Monday, October 31, 2005

Celebrating Halloween

Finally! My first full Halloween in Celebration!

Even though we've owned Duloc Manor for two years, we were still commuting back and forth to the Midwest. Now that we've settled into Celebration permanently, I can finally enjoy my favorite holiday properly.

I'm suffering from a Halloween deficit, having lived in a condo for almost a decade. Before that, I lived in a townhome where my husband and I put on a spectacle each year. Outside, our house looked plain and unassuming (albeit like something out of the 70s, since it was sided in a groovy shade of avocado). But once the kids knocked on the door, they'd be greeted by my husband in a tattered, bloody t-shirt with a handcuff dangling from his wrist. He'd thrust a handful of candy at them and yell, "Hurry! Take the candy and run! You've got to escape before SHE gets back." Then I'd burst out of hiding, wearing a Grim Reaper get-up, complete with bloody knife. I'd drag poor hubby back into the house and slam the door to his screams.

We built up quite a reputation among the neighborhood kids. On one notable Halloween, a group came to the door while my husband was on a potty break. They weren't satisfied with a lone Grim Reaper; they chanted, "Do the show!" I sent them away for a few minutes, and they returned when hubby was done with his pit stop.

Sometimes I wonder if the people who bought that townhome wondered why they got so many trick-or-treaters the first year or two. Meanwhile, we moved into a third-floor condo, and I went through several years of Halloween deficit. To make up for some of it, my husband and I became haunted house connesuiers. There wasn't a church, school, or community spookhouse fund raiser within 30 miles (or sometimes more) that we didn't visit.

Some of the more notable haunted houses we visited were the one with live rats, the one with a slide from the top floor to the ground floor, and the one in an abandoned church where you were locked into a claustrophobic "elevator" and buried in Chuckie Cheese-style balls (in pitch darkness, when you have no idea what's going on, it's much scarier than it sounds). We also enjoyed the "alien base" where you were blinded with a spotlight and then thrust into complete darkness, eventually finding your way out into a direct line of machine-gun fire. The most unique had to be a church-sponsored haunted house, held in a vacant store in a semi-abandoned shopping mall. In addition to the traditional scenes, there was a graphic depiction of the crucifiction, and then you had to walk over "Hell," complete with tortured souls being pitchforked by shrieking demons.

We also tried to get to Six Flags every year, although their haunted houses tended to be polarized...either really great or really awful. The scariest was the year that we got in after waiting over an hour, only to hear the announcement, "This attraction has temporarily ceased operation", that was scary! Occasionally, we'd check out the Halloween festivities as Six Flags parks in other states, and even at Cedar Point (my favorite amusement park). And of course we did Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party; the best part of that is the Headless Horseman.

Now that we have our home in Celebration, I can once again greet the trick-or-treaters. We didn't do anything too elaborate this year, as I wasn't sure how many kids would show up. Although Main Village (i.e. Downtown Celebration) tends to be a mob scene, East Village is off the beaten path, and Duloc Manor is tucked away on a cul de sac. Thus, I decided to go for modest-but-inviting. I put pumpkin lights out in the flower bed, a light-up spider in the front bush, and an inflatable black cat to guard the front door. In keeping with the cat-and-pumpkin theme, I found a perfect decorative wreath at Cracker Barrel.

Publix had an awesome giant inflatable Snoopy/Woodstock, but they were too pricey. Lo and behold, while grocery shopping today, I discovered that they were 50 percent off. Soon they were staked out on my lawn to greet the tick-or-treaters.

The days leading up to Halloween were a whirlwind. We did the Haunted Trolley Tour described in my previous blog entry, and we also went to a costume party over the weekend. I had an inflatable cowgirl-on-a-horse outfit, and I somehow talked poor hubby into wearing a hospital gown with an open back and a very prominent fake butt.

Parties are fun, but I still miss trick-or-treating (probably the voyeur in me; I enjoyed the candy, but the best part was knocking on strangers' doors and peeking into their houses). If I were given the opportunity to do just one childhood experience over again, it would have to be one of those wonderful, reckless Halloween nights. When I was a kid, we trick-or-treated for hours, traveling far from home. The only thing that stopped us was when our bulging shopping bags became too heavy to carry. We didn't worry about tainted candy; our favorite goodies were the homemade treats like caramel apples and popcorn balls.

Things are different now. Trick-or-treating is a cautious, controlled experience. I'm sure it's still fun, but I'm sad that the children of today will never know that wonderful sense of freedom.

But since I can't beg from door to door myself, I can still enliven the experience for the kiddies. I donned my inflatable horse costume, complete with a fresh set of batteries, filled up a basket with chocolate temptations, and waited for the doorbell to ring.

I had planned a quick jaunt to Main Village first, as I wanted to see the legendary crowds firsthand. Last year, my husband and I flew back to Chicago on Halloween afternoon. As we drove down Celebration Avenue on our way to the airport, we saw the mass of people already gathering. There were literally busloads of trick-or-treaters pulling into town! I was dying to stay, but that wasn't a possibility.

This year, at least I was in Florida, but I ended up having to stay around the East Village homestead. A phone company technician came out to install a new line this afternoon, since I am starting a new business this month. Unfortunately, he needed to run it from the main box in the alley, and the line was nowhere to be found. All the other lots are tagged, but ours is missing. Finally, he had to give up till tomorrow, but by that time it was too late to head out.

Oh well, it was after five, the official start time of Halloween. The candy was ready, my costume was ready, and Stitch-kitty was ready to sprint out the door the moment it opened. I brought my laptop into the front-room so I could do some work while anticipating the first little goblins of the night.

Trick-or-treat started out slow; at first, I was beginning to worry that we might not get anyone at all! There were only a few houses on my cul de sac with their porch lights on (signifying that they were handing out candy), so perhaps some of the kids didn't want to veer from the main street for a relatively small payoff. Fortunately, the children started to trickle in, and then they began arriving more steadily. I was glad that I had bought Snoopy because he is huge and he lights up. Our house is smack dab in the middle of the block, so he stood like a beacon once darkness had fallen.

I didn't get nearly as many youngsters as those in the main part of town (one person reported 500 by 7:30!). But the doorbell rang steadily from 5:30 to about 7:30, and the last group arrived a little past 8. I made it about 3/4 of the way through a 100-piece bag of candy, although I let most of the kids take more than one. Farquaad and Tooncinator stayed out of sight, but Stitch managed to escape twice. Fortunately, he doesn't go far, especially when there are admirers on hand to pet him and make a fuss over him. He's mostly black, so he makes a perfect Halloween cat.

I love seeing the kids' costumes. Superheros and Star Wars were both big this year; I liked the Batman and Spiderman costumes with light-up fiber optic logos. A lot of the youngsters were also carrying multi-colored glow sticks for safety. The kids (and some of the adults) got a kick out of my costume, too. It was rather unwieldly, since I had to maneuver a huge inflated horse head and legs in front of me while a mini fan vibrated disconcertingly on my butt, but the peoples' reactions were well worth it.

Now it's 9 o'clock, and there hasn't been a knock on the door for almost an hour. Halloween is over for another year, and the rush-rush Christmas season will burst forth in full bloom by tomorrow. But even though Thanksgiving and Christmas get all the big play, Halloween will always be my favorite. Now that I live in Celebration, it will be better than ever...I'm already planning how I'll expand my decorations next year.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Halloween Bunnies

It's Halloween weekend, and the Bunny Brigade of Celebration, Florida, has already started the party! (NOTE: If you want to see photos, click here.)

This weekend, the Celebration Trolley is touring some of the best-decorated houses. For $5, you can pile on and embark on a haunted adventure. Thus, on Friday night, the Bunnies were out in force, converging on the downtown trolley stop.

Since two of my neighbors were joining us, they packed into Canyonero with my husband and I for the brief jaunt to Front Street. We decided to leave a little early so we could stop at Barnie's for some liquid refreshment. Usually I go for the Coffee Coolers, which I am convinced contain addictive drugs, but this time I was swayed by an iced chai. The rest of our merry little band selected coffee drinks, and then we headed off to meet the other Bunnies.

For those who may not be rabid followers of my blog, the Bunny Brigade is a loose-knit social club, made up of pretty much anyone who is willing to don fuzzy pastel bunny ears in public, drink, carouse, and generally have a good time. To paraphrase the immortal words of Ed Wood, as quoted by Tim Burton in his classic movie, "We're not judgemental; if we were, we wouldn't have any members." We've been in existence a little over a year (our first event was stalking the Tampa Bay Bucs in the Town Tavern when they were staying at the hotel in town back in 2005), but we've already managed to attain a decent degree of notoriety.

As we headed for the trolley stop, it was easy to spot our fellow Brigade members. We simply homed in on the forest of fuzzy ears. We were planning to take the 7:30 tour, which would make it dark enough to get the full effect of the lights and decorations.

Ticket sales were being conducted by Peter Pan and the Devil...quite a polar combination! Soon, everyone had their tickets in hand; I'll admit we got some odd looks and comments as we packed the queue line, awaiting our ride into the nether regions of Celebration. The tourists (and probably some of the locals) couldn't help but wonder why a group of grown people had gathered together in front of the lake in bunny headdresses. It probably wouldn't be as shocking to the out-of-towners if we were all clad in Mickey Mouse ears. After all, we're the "Disney Town." But remember, long before he created the world-famous rodent, Walt's first character was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Thus, while it may not be apparent to non-Disneyphiles, we're paying homage to Uncle Walt in our own small way.

Of course, there were plenty of people who knew us, too. One of our members, who couldn't join the tour because she was waiting for a table at Max's with visiting family members, spotted us and dashed across the street, exclaiming, "My people! My people!" Another interrupted his birthday celebration to stop by for a quick hello.

The trolley was running a bit late, but we knew that it would show up eventually because we had passed it on our way downtown. We saw it heading toward Artisan Park as we turned out of East Village. The 6:30 run looked like it was full, and judging from the crowd of people that had filled in behind us, 7:30 was going to be packed to the rafters, too.

