Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Hectic Holidays

Now that Thanksgiving is over, the whirlwind holiday season has begun. Since Turkey Day has also ushered in the season of caloric holiday indulgence, I have scheduled bouts of daily physical activity to combat additional poundage. I'm an infomercial addict, so I ordered an Urban Rebounder (basically, an indoor mini-trampoline). I never believe the exaggerated claims, but I enjoy a wide variety of exercise so I have a smorgasboard of "As Seen On TV" equipment and DVDs. Now that the weather is so gorgeous, I've started walking semi-regularly again, too.

Saturday night was so pleasant that I decided to hike downtown to see the snowfall again. It was a perfect evening for being outdoors, and I was curious as to whether the crowd would be as large as it had been on Friday.

When I reached downtown Celebration, I still had a little time before the snowfall, so I stopped at Sherlock's for a cup of rose hip tea. Then I hiked down to Market Street, past the NEV train and horse carriages (both of which seemed to be doing a booming business). There was a good sized crowd that seemed to grow progressively larger as the clock approached 8 p.m.

As I waited below one of the light poles, in the midst of a steadily swelling mass of people, a little truck came down the street, refilling the snow-makers with a hose running from a tank of liquid. A little knot of kids was harrassing the drivers, asking them how snowflakes could be made from soap.

Suddenly the tinny speakers sprang to life, and the number of people on Market Street seemed to instantly triple. It was the same recording from last year, with the same corny intro: the kids of Celebration wishing for snow. And of course, the wish was granted as the blowers kicked into gear and the bubbly snowflakes rained down on the expectant crowd below. On Friday, I saw a lot of locals; Saturday appeared to be almost exclusively tourists. I found it rather humorous that in a few days, the vast majority of them would probably be returning to real snow...yet here they were, burning precious vacation time to see the fake version.

The kids danced around in the blizzard while proud parents and grandparents snapped photos or rolled their camcorders. I was standing right in the line of fire, but I quickly moved to avoid getting soap in my tea. Whatever type they are using this year has a stronger than usual scent that sent me into a coughing fit; the same thing had happened on Friday. But most of the people seemed to be immune to any adverse respiratory effects.

I stayed until the end of the snowfall to see what songs would be played. Unfortunately, none of them caught my fancy; it was the same old selections from last year. Oh well, now that I have my Shakin' Stevens CD with my favorite tune from the Celebration Company/Disney days, I don't miss the old days as much.

When the snowfall stopped, I headed towards Celebration Avenue for the hike back to Duloc Manor. It's longer than the back way, but it would take me through the residential areas. Since it was such a beautiful night, I decided to take the longest route, which would take me through South Village and Roseville Corner, instead of going directly into East Village.

The night was ablaze with Christmas lights, and there was still enough Chicagoan left in me to marvel at the fact that I walking around in shorts in November in 70-something degree weather. I know all the old cliches about dreaming of a white Christmas, but I'll choose a green Christmas anytime.

On Sunday afternoon, after church, we hiked over to the Farmers Market, which is doing a booming business at its new location on Market Street. Hubby wanted to pick up some produce, while I sought out the French pastry booth. Then, at the head of the street, we discovered Christmas trees for sale. It was a fundraiser to help pay for landscaping at the school, and the trees were very fresh, having just been cut in North Carolina a few days earlier. Free delivery was even included, and it was prompt. Our newly purchased tree was already waiting on our front porch by the time we got home.

On Sunday night, hubby and I decided to make a late night run to Target to buy some holiday decortations. We put the real tree in the front room, with a silver tree in the family room, so we needed to deck them both out. Normally, I would stick to one tree, but since we're on the holiday house tour, I need to be a bit more extravagant than usual. I hate shopping in crowds, so we figured that if we went out after 10 p.m., we'd avoid the worst of the holiday rush.

We got out a little later than planned, so we didn't reach the store until 10:40. As we pulled into the empty parking lot, I was afraid that Target was closed already. Thankfully, they were open until 11, giving us 20 precious minutes to snatch enough booty to deck out Duloc Manor. We grabbed a cart and rushed to the seasonal section, tossing garland, ornaments, tree skirts, and toppers into a precarious heap. We made it with five minutes to spare...whew!

We decorated the live tree when we got home, going with a loose "Christmas Story" theme. A friend gave me some old-fashioned big bulb Christmas lights, so my husband festooned them around the tree while I buried the branches in ornaments. It looks quite lovely when lit, but hubby is paranoid about the heat that the large light bulbs generate, so he won't let me leave them on when we're not in the room.

Next, I put up my beloved silver tree on Monday morning. I grew up in the tacky metal tree/color wheel 1960s, and I still have a soft spot in my heart for those shiny silver branches. Since the theme in my family room is Rankin/Bass, it fits in pefectly. There are two color wheels attached to the base and one balanced on a box to infuse the branches with a continuous cycle of blue, red, green, and orange. Technically, the tree is a new version that isn't made of metal, so I could safely use string lights. But I just can't do that...it wouldn't be properly authentic. However, in a nod to modern technology, I bought a small silver fiber optic tree for the foyer.

