Saturday, November 13, 2004

Founders Day Meets the Bunny Brigade

Although cloudy skies and occasional light drizzle threatened to make Founders Day a wash-out, enough pixie dust blew over from Disney World to keep the downpour at bay. Our second Founders Day in Celebration (I think it was the ninth one overall) turned out to be a fanciful frolic filled with friends, food, fun, and frivilous headgear.

Actually, our day started out at Downtown Disney, as I needed to do a little shopping. I knew we were in for trouble when I saw a sign for "Festival of the Masters" parking. I had no idea what that was, but anything dubbed "Festival" doesn't bode well for crowd size. Sure enough, the parking lot was an absolute zoo, and Downtown Disney itself was packed with wall to wall people. The festival turned out to be an art show and competition. We didn't stay too long, but I was utterly fascinated by the "street artists" creating works of art on the sidewalks with colored charcol sticks.

One good aspect of the festival was that they were passing out coupon books at the information booth. The discounts were for good stores and restaurants, like World of Disney, Wolfgang Puck's, and Ghiardelli's. We wanted to grab lunch at the Earl of Sandwich, a wonderful British sandwich shop, but the line was three queues deep. Since each order is freshly made, we estimated that it would have taken half an hour at best. Instead, we hopped in the car and headed to T.G.I. Friday's at the Crossroads shopping center right outside of Disney World.

By the time we were done eating, it was time to head home and get ready for th Founder's Day festivities. The sky looked threatening, and when my husband looked up the radar online, the green blob appeared to be headed our way. But it also looked like it was breaking up, so we kept our fingers crossed. As an added precaution, we also loaded umbrellas and rain ponchos in our backpack and wore our water sandals. Nothing wards off rain better than actually being prepared for it.

When there is a big to-do downtown, we usually just walk or ride our bikes. This time, we hoofed it down the convenient boardwalk that links East Village with Lake Evalyn before continuing on the Stetson parking lot. It's only about a 20 minute walk, and it lessens my guilt for pigging out on the tempting culinary delights available at "Taste of Celebration."

First on our agenda was the town photo. Since we were in it last year, we didn't want to break with tradition. It is my ambition to hang a new one in our foyer each year as a challenge to house guests to find us among the sea of faces. We arrived just as the community service awards were being given out, which is a prelude to the photo. The threatening gray clouds appeared to have scared many people off, as the crowd seemed smaller than in 2003. But there was still a goodly sized gathering. We all crowded in, pasted on our best Celebration smiles, and immortalized another year in the town's history. If you'd like to see how the town photo is accomplished, click here for a picture of the picture-taking. That page also contains a gallery of Bunny Brigade photos, but that's getting ahead of the story.

As you arrive for the photo, you receive a raffle ticket. Afterwards, you gather round to see if you've won a prize. Last year, in a stoke of irony, I won a round of golf even though I never played the game in my life. This year, you chose which prize you wanted to be in the drawing for rather than having one big drawing for assorted prizes. I cast my lot into the drawing for a gift basket, while my husband tried for a copy of the new book about Celebration. We haven't seen it yet, but it's an "official" Disney-sanctioned version, so it should be interesting. But this year Lady Luck had other plans, and our tickets weren't drawn.

We spent a while chatting with people we know and also some who we're acquainted with via the Front Porch intranet. I always enjoy meeting people in person after following their postings online. In some ways, Celebration is like two worlds: the real world and a virtual one that often takes on a life of its own. I don't know what percentage of people in town actually visit the intranet regularly, but there is definitely a core group of die-hards. In many ways, it's as vibrant as the actual town.

Then we headed down Front Street to search out the Bunny Brigade. Jan, our founder and grande dame, had staked out some prime lakefront seats. At first, the crowd was sparse, as the threatening weather seemed to be scaring people off. Slowly but surely, the volume of people began to grow, and more and more members showed up in their tell-tale headgear.

Although bunny ears are the official headgear of the Brigade, they are not a cast-in-stone requirement. My own headgear typically involves Stitch in some way (I have two different types), and my husband wears a monorail that appears to be driving through his head. Tom (whose site, features lots of photos, Founders Day memories, and other neat stuff, dubbed it the "Ear Force." As long as you are willing to don some sort of ostentatious object on your head, you are a welcome member.

This was the first Bunny Brigade meeting since Charley, Frances, and Jeanne came to town. The hurricanes caused the cancellation of our previous get-togethers, so I was a little nervous that the weather might have its way with us once again. Happily, other than a couple of minor sprinkles, the evening turned out to be gorgeous weather-wise.

The Bunny Brigade crowd grew, and the food and drink flowed freely. If you didn't follow the previous link, click here for some scenes of the Brigade throughout the evening. "Taste of Celeration" is a part of Founders Day, which simply means that the local eateries set up booths out on the street. They have the same offerings for every special event, but "Taste of Celebration" makes it sound more exciting.

My husband always gets sushi from Seito, and I opted for the clam chowder from Town Tavern. I was lusting after an apple in bourbon sauce from the Celebration Hotel, but the first time my husband went to get one, their booth wasn't set up yet. The second time, they told him that the apples would be ready in 45 minutes. The third time, they gave him a free cup of soup to get him to go away and stop bothering them. Apparently, they discovered that they didn't have the necessary ingredients, so the apples never materialized. We also indulged in a salad and sangria from Columbia, plus a cranberry scone from Sherlocks.

We had arrived at the lakefront around 5 p.m., and the fireworks were schedule for 9. It's amazing how quickly four hours can go by when you're having so much fun. We all sat around chatting, eating & drinking, taking photos, and just generally having a ball. We even did a round of the Chicken Dance, which was being played by the band down at the intersection of Front and Market Streets. I don't do dances that require complicated steps (and I consider anything harder than moving backwards or forwards a challenge), but that one was simple enough even for a coordinationally-challenged person such as myself.

I had fun last year, but it was totally different because my husband and I didn't really know anyone. We knew our immediate neighbors, of course, but we hadn't met a lot of people in the community at large. Just one year later, we're a part of the Bunny Brigade and know so many wonderful people.

We had met many of the Brigade members at the first meeting, but this time there were also lots of new faces, which made it even more enjoyable. Some were people we didn't know at all, and others were online acquaintances who we were finally meeting in the flesh.

The crowd never seemed to grow as large as I expected, but that was sort of nice. I don't mind crowds and tourists, as I knew that those things would be facts of life when I chose to live here. But it's nice to have a little break every now and then. With the Fourth of July madhouse still fresh in my mind, I was happy that the sea of humanity was a little less overwhelming for Founders Day.

Still, I brought my pool pass, because I refuse to use the porta-potties. When the crowd is massive, there is usually a line. I never saw one this time around, but they still didn't look too appealing. I'd rather use my pool I.D. card and use the facilities at Lakeside Park.

I took a quick potty break shortly before the fireworks were scheduled to start, and on the way back to our chairs, I decided to use up my last food tickets on some ice cream from Herman's. They were also selling funnel cakes, and apparently some silent call had gone out for every person in attendance to suddenly line up to buy one. I thought I had plenty of time, but I waited at least 15 minutes. By the time I finally had my frozen chocolate treat, the fireworks were only minutes away.

Soon, it was the time that everyone was waiting for. The lights dimmed, the music cranked, and suddenly the sky above the lake lit up in an impressive show, punctuated by ooos and ahhhs. The grand finale was to the tune of Kool and the Gang's "Celebration," which is of course our town theme song.

After the fireworks, the crowd started breaking up. Some of the Brigade headed home, while others moseyed on to the Town Tavern to continue the fun. My husband and I decided to head back to East Village to crash, as it had been a long day. For some reason, our commute and the late Friday night flight always seems to sap my energy, and I don't regain it until sometime on Sunday.

We headed back down the boardwalk, which is conveniently lit at night. As we shuffled home, my husband and I discussed how events like Founders Day are the reason we moved to Celebration. Try as I might, I just can't imagine something like this happening back in my Midwest home town. They do have a big Oktoberfest celebration, but it's most just a carnival and a lot of beer drinking. Sure, there are carnival games and plenty of drinking on Founders weekend, but something is fundamentally different. At the Oktoberfest bash, you don't see neighbors getting together, and you feel no sense of community. It's just a bunch of strangers coming to an event that could be in just about any town, anywhere, with no sense of "ownership."

In Celebration, even with the droves of tourists, the core of the town remains intact, and the community spirit is there. That's something you just can't buy; we were reminded once again why we don't sell our house for a profit and move somewhere else in the Kissimmee area. We might have a nice, big, fancy house, but it would be an isolated isle, just like the condo we are leaving in the Midwest. In Celebration, we didn't just buy a house, we bought a home, and there is a big difference.

It's after midnight now, and another Founders Day is over. My husband is upstairs snoring, but I wanted to get my thoughts down while they are still fresh in my mind. This Founders Day was even better than the last one, and I'm already looking forward to the next one in 2005.

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Friday, November 12, 2004

Let the Festivities Begin

This Friday marked the kickoff of the Founders Day activities. Unfortunately, my husband and I were on the late flight home, so we missed out on the carnival and game booths. Hopefully, this will be the last year that we miss the first day of Founders Day weekend. I know that the activities probably sound like a bunch of hokey small-town stuff, but that's what I like about them. What kid doesn't try to win a goldfish at a local fun fair at some point in their life? What small town doesn't have fun-raiser booths with games and food and goodies? Those are the things that make up memories and Americana. I grew up with them, and now I want to be able to see them again in my adopted home town.

Unfortunately, by the time we rolled over the bridge on Celebration Avenue and approached downtown, most signs of life were long gone, as it was already close to midnight. We saw a few teens cruising around on foot and an intrepid soul making a withdrawal at the Cash Station, but the revelers and carnival goers were long gone.

We could see the skeletal canopies already erected on Market Street, waiting for the crowds of townies and tourists that will descend on Saturday. My husband insisted on making a detour; ever since I did my blog entry on Charley, Frances, and Jeanne, the motley trio of abandoned bikes that are slowly rusting away in the racks downtown, he's been firmly convinced that they're going to be removed. I explained to him that downtown is owned by Lexin, and all you have to do is look around to see that keeping up appearances is not one of their strong points. They're too busy trying to figure out how much more land they can sell for townhomes and condos. The only way they'll remove those bikes is if they figure they can fit another condo complex on the space where they currently reside.

But no, I couldn't convince my husband that his worries were for naught. So I cruised into the parking lot near Barnie's, where one of the trio resides, and showed him that it was safe and sound (well, okay, not so sound, but still chained in the rack).

We passed the flagpole, with the blue tarp already secured below it, hiding the newly installed bricks bearing the names of Celebration's newest residents. Just last year, we were among them. Now, we're "old timers" who get to watch the newbies go through this annual rite. Bricks are only installed for those who buy brand new homes, not resales, so once the last village is sold out, this event will fade away. But for now it's fun to watch the mad scramble as people rush to find their little rectangle of immortality.

Actually, now that the blue tarp has been named Florida's state flag in honor of our history-making hurricane season, I was amazed that A) Our state flag would be treated so disrespectfully, i.e. laid out on the ground; and B) Tarps are finally readily available again.

We headed to home sweet home so we could crash in bed and rest up for the second day of festivities. Saturday marks the latest meeting of the famous (infamous?) Bunny Brigade, so that should make for some great photos and another good blog entry. Granted, the Tampa Bay Bucaneers won't be around this time, but I'm sure that we can find new and exciting ways to amuse ourselves and to cause a scene. Once I get a few glasses of Columbia sangria into my husband, he will be game for anything.

The big capper will, of course, be the fireworks display. We have folding camp chairs that we bring downtown so we don't have to search too hard for a spot to watch them. We'll just sling the chairs over our shoulders and hoof it on the path from East Village rather than fight the traffic. Hopefully I'll remember to douse myself with bug spray first; my blood is apparently so sweet that they'll come from miles around to taste it. Once, while sitting out on my porch swing, I covered myself from head to toe in bug spray...everything but the bottoms of my feet. While out there, I slipped off my shoes. Bad idea! Those suckers actually bit up my foot bottoms! Nothing will drive you crazier than itchy foot soles.

Oh well, off to Dreamland now so I'll be bright and chipper for Day Two of the festivities. We have an early flight out on Sunday, courtesy of ATA's bankruptcy-fueled schedule distruptions, but at least on Saturday we'll be able to spend a full day of small-town frolicking, frivolity, and fun.

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Tuesday, November 09, 2004

I'm Dreaming of a Green Christmas

All my life, I've been in the midst of cold, snowy winters. I've had enough White Christmases to make Bing Crosby happy for the century and beyond. I many know people who say, "It wouldn't be Christmas without snow. I'd never want to live where I'd never see snow again." Believe me, I'm not one of them!

For me, a green Florida-style Christmas is ideal. If I want to see snow, I can call my relatives up north and let them describe it or pop in the DVD of "Christmas Vacation" or "A Christmas Story" (annual traditions in our household). Or I'll head to downtown Celebration or over to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party at Disney World to watch the soap bubble snowflakes. That's the only kind of snow I need to see for the rest of my life.

That's not to say that Florida doesn't feel Christmasy. Even though it's not Thanksgiving yet, the holiday preparations have already begun. I'm seeing adds for the Candlelight Processional at Epcot and the Christmas parties at the Magic Kingdom. Last time we were at Disney-MGM Studio, the Osborne lights were already being mounted (ironically, with cable ties manufactured by my employer).

On the home front, I'm eagerly awaiting the Holiday Home Tour in Celebration, which is a prime opportunity for nosy people like me to see my neighbors' houses, and of course I'll be romping around when the snow-bubbles fall on Market Street. Considering Lexin's actions thus far as the current owner of downtown Celebration, I'm wondering if this will be the last year for that event. Oh well, I'll enjoy it while I can.

Next weekend, I think we'll go shopping for some Christmas decorations. I have high hopes of finding a silver 1950s-style tree, complete with color wheel. I have one at our Midwest home, and I'd love to find one for Celebration. I know it's corny and hokey, but nothing evokes my childhood memories of waiting for Santa Claus like an aluminum tree. I know that today's models are made of plastic, but they're still reasonable facsimiles.

I'm hoping the stores aren't too jam-packed yet; I make it a rule never to venture near a shopping center or superstore from Thanksgiving through mid-January. Of course, I don't think the Wal-Mart on 192 could be any more crowded during the holiday season than it is at any other time. After all, there are only so many bodies you can cram into a finite space, and between the locals and tourists, that place is virtually always at capacity.

To me, it seems like paradise to spend a Christmas season being able to walk and bike outside, and maybe even to swim. Very few bare, skeletal trees, and no grass covered with a layer of dirty-gray snow...just beautiful, live greenery. What a treat to see that in December and January!

We'll have lots of fun visiting the various Disney World parks and hotels to see them in their holiday finery, and we'll also have to go over to Universal for their Grinch-themed celebration. There are plenty of other attractions, too. The Dixie Stampede (Dolly Parton's dinner/show) also puts on a special show for the holidays. We saw it in Tennessee many years back, so I'm eager to see it on my home turf. It was something we planned to do last year, but we never quite got around to it. I am also hoping that Celebration Health has a living nativity again this year. We stopped by to see it last year, and I was very impressed (although some of the critters looked less than cooperative).

Hard to believe that the holidays are almost here. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow...but far away from me!

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Sunday, November 07, 2004

What a Difference a Year Makes

Next week in Celebration, we celebrate the annual tradition known as Founders Day. As the name implies, this self-proclaimed holiday marks the anniversary of the founding of our town. Actually, "founding" is a relative term; I'm not sure whether it marks the day that Celebration was announced, that the lottery for the first homes was held, that ground was broken for the first buildings, or that the first residents moved in. I think it might commemorate the hoopla of the lottery, but don't quote me on that. Anyway, it's a good excuse to line Front Street with food booths, hold fishing tournaments, a carnival, and other fun small-town-style events, and cap things off with a big fireworks display over the lake.

Another neat thing about Founders Day is the "Town Photo." Basically, everyone in town is invited to Lakeside Park to crowd together for a picture that turns out something like a page from "Where's Waldo." I have no idea what percentage of Celebration residents actually show up, but last year the turnout looked pretty good to me. You can buy a print of the photograph afterwards, so I purchased the jumbo version and hung it on our foyer wall. Guests love to search for my husband and I among the sea of faces. Actually, we're pretty easy to find, since we're right at the end of a row, and we purposely wore brightly colored shirts.

This year, I'm especially excited because I feel like Celebration is truly my home town. Granted, I felt that way from the moment we first visited and knew that we had to buy a home here, but now we have twelve months of wonderful memories behind us. Last Founder's Day, we were still "newbies." We had closed on our home only two months earlier, and we were still in a transition stage. We didn't have much time to get to know the town because we were still too busy with all the little tasks that come with buying a new home. There was a constant parade of servicemen and deliveries that kept us tied to the house in those early weeks; it took a while before we could breathe a sigh of relief that all the major tasks were done and settle in to enjoy life in Celebration.

That first Founders Day was still a lot of fun. I'll never forget the thrill of finding our brick under the flagpole downtown. (For those who don't know what I'm referring to: A brick is placed beneath the flag for every person who purchased a brand-new home in Celebration during the previous year. The bricks are unveiled on Founders Day weekend, and there is a mad scramble as all the new residents try to find theirs.) After a long, fruitless search, I was almost convinced that it was all a practical joke; I thought that the people claiming to find their bricks were actually sadistic residents just yelling, "There it is!" to convince the rest of us that our bricks were there somewhere. But eventually I found our next door neighbors' brick, and then ours. Now, as hokey as it sounds, whenever we have out-of-town visitors and we're driving with them down Celebration Avenue, I always have to stop and drag them over to see the brick.

Also, ironically, on that first Founders Day, I won a round of golf at the Celebration golf course. Each person who participates in the town photo gets a raffle ticket, and the prizes are announced after the picture is taken. The irony lies in the fact that I have never golfed once in my life, unless you count the putt-putt courses with windmill obstacles. I ended up trading with someone for a Seito gift certificate; monetarily, it was worth a lot less, but my husband adores sushi, and I was glad that the golf was going to someone who would appreciate it.

But the big difference now is that back then, my husband and I didn't really know anyone in town, other than our immediate neighbors. We had a vague idea of the small-town politics and had seen many familiar names as we haunted the Front Porch intranet. But we couldn't put faces to those names, and although we loved Celebration, we hadn't crossed over yet into feeling the community spirit.

Now, twelve months later, we have a wealth of wonderful memories to draw on. In the past year, we've met so many people and had so many wonderful times. We've became members of the "Bunny Brigade" and stalked the Tampa Bay Bucaneers (I won't even try to explain that here, but you can read details by clicking here to read my blog entry. We've made lots of friends and even went on a Disney cruise with our neighbors...and during hurricane season, no less! And our house survived three hurricanes (even though hurricanes "never come this far inland"). We've discovered fellow Disney fanatics who don't think we should be committed for our devotion to "The Mouse." We've experienced the mad tourist influx during events like Fourth of July and learned all of the backroads and shortcuts that are necessary for survival when you live in the Kissimmee/Orlando area. Most of all, we've discovered that we are truly home.

The Founders Day photo on the wall is no longer just a sea of nameless faces. Now, we can put names to many of them, and we marvel at the fact that we were surrounded by so many friends we simply hadn't met yet. This year, we'll be there for the picture yet again (and with God's wicked sense of humor, I wouldn't be surprised if I win another round of golf). But this time, we won't just be in Celebration...we'll truly be a part of it.

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