Soon, our Halloween chariot had arrived, and we piled on in wild anticipation. Peter Pan boarded with us, joining Tinker Bell and our driver, Wacky Willy. The Bunny Brigade took up about a third of the trolley space, scattered among other locals and tourists, but I think we accounted for 90 percent of the rowdiness.

As we drove through Celebration, Tinker Bell shared some town trivia. I learned some new facts about my hometown; for example, the only residential street with palm trees is East Lawn. I drive down that street nearly every day, and I never realized that! We also had the honor of having a couple onboard who are not only Bunny Brigade members, but also two of the town's original residents. They've lived in Celebration since 1996, so next year will mark a decade for them.

We headed over to East Village, where we oogled at the lights and had a visit "Grandma," who passed out candy through the trolley windows. Then it was off to Artisan Park for more decorated houses before we wove our way back through West Village towards the main part of town and the highlight of the tour. We stopped by Verandah Place, where some enterprising residents have set up an actual walk-through haunted house in their yard and garage! The elaborate props, scenes, and monsters were on a par with some of the professional haunted houses I've seen. At the end, those brave enough to make it through were rewarded with candy bars. I selected a Hersheys with Almonds, while hubby (who has obviously been brainwashed by too much "Simpsons") selected a Butterfinger.

Apparently, the Bunny Brigade has achieved a small degree of infamy in town. As we piled out at the haunted house, the home owners actually recognized us! Of course, the ears are a dead giveaway, but wearing weird get-ups is not necessarily unusual at Halloween. We were pleased to be recognized as a year-'round group of crazies rather than fair-weather partiers who only parade our propensity for wearing fake animal parts once a year.

To cap the tour, we headed off for an elaborate set-up in North Village (my favorite part is the Area 51 alien scene) before we returned to Front Street to let the next group of revelers on board. It was great fun, and I'm hoping that it becomes an annual event.

The night was still young, so the Bunny Brigade simply moved the party to the home of our Grande Dame/High Priestess. With the margaritas flowing freely, we addressed such deep philosophical questions as "Have aliens visited the earth?", "Are ghosts real?", and "Do Heaven and Hell exist?" But as the alcohol level rose, the conversation deteriorated into Celebration gossip and our favorite memories of the Mickey Mommas visit to the Cypress Cove nudist resort (which I chronicled a few blog entries back).

If you haven't already checked out the Halloween photos, click here!

Eventually we all drifted out into the night (I think it was around midnight, which is fitting for a Halloween gathering) and headed back to our respective villages. We had kicked off the holiday weekend with a bang, so now it was time to rest up and regain our strength for two more days of partying.

For those of you who are in the Celebration area, there are still two more days of trolley runs. I urge you to take the Haunted Trolley tour! Here are the details:

Oct. 28 & 29, 6:30 – 9 pm, Oct. 30, 5:30 – 9 pm
Downtown Lakeside (at the end of Market Street)
$5 for adults, $3 for kids 3 – 12 (Free for kids under 3)

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Snowbird Season

As autumn's chill sets in across the country, the snowbirds are winging their way back to Celebration. I'm glad because our little corner of East Village feels more complete during snowbird season. We have neighbors who summer in Virginia and return to Florida around October. Our block seems incomplete while they are gone; now, it feels like the "gang" is all together.

Since we keep an eye on their house while they're gone, they rewarded us with dinner tonight. We ended up at Cafe Tu Tu Tango, one of my favorite places on International Drive. I love the I-Drive area; it's easy to get to, especially if you avoid I-4 and take the backroads, and the selection of restaurants is excellent (that is, on the rare occasions that Cafe Tu Tu Tango doesn't tempt me in).

I reviewed Cafe Tu Tu Tango in an earlier blog entry, but for those who haven't read it, it's a tapas restaurant. That means the entire menu is made up of appetizers; it's the perfect place to go with an adventurous group because you can order several items to share.

Tapas are most commonly associated with Spanish restaurants, but Tu Tu Tango is quite eclectic. They have everything from duck and goat cheese salad on flat bread to pizzas, antipasto, empanadas, sloppy joe quesadillas, spinach/artichoke dip, and alligator bites. Each week, the chef creates new specials to complement the regular menu.

Cafe Tu Tu Tango has nightly entertainment, so we tried to get there a bit early to avoid the typical evening crowd. I love the restaurant's's styled after an artist's loft, with artwork cramming every available bit of wall space. There's always at least one talented artisan at work, painting or doing some type of craft.

Since there were five of us (my husband and I, our neighbors, and one of their relatives), we had enough people to embark on a culinary adventure. None of our companions had been to Tu Tu Tango before, so we had the pleasure of describing the delights that awaiting them and working them into a drool.

We started off with a pitcher of sangria and a diverse selection of choices to share: alligator bites, antipasto, empanadas, cuban steak skewers, lobster/bacon pasta and stuffed mushrooms. I also ordered one item to hoard: a bowl of portabello mushroom soup. Soup is rather difficult to pass around the table, and in all honestly it's so delicious that I didn't want to share it. It's a special item that I've only seen on the menu twice, but it compares to the godly mushroom soup that is always available at Artists Point in the Wilderness Lodge. Maybe it's some cosmic law that restaurants that are associated with art must also have mushroom soup to die for.

Dessert was an odd combination: guava cheesecake and poached pear salad. I know that salad sounds like an odd way to cap a meal, but that particular selection is sugary enough to satisfy anyone's sweet tooth. The pears are drizzled with balsamic vinegar and served on shortbread-type cookies. They're surrounded by salad greens and bleu cheese, making an odd sweet-and-salty combination.

By the time we were ready to head back to Celebration, the entertainment was gearing up. A balloon man was creating intricate headgear for the kids, and a fortune teller was reading tarot cards at a table in the front of the restaurant. Both my neighbor and I got our cards read on a large; interestingly, my reading seemed to focus on a recent major happening in my life, even though I didn't tell the card reader anything. Then we paused to watch the belly dancers before finally taking our leave.

When we got home, another neighbor was out in the alley, so we all chatted for a while before hubby and I retired to the confines of Duloc Manor. Inside, Farquaad was waiting anxiously to tell us that it was kitty dinnertime and that he was in imminent danger of starvation...after all, it had been a full 24 hours before he'd had a can of food (in his book, the dry food that is always available doesn't count).

All around Celebration, there will be more and more signs that the snowbirds are returning. More houses will be illuminated, church congretations will slowly swell, and there will be more faces to greet around town. I'm glad it's that time of year again; I enjoy the summertime, but it feels a bit lonely. It's good to know that the East Village posse is complete once again.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Florida is supposed to be warm! So why the heck are the temperatures plummeting into the 40s at night?

Actually, I shouldn't complain because the daytime weather has been beautiful. It's a little on the nippy side, but it reminds me of those precious few days that Chicagoans call "spring" and "fall," right before they are assaulted by oppressive heat or bone-chilling cold. For that brief span of time, the weather is perfect...warm but brisk, sunny but breezy, in a perfect yin/yang balance of heat and cool.

In the daytime, we're been hovering in the 70s, and I've been in heaven. At night, the mercury dips just a bit too low. Last night, we were only one degree away from record-breaking cold, making it all the way down to 49 degrees. My husband and I took a dip in the hot tub, diving into the 99 degree water and watching the steam rise into the cold night air like a lobster pot. It took us quite a while to steel ourselves for the shivery, towel-wrapped run to the back door when we were done.

Even though the exit is rough, there is one good thing about winter dips: no bugs. I am the sort of person that a mosquito can smell a mile off, and my blood must taste like the nectar of the gods. Unless I turn on the misters (picture the cool-off stations at Disney World), the entire upper part of my body will morph into a swollen, itchy mass as every mosquito in Celebration rushes to the buffet.

The chilly nights make me glad that we opted for a hot tub. For a while, I considered a "spool" (an in-ground spa/pool combination), but an above-ground spa seemed much easier to install. Now, I realize that it's also easier (and cheaper) to heat, so we'll be able to enjoy it all year 'round. If we want to actually swim on chilly days, we can always head downtown to Lakeside Park. The lap pool there is heated, so it's a popular winter spot while the other Celebration pools are virtually deserted until June.

Back in Chicago, it's only 10 degrees cooler. However, there is one big difference: here in Central Florida, it won't get much cooler as the winter months take hold. In the Midwest, the temperature will steadily drop until it's in single digits, and then into the negative realm. We may get some rain in the Sunshine State, but up north they'll be under a blanket of ice and snow.

Supposedly, Hurricane Wilma brought in the early cold snap. By mid-week, we should be back up into the 80s before we experience our official winter chill. I'm looking forward to it because once the oppressive humidity is gone, I have no excuse to avoid walking and biking. In the summer, when the mercury is hovering in the upper 90s and you can squeeze the air like a sponge, it's too darned tempting to hole up in air conditioned comfort. My outdoor physical activity in July and August is pretty much limited to watering the garden.

Now, the gorgeous weather draws me out. This is the time of year that front porch swings and bicycle paths were made for. Stitch, my hunter kitty, likes it too. We don't allow him to roam outside alone, but in the summer I can only stand a brief period of "cat walking." As much as he loves the outdoors, even Stitch himself has a rough time in the relentless heat. He's mostly black, so his fur coat absorbs the sun's rays like a roll of Bounty towels on a cup of spilled coffee. Rather than chasing lizards, he's forced to retreat under the shady bushes in my flower bed, where it's just a bit cooler.

On gorgeous fall days, both he and I could stay outside forever. He prowls through the yard and weaves his way through the neighbors' bushes in stealth mode, hoping to sneak up on poor, unsuspecting reptiles. He rolls on the sidewalk and in the street, making sure to get as messy as possible so he can transfer the most dirt possible into the house. He lurks in the "croquet field" and leaps like an acrobat at unseen insects. He meows in crabby protest when I finally scoop him up and return him to house arrest.

I suspect we're going to have one more heat wave before the fall/winter weather settles in. I don't mind, since I'd like one last hurrah at a Disney water park before we give in and stick to the hot tub. But it's been a long, hot, sticky summer, and I'm ready for some relief. Bring on the "brrrr!"