I added a few other holiday touches throughout the house, but by Monday night the house was still in chaos. Now it's Tuesday night, and I'm still surrounded by half-empty ornament boxes and random strings of garland; my decor is almost done, but not quite. I thought it would be done today, but then someone notified me that Christmas decorations were 60 percent off at Joanne Fabrics, so I stopped there this afternoon. Just what I needed...more holiday decor!

Hopefully Duloc Manor will be back to some semblence of normalcy by tomorrow...or at least as normal as possible in the hectic holiday season.

Click here for my Holiday Survival Guide and a guide to Keeping New Years Resolutions on my business website.

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

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Celebration Snow Returns

Yesterday night the yearly snowfall returned to Celebration. Call me corny, but I love the blizzard of soapy snowflakes that descends hourly on Market Street between Black Friday and New Years Eve. We've been attending it since 2002, when we were in the process of purchasing our home.

For the first two years we attended, it was run by The Celebration Company (i.e. Disney). In 2004, it was taken over by Lexin, the company that purchased the downtown area. Fortunately, Lexin didn't change it too much, although I prefer Disney's taste in music. A loop of Christmas music plays on tinny speakers as the snowfall pours down at the top of each hour from 6 to 9 p.m. It only lasts a few minutes, but the kids get a real big kick out of it. For the "big kids" who have moved to Florida from the North, it provides a snow-fix without the unpleasant side effects, like shovels and frostbite.

Since yesterday was the first day of "Now Snowing Nightly" (the official moniker), it was kicked off with a big hoopla prior to the 6 p.m. snowfall. The 2005 community service award winners were going to light the laefront Christmas tree; since one of them is a friend of ours, we decided to get downtown early enough to see him.

Hubby and I figured that traffic might be fierce, so we walked from East Village to downtown. It only takes about 20 minutes if you take the boardwalk, and it's not much farther even if you hoof it on the streets. It was a pleasant night for walking, although I donned blue jeans in case the air turned chilly (for a Floridian, "cool" is anything below the low 70s).

Sure enough, when we got downtown, it was fast becoming a mob scene. There were cars and people everywhere, eager to kick off the holiday season with carolers, snow, and the arrival of Santa Claus. We managed to jockey into position near the tree, where we met some friends. We chatted for a while as singers carolled, and then I spotted our other friends waiting near the stage for the tree lighting cue. I slipped over to wait was the clock neared the appointed hour. After the tree lighting, Santa was scheduled to arrive in style in a horse-drawn carriage (the south is too hot for reindeer, as anyone who has ever watched "The Year Without A Santa Claus" knows...they must wear those personal cooling devices from "Sharper Image" when they visit on Christmas Eve).

The three award winners were clutching a giant plunger that would ostensibly light the tree. The singers finished early, so the master of ceremonies killed time until the precise moment. Then, he frantically started the countdown, and the crowd breathlessly shouted: "FIVE! FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE!" The plunger was depressed...and nothing. But not to worry...a moment or two later the tree lit up in a blaze of white lights (well, mostly...a couple of patches were noticeably dark, so some of the strings must have been out).

I'm guessing the plunger was a diversion, with the tree set to light up at the appointed time without any human intervention. But it looks a lot more cool to have a big prop, and the timing was pretty good...only a few seconds off.

In the aftermath, buried in the crowd, I missed Santa's arrival. The pre-recorded music had kicked in, and the snowmakers were pumping out soapy snowflakes full force. Celebration's other holiday standards (carriage rides and the NEV train) were on hand, and the crowd had swelled into a wall of people crowding the sidewalks of Market Street.

We decided to go out to dinner; since the restaurants downtown looked packed, we opted for Joe's Crab Shack at Water Tower Place. In theory, we have a card that entitles us to immediate seating. In practice, since we were with a group of people, bringing our party size to eight, we had to wait half an hour for one of the two big inside tables to open up (there is a large table outside, too, but the plethora of smokers in the outside dining area made it an unappealing option).

As we headed for our friends' van (since we had walked downtown, we were at their mercy for transportation to WTP), we paused at the end of Market Street to watch a group of children making snow angels in the soap suds. It was so neat to see the delight on their faces and hear their excited giggles. Forget the 5 a.m. sales and the mob scenes at the malls...it was in that moment, among the happy squeals of the wee ones, that I knew the holiday season had officially begun.

Click here for my Holiday Survival Guide and a guide to Keeping New Years Resolutions on my business website.

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

Thursday, November 24, 2005

A Thanksgiving Celebration

2005 was our first "official" Thanksgiving in Celebration. Even though we were commuting last year, we spent the holiday onboard the Disney Wonder, as we had done since 1999. The three-night cruise normally runs from Thursday to Sunday, which fit nicely into our work holidays. We committed to spending Christmas with family, but Turkey Day was always spent out on the deep, blue ocean, enjoying a dinner with all the trimmings but none of the work.

This year, Disney switched its schedule so crew members wouldn't have to work at Port Canaveral on Thanksgiving Day and guests wouldn't have to board on the holiday. Many people fly in the day of their cruise, which can be rather hectic. The old schedule required them to head out to the port, get settled in their staterooms, and attend the safety drill...quite a lot to pack into the day before you sit down to a holiday meal.

