Tuesday, May 31, 2005


The rain finally came! It poured down in rivers last night and well into the morning. I woke up to skies so dark that I didn't even realize morning had arrived until I glanced at the bedside clock. Outside the bedroom window, I could hear a waterfall (literally, since our back porch awning turns into Niagra during any substantial rainfall due to its poor design).

When I went to bed, my husband assured me that the storms had detoured around us and that there would be no rain until the afternoon. I don't know what forecast he was looking at, but we had ourselves a major Florida monsoon overnight. I suspect that there were strong winds, too, because our neighbor's garbage can was tipped and one of the newly planted trees by the condos across the alley was toppled.

My morning walk was a washout, but as the day lengthened into afternoon, sunshine was trying to peek through the gray cloud cover. The temperature was in the 70s, which was a real treat compared to the muggy 90s that we've been having lately. My husband and I decided to head over to Disney World for lunch. We had a pre-paid voucher that is only good at certain restaurants. Normally we would have used it at Epcot, but we were afraid that the downpour wasn't completely over. Parking far away and walking through the park was not an attractive option.

The voucher was also good at several of the hotels, so we decided to choose a restaurant that we hadn't tried before. That's a difficult task, since we've tried virtually every WDW eatery over the years. Finally, we settled on Olivia's at Old Kay West. The seafood oriented appetizers and tempting sandwiches and desserts won us over.

The sky was still spitting when we arrived at the resort. Fortunately, we found a fairly close parking spot; armed with tightly clutched umbrellas, we sprinted to the building. There was a large crowd of people waiting, but fortunately I had called ahead for a priority seating reservation. If you want to dine at the Disney World resort, the telephone number 407-WDW-DINE is your friend.

We were seated within 5 minutes, and soon we were deep in negotiations to maximize our choices. My husband was tempted by the crab cakes, but he also wanted to try the artichoke and shrimp dip. I was leaning toward the conch fritters, which he also likes, so we compromised. I ordered the conch, he ordered the dip, and we both shared our choices.

For my main course, I had the pulled pork sandwich, while he opted for a shrimp po' boy. The sandwiches were large and filling, especially since they are served with a generous portion of crinkle cut French fries and creamy, somewhat fruity cole slaw. The only slight wrinkle in our enjoyment was the slow service. Our poor waitress was responsible for an entire room of tables, so she was running herself to a frazzle. Worse yet, the register was self-destructing, which tied her up for at least ten minutes. I was antsy to get my drink, which showed up about 15 minutes after I ordered it. The appetizers arrived before the beverages, but my mango iced tea and hubby's cappucino smoothie finally put in an appearance before the main course showed up.

Thankfully, we weren't in a hurry. We both had to get home to work, but it's a lot more fun sitting in a Disney World restaurant, people watching through the window, than being chained to a keyboard. Since Old Key West is a DVC resort, the walls were also quite interesting to study. They were lined with dozens...actually, probably hundreds...of photos of DVC members from the early 1990s to present.

Dessert was also included in the vouchers, so I opted for key lime pie, while my husband took the waitress's recommendation and tried a unique apple/banana concoction. It consisted of apples wrapped into a tortilla and coated with some sort of bananas foster type topping. Judging by the speed with which he consumed it, it must have been delicious. I was pleased to see that my pie was pale yellow, rather than phony food-coloring-green, meaning that it was authentic. Most people think that key limes are a minty green color because that's what the fake pies look like, but their natural hue is closer to a lemon.

When we were done eating, my husband suggested strolling around the resort...anything to avoid work! By now, the drizzle had stopped and the sun was trying to peek out more forcefully. As we passed the boat dock, I had an overwhelming desire to rent a watercraft. It's been ages since we've done that, and I like the waterway that runs between Port Orleans and Downtown Disney, which you can access from Old Key West.

We rented a Boston Whaler that was governed down to putt-putt speed. My husband was moaning and groaning that we were going to get caught in a downpour, so we only rented it for half an hour. I wanted to take a look at the treehouses that line the shore between Port Orleans and Saratoga Screens. I never got to stay in them, but I always thought they looked so cool. Now they are abandoned and look uncharacteristically run done, especially considering that they are on Disney property.

The treehouses used to be part of the villas at the Disney Institute. But now the Institute is history, with Saratoga Springs in its place, and the treehouses sustained heavy damage during the hurricanes. I don't know whether they are going to be rehabbed or simply torn down. The roofs no longer look sound, and a couple of the balconies have been destroyed. Lawn furniture still sits out on many of the decks, but the curtains in the windows are ragged and ghostly. These once-inviting residences have a forlorn air about them. I hope that Disney either fixes them up soon or just puts them out of their misery.

We motored past the treehouses and headed towards Port Orleans-French Quarter. I noticed that we needed to turn back to make it within the half-hour time span. But lo and behold, my husband (who hadn't wanted to go boating at all) was suddenly pressing to stay out for an hour. He'd gotten it into his head to go all the way down to Dixie Landings (the former, politically-incorrect name for Port Orleans Riverside; Disney may have changed it, but it will always be DL to me, just as the Market Street Cafe in Celebration will always be Max's).

We motored down to the end of the waterway by the hotels, then turned around to head to Downtown Disney. It was a cool, pleasant day for boating, marred only slightly when we came around a blind curve and realized that one of the large, guest-transport boats was heading for a single-width bridge from the opposite direction at the same time as us. My husband averted disaster by quickly flipping our vessel into reverse.

There were a few other guests on the water too; most of them were piloting little water mice, but there were a few in pontoons or boats similar to ours. Much of the area around the hotels is a no-wake zone, so your boat's capability doesn't matter because you have to proceed slowly, no matter what. But once you reach Downtown, there is a large patch of water where you can go full throttle. Unfortunately, "full speed ahead" still means a relatively leisurely pace since the boats are all heavily governored for safety.

Many years ago, Disney briefly had speedboats available for rent. My husband and I tried one once, and it was a blast! I think you could only rent them at Magic Kingdom resort hotels, which meant that you were boating on Lake Buena Vista/Seven Seas Lagoon. Since that's a good sized lake rather than a waterway lined by hotels, there was lots of space to go all out. We had such a fantastic time!

Unfortunately, those boats are now just a footnote in Disney history. I don't know why they stopped renting them, but I suspect that the wild speed boat drivers probably terrorized the smaller, slower watercraft.

We stayed out for a full hour, and I was beginning to think that I would have to whip out my cell phone, call 407-WDW-PLAY, and ask the recreation staff to send out a patrol boat to force my husband to return. But finally he accepted the reality that we both had to do some work, and reluctantly he made his way back to Old Key West.

When we returned to Celebration, the sunshine had definitely made some headway. It was bright enough to force me to don my sunglasses. I walked around my yard, observing the soaked grass and flower beds. I could almost hear the parched plants murmuring a relieved, "Ahhhhhhhh!" The grass in the park across the street is still brown, but I am hoping to eventually see some healthy green. On the barren spots in my lawn, I have noticed a few tiny patches of life. The downpour was very, very welcome; I hope that our dry spell is over for a while.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

Monday, May 30, 2005


Tonight may be the night when the long dry spell comes to an end. Technically, we should be under a driving thunderstorm right now, at least according to the radar on the television. So far, there has been thunder and lightning, but it's been a cruel teaser. Nary a raindrop has fallen...at least not here in Celebration.

With any luck, we may get a good soaking by morning. Our whole area (Kissimmee) is under yellow and red blobs on the radar screen. We've also managed to top 2000 lightning strikes, according to the Fox television counter. The lightning counter was a new thing for me when I moved to Florida. In Chicago, we had a heat index and a UV index, but I don't think we ever got enough lightning to warrant keeping track.

I did witness a lightning strike once, albeit indirectly. It was before I was married; I was in my apartment, sitting in the livingroom with the front door open so the screen door could let in the breeze. I knew it was going to rain, but the downpour hadn't arrived yet. Suddenly, there was an ear-slitting explosion and a bright flash of white. Along with all my neighbors, I raced outside to see what had happened. A tree had been struck a couple of houses down, with its charred trunk neatly split in two. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and it didn't fall on any houses.

In Florida, I haven't witnessed any lightning strikes at close range yet, and hopefully things will remain that way. I worry about our home and appliances; we haven't taken any action yet, other than buying surge protector outlets, but we plan to sign up for Progress Energy's surge protection program. According to their website, and the propagada that they mail occasionally, for $5.95 a month, they "reduce electrical surges by suppressing them at your meter before they enter your home." In theory, the rainy season is here, so we should subscribe to the service soon.

Then again, the storms might be a no-show once again. I worked late this evening, and for a while the sky was lit up with nature's fireworks, punctuated with a distant rumble of thunder. It took a while to convince my husband that it really was thunder, and not just the echo of fireworks from Disney World, since it was Illuminations time.

But now that's all gone, and the sky is dark and undisturbed by any signs of imminent rain. I hope that it will make a resurgence overnight, because our poor lawn is dying out more every day. We ran the sprinklers, checking them carefully to make sure that they were all working and that none of them were blocked too badly by grass clumps or bushes. We found a couple that had gotten lost in grassy overgrowth; no matter how brown the rest of the lawn gets, the areas around the sprinklers stay like mini patches of jungle thicket. We cut them out to make sure that the precious water would reach the widest area possible.

Sprinklers are one of those aspects of Florida life that took some getting used to. In the Midwest, nature does most of the watering. During dry spells, you buy a lawn sprinkler that you hook up to your hose. The only houses there that have an underground irrigation system are those far above my socioeconomic level.

In Florida, sprinklers are the status quo. They are as inocuous as phone lines or a power meter. You have to keep an eye on them to make sure that none of the heads are broken, resulting in an Old Faithful-style gusher, and that they are correctly aimed, not blocked with sediment, and not lost under overgrowth. But once you get used to them, they become another fact of life.