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Monday, October 24, 2005

Cabin Fever

We spent a tense night waiting for Wilma, huddling in the house as thunderstorms raged outside. I'm used to powerful storms, which are a common summer occurrence in Florida. The problem with the turmoil whipped up by a hurricane is that it can easily spawn tornados.

We have a weather radio that turns on automatically when there is a severe weather warning. It kicked on several times yesterday, but none of the warnings were close to us. I was feeling pretty safe by the time I went to bed, but at 3 a.m. my husband roused me from my coma. The radio had spewed a middle-of-the-night warning that specifically mentioned Celebration.

I was much too sleepy to panic, or actually to have any sort of reaction. Finally I managed to sit up in bed, trying to force my foggy brain to digest the potential for danger. Our bedroom is on the second floor, with three big windows, so even in its sleep-addled state my mind realized that I probably should move to the downstairs futon. Unfortunately, my body wouldn't cooperate. The most I could manage was to stare out the window, trying to assess the dark, cloud-clotted sky. Unfortunately, that's nearly impossible in the middle of the night. During the day, a pre-tornado sky turns green (at least in the midwest), and a funnel cloud isn't hard to spot. In the darkness, I realized that trying to find one was a pointless exercise in futility.

I briefly debated calling some of our friends to warn them of the possible danger. It was 3 a.m., so I weighed the potential annoyance of a late-night phone call against the likeliness of a tornado actually touching down in Celebration. I figured that either a) the tornado wouldn't come, meaning I'd wake them for nothing; or b) if a funnel cloud was barreling towards us, we'd be wiped out before I could dial the first call. Neither outcome seemed too appealing (although I later learned that at least one of our friends had been awakened by her radio, too, and was debating the same thing).

Finally I decided that if I was going to die, I should at least do so in a well-rested state. I collapsed back in bed, the cats piled in with me, and soon I had returned to slumberland. Unfortunately, my poor husband couldn't push the worry from his mind, so he spent the rest of the night divided between radio and PC weather reports.

By morning, the rain was still coming down in sheets and the sky was an ominous shade of gray. I slept in because dragging my carcass out from between the sheets seemed pointless on such a depressing day. My husband slept late, too, due to his exhaustion from keeping his all-night vigil.

Eventually, as afternoon approaced, the rain slacked off and the sky slowly began to brighten. Oddly enough, the wind picked up too, even though the weather appeared to be clearing. We hadn't heard much wind overnight, but our outdoor umbrella had tipped over and our backyard tree had developed a noticable lean.

By this time, we were developing cabin fever. We'd been holed up in the house all morning, unwilling to brave the solid sheets of rain. The schools were shut down for the day, and even Disney World and Universal Studios were closed (inexplicably, Seaworld and Discovery Cove were open, although I can't imagine that too many people showed up). I wondered if the local businesses were closed, too, or if civilization would return to normal as soon as the storms had passed.

As soon as the rain retreated into a steady drizzle and the sun poked its way through the clouds, we were ready to head outdoors. It wasn't quite as exciting as exploring after last year's hurricane trio, since we hadn't suffered a direct hit. The hurricane's main muscle was focused in southern Florida, but we'd still had a rough little spate of wind and rain. We didn't see much evidence on our street, other than our tilted tree, but the street across from the preserve area was nearly lost beneath a coating of palm leaf debris. Plenty of trees around town had tilted, or even fallen. The ground was so soaked that any tree with a weak root system was a sitting duck for the wind.

Still, compared to Hurricane Charley, the damage wasn't much worse than what a strong summer thunderstorm might cause. Closing down the schools seemed like overkill, but after Florida's triple battering last year and Katrina's mass destruction in Mississippi and Louisiana this summer, I suspect that caution was running high. A shelter had even been opened in Celebration High School, although I doubt that anyone showed up.

It felt so good to finally be out and about once the storm had faded into oblivion. Oddly enough, the weather had gone from hot and humid on Sunday to a decided chill. Between the wind and a cold nip, it felt like autumn in Chicago. If I closed my eyes and used my imagination, I could easily convince myself that I was back in the state of my birth. But it didn't feel unpleasant; I found myself looking forward to finally opening the windows and airing out the house.

We joined up with some friends for a late lunch at T.G.I. Friday's, figuring that the restaurants on 192 should be open. Indeed, they were...but not Friday's! For some odd reason, it appeared to be the only eatery than was closed down.

Oh well, there were lots of other choices. We headed a couple blocks down to Perkins, which has a wonderful selection of both breakfast and lunch items. Even though it was past noon, breakfast actually sounded appealing to me. I ended up ordering eggs benedict, which included hash browns and a muffin. And what a muffin! I had their seasonal pumpkin variety, slathered thickly with cream cheese frosting, and I quickly realized that it possessed addictive properties.

Judging by the crowd in the restaurant, everyone else in the general area was itching to get outside too. By the time we had returned to Celebration, people were out and about as though it was just another normal day. The long, tense night and stormy morning felt as though they had happened a long, long time ago. It was hard to believe that we'd been suffering from cabin fever just a few hours earlier.

I know how easily the hurricane could have turned; if it had come ashore a little more north, we could have had another Charley on our hands. But thankfully it kept its distance, and we've only got a little over a month before Hurricane Season 2005 is just another memory. Then, hopefully, the weather radio will remain silent for the next eight or nine months until the cycle starts over again.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Waiting for Wilma

Hurricane Wilma is heading towards Florida, and the storms are already here. We're under a tornado warning, which apparently has a different meaning in the Sunshine State than it does in the Land of Lincoln. In Illinois, a tornado watch meant that the conditions were ripe for a tornado to form. A tornado warning meant that a funnel cloud was literally on its way. Here in Celebration, I've been following a so-called Osceola County "tornado warning" on television for the past hour. When it was first issued, the bulletins said that one was likely to form. The warning continued for about half an hour before an actual tornado was reported. Supposedly one is out there somewhere now, but the warning has shifted to Brevard and Polk Counties.

My midwestern home was near the area known as "Tornado Alley," so I'm used to a whirlwind of watches and warnings. I've even seen a funnel cloud up in the sky, but thankfully it didn't touch down. It's impossible to describe the eerieness of seeing the sky turn green and watching a tornado do its demented dance in the distance.

Although we never had a strike near our condo, one memorable storm wiped out many buildings in Plainfield, including the homes of some of my co-workers. Apartments had their top stories sheared right off, and all that remained of some of the houses were concrete slabs strewn with debris. Since our condo was on the top floor of a three-story building, I often wondered what we would do if a tornado was imminent. I knew we'd have at least a few precious minutes to prepare, since virtually every town in the Chicago area has a tornado siren. When a twister is on the way, it wails out a warning that means "Get your butt in the basement!"

Unfortunately, our condo building had no basement, and in our living room we had massive cathedral ceilings with floor-to-ceiling windows. In an emergency, I suppose we would have gathered up the cats and bird and huddled in the downstairs hallway. It wouldn't have been as good as a basement, but at least it was enclosed by solid brick and a fire door. Fortunately, we never had to test its structural integrity because the tornados kept away.

Here in Celebration, we don't have a basement either. When you live on a former swamp, basements are virtually non-existent. Duloc Manor is solidly constructed, but it's definitely not the most confidence-inspiring shelter for a tornado. I supposed we'd pile into the Harry Potter bathroom, which has no windows and is built against a cinderblock wall. Then, if the rest of the house collapsed in shambles around us, we'd have to hope we could dig out way out somehow.

Hurricanes are not as threatening as tornados because they are usually not as concentrated, and at least you know that they're coming. Of course, many hurricanes spawn tornados, so you're often in for a double whammy.

We've been expecting Wilma for days now. Everyone has been bringing in their outdoor furniture and Halloween decorations and battening down the hatches. I haven't seen any boarding up, since we won't be getting a direct hit, but just about everyone I know has stocked up on bottled water and some extra canned food. This afternoon, we stopped by the church pumpkin patch, where any items that could blow away were moved inside and the pumpkins were re-distributed among the pallets to keep them on one level (normally they're stacked in modified pyramids).

After we left the church, we headed over to Joe's Crab Shack for dinner. Since the weather might keep us inside for the next 24 hours or so, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice little feast. I love the create-your-own combo; I invariably order snow crab legs and coconut shrimp. My husband's tastes are similar, but he takes the lazy route and opts for crab cracking required.

Next, we popped over to Goodings, which is in its final death throes. The majority of the shelves were barren, the aisles were deserted, and the whole place had a funereal atmosphere. I was hoping to find some of my favorite organic chocolate pudding, since Publix was out of it. I knew that the odds were 50 to 1 against it, but surprise surprise! There, in the nearly bare refirgerator case, were several tubs of my prized pudding. Better yet, the expiration date was still three weeks in the future.

On the way out, we passed some of the toiletries and I paused to check out the shampoo and conditioner. It was very weird...sitting above each label on the shelf was one bottle. Just one of each! They stood forlornly like lone sentinels guarding the space where their shelfmates used to stand. How odd to have a single bottle of each variety. I noticed a new V05 "flavor" called Wild Blueberry. One sniff and I was tempted to drink it rather than put it on my hair. Unfortunately, I buy two bottles of conditioner for every one bottle of shampoo, so the single bottles did me no good. Besides, I was a bit hesitant to disturb the obsessive/compulsive arrangement that looked like something out of "Sleeping With The Enemy." Instead, we just left with the precious pudding.

In our little homestead, we've got some extra food and water (and pudding) and a weather radio/flashlight combo that can be powered with batteries or a hand crank. We don't expect to lose electricity, since Celebration's power lines are underground, but we've got portable lights and candles just in case. I don't think we'll get too much impact from Wilma, but it's better to play it safe.

It was cloudy and gray all day, but the rain only started this evening. It's settled into a steady downpour, occasionally punctuated with thunder and lightning. I'm sure the wind will pick up by tomorrow, but so far it's relatively calm.