Instead, the three-day cruise was switched to Sunday, meaning it would end on Wednesday. The holiday cruisers would then sail for four days, from Wednesday to Sunday, when the ship would return to its normal schedule.

Back when we booked our cruise, we didn't know that we'd be living full-time in Celebration by the time our sail date rolled around. The four-day Thanksgiving cruise wouldn't fit into our schedule or budget, so we opted for the three-day sailing beforehand.

When we drove to Port Canaveral on Sunday, my brain kept insisting that it was a weekday. More than half of our 47 Disney cruises have been on the Wonder, and all of them (except for two four-day sailings) have left on a Thursday. My sense of timing was entirely thrown off, but soon it wouldn't matter because we'd be on vacation, with our cares and cautions thrown to the wind.

Since we would be back at Duloc Manor for Thanksgiving, last week it finally dawned on me that I should make some dinner plans. In Chicago, before we started spending Turkey Day at sea, my husband would either cook a ham feast or we'd head over to my brother's house. This year, he didn't feel like cooking, nor did we want to fly north into the bitter cold (it was 12 degrees in Chicago today, which is obnoxiously chilly for November). Instead, we decided to book a nice meal at a Disney World restaurant.

Since so many tourists visit for the holidays, most of the eateries at Disney offer a special Thanksgving menu. As I dialed 407-WDW-DINE, my husband snickered at my optimism. "Yeah, right, like there's going to be any room left anywhere," he said. "Aw, come on," I countered, "Thanksgiving is still a whole week away. Surely there's space somewhere, especially if we're flexible." He rolled his eyes and courteously refrained from reminding me that Fantasyland is eight miles away.

I was hoping to dine at either Jiko or Artists Point, two of our all-time favorite Disney eateries. I wasn't going to try for any of the restaurants in the theme parks because if the park itself reaches capacity before you get there, you're out of luck. Unfortunately, both of those restaurants were already fully booked...as was virtually every other restaurant on Disney World property.

Frantically, I combed my memory and worked my way through every restaurant I could think of: Boma, Ohana, Chef Mickey's, the Concourse Steakhouse, Beach Blanket Buffet, Yachtsman's Steakhouse, California Grill, Citrico's, Narcoosee's, Boatwright's, and even the Flying Fish (which was actually serving a delicious-sounding Thanksgiving special). Those are just a few of the options I worked my way through, and I even tried the Downtown Disney restaurants. The only possibility was Kona Cafe, at the Polynesian, and only if we were willing to eat very early.

Hubby didn't say a word, but I caught the "I told you so" gleam in his eyes. Plan B was to start calling the restaurants on 192, I-Drive, and Sandlake Road, since neither of us was too keen on cooking. Fortunately, I was saved from additional searching when friends in Celebration invited us over for Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, when we returned from the cruise, was mostly a lazy day. We had eaten like piglets onboard the Wonder, so we needed a day to recover before indulging in a hearty holiday meal. Thank goodness the Urban Rebounder exercise trampoline I ordered is supposed to arrive on Friday; it's been a much too indulgent month already, and Christmas is still 30 long days away.

On the way home from Port Canaveral, we stopped at Perkins to pick up a cookie and mini-muffin tray that we'd ordered to bring to dinner with us. I had convinced my husband to make his famous bean salad, but while we were eating breakfast at Perkins the day before the cruise, he noticed a tempting selection of baked goods spread out on a display table. Apparently they were taking holiday orders to be picked up on Wednesday or Thursday. You can never have too many sugary holiday treats, so we ordered one of the variety plates.

Wednesday night was chilly by Florida standards. We took a late night dip in the hot tub and watched the steam rising from the 99 degree water. The outside air was in the 40s; not pleasant when we were done and had to make a shivery dash to the house, but much better than Chicago's below-freezing temps. Thanksgiving Day dawned sunny and pleasant, and the mercury rose to a comfy, balmy level. We were supposed to have an early dinner, so I ate a light breakfast of oatmeal (assisted by Farquaad, who was glad to lap up the remnants, since I top it with milk).

Our friends called with a little delay, so to kill time, we climbed in the spa. It was much warmer than the previous night's sojurn, and as I luxurated in the lounge seat, staring at the blue sky and gently swaying palm trees in the nearby preserve area, I marveled at how wonderful it is to spend Thanksgiving in Florida. No barren trees powdered with snow...no wicked wind whipping through your coat...no frost to chip off the car windows. I'll take a lively, green state with temperatures in the 70s any day, especially since Chicago's wind chill is expected to hit zero tonight.

Soon it was time to grab the goodies and head out to dinner. Our friends had cooked up an impressive spread: turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, corn, broccoli, green bean casserole (no Thanksgiving dinner is complete without it, and it must have crunchy onions on top), mashed potatoes, stuffing, noodles, sweet potatoes topped with nuts, and rolls. For dessert, chocolate cream pie vied with tradiional pumpkin pie to win over our taste buds. They even provided my husband's favorite sippin' wine, a Publix special called "Wild Vines Blackberry Merlot" that tastes like alcohol-enhanced Koolaid. Hubby used to be a teetotaler, but over last few years, he started drinking some cheap, sweet wines. Over time, his palate has expanded, and he likes the "good stuff" now, too, but wines that would be right at home in a brown paper bag still have a special place in his heart.

The abundant meal was wonderful, and it was especially nice to be among friends. In the past, when we sailed on the Wonder for Thanksgiving, we always felt at home; we cruise so often that we know many of the crew members, so it's almost like being among family. This year, I'm sure that a restaurant meal would have been nice (especially after the Disney phone rep. read me some of the menus, which had me drooling all over the phone), but one important thing would have been missing: friends and/or family. We were thankful to spend our first Celebration Thanksgiving with some of the friends that make this such a wonderful town.

A little later, more family members arrived. There was still plenty of food; after they had finished eating, we all gathered 'round to play an intriguing little game called "Apples to Apples." It's sort of hard to explain, but it's a great, fast-moving party game that's suitable for both kids and adults. It's also somewhat (gasp!) educational, since it involves word play and some of the cards feature historical figures.

Each player has a set of noun cards (persons, places, and things, as you might remember from "Schoolhouse Rock." During each round, one player draws an adjective card, and everyone else must choose a noun card that most closely matches or fits with it. The "adjective player" then collects the cards and chooses which he/she thinks is the best match. However, "best" is a subjective term, based entirely on that player's whim. It might be the funniest match, or even something so ridiculous that it tickles their fancy.

Each person takes a turn drawing an adjective and selecting the winner for each round. The overall winner is the player who makes a pre-set number of matches first.

I know that my description is hideously confusing; believe me, it a lot more fun than my Cliff Notes version makes it sound. Sometimes you're stuck with noun cards that are nowhere close to the adjective, and sometimes you have the perfect card. More often, you'll have some choices that are open to various interpretations. All of this makes for some interesting, and sometimes even hilarious, combinations. I think we ended up playing four spirited games before finally calling it a night.

As we wound through the streets of Celebration, we noticed that Christmas lights had sprung up on many of the houses as if by magic. On Friday, I knew that the nightly downtown "snowfalls" would start and the streets would be packed with tourists. Once upon a time, we were among them...for almost a decade, we flocked south to spend a precious week or two between Thanksgiving and Christmas in a nice, warm climate. Now, we are Floridians, and that warm climate is home sweet home for the entire holiday season and beyond. That, along with good friends, is truly something to be thankful for.

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

Friday, November 18, 2005

I Love Celebration in the Winter

Ah, how I love Celebration in the winter! Actually, it's not officially winter yet, but it's getting too close for comfort. My husband called from Chicago this morning, complaining about wind chills in the single digits. Cold, wind, frostbite...ugh! I've been living in Florida full-time for almost a year, but I instantly had a flashback to long, bleak winters in the Windy City.

October's not a bad month back north. The leaves are still changing, and the first chilly nights inspire people to stoke up their fireplaces, scenting the air with the perfume of woodsmoke. There are hayrides, hot apple cider, and songs around the campfire. You can feel the growing anticipation as the calendar moves closer to Halloween. To heck with Thanksgiving...the Great Pumpkin's appearance now marks the (un)official gateway to the holiday season.

But after the last piece of candy is eaten and the last jack o'lantern turns to mush, you realize that it's November. Sure, you've got Turkey Day, Christmas, and New Year ahead of you, but bitter cold and blizzards are dead ahead, too. In Chicago, the stretch between November and March is interminable. By the end, pale, shivering, frostbitten natives are firmly convinced that spring (all three days of it) will never come again.

Here in Florida, it's hard to believe that the year is nearly at an end. I know it on a logical level, but instinctually I just can't accept it. How can it be winter when the sun is still shining and the trees are still green? Yes, it's a little bit cooler outside, but not "mitten and scarf chilly"...more like "get out and enjoy it" cool.

The gorgeous weather finally lured me out today. I've been busy getting ready to lauch my new business to see what it's all about, click here), so I've been glued to my laptop. I've had the windows wide open and the ceiling fans spinning to draw in the crisp, fresh air. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I had to get outdoors.

I donned my walking shoes and went for a hike down to Aquila Reserve, one of my favorite areas of Celebration. Many of the homes have lake or preserve land views, and the boardwalk borders the lake. It felt so good to take a brisk walk, and I also indulged in one of my favorite past-times: checking out the houses. I love to see what other people have done in their yards and gardens, and many had started putting up their holiday decorations, too. I zig zagged up the streets and down the alleys, taking in the view.

My favorite area of Aquila Reserve is in the very back, where sprawling estate homes back up onto the lake or overlook heavily wooded areas. Although Aquila is part of Celebration, it's isolated back in its own little world. The woods still shelter wild turkeys and deer that come out to visit in the evening. Since my little corner of East Village borders the woods, too, we also get frequent wildlife visitors. It's such a treat to live only eight miles from the front gate of the Magic Kingdom and have the bonus of wild critter neighbors, too.

My husband will be home soon, and I can just imagine how happy he'll be to shed his winter coat and bask in Florida's balmy temperatures. Back when we were tourists, visiting Disney World two or three times a year, we would head off the plane and onto the jetway, feel the humidity engulf us, and breath a sigh of relief.

No, I don't miss Chicago, especially at this time of year. Celebration in the winter is the place to be!

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

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Rudolph the Politically Incorrect Reindeer

Since the Rankin-Bass classic, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," plays a big role in my holiday decor this year, it's been on my mind lately. If you really think about it, "Rudolph" is a very politically incorrect cartoon. I'm surprised there hasn't been a P.C. sequel like the travesty that features John Goodman as Frosty the Snowman, featuring a solstice-celebrating youngster. I'm all for honoring other traditions, religions, and holidays, but it annoys me when it's done in an obvious "look at how warm-and-fuzzy and inclusive we can be" manner.

Still, given the messages that Rudolph sends, there are a lot of places where the story could be shored up for a contemporary audience. For example, poor Rudolph is ostracized unmercifully by the rest of the young reindeer herd. In this day and age, the other young bucks would be forced into a sensitivity class to learn how to deal with "differently-abled" playmates sensitively and appropriately.

Donner, the coach, tears into little Rudy quite cruelly, too. If that was nowadays, I smell a big lawsuit. Rudolph's mom and dad surely could have won a cool million pounds of corn for the willful infliction of emotional distress on their physically challenged youngster. Rather than being excluded from the reindeer games, those games would be modified to accommodate Rudolph's "specialness" (I can just imagine who would win a "find your way through the dark cave" competition).

Actually, I think the Reindeer Games were a bit too competitive; the reindeer who weren't as good at flying had their fragile little self-esteems crushed. Donner should have been forced to create "competitions" where everyone is a winner. After all, the concept that the world should adapt to you and always make you feel warm and fuzzy is an important lesson that every young reindeer should learn as soon as possible.

When Rudolph reaches adulthood, he shouldn't have to put up with Santa Claus's blatant discrimination. After all, he's already proven that he's the most qualified critter for the job despite that bright, rosy honker (or, actually, because of it). In an appropriately updated version, he could file suit under the North Pole-ians with Disabilities Act rather than be forced to wait for a foggy night to prove himself.

I also suspect that Santa Claus might be the victim of an eating disorder. It's no wonder, what with Mrs. Claus following him around, demanding, "Eat, Santa, eat!" and sending him negative body image messages like "Nobody likes a skinny Santa."

Furthermore, the treatment of indigenous creatures (i.e. The Bumble) is nothing short of shameful. To have his teeth yanked out without benefit of anesthetic and then to be forced into a servile role is a glaring example of exploitation. But then again, it's no wonder that Hermey the Elf has unresolved anger issues that manifest themselves in Bumble abuse. The poor little dentist wanna-be is a helpless victim of stereotyping. After all, all elves made toys just like all Native Americans run casinos or all Indians work at 7/11, right?

Nobody thought about those issues when "Rudolph" was created 40 years ago. It was a rougher and less-easily-offended world back then, but somehow most of us who were raised in it managed to turn out okay.

Still, kids are impressionable, so I'm glad that modern cartoons and television shows are becoming more realistic and inclusive. The progress hasn't been as rapid as you might think. Just 15 years ago, in 1990, an episode of "The Simpsons" was going to feature a gay man, Karl, as Homer's secretary (voiced by Harvey Fierstein). The ensuing outcry forced them to change the episode; it contained many "hints," but never came right out and confirmed Karl's orientation.

By 1997, an openly gay kitsch store proprietor appears, and this year Marge's sister, Patty, came out of the closet as a lesbian (although there have been many hints about her in previous episodes).

Of course, my favorite example of inclusiveness is Virgin Mobile's new holiday, Chrismahanukwanzakah, created in 2004 as an ad campaign. The official date of their "all-inclusive celebration" was December 13, when they honored Christians, Muslims, Pagans, Jews, Agnostics, Scientologists, and just about any other group you can think of.

This year, they have ressurected their website, although sadly it doesn't feature the original song or commercial (thankfully, I saved them to CD last year). They also have a gift hotline, 1-888-ELP-POOP, where you can get gift-giving guidance from Jews, a Hindu Santa, a gay elf, a Black Muslim, or other the Chrismahanukwanzakah characters.

Yes, in the brave new millenia of 2000, it's a very different world. A cartoon like "Rudolph" would never pass muster in this day and age, but I still consider it a classic. As a little kid, I never pondered the societal implications; I just glued my eyes to the television like a good little Baby Boomer to get my yearly fix (remember, in those dark days, there were no such things as DVDs...we actually had to wait a whole year between holiday shows). It may have its politically incorrect moments, but at least it has the requisite happy ending. And when you're a kid, that's what matters the most.

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Getting Into The Christmas Spirit

I'm getting into the Christmas spirit a little early this year, since Duloc Manor is one of the houses on the Holiday Home Tour. Over the past year, I've been boosting my collection of Rankin-Bass figures and decor. The tour is in early December, so now that Thanksgiving is fast approaching, I decided that it was time for an inventory.

Back in Chicago, I have a collection of character dolls and figures that are all still confined in their original wrappers (think Stinky Pete the Prospector in "Toy Story 2"). Personalities from Dennis Rodman (complete with extra dress-up outfits) to Ed Grimley to Dilbert to Drew Carey line the shelves of our condo loft, since there is no room for them in Duloc Manor. I've had some of my Rankin-Bass figures for a few years, but they've never been out of their boxes. After a decade of collecting, it was difficult for me to steel my resolve and destroy their "mint" condition.

The whole doll collecting neurosis is something I undoubtedly inherited from my mother. She had some strange traits where toys were concerned; I wasn't allowed to touch most of my childhood "playthings." They sat on shelves for admiring, not for tea parties or romps in the park or snuggling with at bedtime. Oddly enough, her obsession extended to other types of toys, too. I still remember my first grade birthday party, when I excitedly tore open all the packages in a frenzy of delight. The item that I had my eye on most was something called "Bangles," which was basically a big, purple box of beads and baubles to make your own jewelry.

Unfortunately, the minute the house was cleared of guests, good old Ma stacked up all my presents, marched them down to the basement, and placed them up on a high shelf where they remained until the house was sold many, many years later. Sometimes I would gaze up at them longingly, but I knew better than to do anything but look from afar. Somehow, I don't think a box of bangles had any collectible value; goodness only knows what was on Mommy Dearest's mind.

So now here I am, doing the same thing a generation later, which my brother loves to tease me for (but believe me, if I had kids, they would be allowed to manhandle and mangle their toys as much as they wanted...I'd no doubt have a tribe of little Sids). It was probably quite therapeutic to rip open those boxes and free the playthings within. By the time I had managed to wrestle all of the little figures out of the mountains of tape and twist ties, I was exhausted! I don't think the Crown Jewels could have been packaged more securely than those little plastic figures.

The family room had been transformed into a wasteland of plastic and cardboard...or, if you're a feline, a wonderful kitty playground. I let the cats romp among the refuse until I heard the garbage truck coming. Our trash pickup in Celebration has been very erratic lately, so when you hear the garbage men, you'd better make sure that your junk is out. I frantically shooed the cats and consolidated everything I could; I made it to the alley in the nick of time.

Slowly but surely, Rudolph and his gang took over the entertainment center and spread onto the table. In the front room, I placed my Christmas Story figures, and in the upstairs bedroom the Disney Cruise Line theme was challenged by Charlie Brown and his gang marching across the dresser with their motley little tree.

As my house filled with memories of my favorite childhood cartoons, I could feel an early bout of the Christmas spirit overtaking me. Maybe I'm too old to play with toys now, but it made me smile to see Snow Miser grinning above the television and the Bumble hanging from the kitchen light fixture. In the front room, a replica of the "fragile" (pronounce that frah-ghee-lay) leg lamp cast a soft, yellow glow. I think that's one of the reasons that I love Celebration so much; my childhood was deferred, so now it's wonderful to live just a stone's throw from the Magic Kingdom, where anyone can indulge ther childlike wonder, no matter what their age.

Being surrounded by decorations all day Monday put me into a Christmas music mood by Tuesday. I dug out my holiday CDs and slipped them, one by one, into my laptop to serenade me as I plowed through all the work that had stacked up while I was on vacation.

Soon, I was thinking back to my first Christmas season in Celebration. It was way back in 2002, when Duloc Manor was still just a big patch of sand and East Village Three was a spec of color on the map. My husband and I were residents in waiting who had stopped downtown for "Now Snowing Nightly," the annual hourly blizzard of soapsuds that reminds those of us who fled from the North of just why we prefer Florida.

In 2002 (and in 2003, when our new house was a mere three months old), The Celebration Company (aka Disney) still owned Downtown Celebration. As the soapy snow coated the street, they played a medley of seasonal tunes through tinny speakers. I really liked one of the songs, but it was something that I had never heard before...very upbeat and perky. Since they played it in '02 and '03, I assumed that I'd hear it in 2004, too. I was hoping to catch some of the words so I could hunt down the elusive tune on the internet.

No such luck...Lexin, the new owner of downtown, totally changed the recording. I won't even go into the corny verbage, and the montage of songs was completely different too. I was very disappointed, but then I forgot all about it until another Celebration Christmas loomed ahead.

Thankfully, a friend in town had the 2003 snowfall on video. He was able to pick out enough of the words, even above the children's laughing and yelling, to identify the mystery song as "Merry Christmas Everyone" by someone named Shakin' Steven, circa 1985.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised, as I've always been a fan of offbeat Christmas songs. I like some traditional tunes, such as "Carol of the Bells" and "Silver Bells," but I also love some obscure numbers like "A Spaceman Came Travelling" by Chris De Burgh and Little River Band's version of "Mary's Boy Child." Here's my ultimate Christmas song list so you can see my eclectic taste:

Carol of the Bells
Silver Bells
Do They Know It's Christmas
Theme from Christmas Vacation
Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth (David Bowie/Bing Crosby Version)
Merry Christmas Everyone
Feliz Navidad
Mary's Boy Child (Harry Belafonte and Little River Band versons)
Happy Xmas (War is Over)
Step Into Christmas (Elton John)
A Spaceman Came Travelling (Chris De Burgh)
Snoopy's Christmas
Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer (original version)
All Alone on Christmas (from Home Alone 2)

What Are You Doing New Years Eve (Dante & The Evergreens version)

I was able to locate a Shakin' Steven holiday CD on Amazon, but I should have remembered that God has a wicked sense of humor. I was shuffling through my CDs, most of which are Christmas collections that I bought for one or two songs. Thus, I only play those particular songs, and the rest of the CD goes unheard. Lo and behold! On an album called "It's Christmas Time," which I'd bought for "Do They Know It's Christmas" and "A Spaceman Came Travelling," the long-sought-after name popped off the liner and smacked me right in the eye. For three years, I've longed for that song, and for three years it's been as close as my music rack...right there on the CD I was holding in my hand!!

I quickly slipped the disc into my laptop and lost myself in memories of my very first Christmas season in Celebration. The computer's tinny speaker gave the experience an air of authenticity...it helped me imagine that I was on Market Street, dancing around in the bubbly "snowflakes" and marvelling that I was standing in a blizzard in a 70-degree land of palm trees.

Another year is rapidly drawing to a close; as soon as Thanksgiving arrives, the passage of time will jump to warp speed and Christmas will be here and gone...before we know it, it will be a new year already. I'm glad that I've gotten a jump start on the holiday season. You can never have enough happiness and goodwill, and you have to grasp those fleeting moments when you feel like a child again because they become so rare as the years advance.

I'll close with the immortal words of Shakin' Steven (that first verse sums up my feelings during the downtown snowfall perfectly):

"Snow is falling
all around me
children playing
having fun
it's the season
love and understanding
merry christmas everyone

time for parties and celebration
people dancing all night long
time for presents
and exchanging kisses
time for singing christmas songs"

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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

Monday, November 14, 2005

Another Founders Day

It's hard to believe, but my husband and I celebrated our third Founders Day in Celebration this year. For the uninitiated, Founders Day is a pseudo-holiday created by Disney to "create a tradition" and foster a sense of community. It is held each year in early November, and as the name implies, it celebrates the founding of our town.

The festivities typically start on Friday night with a community carnival that is reminiscent of an old-time fun fair. For the past two years, hubby and I missed the carnival because we were still commuting from Chicago. We had to fly to Florida after putting in a full work day, so we didn't land until somewhere around midnight, when the carnival was long over.

This year, I was looking forward to attending it for the first time. The nice thing about the Friday event is that it's mainly for residents. I don't mind big, crowded tourist extravaganzas, but it's nice to have some happenings that are geared primarily towards the locals. Unfortunately, I soon realized that our timing was off for yet another year. We were scheduled for a Disney cruise the week of 11/5, so on the day of the carnival we would be sunning ourselves on Disney's private island.

Oh well, at least we'd be back on Saturday for the main festivities. These include "Taste of Celebration" (mainly, the same old food booths from the same downtown restaurants that are trotted out for every special event), and the flag raising/brick unveiling ceremony. We like to watch the mad "brick stampede" each year, as new residents frantically search for the little red rectangle commemorating the purchase of their home. You have to purchase new construction in order to get a brick, and the new additions for the past year are unveiled each Founders Day. They're in no special order, so once the blue tarp is thrown back, it's every new resident for themselves as people scatter in search of their names.

It took us so long to find our brick way back in 2003 that I was half convinced it was all a big practical joke. I suspected that the people who were shouting, "Wow! There is is!" were merely shills, planted to give the rest of us poor schmucks hope. After an hour or two, the old timers would form a circle around us, laughing and chanting, "Suckers!" Then I found my next door neighbors' brick, and finally I located ours, strategically located between the "D" and "I" in the word "Florida" that rings the flagpole.

Back then, most of the other names didn't mean a thing to me. Now, when I drag unsuspecting visitors to the brick patch, I recognize many of the names as I direct them to the one that commemorates "Barb & Tony's Place" (while most people have their family name, you can put whatever you want on it).

But my favorite part of Founder's Day is the town photo, where as many Celebration residents as possible cram onto the lawn at Lakeside Park, smile, and say "Cheese" for a group shot that is taken overhead from a crane. Or at least that is the theory...in practice, the crowd has gotten progressively smaller each year. The first year we took part, everyone had to get up close and personal in order to fit into the designated area (the grass is marked with tape strips that mark the camera's boundaries). Last year, the crowd was markedly more sparse. Both shots are hanging on the wall in my hallway, and different is quite striking.

This year, the amount of people was even more anemic. But still, it's a matter of pride for my husband and I to take part. We wore our Bunny Brigade headgear (monorail "ears" and green diddly-boppers), as did several other members of the Brigade. I can't wait to see how it turns out, with fuzzy ears sticking up amidst the sea of faces. The photo appears in Celebration News, and Town Hall typically sells prints, so yet another piece of artwork will soon be added to my hallway. It's sad that the trio of photos is also a chronicle of the dwindling attendance.

I wonder if bribery has anything to do with it. At our first Founders Day, there was a big raffle with all sorts of tempting prizes, ranging from a stay at the Celebration Hotel and golf at the local course to gift certificates for local businesses and restaurants. Leave it to me to win the golf, since I've never played anything other than Putt-Putt in my life! Fortunately, I was able to swap with someone for a Seito gift certificate, which I knew that my sushi-loving husband would appreciate. The raffle tickets were handed out just before the photo was taken, and the prizes were awarded afterwards (not just after the photo, but at the end of the community service awards ceremony), so there was a captive audience. There were lots of speeches that year, but I doubt that many of the residents really heard them; they were inwardly salivating at the prospect of snaring a prize.

Last year, there was another raffle, but on a decidedly smaller scale. There were several items, but you had to select just one of them and enter your ticket in the specific drawing for that item.

This year, there was no raffle at all. Once the photo was over, most of the people scattered to the four winds before the awards ceremony. It's a shame because they missed the official naming of our downtown lake (now dubbed Lake Rianhard after a very special, inspirational member of the community). After that, the small crowd headed to the downtown stage, where the awards would be handed out. It was still early (there is a "residents' preview" before the "Taste of Celebration," i.e. the food booths, are officially opened to the general public), so there weren't too many people in the Market Street area yet.

The spouse of the Bunny Brigade's High Priestess was one of the award recipients (no, not because he is married to the founder/leader of Celebration's premier social organization; he is a very active community volunteer). After applauding the winners, we headed to a lakeside table to down some sangria; it wouldn't be a downtown Celebration event without the Columbia Restaurant's sigature alcoholic concoction.

Our next door neighbors had shown up for the photo too (and, as good Bunny Brigade members, at least one of them donned the sacred ears). They joined us for a drink, and since they hadn't had dinner yet, we piled into Canyonero and headed to Logan's Roadhouse, just across 192. Yes, I know it was "Taste of Celebration," but there's only so many times you can eat food from the same vendors. We've been attending downtown festivities since 2003, so I could find the booths with my eyes shut and recite their menus from memory.

We made it to Logan's just before the massive dinner rush. We only had to wait about 10 minutes or so, but my neighbor didn't mind because she'd grabbed a bucket of peanuts. While we waited, she munched on the tasty goobers, tossing the shells on the floor (which is the accepted custom at the roadhouse). Even when we were ushered to our table, she clung possessively to her nut bucket.

We all enjoyed a delicious meal of various styles of dead cow. There is a cattle pasture just down the road from Logan's, and as I enjoy a tasty steak, I can't help but picture the chef slipping out the back door with a sledgehammer and crooning, "Here, Bossy! Come here!"

We debated heading back downtown after the meal, but parking was scarce so we gave up and called it a night. Hopefully the proliferation of cars meant that there was a good turnout. One of the big draws of Founder's Day was absent this year: The fireworks. People tended to head downtown early to secure a good lakeside table, which they would guard against all comers until showtime. Now, with nothing to look forward to, I wonder if attendees stayed as long. And I wonder how many still thought they were going to see a fireworks display and who got a rude surprise at 9 p.m.!

The continued shrinkage of the crowd worries me. Special events are one of the things that makes Celebration unique; losing them will push us a few notches closer to being just another Florida subdivision.

Sunday was much more heartening for the future of community events. After church, we headed to the Farmer's Market, which recently moved from the vast wasteland of the 851 Building parking lot to Market Street, and I was pleased to see a steady stream of browsers wandering among the booths.

When the Farmer's Market first returned to town after its summer hiatus, it looked like yet another Celebration institution might go the way of the Beach Party, pedal boats, downtown apartments, and Lights & Lemonade. Its old location on Front Street had been made impractical by construction work on the controversial downtown condos. Initially, it was moved to the 851 Building because there is a large parking lot and access to restrooms at the school gym.

Unfortunately, while the facilities might have been technically better, most people had no clue that the market was even there. It needs foot traffic to survive; not just Celebration residents, but the tourists and visitors who frequent the downtown streets over the weekend. The new location was much too far from the beaten path to attract any of those critical customers.

We visited the market a couple of times while it was in exile. The second time, the number of merchants was noticably less (customers were virtually non-existent both times). Thankfully, the public outcry brought about a move, and now it's back in the midst of the foot traffic. Actually, the present location, right in the middle of Market Street, is even better. It's convenient for locals to walk over after church, and it's right by the shops and restaurants where it can attract the patrons who are just visitng town.

As we headed towards the cluster of booths so I could get my fresh lemonade and pastry fix, I quickly noticed that it looked like a lively, thriving market rather than a motley, abandoned afterthought. If it remains in the new location, I think it will be with us for a long time to come.

If you'd like to see photos from Founders Day (courtesy of Jan and Charlie), click here (note: there are lots of pics, so it will load slowly).

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