Sunday, July 31, 2005

Order Amidst Chaos

The painting process has begun, and Duloc Manor is in chaos. We timed it so that my husband would be out of town for most of the process, since it drives him crazy when his habitat is disturbed. I compromised and allowed him to choose orange for his office walls as long as we switched the color of the adjacent bathroom. Originally it was going to be a very pale shade of green, but in my mind I kept picturing a pumpkin stem. Now it will be a very, very light shade of peach...nice and neutral, with no clashing.

So far, our formal room is done, as well as part of the entrance foyer and the first coat of the powder room. Originally I was thinking of pale yellow for the formal room, but since the powder room is an eye-searing shade of neon lemon, I decided to go with something different. Thus, the formal room ended up a subtle shade of green. The foyer is light purple on two walls; the other two will be an even lighter shade, with just a hint of color. It should go nicely with my Figment collection, which is on display as you walk into my home.

The painters are fitting us in around other jobs, so they won't be back for a couple of days. Thus, the house is looking rather cluttered, with the wall hangings, knick knacks, etc. all scattered around the family room. Even though it's a little hard to picture, images of a freshly painted home with colors breaking up the white monotony are dancing at the corners of my mind. A week or so from now, everything will be back in place, and the house will look even more like a home. The original white was neutral but also bleak and sterile; colors have so much more personality.

It's nice to work primarily on my laptop because I can take my "business" with me. The painting process won't be too much of an inconvenience because I can simply move out of the way and work from any room. But it has addled the cats, or at least two of them. Stitch loves it when anyone new is in the house because he figures that a) they will pet him; and b) he can sneak out the door when they leave. Farquaad and Tooncinator hide upstairs when strangers come calling, making occasional secret sojurns to the top of the landing. They like hiding under the bed, so I'm not sure what they'll do when it's time to paint the master bedroom.

Actually, Quaad is getting more social. The other night, we had friends over, and he finally came downstairs after figuring out that they wouldn't kill him. Toonce came down, too, but just long enough to eat his dinner before heading back to the safety of the bedroom.

Once the painting is done, we won't be out of the woods yet. Our other major project for 2005 is the hot tub. We wet tested the second model this weekend, so now we're trying to make our final decision. Meanwhile, I've got my fingers crossed that the Architectural Review Board will approve my plans at their next meeting, and I'm waiting for an estimate on a concrete patio. It's going to take some coordinating, but hopefully soon will be luxurating out back in a sea of soothing bubbles.

The hot tub purchasing process has been interesting. I never would have dreamed of climbing in and testing out the tubs if I hadn't done my internet research. Sure, when we first started looking, we climbed into dry models, but the feel is totally different when they are filled. Water adds buoyancy, so you have to make sure you'll fit in the seats comfortably without floating right out.

I'm not particularly shy, so it doesn't bother me to romp around in a public place in my swimsuit. It was amusing to see the odd looks on the faces of other customers as we soaked and played with the various settings.

By the end of the year, Duloc Manor will be quite a different place: multi-colored rooms inside and a spa with multi-colored lights out back. I'm not sure what we can do to top all that in 2006!

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Free Gas!

Although I didn't know it when my day started, I'd soon be ending up with free gas. No, not the sort you get when loading up on beans at Moe's Southwest Grill...the expensive liquid gold that you feed into your ravenous SUV.

My husband and I were on a mission to go to Home Depot for 20 gallons of paint. We've finally gotten sick of the chalky builder's paint that comes off when you rub your finger against it, let alone trying to clean it with a rag. Soon, Duloc Manor will glow upstairs and down with a brand-spanking-new coat of Behr Semi-Gloss. Currently, it's all white, but we're adding some color now, too.

Since we knew it would take a while to mix that quantity of paint, we decided to combine the trip with a late lunch at Ruby Tuesday. We go to the Home Depot on Orange Blossom Trail, just off 417, and the restaurant is adjacent. We could drop off our paint chips, enjoy a leisurely meal, and then load up Canyonero.

The paint department was busy, but eventually our turn came up and we overwhelmed the poor guy behind the counter. We handed him our rainbow of paint chips, with the appropriate number of gallons noted on each. As he headed out, he plaintively asked, "Are you sure you'll be back?" It stuck me as an odd question...why wouldn't we? It's not like we stopped in on a whim ("Hey, Honey, look! A Home Depot! Don't we have a bunch of paint chips in the glove compartment? Let's stop in and pimp the paint clerk!") We'd just driven all the way to OBT, and the painters are scheduled to come on the weekend, so it wasn't like we had any choice.

I offered to leave a deposit, or even to pay the bill in full upfront. The clerk said he couldn't do that because paint has to be rung up at the front counters. Seems like requiring some money down on a big order would eliminate the "paint fraud," but oh well. I swore on my cats' lives that we'd return, and we headed off to Ruby Tuesday.

The restaurant was mostly empty, which was fine by me. I love their salad bar, but it's always a turnoff when they're crowded with hordes of people coughing, sneezing, and pawing the food. Since child-laden families make up a large percentage of Orlando's restaurant patronage, I am very careful about buffets. I've seen too many kids paw, and even lick, an item, then chuck it back onto the plate. Ugh! The worst thing I ever witnessed was a kid literally licking the spigot of the ice cream machine at a Ponderosa (in Illinois, not Florida), but the kid who licked all the syrup dispensers on his table at IHOP was a close second. At some restaurants, I feel like getting some sort of immunization shot before I even sit down.

But Ruby Tuesday appeared to be relatively safe from contamination, so I was able to indulge my love of salad bars. I always get their salad/loaded baked potato combo, while my husband indulges in the Black and Blue Burger (not sure what the black is, but the blue involves bleu cheese...yum!). Due to the slowness, our waiter warned us that he was the only one working. But even though he was tending all of the tables, he managed to keep our iced tea filled and provide us with quick service.

The meal was good, but quite a change from the day before, when we're tried Seasons 52 for the first time. It's one of those places we've been meaning to try forever; finally, since we were going to be in the area, I made a reservation for dinner. We were going to a hot tub showroom and could easily swing off I-4 onto International Drive on our way home for a good meal.

This was our second visit to the Vita showroom. We had wet tested one of their tubs and got a glowing review from a fellow Celebration resident who owns the same model. Since I've heard some scary things about Rec Warehouse (the dealer for the other brand we like), we were leaning strongly toward Vita. Now, I just wanted to be sure that we were getting a good price. They had told me that some items, such as the cover lifter and electrical box, would be extra, and my research indicated that they're usually included. The saleswoman said that if we came in, she could talk to the manager about price. We hadn't wet tested the Rec Warehouse model yet, but we figured if we got a good deal, we'd just go with Vita; my husband was impressed with the power of their jets, and I liked some of their features.

Unfortunately, they lost (or at least delayed) the sale by turning on used-car-sales tactics. The saleswoman said they could throw in the lifter at cost and gave us a total price that wasn't too much more than the Caledera at Rec Warehouse. But then her manager came in and launched into a long, drawn-out spiel. I assume it was supposed to convince us to seal the deal, but it did the opposite.

He told us that he pays more for his cars because he buys at a dealer who offers good service (I'm not sure of his point...the service department is separate from Sales, so a smart consumer buys where they get the best deal and then patronizes the good dealer's service department). He told us about how he went in to clean up the mess at another Vita dealer, how people pay hundreds more at fancy showrooms, and all sorts of other long, drawn-out stories. He kept reminding us about Rec Warehouse's bad reputation (which I already know, since I'm savvy enough to check out businesses before I buy a big ticket item...Rec Warehouse may be bad, but the Caldera tub gets better online reviews than the Vita). Then he said that we were obviously not ready to buy a hot tub (yeah, that's why we had made our second trip down I-4 Hell and why I've already submitted my plans to the Architectural Review Committee).

My husband had been very gung-ho to buy the Vita, but when I asked what he wanted to do, he said, "Test the Caldera." I was surprised but said "Fine," figuring he'd go into detail when we left. In the car, he said he hated the high-pressure car-dealer tactics. I suppose the manager was trying to make the sale, but he ended up doing the opposite: his monologue drove hubby out the door. We may still go with the Vita; we put down a refundable hundred dollar deposit to hold the price until July 31. That way, we won't have to go back to the store if we decide to buy it. But who knows...the Caldera might win out, and we might even check out a couple more brands.

After all the stress, it was nice to settle down to a delicious meal at Seasons 52. Although they are owned by Darden (of Olive Garden and Red Lobster fame), they are definitely several notches above a typical chain. They don't fry any of their foods or use fatty items like butter, and the menu continually changes based on the season. None of their items are more than 475 calories (that's not as impressive as it sounds...if you have an appetizer, main course, and dessert, you're pushing 1500 calories without even factoring in a beverage).

But I wasn't there to diet; I was looking strictly for flavor, and I was not disappointed. I had a turkey skewer while my husband had plank salmon, and we were both very pleased with our choices. My appetizer was a spinach salad with peaches, pine nuts, and bleu cheese, while my husband went with mussels. And of course we saved room for dessert, which is served in small portions that allow you to either be semi-dietary or to try more than one (we went the latter route). I had red velvet cake and cheese cake, while my husband had carrot cake and pecan pie. Every item was divine!

But although Ruby Tuesday is no Seasons 52, it made for a nice, quick meal. By the time we returned to Home Depot, our paint was ready (and I'm sure the clerk breathed a sigh of relief). We selected some furniture movers and a weather radio (a nod to hurricane season) and loaded up Canyonero. As I watched the cargo compartment fill, I wondered how I used to get along with a teeny-tiny Neon now that I've been spoiled by an Aztek.

We decided to zip over to Valvoline, which was only a few blocks away, for a long-overdue oil change. It's adjacent to a Citgo gs station, and as I pulled in, I saw a man frantically waving a sign saying "The Prize Patrol is Here!" In my view, anything called a Prize Patrol has potential. I figured we could drop off the car, then walk to the gas station to check it out.

The guys at the oil change place said, "They're giving away free gas over there!" One of them had actually won $100 worth! Sounded almost too good to be true, but I'm always game for freebies. I walked over to the brightly marked Prize Patrol Van and asked what was going on. They said, "Just reach into the box, pull out a chip, and you win whatever it says." Every chip was a winner, and the minimum amount was $ could I lose? They didn't even require a purchase.

I reached into the box and pulled out a chip...$10! I signed the list of winners with my name and city, and they handed me a pre-paid $10 Citgo card. Profitable and painless! I ran back to the oil change place to send my husband over. He wasn't quite as lucky, pulling out the minimum ($5), but what the's still free gas. As we were leaving, I heard someone shouting with glee that they had pulled out $50. A van that hands out free can you beat that?