Tomorrow we welcome Wilma; hopefully she'll be a brief visitor.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Party Naked

When most people think of vacation spots in the Orlando/Kissimmee area, Disney World immediately comes to mind. Rack your brain further and you might think of Universal/Islands of Adventure, Seaworld/Discovery Cove, and maybe even some of the lesser-known luminaries like Water Mania, the Holy Land and Old Town. But unless you're a member of the American Association for Nude Recreation, it's probably a safe bet that nudist colony wouldn't pop into your mind.

Well, let me assure addition to Mickey Mouse and Shamu, our little corner of the Sunshine State is also home to an au natural resort. It's called Cypress Cove, and it's only about 15 miles away from Celebration, located near the Horse World riding stable in the Kissimmee/Poinciana area. If you don't believe me, click here to visit their website (and be sure to check out the pictures!).

I don't know if we have many nudists here in Celebration, but whoever spends the Cypress Cove advertising dollars must think so because they have a long-running ad in our local newspaper. When I first saw it, I did a double-take. There, among cheerful articles about wholesome community events, was an ad inviting readers to get naked.

Intrigued, I visited their website, which made nudism sound just as wholesome as soccer games and potlucks. Here is a quote:

"First time visitors to Cypress Cove discover that people do come in all shapes and sizes and that, as far as our bodies are concerned, all of us have nothing to hide. You may adjust at your own pace, letting the weather and comfort be your guide. Once you've socialized in the nude, you realize what an enormous impact what we wear has on who we are. Clothing can lock us into expected roles and behaviors, contributing to the tensions of daily life. We dress and undress, for comfort. Nudity is accepted and encouraged throughout the resort and is required in the pool and spa areas."

No matter what they said, I couldn't help envisioning bronzed hard-bodies parading their perky bosoms, tight buns, and sculpted muscles. Surely there would be no drooping or sagging; I figured that only the most gravity-degying bodies would be on display.

Recently, Cypress Cove ran an ad for a "Naked Art Festival" in October. That sounded like it had a lot of potential; the public was invited, and the normal admission charge was waived, so it would be a perfect opportunity for curiosity seekers. And who better to satisfy their curiosity than the intrepid Mickey Mommas?

For those who might not have read my earlier blog entries, the Mickey Mommas are an all-female division of the Bunny Brigade. We don't always wear odd garb on our heads, but we do always manage to have a great time. The Mommas might be found doing just about anything, from watching a screening of the Stepford Wives to stalking Davy Jones at Epcot to riding the monorail (or, more properly, momma-rail) at Disney World and hitting a bar at every stop.

This weekend, we decided to broaden our cultural horizons and take a field trip to Cypress Cove. We had no intention of shedding our clothes, but in most of the areas clothing is optional, so we planned to check out the birthday suits while remaining covered ourselves. Since is was art show weekend, we figured that the number of clothed people would probably be higher than usual.

First, we stopped at Chili's for lunch and drinks; somehow, it just seems appropriate to imbibe in a little alcohol before heading out on your first visit to a nudist colony. To our surprise and delight, we discovered that margaritas were two-for-one, which definitely doubled our pleasure. Once we were sufficiently fed and inebriated, we piled into the van and headed off to Cypress Cove (the Mommas are always safety-conscious, so we had a designated driver to pilot the vehicle and to make at least a token attempt to keep us under control).

Spirits were running high as we drew closer to our destination. Finally, we noticed a solid black fence ringing a group of trailers...could this be it? Sure enough, there was the sign: Cypress Cove! We pulled up and produced our drivers licenses; I'm not sure why ID was required, but I'm having paranoid visions of being placed on all sorts of nudist mailing lists.

The guard eyed us rather warily as he jotted down our information, but eventually he let us through. We drove cautiously down the road as though we expected naked hordes to jump out and accost us at any moment. Then the squeals of, "Look! Look!" started...there were nude people all around! Some were sitting in chairs outside of their campers, while others strolled nonchalantly down the walkway. Amazingly, none of them were hard bodies. All of them showed ample evidence of nature's handiwork without one bit of self-consciousness.

We parked in front of a block of villas, and the van was immediately surrounded by a group of naked revelers wearing nothing but mardi-gras beads. All we could see was bare boobs and bellies pressing up against the glass. It was quite an initiation! We huddled in our seats, unsure of what to do, feeling like the new kids on the cell block when all the other prisioners are chanting, "Fresh meat!" But we quickly realized that our new friends meant no harm. They had apparently been partying and were feeling no pain, and this was their way of welcoming a carload of newbies.

They introduced themselves with handshakes and, in one memorable case, a big, sweaty hug. The recipient of the embrace was a brand-new Momma, so hopefully it didn't frighten her off...she probably thinks we're a bunch of crazies, but most of our outings are much more low-key. Somehow I don't think we'll ever top the toplessness (and bottomlessness) that we witnessed at Cypress Cove.

The group of reveleres encouraged us to get naked, but we decided to stick to our clothes. They headed off for more fun in their villa, and we made our way to the art show. It was on the shore of a lovely little lake, and we even noticed a boatload of naked sailors on the tranquil blue water. Virtually all of the art featured naked subjects; my favorite booth was the one exhibiting the works of the Cypress Cove camera club. Like the resort itself, it featured people of every conceivable body type.

Many of the people manning the booths were naked, as were most of the patrons. It may sound strange, but within a very short time it seemed quite natural to be among people in their birthday suits. I had thought it might be awkward talking to them while trying to avert my eyes, but I soon realized it was no different than any other conversation. If you're not the type to stare at crotches in everyday life, you probably won't feel compelled to do so at a nudist colony (or at least not after the initial shock and novelty wears off).

We were hoping to have a drink at the bar, appropriately named Cheeks, but there was a private event going on and nudity was mandatory. We weren't ready to make that leap (vouyerism is one thing, but getting buck-naked is quite another), so we wandered around a bit and then piled back into the van.

Even though we'd indulged in two-for-one margaritas, our experience at Cypress Cove was quite sobering. It was also quite a self-esteem builder. I tend to be comfortable with my body, but I know that it could use some improvement, and I never could have imagined parading it around in public. But at the resort, I saw more wrinkles and paunch and sagging than I ever believed was possible. In comparison, I'm not doing too bad! And none of the people were shy; in contrast, they seemed quite proud to openly display what God had given them without any regard to its condition.

This has certainly been the most interesting Mickey Mommas event so far. Every time I see the Cypress Cove ad in the local paper, I'll no doubt flash back to all that naked flesh pressed up against the van windows. It might have been a bit shocking, but as their website proclaims: "It's just as nature intended."

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Goodbye Goodings

It seems like just a few weeks ago I was posting that our new Goodings grocery store had opened. The long-awaited store was meant to the anchor of the Water Tower Place shopping center at the entrance of Celebration. There used to be a small Goodings downtown on Market Street, but it closed in anticipation of the new, full-service location.

Now, I'm sad to say that Goodings is shutting down. It's only been in business for a few short months (its pharmacy never even opened), but word has it that it will close for good by the end of this month.

I guess it's not surprising; I was a frequent visitor to their salad bar (and, I'll confess, the bakery), and I never saw more than a handful of people wandering forlornly around the aisles. The salad bar, sushi, and deli counter seems to do a decent lunch-time trade, but not enough to support the overhead of an entire store that was nearly deserted the rest of the time.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks was their prices. There is a well-established Publix on the other side of 192; some of Goodings' prices were only a few cents more, but other items were much more expensive. It was a good place to grab a few quick items, but it wasn't practical for weekly stock-up shopping. Worse yet, while I'm too lazy to go very far from "The Bubble," many Celebration residents head to the Wal-Mart Super Center or Target for their grocery shopping. The high-volume superstores are even cheaper than Publix.

The Goodings store was lovely; I can't even imagine how much of an investment they sunk into its construction. Unlike the businesslike set-up of Publix, it had low lighting and homey decor. There was an eating area with internet access, and even an attached liquor store.

But Goodings was pretty much hidden from view, and the tourist traffic on 192 probably never even noticed it. In general, Water Tower Place is not a well-laid-out strip mall. Even though it has limited parking to start with, there's a large so-called park smack dab in the middle, wasting valuable space. It wouldn't be so bad if the park were visually appealing, but unfortunately it's not even completed. Not only does it chew up potential parking spots, but it looks decidedly shabby. Lack of visibility for the stores only compounds the problem.

In general, Water Tower's construction schedule ran very late. The Goodings opening was delayed by months; I remember passing by it during my morning walks, on the way to Planet Smoothie, peeking in the windows and trying to guesstimate an opening time. By the time it finally opened for business, the event was anti-climactic.

Now, it will soon be a memory and a vast, empty storefront, leaving Water Tower Place to flail without an anchor (unless you count the Mobile Gas Station, Chik-Fil-A, or Joe's Crab Shack). I fear for the future of the other merchants; they struggled for a long time waiting for Goodings to open, hoping that it would bring in precious traffic that would overflow to the other stores. Now, they're back to square one, and although I hate to say it, I fear that it will be a ghost town by this time next year.

I'm surprised that Goodings is bailing after only four months. Surely they have a lease, so I wonder if there's more to the story. Unicorp, the mall's developer, is currently embroiled in another fiasco at Baldwin Park, and they haven't even come close to fulfilling all their obligations at Water Tower Place, so I wouldn't be surprised if a legal battle ensues.

Earlier this week, when I had just heard the first rumblings of a possible closing, I went to Goodings for a lunch salad. Many of the containers on the salad bar were empty, and there was a general air of unkemptness. Previously, the salad bar was clean and well-stocked, but now it was messy and unappetizing. I made a small salad from the least yucky-looking ingredients, only to discover that there was no silverware and most of the topping bins were empty too. The next day, when the impending shutdown was confirmed on the Front Porch intranet, I surely wasn't surprised.

Today, I popped in to have a look around; the empty shelves and barren racks gave the store an atmosphere of sadness and defeat.

Oh well, at least there is one positive note, although it doesn't have anything to do with the Water Tower Place fiasco. The market that had located in the old Goodings shop downtown recently closed, but now it's becoming a New York-style deli. I am a huge chopped liver fan, and I normally head all the way to Two Jays in Dr. Phillips when I need to fulfill my craving. Now, it will just be a short bike ride away.

Maybe we'll get another anchor store at Water Tower Place...we can only hold. At this time next year I'll have to revisit this blog entry and post an update. Will it be a thriving strip mall or a deserted parking lot filled with barren, soap-windowed stores? Only time will tell.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Nature's Last Hurrah

Hurricane season is over, but it looks like Mother Nature might be throwing us one more curveball. In a year so busy with storm activity that it has tied the record, we're watching yet another hurricane. Wilma, as it has been dubbed, is looking more and more likely to visit to the Sunshine State.

We've on the east side of the state, and it looks like Wilma would approach from the west. Still, she brings the potential for a good soaking and some wicked windstorms. Right now the forecast is a little hazy, but virtually all the projections I've seen have Fred's wife's namesack paying us a call.

With the beautiful, sunny weather we've been having all week, it's hard to imagine a hurricane blowing into town. While it's still hot during the day, there is a decided chill in the air overnight. Usually, by the time autumn nippiness rolls around, the hurricane danger has faded. Sure, hurricane season doesn't officially end until November 30, but traditionally August and September are the peak times. By October, storm fears have given way to Halloween plans and a nagging feeling that Christmas is lurking around the corner.

In church this past Sunday, our pastor, Patrick, asked for a show of hands of people who had assembled a hurricane readiness kit. Not even ten hands went up. In a congregation that had been battered by Charley, Frances, and Jeanne just 12 months earlier, there appeared to be a prevailing sense of "it can't happen again...not two years in a row."

I must confess that we are among the unprepared. e don't have all of the items that the state suggests, but we're not totally unprepared either. We have a battery-operated weather radio that turns on automatically in case of an urgent alert. We keep a large stock of bottled water on hand, so we'd be well hydrated even though we wouldn't have a scrap of food to eat (at least not after the Campbells "Soup at Hand" drinkable containers ran out). Of course, we usually have a big supply of dry cat food and bird seed, so I supposed we could fight off Bradley and the cats if we were desperate enough. With 650 gallons in the hot tub, we could keep the toilets flushed.

Our living quarters would probably be rather small, since we have windows in every room except the upstairs hallway and the "Harry Potter bathroom" under the stairs. Since being on the second floor is not a good idea when a storm is threatening to rip off the roof, we'd all be smashed in downstairs around the toilet.

But I don't think Wilma will cause any such need. Hopefully she will turn away altogether, but failing that, she should at least weaken onces she makes landfall. I think we'll just be in for a day or so of bleak gray skies and driving rain.

At least we haven't reached the Greek alphabet yet. Once the storm names for a particular year run out, the nomenclature shifts to Alpha, Beta, etc. Wilma is the very last traditional name for this year, so if a late sibling is spawned, we will enter the alphabetic names for the first time in history.

Oh well, the storm clouds may be gathering, but I'm going to enjoy the sunshine now. We'll lay in a good stock of snacks and wine (i.e. the necessities of life for the homebound); they may not be items on the state's list of suggested hurricane supplies, but they'll certainly make the rainy exile more pleasant.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Saturday, October 15, 2005

American Dream Town

Once again, Celebration is in the running for the title of American Dream Town. Last year, we came in second, narrowly edged out by Braselton, GA (they got 3572 votes, while we managed to rack up 2739).

Since my ice storm trauma in Georgia, I am especially miffed to have been beaten by a town in the Peach Tree State. But this year we can come from behind to claim the title...that is, if enough people vote. The election is like those I was used to in Chicago: You are encourage to vote early and often.

The voting website is, so if you are from Celebration, or are even a fan of our little town (or just a fan of this blog), please give us a click! You are able to cast a vote every day from now until the contest is over on November 30th.

It would be cool to claim the official title of American Dream Town, but even if we are edged out once again, I know that we're still a great place to live. Tonight was one of the events that proves it: the annual leaf drop. Most of us in town are transplants who left parts of the country where the leaves would turn lovely shades of orange, red and yellow in the week or two of autumn before winter roared in to take over. Now, in Florida, we're surrounded by green all year 'round. "That's a good thing," as Martha Stewart would say, but just in case we get homesick, we are treated to a weekend of tissue paper leaves being blown out of boxes Market Street every half hour.

Yes, I know that sounds totally corny, but that's what makes it cool. The kids all have little paper bags in which to stuff the leaves they catch (and the adults can watch for shiny "discount dots" that are good for discounts of up to 20% at the downtown stores). Every half hour, from 6 p.m. till 9 p.m., people gather in anxious little knots under each of the leaf blowers. All heads are craned towards the sky as we all wait to be showered by green, yellow, red and brown paper.

The downtown area is barricaded off from traffic for the event. There is a band and other entertainment, hay rides, food booths, face painting, pumpkin painting, etc. We have all the fixin's of a good, old-fashioned fall festival with none of that annoying chill in the air.

My husband and I didn't make it to the leaf drop yesterday. That afternoon, the pumpkin shipment arrived at our church for the annual fund-raising sale. Basically, that means there was a semi-truck crammed with thousands of orange spheres that all needed to be unloaded and stacked on pallets. Hubby and I joined the other volunteers in the pumpkin production line. By the time we were done with that, we were ready for a hot shower and a good meal at Joe's Crab Shack with friends. Then we headed home to soothe our aching muscles in the hot tub. We made it an impromptu hot tub party, so that didn't finish up until midnight.

Today, we were determined to make it, even though we had a busy schedule ahead of us. In the morning, we wanted to go to the annual Rotary pancake breakfast, which is held at the fire station in conjunction with a safety fair for the kids. We somehow managed to drag our carcasses out of bed and get to the breakfast by 8:30 a.m. I would have slept in and gone later, but I had promised to work a couple of hours selling at the pumpkin patch right afterwards.

The pancake breakfast is a very popular event; nearly everyone we knew in town was planning to attend. It was more like a big meeting of friends and neighbors. We had managed to get one of the last semi-prime parking spots, but by the time we left, the parking area was crammed with vehicles as far as the eye could see. One lucky soul happened to be pulling in just as we were leaving, so he instantly grabbed our spot.

Fortified with a tasty meal of pancakes and sausage, hubby and I put in our time at the pumpkin sale. Since it was early, I thought it would be quiet, but we managed to sell quite a few. Somehow I managed to sucker my husband into donning the scarecrow costume that sits behind the counter, awaiting brave souls who don't mind making a spectacle of themselves. I dared him to wear it and wave to the conga line of cars passing by on Celebration Avenue. He did put it on and go down to the street, but he refused to blatantly wave them in.

The costume turned out to be a good idea; one group of people made a generous contribution to take a photo with the odd-looking scarecrow that was wearing sandals and sunglasses.

At noon, our relief showed up, so we got some lunch and then headed home to get in a few hours of work before "leaf time." I had volunteered for a 7 to 10 p.m. shift at the fest, so we figured we'd catch the 6 p.m. drop and then have a light dinner at the food booths before I started. My husband wanted a new Celebration golf shirt, and I wanted a spare front door mat, so we were gunning for the coveted magenta dots that would earn us a 20% discount.

One of our friend's sons had studied the leaf drop schema, and he warned us that the discount dots were first out of the box. If you didn't managed to snare one within the first few seconds, you were out of luck. We each positioned ourselves at a different box, and when the paper swarmed in the sky, I was ready. Sure enough, the dots were in the first wave, so I managed to grab a magenta one. Hubby did, too, so we left the street swarming with busy youngsters stuffing their paper leaves in bags and popped into the Village Merchantile for the shirt and doormat.

Next up was a lobster roll and clam chowder from the Town Tavern for me and a salad from the Columbia Restaurant for my husband. We munched on our dinner and watched as the crowd literally swelled right before our eyes. Although it is not as popular as the soap-snowfall, the leaves draw in a respectable crowd of both Celebrationites and tourists. The line of cars snakes all the way from 192 to the heart of downtown as people jockey for coveted parking spots or try to figure out if they're even in the right place. Often, my husband and I bike to the special events, and we're inevitably stopped by lost tourists plaintively pleading for directions. Fortunately, it's usually easy to get them pointed towards downtown; once they get close, they can't miss it.

After filling my tummy with seafood, it was off to the information booth to receive my assignment. Actually, I didn't have far to assignment turned out to be the information booth, which was also selling t-shirts, tote bags, and lighted pumpkin pins. Amazingly, the little $2 pins were the smash hit of the festival. For most of the evening, they sold literally as fast as we could put them out. Their little LED lights must have been spelling out "Buy me! Buy me!" in Morse code.

I have to admit that the pins had an ingenious fastener. Rather than an actual pin, they fastened with a magnet. This allowed a few enterprising kids to use them as earrings, too. As darkness fell, the success of our sale was evident: there was a cheerily blinking pumpkin on nearly every chest.

Between the pins and brisk t-shirt sales, the time whizzed by at warp speed. We were running a special: half off a t-shirt or tote bag with a two-can food donation to the Second Harvest food bank. Happily, many people took advantage of the deal. By the end of the night, there were several boxes brimming with donated canned goods.

In between customers, I got a kick out of people watching. We were in a central location, right across from Max's restaurant, and it was so much fun watching the families flit from booth to booth, enjoying the fest and the gorgeous fall day. One little boy proudly showed me his bag, brimming with paper leaves. He was so cute, and his excitement was contagious. It was impossible not to get caught up in the festive spirit of the evening.

I saw quite a few friends from town pass by, and I even met a blog reader who recently purchased a home in Celebration. That's always exciting because one of the main reasons I started my blog (besides its therapeutic value) was to help prospective residents and visitors. I still remember what it was like, waiting with baited breath for our home to finally be ready. I also remember wondering what the real town was like. I just knew that it had to be something much different than the slick marketing brochures and the hackneyed stereotypes.

Now, I really enjoy it when I can help out people in the same situation or when I can give them a glimpse of what it's truly like to live here, both the good and the bad. I never want to lose the sense of joy I got when I finally became a Celebration resident, and it's renewed for me every time I see it again through another person's eyes.