The sprinklers use reclaimed water, i.e. water that you would not want to drink. It has an oddly sweet smell that I've never been able to figure out; I didn't even notice it until my husband pointed it out.

In contrast, the water in the house has a slightly swampy smell at certain times of the year. I don't even notice it anymore, but back in the days when we were tourists, I loved it. In my mind, it meant "Disney World," as it always tickled my nose when taking a shower at our hotel.

I'm so used to Florida now that when I return to Chicago, the water there smells funny to me. I was born and raised on Lake Michigan water, which tastes good but is heavily chlorinated. Since I never knew anything else, I never noticed the chlorine smell or taste. Now, that bleachy odor assaults my senses the moment it leaves the tap.

As I type this, the rain is still a no-show, but hopefully it will pour down in sheets overnight. Besides the scorched greenery, the lakes are as low as I've ever seen them, and one of the normally marshy areas along the East Village walking path has dried out to a muddy hole. With any luck, by tomorrow it will be teaming with water and bird life again.

If not, it will be back to waiting; supposedly, if we slip by unscathed tonight, the next chance of thunderstorms is tomorrow. I hate to ruin the tourists' afternoon plans, but I'm desperate. Just an hour or two is all that I ask...just enough to restore all the thirsty lawns and let the wetlands live up to their name once again.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Farmers Market Finale

This morning, my husband and I headed to downtown Celebration for the last farmers market until fall. I fear that it might be the last farmers market ever, since construction on the adjacent parking lot will most likely be in full swing by October. Shutting down a street to hold the market, and thereby taking over precious parking spaces on a weekend, doesn't sound too likely. Perhaps it could move to Founders Park, but I'm not holding my breath. The latest email propaganda from Town Hall said that the farmers market will return in October, but I noticed that it didn't specify a location, year or town, so we'll see.

The number of merchants was much smaller than usual, but the produce stands and the French pastry sellers were there. My husband was able to stock up on fresh tomatoes and squash, while I was able to fulfill my sweet tooth. Actually, the pastry stand didn't have my favorite cookies, which have a chocolate shell and are filled with either peanut butter or caramel. They did have some other tasty-looking options, so we bought a small pecan pie to share for dessert in the evening.

The farmers market is a weekend tradition for us. I roust my husband out of bed on Sunday morning (he runs on little or no sleep all week, then hibernates like a bear on the weekend) and drag him to Max's (Market Street Cafe) for breakfast. Then we stroll down to the market to do our veggie shopping. He hates buying produce during the winter when he's in Chicago for work because the flavorless hothouse pseudo-tomatoes can't compare to Florida's flavorful year-round bounty.

Max's requires him to roll out of bed at a semi-decent hour because they only serve breakfast until 11:30 a.m. on Sunday. Since there can be waits of half an hour, and occasionally longer, that means getting downtown no later than 11. We have a lot of other good (and not so good) breakfast places nearby, such as Cracker Barrel and Perkins, but I prefer Max's because they mix the fruit into the batter of their blueberry and apple pancakes. Most other places just slop some preserves on top.

This week, I opted for the apple pancakes with a side of bacon. My husband never wavers from his order of French toast (has enough time passed since the war began to call it that, or should it be "Liberty Toast?"). I rotate through the three types of pancake: apple, blueberry, and chocolate chip. My side meat varies between bacon and ham, and every now and then I throw in a sunnyside up egg just to shake things up. One of the greatest simple pleasures in life is sopping up a runny egg yolk with a piece of toast.

After we ate, it was farmers market time. As I mentioned earlier, the number of booths was greatly reduced. I did see the fresh-squeezed lemonade stand, but I was too well plied with mango iced tea from Max's to be tempted. I bought the pecan pie and headed to the Town Center Market (the corner grocery on Market Street) to pick up some potato salad while my husband browsed through the produce.

I am used to a convenience mark-up at small groceries, but I almost had a heart attack when I discovered the price for a pound and a quarter of potato salad: nearly $7.00! Ouch! I like to support the businesses in downtown Celebration, but for that price, I'll make the trek across 192 to Publix next time. In their current ad, two pounds of potato salad costs only $3.49. A nearly four dollar premium to shop in town is a bit too rich for my blood.

I headed towards the Celebration Hotel, clutching my gold-plated salad, as I had parked my car down the street so I could check out the flags in Downeast, another local store. I have a flagpole and a garden flag stand, and I like to rotate my banners frequently. Since it's Memorial Day weekend, I am currently flying the Stars and Stripes, but I wanted something new for later in the year.

I found a couple of possibilities: a nautical-themed flag that said "Welcome Aboard" and a garden flag with palm trees and a tropical island. Those might not sound too compatible to most people, but they were perfect for a Disney Cruise Line fanatic like me. The nautical flag would represent my favorite ship, the Disney Wonder, on which we are sailing for the 44th time on Thursday (actually, a few of those trips have also been on the Disney Magic). The tropical garden flag would represent Castaway Cay, Disney's private island paradise.

The clerk pointed out to me that the garden flag lights up. As soon as we got home, my husband and I had to close ourselves off in the darkness of the Harry Potter bathroom to check it out. It was so cute! Normally, I would leave the American flag out from Memorial Day to Fourth of July, but I think I might get too tempted to put my nautical flags out for June.

Actually, since I like to tie my banners in with the seasons, I wish I could have found a hurricane flag...maybe something with that oh-so-familiar National Weather Service hurricane symbol superimposed over a graphic of the state. It could stay up until the fall, unless of course another killer storm visits us and rips it down.

It's late afternoon now, and the farmers market vendors have no doubt packed up their stands for the last time of the season...hopefully not for the last time ever. There is a market in Winter Park all summer, but it's just not the same. Although we sometimes drive, I like the idea of being able to walk or bike downtown and having the market right in my neighborhood. It's part of the ambiance of living in Celebration, and I sure hope that it's not extinct come October.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

Saturday, May 28, 2005

On a Happier Note

My last couple of posts have focused on politics in Celebration in an uncharacteristically negative way. Today soothed my nerves, which have been frazzled over the past week with the parking issue and ongoing online debates, and reminded me why I love it here.

Actually, it was bittersweet fun. We attended a backyard barbeque to send off my neighbors, who are going on vacation to England and then heading off to their summer home. I love the neighborhood parties that are such an essential part of life in Celebration, but I will miss our friends while they are gone. Our little cul de sac is quieter in the summer; it's still a homey place, but there is a definite gap until fall.

My husband and I headed over to Publix to pick up some pies for dessert. At get-togethers, I always opt to bring something that doesn't require cooking or baking. If I can get it at a store, that's fine, but I get much too flustered if it requires any preparation.

Actually, I am a good baker when I'm put on the spot. In high school, Foods class was a highlight of the day. It was scheduled right before lunchtime, and along with a group of friends, I had co-opted a position as "student aid" for the study hall part of the lunch period. My kitchen partner and I would whip up delicious cakes and pies and other goodies, slice them in half, and head off with our booty. I don't know what she did with her share, but upstairs in the Office Education classroom, my friends and I would tuck into our sugar high. As student aids, I supposed that we were supposed to be doing something constructive, like grading papers for the teacher, but she let us run amok around the typewriters, goofing off in typical teenage ways.

But that was long, long ago. Once I married my husband, who is quite a whiz in the kitchen, my cooking skills went dormant. Early in our marriage, I tried to assist in the kitchen, but it drove him crazy. Soon, I learned to just stay out of the way and enjoy the fruits of his culinary labors.

The barbeque allowed his "inner chef" to emerge, as he was placed in charge of the grill. He fired up the Propane King and set to work, cooking up beef and vegetable shish-ke-bobs. Meanwhile, I found my place in the Great Circle of Barbeques: Bartender. We had stopped at the liquor store next door to Publix to pick up some T.G.I. Friday's drink mixes, so I whipped out my handy-dandy Magic Bullet and set to work whipping out frozen libations. The party was being held next door, so I shuttled back and forth with margaritas and pina coladas in tow.

All told, we had five households of neighbors joining together for some Saturday afternoon fun. Back at our condo in Chicago, I can't imagine getting together with any of the people in our building. Well, maybe a couple of them, but a snowfall in Florida is more likely than a large-scale friendly gathering at the condo. When the complex was first built, we used to have an annual block party there, but it's long since gone the way of the dodo due to lack of interest.

In Celebration, neighborliness still exists, and I'm hoping that it won't become an endangered species as the house prices continue to rise. I'm sure that similar gatherings go on every weekend throughout town. One ambitious resident is even organizing a community picnic to allow posters on the community intranet to meet each other face to face.

It sounds corny, but in some ways our town is like a modern version of a Norman Rockwell painting. Granted, we have our issues, as I learned firsthand this week. Celebration as we know it is not immune; someday the canvas could be painted over with a picture of a plain-vanilla suburb. But for right now, it's a great place to live, and I plan to do my part to keep it that way.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

Friday, May 27, 2005

Small Town Politics

Before I moved to Celebration, I never got involved in local politics. The closest brush with I ever had with political activism was joining our condo board as an alternate. I only did that for two reasons: 1) Nobody else would; and 2) To get an insider's view, since we had some bad problems going on at the time (as far as I know, the mess is still going strong).

Other than that, I traipsed blithely along through life, letting others make the decisions. Sure, I had some opinions. I found our suburb's attempts at sprucing up the downtown laughable, as well as a waste of money. They built a fancy new train station with a clock tower observation deck that has never been opened to the public. Outside, the scattered chairs around the fountain are supposed to be inviting, except that they're all securely chained to the ground. The latest attempt to increase liveability was to scatter bizarrely painted benches up and down the main street. And I do mean bizzare, featuring weird things like giant eyeballs. One bench even has a fake person sitting on it; maybe that's supposed to work in the same way that hunters use decoy ducks.

I moved to that suburb primarily because it was close to both work and the horse barn. I had no vested interest in it, other than as a place to sleep. Thus, unless some issue arose that would directly hit me in the pocketbook or drastically reduce my quality of life, I didn't give a rat's ass about the politics.