We topped off our gas tank with one of the cards and headed home to Celebration. As we left, we noticed the man with the sign waving at cars that ignored him and pulled into the strip mall across the way. How could they pass up such a good deal? But in all fairness, there are lots of supposed "contests" that are scams such as timeshare pitches in disguise. It's a shame that the bad reputation of bogus prize giveaways scares people away from legitimate promotions.

It had been a busy, productive, and profitable day. We were ready for the painters, Canyonero's life blood had been transfused, and we'd covered our gas, tolls, and then some.

When I got home, I visited Citgo's website, hoping to find out where the Prize Patrol would be next. Unfortunately, their stops are random. Apparently, the stars were aligned correctly, so we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It reminded me of a Shell gas station we used to patronize in Illinois. Although they never gave away gas cards, they had a prize van a couple of times with a spinning wheel game that allowed you to win hats, shirts and other promotional merchandise.

The moral of this story is: If you ever see a van that says "Prize Patrol" at a Citgo gas station, STOP! They might just have some free gas for you.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Space Coast

When most people think of Celebration, Disney World immediately comes to mind. Those who are familiar with Central Florida might also realize its close proximity to other attractions, such as Universal and Sea World.

But although the Kennedy Space Center is located out by Cocoa Beach, it's not much more than an hour's drive when traffic is light. Better yet, you can actually see the space shuttle launches right from Celebration itself.

I didn't realize that until today, when the shuttle Discovery made its long-awaited trip into space. My husband and I had a view of the fiery silver bullet right from our own little cul de sac.

It's been almost three years since the Columbia disaster, and things were a little tense because Discovery's had already been delayed. Worse yet, NASA never pinpointed the exact problem that caused the delay.

But despite the issues, it looked like Discovery was finally going to be cleared for launch so it could head out on its mission to the Internatonal Space Station. It's delivering several tons of supplies and equipment to the Station, where construction has been on hold since the grounding of the shuttle fleet after the Columbia tragedy.

My husband and I had considered heading out to Cocoa for the launch. Problem is, it's such an iffy thing. We know people who headed out on the previously scheduled launch date, only to discover that the blast-off was cancelled. They had to brave hours of traffic both ways, only to be disappointed.

I had a good feeling that it was going to happen this time, but hubby and I both had a lot of work to do. My work is somewhat flexible, but I had conference calls scheduled. My poor husband is currently buried under so much work that he's glued to his computer for 99 percent of his waking hours. Thus, our first shuttle experience would be on the home front.

Considering that we've taken 44 Disney cruises, it's ironic that not one of them has coincided with a launch. I can't even imagine how cool it would be to see the shuttle blast off from the deck of a ship. We had a couple of "close calls," but it always ended up being rescheduled.

Now, as the countdown ticked downwards, the excitement level grew. The sky was clear and the weather was perfect; as 10:30 a.m. drew near, the state of Florida was in a high state of anticipation. A few minutes before the designated time, a friend called to advise us to view the launch from an open field without a lot of trees. Since we live on a cul de sac with a big, open "croquet field" in front, we didn't have far to go.

My husband was armed with binoculars, while I anxiously clutched a mug of coffee; it was still early enough for me to require a constant caffeine infusion in order to remain conscious. I noticed other people heading outside, too; soon, they lined both sides of the street. It reminded me of the crowd that gathers to watch an event like a solar eclipse.

Hubby managed to figure out the right direction to watch, based on the position of the sun. Suddenly he yelled, "There it goes!" Sure enough, I saw a fast moving plume of white vapor, topped by a blazing cap of orange. I've watched many shuttle launches on television, but it seemed to unreal to be watching it live from my own front yard. I reminded myself that there was a crew of very brave astronaunts inside that tiny silver dot riding the plume into space.

The sound of oohs and aahs rippled down the street like a wave at a football game as the spectators all caught right of the plume. People pointed and shouted excitedly; some were even brandishing cameras and video cams. In his excitement, my husband had remembered the binoculars but had totally forgotten the digital camera. The launch happened so fast that there was no time to run in and get it, so we had to be content with "memory photos."

Thankfully, everything went according to plan (well, almost. There was some debris, and the shuttle nose managed to take out a bird; I'm sure that most of America has seen that footage a dozen times by now). I can't even imagine how heart wrenching it must be to watch a launch where there is a problem. I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the Challenger exploded way back in the 1986. Then, when Columbia broke up on re-entry, it was like a terrible sort of deja vu.

But thankfully Discovery is safe, and hopefully the astronauts will be able to make any needed repairs before heading back to Earth. Apparently, I will experience that right in Celebration, too. I've been told that the sonic boom is enough to rattle windows across Central Florida. Of course, I'll probably be asleep when that happens. I can just imagine waking up in a haze and thinking, "What the heck was that? Why is Disney World shooting off fireworks in the morning?"

Next time, we're going to head down to the Cocoa Beach area if at all possible. A friend here in town knows the ins and outs of avoiding the crowds and traffic, so I can rely on his guidance. It was cool enough to see the launch from a distance; I can't even imagine the awe of watching it happen up close and personal.

I often blog about how cool it is to live next door to the Mouse, with a bevy of theme parks all located within a stone's throw of Duloc Manor. I never thought living in Celebration could be any cooler. Now, watching the shuttle today, I realized that the coolness factor had just gone up several notches.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Adventures in Hot Tubbing - The Prequel

My husband and I have decided to take the plunge, both figuratively and literally. We're going to put in a hot tub (well, technically a "spa" in industry lingo) at Duloc Manor.

We've been going back and forth about putting in an outdoor spa or spool (small inground spa/pool combo) or having a whirlpool installed in one of the bathrooms. We were leaning toward an indoor jetted tub because that's what we had in our condo in Chicago. My husband would luxurate for hours, soaking in bath "synergies" from the Vista Spa onboard the Disney Wonder while the jets carassed his aching muscles and joints. Personally, I usually didn't turn the whirlpool on; I used it as more of a big soaker tub. I'd lie with my head against one inflatable pillow, balancing a good book on another, and while away lazy weekend afternoons.

As much as we love Duloc Manor, the absence of a whirlpool leaves a big gap. We couldn't have one installed when it was being built because we bought it as an
"inventory home." That meant that we couldn't change anything, even though ground had not been broken yet. They wouldn't even allow us to upgrade the paint, let alone add a jetted bathtub.

We've attempted several times to get estimates for adding one. Unfortunately, the workmen come out, take measures, discuss the job with us at length...then disappear. I've come to believe that there is an annex of the Bermuda Triangle at the end of our street because once they drive out of our cul de sac, I never hear from them again. The last workers to come out and scope out the job did mention that it would be a royal pain to get the whirlpool in. Our master bath only has a shower; the one with a tub is in the smaller bedroom, i.e. my husband's office. They seemed to think it would be easier to wedge the tub in through the window rather than maneuver it up the stairs. But that was the last I heard...they, like the other intrepid souls before them, disappeared into the Twilight Zone.

Thus, I am now admitting defeat and turning to an outside spa. Some friends of ours are putting on a screen room with a lovely hot tub, and it inspired us to finally move forward ourselves.

Our triplex's little yard will just manage to fit a good-sized tub up to eight feet square. Of course, that will mean laying concrete on most of our little postage-stamp back lawn, but the grass will die for a good cause. I'll still have a few small mulch areas in back to garden, plus my whole plot out front. The front yard is where I focus most of my energies anyway, since it's the most visible place.

I've already visited the Architectural Review Committee (ARC) with a very, very preliminary plan. I wanted to get a sense of whether they would reject it out of hand or whether it was doable. The only part that made them antsy was the possibility of a screened enclosure. Since we're in a triplex, it's a touchy situation because our home is connected to our neighbor's. A screen is not a necessity, although it would be nice to combat the sparrow-sized mosquitos. But I can forgo it if it means a smoother approval process.

Other than that, I got information on how to present my proposal and the basic requirements. I had already sketched out a rough draft, and they assured me that I was on the right track. Armed with this information, I embarked on a journey to select a spa and pull all the pieces together. Once I got the measurements of our preferred model, I'd be ready to submit my final plan.

Although Celebration has a reputation as a strict place where home alterations are rarely allowed, it's no more restrictive than any other planned community. The trick is to draw up detailed plans that stay within the guidelines. There are sample documents for common requests such as hot tubs or fences; all you need to do is follow the example, substituting your own specifics.

While a spool sounded nice, I didn't relish the idea of having my entire backyard dug up. An above ground spa is easier to install and maintain, and "easy" is one of my favorite words in the English language.

I had seen lots of commercials for Thermospa on television. I went to their website to look up a dealer, but they wanted me to submit a lot of personal information first. That seemed hinky, so I did some research and found that their spas don't have a very good reputation. While some people like them, the majority reported a litany of problems, from leaky tubs to electrical issues to non-existent customer service.

A little more research pointed me towards Caldera. It's a high-end brand, and people absolutely rave about it. It has an excellent warranty and offers various models with attractive jet combinations. I visited their website, popped in my zip code, and discovered that the nearest dealer is Rec Warehouse in Orlando.

On Saturday afternoon, my husband and I braved the summer tourist traffic to head out to East Colonial Drive. We have a phobia of taking I-4 (also known as Florida's biggest parking lot) anywhere, so we took 417 to the airport, cut through to the North Exit, and took Semoran Blvd. to Colonial drive. It added a few miles, but 417 almost always moves fast and steady. The stop and go traffic on Semoran was annoying, but nothing compared to I-4 at its worst.

Rec Warehouse was easy to find, and they had a large showroom with various pool and hot tub models, ranging from tiny little two-person spas to vast spans of water that would hold half the population of Celebration. We focused on the four to six person models, figuring that it would be nice to have enough room for company. We often join our neighbors on someone's front porch for impromptu get-togethers. Once the spa is installed, a "group soak" will be a nice alternative.

They carry both Caldera and Leisure Bay, their house brand. First, the salesman showed us the Caldera models. I had done a lot of research on their website, but it was so much better to see them in person and be able to climb in. We gravitated towards the Geneva, a six person model with a therapy lounger and very cool LED "mood lights," as well as an attractively long warranty. Later internet research revealed that it's Caldera's most popular model; I found dozens of testimonials from happy Generva owners. At seven and a half feet square, it would fit into our limited space, although I don't think there would be room for any decking.

Next, we checked out the Leisure Bay models, which were right within the same price range. Our favorite of those was the Flores, but it didn't have a lounger. However, it was deeper and a little larger, and it had a built in stereo system, as well as an even longer warranty. We climbed into that one, but to me the seats weren't quite as comfortable as the Geneva.

I jotted all my notes into brochures provided by the salesman. I also got an extra copy to submit to ARC with my proposal. That way, they could see measurements but also get a visual on what the tub would actually look like.

When my husband and I returned home, we measured our yard once again to make sure that the spa would fit. It would be a cruel trick of fate to have the deliverymen arrive, only to discover that it can't be wedged in around the air conditioner and porch. But no, the measures were I need to find someone who can pour the concrete so I'll be ready when I get ARC approval, not to mention an electrician who can wire in the appropriate voltage. We've going to need some sort of fencing, too, although our hedges already surround most of the area.

Now that we're getting the specifics together, I can almost feel the warm caress of the water and the tickle of bubbles rising up all around me as though I'm immersed in a giant glass of heated champagne. On our bare lawn, I can envision the redwood-clad tub, softly lit with a continously changing spectrum of rainbow color.

This weekend, I'll be finalizing my proposal so I can drop it off at the next ARC meeting. Then comes the biggest challenge: lining up the workmen to take care of creating the patio and handling the wiring. Then, the moment we get a "yes," the plans will be set in motion. I love Duloc Manor, but the lack of a whirlpool has been a constant annoyance. When we get our spa, it will finally live up to its namesake song in "Shrek" completely:

"Duloc (Manor) is the perfect place."

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Back from the Desert

I was in Chicago this past weekend, but it was more like a visit to the desert. Northern Illinois hasn't had rain in weeks, and the foliage is definitely showing it. There is a ban on all watering in some areas, so the lawns are barren, tan wastelands, and even the trees and bushes are looking peaked. in the outer areas, the farmers stare at their dry, dusty fields, knowing that they won't be able to coax out a crop this year. The heat feels like a blast furnace, since there is so little moisture in the air. With temperatures in the 90s, Chicagoans are quickly learning that the old saying "Dry heat isn't so bad" is a myth. Hot is hot, no matter what.

Apparently I've gotten used to high humidity, as I found the dry heat much less tolerable. My body has adapted to the Floridian steam bath; I used to gasp for a breath in the hot, heavy air, but now I bask in it. My husband has always loved it, and I thought he was crazy, but now it's my preference too.

Of course, like all my fellow Floridians, I stay inside during the hottest part of the day. We're a state of vampires, hiding from the worst part of the relentless summer sun and venturing out in the "coolness" of the evening.

My trip to Chicago was a quickie, taken only to see "The Lion King" and to get together with friends. My husband and I flew out on Friday afternoon, and on Saturday night, we went out to dinner with friends from the western 'burbs. Traditionally, we would all go out to eat and then head out to our favorite comedy club, which featured he luxury of a non-smoking showroom. Unfortunately, the club has moved, and smoking is now allowed. Despite assurances from the reservation taker that "It's well ventilated," we took a pass. My friend is even more sensitive to smoke than I am, and she didn't relish the idea of spending the evening sucking in her inhaler.

Instead, we ate at a wonderful Italian restaurant called Luigi's House (it's owned by Portillo's, although that won't mean anything to anyone but my fellow Chicago natives). Then, we headed to our friends' house for dessert. They had purchased a tempting selection of little cakes and streudels from Panera Bread...mmmm! We enjoyed our goodies and coffee sitting on their patio; not quite the comedy club, but still a fun interlude.

On Sunday, we picked up my brother and sister-in-law and headed to the Loop to see "Lion King." It was the third time for my husband and I, but a first for our companions. Despite being a tall, skinny, tatooed truck driver with "Pollack/redneck" practically written on his forehead, my brother has a secret passion for Broadway. One of his favorite satellite radio channels plays nothing but show tunes, and he immerses himself in them for hours on the road.

Having been underwhelmed by "Wicked" after my brother's glowing reviews (based on radio descriptions), I was anxious to show him what a real production was all about. Even he had admitted that "Wicked" was a disapointment; his expectations had been based on the Broadway version, and the special effects are not up to par in the touring company.

The show was held at the Cadillac Palace, my favorite restored theater in Chicago's burgeoning theater district. I think GM footed the bill (hence the name), and they apparently spared no expense in returning the building to its former glory. We also have a Ford Theater (shades of Abraham Lincoln) and the non-creatively named Chicago Theater. Disney restored the Chicago Theater a few years back, but their shows are always at one of the others. I saw a few plays there right after the restoration ("Joseph" and "Jesus Christ Superstar"), but now it mainly hosts concerts.

My husband had snared fifth row tickets using a Disney Visa online booking code. According to the seating chart, they should have been prime seats. Unfortunately, they were so far off to the side that we couldn't see a whole section of the stage. I was not a happy camper, as we'd paid full premium price for what amounted to an obstructed view. The Disney Visa code was "PRIDE" but it should have been "SUCKER." It wasn't so bad for us because we'd seen the show before from two prime locations (eighth row center and second row balcony). But I felt sorry for my sister-in-law and brother, who were experiencing it for the first time. From our terrible angle, they'd be missing the impact of most of the special effects.

I guess we should have gone the VIP package route; it's $30 a ticket more, but well worth every penny. That's how we got our eighth row center tickets. You also get the use of a VIP lounge and private restrooms, but that part is totally worthless. The lounge doesn't have nearly enough tables and chairs, and the restrooms are literally two toilets for dozens and dozens of people. I learned that it was quicker to use the main facilities with the rest of the hoi polloi. You get snacks and drinks, too, but it's not worth the $30. Basically, you're ponying up the extra cash to get the prime seats.

Hindsight is 20/20, but meanwhile we were stuck in our corner. At least the show was as good as I remembered it; several of the cast members we had seen previously were still in the touring company. Scar was absolutely the best; I love his sneering Shakespearean haughtiness. The kids (young Simba and Nala) were different than last time, and a little weaker, but not enough to lessen our enjoyment of the show. Timon and Pumbaa were played by different actors, too, and these two played it very close to the movie characterizations.

"Lion King" is hard to describe. If you think that it's people in animal costumes, you're technically correct, but that doesn't even come close to conveying what the show is like. The costumes and puppetry are breathtaking. It starts off with a bang, just as the movie did, with the "presentation of baby Simba" scene. The stage teems with every sort of creature you can imagine, from stilt-walking giraffes to a full-sized elephant that enters down the theater aisle.

The show is nearly three hours long, but it never bores me. Well, okay, "never" is too strong of a word. There are two sequences that I absolutely hate, and both involve new songs by Elton John. Normally, I love his music, but these two numbers grate on me like fingernails on a chalkboard. The first, "Morning Report," is a stupid slapstick chain of puns sung by Zazu as Mufasa teaches Simba to stalk him. The second, "Chow Down," is a "humorous" (I use the term lightly) song sung by the hyenas as they prepare to eat Simba and Nala in the elephant graveyard.

Most of the music that was added to the play is African-esque and fits in seemlessly. There are two new songs that give me goosebumps (the one sung by Nala when she leaves the Pridelands and Simba's treatise to his father's spirit). I have no idea why the writers, producers, or whoever felt they had to add two piles of annoying, not-funny dreck.

The additions also surprise me because a lot of people believe this is a show for kids; why stretch it so it pushes the three hour mark? Halfway through, the little ones are already fidgeting like they have ants in their pants. Their parents might appreciate the majesty of people dressed like grass while dancing lionesses stalk their pray, but it goes right over Junior's head. Every time we've seen the show, several families have bailed during the intermession, never to return. This time, there was a little girl in front of us who was obviously bored out of her skull. She kept squirming, and her parents kept whispering to her. No doubt they were saying, "We paid $85 a head for this show, so you'd better sit still, shut up, and damn well LOVE IT!"

My brother claimed he was bored, too. While the rest of us watched in rapt fascination, he was thinking about how much he wanted a cigarette. He did admit that it was better than "Wicked," and he claimed to enjoy the second half, but he declared that "The Producers" is a much better show. Granted, I liked "The Producers," but it doesn't even begin to compare to "Lion King." As for "Wicked," their big special effect consisted of the witch flying up into the air, holding her broom. In "Lion King," during one sequence here are four people flying around and doing acrobatics. Nuff said.

After the show, we went to Lawry's for prime rib. Since it's the one restaurant that has no equivalent in Florida, it's the place I always drag poor hubby. While 99% of their menu consists of prime rib served i various cuts, they do have a fish special every day. It happened to be tuna, so he didn't suffer too badly. He got yellowfin served nearly raw, just the way he likes it, while I indulged in prime rib slathered in heavenly whipped cream/horseradish sauce.

Monday morning came all too quickly. I'm always anxious to return to Florida, but with a 7 a.m. flight, I had to be up and functioning by 4:30. Ugh! Worse yet, I realized just how much my body has adapted to Florida. The pre-dawn temperature was 75 degrees; I was wearing shorts and freezing my butt off! I've gone swimming in colder temperatures than that, but apparently now I'm a wimpy, heat-loving Floridian who gets a chill in anything below 80.

My husband was remaining in Chicago for the week, so he drove me to the airport and left his car in the commuter lot where he could pick it up after work. The security line seemed to go on for miles; I thought I'd be one of the last at the gate, but I ended up being first in the A line. For those who don't fly Southwest, this is important because there are no assigned seats. It's first come, first served; thus, you need to get an A boarding pass and then be among the first in the A line to get the seat of your choice.

I watched two families try to pass off an 8 year old and 11 year old, respectively, as young enough for the pre-board (which is for kids age 4 and under). Both of them were rebuffed and sent to the end of their lettered lines, mumbled curses under their breath. Then the As were let onto the plane, and I managed to grab my favorite exit row. I grabbed a pillow and blanket and made myself a little nest against the window, where I promptly fell asleep. I spent most of the flight in a state of semi-consciousness, catching up on some sorely needed zzzzz's.

The people sitting next to me lived in Florida, too. I had dragged myself back to the world of the living in time to watch the landing, and one of them commented to me, "Isn't it nice to see all that green?" I realized what a contrast it was to the brown, dying plant life in Chicago. Too bad we can't send them a few of our afternoon thundrstorms.

Now, all our play tickets are used up, so I won't be returning to the Windy City until it's time for our next outing with friends, sometime in August. That doesn't phaze me at all; I'm content in hot, humid, stormy Florida. I'll take it over the Chicago desert any day.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Working at Home

When my husband and I decided to take the plunge and move to Celebration, I never thought I'd be able to keep my corporate job. Fear of financial ruin was one of my biggest worries. Sure, I had my travel agency, and I planned to start a counseling practice, but both of those businesses involve a lot of variables.

Travel agents don't get paid until their clients actually take the trip. Thus, you might book plenty of vacations for 2006, but you won't see a penny of that money in 2005, when the bills are due. Counselors who see self-pay clients (as opposed to those using insurance) get paid at the time of treatment, but since I'd be starting from scratch, it would take some time to build up a client load. The unsteadiness is quite a change from a nice, comfortable, regular corporate paycheck.

Then it turned out that I'd be able to keep my job after all. Whew! My husband already knew that he'd be able to work from home for part of each month, so now I unexpectedly joined him in the ranks of telecommuters.

After 16 years in a bustling corporate environment, I wondered what it would be like to work from my family room, with a laptop balanced on my knees. Would I have the necessary discipline to drag my carcass out of bed at a reasonable hour and focus on my work? Could I resist temptations like television, community pools, and the fact that Disney World is a mere five-minute drive from my front door? Would I miss the companionship of co-workers and the joy of strolls to the cafeteria for coffee and gossip?

I also wondered whether my husband's presence would make a difference. Most of the time, I knew he'd be upstairs working in his office while I toiled away at my labors on the first floor. But ten days a month he'd be in Chicago, and I'd be entirely on my own, rattling around in a house devoid of other humans.

Originally, I had planned to accompany him to Chicago at least one week a month. However, that idea quickly flew out the window. The very first week I tried working from our old condo, I nearly went mad from boredom. When he's in Chicago, my husband is gone all day...and I do mean all. Our old home is in the suburbs, and he works in the heart of the city, so he has a roundtrip commute of over two hours. Stack that on top of his work schedule and his health club workout routine and he's rarely at the house, except to sleep.

At Duloc Manor, even when he's in Chicago, I'm never lonely because I've always got two cats worming their way onto my lap and a bird taunting them from the back of the couch. In Chicago, I was all alone except for an array of houseplants. Unlike Celebration, where we have a lot of friends right in the neighborhood, our Illinois friends are scattered far and wide. People in our condo building barely tolerate each other, and the town itself has no sense of community. It's a sprawling suburb where each cookie cutter brick bungalow or condo unit is an isolated island. There's no one living nearby to go out for coffee or lunch with, and no one ever drops in just to say hello.

If I still lived in Chicago, I would rather be working in an office environment, getting some social interaction. I enjoy my work, but sitting in isolation and staring at a computer screen for five to six hours a day would drive me insane.

But in Celebration, things are different. Even when my husband is gone for the week, I have my furry and feathered menagerie to keep me company. Cats dislike it when their human pays attention to anything other than them. Thus, they are in constant competition with my laptop, trying to climb on the keyboard or batting my hands in desperation for petting. Bradley, my bird, is loose I'm home, and he usually stays on top of his cage. But when I'm on the main floor, he knows that he can tease the cats because I will protect him if they try to reciprocate. He divebombs them and perches on the couch pillows behind me while I work, squawking birdy insults at the hapless felines. Sometimes he takes a nap on my shoulder and bites me in the ear if I dare to move and disturb his rest.

There is also plenty of human company. At our condo, if someone knocked on the door, I'd be afraid that it was drunken, drugged up revelers looking for the place across the hall. In Celebration, it's not at all uncommon for neighbors to simply stop by. Since my hours are flexible, I can take a little break for a cup of coffee. Instead of office gossip, I tap into the latest neighborhood happenings.

I can also break up my workday by running to Disney World for lunch (Earl of Sandwich at Downtown Disney is a favorite). Sure, I could run out in Chicago, but a suburban strip mall is no match for lunch at one of the Mouse House's many options and the ambiance of the Disney resort. Sometimes, I'll even slip in a quick ride (or two). The Land pavillion at Epcot has an excellent food court, so I'll grab a Fast Pass for Soarin', eat, and then jump on for a quick tour of Calfornia. The singles line at Test Track is usually short, so I might squeeze that in, too. Even if I'm there with friends, it's worth the time savings to ride separately.

I don't have much trouble starting work at a decent hour, especially since Florida time is an hour ahead of Illinois. When it's 10 a.m. for me, it's only 9 a.m. up north. I wake up about an hour before I start working so I can take the cats out while I water my flowers, shower, and get some coffee into my bloodstream.

Once I start working, I force myself to focus completely on my job until 3 p.m., when a block of court shows (Peoples Court, Judge Mathis, Judge Judy, and Judge Joe Brown) runs until 7 p.m. I usually work a few hours more, depending on how long I took for lunch, but I allow myself to multi-task and watch the television out of the corner of my eye.

Another pleasure of working in Florida, at least in mild weather, is being able to work outside on my front porch. In the condo, we have a large balcony, but it overlooks the parking lot and dumpsters. Sadly, our Chicago neighbors aren't clear on what a dumpster is meant for. Instead of making the supreme effort required to open it and put their trash inside, they toss the garbage bags down in front of it. Tying the bags closed is too difficult for some of them, so their refuse blows across the parking lot. Not a pleasant picture to view from my balcony, so I just stay inside.

At Duloc Manor, I have my beloved porch swing and a pair of rocking chairs. My front yard blooms with multi-colored flowers, and our home overlooks a quaint little cul de sac park. Instead of slobs tossing garbage bags around, I see people biking by or walking their dogs. Neighbors wave as they work in their gardens or enjoy their own front porches. Now that it's summer, the temperatures in the high 90s have driven me back inside, but I'm looking forward to returning to my outdoor "office" in the fall.

In theory, I should be able to work in downtown Celebration, as there is supposed to be wireless internet access in the area. I like the thought of relaxing at the lakefront in a rocker while tapping away at my keyboard. In practice, though, it would be hard to juggle paperwork and potentially distracting when the gaggles of timeshare victims and tourists come through. The lakefront is better for times when you don't need to focus and concentrate, like when you're indulging in an ice cream cone or Barnie's coffee. Also, cell phone reception tends to be spotty in town. Since I frequently take part in phone conferences, I need to be close to my land line.

Sometimes I venture out around rush hour and notice the traffic jams on I-4 as I pass over it on World Drive. Those are time times that I say a silent prayer of thanks that things worked out as they did. I'm spoiled rotten now; I just love working at home in Celebration. My commute is from the bedroom to the family room, and the coffee table makes a perfect desk...and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Never Say Never

While fielding some travel agent phone calls recently, I pondered the many times in my life when I've said, "I'll NEVER, do that!" God, with His wicked sense of humor, often makes me eat those words.

Regular readers of my blog may recall that I swore I'd never own an Aztek. When I first saw it on "Survivor," and after I was done retching, I swore I'd never own such a hideously ugly vehicle. Years later, here I am...with not one, but two Azteks in the family. I was won over by the attractive price tag, amazing gas mileage, reconfigurable seats, cavernous interior, and side air bags. After all, as the driver I spend most of my time inside, so it's not like I have to look at its ugliness. Nowadays, Azteks are pretty far down on the "ugly scale" anyway.

Cars are not the only area in which I've eaten my words. When I first met my husband, I'd have bet the farm that I'd never, ever marry him. He was hell bent on dating me, but at the time I was single, carefree, and not ready to enter a relationship. His attempts to entice me got on my nerves, and finally I developed a strong dislike for him. Several years passed, and we remained on the perimeter of each other's lives, since we had many mutual friends. My dislike slowly softened into tolerance, and finally into affection. I discovered that he grocery shops, cooks, and even does laundry. A keeper! Now, we've been married for over a decade. I look back on my journal entries from the old days, when I couldn't stand the sight of him, and marvel at life's surprises.

Another of my famous "I'll never do that" delarations was that I would never become a travel agent. Considering that I've taken well over 40 Disney cruises and have been to Disney World more times than I care to count (not to mention visiting dude ranches from Wisconsin to Wyoming and amusement parks across the U.S.), becoming a TA might seem like seem like a natural progression. But when anyone suggested it, I would roll my eyes and snicker at such a ridiculous notion. Why turn fun into work?

We'll have jump back in time a few years to understand my eventual change of heart. Back around the time of my first Disney cruises, I had developed a hobby website. That was in the late 1990s, when the internet was still new and largely uncharted territory. I am a designer and developer of corporate training, and at the time I'd been creating classes on CD-ROM. My employer directed me to study HTML, just in case the 'net was going to stick around for a while.

"Learn HTML" didn't necessarily mean formal training. It meant "buy some software and books, go forth, and create websites." Before tackling an actual course, I whipped up a personal website that covered everything from my pets and comedy/tragedy mask collection to my growing obsession with Disney Cruise Line. The Disney Cruise part of the site was by far the most popular; gradually, I eliminated the other sections and morphed my website into "The Platinum Castaway Club." The name was my own little in-joke, since "The Castaway Club" is Disney's designation for repeat cruisers. Considering how many times I had sailed, even before Y2K, I figured that I should be a platinum-level member. Better yet, Disney had not purchased the URL, so I snapped it up.

My website was non-commercial; it was meant strictly as a resource to help fellow Disney cruisers make the most of their experience. Websites like had been invaluable to me for planning and maximizing my Disney World vacations. I wanted to return the favor, and since Disney Cruise Line was fast becoming my area of expertise, it became my site's sole focus.

As the years passed, the Platinum Castaway Club grew in popularity, attracting an average of 600 unique users per day. Meanwhile, our ten-year plan to move to Florida had suddenly and unexpectedly accelerated. I knew we'd be moving to Celebration within a few months, and it didn't seem very likely that I'd be able to keep my corporate job.

Around that time, I was approached by an online travel agency about becoming an outside agent. Suddenly, the idea didn't seem so crazy. I could put an ad on my website; after all, visitors to the Platinum Castaway Club were a perfect target audience. I could focus on Disney cruises and Disney World, and my experience would add a great value for my clients. There wouldn't be much of an upfront investment. I already had server space, so all I'd need to do would be to buy a URL and develop a separate travel agency website. I didn't want to use as the business site; I wanted it to remain an independent information resource. I bought a cheap laptop, found a service to provide a toll-free phone number, and rented a P.O. box for my business mail. Thus, Platinum Vacation Planners was born.

With no advertising other than a notice on, I soon had a successful business on my hands. I could run it just as easily from Chicago or Celebration, and I realized that being in Florida was actually a plus. If I had clients at Disney World or in the Port Canaveral area who needed immediate help, I was literally only a few miles away.

Ironically, I ended up being able to keep my corporate job, telecommuting via my phone, laptop, and DSL. Even more ironically, one of the things I always swore I would do was suddenly placed on hold. Becoming a counselor is one of my lifelong dreams. Ever since I was in high school, I set my sights on a doctorate in Psychology. Life responsibilities intervened, but finally, in 1995, I began the ten-year path through B.A., M.A., and finally Psy.D., juggling my classes around one or more jobs. My internship at a social service agency made me even more determined to become a professional therapist. I had stayed on at the agency for a while after I earned my Masters degree, but the pressures of a full-time job, combined with classes for my Doctorate, forced me to throw in the towel.

When we decided to take the plunge and move to Florida, I thought my opportunity to start a counseling business had finally materialized. I'd have to leave my corporate job, and the travel agency hours are flexible. I could set up a practice in tandem with finishing up my last few Psy.D. courses.

But, as the magnet on my refrigerator says: "Make God laugh. Tell Him your plans." Surprise, surprise! Turns out I was able to keep my original job after all. Sure, I could have turned it down, but my practical side refused to throw away a steady income for the uncertainty of a start-up business. Launching a counseling practice isn't nearly as simple or inexpensive as starting an online travel agency. It would have been an easy choice if I didn't like my corporate job, but it's actually pretty cool. I design and develop online courses, which allows me to use a variety of skills, from writing to graphic design to Flash programming. I even get to toss in a little psychology while working out instructional strategies.

So here I am in Florida, still doing the same two jobs that I did back in Chicago. I finished my psychology degree this year, so now I am Dr. Barb, but goodness only knows when I'll be able to put all that education to use.

Perhaps God gives us a few little hints. I remember driving home from college one night, lost in my thoughts on the dark, winding highway. Suddenly I had the strangest feeling. For just a moment, I felt what it would be like to be driving down a highway in Florida. For that little blip in time, my reality was 1200 miles away. It was like someone had momentarily folded a gauzy curtain of the future over my present-day life. The feeling disappeared as quickly as it had come, but I never forgot it. At the time, I thought that Florida was still a decade away, but it wouldn't be all that long before I'd be heading down 417 to my Celebration home and feeling reverse deja vu.

At this point, I have no idea of what the future will bring. I'm very content with my present life; I live in Celebration, right next door to Disney World, in a state where "winter" typically means 50 degrees. I can visit the theme parks whenever the whim takes me, and the Disney Cruise Line terminal is less than an hour away. I'm not doing counseling, but I enjoy running my travel agency, and my corporate training job is fairly enjoyable too. I'm toying with plans to run life skills classes, and God willing, someday that will come to fruition. But I'm not going to say anything least, not until I figure out whether God has alternate plans.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

NOAA's Arc

Like many of my fellow Florida residents, I have a good friend named NOAA. Yes, that's spelled correctly; it's a bit different than the Biblical Noah. Early last year, I didn't know a thing about NOAA, but I made his acquaintance when fall rolled around. By September, I was visiting him several times a day, along with thousands of fellow Central Floridians. He never turned us away, but he didn't spare us from the harsh truth, either. When the hurricane trio bore down on the Orlando/Kissimmee/Celebration area, he warned us with unflinching honesty.

Of course, NOAA isn't always right. Sometimes his predictions are just a bit off, and other times they're as accurate as Serena Sabak's psychic visions in the "Weekly World News" (Elvis's alien love child will real himself and marry Michael Jackson in a same-sex ceremony in Hawaii!). But, like any weather forecaster, you have to cut him some slack. After all, Mother Nature is fickle, and NOAA's scientific gadgets are sometimes no match for her whims.

So just who is this "NOAA?" Or, more accurately, what is it? It's an acronym for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a government agency that became all too familiar with Floridians during the Hurricane Hell Season of 2004. Before that time, I thought that the worst of the storms never made it as far inland as the Disney World area. Now I know that we can get hammered.

The National Hurricane Center section of NOAA's website can be found at It features all sorts of useful information, including radar and path predictions. I've already logged on obsessively this year as Hurricane Dennis taunted and teased Central Florida before focusing his wrath elsewhere. Now I'm keeping an eye on little sister Emily, although the three and five day "cones" (path prediction maps) have us pretty much out of her range.

I never thought I'd learn the different wind speeds that transform a tropical depression into a full-fledged hurricane. I was totally ignorant of the difference between a Category 1 vs. a Category 4. Believe me, I could have lived the rest of my life quite happily never needing to know.

But now that I'm a Floridian, this knowledge is as common as a Chicago South Sider knowing that Crawford and Pulaski are the same street. I can rattle off a list of hurricane survival supplies in my sleep, and I know the exact dates on which hurricane season officially begins and ends (June 1 and November 30). I know that this year's prediction is 15 storms (ugh!), and I can tell you that the remaining storm names for this year are Franklin, Gert, Harvey, Irene, Jose, Katrina, Lee, Maria, Nate, Ophelia, Philippe, Rita, Stan, Tammy, and Vince. Of course, I hope never to meet any of them!

Dennis brought us some rain, but not much more than our usual summer thunderstorms. Unfortunately, the storm savaged several other areas, from Jamaica and Cuba to the same parts of Florida that got battered by Ivan last year. It seems odd to pray that a hurricane won't hit us, knowing full well that if it turns in another direction, someone else will most likely feel its wrath. Dennis racked up a nasty death toll, killing 40 in Haiti, 16 in Cuba, 1 in Jamaica, and 5 in the United States.

Emily's arc could still change, but so far it looks like we're relatively safe. But she and Dennis will probably have lots more siblings; it's not a good sign that we've already had five named storms this season.

Still, even with the hurricane danger (plus the highest number of lightning strikes in the United States), Florida has plenty of advantages that far outweigh the risks. I love the warm winters, the sunshine, and palm trees. There are pools and theme parks galore, and the ocean is less than an hour's drive away. Better yet, Celebration is right next door to Disney World; to me, Florida is the best state to live in, and Celebration wins top honors as my favorite town.

I neglected NOAA this winter and spring, but now that it's summertime, I'm quickly renewing our acquaintenance. Like a patient and loyal friend, he's right there waiting for me. He may not always tell me what I want to hear, but he always speaks the truth (or at least, what he thinks is true).

It's going to be a loooooooooooong hurricane season.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Rain, Segways, and the Front Porch Picnic

As Saturday dawned in Celebration, the radar showed bands of rain from Hurricane Dennis that threatened to make the day a washout. My husband and I had booked a Segway tour at Epcot in the morning, and the Front Porch Picnic (for Celebration intranet users) was scheduled for 5 p.m. Even though the sky looked only mildly threatening, I was worried that the storm clouds might take over at any time.

The most noticable effect of Dennis was stronger than normal wind. In the front, my new flag whipped wildly on its pole. In the back, my tree's branches were swaying and my pot of flowers had tipped over. But it didn't look like it had rained overnight, despite the weather man's dire predictions, and I even suspected that the sun might peek through at some point in the morning.

Still, we wanted to be prepared just in case a monsoon came. We packed two umbrellas and rain ponchos in our backpack, plus a large plastic bag to keep the backpack itself dry, if necessary. We wore shorts so we wouldn't have to deal with soaked jeans plastered to our legs and sandals so we wouldn't get stuck in squishy tennis shows.

We left for Epcot early, since the tour begins at 8:15 a.m. You spend one hour learning to ride a Segway, and then you spend the next hour touring World Showcase before it opens to the public. The parking booths don't open until 8 a.m., so we sat in line with the car idling, waiting to enter the parking lot. I have a AAA Diamond Parking Pass, so once we got in, I knew I would get a nice, convenient spot.

We followed the green line to the AAA parking area and pulled into a space right by the walkway. Then we hiked off to figure out how we'd get into the park, since it doesn't technically open until 9 a.m. We found a cast member with a clipboard listing all the people coming in for the tour. He let us through and we headed off to Guest Services, breathing a sigh of relief because the rain hadn't come...yet.

Soon, the entire tour group had gathered, and we were herded to the training room in Innoventions. The training session consists of a short video and operation instructions, followed by actually climbing on the training Segways and veering around an obstacle course of cones. We also covered how to dismount and bring the Segway over a curb, how to duck under a low tree branch while in motion, and how to go up and down a ramp.

I've been on a Segway a few times before, although it's been a while. Disney Cruise Line used to rent Segways on their ships and their island, Castaway Cay. They don't do that anymore, but my husband and I managed to try them several times before it was discontinued. The area to ride in was very small; onboard, you were confined to part of the ship's atrium, and on Castaway Cay there was a "Segway Pen" marked off by logs.

Segways aren't too diffcult to ride; the only thing that takes some getting used to is turning. Instinctively, I used to want to turn by using my body weight and shifting the handles like a bike's handlebar. Unfortunately, that doesn't work! On a Segway you turn both ways with your left hand. You rotate the handle knob one way to turn left and the other to turn right. To go forward, you shift your weight forward; to stop, you simply shift back. Segways can be set at three different speed levels; for safety, the practice and touring Segways are set at the slowest level.

The training room in Epcot was small, but I was looking forward to riding in the wide, open space of World Showcase. Alas, it was not to be. As we perfected our zig zags and 360 degree turns, the weather outside turned positively ugly. The sky went black, the wind whipped into a frenzy, and the driving rain poured down in buckets.

Of course, in Florida that doesn't necessarily mean that the whole day is shot. Even with the outer effects of a hurricane, a band of rain can pass over within a few minutes and the sky can clear out again. We left the training room and selected our touring Segways, which we rode up and down the hallway. One of the tour guides checked with Guest Services and reported that the radar looked bad. The second part of the tour was officially cancelled, and we were promised a half-price refund. The guides also offered to let us ride around the hall for a while.

Before his ride, my husband hurried over to the Land pavillion to get a Fast Pass for Soarin'. That's my favorite ride at Epcot; even though it's basically just an Imax movie with motion and piped-in smells, I can never get enough of it. If you ever ride it, look at the top of the hill during the skiing sequence and you'll see a guy jump/fall off. Also, watch for the horseback riders below you in the mountains. Personally, my favorite part (besides Disneyland at the end) is the citrus grove. I love the music in that part, and the scent of oranges reminds me of the long-gone Horizons pavillion (anyone remember that?).

As we zoomed back and forth inside Innoventions, the sky suddenly brightened up and the rain moved out as though it had never existed. The only evidence of the sudden, severe downpour was the wet pavement and puddles. What little crowd there had been had scattered; we saw a few guests here and there, but most had been scared off to shelter.

Since the threat seemed to be over, the instructors let us bring the Segways outside. We zoomed around on a brick path between Innoventions and Journey Into Imagination that reminded me of the Belgium Blocks sequence in Test Track. It was great fun zipping around outdoors, even if we didn't make it to World Showcase. They let us ride for a fairly long time, considering that we were getting a partial refund. Finally the "tour" was over, so we brought our Segways back in and received a special Segway Tour pin. Then it was off to Soarin'.

There weren't many people in Epcot, but of all those who were, I suspect that 80 percent of them were heading to the same place as us. When we arrived, the line hadn't swelled too badly yet; it was almost walk-on, even for those without Fast Passes. We trooped down to the loading area, were sent to our assigned row, and prepared for our "flight" over California.

I don't tend to get motion sick, but I hadn't eaten any breakfast or drank anything at all. It was already nearly 11 a.m., so my body was feeling rebellious due to the deprivation. I happened to look down during a high-motion sequence, and suddenly my equilibrium short-circuited. I felt an awful sense of vertigo, and there wasn't much I could do since I was strapped in a chair and elevated up in front of a giant movie screen. I closed my eyes, but it didn't help. I groped for a drink of water, but our backpack was stashed under my husband's seat, and he couldn't reach it too easily. Finally, I focused on a stationary object (my sandals, which I was holding so they wouldn't slip off my dangling feet). The feeling disappeared; my brain must have hit the "reset" button, as I was suddenly fine again.

We grabbed another Fast Pass, since the return time was not much more than half an hour away. Meanwhile, we hopped into the standby line, hoping that it was still short. Alas, it had swelled to over half an hour. We figured we'd wait anyway, and to kill time I called 407-WDW-DINE to make a priority seating at the Garden Grill, one flight up, for when we were done riding. We did our standby ride, then zipped through again with our Fastpass. Amazing...I couldn't believe we had ridden Soarin' three times in a row in peak season July!

We had a nice lunch at the restaurant. They serve a meal for $19.99, with a choice of several entrees (I chose steak and mashed potatoes, while my husband opted for seafood pasta). Your drink is also included, as well as break sticks with three dips (flavored oil, hummus, and melted cheese). For dessert, you receive chocolate fondue with yummy dipping items like chocolate chip cookies, gummi worms, pound cake, brownies, marshmallows, strawberries, and pineapple. It's also a character meal, so Mickey, Pluto, Chip, and Dale all stopped by for a visit.

If I was bringing children to Disney World, I'd definitely do at least one character meal. It's so much less stressful than waiting in lines for photos with the characters. Instead, they come to you, and you have a nice, relaxing interaction. We had our camera with us, since we'd snapped some shots of the Segways, so we took some pictures of Mickey and pals.

While eating, we looked through an Epcot map, and I noticed that Figment was supposed to be out for photos. Since he's one of my all-time favorite Disney characters, albeit a lesser known one, I had to go seek him out. I have an old picture of me with him and Dreamfinder; it was taken back in the good old days when "Journey Into Imagination" was still one of the best rides at Disney World. Then they totally ruined it, and there was such an outcry that they shut down the travesty and reworked it into something a little better, although it's still a shell of its former self. At least Figment is back in the reworking; he had been removed entirely from the ruined version.

We found him hanging out near the entrance to "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience." When he used to be out with Dreamfinder, he was the size of a small dog and fit in Dreamfinder's arms. Now, he is life-sized, in all his purple glory. I got some photos and stopped in the gift shop, where I bought a Figment t-shirt and water globe. My foyer is decorated with Stitch paraphenalia on one shelf and Figment knick-knacks on the other, so I'm always looking for new additions.

It had been a busy day at the park...Segway riding, a triple play on Soarin', good food, character photos, and of course shopping. Now it was time to head some and get some work done before the Front Porch picnic.

The picnic was the brainchild of another resident; he, along with many others, is a regular poster in the Front Porch, which is the Celebration community intranet. There are several sections that can be accessed by the general public, but the forums are password protected and available to residents only. Many people regularly post messages, but most have never met face to face. The picnic was meant to be a way to meet fellow Front Porch regulars.

I joined in to assist the planners, and we set up a gala affair for Saturday, July 9. But now the effects of Hurricane Dennis were threatening to scare off the attendees and to turn the picnic into a washout.

Since there had been no rain other than the morning shower, we decided to go ahead with our plans. We had reserved the North Village Pavillion, so that would offer some shelter from all but the nastiest of downpours. The event was slated to begin at 5 p.m., but my husband and I headed over early since we were helping out. I'd already joined the other planners to shop for necessities a few days ago. We'd loaded up on hot dogs, hamburgers, soda, chips, plates, and utensils...all the necessities for the perfect picnic. The attendees had been instructed to bring pot luck dishes, so we knew we'd be well set for salads and dessert.

But as luck would have it, as 5 p.m. approached, the sky grew darker and more threatening. People had started to trickle in, but suddenly the heavens opened and a vicious monsoon poured down. We worried that potential attendees would think that the picnic had been cancelled...and of course, no one had access to a computer to let them know that it was still a go. We shoved the tables and chairs into the middle of the pavillion, where they were protected from the rain.

Just as I expected he would, my husband took charge of the grill. He pretends he doesn't like to do it, but I know that he's only happy when he's got a spatula and tongs in his hands and he's charring dead cow over a propane blaze. Even though the initial crowd was sparse, a wonderful variety of side dishes was taking shape. Baked beans, ambrosia salad, potato salad, cole slaw, cookies, carrot cake...mmmm! Soon, the brave little band was grabbing plates and digging in.

Thankfully, the rain didn't last too long; during the reprieve, more people started to arrive. Initially, we had figured on about 60 people based on the RSVPs. By the end, we managed to break 30; not bad, considering the miserable weather. Even though the grass was wet, the kids all played within the pavillion while the adults milled around, chatting. Everyone managed to eat and drink their fill and to mix with their fellow Front Porch posters. I'm hoping that this was just the first incidence of what will become an annual event.

We had figured the picnic would run for about two hours, but we were still going at 7:30 p.m. If it hadn't been so windy and rainy, the bugs would probably have driven us out, but the weather was keeping them at bay. Mother Nature still had one last surprise for us: she battered us with a last downpour that made the previous one look like a light misting. The wind whipped water into the pavillion, sending us all scambling. We realized that it was time to pack up and end our little party.

It would have been nice to have 60 people, but given the circumstances, I was impressed that even half had braved the weather. I guess that after you've lived through a direct hurricane hit (or two or three), waves of rain from an outer band are nothing. All in all, I thought it was quite successful and definitely a lot of fun.

Below are some group shots from the picnic:

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Friday, July 08, 2005

Bye Bye Jaguar

This afternoon, my husband returned the Jaguar that he won for a week. As reported in my 4th of July parade post, he entered a trivia contest at work, hoping to win a $20 Starbucks gift card. Instead, he was one of the grand prize winners, scoring a 7-day Jag rental.

Problem is, we didn't really know what to do with it. We prefer driving Canyonero (my Aztek) because of all the room for groceries, household stuff, gardening suppplies, etc. that we are constantly buying. Plus, we discovered that a Jaguar is hard to tame down on the 25 m.p.h. streets of Celebration. It rockets forward at the slightest touch of the accelerator, and the speedometer is marked in 20 mile incremements, which makes it hard to gauge lower numbers. I scrupulously obey the speed limit; if I'm feeling particularly wild, I might flirt with 28 or 29, but that's as rebellious as I get.

We entered it in the Fourth of July parade, and after that, it mostly just sat out front. This Friday, it was time to return it to its home at Hertz Rent-A-Car, hopefully to go to someone who appreciates its abilities. My husband drove it to the Hertz location just outside the airport's North Exit. Then he took the shuttle bus to the terminal, where I picked him up so we could head to Florida Mall. He has been in desperate need of a new computer for a while now, so we figured we could swing over to Best Buy. We hate shopping in and around the mall, so we were pleased at the prospect of getting that unpleasant task over with.

We took Boggy Creek Road to Sand Lake Road to avoid the typical mess on Orange Blossom Trail. Traffic around Florida Mall typically resembles I-4 at rush hour. It resembles a giant parking lot, although the vehicles do crawl forward an inch or two every five minutes or so. Sand Lake is typically not as bad as OBT, so we slipped into one of the mall's back entrances.

We both like California Pizza Kitchen, so we fueled up with a shrimp/goat cheese/wild mushroom pizza and two-in-a-bowl soup before heading off to the hell that is Best Buy. We also stopped briefly at Bath & Body Works to load up on scented plug-ins. I know you can get 'em at the grocery store, but B&BW has such wonderful smells. My husband's favorite is Sun Ripened Raspberry, but I'm partial to Pearberry or Tangerine myself. We keep them plugged in at strategic locations throughout Duloc Manor, just in case I've been lax on my daily litterbox duty.

My husband is a very focused electronics shopper, and he doesn't appreciate commentary from the "peanut gallery" (i.e. me). Often, he takes forever as he pours over each little feature and nuance of a computer or television set or digital camera. Even when he has already done his research on the internet (as he had in this case), I still find that it's best for marital harmony if I just stay out of his way. Thus, I dropped him off at Best Buy and headed into Barnes & Noble next door to see if there were any new true crime books.

I managed to dig up two books that I hadn't read yet and headed back to the car. A quick call on the cell phone revealed that hubby was nearly done. He'd chosen his computer and was heading to the checkout. I pulled up in front of the store, snapped on my flashers, and waited...and waited. Finally, I called him again, only to discover that the front cashiers had sent him back to the rear of the store to check out. I was getting nervous because I was sitting in a precarious spot, halfway between blocking a handicapped parking spot and the entrance to the store. You'd think an electronics retailer, were people are likely to be hauling out big, heavy boxes, would have a pickup lane, right? Heck, no!

I finally got out and opened the rear hatch so it would be quite apparent that I was only making a temporary nusiance of myself. A few minutes later, I saw hubby heading out; he paused for a third degree by a worker at the door who checked his receipt as though he were on th FBI's Most Wanted List. Then, at long last, his new computer was safely stowed in Canyonero so we could head back home to Celebration.

How I hate to leave "the bubble," as Celebration residents tend to call our hometown. We tend to put off shopping at stores that cause us to leave town as long as possible. I don't really count the Xentury City Publix, since it's right across 192. I don't count going to dinner at Disney World as technically leaving, either; for me, Disney property is sort of an extension of the bubble.

At home, my husband has been busily setting up his PC, while I have been glued to the news. On Saturday morning, we're supposed to go on a long-awaited Segway tour at Epcot. Then, in the early evening, the Front Porch Picnic is supposed to take place. It looks like the fringe effects of Hurricane Dennis might make the whole day a washout. Hard to tell; storms are so unpredictable, even with the best scientific equipment. I guess I'll know when I wake up in the morning.

No matter what, it looks like Central Florida is escaping a direct hit, thank God. I feel so bad for the people in Haiti and Cuba who are going through the brunt of the storm, and it looks like it's going to batter parts of the U.S. too. A very ugly start to hurricane season...maybe, if we're lucky, it will be the end too (although I doubt it, as we've still got a few months to go).

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Thar We Blow Again!

It seems like hurricane season just started, and already we have Dennis (the fourth named storm so far) bearing down on Florida after wreaking destruction in Jamaica and threatening to hit Cuba at any time. Last year we got hammered, but at least it was at the end of the season, so eventually we knew we were safe for another year. If it's been this bad and we're only in July, I dread imagining what will happen by September.

At Category 4, Dennis is a musclebound storm. Originally, it was supposed to avoid FL altogether, but now it looks like we're going to get some fringe effects. At worst, it could veer and attack us on the same path as Charley. I don't want to imagine that possibility; I still remember what Kissimmee and Poinciana looked like after the devestating wind and rain last year. They still aren't fully recovered, so another strong storm would be a death knell for many of the homes that barely survived the last blast.

We have bottled water and extra cat litter, but that's about the extent of our hurricane preparation. We need to stock up on cat food and human non-perishables, but it's one of those things we never quite get around to. I'm probably somewhat complacent by seeing how well our house survived last year. We got by with minor soffit damage from Charley; the other storms tossed our landscaping around but didn't damage the house. But that was due to the storm's course; if its track had been just a bit different, Celebration wouldn't have fared nearly as well.

I guess it's no different than the tornados that I'm used to in the Midwest. They can rip one house apart, leaving nothing but a slab or gaping basement hole, and leave the place next door untouched. We were fortunate never to have a tornado touch down close to our condo, but over the years there were some bad ones that ripped through neighboring communities. Plainfield, which is about half an hour's drive away, is smack dab in the middle of Tornado Alley. I had co-workers who lost everything when a particularly nasty twister tore through there a few years back.

Our old townhome was close that tornado-haven vicinity; I remember driving to pick up a propane tank one afternoon and noticing that the sky had turned green. Both my husband and I stared up in awe as a funnel cloud danced through the sky in the distance. Thankfully, it was moving away from us and never touched down.

While tornados were our worst weather worry in Illinois, Florida can get a double whammy. When a hurricane comes, the risk of tornados is elevated, too. Oh well, with any luck, we'll escape this one mostly unscathed. If it continues on its present course, we'll get some residual wind and rain...and consider ourselves very lucky.

I can deal with bad weather, but I'm praying frantically for a reprieve because of a special event on Saturday. I am very active on Celebration's Front Porch intranet forums, and this weekend we're having a picnic so posters and lurkers can meet each other face to face. Usually, we're all staring at computer screens, with no idea who we're bantering with via our keyboard. One of the posters had a brainstorm: Hold a picnic so we can meet in "real time."

We've been planning this get-together for quite some time, and yesterday we made the final preparations. We took a little field trip to Sam's Club and loaded up on burgers, hot dogs, chips, buns, condiments, plates, napkins, silverware, pop, and bottled water. Our little group is providing the core items, and attendees are bringing pot luck dishes.

I've been compiling a list of attendees, and it looks like we could have around 60 people (or maybe more if we get some surprise drop-ins). We've got the pavillion in North Village reserved so we have lots of lawn space for games and picnicking, as well as the pool for relief from the heat.

But now everyone is getting worried as the newscasters dangle Dennis as the lead story in each broadcast. The Fox newsteam has promised "responsible coverage," but so far they haven't defined that phrase. I guess they're implying that they won't resort to fear-mongering and sensationalism. We used to have that same thing happen in Chicago with snowstorms. A somewhat minor storm would be whipped by the media frenzy into "Killer Blizzard!" and "Monster Snowstorm!"

I hope they really do stick to responsible reporting because people in Florida are already gun-shy. Charley, Frances, and Jeanne showed us just how nasty a hurricane can be, even inland, and just how many storms can hit in one year. The anxiety fire doesn't need any more fuel.

Right now, the sky is a gorgeous shade of azure, punctuated by white, fluffy clouds. It's hard to imagine that tomorrow it could be dark and angry, with gale-forced winds. Maybe Mother Nature will take pity on us this year and focus her wrath elsewhere. Even if she just holds off for the picnic, I'll be happy; we can use a little fun before the hurricanes make their 2005 comeback.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Subversive Side of Celebration

On the tidy streets of Celebration, behind the neatly clipped lawns and the pristine house facades, you could probably never imagine the subversive television viewing activities going on.

Even I had no idea, and I consider myself pretty open-minded. I was an early fan of "Beavis and Butthead" and "Ren & Stimpy," and I watched "South Park" in the early days, before it entered the mainstream. Ah, those were the days! Some of the new episodes are still funny, but for me, nothing has ever topped Stan's grandpa begging him to perform euthanasia while all of the parents were committing suicide by sling-shot-ing themselves into the wall of the Cartoon Central building to protest "Terrence & Phillip" fart humor. (Well, okay, Cartman's tricking Scott Tennerman into eating the flesh of his own parents somes close, and "Woodland Critter Christmas" is the ultimate holiday classic.)

Nowadays, the foul-mouthed Colorado kids are nearly passe, and the new version of "Family Guy" is a watered-down shadow of its former disgusting, politically incorrect first incarnation. I loved "Kid Notorious" on Comedy Central, but I think I was one of only three people who ever watched it (and one of the other two was my husband, who I forced). I thought the only truly pants-wetting-hilarious, politically incorrect cartoon was "Drawn Together," and even they exhibited a rare modicum of taste by not airing the Christopher Reeve episode due to his passing away.

For the uninitiated, "Drawn Together" is an animated spoof on reality shows, in which characters such as Foxxy Love (a Josey and the Pussycats/blaxploitation 70s character), Toot (a chunky, black-and-white Betty Boop clone whose hobbies are eating and cutting herself), Wooldoor Sockbat (a cross between Stimpy and Spongebob Squarepants), Princess Clara (a stuck-up, racist Disney-style princess), Spanky Ham (a nasty internet cartoon who looks suspiciously like Chuckles the Silly Piggy from "Dave the Barbarian"), Ling-Ling (a Pokeman ripoff), Captain Hero (the requisite muscle-bound jock superhero), and Xandir (an elfin video game hero who was on a "neverending quest to save his girlfriend" until his housemates forced him out of the closet) attempt to live together in harmony.

Typical plots include the housemates' efforts to help Clara with her "problem" (her genitals are inhabited by an octopuss monster), leading the characters to break into song like on "Scooby Doo" and those other 60s Hanna Barbera classics. But on "DT," the lyrics aren't exactly Saturday morning material; the song is "La La Labia, Baby."

"Drawn Together" can manage to gross out and/or offend virtually anyone, regardless of sex, race, orientation, or belief system. You know that you're being very, very naughty by watching it, but that's part of why it feels so good. I get the same feeling when I dare to admit how much I enjoy "Reno 911."

But although "DT" walks the edge, it's getting hard to shock people in a day when even Disney Channel cartoons have their subversive moments. For example, on the "Lilo and Stitch" series, for Halloween Lilo dresses up like a Disney princess...with a bloody ax embedded in her skull. On "Dave the Barbarian," Fang yells at Uncle Oswich for touching her monkey warmer. He laments, "But touching the monkey is addictive!" (If you don't get it, think back to Dieter's Dance Party on "Saturday Night Live.")

Thus, when I tell you about a show that was revealed to me by a Celebration friend, please, please believe me when I classify it was possibly the most disgusting and offensive thing that I've ever watched on t.v. I feel like scrubbing my eyes out with Lysol when I'm done. But still, like a train wreck in which an engine full of babies collided head-on with one full of nuns at 75 m.p.h., I want to look away...I know I should look away...but I just can't. Dare I admit it, it makes me laugh. It's horrible...hideous...and often very funny in the most perverted way possible.

The show is called "Wonder Showzen," airing on MTV2. It looks like a PBS children's program on the order of "Sesame Street" or "Zoom," and the theme song would even lead you to believe that. But here is the advisory, verbatum:


If you are easily offended, I implore you not, I repeat NOT to click the link below. It is a link to the Wonder Showzen pilot, which the show's creator's prepared for the USA Network. USA immediately took a pass, but they somehow convinced MTV to go for it, albeit buried on their bastard red-haired step-sibling channel.

It will open in a new window, and since it's a 15 minutes video, it may take some time to download (I only recommend it for high speed connections). One more time, before you click, I implore you to think twice, especially if graphic horse sex, child reporters questioning adults as they come out of the bathroom, puppet sex and childbirth, cows pooping, and a turkey getting its head lopped off would disturb you. You'll either think it's hilarious or will projectile vomit all over your computer screen and then start a petition to get me run out of Celebration (just remember, I'm not the one who discovered this!).

Don't say I didn't warn you: Click here to see the train wreck

Okay, hopefully you survived that, or had the good sense not to click on the link. And speaking of puppet sex, that makes a good segue into another subversive piece of viewing material that I was introduced to by yet another Celebration resident. It's both hilarious and disturbing, although in a more mainstream way than "Wonder Showzen." I'm referring to the movie "Team American: World Police," created by Matt and Trey of "South Park" fame.

"Team America's" characters are all marrionettes, but that doesn't stop them from destroying various locations around the world, decapitating liberal celebrities, and making graphic love in almost any imaginable position. I was nearly rolling on the floor throughout the movie, although the hilarity factor was probably enhanced by chugging margaritas beforehand. For those who appreciated the "South Park" soundtrack, you'll love "America, F&!k Yeah!" and "Montage" (which is also featured in the Aspen timeshare "SP" episode). The movie is loaded with quotable quotes and dialogue so hokey that it makes George Lucas look like Shakespeare. I had wanted to see it in the theater, but somehow I never got around to it. Now, it's a must for my home DVD collection.

Click here for the "Team America" script. I promise it won't make Jesus cry like "Wonder Showzen surely does; it's funny and subversive in a much more mainstream South Park/Simpsons/Family Guy kind of way.

When I moved to Celebration, I thought I was already corrupted pretty thoroughly. Now, I can see that I barely scratched the surface. I'm tapped into the seamy undercurrents flowing below the Disney/Stepford facade, and life will never be the same.

So if you're ever in Celebration in the evening and you see the bluish flicker of a television screen dancing around the edges of a window shade, be very, very afraid. And if someone tries to invite you inside for some t.v. or a movie, RUN! You never know what disturbing images might be dancing on their screen.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

4th of July, Part 2: The Holiday

As I mentioned in my previous post, Celebration residents got to double-dip this holiday weekend. We had the premiere of "Tugger" on July 2nd and then our usual festivities on the 4th.

I was a bit worried that the actual holiday would be sort of a letdown after all the Tugger fun. How can you top a movie premiere and celebrity concert, not to mention a dazzling fireworks show? But heck, I'm not one to turn down two days of partying, so I was looking forward to the "rerun."

Fourth of July was decidedly different than the Tugger event. It was more of a "traditional" small town festivity, complete with hokey parade in the morning, right down to fireworks over the lake to cap off the night. In between, it was much more low-key than Tugger, with the usual downtown booths and entertainment that are omnipresent at Celebration events. No giant movie screens, no concert roadies. Even the Shell oil tanker was missing, although Shell reps. were still taking Tugger photos and handing out fans/fireworks "enhancers" (like the angel glasses at Disney MGM for the Osborne Light Spectacular). Here's our picture:

You can tell that I am having a great time, but my husband looks less than thrilled. He must know that he's going to end up in a car trunk on the 4th...but that's getting ahead of the story.

Our Fourth of July was slated to start quite early, as I'd entered us in the parade. I was originally planning to drive Canyonero (my Aztek), but my husband won a free Jaguar rental for a week. He entered a trivia contest at work, hoping to win a $20 Starbucks gift card, and he ended up with the Jag. We're not really car buffs (come on, we drive a 'TEK!), so we didn't really know what we'd do with it. Then, brainstorm...why not use the Jaguar for the parade? Canyonero can always wait until next year, unless some crazed tourist or speeding Celebration Hummer destroys it in the meantime.

The theme of the parade was "The Fabulous 50s," so I borrowed a CD of 1950s sitcom theme songs and set to work on related decor. I made three panels for each side of the car, decorated with a scene from each of 10 shows, such as Howdy Doody and Donna Reed. Then, I topped the whole thing off with pink, white, and blue balloons (yes, I know, but Wal-Mart was out of red ones; my husband said we could pretend they had faded in the Florida sun).

This was my first time driving in a parade, but I've been in many on horseback. My horse, Cochise, is nearing 30 now, but when he was a youngster, I used to ride in several parades in the suburban Chicago area. I swear that horse knew exactly what he was doing and played to the audience. One year, as we were riding along, he suddenly reared up as we passed the judges' stand and did some sort of quasi-Lippizzan rear/buck. They seemed to like it, so I nudged him with my heels while putting pressure on the reins, and he did it again...and again. We ended up winning "Best Performance" (I didn't even know there was such a thing), and that became his parade trick.

Only problem was, every now and then he'd rear up a bit too high, and I'd have visions of him crashing over backwards and squashing me like a bug in front of hundreds of people (it can happen; a friend of mine had a horse fall backwards on her, although thankfully she escaped with minor bruises). Even in my terror, I would maintain a happy, everything's-under-control face because someone was inevitably nearby with a camera. Fortunately, Cochise never lost his balance. These days, he's too old to buck or rear very high, although he tries every now and then.

The Jaguar was much easier to control than a horse, although it tended to rocket forward with even the tiniest touch of the accelerator. After a bit of practice, I learned to keep it at a steady idle speed.

The 3rd was mostly a day of rest; we attended church in the morning, then went to Bennigan's for lunch with friends. On the monitor in church, there was a large blow-up of Mel Gibson in "The Patriot." Last time I attended, they showed a movie clip from "What Women Want," starring Mel. No wonder I love Community Presbyterian...any church that gives me a weekly dose of Mel Gibson is tops in my book! Now, if they'll just start showing Johnny Depp clips...

Afterwards, I worked on blowing up endless amounts of ballons and pasting photos on my panels. The cats were trying their darndest to assist, but claws and balloons are not a good mix. I tried locking them out of my work area, but that was a pointless exercise in futility. They scratched frantically at the door, and my limited workspace was soon too cluttered anyway, so finally I relented and just worked around them.

Then we headed over to a friend's house for a NEV (Neighborhood Electric Vehicle) decorating party. Her vehicle was being featured as the Democrats of Celebration entry, so we all descended on it with a mound of streams and banners and patrioctic garland. Soon it was transformed from an ordinary little red and white NEV to a gaudy, parade-ready patriotic bandwagon.

After we returned home, I finished up the Jag decor and stashed it out of reach of the cats. My husband and I decided to wait until morning to put the decorations on the car. We didn't know just how motion-worthy they would be, so the smartest course of action seemed to be plastering them on in the staging area.

We were up bright and early the next morning, learning the complexities of stashing 36 inflated balloons into a car. We decided that Canyonero would be the "roadie vehicle," since the panels wouldn't fit inside the Jag without being folded. We headed to the Sycamore parking lot, where the parade was slated to begin, and settled into slot 23 to transform the Jag into a rolling monstrosity of balloons and black-and-white sitcoms.

We were among the first to arrive, but the other participants slowly trickled in. As they arrived, I quickly realized that 90 percent of them either a) hadn't bothered to keep to the theme; or b) didn't even know there was a theme. Red, white, and blue banners, flags, and streamers were the order of the day, with very little Fabulous 50s worked in.

Among those who did go with the theme, see if you can guess the obvious choice. Now remember, Celebration is known as the "Disney Town." 1950s...Disney...Fabulous 50s...Mickey Mouse. If you said, "Mickey Mouse Club," you've earned a pair of ears. My Jag was surrounded by two dueling "Mickey Mouse Club" factions: the Celebrators (a retiree group) and Gaw Realty. The Gaw gaggle had festooned a floatilla of NEVs with giant mouse ears. Not to be outdone, the Celebrators had hoola hoop performers and a roller skater (yes, rollerskates, not blades).

Apparently, Celebration has a parade entry contest, but unlike most parades, it isn't broken down into categories (i.e. marching bands, floats, cars, bicycles, etc.). Everything is against everything else, and both Gaw and the Celebrators were determined to win. In the end, the old-timers triumphed (how can you compete with people who actually lived the 50s?), while the Gaw entry came in third. I never did figure out who/what won second place; by that time, I was holed up in the car with the stereo blasting. My hyperacusis makes fireworks-viewing difficult, and it also causes ear pain with certain pitches like backfiring cars and loud motorcycles. Since both of those items were entered in the parade, and were therefore nearby in the staging area, the music helped offset their painful pitch.

Of course, people might have though my Jag was backfiring, too. I'd insisted on inflating the balloon as much as possible, not realizing that they'd expand in the vicious Florida July sunshine. Every now and then, one would explode with a jolting POP!

My poor husband, who had won the Jaguar rental in the first place, was relegated to the trunk. When I was originally going to drive Canyonero, I thought it would be cool to have him sit on the tailgate, waving a giant flag. Now that we had switched vehicles, I clung to my original idea, but the Jag's trunk was decidedly less user-friendly. Still, he was a good sport and balanced himself in the back, fulfilling my artistic vision:

Oddly enough, there were a number of exotic cars in the parade that were not decorated at all. In the parades of my youth in the Chicago 'burbs, if you wanted to be in the parade, you had to stap on streamers and banners and stars and stripes, no matter what you were driving. In Celebration, I wondered if I had committed a travesty by sullying a Jag with common ballons and posterboard.

Another odd thing about the parade is that there are no "real" floats. I'm used to lots of big, fancy entries, even from community groups, as that's what we always had in Illinois on the Fourth, even in small suburbs. I guess that wouldn't be too practical in Celebration; there's no way a full-sized float could have made the turn out of the parking lot. The Celebration parade is definitely very "small town." The closest thing I ever saw was in a little town called Ward, in Colorado. It's a bastion of ex-hippies, where the classic VWs are plentiful and the children and dogs run free. One year, we were vacationing in Estes Park and were on a drive to Boulder. Our driver decided to take us through the Ward time warp, but apparently it was the day of their annual Fourth of July parade. The town is so small that they hadn't even blocked off the streets too well. Thus, we somehow found ourselves in the parade! Since most of it just seemed to be people walking down the street, we fit right in (well, almost...we weren't in a Beetle).

Celebration's parade has more entries and more decor than Ward's, but the number of spectators was much more sparse than I had expected. Still, even though it looks impressive to have hundreds of people jostling for space in a wall-to-wall crowd, it was rather cool to head down our hometown streets and actually recognize so many of the people as friends and neighbors. With the 50s tunes blasting, I couldn't hear a thing, but my husband got lots of good-natured ribbing about his perch in the trunk. He played social butterfly, waving to the spectators, while I concentrated on not punching the accelerator too hard and destroying the vehicle in front of me.

We learned the futility of sticking with the theme when my husband found himself continually fielding the question, "What's up with the 50s shows?" Also, from the younger generation, "What are those shows?" Next year, I'll be driving Canyonero and going with a Simpsons theme, no matter that the "official" theme is (for those who aren't fans, Canyonero is the name of a big, obnoxious SUV in two Simpsons episodes).

Overall, the parade was great fun. Even though I'm used to fancier floats and a bigger turnout, I liked the whole retro feel...a small-town gathering of townsfolk. Goodness knows we have plenty of big, crowded events; even the Fourth of July turns into a madhouse of tourists as the day wears on. It's cool to have a hometown Celebration event in the morning.

The rest of the day went by quickly. We planned to head downtown around 6 p.m., as we were attending a barbeque at Celebration Hotel. Meanwhile, we had a late breakfast at Cracker Barrel and went home to slip in a few hours of work (neither of our jobs pause for the holidays).

We usually walk downtown when there is some big hoopla rather than fighting for a parking spot, but this time we decided to drive so we wouldn't be all hot and sweaty when we got to the restaurant. Amazingly, parking was not too crazy yet. We didn't even stress ourselves with trying to find something unreasonably close. We just parked near the 851 building, facing towards East Village for an easy getaway. I prefer being on the street rather than in a parking lot because the lots are a madhouse after the fireworks.

The hotel was holding a ticketed barbeque buffet, which included being able to view the fireworks from their pool area. The Rotary Club of Celebration was holding a concurrent event; they had reserved the Plantation Room as their dining area (a nice respite from the muggy weather). The food was bountiful and delicious...everything from ribs, brats, and burgers to pulled pork, chicken wings and grilled mahi. Th honey barbeque wings had a bite to them, but they were addictive. There was also a variety of traditional salads with a twist (my favorite was the potato salad, which had a different hue and a delicious flavor that I couldn't quite identify). There were many temptations at the dessert bar, but I opted for a huge white chocolate-coated candy apple. Heaven! The price included an open bar; I stuck to iced tea, but my husband downed three glasses of wine.

After dinner, we had some time before the fireworks, so we went wandering among the booths. I paused for a 10 minute massage at the Celebration Day Spa area, and we headed down to the church to see Celebration's new theater group performing patriotic songs. We missed the first part, but from what we saw, they did a wonderful job. Then we headed back out into the crowd, which had swollen a thousandfold from the morning. We figured that by the time we managed to work our way back to the hotel, fireworks time would be nigh.

We scoped out a spot near the pool and waited; a big, black thundercloud was threatening, but I think the people of Celebration kept it away by a combined act of will. This time, I had remembered my shooters' headphones, so I was able to watch the show without clamping my hands over my ears. The Tugger fireworks had been quite a sight to behold, so I was wondering if the second show could measure up. It most certainly did! The hotel deck is a perfect viewing spot, and the show was absolutely dazzling. This year, I've been spoiled rotten with two shows. Usually I'm happy enough with just one, but if that's all we get next year, it will be quite a letdown! I hope that Tugger is successful,and I have to admit that part of my reason is selfish...I'd love to have another premiere every year.

Unlike the Tugger fireworks, the crowd on the 4th was massive. My husband and I worked our way through the mass of humanity to our vehicle, which we'd left in a relatively uncrowded area. But while we were gone, the cars had come out of the woodwork to plaster the parking areas solid all the way down to Eastlawn. We quite literally would have gotten home more quickly by walking, but we'd known that when we chose to drive. Lightning was flashing overhead, so I was glad we were in the car just in case a downpour started. Fortunately, the monsoon held off until most people had probably made it home.

All in all, it was probably one of my best Fourth of July weekends ever. The only memory that comes close is a childhood 4th at the Beecher fair. Now, it's time to return to the work week and look forward to Founders Day in November (the next big Celebration bash).

Learn more about Celebration on my website: