stick with a few intrepid yellow leaves still clinging to its skeletal branches. But of course now that it's probably dead, it has managed to stay upright.

The trees of Celebration have taken the major brunt of the damage every time. That's certainly much better than the houses, although we've had some fall down on homes, driveways, garages, and vehicles. We'll see the effects of this disasterous year for a long, long time because the old growth that has been destroyed is not replacable.

It makes me sad to bike along the street between our house and the entrance to Artisan Park. There are reserve areas with lakes and a thick, green curtain that used to fully mask the new construction that lies just beyond East Village. Even though new homes were going up practically within spitting distance, the reserveland gave the illusion of isolation. Now, with many of the large trees destroyed, you can look right through and see the close proximity of Artisan.

I wonder how the other areas of Orlando/Kissimmee are faring. So many had just started recovering, and now here's another setback. Last time we drove down east 192, we noticed that come of the hotels with severely damaged roofs were in the midst of repairs. That far down, they are mostly mom and pop operations rather than big chain properties. I imagine that, for some people, they are their sole livelihood. It's bad enough that the hurricanes are turning Florida's reputation from the Sunshine State to the Storm State, scaring off the tourists. Now the new and partially repaired roofs are being battered with more wind and rain, compounding the damage.

When you move to Florida, you accept the danger of hurricanes just as Californians willingly risk earthquakes and Midwesterners put themselves in the path of tornados. You can make a change by moving, although nowhere is ever safe from everything, unless you tunnel underground and live with the Mole People. But this year has truly been an anomaly; if Celebration can survive this, then our usual worries will be nothing. After this Hurricane Trio, trivial things like parking congestion and hordes of tourists on Fourth of July or kids skateboarding downtown or dogs jumping on outdoor restuarant patrons will be a piece of cake.

You can email me with questions or comments at

My Celebration website, which has a link to the Celebration webcam, can be found at

Saturday, September 25, 2004

On the Outside Looking In

Once again, for the third time this year, my husband and I find ourselves 1500 miles from home with a hurricane threatening Florida. It always seems to happen on the weekend, although this time our Friday night flight was not cancelled. We could have gotten to Celebration, but we realized that we would not be able to return to work because our Sunday night flight would most likely be cancelled. No matter how much I would enjoy being "stranded" at home, work is a necessity to pay for mortgages and airline tickets.

I think I've figured out what brought on this third hurricane. I thought that if at least one person left their house boarded up after the last one, that would ward off future storms this season. But then I remembered a little incident that happened just before we left home last time. We had rehung our porch swing, and my husband said, "Should we take it down?"

I laughed and said, "No! Surely there can't be any more hurricanes this season! Just leave it hanging."

Kiss of death.

Now that the hurricane is actually starting to pummel Florida, we're getting some local coverage on the news, and of course The Weather Channel has rushed its reporters to the middle of the storm. I love seeing t.v. personalities standing in the middle of the wind and the rain, admonishing everyone else to stay inside. When we're not home in Celebration, my husband tends to follow the progress of the hurricane obsessively (I'll confess that I spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet keeping an eye on it, too).

It looks like this one might be a doozy. Beside the airport closure, Disney World is closing down once again on Sunday. That's three times in one year; unbelievable! Unreal! Those are the words that just keeping dancing through my head. The only thing that gives me a small amount of comfort is seeing how well our house rode out Hurricane Charley. I always knew that it was built to the new "hurricane code," but sometimes that doesn't mean a thing when the 100+ mile per hour winds come calling. We got by with only some minor soffit damage; after seeing what happened to the homes in Kissimmee and Poinciana, I realize that our house is very well built and that we are extraordinarily blessed.

Oh well, time to wait and watch. I'll be emailing friends in town, watching the Celebration webcam, and haunting the National Weather Service site for yet another anxious weekend. (If you want to check out the webcam yourself, I have a link on I'll be saying lots more prayers and trying to assure myself, once again, that this has to be the last one.

It has to be, doesn't it?

Please, God? Please?!

If you'd like to email me, my address is

My Celebration website is at

Friday, September 24, 2004


Unbelievable! For three times in less than two months, we are stuck far from home due to a hurricane. If this hurricane hits Florida, it will be the first time something like this has happened since the 1800s. I can still picture my past self, laughing at the thought of hurricanes coming this far inland. I figured that a major hurricane would strike Celebration about the same time as Walt's cryogenically frozen body was thawed and reanimated.

At least I can be grateful that we've been spared any major damage. I can't believe the destruction and death toll from the storms so far, in such a wide geographical area. The hurricane season of 2004 is definitely one for the history books.

I've also been following the impact on people taking (or trying to take) Disney cruises this week. Once again, the ships are being shifted to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. They had never done a port change in all the years since they set sail in 1998, and now they've had to do it twice. In addition, they have just lengthened their third cruise of the season. They cancelled one for the last hurricane, but this time around they've just done a little tinkering and shortening.

I can understand the frustration and uncertainty because we faced the same situation when we sailed on September 9th. The embarkation point of our Disney Wonder cruise was moved from Port Canaveral to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. We didn't like the prospect of a four-hour bus ride, so we rented a car and drove. It was a pain, but it paled in comparison to the destruction that Frances unleashed on the Cocoa Beach area. (You can read the trip report on that cruise by clicking here for my Disney Cruise Line blog.)

I'm sure all the changes are going to have a bad financial impact. The loss in tourist dollars has been a major problem for Florida in general. Much of our economy is centered around tourism-related jobs and service positions. No visitors means no work, which means no income for many people. Sadly, many of them are the same people whose homes were damaged, or even destroyed, by Charley and Frances. They don't need Jeanne to pay a visit.

We actually could have made it to Florida this time, but it's unlikely that we would have been able to make it back to work on Monday. Internet rumor currently says that Orlando International Airport will close at 5 p.m. on Saturday. Goodness only knows when it will reopen. I don't think it will get the full force of Jeanne, but it's already pretty badly damaged from the aftermath of Charley. And of course it's impossible to predict the pace at which Jeanne will move and the exact course that she will follow. Sustained winds could stick around for hours, wreaking havoc on air traffic.

Once big difference I've noticed for Jeanne is that she is receiving much less media coverage than her siblings, at least nationally. For the previous storms, we were able to follow them minute by minute on television, even when stranded in the Midwest. All I had to do was log on to Google news and they were plastered in the top links. Now, half the time I have to run a search for Jeanne in order to find more than a minor blurb. There is no mention on the news whatsoever, other then perhaps a fleeting sentence.

I guess it's like the terrorism alert level. At first, when it went up to orange, people were in a panicked frenzy, buying up duct tape and bottled water to create "safe rooms" in their houses. Now, it's been up and down so many times that it's barely worth a mention. It's like the "Saturday Night Live" skit, with the alert levels in colors like taupe, light beige, bone, and off white. No matter what it is, there is really no difference, at least in the mind of most of the American public.

I'm beginning to feel that my husband and I must have inadventently pissed off a Gypsy who has saddled us with a curse. How else to explain the fact that practically every Saturday we face the prospect of yet another hurricane threatening Celebration and the Orlando/Kissimmee area? We're inland, for goodness sake! And since when are there so many vicious storms following the same track, all in one season?

Perhaps Jeanne will still turn away from land, or at least spare Florida the worst of its destructive force. As I type this, I think that it's threatening the Bahamas, and they need another whammy even less than we do. The only light at the end of the tunnel is that hurricane season ends on November 30th. It's still two months away, but at least an end date is in sight. I just hope that someone remembers to tell Mother Nature.

Email me with questions or comments at

My Celebration website is located at

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Jeanne, Jeanne, Go Away

I thought I was all done blogging for today, but when I got home from work, my husband informed me that, for the third time in less than two months, our trip home is probably going to be impacted by a hurricane once again.

The last two times, we were stranded in the Midwest because Orlando International Airport was closed and we couldn't take our usual Friday night flight. This time, it looks like we'll be able to get home tomorrow (Friday) night, but we might not be able to get back in time for work on Monday. I must confess, the prospect of being stuck in Celebration is actually a happy one. I know it will have unpleasant repercussions with our employers, but still, I can't be too upset about it. I live for the day when we'll never have to leave Florida again, except maybe to visit relatives (and I'm sure most of them will prefer to come out and visit us).

But of course my travel trials and tribulations pale in comparison to the potential for more damage. Celebration was mercifully spared during both Charley and Frances, but the surrounding areas are still reeling from the destruction. I don't know how much more those poor folks can take. Being a newer town, we benefit from the strict post-Andrew building codes, but some older subdivions and homes have little protection from the battering winds and rain. Many people are still living under tarps, so they don't need another storm to detroy what little they still have left.

Even some of the newer areas took a bad hit in the previous two storms. As we visited the Orlando/Kissimmee over the course of a decade, my husband and I watched many neighborhoods spring up along the expressways. We always watched their progress with interest; we knew we'd be moving to the area one day, and who knows...we thought maybe one of those neighborhoods would be our future home. But even though they're relatively young, many of those buildings are missing significant portions of their roofs. Many Florida rooms are hurricane casualties, too, although it's odd to note that the screened room on one house might be totally detroyed while one right next door is still intact. reminds me of the selective destruction of a tornado.

At this point, the theme parks are taking a "wait and see attitude." This would be their third hurricane-related closure in one year after never, ever having even one in the past. This year has been a surreal Twilight Zone episode, and hurricane season isn't even over yet. I'm beginning to wonder if we'll run out of letter of the alphabet before it's all over.

You can email me at with any questions, comments, etc.

Check out my Celebration website at If the hurricane comes, you can get "up close and personal" from a safe distance via the webcam link.

Out in the Country

Lately I’ve been slipping song lyrics into my blog entries to set the tone or to share something that is personally meaningful to me. As I started to write about the walking/biking paths that snake throughout the villages of Celebration, one of my favorite songs came to mind:

Whenever I need to leave it all behind
Or feel the need to get away
I find a quiet place, far from the human race
Out in the country.

Before the breathing air is gone
Before the sun is just a bright spot in the night time
Out where the rivers like to run
I stand alone
And take back something worth remembering.

Whenever I feel them closing in on me
Or need a bit of room to move
When life becomes too fast, I find relief at last
Out in the country.

Before the breathing air is gone
Before the sun is just a bright spot in the night time
Out where the rivers like to run
I stand alone
And take back something worth remembering.

Out in the Country
Performed by Three Dog Night

It might seem odd to relate a song about the country, solitude, and running rivers to a place like Celebration. After all, we’ve a brand new development smack dab in the middle of one of the world’s biggest tourist meccas. One of our basic tenets is small yards and close-together homes. Like most Celebration residents, I can literally reach out my window and touch the neighbor’s home next door. It’s not the kind of area where you typically think about having “room to move” in a “quiet place far from the human race.”

But believe it or not, we’ve got lots of green oases where you can escape for a few precious minutes, or even hours. There are miles of interconnected pathways in virtually every area (North Village is the exception). These man-made boardwalks twist and turn through forested areas, and the buffer zone of green cocoons you and transports you to what feels like a million miles away from civilization.

To be sure, not all of the paths are like that. The one that leads from East Village to downtown by way of Lake Evalyn is very “civilized.” It starts near our neighborhood swimming pool, and although it has swampland along one side, the lake on the other is bordered completely by homes. Still, the area is rich with bird life, and it’s not unusual to see a gator doing its best to trick potential food into think that it’s simply an innocent and harmless floating log. If you venture out at night, the “song” of the swamp dwelling critters is downright eerie, sounding almost like the chant of human voices.

As you cross over into the Lake Evalyn stretch, the minor sense of isolation disappears. Unlike the first lake, this one is generally devoid of much wildlife, unless you count the family of ducks that make their home on its shore and beg for handouts from passersby. While you’re often the only person on the East Village leg of the path, the population grows denser as you get closer to town. Tourists on foot rarely make it all the way to the end of the path, but you’ll run into plenty of them gawking around Lake Evalyn. They love to walk four or five people abreast, and when they see a bicycle coming, they have the universal Bambi-meets-car response: Freeze in your tracks and turn a blank, uncomprehending stare towards the oncoming vehicle.

Because of the people density, this path isn’t the best one for relaxation and escape. But it’s very handy when a big, traffic-drawing event is going on downtown. For example, on the Fourth of July, only a certifiably insane person would drive. By the time they would find a parking spot, it would probably be August anyway. Instead, many of us in East Village simply take the 20 minute stroll. It’s pleasant stroll, and makes us feel less guilty about the sugary, starchy snacks and sangria that we’ll inevitably consume at the food booths.

You can actually follow this path all the way around the downtown lake, past Lakeside Park, and to the Mirasol apartment complex, but I rarely go that far. Once you get past the Celebration Hotel, the people density increases tenfold. If you’re on a bike, you spend more time dodging pedestrians than making actual forward progress. Even when I’m walking, I prefer taking Front Street because I’m usually heading for a downtown shop or restaurant.

For solitude, I prefer the path that starts at the entrance of Artisan Park and runs all the way to Celebration Boulevard, near the high school. Often, it is deserted, and much of it runs through densely wooded areas. You’ve got a canopy of green above you, filtering dapples of sunlight, and swampland below the raised boardwalk. Even though civilization is mere minutes away, you can lose yourself in a fantasy of isolation. It makes me feel like a character in Ray Bradbury’s classic short story, “A Sound of Thunder.” People visited the forests of pre-historic Earth to observe dinosaurs in their natural habitat. They had to stick to a hovering walkway, much like the elevated paths in Celebration, to avoid affecting the environment and potentially causing a change that would have a catastrophic ripple effect over millions of years.

I don’t think interacting with the native flora and fauna would have a lasting impact on time and space (although I suppose it could impact your future pretty profoundly if you bothered a ‘gator or a poisonous snake), but I feel the sense of isolation and being in another world. Not so long ago, all of Celebration was native swampland. If you open your mind and imagination, you can still recall that time. It brings a sense of peace, of being at one with the life all around you. There are no worries, no pressures, just a sense of being.

The only thing to beware of on this path, particularly on a bicycle, is the sudden, unexpected twists and turns. I guess they would be more like zigs and zags, since they are squared. Whatever you call them, they will remind you of the road signs in "Pee Wee's Big Adventure."

I also enjoy walking or biking on the path that borders Aquila Reserve. I still remember the days when that area was an untouched forest. Even though I know that the exact same thing happened in East Village, and all the rest of Celebration, it made me sad to actually witness it in person. My earliest memory of East Village is of a vast, barren sandlot. I’m sure lots of old growth and tall, majestic trees were flattened to make way for my homestead, but they were gone by the time I selected my lot. I saw what Aquila and Artisan Park originally looked like, so it made more of an impact to actually see the destruction of the native land to make way for the construction.

But remnants of nature still remain, as I am reminded when the clip-clop of hoofbeats startles me on the Aquila path as a herd of deer bounds in front of me. I see the majestic birds that have stuck around through all the building, and the ‘gator eyes and nostrils poking just above the water’s surface remind me that the “Living With Alligators” paper I signed wasn’t a joke.

The homes across the street from mine back onto preserve land, so even though my house is not right by the walking path, nature occasionally comes to me. We have wild turkeys who still come to visit like they did when we used to come to see the progress of our home’s construction, and one night I had to quickly slam on the breaks as suicidal deer dashed in front of my car just as I turned onto my cul de sac.

But the most serene and peaceful moments can be found on the walking paths, as you need to be farther away from civilization and out among the trees and wetlands to really get that sense of being “out in the country.” You don’t even have to go on one of the main paths to get it. Short paths are strategically placed through many of the smaller wetland areas. You can step off the street and into the solitude of nature in only a moment or two. The subdivision sounds are buffered and your view of the houses and cars is blocked. You can take a few deep breathes, relax, and get yourself centered. Then, a moment later, you’re back from the “country” and in the real world again. Hopefully, in the words of Three Dog Night, you’ve brought back something worth remembering.

Feel free to email me with any questions or comments at

My Celebration website can be found at

Monday, September 20, 2004

Another Ho-Hum Day in Paradise

If you've done any research at all on Celebration (or if you've read some of my other blog entries), you may have that whole "Stepford" mindset or think that we're like a latter-day version of Mayberry. To help you make an informed decision, I'll give you a little peek into the things that we discuss on our community intranet and let you decide for yourself.

"The Front Porch" can be found at, but unless you are a resident who has been given access by Town Hall, you can only read the publicly posted information. For those who can log in, there are lively discussion forums based on the cornerstones (Community, Education, Health, Place, Techology), plus a place for concerns, areas to post items for sale, houses for rent, and more.

So what do the people of Celebration discuss away from the prying eyes of the public? Here is a quick sampler, based on tonight's actual topics:

-Kudos for a local doctor
-Results of the Celebration Residential Owners Assocation election
-Photos and information on a "found" cat
-Posts seeking a baby sitter
-A complaint about a local mover
-A request for donated items to help a needy family
-A query about whether others are experiencing a Dish Network outage

Sound kind of mundane? Not the sort of thing you'd expect from Walt's "experimental prototype community of tomorrow?" I know it would be more exciting if we were plotting how to entice new residents into the secret lab for chip implantation or making plans to duplicate our insidious concept of "New Urbanism" in clones of Celebration across the country, but no such luck.

The discussions do get pretty heated sometimes. Some of the more famous and/or interesting ones have included the scooter wars (Celebration used to be rife with youngsters on motorized scooters until the sheriff's department started enforcing a state law against them) and the family who liked to bring their dog and naked baby to swim in our neighborhood pool. But even when tempers flare, I keep in mind that people say things from the safety of their keyboard that they'd never dare to say face to face. It makes for very amusing reading. I've even been known to enter the fracas myself, most notably in my crusade to eliminate the jungle-lawns of the triplexes, duplexes, and townhomes.

But the big debates are usually in the minority, and posts like those on the topics I have mentioned are the majority. Actually, it's that small-town mundaneness that I love about Celebration. It's so cool to live in the heart of Tourist Country and still enjoy a close-knit community atmosphere. The only difference is that we have it in person, and we have it New Millenium-style too. Instead of sitting around in the barbershop or gossiping across the fence, we can do it from the comfort of our livingrooms, at the air-conditioned comfort of our keyboards. Many of us even sign our posts with a photo for that "personal" touch.

But I don't mean to give the impression that we've all a bunch of technies. Our townsfolk do plenty of in-person interaction too. If you actually tallied up the percentage of people who post on The Front Porch regularly vs. the overall population, it's probably only a fraction. We're like the Moral reality, a small but very vocal minority.

Still, the Front Porch is a great place to check in. I especially enjoy it because when I'm stuck 1500 miles away, it gives me a little taste of home. It may be mostly lost pet notices, jobs sought or offered, and public kudos or complaints, but those are the things that a town like Celebration is really all about...I wouldn't want it any other way.

You can email me at if you have questions or comments.

You can view my websites at the following links:
Information about Celebration
Platinum Vacation Planners (my travel agency)
The Platinum Castaway Club (Disney Cruise Line information)

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Turn, Turn, Turn

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time for every purpose under heaven

From Turn, Turn, Turn by The Byrds
(Words adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes)

I love my home in Celebration, but every weekend it gets harder and harder to zip up my carry-on bag, lock the door behind me, and return to my job and the world up north. I dream of the day when I'll never have to do that again, but for now I have to defer to the financial responsibilities that come along with hasty decisions. I don't regret our "rush" decision to buy our home, but the lack of pre-planning means that we can't totally cut the strings for while.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if we had visited Celebration in the early years. I was aware of its existence right from the beginning, and I always wondered what it would be like to live next door to Disney World. But it was a fleeting thought, never strong enough to spur me into action.

My initial visit in October 2002 was the culmination of a string of coincidences. I didn't plan to be in Florida at that time, but then it was suddenly decreed that I learn how to use Flash (web authoring software) at work. I already use Dreamweaver, (which, like Flash, is from a company called Macromedia), and it so happened that there was a big Macromedia conference coming up at the Swan and Dolphin. That, and the fact that my company actually approved sending me, was coincidence #1.

Coincidence #2 was that my husband still had enough vacation days left to accompany me. This leads us to Coincidences #3 and #4: The fact that the Disney Cruise Line headquarters is located in Celebration and that we would be in Florida during the week rather than on a weekend.

We used to visit Disney World for a week at a time, but once the cruise line set sail, we had changed our habits drastically. We started taking as many three-day cruises as possible, which means we would fly out Friday morning (when the Magic was still doing three-day trips) or Thursday morning (once the Wonder took over and the Magic switched to week-long sailings) and head straight to the ship. We would take a towncar, but even if we'd rented a car, there was no time to go poking around the Orlando/Kissimmee area or to seek out Celebration.

This time around, we would be in town Monday through Wednesday. Granted, I would be busy at the conference every day, but it ended early on Wednesday morning. That gave us a few precious hours before our flight that night. And, in Coincidence #5, I had rented a car in Orlando for the very first time ever. I had taken a crapshot and tried Priceline, hoping we would get the Swan or Dolphin for a bargain basement rate. We ended up at the Marriott World Center, so we needed to have some wheels.

Since we had some weekday time, we arranged to stop in at the cruise line office to say "hello." That might sound strange unless you consider the sheer volume of cruising that we do. I know the ships as well as I know my own home, and I was curious about the shoreside end of things. When we were done there, we still had some time to burn. Not enough to go to the parks or to bum around Downtown Disney for very long, but too much to spend wandering around Orlando International. Since we were on the outskirts of Celebration anyway, why not pop into town and check it out? And of course, the rest is history.

But sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I'd visited Celebration right in the very beginning. I was aware of it right from the start, but I never quite made the effort to drag myself away from Disney World to see it for myself. If I had, would my reaction have been the same in the mid-1990s as it was in 2002? Would I, right this minute, be living in Celebration Village? Would my dream of being a full-time Florida resident aleady be fulfilled?

It's so enticing to imagine that the need for the long commute is over. I dream of the day when my husband and I won't be grabbing our carry-on bags in a frenzy and rushing out the door Sunday night. We always seem to be running late because we've tried to snatch too many extra minutes in our home town. Thank goodness 417 is usually devoid of traffic, although our drive has been slowed down by monsoons more than once.

But who knows what our lives would actually be like now if we had visited Celebration back then. The Book of Ecclesiastes says that, "To everything there is a season...and a time for every purpose under heaven." Over the course of my life, as I've watched the pieces fall into place, I've become a firm beliver that God guides us to the right place at the right time. Whether or not we realize that, and take advantage of it, is what free will is all about.

In looking back, I can see that the time of Celebration's birth was probably not the right time for my husband and I to make the leap. In 1995, I was just returning to school for my Bachelors degree in Psychology. My Masters studies started in 1997, and I'm still working on the Doctorate. I had always dreamed of returning to school someday, since I didn't have the opportunity when I was of a more "traditional" age. Working for a company with a tuition refund program allowed me to fulfill that dream, but it also tied me to that job for a three-year payback period.

Back then, we were also on shakier financial ground. Even now, it's a challenge to maintain two households; several years ago, when I was concentrating on my studies (and, at the end of the Masters program, working an unpaid internship in addition to my full-time job), it would have been impossible.

As much as our gypsy lifestyle drives me crazy, I can see the puzzle pieces clicking into place, and I know that someday soon they will form a clear picture. I saw it in the coincidences that brought us to Celebration in 2002 and again in the chain of events that led us to just the right house. I don't know how the job issue that ties us to the Midwest will work out, but I have faith that somehow it will.

I have seen little hints that we are going in the right direction. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to do some travel agent work (my agency website is Normally, starting up a business and building the initial customer base is a challenge. For me, those hurdles were a bit easier because of my Disney Cruise Line website, I've been running it for years and have built up significant traffic, so that gave me a starting point for advertising to a good customer base.

I am also poised to complete my Doctorate this year, so I'm ready to plunge into counseling. Being a marriage and family therapist has long been my dream, and doing hands-on work during my internship reinforced that. I actually continued as a counselor for a while after my internship was over, but it was too much to juggle along with my full-time job. My knowledge of website development and experience in delivering synchronous and asyncronous web-based training has given me the skill to take that one step further and offer online lifeskills seminars. That means I can draw on a client base throughout the United States, not just locally.

My career options may be diverse, but hopefully they will allow me to make the leap when the time is right to be in Celebration full-time. I know that I need to be patient; I see things falling into place, but they have to happen in their own good time. I just wonder where I'll be when I look back at this blog entry a year or two from now...wherever it is, I'm sure that it will be the right place in the right time.

If you have any questions or comments about my blog or Celebration, email me at

Visit my Celebration website at

Thursday, September 16, 2004

There's a bake sale at the schoolhouse and they're selling innocence

Celebration shares a unique distinction with major cities like Chicago, New York, and Gary Indiana (okay, maybe Gary's not major, but you get the idea). Like those "big boys," our humble little town also has a song named after it (thanks to Tom for originally posting this on the Front Porch a while back, thus inpsiring my Muse):

Celebration, Florida

by the British band Chumbawamba

The good folks pull together
It's July 4th forever
Down in Celebration, Florida
The neighbors bring you coffee
And everyone's always happy
Down in Celebration, Florida
There's a bake sale at the schoolhouse
And they're selling innocence
They're keeping out the deviants
To protect the residents
Of Celebration, Celebration, Florida
They're buying up nostalgia
For a time they can't remember
Down in Celebration, Florida
They're sharing homemade corn chips
Even the dogs get facelifts
Down in Celebration, Florida
There's a bake sell at the schoolhouse
And they're selling innocence
They're keeping out the deviants
To protect the residents
Of Celebration, Celebration, Florida
There's nation fighting nation
There's kids with malnutrition
But not in Celebration, Florida
Social engineering
It gives you that fuzzy feeling
Down in Celebration, Florida
There's a bake sale at the schoolhouse
And they're selling innocence
They're keeping out the deviants
To protect the residents
Of Celebration, Celebration, Florida
Celebration, Celebration, Celebration, Florida
Well, it's
It's very conventional, I don't know, and it's, it's, kind of just
relies on some kind of simplistic folk ideology.
That's true, actually I'd agree with that

Ah, if only it were true that innocence could be purchased alongside the cupcakes and Rice Kripsies squares! I don't know about the canine facelifts either, although there's a "bull terrier" down the street that I strongly suspect used to be a Shar Pei before he was introduced to Michael Jackson's surgeon. I do know one thing for certain: it's definitely not 4th of July forever, because if it was, none of us would ever be able to get in or out of town due to the perpetual sea of non-moving cars.

I suppose that there is some truth to some of the words. I've never experienced homemade corn chips, but our next door neighbors love to whip up and share the most delicious homemade waffles I've ever tasted (no, Shrek and Donkey don't live in East Village). I've definitely coffee klatched with neighbors (and wine klatched and even champagne klatched).

But what amuses me most is that Chumbawamba has probably never stepped foot in Celebration. I think that's the case for many writers, whether they lambast us in "factual" articles or spoof us in Playboy fiction. They judge us and label us with no concept of what we're really all about.

To test this theory, I poked around the internet to gather some more examples of what people are saying about us. I discovered that a few have actually managed to locate us, but only long enough to take a quick gander at Market Street, dub it "Stepford" for no reason other than that's what others have done, and then hightail it back to Disney World.

Here is a quote I found in another blog:

“I think it must be like living on the set of “Leave It To Beaver.”

I'm not sure what he's basing this on, since he has never visited us. He goes on to quote another website:

“Simply, ask yourself this: Would you be willing to pay extra if you could be assured your neighbor always had his lawn mowed, that his house paint never chipped, that he never had a car up on cement blocks in his drive way? Now ask yourself this: Would you be willing to pay extra if you were constantly told what was wrong with your house and what you had to do to fix it, that you have to mow your lawn and remove your broken down car from the front driveway? It is a paradox that residents of Celebration must live in. Live by the rules, and you are living in paradise. Break the rules, and you are living in a totalitarian state.”

Hmmmm, and here I thought he was talking about Celebration, Florida, the Celebration that I live in. "Always had (his) lawn mowed" certainly doesn't apply to the duplexes and triplexes (although I must admit that after Frances, I was impressed that our grass was mowed in a timely fashion). Granted, our old mascot Skippy, the broken down Dodge Dart, wasn't in the front driveway, but that's because he was busy greeting visitors right at the entrance to town (I still miss him). Not sure about the whole "being told what's wrong with your house" thing either; I'm still waiting for men in mouse suits to rough up the people with faded siding or rickety fences.

Oh well, I suppose that the reason we are supposedly so obsessive/compulsive about keeping everything looking perfect is because "The town of Celebration, Fla., created by Walt Disney Co. (DIS: Research, Estimates), is as much a tourist attraction as the theme park." This little nugget is coutesy of CNN Money, so I know it must be true. I'm thinking we can earn some extra funds by charging a separate admission to each village.

We've even been the subject of at least one thesis that I've been able to locate...Happily Ever After: Moving to Disney's Celebration. Here's an excerpt:

"Since it was founded Celebration has been referred to as a ghost town, a movie set, Truman's home, a Stepford village, Mayberry, a company town, an experiment, a solution, charming, eerie, inspired, masterful, dangerous, absurd, and the list goes on and on. I would argue that it is all of the above, the reason being that we are anxious as a society to project our interpretations upon it, rather than to understand it. Celebration is threatening. It pushes buttons. People have immediate responses upon first hearing about it. Many are horrified that others have chosen to live this way; most are contemptuous of those who do. It is this visceral response that makes Celebration so intriguing. What is it exactly that angers us so? The anger is dismissive but it masks a fear. What are we afraid of?"

Horror? Contempt? Anger? Fear? Do we really inspire those emotions in people? After all, we're a pretty run-of-the-mill place. But wait a minute...these people don't know that because they're never bothered to really check us out.

Oh well, I guess we should all be thankful that we escaped becoming homeless when Disney bailed. Don't believe me? Check out this transcript of a conversation between Jack Cafferty, a CNN anchor, and Andy Serwer of "Fortune" magazine:

CAFFERTY: Or you can buy a town.

SERWER: Yes, you can, or sell one.

CAFFERTY: Or sell one.

SERWER: Which is what the Walt Disney Company did. You remember this Celebration, Florida, down near Orlando? This is this planned community that Disney opened up in 1994. There we go. Well, apparently Disney is backing out a bit. They are selling a large part of this town to a private real estate group and basically just closing up shop here. Of course the town is going to continue. About 8,000 people live in Celebration, Florida.

And I thought this was interesting, Jack, the people who bought said they will continue to make the fake snow around Christmastime and put fake leaves up in the fall just like the people at Disney.

CAFFERTY: Doesn't get any better than that.

SERWER: That's right. They call it a modern day Mayberry was what one person said who lived there.


SERWER: Kind of like "The Truman Show." Remember that movie?

CAFFERTY: Yes, I do.

SERWER: A little bit like that, I thought.

CAFFERTY: Thanks, Andy.

Whew! I was sweating in my boots until I read, "Of course the town is going to continue." With Disney gone, it's nearly impossible to survive, but Serwer obviously recognizes that we're hardy souls, much like the pilgrims. They didn't need England, and we don't need the Mouse. Heck, we didn't even have to fight a war for our independence.

In my internet research, I also discovered that Celebration has the dubious honor of having an entry in online encyclodepias:

"Celebration has a similar appearance as the town of Seaside, Florida (which was used in the filming of the movie The Truman Show The Truman Show (1998) is a movie directed by Peter Weir, written by Andrew Niccol, and starring Jim Carrey.

As a result of its careful design and strict rules, Celebration tends to evoke strong reactions in people: either they fall in love with the town and say that it looks like a movie set, or they are disgusted by the price which people pay to live in an artificial-looking fairy tale with seemingly-oppressive rules.

Through the first years of the town, many townspeople persevered and banded together even more tightly as a community to make sure that the town lived up to its commitments and its promise. As a result the town of Celebration, Florida, can be said to have fulfilled most of its original intentions."

And here I thought that encyclopedias had to be fact-checked. Silly me! But it's good to know that Celebration has "fulfilled most of its original intentions." It's great to live in the most wired town in America, with that innovation K-12 school and the free lifetime passes to Disney World.

Even people in other countries buy into, and perpetuate, the stereotype. Here is an excerpt from "American Studies Today Online," a U.K. website:

"There are certainly plenty of bylaws in Celebration, aimed primarily at maintaining property values: no more than two people are allowed to sleep in one bedroom, the curtains are all a regulation colour (white) and lawns have to be mown regularly. As ever, the freedom to live in a manufactured Eden comes at the cost of other freedoms."

Won't that "white curtain" myth ever die? Or did I maybe misread the covenants? Maybe I missed something, and the Dream Police really will raid my beloved home if out of town visitors boost our bedroom count to three bodies.

Oh well, I guess that it doesn't really matter how other people see us. It bugs me a little, which is why I started this blog and But I supposed that my own personal viewpoint is as colored as any of the other perceptions, albeit in a different way. Who's to say that my ramblings, written with my skewed sense of humor, are really any more accurate than the whole Truman Show/Mayberry thing?

If you have any comments about these ramblings, or questions about, Celebration, feel free to email me at

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Life Beyond the Mouse

It's not surprising that Celebration has more than its fair share of Disney fanatics. After all, it was originally created by Disney, and it is located less than 10 miles from the gates of the Magic Kingdom. You can reach Disney World property without ever passing through the outside world of cheap motels and tourist traps.

But while Mickey and Company offer a rich buffet of shows, rides, and activities, it could all disappear tomorrow and I would still find it impossible to be bored. There are so many other wonderful places that are overshadowed by the mighty Mouse. Believe me, you can have a wonderful time in the Orlando/Kissimmee area without ever setting foot on Disney property.

For example, I firmly believe that Universal Studio Orlando/Islands of Adventure is one of the most under-rated destinations in the area. Half the people I talk to don't even know it exists, and the other half don't realize that they are actually two totally separate parks.

Granted, Universal Studio Florida got off to a rocky start when it opened prematurely in an effort to beat Disney-MGM Studio back in the end of the 1980s. Sadly, even though that was over a decade ago, the reputation of being a motley Disney wanna-be has been almost impossible to shake. In reality, Disney would do well to take a few pages from Universal's book; maybe it would help to undo some of the damage caused by the years of Eisner economics that have turned the mighty Mickey into a mediocre Mouse.

Once upon a time, Disney-MGM Studio was a bustling, vibrant place, with "real" studio attractions that gave you the feeling of being on an honest-to-goodness backlot. These included the original animation studio tour, Superstar Television, and the Monster Sound Show. You were an active participant, not a passive observer.

But as Eisner economics and cost-cutting measures kicked in, most of the interactive (and labor intensive) shows were replaced by uninspired but low-maintenance tripe. For example, Drew Carey's Sounds Dangerous show has nothing to do with the way in which studio sound effects are created like Monster Sound Show (which it replaced)did. The insipid Doug Live that replaced Superstar Television was a new low in dumbed-down attractions. Superstar Television graphically demonstrated how blue screens and technical wizardry can be used to re-create television shows. I never got tired of it because it was a different show every time, based on the fact that it drew heavily on audience volunteers.

Worse yet, since the Florida animation studio is history, the tour isn't even worth taking any more. You used to see a real studio, with real working artists working on their latest film. Now the "tour" is an anemic clone of the offering at Disney's California Adventure.

Universal Studio Florida doesn't pretend to be a real working studio. Rather, it themes its attractions directly to specific movies. In general, they do a much better job than Disney. For example, the Muppets 3-D show doesn't even begin to compare to Terminator 3-D. Terminator is an older show, but it still stands head and shoulders above any other similar offerings that I've seen, including the new Shrek show.

For simulator rides, Disney's Star Tours is definitely showing its age, while Universal's revamped Johnny Neutron is lively and realistic enough to give me a whanging case of motion sickness. Of course, their "Back to the Future" ride is pretty decent, too.

Neither of these two parks is very heavy on thrill rides. The Mummy roller coaster at Universal has Disney's Rockin Roller Coaster beat, but neither one is what I would classify as truly thrilling. Universal has nothing that compares with my perennial favorite, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, although it has a couple of rides that are similar to Magic Kingdom offerings. There is Men in Black Alien Attack, which is a souped up version of the Buzz Lightyear interactive shoot 'em up, and E.T., which is similar to the Peter Pan dark ride, but on bicycles. Jaws has a corniness level on a par with Jungle Cruise (I mean that in a good way...I enjoy them both). Actually, at Jaws, I enjoy the Amityville television clips shown on the monitors in the queue line almost more than the ride itself.

But the best rides can be found at Universal Studio's next door neighbor, Islands of Adventure. Disney doesn't have anything that even remotely resembles a true thrill ride, unless you count Mission Space. Its roller coasters are more like souped up baby carriages, at least for the most part (I'll admit to getting whiplash in the back seat of Rockin Roller Coaster," and we won't even go into the vicious spinning action that you get with "Primeval Whirl" when the weight distribution in your car is just right). But the potential for bodily harm or nausea doesn't necessarily correspond to the thrill level.

The Hulk roller coaster at Islands of Adventure is one of my top three favorites, with the other two being Magnum XL at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, and Batman at Six Flags Great America, in Gurnee, Illinois (which I once rode 40 times in a row). I speak from reams of experience, as I am married to a roller coaster fanatic who used to drag me across the United States in search of the ultimate thrill.

Hulk, like Rockin Roller Coaster, shoots you out of the station. But unlike Rockin, it doesn't immediately apply the brakes. Instead, you rocket down a hill and immediately are flung into an inversion. It steals your breath right from the start, and you don't regain it until you pull into the station.

I also love Spiderman, which combines a dark ride with 3-D effects and motion simulation in a way that I've never seen anyone else, including Disney, ever match.

The great thing about Islands of Adventure is that its attractions are not served up in a generic, Six Flags-style environment. Rather, its rich theming reminds me of Disney's heyday. Universal has its own version of Downtown Disney, too, in the guise of Citywalk. There are many excellent restaurants, including Emeril's and Margaritaville, and Pat O'Brien's has lively dueling pianos (and excellent drinks). The nightlife there is as vibrant as anything I've seen at Pleasure Island, although they could use an improv comedy club.

Universal doesn't offer a heavily discounted annual pass for Florida residents like Disney does, but it isn't needed. Anyone can buy the pass for less money that it costs for a three-day ticket.

Universal/Islands of Adventure is only a short jaunt down I-4, or at least it's short when the traffic isn't backed up bumper to bumper. But I find that it's well worth the trip, and it's not so bad if you get an early start. Just be aware that none of the parking is anywhere near the parks. You'll go on the neverending trek that takes you along the parking garage and through all of Citywalk before you get anywhere near the actual park entrances.

Close proximity to various amusement parks isn't the only advantage of living in Celebration. Eating is another of my favorite past times, and a wide variety of food is readily available in and around town. I reviewed the Celebration restaurants in an earlier blog entry, so now I'll discuss two of my outside favorites.

On Sand Lake Road in Dr. Phillips, which is close to Universal, there are two eateries called The Melting Pot and Toojay's. They are very different, but they have one thing in common: they are both big favorites of mine.

The Melting Pot is a fondue restaurant, and my husband and I favor their combo meals. You get salad, cheese fondue, an abundant main course including items like steak and lobster, and of course melted chocolate with various items to dip for dessert. If you don't like the idea of cooking your food in oil, you can opt for broth (like I do). Just be aware that it's a long meal, since you cook most of the items yourself. Be sure to make reservations if you go at a peak time.

In sharp contrast, Toojay's, which is located on the same side of Sand Lake Road, but in a different strip mall, is more like a cross between a Jewish deli and a neighborhood Greek restaurant. The food is plentiful and the prices are reasonable for a great selection of breakfast, lunch, and dinner items.

My personal favorite is chopped chicken liver, a craving that I share with maybe three percent of the human population. But if you're not one of that tiny percentage, you'll love other items like the blintzes and the potato pancakes. We were turned onto Toojay's by friends who live in Dr. Phillips, and now it's a regular stop when I get my chicken liver cravings.

Celebration is not just a suburb of the Disney resort, and Orlando/Kissimmee is not just an island of hotels, motels, and tourist traps surround by new subdivisions and old farmland. We've got plenty to see, do, and eat far beyond the Disney World gates.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Gypsy Lifestyle

It's amazing how you can come to associate a certain song with a particular phase in your life. One of them for me is Paul McCartney's "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey." It was popular back when I was just a little kid, still young enough to be serene in my innocence, with no sense of the burdens and complexities of life. The lyrics that stand out in my mind are those sung by Paul's late wife, Linda:

Live a little be a gypsy, get around (get around)
Get your feet up off the ground
Live a little, get around
Live a little be a gypsy, get around (get around)
Get your feet up off the ground
Live a little, get around

Whenever I hear that song, I am instantly transported mentally back to long-ago summers spent at a beach called Lake Eliza. Music would blast from the bath house, forming a background score for my summertime adventures.

I am part Hungarian, and my mother always used to say that we have gypsy blood. She was a restless sort who thought nothing of driving an hour or two to see a particular movie. That was in the days before megaplexes, when a major release might not make it into the neighborhood theaters for several weeks. Even Lake Eliza was an example of our family wanderlust. We had closer beaches, but we had to drive miles and miles to another state to visit that particular lake. It never seemed strange to me, because that's just what our family did.

Both my husband and I are the same way. We think nothing of driving over an hour to eat at a favorite restaurant. We used to have season passes for Cedar Point (an amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio) and Kings Island (in Cincinnati), even though they were a five hour drive. We spent almost every summer weekend road-tripping, and we've also seen much of the western states from horseback at a variety of dude ranches. You haven't lived until you've been perched in the saddle on a tiny goat path carved into the side of a moutain, so high that you should probably be wearing an oxygen mask, praying that your horse doesn't feel suicidal that day.

When I finally managed to get hubby to hold still long enough to implant a Disney chip, our wanderings took us even farther. Our annual Florida vacation turned to bi-annual, then every few months, and then suddenly we had annual passes to Disney World. I knew that we were visiting Florida too often when I actually got tired of my favorite Epcot restaurant (Morocco) due to eating there so much.

When we starting cruising on the Disney Magic and Wonder, our wanderlust surpassed any level of sanity. Currently, we just completed Disney cruise #39, which might not sound so bad until you consider that we took our first cruise in 1998. We've done four on Royal Caribbean, too, but Disney is by far our favorite (and that's me talking, not the chip).

In view of this gypsy lifestyle, I suppose it wasn't a big leap to become a 1500 mile commuter. I had always thought that our move to Florida would be a smooth, well-planned event, but it didn't phase me in the least to suddenly chuck that out the window and buy a house on a whim. It does feel odd to be on an airplane almost every weekend, though. My husband is used to commuting on a train, but I've rarely ever lived more than five miles from my workplace. Now, the place I consider home is 1500 miles away.

Generally, I am a nervous flyer, and that was compounded by a flight from Hell in which we had a six hour diversion, coupled with our landing being aborted at the last possible minute. Now, all a pilot has to do is mention the possibility of a diversion and I go into a full-blown panic attack. I am not a big fan of psychotropic drugs, but I carry a stash of Xanax. It's more for the comfort and safety of those around me, just in case I ever encouter a flight like that again.

But in normal circumstances, I'm not too bad. I bring my laptop computer so I can do some work, as well as a portable DVD player, a CD player, hand-held games, and enough books to fill a small library. That way, no matter how long a diversion or delay might be, I'll have something to keep my mind off the problems. And I love night time landings, especially on the Orlando leg. It's fun to see the lights below and try to pinpoint exactly where we are and which malls and hotels we are seeing. Once in a while, when the timing is just right, we are even treated to a fireworks display from overhead.

I have come to know Orlando International Airport as well as I know my own home. And since we don't keep a car in Celebration, I am an expert in nearly every major rental car agency. It would be nice to have our own vehicle, but with the cost of paying for transportation to and from the airport nearly every week, coupled with the cost of insurance, it just doesn't make sense. Instead, I rely on the tender mercies of Priceline and William Shatner, and he rarely lets me down. I must have that air of the seasoned traveler about me, as the rental car agents rarely try the insurance hard-sell anymore, nor do they bother to offer a map and directions.

It drives me crazy to be in a rental car, as nothing screams "Tourist!" more loudly than driving a Chevy Cavalier with a "Sunshine State" license plate (vs. one listing a Florida county). In Celebration, many residents have a decorative plate on the front of their cars with the town seal. It's a subtle way of saying "I live here." I bought a Castaway Cay plate, figuring we could put it on our rental cars while we are in town. Unfortunately, none of the darned cars has a front plate mount. I guess I'll forever be branded as a tourist on the road.

Still, I know that the left lane of Celebration Avenue becomes left-turn-only just before North Village (the tourists always notice at the last minute and veer wildly to the right), and I never swerve out of the left-turn-only lane in front of Mirasol. Those are both signs of a resident, but then I blow it by abiding by the speed limit and actually coming to a complete stop at all stop signs. Those are both big Celebration resident no-no's.

I used to think that my husband and I were unique, but as we starting regularly taking the same flights, we began to notice some familiar faces each week. In Celebration itself, we have encountered other long-distance commuters. It makes me feel a little better, like I might have some small shred of sanity left (or at least my form of insanity is not unique).

Still, sometimes it feels strange to have two complete households. We generally bring only carry-on luggage, and I rarely bother to unpack the suitcase anymore, since it's just my "toys" (CD player, DVD player, etc.). On the weekends that we don't come home to Celebration, I get a strange sensation on Friday night. It's like the movie "Lassie Come Home," where the collie gets restless every day at the precise time her master is due to get out of school. For me, it's a mad desire to head to the airport.

When I head that Paul McCartney song as a child, I never once suspected that I would spend much of my life as a gypsy and literally live its words. With all the flights I take, I certainly "get my feet up off the ground" and I "get around" even more than the Beach Boys. But the part that I relate to most of all is "Live a little." So many people spend all their time incessantly planning for the future, until they reach a point where most of their life is now in the past. I don't want to spend so much time dreaming about tomorrow that I don't enjoy today.

It might have made more sense to wait a while and buy a place in Celebration once we were ready to make a permanent move. But who knows what could have happened in the meantime. We probably would have been priced out of the market, and even if we weren't, who knows what could take place. Maybe it's a little inconvenient to have a 1500 mile commute, but we cherish every minute that we spend in Florida, and it makes the workdays more tolerable to know that our paychecks are financing our dream home.

I'll end with one more quick song lyrics quote, this one from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show": Don't dream it, BE it.

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Monday, September 13, 2004

Furniture Hell, Part Two

Even though we recently celebrated the one year anniversary of our house closing, our home is not fully furnished yet. It's so darned close, but it seems like every time I'm ready to breath a sigh of relief because the last loose end has been taken care of, some new challenge pops up. Oh well, at least I'm glad that the hurricanes are gone (for now), so my thoughts can return to the mundane challenges of everyday life.

Those who have read my previous blog entries may recall the first round of Furniture Hell. The latest episode began with the delivery of our wardrobes. Actually, we did have one incident inbetween, when our entertainment center was delivered. The deliverymen were breaking butt to get out of our house as fast as possible. When they left, we quickly discovered why. The glass shelves were hopelessly wedged into one side of the unit. Nothing short of breaking them or dismantling the whole darned thing was going to get them out. Worse yet, in their haste, the workmen hadn't attached the bridge over the television set properly. It came crashing down right on the t.v., denting the case. Thank goodness it didn't actually break it.

A serviceman was dispatched to take the entertainment center apart and retrieve the shelves. He also ordered a new bridge, since the old one had been damaged by the improper installation (the fall didn't help much, either). At the present time, the bridge has come in and I need to schedule its installation. Hopefully that will be the end of the entertainment center saga.

But the real Furniture Hell episode centers around our wardrobes, which have been at the center of our worst experience. Even the table that required five visits to finally assemble can't compare. Chapter One is documented in my earlier blog entry, and Chapter Two occurred last Wednesday. Even though we ordered the wardrobes months ago, I discovered (after being assured that it would be no problem to deliver them on a Saturday) that they were actually coming directly from the manufacturer. This meant that deliveries to Celebration occur only on weekdays when the moon is in Venus and Mars is aligned with Jupiter during a total eclipse of the sun. Unfortunately, this never coincided with any of the times that we were in town on a weekday.

By some strange quirk of fate, we discovered that the deliverymen would be in town on September the same time we would be. Surely Hell had frozen over. Surely a hurricane would blow their delivery truck to Kansas. Surely cruel fate would somehow intervene. After briefly sniffing the sweet smell of success, I would never actually get to savor the taste.

Our trip to town was delayed by Hurricane Frances, but we arrived bright and early on Monday the 6th. I half expected to hear that the furniture warehouse was the only building in its vicinity to be destroyed by a freak mutation cloud. Nope, supposedly the delivery was still on.

Wednesday dawned bright and hopeful. I'd been given a timespan of between 2 and 4 p.m. When 4 had rolled past with no word, I didn't panic. With all the previous deliveries, I had learned that delivery timeframes are about as accurate as a phone psychic's predictions.

Around 4:30, the driver called. He was hopelessly lost, which is actually quite typical in Celebration unless you live right on Celebration Avenue. Even then, plenty of people confuse that with Celebration Boulevard or Celebration Place, but that's another blog entry.

We managed to talk him in; my husband went out on foot in search of the truck, but somehow it managed to bypass him and still find our house. I couldn't believe it...the delivery truck was at my front door and the workers were actually unloading the wardrobes. That sweet taste of victory was on the tip of my tongue. Nothing could go wrong now...right?

The damn things wouldn't fit up the stairs!!

The workmen tried every angle, but no matter what, they couldn't make the turn in our stairwell. Finally they told me that a serviceman would have to come and dismantle them, then reassemble them at the top of the stairs, which would be their permanent location. Just as I was about to sign the delivery slip, a thought occurred: "They're not going to charge me extra for that, are they?"

"Oh yes," the deliverymen nodded, "there will probably be a charge."

Now to me, "Delivery and Set-Up" means just what the name implies. And after the special hell of being told we could get a Saturday delivery and then being yelled at and accused of being a liar by the salesman, I was in no mood to pay another penny. I refused to sign the paper until I spoke with someone at the factory. Of course, it turned out that everyone had gone home for the day.

My next call was to Rhodes Furnture, where I immediately asked to speak with the manager. I had no desire to be yelled at by the salesman again; after all, he's the one who told me in our last conversation that he can't be expected to know which furniture is delivered from the store and which comes from the factory. Why should I think he'd have a clue about anything else?

The person who answered the phone was extremely snotty and informed me that the manager was busy. I pointed out that I had deliveymen waiting and that I would send the furniture back if the manager didn't come to the phone. She put me on hold, and the line was finally picked the salesman!

The tone in my voice must have told him that yelling at me this time would be a mistake. Being a professional counselor, I am very adept at keeping my cool, but I also have a talent for verbal warfare. He agreed that there should be no additional charge, so I put him on the phone with the deliverymen. A heated argument promptly ensued. It was so loud that I could easily hear both sides of the conversation. Apparently he wanted them to do the assembly/disassembly, and they were having no part of it. They insisted that it had to be a serviceman and that he needed to okay Rhodes absorbing any charge. He insisted that it was their job and that they had better do it themselves. They said it would take at least an hour, and they still had numerous deliveries to make. Finally, he said he would call the factory and then call us back.

At this point, I had no problem with a serviceman coming back out. I certainly didn't want the deliverymen to do it, as I knew it would be a rush-rush job, and I didn't want a repeat of the entertainment center experience. We cooled our heels for 15 minutes, and finally the deliverymen asked for the phone so they could call the furniture store back. The snip who answers the phone curtly informed them that the salesman couldn't talk to them because he was busy with a customer.

Needless to say, things went downhill from there. I'm sure that our neighbors next door could easily hear both sides of the conversation that issued at an ear splitting decibel level from the telephone handset. The salesman was threatening to call the deliverymen's supervisor, and they were threatening to put the wardrobes back on the truck and leave. Eventually he agreed that a serviceman could take care of it and that Rhodes would take responsibility for any additional set-up charge. I signed the delivery slip with very specific conditions, and the saga finally came to an end.

Now I have two mongo wardrobes taking up most of the space in my kitchen/family room. It's nice to see how large they are because we are in desperate need of storage space. That's why I bought them in the first place. But until they are moved to their permanent home, it's great fun maneuvering around them.

Oh well, this latest fiasco probably saved my life. If it had actually gone smoothly, I think that the shock would have caused a heart attack and I'd probably be dead at this very moment. I'm also getting a great lesson in patience and flexibility, although I wish that God would realize that I've learned it by now.

The service department did call me today, so it looks like we're on the road to getting the Wardrobe Dilemma resolved. Meanwhile, if you come to visit me and you happen to be claustrophobic, do not venture beyond the foyer or you'll be lost among the furniture bemouths.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Post Hurricane Ponderings

Thankfully, Charley and Frances are history, although their sibling Ivan could possibly pay us a call. But I am taking the positive viewpoint that we can't possibly challenge the statistics a third time. Many people in town are leaving up their boards or tape on the windows as a precaution until we get the all-clear. I figure that's a good thing, like bringing an umbrella or rain ponch to Disney World. It rain is threatening and you don the poncho or open the umbrella, the moisture will instantly disappear and you'll be bathed in brilliant sunshine. If you say, "Looks like it's going to blow over," you have just guaranteed yourself a soaking. The rain will instantly come down in buckets before you can wrestle that poncho out of the little plastic envelope or fumble with the umbrella release.

My husband and I have a permanent stash of rain ponchos in a backpack that comes with us whenever we visit Disney World. We've discovered that if we ever leave it in the car because there is not a cloud in the sky and the chance of showers is negative one, we'll find ourselves in the midst of a thunderstorm as soon as we're too far to make it back without getting soaked. So the backpack has become a permanent fixture on my husband's shoulders, no matter what the forecast. I don't think the other park goes appreciate the fact that we are the ones keeping away the rain.

At any rate, I think that the boarded up windows are serving the same purpose. The minute the last person pries off their board, Ivan will make a beeline for Celebration if there is even one little storm cloud left. And of course by the time it gets here, it will have strengthened into at least a Category 4. But if the boards stay on, we'll be safe and sound, so I am grateful to my neighbors who are suffering sunshine deprivation to keep the town safe for everyone.

The post hurricane timespan on Monday night was pretty strange. Osceola County was supposed to be under a curfew; I never quite figured out whether it was supposed to start at 6:30 p.m. or at dusk. Since we have minimal damage here, looters would have been pretty darned disappointed if they had tried to invade. But the curfew boundaries made no distinction between areas where there might be a real danger and those that were relatively unscathed.

Being new to this whole post-hurricane thing, I had no idea what to expect. If I dared to step outside my door, would I be shot on sight? What if I was out several miles away when the curfew rolled around; would I be allowed to return home? Would I be placed on lockdown inside my car until the morning, or worse yet, arrested and locked in the basement of a jail somewhere?

We had called Market Street Cafe in downtown Celebration and were told that, because of the curfew, they were shutting down at 6:30 p.m. My husband then called Disney World and was told that all of the parks would be open on their regular schedule. Since the restaurants were open, too, he made a reservation at Jiko (Animal Kingdom Lodge) for 6:30 p.m. We figured we could hightail it over there before we were stopped and ordered to return home, and we hoped that the National Guard or whoever would allow us to return to our homestead after we were done (that is, unless looters had ransacked it in the meantime).

We had a very pleasant meal, and when we returned to town, it looked no different than any other night. We saw people out walking their dogs, going on evening bike rides, or just strolling around. We headed downtown to check out Front Street, where Market Street Cafe is located. They must have been the only restaurant to abide by the curfew. All the rest were open and doing a booming business, as was the Town Tavern. No authority figures were anywhere in sight to order anyone back to their home.

Feeling defiant like the rest of our fellow townsfolk, we headed over to a neighbor's house for an impromptu post-hurricane survival party. My husband had purchased a bottle of his favorite wine at Jiko, and he marveled at the cute little Mickey Mouse/Disney World box that they put it in. It was a really nice cardboard gift-box type thing. It was pretty late, and as we walked over to visit our friends, I said, "We should have brought a brown paper bag, and we could have guzzled this as we walk." He corrected me: "The fancy box is the Celebration equivalent of a brown paper bag." It cracked me up to picture walking around town, tippling the wine from the Mickey box.

We ended up staying out will well past one in the morning, but even when we walked home, no one swooped down to arrest us for being curfew breakers. By Tuesday, I was as non-chalant as everyone else. For all I know, the curfew has been lifted, but I don't pay much attention anymore. It's become like the terrorism alert level; the first time around, you panic when it is raised. By the second, third, and fourth times, the impact just isn't there anymore. Any more than that and you pretty much totally tune it out.

Of course, I can see why a curfew is needed in the areas that really got battered, like Cocoa Beach. I can't imagine what kind of low-life pond scum would actually loot from people who have already lost almost everything, but I know they are out there. I saw it back in the Midwest, when a devastating tornado barreled through, reducing some houses to nothing but empty slabs. The looters came and actually stole the few items that were still scattered around and possible salvagable. People like that should be shot on sight.

Because of the damage at Port Canaveral, my 39th Disney Cruise, which is scheduled to leave tomorrow, has been moved to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. I am not too happy about that, since we will have to travel over 200 miles, which will eat into our cruise time. I love getting to the port early and being one of the first on the ship. The quiet time between embarkation and the safety drill is the best time to use the pool and relax after a delicious, unhurried embarkation lunch. I personally think that Disney should allow cancellation without penalty, but their attitude was "Too darned bad; if you cancel, we keep all your money." They took really good care of the previous "hurricane cruisers," so I don't know why they are treating us like that. Oh well, maybe it will be an interesting new life experience.

Meanwhile, we're just happy that our soffits held up in Frances. We just got our Universal Studio/Islands of Adventure annual passes and have spent the last couple of days bumming around Universal Orlando with some friends. They had flown in for the Disney cruise before ours, which was cancelled, so they grabbed a room at the Celebration Hotel. We've been enjoying the off-season crowds (or lack thereof), which are even smaller due to post-hurricane panic. Every ride (even the brand new ones, like "Mummy," and the most popular, like "Spiderman") were literally walk-on. I don't think we ever waiting more than five minutes for everything. This morning, I rode Hulk, one of my all time favorite roller coasters, five times in a row with no wait. I would have done a dozen more, but we had to get home for a furniture delivery this afternoon.

Life is pretty much back to normal, and I hope it stays that way. Just so long as at least one person keeps those boards on their windows through the rest of hurricane season, I think we should be okay.

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