Moving to Celebration was different. It was the first time I'd even chosen a town specifically because of the sense of place. When I first moved away from home, I chose my apartment because it was affordable and close to work, as well as being close to many of my friends. Then, I got married and moved into my husband's townhome, located in a dreary neighborhood that was chosen solely on price. Our next move was to the place I described earlier, chosen strictly for convenience.

Before I visited Celebration, I figured that it would be the same when we eventually moved to Florida. We'd choose somewhere decent and affordable, within reasonable striking distance of the theme parks and beaches. It would be a crash pad inbetween our work and play sessions (and that play would take place at Disney World or other remote locations). I never envisioned swimming at the neighborhood pool, walking downtown to festivals, attending backyard barbeques, or gathering with my neighbors on the front porch.

Visiting the infamous "Disney Town" changed all that. It was the first time I ever fell in love with a community. The ten-year Florida plan suddenly became immediate. We didn't need to look anywhere else; we were home.

We still enjoy the amenities of living the heart of Vacation Country U.S.A., but many of our activities center around home and community. Back in the Midwest, none of our friends lived in the same suburb. Get-togethers were always at some far-off, mutually convenient place. We have out-of-town friends in Florida, but we also have many great friends and neighbors right within Celebration. We're just as likely to drop over at someone's house as we are to meet up with them at a restaurant or theme park.

I'm also in love with the town itself; the boardwalks through the lush green "islands" are so much nicer than the asphalted forest preserves up north. Just last night, a deer literally bounded across my front lawn, and the wild turkeys are always a joy. But it's not just the "suburban wilderness" that I enjoy. I love being able to head downtown, get an ice cream cone, frozen coffee, or some cold lemonade, and relax in an (unchained-gasp!) rocker by the lake.

The acceleration of our parking problems, sealed at the meeting described in my previous blog entry, helped me understand while people enter the pit of vipers also known as local politics. Actually, it was the whole lead-up to the meeting...the vote itself was anti-climatic.

The only reason I started following this issue was because I felt that it threatened downtown Celebration's viability. I've seen plenty of houses, condos, and townhomes spring up all over town without arousing my latent activism. I've heard all the comments that the developers have all the power, but that didn't worry me because I didn't see any blatantly negative repercussions.

Once I realized that condos were going to be built on the downtown parking lots, with nothing more than a token nod at providing alternate parking, I had to jump into the fray. Not only did it cause me to spread my opinions all over the intranet and to add my voice at relevant meetings, but it also made me more aware of the various governing entities in town and the agendas of their individual members.

Now that I've gotten a taste of small-town politics, I must say that it's been quite a shock for a sheltered person like me. In Celebration, the whole thing is compounded by the fact that we're not a "real" town and that The Celebration Company (i.e. Disney) got so many developer-friendly concessions that we can't do anything about. Even if our residental owners' board wanted to take a stand on certain issues, they are pretty much impotent.

Of course, I've also learned that being elected by the residents of Celebration doesn't necessarily mean acting as their voice once you're in a position of power. I used to wonder what led people to campaign so aggressively for the candidates of their choice. Now I see what a difference elections can make on a local level.

If you're thinking about moving to Celebration, I can't deny that it's a wonderful town. As long as it remains the way it is today, with a strong sense of community and a vibrant commercial downtown, I will never, ever move (short of some unavoidable disaster, of course).

But be warned: The things that you gain in terms of living in the best town in America will come with a price. It won't just stay that way unless you help to preserve it. For some, Celebration represents a cash cow to be milked dry and then slaughtered. For others, it's a place to act out personal agendas with no regard for the wishes of the majority. If you want to maintain the wonderful Celebration that exists today, be prepared to work for it.

I know that the parking issue has only just begun. This week's meeting was simply the opening salvo in a long, hard battle with far-reaching consequences on many fronts. I enjoy the positive things about our town, but I learned an important lesson: If I want them to remain, I'm going to have to be active. Otherwise, my beloved Duloc Manor will become just another crash pad, no different than the other homes I've lived in throughout my life...and that would be a real tragedy.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Celebration (Mis)Representation

Even though I read all the books and articles decrying a lack of resident representation in the governing of Celebration, I didn't let that scare me off. After all, when my husband and I bought our home, a new era was supposedly beginning. The Celebration Company, a.k.a. Disney, was relinquishing control and putting it in the hands of the residents. No matter what had come before, it would finally be (to paraphrase another resident's frequent quote) "our town now."

Today I got my first taste of Celebration (mis)representation in action. Quite frankly, it gave me a new admiration for the long-time residents who have toughed it out for years. It was frustrating enough to experience it for the first time; I can't even imagine going through it again and again for nearly a decade.

The big issue is parking downtown, or more accurately, the lack thereof. There are two large lots, locally referred to as "the church lot" and "the Stetson lot," that have served as parking for the downtown shops and restaurants, as well as the Stetson University building. On most days, finding a spot can be a challenge, although it's not impossible, especially if you're willing to walk a few blocks. But during special events like Fourth of July and the winter snowfalls, every available square inch of land, including both pavement and grass, is covered with cars. They overflow onto the residential streets, blocking driveways and alleys and generally wreaking havoc.

Now, those two parking lots are slated to become high-density condos. Bye bye, parking lots...hello, parking problem multiplied by a factor of 1000. It's interesting to note that Disney sold the parking lots to Lexin, along with the rest of the downtown. Then Lexin sold them to Issa, a local builder that is developing the condos under the name of Carlyle. Confused by the shell game yet? It gets better.

When the condo plans were rendered, no one happened to notice that they included a piece of property owned by the CCDD (Celebration Community Development District). Oops. What followed was a proposal that many (myself included) thought to be very one-sided, giving the developer the parcel in question in return for virtually nothing. Oh, we'd get some other property, all right, but it would be for a parking lot that was going to be created anyway and used by the condo owners. Sure, they'll have garages, but no one in Florida actually parks in their garage; in a basementless state, they're simply an auxiliary storage facility. Basically, we'd get ownership of the lot and therefore be stuck with maintenance and liability. Since there is a lift station currently on the CCDD parcel, Issa also proposed to relocate it. Thing is, we don't need a new lift station; the old one has been there for nearly a decade without bothering anyway.

This is a Cliff Notes version; there were a few more issues involved, such as the storage of landscaping trucks and equipment, but hopefully my non-Celebration readers can get a feel for the sleight of hand.

The meeting to discuss this mess and vote on the Issa proposal was cancelled once, then rescheduled as a buried item in the CCDD agenda. Fortunately, Celebration residents are wiser than most about attempts to sweep things under the rug. A core band of concerned citizens made sure that the meeting was publicized and that the relevant documents were made available to the public beforehand. Technology is one of our community cornerstones, but I don't think Disney ever envisioned its subversive use to actually empower the residents. Somehow, even on such short notice, they were able to organize a meeting the day before the CCDD vote so concerned residents could voice their opinions.

Oddly enough, when the organizer asked Town Hall to send out an email alert, he was shot down. Even more oddly, the person who vetoed its sending was none other than the president of our residential owners' board. Apparently, the loss of parking and its potential impact on the downtown area, and thus on the existence of the Celebration that we all know and love, is not as important as the farmer's market or swim lessons.

I had a prior commitment that caused me to miss the pre-meeting, but nothing short of hellfire or a tsunami was going to keep me away from the "real deal." Along with others, I had been sharing my opinions on the Front Porch (our community intranet) and emailing relevant CCDD members. Out of five people on the board, two were appointed by TCC (read "developer friendly"), and three were elected by the residents. In theory, those three should reflect the will of those who elected them (or so I thought...I forgot that Celebration has an entirely different definition of "democracy").

Even though the meeting was held at 4:30 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, the little room in Town Hall was packed to the rafters. I was toting a tape recorder, loaned to me by a friend, because I dug up some regulations in the CCDD documents that said there must be a verbatum recording of a meeting if anyone wants to take issue with something later. Besides, I figured that it might have good entertainment value.

I was pleased to see the turn-out; even after being shafted so many times, it's clear that the residents of Celebration still care about the future of their town. I knew many of the people personally, and others were names from the community intranet that suddenly became faces. And none of those people were shy...there were many impassioned questions and comments, often met with approving applause. Sadly, I got the impression that it was like the old Far Side cartoon that goes something like this: A man is telling his dog, "Sit, Rover. Sit, boy. Come on, sit! Sit!" In the next frame, the balloons show what the dog is hearing: "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."

Of course, I knew that it was going to be bad when the developer's representative announced at the beginning of the presentation: "I don't mean to be disrespectful, but if the board turns down our proposal, we've just going to go ahead with the development anyway. And if there is no vote, we'll take that as a vote of 'no.'" Since the county had already rubber-stamped it, they were free to do that. The only difference would be that they'd have to build four less condos, since they wouldn't have the lift station land. So even though the residents made some excellent points, I could just imagine what the powers-that-be were hearing: "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."

Some minor good did come out of all the efforts. Out of the goodness of their hearts, and apparently to show their concern for our community (yes, I'm chucking as I type that), Issa negotiated some minor points. They will try their darndest to get the county to forbid left turns into the condo complex. That might sound silly, but it could actually preserve a few precious parking spots. Otherwise, traffic tie-ups caused by left turners could cause the county to mandate a "left turn only" lane, which would elimate some of the on-street parking.

Instead of giving the parking lot to CCDD, they will retain it and grant a perpetual easement. That way, we get the benefits without the potential liability and maintenance costs. We might even get to park there if we can roust all the multi-car condo dwellers (those poor souls have no idea of the parking nightmare that they're moving into). And of course they get their precious lift station land, to cram in four more condos (at Celebration prices, that means over $1 million).

There were some other concessions, but since this is a Cliff Notes version, I won't go into detail. Let's just say that it leaves the door open for CCDD to obtain some other land for the possible construction of a parking garage or perhaps some other partial solution.

To be a bit vulgar, we got it pounded to us. The choice was not whether that would happen or not. It was whether we'd take a hard pounding or a slightly softer one. Or to put it another way, the dog turd was coated with frosting. Unfortunately, when you bite into it, it still tastes like a dog turd.

I know the tone of this entry is a departure from my usual posts. I love Celebration and enjoy focusing on the positive. There are so many wonderful aspects of living here, and there's no other place that I'd rather be. I like to share my love of our community with others who are thinking about joining about us.

But tonight was a disillusionment for me. I know that such things have happened in the past, and I'm sure this wasn't the last time. It's one thing to read about the battles in the pages of a book and quite another to sit among the good townsfolk and feel their passion for their community, knowing that there's nothing any of us can do. Sure, we had a minor victory (or perhaps less of a major defeat...as Obi-Wan Kenobi says, "Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view").

At least there was one funny part, although it was a bittersweet laugh. Someone asked how the country could have approved plans for property that didn't even belong to the developer. The answer? "It was a mistake." The room roared with laughter, but it's sad if you really think about it. Is the process of approving Celebration developments such a joke that you can get approval to build on land you don't even own?

I fear that this is yet another step down the primrose path of killing off downtown Celebration as we know it. No parking means no customers for the stores. No customers means empty storefronts. And what do empty storefronts mean? Will they be converted to still more condos? If so, won't that mean that the Celebration we know and love today will become just like every other Orlando-area subdivision?

Hard questions with no easy answers. The issue is much larger than Issa's 82 condo development. A year from now, when I look back at this blog entry, I hope that my worries will turn out to be for naught. We'll see.....

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

The Brown, Brown Grass of Home

Once again, the rain has passed us by. I thought for sure that it was going to come yesterday, as evidenced by the bright orange and red on the radar (punctuated, as usual, with white popcorn blotches indicating lightning strikes). But even though other areas got doused, Celebration emerged bone dry once again. Early this morning, when I embarked on my walk, there were some ominous clouds that almost convinced me we were going to get a shower. But by the time my friend and I had finished our post-walk Barnie's treat, the sky was clear and sunny, with nary a hint of imminent rainfall.

Yesterday marked the second round of thunderstorms that we've missed this week. I don't want severe weather, but we are in desperate need of some rain. It's gotten so dry that we even had a fire downtown, supposedly caused when someone tossed their lit cigarette butt into a pile of mulch. Unfortunately, the mulch surrounded a pole leading up to the back porches of a condo building. A fire started due to the extreme dryness and traveled all the way up to the third floor. Thanks to the fire department's quick response, the damage was limited and I don't think anyone was hurt. But it's frightening to imagine that the consequences of that one little cigarette butt could have been a lot worse.

I've often tried to figure out when it became socially acceptable to toss a butt anywhere. People who would never chuck down a wrapper or drink cup blithely flick cigarette butts without a second thought. At best, it's unsightly and gross. At worst, when the weather is so dry, it can pose a real hazard.

Thankfully, so far most of the consequences of this dry spell are limited to the landscape. Every day, I've watched the park in front of my house morph from vibrant green to a deathly shade of brownish-yellow. I enjoy the park (locally dubbed "the croquet field," since it's just a huge plot of grass) because it's one of the few spots that is planted with actual northern-style grass. I've gotten used to the feel of prickly St. Augustine on my bare feet, and I've learned to appreciate its strong root system and admirable traits of survival. But every now and then, I slip off my shoes and traipse through the velvetly softness of the park.

If I tried that right now, the dried-out remnants of the grass would probably crumble into dust beneath my feet. My own hearty St. Augustine lawn is suffering, too. There is one large dead patch in front of my flower beds, and a cancerous tan is starting to spread in other areas. I water the bad patches diligently, and earlier this week I dug out the corner sprinkler heads. I had never even realized that there was a sprinkler at each corner of the head of the sidewalk until a neighbor pointed it out. They have a tendency to get buried under the greenery, so every few months I diligently shear the grass and dig them out.

So far, my flower beds have avoided any permanent damage from the dryness. When we first bought the house, I planted a few impatiens in the back mulch bed, just to see if they would survive. Not only did they live, but they actually flourished and took over the whole area. They seem to live even without supplemental water, but lately I've been giving them a drink from the hose just in case.

Back in the early days of Duloc Manor, I had also planted a plot of marigolds near one of the sprinklers. They did pretty well, but then they got too large and turned into nasty, bushlike things that I pulled out. Now, their offspring has turned that area into a bright, sunshine yellow flower patch. They usually get enough water from the sprinkler, but since we're limited to only three irrigation days a week, I've been giving them an extra drink, too.

Now that I'm in Celebration permanently, I have released the latent gardening tendencies that I had to suppress in my condo. Granted, I was able to have container gardens there, but somehow it's not the same. My front is planted with an eclectic mix of marigolds, petunias, begonias, and something called "creeping verbena." It's an ominous name, but I enjoy the pretty purple flowers. Since this is my first year gardening in Florida, I'm tossing in a little bit of everything to see what's hearty enough to survive. That way, next year I can refine my selections.

Since I am very "porch proud," I also have three container gardens to spruce up my front porch habitat. I have to be diligent about watering them, even in the rainy season, because they are too sheltered to get much of a drink from the rainfall.

Now that the oppressive heat is upon us, coupled with the lack of rain, I have to water my garden at least once a day. That is my morning task; every day, when I return from my walk, my cat Stitch joins me out front. He grazes on the greenery (all the better to barf in the house with) and stalks lizards and bugs while I hose down the plants. When it's particularly hot, I do an evening water session, too.

I suppose that the tourists would hate me for wishing for rain. After all, they've paid big bucks to visit Disney World, and cloudless blue skies means unlimited outdoor activitiy. I used to feel the same way myself back when I was a vacationer. But I also learned to plan around the typical afternoon showers; my husband and I developed a talent for predicting the exact times, and we'd make sure that we'd be eating lunch, or perhaps an early dinner, while the monsoons raged outside.

Right now, I wouldn't care if the rains just came overnight so they wouldn't spoil anyone's outdoor fun. A good overnight soaker would cut down on the fire danger and resurrect the vibrant green that is currently buried beneath the brown. Meanwhile, I'll continue the battle to keep my lawn alive and look hopefully to the sky for some welcome gray rain clouds.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

You Know You're In Florida When...

When I was a kid, I loved the silly humor in "Mad Magazine." One of my favorites was the "You Know You're A ___________ When _________" cartoon series. For example, "You know you're a hockey fan if: Your idea of serving breakfast is giving each of your kids a fork and dropping an Eggo in the middle of the table."

I was recently reminded of those childhood laughs by Governor Jeb's proclaimation. You know that you're in Florida when...the governor declares a "Hurricane Sales Tax Holiday."

You may be wondering, "So what the heck is that?" Basically, Floridians can stock up on hurricane survival supplies like bottled water, tarps, lanterns, first-aid kits, and battery powered radios without paying sales tax between June 1 (the official start of hurricane season) and June 12. Oddly enough, plywood is not on the list, even though it's one of the most sought-after items when a killer storm rumbles through the state.

Even though plywood is not included, I plan to buy a a supply. One of my favorite things about Duloc Manor (its overabundance of windows) becomes a liability under the assault of strong winds. I'm not even sure where we will seek shelter if this year's hurricane season is a repeat of 2004. Our downstairs has windows in virtually every room, with the except of the Harry Potter bathroom, so-called because it is under the stairs. I suppose we could shut ourselves in there, but it would get rather claustrophobic with two humans, three cats, two fish, and a bird.

Upstairs, the windows are everywhere, too, including in the master closet. I've never figured that one out; maybe when the clothes get bored, they enjoy gazing outside at the neighbor's house. We could shut the bedrooms and bunker in the hallway, but upstairs isn't the best choice when you're worried that your roof might get blown off.

We do have one advantage; being in a triplex, one whole wall is interior and the other is somewhat sheltered by the next door neighbor's house. But the front and rear are virtually wide open. I can just picture the windows shattering and our whole first floor becoming a giant wind tunnel. If worse comes to worse, the garage only has one window, but I'm not sure just how structurally sound it would be in comparison to the house. Besides, it only holds one car, and I'd want to protect Canyonero from flying debris, so there wouldn't be much additional room.

Hopefully that will be a non-issue this year. Our house survived the Hurricane Trio of 2004, and that was an odds-defying season that shouldn't happen again for the at least a few decades. The weather forecasters are calling for an active hurricane season, but since we're in Central Florida (hurricanes don't come this far inland, ha ha), hopefully they'll stay far, far away.

It's hard to believe that hurricane season is only a week away, especially since the Orlando/Kissimmee area is not fully recovered from the previous assault. The sea of blue tarps has dissipated into a scattered patchwork, but they're not entirely gone. There are a lot of brand-spanking-new signs on 192, not to mention quite a few that are still missing. Even some of the street signs have yet to be replaced. Here in town, the tumbled old growth trees have been cleared away, but the palm trees on Celebration Boulevard are propped up in framework and many of the small trees (the one in our backyard included) are growing at a permanent tilt.

My next door neighbor, and several of my friends, boarded up their homes last year, but Duloc Manor was exposed to the elements. We were very lucky; our only damage was some blown-out soffit during Hurricane Charley. Oddly enough, our neighbor in the mirror unit at the other end of the triplex got through the first one unscathed, but she suffered almost identical soffit damage during the next one.

During that 12 day period, I'll be lining up with my fellow Floridians to stock up on hurricane necessities. It's like purchasing insurance...you hope that you'll never need to use them, but if something happens, you're darned glad to have 'em.

Along with power outage supplies, drinking water, and canned food, I think we'll get a couple of extra bottles of wine, too. It's not on Governor Jeb's list, and I think it's a more glaring ommission than the plywood. After all, if you've got to hole up during the storm, you may as well enjoy yourself.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

Sunday, May 22, 2005

It Takes Tu Tu Tango

It was a usual lazy Sunday around Duloc Manor, at least until I uttered those famous words that shatter good marriages everywhere: "Honey, where should we go for lunch?" Of course, the patented reply is, "I don't know," followed by a spirited round of, "Well, I don't know either. That's why I asked you." We volleyed back and forth for a while with, "You pick," "No, you pick," etc., with neither of us willing to commit.

Although we had the same problem back in Chicago, it's infinitely worse in Celebration because of the wide array of choices. In town, we have such gems as Max's (Market Street Cafe, with diner style food), Antonio's (awesome Italian), Seito (sushi...more my husband's bag than mine), and Columbia (Cuban). If you dare to leave The Bubble and venture out onto 192, there are restaurants as far as the eye can see. There are more TGI Friday's, Reb Lobsters, Waffle Houses, and Sizzlers than you can shake a stick at. I'm not fond of buffet chains, but Fridays and Red Lobster are both favorites, and Logan's and Longhorn are always good choices for steak.

Leave town the other way, via World Drive, and you've opened up the entire spectum of Disney World dining. Lunchtime choices are limited at the hotels, but there are lots of favorites in the theme parks (Brown Derby and 50s Prime Time in MGM, just about any of the countries in Epcot). Downtown Disney has some good choices, too, most notably Wolfgang Puck Express and Earl of Sandwich.

If you venture past DD, you'll come to the Crossroads, which is home to Chevy's. I call their menu "fru fru Mexican," as they offer such odd sounding fusion delights as quesidillas with chicken and apple. But don't worry, the guacamole is authentic and the tortillas are homemade by "El Machino," a monstrous looking gas-fueled contraption in the middle of the diningroom. Down the road a bit is Bahama Breeze, a Darden-owned chain serving food with a Caribbean flare.

With all of those choices, and many, many more, chosing a restaurant is quite a dilemma. My husband had a taste for Columbia, but we ate there a lot when we first moved to Celebration so I've reached my sation level. Besides, he had picked our culinary indulgence the day before (Chili's, which had tempted him with their flame-grilled skewer commercials...I'm happy to say they are just as tasty as they look on t.v.). Thus, the onus of where to eat fell squarely on my shoulders.

I toyed with eating at one of the Disney parks, but that can be a pain if it's crowded. We decided to call Garden Grill at Epcot to see if they had any reservations in the near future; that would allow us to enjoy a meal and sneak in a Fast Pass ride on Soaring. But when I called, the only reservations available were a couple of hours away. My rumbling stomach, which had not had any breakfast, refused to wait that long.

I thought we should try something new, so I proposed trying Seasons 52, a Darden "concept" restaurant where everything is supposed to be fresh, tasty, and low-calorie. We always kick it around, but by the time we call, it's too late to get reservations. Our friends say it is fabulous, so I pressured my husband into giving it a try. He moaned and groaned, protesting that he was in the mood for Mexican (sure, he can't decide when I ask him, but he's full of contrary opinions once I make a choice). Finally, we compromised on Chevy's.

But as I drove through Downtown Disney, heading towards the Crossroads, I felt a streak of rebellion. I was the driver; if I decided to go to Seasons 52, there was no way hubby could stop me. Instead of going straight, I turned left onto Vineland and headed out towards Dr. Phillips and a new culinary experience.

As we tooled along toward Sand Lake Road, my husband said, "I'll bet they're not open for lunch." Hmmm, that was good logic. For some reason, a lot of the restaurants in that area are only open for dinner. But I dismissed him airly: "If they're closed, then we'll just find another place. We're going to try something new today."

Sure enough, as we approached the restaurant, the empty parking lot confirmed my worst fears. Once again, Seasons 52 would remain something to aspire too. I pulled out of the lot, mentally running through the restaurants that I knew of in the area. Nothing really jumped out at us in appeal, so I decided to head to I-Drive and turn in the direction of Disney World. There are a lot of attractions on that strip, and where you find tourists traps, you'll also find plenty of eateries.

My husband was still prattling on about Mexican, and he had subliminally lured me into his craving. We spotted a likely looking restauant called Don Pedro's or something like that, but when we pulled in, we discovered that it was closed for a private party. There were plenty of the usual chains, like Friday's, Bennigan's, Houlihan's, and even Bahama Breeze, but I was still determined to try something new.

Finally, we saw a brightly decorated building on the left; I didn't catch the name, but it looked like it might be Mexican. We zipped into a U-turn lane and headed back. There were lots of cars in the parking lot...a good sign. The sign said "Cafe Tu Tu Tango," which caused my husband and I to stare at each other in confusion. Goodness only knows what sort of ethnic experience that name might entail. Cafe Tu Tu sounded like a French ballet, but it didn't look much like a Parisian bistro. There is a restaurant in Chicago called Tango Sur that serves the most awesome Argentine beef but this place didn't strike me as an Argentine steakhouse.

Oh well, at this point we were ready to try anything, so we headed inside to take a culinary gamble. Turns out that Cafe Tu Tu Tango is a tapas bar, serving appetizer portions that are meant to be shared. I am a big tapas fan, as we had some wonderful tapas bars in Chicago, so I was pleased that we'd stumbled onto a place with the potential to become a new favorite.

In theory, tapas is Spanish. In practice, I've seen tapas bars that serve food inspired by just about any ethnicity. Cafe Tu Tu Tango was of the eclectic variety, with Spanish selections such as Spanish antipasto, Italian inspired pizzas, Cajun chicken rolls, Cuban beef skewers, Oriental-sounding tuna sashimi and pork pot stickers, and even all-American sloppy Joe empanadas (they had some authentic beef empanadas, too). For the adventurous, there are even alligator bites (one of the rare times when the human gets to bite the gator).

My husband and I were overwhelmed by the vast array of choices. Thank goodness that tapas are small and meant to be shared, which means that we could try a variety of items. But when our server showed up, he muddied the water by giving us a list of "Chef's Specials" that were just as tempting as the regular menu items.

We settled on two specials (lobster in puff pastry and asparagus with almond and citrus zest), plus the traditional empanadas and mandarin pork pot stickers. While we waited, we munched on delicious fresh breads with hummus and sipped mango iced tea (there is a great selection of interntional beers, wines, and mixed drinks, but my husband had to get up early the next morning to fly to Chicago, so he abstained...drinking makes him sleepy).

The restaurant's slogan is "Food for the Starving Artist," and their decor is centered around artwork crafted by local talents. There was an artisan at work just inside the front door; when we arrived, he was painting, and by the time we left, he had switched to the medium of clay. Just about every bit of free wall space is covered by canvases, and the windsills and counters are crammed with scultures and pottery. Virtually all of the artwork is for sale; if you're looking for a unique piece, this might be a good place to find it.

The food was totally and utterly to die for, especially the lobster in puff pastry. Before my husband took a bite, I tried to convince him that it was awful and that I'd be doing him a favor by eating his portion too. Unfortunately, he didn't fall for it. His favorite was the pork rolls, which had a slight spicy kick.

Three tapas and a vegetable were more than enough for the two of us, especially since I had filled up on bread. But the desserts were so intriguing that we just had to try them. The special of the day was a fried Twinkie...yes, a fried Twinkie. They were encased in what tasted like funnel cake dough and surrounded by a delicious white sauce that was peppered with blueberries. We also got banana pizza, which had a godly streusel coating spread on the sweet flatbread.

As we left the restaurant, my husband had to admit that it has been a good idea to expand our horizons. There are several other menu items that we want to try, so I suspect that this new discovery will enhance our marital harmony. The next time one of us asks, "What do you want to do for lunch?", the reponse won't be "I don't know." It wil be "Cafe Tu Tu Tango!"

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Don't Dream It...BE It

Recently, I visited Epcot with my neighbors, and we paused to watch the fountain in Future World as it launched into one of its choreographed performances. Every 15 minutes, the water shoots and arcs and sprays in tandem with a randomly selected song. I know it's random because you can get a list at Guest Services; you'll know which songs you might hear, but I was informed that they're not played on any set schedule.

Just in case you're wondering, the songs are:

Selection from Disney's animated feature "Rescuers Down Under"

Instrumental from the "Air Battle" sequence from Surprise in the Skies, a former daytime lagoon show at Epcot

Selection for a proposed Epcot show "Around the World with Mickey Mouse"

Selection from the Disney live-action feature film The Rocketeer

"Day One" by John Tesh

"Standing in Motion" by Yanni

Selection from the Disney live-action feature film Iron Will

I enjoy several of the songs, but my favorite is Yanni's "Standing In Motion." With its swelling, jubilant sounds, it's perfect for a fountain ballet. Back when my husband and I used to visit Disney World a couple of times a year (or maybe three or four or five), I never felt that my trip was complete without seeing at least one Yanni fountain performance. Somehow, it always seemed that we ended up at Epcot on the last morning of our trips, squeezing in the last few precious hours before we had to head to the airport. Often, God would smile down at me, and as we enjoyed a pasterie at the Fountain View Bakery, I'd hear the strains of Yanni and be able to cap my trip with one of my favorite Disney World experiences. Yes, the thrill rides and shows are fun, but the fountain is one of those overlooked attractions that I will always love.

That visit with my neighbors was the first time I'd seen the fountain perform since I'd moved to Celebration. I had been to Epcot a few times, but for some reason it was always shut down. Now, as we passed by at a quarter past the hour, the speakers cranked up and, believe it or not, it was Yanni! The three of us paused, watching in awe, while the oblivious crowd of tourists flowed around us. They were so intent on getting in another ride that they couldn't see the beauty right in front of them.

When it was over, I realized that for once the fountain didn't herald my leaving. In the past, it was always bittersweet because soon I'd be saying goodbye to Disney World and winging my way back to Chicago. But this time, there was no hurry to leave, and when I did finally decide to call it a day, I'd only be heading a few miles down the road. I wouldn't be 1200 miles away; I'd be in a place where I could hear the muted explosions of Illuminations right from my front porch.

This same sense washed over me again when my husband and I ate at Jiko last night. Located in the Animal Kingdom Lodge, Jiko is an absolutely wonderful restaurant serving African-themed cuisine. As usual, the hotel was bustling with activity: tourists rushing out to catch a bus or in to crash in their hotel room or out to see the animals or take a dip in the pool or in to spend their last dollars in the gift shop. I love to people-watch, but after a while it makes my head spin!

Fortunately, the pace is more leisurely in the restaurant. We were seated by a window, so in addition to watching a constant stream of guests, we got to see Mama Duck and her five fuzzy babies swimming proudly in a pool of water. Our server told us the little ones had just been hatched that morning, and already they were swimming like pros.

When we were done with our meal and on our way back to the car, I noticed many luggage carts laden with suitcases and souvenir bags. Each cart represented an unfortunate family whose vacation had come to an end. I know how that feels from many years of personal experience; no matter how long our Disney World vacations were actually booked for, the time flew by in a heartbeat. We usually tried to stay from a Friday night or Saturday morning through the following Sunday night, giving us nearly nine days. But before we knew it, the trip would be half over. Then, like a roller coaster train cresting a hill and plummeting down at breakneck speed, the passing days would flash by. Suddenly they were all gone, and it was time to return to reality again. We'd sit, forlorn, on the benches in front of the hotel waiting with our luggage for our ride to the airport.

I used to feel so depressed, watching for the towncar to pick us up. I knew that I was very lucky to be able to vacation at Disney World regularly, but somehow it was never long enough. I suspected that even a month wouldn't be enough; even though family and friends thought I was crazy, and that I would eventually get tired of visiting the Mouse, I knew in my heart that it would never happen.

Now, as we climbed into Canyonero, I realized that I'll never have to feel that way again. I can come and go as a please at the Disney World resort. I don't have to wait weeks and months for those precious vacations; whenever I have a spare hour or two, I can sneak off and become a wide-eyed kid again, running amok in Fantasy Land. There's no more melancholy because "going home" really means going right next door, to Celebration.

This led me to ponder how fortunate I am. How many people can truthfully say that they are Mickey's neighbors? It took some belt tightening, but we were very lucky to be able to swing the move to Florida.

Of course, the move was frightening at first. Since both my husband and I are life-long Chicagoans, it was quite a change for us. At the time, I didn't think that I'd be able to keep my primary job, so I was worried about starting up a counseling practice while running my travel agency, too. It takes time to get a business going, but household bills don't wait.

But somehow, everything worked out for the best. I am able to telecommute (or would that be wi-fi/laptop commute?), and the travel agency is doing pretty good. I miss being an active counselor, but someday I'll manage to work that into my multiple careers again.

I know a lot of people who say, "I'd like to move to Florida when I retire," or "I'd like to travel a lot when I retire," or whatever their personal dream might be. Originally, my husband and I thought of moving to Florida as something we'd do many years down the road; certainly not as a spur-of-the-moment decision! But I've never had any regrets, and it's made me less afraid of risk taking. I tend to be a consummate planner who likes to look at situations from every posible angle. Only when I've considered every possibility and analyzed every potential outcome do I feel comfortable with moving forward.

That kind of approach would not have worked with moving to Celebration. By the time I would have finished doing my analysis, we'd have been priced right out of the market. It was only by acting quickly and decisively on our dream that we were able to make it reality.

And sometimes, "someday" never comes. You never know when an accident or illness or other unforseen event might suddenly shatter your world. I think about all those poor souls trapped in the World Trade Center or onboard those ill-fated airplanes on that dark day of September 11. All of their hopes and dreams were ended abruptly by the actions of hate-filled madmen. When they left for work that morning, or boarded the aircraft, I'm sure that none of them had any idea that their lives would suddenly be cut short. I can't predict the future, but if I ever find myself in a similar situation, I don't want to be thinking, "If only I'd done (insert dream here)."

All of these deep thoughts bring to mind one of my favorite quotes, taken from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Towards the end, there is a big production number, with Dr. Frank N. Furter (a cross-dressing mad scientist with a fondness for teddies, played by Tim Curry) singing, "Don't dream it, be it." That's really wise advice, especially coming from a man in make-up, a wig, and fishnet stockings. If you waste your whole life dreaming, the time for being can fly by as quickly as those precious vacation days.

I guess that I've always believed in "being." I loved horses as a teenager, but my mother was not a very supportive person. I took a bus to the stable every weekend, learned to ride by working as a trail guide, and got a job when I was 16 so I would buy and support a horse of my own. I'm 40 years old now, and I still have that horse, although he's rather crotchety and mostly retired these days.

I turned my dreams of being a writer into stacks of magazine tearsheets, slogging determinedly through the rejection slips to finally see my name in print and receive that proud first check. I did have to put some of my dreams on hold, like getting my masters and doctorate degrees, because life responsibilities and financial limitations intruded. But I never forgot them, and I'm still busy achieving them; I recently reached my educational goals, and I'm already working on the next set of dreams.

Living in Florida is another goal that I've been fortunate enough to turn into reality through a combination of luck and hard work. On all those melancholy days of returning to Chicago, little did I suspect that someday soon I would never have to do that again. Dreaming is fun, but being is so much better. And being in Celebration is a dream come true for me.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A Long Time Ago, In a State Far, Far Away

Tonight, my life came full circle...I saw Episode Three of "Star Wars" at the movie theater in downtown Celebration, completing the six-movie saga that defined not only my own generation, but also those that followed. How many other things incite passion throughout the entire age spectrum, from tail-end Baby Boomers all the way through Generation X and right down into Y?

Was it really nearly 30 years ago that I saw the original "Star Wars," now dubbed "Episode Four: A New Hope," at the Ford City Mall theater in Chicago? At the time, I wasn't even a teenager yet. At 12 years old, I was a mere "baby" who had yet to visit Florida; that wouldn't happen for another decade or so. I had no idea that on some distant day, my 40-year-old self would see the last movie in the series at a theater 1200 miles to the south. Of course, at that time, no one (probably not even George Lucas) knew that there would be any sequels/prequels, let alone five of them.

Actually, I wasn't even planning to see "Revenge of the Sith" until it came on cable. I was a major fan of the first three movies, particularly "Return of the Jedi." I lost count of the number of times that I saw "Jedi" on the big screen. I had a good friend who was a fellow "Star Wars" fanatic, and she and I spent almost every weekend that summer parked in the front row of the local theater. We'd leave with whanging headaches from the up-close viewing, but it was worth it for the landspeeder scene.

But then, "The Phantom Menace" came along and disgruntled me to a degree that I didn't think was possible. It wasn't only Jar Jar Binks, although he was enough on his own to make me realize that George Lucas had gone completely senile. But the whole fatherless birth of Anakin and the midochlorians being responsible for the Force went a bit too far. If the Force is organic, just how the heck do the Jedi communicate with their dead comrades? Wouldn't a dead person be fresh out of blood once they become a spiritual essence? And having Anakin build C3PO seemed like a forced attempt to tie the movies together.

Due to my disenchantment, I never saw "Attack of the Clones" in its entirety. I caught bits and pieces on cable, so I know the general jist, but I never sat through it from beginning to end. Thus, I was probably one of the only people in the world who didn't catch "Star Wars Fever" as the release of Episode Three grew nigh.

My husband is a Trekkie (not the costume-wearing, convention-attending, Klingon-speaking sort, thank goodness), and after our marriage I enticed him to become a fan of "Quantum Leap," but he's never been much of a Star Wars nerd. What little enjoyment he'd derived from the first three was destroyed by the next two disappointing chapters. Between the two of us, it looked like we wouldn't be seeing "Revenge of the Sith" any time soon.

Some of our friends were planning to go, but we declined. I was a bit tempted, but I kept reminding myself that I'd probably be stepping right into another disappointment. Still, the idea of seeing the "birth" of Darth Vader was appealing. The material was there...the potential was there...could Lucas have regained his sanity? Was it at all possible that he'd do it correctly this time around?

This week, another friend called; she had an extra ticket for a Thursday evening showing. My husband still had no interest, but I caved in to temptation and decided to go. If nothing else, it would be fun to join the opening-day crowd and get caught up in the air of excitement.

Hedging my bets, I logged on to Epinions on Thursday morning to read reviews from the midnight die-hards. Their reports gave me reason for a new hope, they were almost unfailingly positive. Hard core "Star Wars" nerds don't hesitate to rip something to shreds when it doesn't meet their expectations. I remember all the awful opinions of the first two. But this time around, there was a definite trend toward the positive. Dare I allow myself to feel hopeful? By the time I had slogged my way through a slew of reviews, I was feeling some cautious optimism.

My friends drove up in their NEV (Neighborhood Electric Vehicle) so we could carpool to downtown Celebration. There are is some NEV-only right across from the theater. Amazingly, no cars had ignored the signs and taken them over, so we got a prime spot.

It was almost an hour before the start time, but a line was already forming in front of the theater. They had erected Disney-style queues in anticipation of the crowd. I was mildly disappointed that no one was in costume, but I guess all the hard-core fans had already been to the 12:01 a.m. screening.

We were early enough to snare decent seats in the balcony, which affords a nice, wide view of the screen. Once we had settled in, we made some runs to the concession stand to stock up on provisions for the long evening ahead (the movie runs nearly two and a half hours). Against my better judgement, I bought a bag of popcorn and a box of Raisinettes. I didn't need to extra calories, but I was hoping that the movie would be exciting enough to bring on a case of the mindless munchies.

While working my way through the salty popcorn as I watched the trivia slides, and then the trailers, I realized that I had made a grave error. The more I ate, the thirstier I got. I had a bottle of water, but I'd already drank most of it and the movie hadn't even begun yet. I'd been hoping to see the trailer for "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (with Tim Burton directing and Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, how can it be anything but pure gold?), but I realized that I should refill my water before the movie began.

I waited through four trailers, with no Willy Wonka in sight, and finally I climbed my way over all the people and dashed downstairs to the water fountain. I needn't have hurried; the trailers were still going strong when I returned, and CATCF never materialized. I was mildly disappointed because I saw a great Wonka ad on Fox last weekend, showing Veruca Salt being bitch-slapped by enraged squirrels. I'd been looking forward to a panoramic version, but no such luck.

FINALLY, the big moment arrived. The crowd let out a spontaneous cheer as the feature presentation began. Of course, it kicked off with the famous "rolling text," helping the uninitiated (or forgetful) get caught up with the plot. Actually, I don't think there's anyone in America, save for deviants in mountain shacks and hermits lost in caves, who doesn't have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the basic "Star Wars" plot.

Next, we were immediately plunged into the midst of a raging, CGI-heavy battle scene. Anakin and Obi Wan were on an important rescue mission, which featured lots of spacecraft maneuvers, lasers, and explosions in true "Star Wars" style.

In case you are one of the seven people in America who doesn't know the plot line, I don't want to give it away here. But suffice it to say that this movie redeemed George Lucas, at least in my eyes, for the sins he committed while making the other two prequels. Those two movies were plodding and dull, and they ripped enormous plot holes into the fabric of the "Star Wars" universe. Worse yet, they featured Jar Jar Binks, perhaps the most annoying CGI creature ever to grace a movie screen. I know that George Lucas is fond of digitally tinkering with his movies and releasing "updated" versions. I wish he would do the world a favor and release a version of "Phantom Menace" in which Jar Jar is executed within the first 10 minutes.

In contrast, "Sith" was a perfect combination of the non-stop of "Return of the Jedi," melded with the darkness of "The Empire Strikes Back." The action begins on the first frame and doesn't let up until the moment that the credits start to roll, all counterpointed by the usual rousing John Williams score. It is NOT a movie for young children by any stretch of the imagination. For example, the image of a horribly decapitated Anakin, dragging himself out of a lava river while he is literally ablaze, could instigate nightmares in all but the most violence-desensitized video gaming youngsters.

Normally I prefer seeing movies in the comfort and quiet of my own home, but "Revenge of the Sith" is best viewed on the big screen so you can get the full effect of all the high-tech wizardry. And since it's an "event" movie, it's fun to have the energy of a capacity audience all around you. It's like a perfectly attuned group consciousness that yells and cheers as one as Yoda kicks some serious ass, applauds wildly at the battle sequences, and dabs at misty eyes at the tear-jerking ending (you know that it's coming, but you still can't help it). After more than two decades, I'm a Star Wars fan once again.

Coincidentally, "Star Wars Weekends" is being held at Disney MGM this Saturday and Sunday. Normally, I avoid the parks whenever there's an event that might draw a crowd of any magnitude. This year, I'm going to break my own cardinal rule and take a swing by the Studio to check it out. And who knows, I might even head back to the Celebration AMC Theater before "Revenge of the Sith" leaves town to see it one more time (or maybe two). I may be a lot older than I was when "Jedi" came out, but's fun to be excited about a movie again.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Time of the Season

The other day, while tooling along to Publix in Canyonero, I heard a strange ad on the radio. Apparently it was advertising vacation property in Tennessee. Nothing strange about that; TN is a very lovely state, particularly the Smoky Mountains. My husband and I have spent some memorable vacations there, hiking, white water rafting, and horseback riding (and, of course, stopping off at Dollywood and the Dixie Stampede).

No, the strange thing was the tag line: "Come to a place where the seasons actually change." Perhaps that would be appealing to native Floridians, whose only knowledge of seasons is "Warm," "Hot," and "Hotter," but not to a Midwestern transplant like me. I've seen enough of the changing seasons to last me a lifetime. Since people who were born and bred in Florida are an endangered species, I can't imagine that commercial having a lot of broad appeal.

I guess that the changing seasons are nice in their own way. Problem is, the good seasons (i.e. spring and fall) are much too short. The bad season (winter) seems to last forever once its icy fingers take hold to choke the last bit of life out of the shedding trees and dying greenery and to paint the sunny skies a depressing shade of gray. Summer is short, too, but I've never been all that partial to it, other than enjoying the days when it's hot enough to swim. But there are enough indoor pools around the Chicago area to offset that appeal. I'd rather have a spring or fall day in the 70s than be sweating like a hog in 90 degree heat.

Okay, you might be thinking, if you don't like temperatures in the 90s, you must be miserable in Florida. Sure, we get our share of "rainforest weather" (blistering heat, humidity that you can cut with a knife, and regular afternoon monsoons). But we also have a fall that never turns into winter. It just drags itself out until it finally gets exhausted and turns the reins over to spring. Then, we get Mary Poppins weather (practically perfect in every way) for a couple of precious, heavenly months. When that's over, we're stuck with Hot Topic t-shirt weather until fall rolls around again.

In case you're not familiar with Hot Topic, it's a store that sells t-shirts with offbeat slogans. They have a shirt for every state, and Florida's says: "Like Hell...Only Hotter." Personally, I think they should have borrowed a line from Homer Simpson and made it "American's Wang," but a case can be made for the heat slogan, too.

We do have some trees that shed their leaves, and the nippy weather forces gardeners to switch over to mums and poinsettias. We might even have (gasp!) a frost or two or three. I don't need to travel all the way to Tennessee; that's plenty of season changes for me.

I must admit that I'm already missing springtime, as it is quickly segueing into a steaming summer. I was spoiled by the breezy, balmy days, basking in the sunshine as opposed to baking. Now, the temperature is working its way upward. I go walking early every morning, and I typically don shorts and a t-shirt. On some recent mornings, it used downright chilly; my blood is still thick enough to gut my way through it, but the friend who joins me would often be shivering in sweat pants and a jacket. But now, the mugginess hits me the moment I leave my air conditioned environment. Canyonero's digital display used to tell me that the temp was in the 60s or 70s (or sometimes even in the 50s), but now it's not unusual for the day to kick off as high as 81 and to flirt with 90 by the afternoon.

Today is one of those days. By the end of our walk, I was perspiring like a racehorse that had just run the Kentucky Derby. But the heat doesn't dissuade me; it just allows me to justify a stop at Barnie's for a decadent frozen coffee concoction.

Actually, this morning we hiked over to Water Tower Place to check out the new Goodings, which has been slated to open since April. Now it's May, and the site still definitely looks "under construction." But it's a lot closer to opening, as evidenced by the shelves and signage inside. Virtually everyone in Celebration is holding their collective breath to see if Goodings will be a real grocery store, geared to the needs of the locals, or a tourist trap like their location in the Crossroads by Disney World. Anyway, since we were at WTP, it was a good excuse to break with routine and have a smoothie instead of the usual White Chocolate Cherry Freezer.

Now, I'm holed up inside with the air conditioning on and the ceiling fans a-spinning. Florida is prime pnemonia country, as most businesses and many people keep their air conditioners set at "Meat Locker." Outside, eggs are frying on the sidewalks. Inside, you can see your breath, and Walt Disney's cryogenic cell is propped up against the wall.

To some extent, the "hot as hell" label is a myth, at least in the northern-most sections of the Sunshine State. I learned that firsthand when driving the Kitty Karavan in January. My husband and I were both niave enough to believe that once we passed through Tennessee, we wouldn't have to worry about snow. We didn't bother to watch the weather forecast; we figured were leaving winter behind, and good riddance. Little did we know that winter was nipping at our heels, ready to dump on us with a vengence. The infamous Atlanta Ice Storm of 2005 turned the roads into a skating rink and stretched our 18 hour drive into 24.

Once we got out of the city and neared the Georgia/Florida border, the ice gave way to snow and slush. I thought it would somehow magically disappear once we reached our new home state. But we were still many hours from Celebration, and the slush dogged us well over the border. I'm glad that we live in Central Florida, as the panhandle is still a bit too close to those "changing seasons" for my taste.

Tennessee can keep its changing seasons; I've seen enough of winter to last me a lifetime. Warm, hot, and hotter...those are the seasons for me.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Famous Last Words

Famous last words: "Let's just go to Epcot for lunch."

I had cabin fever this week, as the weather has been absolutely gorgeous...lots of sunshine and warmth, with low humidity. We did have some thunderstorms on Wednesday, but overall this week we're been blessed with clear, blue, sun-kissed skies and nary a raindrop. I guess the rain clouds exhausted themselves last week.

My husband is in the Midwest this week, so I've been trying to be a good girl, working during the day and trying to make some headway with house cleaning at night (a losing battle when you own three cats and a bird). But this afternoon, I just couldn't help it. I had to get to the theme parks. I decided to knock off work early, as I can make up the hours over the weekend. I'd been lusting for a beet and goat cheese salad ever since I saw it in the new Land food court on my last visit. I figured that would make a tasty lunch, and with any luck I could Fast Pass Soarin' too.

My next door neighbors are fellow Disney fanatics, so I stopped by to see if they'd had lunch yet. I had the best of intentions; a quick trip to Epcot, where we would et our Fast Passes, eat, ride and run. That way, I could get in a couple more hours of work and maybe wash my filthy downstairs floor, too. I remember how I used to wonder why most people in Florida have tile instead of carpet in their main floor living areas. Believe me, now I know, as I constantly track mulch and mud into the family room and front foyer.

They hadn't eaten yet, and they'd actually been considering going to Disney World themselves. Our houses are very close rogether, so perhaps their psychic "Go to the theme park" vibes were beaming into my brain through the family room wall. Soon we had all piled into Canyonero and headed off to Epcot.

Thankfully, I have an AAA Diamond parking pass, a handy dandy little item that allows you to park in a special area, near the handicapped parking. You get it if you book a vacation package through AAA, and I was fortunate to "inherit" one from someone who was done with it. You can often find them on Ebay in the $20 to $30 range, and if you visit the theme parks a lot, they are well worth every penny. They are good for one calendar year, so you wouldn't want to purchase one in November or December, but they're great if you can get one early enough.

The parking lot was pretty full, but we found a great spot in the AAA area. Actually, I don't mind a long walk from the parking lot, but I do mind riding the trams. At busy times, getting a tram seat in akin in difficulty level to getting the latest fad toy at Christmas. Unless you have a cattle prod that you can flail with the finesse of a Jedi Knight weilding his light saber, you're probably going to be in for a long wait.

I'm from Chicago, so I know how to be extremely assetive (i.e. rude and pushy) when it's called for. But I don't like to subject myself to unneeded stress in a place that I've come to have fun, so I avoid the whole parking tram cattle call whenever possible.

In our AAA spot, it was only a short walk to the front gate. Since it was already around 2 p.m., there weren't too many people entering the park. Our bags were searched and we headed in, anxious to make our way to the Land pavillion for a good lunch and a great ride.

We got our Soarin' Fast Passes and headed to the food court, which was jam packed as though Wolfgang Puck himself, or perhaps Emeril, was personally doing the cooking. We all ended up getting soup and salad; I stuck with my original choice of beet and goat cheese salad, liberally sprinkled with sugar-coated nuts. The soup was a harder option, as they had the cheese and beer soup from Canada, but also a curried pea soup. The curry was very tempting, but my innate obsession with cheese finally won.

We had to wander a bit to find a table, but finally we managed to stake out our own little corner of the food court. The salad was just as delicious as its description had implied, and the cheese soup was as wonderful as always. When we were done eating, we still had a bit of time so we headed over to the "Living With The Land" boat ride. Sure, it's corny, but I always enjoy the greenhouses. This time, it was much better than usual because our "skipper" was apparently a refugee from the Jungle Cruise who kept up a humorous patter the whole way.

Next, it was back to "Soarin'," and before we got in line, we grabbed another Fast Pass. Yes, I know we had only come for lunch, but who knows...we might decide to stay a little longer. If not, we could always give the passes to someone.

I am an old hand at "Soarin'," but it was a brand new experience for my neighbors. We settled into the "hang glider" and were swept up for our ariel tour of the California landscape. It's an ADHD version, that rapidly cycles from the pine forests to the rivers to a golf course, orange groves, snowy mountains and even to Disneyland. I was pleased to note by the rapt expressions on their faces that they were enjoying it just as much as I was.

After our quick trip to the Left Coast, we decided to grab a ride on "Test Track," then visit with Crush the turtle at the Living Seas pavillion. Unless Epcot is extremely crowded, you can usually get on within 10 minutes you're willing to use the Single Riders Line. Your party will be split up, but that's a fair exchange for lopping at least half an hour off your waiting time. Actually, two of us ended up in the same car anyway.

My husband describes "Test Track" as a giant slot car set, and that's not too far from the truth. I can just picture some giant kid running his playset through its paces. For a long time, "Test Track" was "The Ride That Will Never Open." It ran many. many long months over its targeted opening date and far over budget. Even now, random breakdowns are not uncommon, and they shut it down at the slightest hint of rain. But it's a cute ride, and I love the exhilerating finale where you zoom around the outside track, supposedly at 64.8 m.p.h. (or so the digital "speedometer" always proclaims). I suspect that it's much slower, but it feels really fast.

Once, in the ride's early days, it shut down just as my husband and I were rocketing through that part. I am amazed at just how quickly we went from travelling full blast to a dead stop. You could literally smell the melted rubber. It must not have been a catastrophic failure, as they got us moving again before too long. But since that time, all of my rides on the giant slot cars have been flawless.

On the way to "Test Track," we stopped at one of the lesser-known Epcot attractions: Ice Station Cool. Unbelievably, my neighbors had never been in there! I love Ice Station Cool, which features samples of Coke products from around the world. Some, like Vegibeta and Smart Watermelon, are delicious, although your teeth will chatter from the sugar. Others, such as Beverly, should only be inflicted on your worst enemy.

Next on the agenda was Crush; I had heard that his new show was a technological marvel in which he literally talks to the audience. Not a pre-recorded spiel, but a real-time dialogue. We headed into the "hydrolaters" and wandered around the newly revamped displays. There is a heavy Nemo theme, will all sorts of aquatic critters from the movie. I saw rays, jellies, seahorses, Dories, Nemos, and even a Gil. Then we joined the crowd waiting to enter the theater and meeting the famous 150 year old sea turtle dude himself.

The show was just as amazing as I'd heard. It's an absolute gem of technology! A computer-animated Crush swims out and interacts with the audience, calling on specific people and answering their questions spontaneously. His mouth, and even his facial expressions, move in appropriate sync with the conversation. As the little children sat raptly, no doubt believing that they were conversing with a sea turtle, my mind was racing to figure out the mechanics behind the magic. Someone has to be able to see the audience, and the animation software has to be synced in real-time to the spoken responses. And of course, there must be someone performing as Crush, and he has to be a fast thinker in order to respond appropriately (and humorously). I'm sure that most audiences ask the same sorts of questions, but every now and then there is probably someone who throws in a doozy.

By now, it had been a long time since the lunch that had been the original purpose of our visit. My neighbors suggested that we check out the new incarnation of the Garden Grill. That's the spinning restaurant that rotates through several "Living With the Land" scenes as you dine with Mickey and is friends. I didn't think we'd be able to get in without a priority seating reservation, but it never hurts to ask.

Turns out, our timing was perfect; we were seated within five minutes. The restaurant's rotation was on the blink, but the characters were all present and accounted for: throughout our meal, we spotted Mickey, Chip, Dale, and Pluto visiting the tables. I cringe when I see people wasting valuable theme park time waiting in line for character photos. If I had little ones, I'd spend my park time on rides and book character meals to get my pictures in a leisurely, stress-free environment. Mickey and the gang come right to everyone's table and allow plenty of time for hugs and photos. You can choose your characters, too: for example, there are princess breakfasts and a Winnie the Pooh character dining experience at Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom. There used to be a villians dinner, but sadly I don't think it's offered anymore.

Garden Grill used to be an all-you-can-eat restaurant with a fixed menu (I loved their catfish and beef brisket). Now, it's pay-one-price ($21.99 for adults), but you don't get to stuff your face until you burst. You get bread with three dipping sauces, salad, and your choice of entree from a variety of options. You also get a non-alcoholic beverage, and the meal is topped off with chocolate fondue with various sweets for dipping (marshmallows, chocolate cake, vanilla cake, strawberries, pineapples, and gummi worms).

We each chose a different entree. I had portabello mushroom-stuffed ravioli with vegetables, which was quite delicious. I tasted my neighbor's red snapper, and that was a good option too. Even though it wasn't all-you-can-eat, we couldn't make it all the way through the fondue before we had to throw in the towel.

By now, it was time for our second round of "Soarin'." We hopped into the Fast Pass line and awaited the best ride at Epcot. There was some sort of family configuration in front of us (two adult females and a gaggle of children), and one of the women kept trying to butt into our conversation. Since she was apparently only hearing part of it because she was also intermittently yelling at the kids, her comments were out of context. For example, we were talking about "Mission: Space," which I refuse to do because I just don't get along with spinning rides. I can ride a roller coaster all day long with no ill effects, but put me through one round on the teacups and I'm dizzy for the rest of the day.

My husband likes "Mission: Space," so I've spent a lot of time waiting at the exit. I was telling my neighbors about all of the people who I've seen puking their guts, and I jokingly said, "If I rode that thing, I'd be one of them." The stranger-butter-inner said loudly, "Oooo, I hope that I get to sit behind you." We ignored her, and the other woman with her pointed out that we were not talking about "Soarin'."

Throughout our wait, she made some other inane comments, and we studiously ignored her. I have a doctorate in psychology, but I still have no idea what compel some people to interject their questionable wisdom into other people's conversations. It's not like she was by herself and, therefore, lonely or bored. She didn't seem to be an expert in any of the fields we were discussing, so it's not like her comments were particularly enlightening. With the kids running amok, she wasn't even able to devote her full attention in order to make intelligent, relative comments.

Soon enough, we were herded into the simulator room. The first time around, we had been in row one, i.e. the highest once the contraption gets going. This time, we were assigned to row three, the lowest. You can't really tell how high you are once the show begins, but unless you're on the top, you'll be distracted by all the dangling fit at the top of your visual field. I pointed this out to my neighbors, and the verbose stranger, who was strapped in next to me, favored me with this pearl of wisdom: "You should wear a baseball hat." Then, mercifully, we were suddenly swept up and away, and the sound track drowned out any further inanities.

"Soarin'" was as great as always. It's hard to explain the exhilirating feeling, except that it reminds me of how I feel when I see "Illuminations." It's much more a show than a thrill ride, but it's something I could do again and again. Even the soundtrack is on a par with "Illuminations" or the music from the old Millenium parade.

By now, it 8 p.m. Lunchtime was long past, and dusk was painting over the daytime sky. Somehow, many hours had slipped away since we began our "short" visit. We weren't quite to leave yet, so we headed toward "Ellen's Energy Adventure." No trip to Epcot is complete without getting sneezed on or drooled on by the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, our need to see prehistoric beasts would have to remain unrequited, as the ride had closed at 7.

Reluctantly, we decided to bring our lunchtime jaunt to a close. As we headed to the parking lot, I reflected on my Famous Last Words, uttered back when the day was still new. Can anyone really visit a Disney Park "just for lunch" without overstaying their intended timeframe and sneaking in at least one ride or show? I know that I can't; I'm the first person to admit that my willpower is weak when it comes to resisting a theme park's siren song. I'm just glad that my neighbors are as bad as me; that's why Celebration is such a cool place to live.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: www.celebrationinfo.com