Before I knew it, it was nearly 10 p.m. Time to put everything into boxes, fold up the table cloths, and call it a night. I called my husband to run by and pick me up in Canyonero (our trusty Aztek). I had planned to soak my aching tootsies in the hot tub, but I ended up being too lazy, so that's on the agenda for tomorrow.

As I reflect back on the weekend, I realize that even if we don't win the award, Celebration will always be an American Dream Town to me. I can't even imagine events like this in my old home town, let alone actually wanting to get involved. Now, we live among active people who pull off events like the breakfast, pumpkin sale, and falling leaves on a regular basis (this year, we still have the wild Halloween celebration coming up, not to mention Founders Day and the nightly soap snowstorms). I enjoy being in the thick of things, and it reinforces the fact that I'm glad we moved to Celebration. No matter what the numbers say, we are a Dream Town, and I wouldn't want to live in Braselton, Georgia or anywhere else.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Friday, October 14, 2005

Last of the Piscines

The last of my piscines is finally gone (in case you're baffled, that's just a fancy word for "fish"). In January, Gil the betta and Finny the goldfish made the 1200 mile trip through the Atlanta ice storm, along with Bradley the bird and the three cats. Despite my worries, they survived the rolling Noah's Ark and made it to Duloc Manor in relatively good condition.

Although I love animals, I'm not particlarly a "fish person." But I feel sorry for just about any living critter, with the exception of mosquitos. Thus, I rescued Gil from the clutches of my grandnephew (think a male version of Darla in "Finding Nemo"). At the time, it was de rigeur to have a betta on your desk at work. Gil lived in my office for a while, safe from the clutches of my carnivorous kitties. But eventually I felt bad about the fact that he faced a forced fast on the weekends. By Monday morning he was always ravenous, so I'm sure it was miserable sitting in the darknes for two days with no food. I bought a locking container to protect him from feline intrusions, and he moved into the condo.

Finny the goldfish was a condemned murderer. A co-worker's children had gotten several goldfish at a party, and Finny had chewed off the tails of all of his bowlmates. Apparently, he was a cannibal, and as Willy Wonka would say, "that, my dear children, is frowned upon in most societies" (even aquatic ones). The poor, tail-less fishies were flushed off into a better place, and Finny was brought to the office. If someone didn't adopt the little miscreant, he was going to find out personally if all drains really do lead to the ocean.

Being a sucker, I took him in. He, too, got a covered bowl and moved next door to Gil. Being a betta, Gil loved to puff out his cheeks and swim furiously back and forth, conveying threats through the plastic wall. Finny, of course, ignored him; he enjoyed swimming up and down in that mindless goldfish way, frantically wiggling his body and hoping for a handout of chow.

Finny was much easier to feed...I sprinkled a pinch of food on the water's surface, and he would ingest it like a vaccum. Bettas are much pickier; with Gil, I had to toss in one nuggest at a time. He had a little plastic plant that he loved to hide in, probably pretending that it was a rice paddy in his native environment. He'd stalk his "prey," then suddenly strike it. I'd keep tossing in nuggets, one at a time, until he was saited.

By the time we were ready to move to Celebration, I'd had the fish for a few years. I didn't know what their expected lifespans might be, but apparently they were hardy little critters. I dutifully fed and cleaned them, and they continued to thrive.

The life aquatic continued in Florida much as it had been in the Midwest. I wondered if the new type of water would prove fatal; at certain times of the year it smells rather swampy, and it always leaves a suspicious red taint on kitchen and bathroom fixtures. But the fish seemed oblivious to their change in looked like they would be around for awhile.

Then, in the summer, poor Finny started looking decidedly unhealthy. Every now and then, he'd list to the side and flip over like the S. S. Poseidon. He would recover quickly, but I sensed that the end might be near.

One day the poor little critter flipped over on his side and stayed that way, panting desperately. I felt sorry for him, but what can you do for a fish? It's not like you can trundle it off to the nearest vet. I kept an eye on him, and by the next morning he had definitely gone to Piscine Heaven, although oddly he never floated to the top of the water. I talked my long-suffering husband into burying him, so he became the first occupant of the Duloc Manor Cemetery for Pets.

This week the betta finally succumbed. He had always been a lively critter, swimming frantically every morning the moment he saw me stir, but suddenly he stopped eating, and his eyes looked murky. I suspected that he had gone blind, as he seemed to be hungry but could not find the food. This dragged on for several days; I would coat the top of the water with pellets, hoping that he would blunder into one. But finally he tipped onto his side like Finny, and I knew the end was near.

Sure enough, his spirit joined Finny's in the Great Beyond and his body joined the goldfish's on the side of the house. At last I am free of one feeding and cleaning duty, although Bradley the bird and the feline trio will make sure that I am kept plenty busy.

I never really wanted any fish, but once they were here, I got used to them. Now the dresser seems rather barren without any life swimming around, but at least they lasted much longer than I ever expected they would.

I won't have to feel sad for too long, as there are plenty of other critters to comfort me. As I type this, Bradley is perched on the couch pillow next to me while Farquaad lies against my other side, trying to pretend he's a sweet, innocent feline while sending veiled death threats to the bird. Stitch is haunting the front door, hoping someone will take him for a walk (even though my husband just did that 15 minutes ago), and Tooncinator is busy under the bed, listening to the voices in his head. There's plenty of life in Duloc Manor, and that's the way I like it.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Welcome to Florida...DUCK!

On the news recently, I discovered that our new Florida state gun law, which went into effect October 1, is stirring up some controversy. Basically, according to the Miami Herald the law expanded Florida's "castle doctrine" law, which is named after the philosophy that "a man's home is his castle." It used to say that a person has a right to shoot first in self-defense if someone enters his home.

However, that old law required anyone attacked in a public place to retreat first; they could only use deadly force in self-defense, if fleeing was ineffective. The new version removes the obligation to retreat. If you feel that you are being threatened, you can legally shoot first and ask questions later.

A group called the "Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence" describes the law in the following way (this is a direct quote from their flyer): "A new law in the Sunshine State authorizes nervous or frightened residents to use deadly force." I think this applies to anyone, not just residents, but I suppose it would be a bit difficult for the average tourist to toss a gun in their carry-on bag as they wing their way on vacation.

The Brady Campaign is countering the law with ad campaigns in various other states, and even foreign countries, warning potential tourists of the possible risks of visiting the Sunshine State. And they don't mean danger from criminals...their ads specifically advise against pissing off the locals. They off a variety of helpful tips, including:

"Do not argue unnecessarily with local people"

"Keep your hands in plain sight if you are involved in a traffic accident or a near-miss."

"If someone appears to be angry with you, maintain to the best of your ability a positive attitude, and do not shout or make threatening gestures."

Cool! The next time my favorite eatery is packed with out-of-towners, I'll have to finger a suspicious bulge in my pocket and mumble about how waiting for a table sends me over the edge. And maybe if enough confused tourists get warning fliers, they'll pull off to the side of the road to read their freakin' maps rather than stopping dead in the middle of the road...that is, if they don't want to be stopped dead literally.

A press release from the Brady Campaign also warns: "Individuals who are unfamiliar with Florida's roads, traffic regulations and customs, or who speak foreign languages, or look different than Florida residents, may face a higher risk of danger -- because they may be more likely to be perceived as threatening by Floridians, and because they are unaware of Florida's new law that says individual who feel their safety is threatened or their possessions are at risk are legally authorized to use deadly force."

Personally, I've never felt the urge to blow away others who speak another language or who look "different," but who that I can do it with impunity, maybe I'll suddenly get the urge to go on a shooting spree. For all I know, thousands of my fellow formerly mild-mannered Floridians are suddenly drunk with newfound power. Now that they're packing heat and are legally allowed to use it, our roadways might turn into the California of the East and our streets might turn into the Wild, Wild South.

A spokesman for the Brady Campaign insists, "We are not trying to scare people; the Florida Legislature scared people." I guess it is a little scary; there are probably some disturbed individuals who might look at such a broad law as an excuse to declare open season on anyone who ticks them off, but I hope that most people will exercise common sense.

When I returned from my latest trip to the Midwest, I was hoping to find the flyer distributors at Orlando International. I have a warped sensed of humor, so I planned to respond with something like the following: "Cool! Visitors can shoot first if they feel threatened, too, right? Where's the closest gun shop to the airport? Those hour-long lines at Disney World make me feel threatened; those losers better get the heck out of my way or I'll have to teach them a lesson."

Actually, setting up gun rental concessions to help tourists protect themselves might not be a bad idea. In addition to warding off crazed locals, they can deal with other "threats." For example, I often read horror stories about unsuspecting families who sign up for a "two hour" timeshare presentation in exchange for cash or free Disney World tickets. Somehow, those 120 minutes drag into three, four, or five hours of relentless high-pressue sales pitches. They end up signing on the dotted line just to escape before midnight. It would put them on even footing if they could whip out an AK47 and demand, "Give me the damn tickets NOW!"

And what about the surly car rental agents who lie by claiming that a tourists must buy their overpriced insurance (even if they have their own insurance) because "'s required by state law." I can just imagine a disgruntled tourist drawling, "Yeah, bucko, I got your state law right here!" as he shoves a cold metal gun barrel in the obnoxious agent's face.

Ah, but Fantasy Land is eight miles down the road. In reality, I don't think that much will change. The Brady people will get their 15 minutes of fame, riding on the coattails of controversy, and then life in the Sunshine State will return to normal.

And if not, the Town Center Market recently closed in downtown Celebration. Now that there's an empty store in a prime location, I just might start up a bullet-proof vest franchise.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Friday, October 07, 2005

A Dose of Methadone

Ahhhhhhh.....I've gotten my fix. The Celebration Front Porch forums are back!

For the uninitiated, the Front Porch is Celebration's intranet for residents. The most active part, which cannot be viewed by those who don't live in The Bubble, is the discussion forums. Besides being informative, the discussions often take an interesting turn, since people will often type things from the safe solitude of their keyboard that they'd never say face to face.

For the technophiles among us, the forums were a daily fix (actually, several times daily). Thus, when hackers attacked the Front Porch and it poofed out existence into the nether regions of internet, we were forced to go cold turkey. Like junkies whose suppliers had suddenly skipped down, we wandered around the World Wide Web like zombies, desperate for our fix of "forum heroin."

Thankfully, we still had the message boards, but they're not nearly as fun because most of the users are anonymous and many probably don't even live in Celebration. On the Front Porch, you know exactly who is saying what. It's a high-tech version of the gossip circle in front of an old-time general store.

Fortunately, a few days ago the forums made their triumphant return. Unfortunately, they're in a totally new format. "New" isn't necessarily "bad." They're in a more traditional discussion forum format, and they have certain abilities that weren't present on the old site. But still, it feels like a dose of methadone rather than the full-fledged, vein-popping internet drug that I used to be accustomed to. The biggest loss is the content of the old discussions, which were apparently unsalvagable. Years of Celebation history have vanished into thin air; now the "famous" threads will become a part of town lore, never to be seen by human eyes again...instead, they'll be passed down through the generations as folk tales.

Oh well, at least the new forums allow a custom avatar in addition to a custom signature line. I like to change avatars and signatures on a regular basis and to make them as twisted as possible (at least within the forum guidelines). Two of my favorites were a picture of Homer Simpson and the tagline "Celebration, Florida, centrally located in America's Wang" and a finger-wagging animated .gif of Willy Wonka saying, "Don't touch that squirrel's nuts!" At the moment, I have a photo of me in foil headgear (signature pictures of Bunny Brigade members in their ears are quite de rigour).

In the cosmic scheme of things, my signature is pretty tame. One person has an animated clip from "Napoleon Dynamite," and I'm hoping that the person who had a clip of "Wonder Showzen" on the old site will resurrect it. Creativity and technical skills run rampant in Celebration, which makes for some very interesting results.

Since an avatar must be no larger than 80 x 80 pixels, I can't have quite as much fun with that. At the moment, I have a still of Canyonero from the Simpsons in honor of my Aztek.

Slowly but surely the new forums are becoming more active as people discover that they've risen from the dead. Most of the old core group of users is back, and I'm hoping that maybe some newbies will join in the fun. Overall, only a small percentage of Celebration residents use the Front Porch. That's a shame because it's a very powerful communication else could news (and rumors) gain the force of a speeding freight train within mere minutes? How else could a wedding be pulled together out of thin air within 48 hours?

A few years back, before I moved to Celebration, a co-worker said to me, "Isn't it a shame that the internet is killing social interaction and isolating people?" I didn't think that was a vaid asessment back then, and I definitely don't think it's valid now. Back in those days, I was already active in an online Disney Cruise Line forum. I "met" dozens of people online and later had the pleasure of meeting many of them face-to-face on board the ship on various cruises. Some of those meetings turned into lasting friendships; amazingly, some of the people even lived nearby, but I never would have met them without the internet. The web didn't isolate me; it expanded and widened my social circle.

Even before we bought our house in Celebration, I immersed myself into the former discussion forums and got a taste of the real-life town, not the Disneyfied version. One we bought Duloc Manor and I had access to the Front Porch, it became my lifeline over the long year that we did our bi-weekly commute back and forth to Chicago. Friendships were forged, and I always knew what was happening in town, even when I was stuck 1200 miles away.

I miss the old forums, but I've plunged head-on into the new ones...a new era has begin, and hopefully it will be a good (and hacker-proof) one.

Oh well, enough blogging. I'm off to the "methadone clinic."

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Peyton Place South

One of the greatest snowjobs of all time is the way that the Walt Disney Company convinced the outside world that Celebration is akin to Stepford. Google the words "celebration, florida" and "stepford" together in the same query, then sift through the myriad websites and blogs that come up. You will quickly discover that people view us as an eerily "perfect" town of picturesque homes and robotic residents.

If only they knew the truth!

In actuality, the longer that I live in Celebration, the more shocked I am at the seamy underbelly of life in our lovely little town. I'm not talking about the public issues, such as battles over parking, school issues, and overdevelopment. Nope, I mean the personal side of particular, the sordid relationships and often very nasty breakups that would rival a trashy bus station novel.

Celebration is a throwback to the small towns of yesteryear, where everyone knew everyone else's business. There were certain things that remained unspoken (at least in public), yet a knowing smile or a wink of the eye acknowledged that everyone knew.

Most of the "good stuff" is passed along the gossip grapevine. The process is enhanced by a liberal application of alcohol. Even the most innocent-seeming gatherings can turn into a wonderful gossip-fest, as I learned at the last "Mickey Mommas" meeting. It started out as a screening of a Dutch documentary about Celebration. The only word that pops into my mind to describe the hour-long show is "bizarre," and that doesn't even begin to convey its surreal essence.

Whenever a couple was interviewed, they were inevitably seated on a couch, poised at either end, sitting as far from each other as possible. Either all of the people in the documentary had intolerable B.O. or all they had a sensory integration disorder that caused them to avoid any human touch. Oddly enough, when one person would be talking, the others in the scene were often flopped about in lifeless poses. It was as though they were all Audioanimatronics, but the cameraman only had one battery. Thus, only one person could be operable and in motion at any given time.

The cameraman should be hired by Disney to produce Circle-Vision movies for Epcot, as his favorite visual "enhancement" was to slowly pan the camera in a circle. A few minutes into the program, I was ready to reach for the Dramamine. Another odd technique involved setting up the camera near one of the downtown boardwalks and allowing it to capture the people walking by. I guess it was supposed to appear spontaneous, but the whole thing screamed "SET UP!!"

Anyone who thinks we have a lack of parking in town needs to watch this show. Virtually every street they showed, including the downtown, was eerily deserted; the Dutch must think that Celebration is a ghost town. As we were watching, somebody commented, "Pretty soon a tumbleweed is going to blow across the screen."

At various points, a narrator read text that sounded like it was lifted directly from The Celebration Company's promotional literature and from various anti-Celebration articles. It was all a rehash of the same old, tired Celebration stereotypes. This was occasionally livened up by business-owning residents interjecting segments that resembled mini-infomercials. The only thing missing was a toll-free number flashing on the screen.

The documentary grew more amusing in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol that we consumed. Being a fan of cheap Publix wine, I was swilling down a bottle of blackberry merlot. It reminds me of the Mogan-David my grandmother used to give me as a child, mixed with 7-Up in a primative forerunner to wine spritzers. Others were indulging in wine, too, or downing Tom Collinses.

By the end of the documentary, we were all yucking it up, comparing the real-life Celebration to the deserted Stepford-gone-terribly-wrong portrayed in the show. Inevitably, this led to gossip about who was doing what with whom. Some of it I knew already, and some of it was news. Even though names were left out of most of the stories, in true small-town fashion everybody knew exactly who was being talked about almost every time.

In my Chicago suburb, I'm sure there was just as much hanky-panky going on, but nobody cared in such a big, impersonal place. Heck, for all I knew, there could have been orgies going on in my condo building and I wouldn't have had a clue. But Celebration is a small, small town...not necessarily in size, but in spirit. It's a throwback to the stereotypical old-fashioned neighborhood where everybody knows everybody else...and everybody else's business.

That's not necessarily a bad thing; for those of us who lead a relatively dull life, there's not much to fear. And I'd rather live in an "involved" town than another vast, impersonal expanse where I never even learned the names of many of the neighbors in the same condo building.

Unlike Celebration and Stepford, you won't find many comparisons with our lovely little town and Peyton Place on Google. But believe me, behind that Stepford exterior, there's a whole lotta shakin' going on.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Monday, October 03, 2005

Farmers Market Redux

In theory, the Farmers Market has returned to Celebration. Like school bells and love bugs, it's a sure sign that fall has arrived.

In practice, I fear for its long-term survival. This year, due to the construction on the former downtown parking lots, the market has been moved to the 851 Building. That name most likely means nothing to those who live outside of Celebration, and if you don't live here, you probably have no idea where it's located. For "townies," the name instantly conjures up a mental image of the building on Celebration Avenue, just past the school, and also memories of the battle over whether it would eventually become a private school or a community center.

The community center crowd won out, and our residential owners' association is in the process of purchasing the building. Everything should be finalized in mid-October, and then the new controversies can begin over the remodeling and allotment of space. Meanwhile, since there was no feasible location for the Farmer's Market downtown, it was moved to the area outside of the 851 building and adjacent to the school gym.

The area is nice and spacious, with plenty of parking and room for vendors to spread out. Although I didn't notice personally, I read online that attendees would have access to the gym restrooms. In theory, it sounds like an ideal location. In practice, when I stopped by on Sunday, I appeared to be one of only a handful of people who had any idea that the market was there.

The problem is that the 851 Building is located past downtown, an area where tourists don't typically wander. They catch sight of the church, Town Hall, and Market Street, and they're drawn in by an invisible beam. Soon they spot the lakefront, and if there are any children in the car, they'll surely be clamoring to stop the moment they spot the interactive fountain. Soon, the adults are ensconced in rocking chairs, Barnies coffee firmly in hand, while the kids dash through the water. Or perhaps the whole gaggle will wander up and down the street, gazing at the shops with that reverent, empty stare that seems to overtake otherwise rational people the moment they leave their home state. I always wonder, do they come from Boofooland where stores do not exist?

At any rate, once they've settled in downtown, wandering a little bit farther is not too likely. Also, the Farmers Market is located pretty far off the street; it's not easily visible from Celebration Avenue. Sure, there were signs and ballons at the driveway, but ballons can mean anything from a birthday party to a fund-raising car wash. And anyone who drives more than one block in Celebration, especially on a Sunday, quickly becomes immune to the signs thanks to a plethora of plexiboard pleas to come to church or an Open House.

Since my husband loves fresh produce, we dutifully headed to the market on the way home from church. There were few merchants and fewer customers; the French bakers were there, thank goodness, as I've gotten addicted to their filled cookies (caramel or peanut butter...mmmmm!). But there was only one produce stand, rather than the usual two, and the fresh lemonade cart was absent. There were less food vendors, and even the guy who usually plays his guitar for donations was missing in action (maybe he got a recording contract over the summer).

It was even more worrisome to see so few warm bodies, since the Fall Art Festival was also in town. In theory, that should have drawn more people to the area. But sadly, the festival itself also seemed sparsely attended compared to years past. I wandered among the booths, happy to see that the Orlando Sentinel was on hand because I depend on them to replenish my scratch paper stash; the pads they hang out fit perfectly next to the phone. But even though I visited the festival on both Saturday and Sunday, I literally did not see one person buy even one item. On Saturday there were lots of looky-loos, but no one was ponying up any hard cash. On Sunday, as we hiked to Barnies for our pre-church coffee, even the lookers had abandoned ship.

I'm not sure why the art show was poorly attended. I love the downtown festivals, and in years past I've almost always found a new trinket to add to the collection at Duloc Manor. This year, the selection of crafts was sparse so I returned home both days empty-handed.

At least my husband was able to find fresh tomatoes at the Farmers Market. Ever since we moved to Florida, he can't stomach the tasteless, anemic orbs that pass for tomatoes at supermarkets in the Midwest. He eats a hearty salad every day, so when he commutes back to Chicago, he's forced to suffer with substandard veggies. As soon as he returns, it's off to the Market for his fix of "real" vegetables.

Unfortunately, to paraphrase Scrooge, if these are shadows of things that will be instead of things that might be, hubby will soon be forced to find his produce elsewhere. If the merchants don't make money, they'll stop coming. If there are no sellers, that means no buyers, which inevitably means no more Farmers Market.

I'd hate to see yet another beloved Celebration event go the way of Lights and Lemonade and the welcome nights that used to be hosted quarterly for new residents. I don't know what, if anything, can be done. Space is at a premium downtown; with the parking lots being converted into condos, that pretty much just leaves the street. But with parking at a premium, it would make a bad situation worse to shut down a road and eliminate a big chunk of on-street parking every week, especially at church-time. There are two houses of worship in the immediate downtown area, so all those people need a place to park in addition to the usual weekend swarm of tourists and locals. (Zap! Oww! The chip in my head is sparking! I take that back...we have no parking shortage here in, Celebration. Every is fine. It's the perfect place.)

We'll see what happens as falls turns into winter. Hopefully a viable solution will arise; if not, another venerable town institution will be gone. I just hope I don't see the day when we turn into just another upscale Florida subdivision with nothing to distinguish us from all the rest.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Little Bit of Heaven

In the aftermath of two monster hurricanes, it's easy to feel depressed and disheartened. Some people even ask, "Why would God allow this to happen?" or state self-righteously, "God is punishing the sinners."

Personally, I don't understand either of those statements. After all, God gave us free will. I don't think he allows bad things to happen, any more than He whips up hurricanes as punishment. He created the Earth and made humans in His image. He gifted us with free will so we could chose our own destiny. Sure, He gives suggestions and subtle hints, but we're free to accept or reject them. I believe that He tries to guide us, and that He will intervene if we pray, but I don't think He takes out His wrath on hundreds (or thousands) of innocent people just to smite some sinners.

Back in the Midwest, my husband and I were active at a local retreat house that was run by Catholic nuns, although many of the retreats were nondenominational, but I hadn't attended church regularly for many years. I like having a regular spiritual touchstone, so once we moved to Celebration, I hoped to find a compatible house of worship.

If you ever double that Celebration has a wide variety of churches from which to choose, simply drive into town any weekend and you'll get lost in a sea of ugly, annoying plastic signs announcing services throughout the town. We've got everything from traditional Catholic and Protestant services to multi-sensory "worship events," and there's also an active Jewish congregation.

The worship styles are diverse, and so are the locations. At present, one church has a permanent building and two others are in the works. The other congregations meet at various places, such as the grade school, high school, Stetson University, Celebration Health, and even the downtown movie theater.

My own religious background is varied. My family is Catholic, but I also attended Baptist and Pentecostal Sunday Schools. I consider myself a Christian, but my views are quite liberal. For example, I don't believe that God has anything against gay people, and it annoys me when churches focus too much on materialism and not enough on helping others with direct action. Personally, I think most televangalists are the modern-day equivalent of the moneychangers Jesus drove out of the temple.

I know people who attend various Celebration churches, and originally I planned to visit multiple congregations to find the one that suits me best. But I lucked out on my very first first visit was to Community Presbyterian Church in Celebration, mainly because of their convenient 11 a.m. service, and I quickly realized that I didn't need to look anywhere else.

Community Presbyterian is conveniently located downtown, on Celebration Avenue. It's almost impossible to miss the old-fasioned white church building as you approach the town center. I remember driving by on so many wistful Sundays, as my husband and I prepared to return to Chicago after a whirlwind Celebration weekend. In those days, we typically spent less than 48 hours in town; we'd fly in after work on Friday, then catch whatever flight to Chicago was cheapest on Sunday afternoon.

As we drove down Celebration Avenue to 417 on our journey back to the midwest, I would enviously glance at the people gathered in the narthex at the end of the 11:00 service. They seemed so happy as they chatted, greeted friends, and headed off to a late lunch or home to enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon. I dreamed of the day when I, too, would call Florida home and have the time to do "normal," homey things, like attend church.

Now we finally have that opportunity. Instead of watching wistfully through the winshield, I am one of the people gathered at the church. We made our first visit to Community Presbyterian a few months ago, and I enjoyed the practical, plain-spoken sermon and the feeling of comraderie. Just paging through the church bulletin, I could see that Com Pres was a church of action. It was jam-packed with activities, from youth groups to adult groups to an upcoming mission trip to Brazil to supply-gathering drives for the less fortunate.

The interior of the church is nice, but not overly fancy. The emphasis is on worship, not on trying to impress. While I love the 11 a.m. start time, my husband loves the fact that he can dress casually. Among the congregation members, you'll find people in every sort of attire, from dress clothes to jeans and shorts. I also like the fact that the late service is a "blended" service, meaning that there is a mixture of traditional hymns and modern music. For those who prefer a full slate of mournful organ songs, the early service is all tradtional. For those whose tastes are entirely modern, there is a Thursday night contemporary service. Personally, I like the blending, as it offers a nice mix of the two.

The pastors of the church, Patrick Wrisley and Nancy Graham Ogne, are truly gifted. No stodgy fire-and-brimestone (as a matter of fact, Patrick rides a Harley...he's definitely not a stuffed-shirt pastor!). Instead, the messages are relevant; Nancy and Patrick have a talent for taking Biblical passages and relating them to modern life in a meaningful way. They often use "The Message," a translation of the Bible in contemporary language, for quotations, and it intrigued me so much that I bought a dual volume, with The Message in one column and a traditional interpretion beside it.

I had assumed that most of the Com Pres attendees lived in Celebration, but soon I learned that I was wrong. I saw many friends and local neighbors, but there were also lots of people who came in regularly from the surrounding areas. They had tried other churches throughout the area and had found a "home" at Community Presbyterian.

Soon, my husband and I were attending Com Pres regularly, and better yet, we actually enjoyed it. To hubby, who grew up strictly Catholic, mass was a chore and an obligation. For me, church mostly meant Sunday School where I could see my friends, but the Baptist and Pentacostal sermons were full of too much Hell and damnation. It was quite a pleasant change of pace to look forward to Sundays.

Since I believe in active Christianity, I liked the church's mantra of being the "hands and feet of Christ." I saw plenty of evidence that Com Pres takes those words seriously. The very first week we attended was "Undie Sunday," a collection of new underwear for the needy. Over the many weeks we attended, there was a mission trip, a "Buckets of Love" program for the less fortunate in other countries, a special collection for hurricane victims, and a group made up of of several church members who drove out to help those affected by Hurricane Katrina.

I haven't had the time to start practicing counseling professionally in Celebration, but I discovered that the church has a Stephen Ministry program. It trains and provides lay volunteers who assist people in a Christian context. They don't do actual "counseling"; speaking from my clinical background, they practice Rogerian techniques, i.e. listening and unconditional acceptance. However, they add a Christian component, relying on God to do the healing.

I decided that becoming a Stephen Minister would allow me to volunteer my time for a good cause, doing something that I can enjoy while helping others. Since my years of training focused on cognitive/behavioral psychology, I knew it would be somewhat of a shift to move to strictly Rogerian. Also, even though I attended a Catholic university for my BA and MA, there were no classes in adding a spiritual component to therapy (I earned my doctorate at a secular school, so of course there was no religious training). But the church provides an excellent training program, so I'm currently in the process of learning to be a Stephen Minister.

Since we were becoming active in the church, my husband and I decided to become members. I didn't want to be singled out; even though I'm normally an exhibitionist who doesn't mind speaking in front of groups of people, somehow the idea of getting up in front of the congregation as a new member was a bit too intimidated. Hubby kept taunting me for my timidity, but I remained firm.

Fortunately, Com Pres has a tradition of a mass joining on the church's anniversary in September. My husband and I could become official members in relative anonymity, along with a large group of fellow newbies. We made an appointment to talk to Nancy, and a few weeks later we attended Patrick's new member orientation the day before the "Mass Joining." Even though we had to be conscious, dressed, and downtown at the ungodly hour of 9 a.m., it was a lot of fun. There was coffee, continental breakfast items, and lots of comraderie. We saw several people we knew already and learned some interesting facts about those we didn't know...turns out there was even another roller coaster buff, just like my husband.

After the introductions, Patrick gave an overview of the Presbyterian faith and the history of the church. It's almost as fascinating as the history of the town of Celebration itself. I liked several aspects of being a Presbyterian, particularly the democratic style of decision-making and the fact that church members are encourage to study the Bible and maintain their own personal relationship with God.

The next morning, my husband and I did a rare dress-up, with me in a dress and him in a good shirt and tie (normally we're clad in shorts and sandals). Prior to the joining, several people were being baptized. Then, we stood up with all the other new members and answered several questions designed to affirm our faith. Thankfully, lightning did not strike the church...finally, we were officially a part of Community Presbyterian in Celebration.

At this time last year, I was on the outside looking in. Now, it's so nice to be among the people with a spiritual home, as well as a physical one, here in Celebration.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: