Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas, Festivus, Et.Al.

It's Christmas Eve in Florida...a cloudy, muggy day. That's just the way I like it, or at least when compared to Chicago snow. But I'm really not prepared for the holiday yet; this year, we did a "Skipping Christmas" maneuver and took a week-long cruise from December 9th to the 16th. That means we spent seven days of prime preparation time chowing at the buffet, lounging at the pool, and relaxing in the spa. We did do one Christmas-preparatory activity: We attended the onboard gingerbread house-building seminar. Sadly, due to Customs rules that forbid bringing opened food shore, we had to abandon our creation when we disembarked.

A week may not seem like much time to lose, but it is when you have a seven-day work week. I did manage to put up some unlighted decorations outside, and my husband assembled our silver aluminum Christmas tree, but that was the extent of our efforts this year. I suppose it all balances out, since last year we went whole hog due to being featuring on the Celebration Holiday Home Tour.

Even though we're well into the evening of Christmas Eve, I haven't quite caught the holiday spirit yet. That's probably because the Turner "Christmas Story" 24-hour marathon doesn't begin for another two hours. For me, Christmas doesn't truly begin until I've seen Ralphie beg for the Holy Grail of presents: A Red Ryder BB gun.

Actually, I won't get to tune in until tomorrow. Pretty soon we'll head out to Disney World for dinner at the California Grill atop the Contemporary Resort. We'll watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks from our restaurant vantage point, and then we'll head off to Com Pres for the 11 p.m. candlelight service. By the time we're done with all that, I know that it will feel like Christmas.

On Christmas Day, it will be a Chinese feast with friends in honor of the "Christmas Story" finale. Last year, we added our own comic touch by finding a long, black hair in the orange beef. I'm not sure if we can top that in 2006, but I'm sure that we'll try.

On the home front, we've decided to embrace the fact that our tree is virtually decoration-free. My husband did string some sad-looking plastic bead-and-bell garland around its boughs, but neither one of us felt like tackling the ornaments. Since it is aluminum, we've decided to declare it a Festivus Tree...a bit fancier than the traditional Festivus Pole, but fashionably shabby-looking nonetheless.

In addition to the Airing of Grievances and the Feats of Great Strength, we will incorporate our own Christmas tradition: The Scratching of the Lottery Tickets. Since neither my husband nor I ever knows what we should buy for each other, we've solved the problem in a simple fashion. We buy a slew of instant lottery tickets, divide them up, and indulge in a gambling frenzy on Christmas morning. But this year we've decided to extend the fun...although Festivus is technically December 23rd, I think it makes more sense to extend the holiday season in any way possible. Thus, our customized celebration will take place on the 26th.

All in all, it promises to be another interesting holiday here in Celebration. It's a far cry from the first Christmas after we bought Duloc Manor. We'd only owned it for four short months, so we didn't have a Christmas tree or any decorations yet. We bought a little tabletop tree complete with decorations and erected it in the front room. We've long since graduated to "real" trees, but we still own that first little piece of holiday cheer.


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Thursday, December 21, 2006

December Horse Play

Although I'm feeling pretty Christmasy, it's hard to go whole hog when the temperatures are flirting with the 80s. That's what I love about living in Florida; today, December 21, just three days away from Christmas Eve, I just returned home from a five hour horseback ride. Back in Chicago, I'd probably be bundled up and shivering.

Actually, I didn't originally plan to ride that long today. I went out in Lake Louisa State Park with the barn owner, who had a rare day off. Usually her riding time is very limited, but for once the work was under control so we could take a long, relaxing ride. We ended up going out to the South Trail, which is as far as you can possibly go...literally from one end of the state park to the other.

The weather was perfect for riding. It was warm, but not blisteringly hot, and the bugs were blissfully absent. The day was beautiful, the horses were energetic, and our butts were ready for the abuse of some long hours in the saddle.

Figment was happy to have a buddy along, since we usually ride by ourselves. But even though he is very brave when I ride him alone, he turns into a thousand-pound wimp when he's in a herd. He insists on staying behind the other horse(s), and if the other equine balks, he has to do the same. He'll do it even when the other horse is balking at something that Figgie has seen a dozen times. Thankfully, he usually won't spook too badly (i.e. bolt or jump to the side) even if another horse is spooking, unless there really is something terrifying (like a horse-eating deer or a homicidal flock of birds).

Boudreaux, the barn owner's horse, is very calm and well behaved 95 percent of the time, but he likes to make up for it during the other five percent, tossing in a major spook every now and then. Poor Boudreaux attracts deer like his manure attracts flies. Granted, there are a lot out in the state park, but we always see a disproportinate number when Boo is along. They like to surprise him by popping up suddenly out of the brush, so of course he has to leap wildly to the side. The barn owner is quite good at riding out his silliness, but it's always quite a surprise to be plodding along calmly and then, suddenly...EEEEKKKK!!! A DEADLY DEER!

Figment is no angel himself. Like Boo, he's good most of the time, but then his Evil Figgie personality takes over. He tosses in a spook every now and then and gets an attitude problem if I try to force him to walk in the front of the pack.

But for the most part the horses were very good, especially considering that we probably covered over 15 miles today. We had neglected to pack any human snacks (I always bring a handful of horse cookies); all we had was water, and our stomaches started rumbling three hours into the ride. Fortunately, a long stretch of the trail runs through an orange grove. We stopped for a sweet citrus snack and allowed the horses to have some grazing time.

The ride was great fun, but by the time we had reached Hour Four, our butts were ready for a break. As we stretched into Hour Five and turned onto the trail home, I could almost hear my rump rejoicing. On the way, we stopped at the water trough at the trail head, and both Boo and Figgie drank like dehydrated camels.

When we got back to the barn, we hosed the boys down and turned them out in the round pen, which was supplied with several stacks of peanut hay. Back in Illinois, Figment ate a timothy/alfalfa mix hay, and the first time he was served the peanut variety, he gave it an evil look. Eventually he started eating it grudgingly. Then suddenly he realized that it's actually a taste treat, and now he would rather eat peanut hay than fresh grass, carrots, and even apple cookies!

As I watched Figgie blissfully rolling in the dirt before he buried his nose in a hay feast, I reminded myself that Christmas Eve was less than 72 hours away. What a wonderment to be basking in the sunshine, wearing a t-shirt, and enjoying the warmth.

It reminded me of a long ago Christmas Eve when there was a strange anomaly in Chicago. At the time, I had owned my first horse, Cochise, for maybe two or three years, so it was over 20 years ago. We'd had the usual snowfall, but on this particular December 24th, the temperature went up into the 70s!! All of the snow melted, flooding the wide, open fields where we used to ride. The water was not quite up to a horse's knees, so 'Chise and I cantered through the flooded grass, sending up a stream of water, delighting in the fact that we were doing this the day before Christmas!! It's quite a standout memory to be wearing a t-shirt and playing in water at that time of year in Chicago.

That night, the weather was stranger still. I went to a barn down the road to meet up with some friends, and we were all gathered around the fireplace in the game room, listening to the thunderstorm outside. Yes, a thunderstorm! I can't even describe how odd it was to hear the rumbling ruckus outside at a time of the year when a blizzard would have been the norm.

Now, sunshine, water play, and rainstorms in December are the norm for me. Yes, it's a little hard to equate with Christmas, but that's just fine with me. It's just one of the many pleasures of living in the Sunshine State...a Christmas "present" that I can enjoy all winter long.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

The Quest for Cocoa Wheats

Ah, the comfort foods of childhood! One of my favorites was Coco Wheats, a hot cereal along the same lines as oatmeal or cream of wheat. As a matter of it, the best way to describe it is a cocoa-ized version of cream of wheat, although that's not completely accurate. Even though it is chocolately, it is not sweetened at all. As a kid, I sprinkled it liberally with sugar and drowned it in a pool of milk, stirring it into a teeth-jangling, soupy glop.

When I reached adulthood, I usually kept a box or two of Coco Wheats in the cupboard. I lost the taste for sugar, but it made a yummy cocoa treat when I was in the mood for a quick fill-'er-up. Although it's good at any time of the year, I've always perceived it as a cold-weather food. Like oatmeal, it sticks to your ribs, so it makes a handy breakfast or a way to attack an evening craving. Because it is warm and hearty, it tastes particularly good when the cold winds are blowing outside and snowflakes are swirling around the window panes.

When we moved to Celebration, Coco Wheats slipped from my mind. You don't see many snowflakes in Florida unless they are made of soap, and "cold" is a relative term. For two years, my inner child did without, but suddenly this winter a craving cropped up out of nowhere. It was during our last cold snap, when temperatures in the Orlando area were actually flirting with the freeze point. My inner thermostat clicked, and suddenly I wanted to fill up on some pre-hibernation comfort food.

I dutifully added Coco Wheats to the shopping list, and as hubby and I navigated the aisles of Publix, I headed to the cereal aisle with an air of assurance. My eyes scanned the offerings: Oatmeal in various shapes and forms, Cream of Wheat, Malt-o-Meal, grits.....argh!! Something was missing!

I was aghast that such a staple item would be absent. My husband scanned the shelves in case I had somehow skipped over the object of my desire. Soon he, too, had to admit defeat. There were no Coco Wheats to be had. My mind was boggled...could a food item that I had taken for granted throughout my entire childhood and on into adulthood really be just a regional fad?

Since my husband was slated to return to Chicago for work, I charged him with an important responsibility: Go to "da Jewels" (Chicago-speak for visiting the grocery store) and pick up a supply of my favorite hot cereal. Here in Celebration, I live without real Chicago style pizza (Beggars Pizza in Blue Island is the best) and genuine Chicago hot dogs (Portillos is good, but JR's has them beat, with the added bonus of an Orange Julius-type drink with the explosive name "Orange Bang"). But everyone has their limits...I cannot survive without Coco Wheats!

Hubby dutifully fulfilled his task, and I descended on him like a locust, snatching the precious box from his clutches practically before I gave him a "welcome home" kiss. He also told me that he had looked up the official Coco Wheats website and discovered that it might be available at Wal-Mart. Publix is a lost cause; supposedly you can request it from the store manager, who then must order it through "Gourmet Award Foods." That seems a little complicated for a chocolate cream of wheat knock-off.

It's strange to see the things that Publix carries (or doesn't); another impossible-to-find item is good old potato dumplings. Being of Austrian/Hungarian descent, I need a fix of turkey paprikash on a fairly regular basis. (Yes, I know it's traditionally made with chicken, but hubby is allergic to chicken meat so we use the next-closest option.) Dumplings are an essential component of paprikash, and in Chicago they were readily available at the Jewel grocery store.

Here in Florida, the Publix closest to Celebration didn't carry them, but we found them at one a little farther down the road. In this area, the number of Publix stores rivals the number of Starbucks shops in the Chicago Loop...I can easily rattle off four or five located within a few miles of each other on 192. But for some unknown reason, that store abruptly quit carrying the coveted dumplings. Now all they have are some gross noodle-like things. My husband, who is the cook in our house, has had to learn to make his own out of Bisquick (just wait till I hit him up for traditional German farina dumplings!).

Oh well, even though dumplings are still a challenge, at least I have my Coco Wheats fix for now. And even though I think of it as a winter food, it sure tastes a heck of a lot better gazing out the window at swaying palm trees in the middle of December!

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Thanksgiving Past and Christmas Future

Wasn't it just Halloween? How did Thanksgiving slip past me already? Can Christmas really be just three weeks away? 'Round about October, I think that God grabs His universal remote and plants His finger firmly down on the "fast forward button," and now here we are in the midst of the holiday season already.

It was a lovely Florida Thanksgiving; people often ask if I miss my family now that I am 1200 miles away, but in all honesty I can't say that I do. My parents passed away a long, long time ago. I have an older brother and sister, but my aunts and uncles are all gone, too, and we were never close with any cousins. I do keep in touch with my siblings, nephews, and nieces via the magic of free long distance on our cell phones, and because of the regular contact, I don't feel a compelling need to see them face to face at the holidays.

Yes, it would be nice to see them, but let's look at this realistically: Late November in Florida rarely means temperatures below the 70s or 60s. A Chicago winter can mean anything from tolerable 50s to bone-chilling single digits, and a snowstorm can blow in at any time. Which would you choose? Any family worth its salt should understand when a member prefers to stay among sunshine and palm trees instead of returning to a bleak winter wasteland.

In Florida, a majority of our friends and neighbors are in the same situation. They bailed from other parts of the country, leaving family behind, and they have no big compulsion to head back. I suspect that for many it's more than just the weather. Let's face it: Most of us don't hail from the Brady Bunch. The typical American household makes the "Married With Children" gang or the Simpsons look like a bastion of mental health. Who really wants to return to the dysfunctional family melee, especially when you have a geographic excuse to fall back on?

Thus, on Thanksgiving and Christmas, you will find many "families of choice" forming. Imagine if you could choose your own family members. Moving a thousand or so miles from home gives you a pseudo-opportunity to do so.

I prefer surrounding myself with people who put the "fun" in dysfunctional, and my Celebration social group reflects that. Here is our Thanksgiving "family portrait":

Don't we make a lovely group?! Christmas Day will be spent with friends, too, but on Christmas Eve I just had to continue the tradition that we started in 2005 and work in a dose of Disney World. I'd rather smear steak juice on my body and step into a pit of rabid wolverines than go near the theme parks on a holiday. But the resorts have plenty of wonderful dining options, so I called 407-WDW-DINE to see if there were any reservations still available.

I always wait until the eleventh hour to call for holiday reservations, so my choices are usually quite limited. Last year I lucked out and managed to get into Ohana at the virtually last minute on December 24th, but usually I can tell that the reservation agent is choking down chuckles at my insensible optimism. Still, my holiday procrastination can lead to discovery of some wonderful new restaurants. For example, calling on Valentine's Day afternoon was the way in which I discovered Ragland Road at Downtown Disney, which is now one of my favorite eateries at WDW.

For Christmas Eve, the only viable options when I called this week were California Grill and Flying Fish Cafe. I've eaten at both, although not for many years. It was a difficult choice, but I opted for California Grill because the available reservation time should allow us to see the "Wishes" fireworks right around the time that we are finishing our meal. I can't imagine a better way to spend December 24th than an exquisite fine dining experience, capped with a spectacular fireworks display before we head back to Celebration to get ready for the 11 p.m. candlelight service at Community Presbyterian Church.

I'm already prepared for a potential letdown on Christmas Day itself. How can it ever top last year, when we shared a meal of "Christmas Story"-esque Chinese food with friends and discovered a long, black hair in the Mongolian beef? And, more to the point, would I even want to top hairy Chinese food? Some legends are best left untouched. Instead, I will take the 2006 meal at face value and enjoy it on its own terms.

We've already made our annual pilgrimmage to see the Osborn lights, the Candlelight Processional, and the special ground-shaking Christmas version of Illuminations. Next up is a Disney cruise with our next-door neighbors (yes, Celebration really is a neighborly, close-knit just three years, Gee Gee and Paw Paw have gone from being an intriguing presence on the "Sold" sign next door to Duloc Manor to our pseudo-parents...I just can't wait to show them all the wonders of the Disney Magic). By the time we get home from that, we'll be in the Christmas home stretch.

It's shaping up to be another lovely holiday season in Florida. I don't miss Chicago at all, particularly since it recently got battered by an early snowstorm and plunged into a single-digit deep freeze. I suppose that I do have one regret, though, but it's a generic one: The holiday season is just too darned short! I wish that God would switch from fast forward to slow motion because there is way too much to do and so little of that precious commodity called time.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Truckster Joins the Family

For a while now, our automotive family has consisted of Crush (our Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, which can only be used within the confines of the Celebration bubble and which rarely exceeds 23 mph even with the hammer down) and Canyonero, the trusty Aztek that we drove down from Chicago nearly two years ago. Good old Canyonero carried hubby and I, three cats, two fish, and a bird through a freak Atlanta ice storm that turned an 18 hour drive into 24 tedious, never-ending (and sometimes hair-raising) hours.

We've managed to juggle our lives around being a one-car family, but Canyonero is nearly five years old, and I've been worried that we're entering that ugly period when a car suddenly seems to self-destruct. We still have 22,000 miles left on our extended warranty, but that doesn't help with the inconvenience of shuttling it back and forth to the shop and finding a way to get home.

Between Canyonero's age and the occasional nuisance of one person wanting to go somewhere outside of Celebration while the other has the car, we decided it was time to expand the fold. I am a rabid Aztek fan, but sadly Pontiac stopped production back in 2005. We did find a used prospect on Car Max's website, but it was sold by the time we called. Reluctantly, I accepted the fact that it was time to switch brands.

I know that many people tie their identity, and sometimes even their self esteem, into the car they drive. I am very much the opposite; a car is a necessary evil, so I only care about two things: price and side curtain air bags (in Tourist Land, I want all the protection I can possibly get). Also, my purchase of Canyonero represented my leap to the Dark Side (SUV ownership). To me, they always seemed like overkill, but one day I was tooling along in my Neon and realized that I was surrounded by giant rolling fortresses that could crush me like a bug without even noticing. Reluctantly I resolved to put myself on even footing, but I shopped on price rather than prestige.

The Aztek had the best features at the lowest price, and I realized that it had an additional advantage: It was ug-leeee! What better vehicle for a person who can't stand SUVs than the ugliest SUV possible? Nowadays the Aztek is actually pretty low on the visual pain scale, but back in '02 it was still a shocker.

So what meets the price/safety/ugliness triad in the 2007 model year? The Honda Element, of course! You have to love a toaster on wheels whose owners adopted the following motto:

We considered a few other vehicles but were leaning towards the E, so we headed off to our local dealer for a test drive. I did some preliminary price research, but nothing too heavy duty since we weren't planning to buy that night.

The salesman took us for a spin in a nice blue LX model. I noticed that all of the Elements had various combinations of overpriced dealer-installed extras, like pinstripes for $195 (nearly $200 for a stinkin' sticker?!), mudflaps, and wheel locks. I know enough from my research not to allow those items to enter into the negotiations. Dealers put them on to add to their profits or to give them more wiggle room; if they come down on something that is overpriced in the first place, it gives an uninformed consumer the erroneous idea that they are getting something valuable. I don't want those items, so if I dealer really wants to play hardball, they can either take 'em off or order me a new vehicle without them. Most of the time, if you really dig in your heels, they end up getting thrown in for free.

After the drive, I stepped inside and gave the salesman a chance to make his initial pitch. When I told him we wanted to shop around some more, he did a turnover to one of the sales managers. The manager had no idea whether we were the sort to do research, so he went through his spiel while I snickered internally. My favorite thing that he said was how the internet invoice doesn't include expenses like dealer prep, so I'd have to factor that in too. Uh, no, that is reimbursed by the manufacturer. But I didn't say anything, just nodded, listened, and formulated my opinion of how upfront they were likely to be when we entered into serious negotiations.

We departed and I got online, tearing up the keyboard to determine a fair offer. I learned about a scam that seems to be concentrated in certain states, with Florida being one of the worst offenders: the documentation charge. I imagine that dealers would take offense at the word "scam," but what else do you call charging $299 to $599, and sometimes even more, for simply doing the paperwork? That's like McDonald's tacking on a "burger assembly fee" or the local gas station assessing a "pump equipment usage charge."

In Illinois, the fee is capped around $50, and since I bought Canyonero on an employee purchase program, that was automatically waived. In Florida, a dealer must technically charge the same fee to every customer or risk a lawsuit. But a savvy buyer will make sure that an equivalent amount is deducted from the car price.

I decided that I would offer $100 over invoice, with the only acceptable additions being tax and the actual cost of the license and title. But I tossed in one more condition: a two-year extension of the bumper to bumper warranty. In Illinois, that's never been a problem since the warranty mark-up is insane, but I soon learned that Florida has some big roadblocks to that stipulation.

I was going to email a number of area dealers, but I decided to run the offer by the local dealership first. After all, they had taken the time to give us the test drive, and I like to keep my business close to home when I can. They agreed to the price, but without with the warranty. In Florida, it has to be sold at the same price to everyone, and you can't shop around for it after the purchase at out-of-state sources because the law stipulates that you can only buy it from someone in FL. Dealers must have a heck of a powerful lobby here!

They had a finance guy come out to talk to me, but all he did was yammer about how I shouldn't want a Honda-backed extended warranty anyway and how his third-party provider was better (yeah, and people thought Warranty Gold was better, too, till they went belly up). Not only that, but I noticed that he only pushed the Platinum plan, which is overkill for an Element LX. I tried to ask some questions about the Honda warranty, but he kept correcting me because he was so focused on the terms of the other plan. I'm not sure how that dog and pony show was supposed to convince me to take their deal; it would have been more effective to simply say, "We can't do that" and then make a counter offer. Since they didn't match my proposal, and didn't put anything else on the table, I decided to go home to do some more warranty research and send out my email blitz.

I soon realized that the warranty was a lost, so I focused on an out-the-door price for the car. My blitz brought in one decent offer via email ($100 less than the local dealer had offered, i.e. invoice price) and an even better offer on the phone ($225 less than invoice). I wasn't too surprised at the under-invoice quote because Honda has a 3% holdback (an additional sum of money that the dealer gets from the manufacturer in a complicated financial dance). That brings their actual cost to $600 or so below invoice, although dealers are usually quite loathe to cough any of the holdback to a buyer. Sometimes there are also factory-to-dealer incentives, although my online detective work didn't turn up any for the Element. Also, it's sometimes a matter of timing; a dealer may need to "roll a unit" to qualify for some sort of financial incentive. If they need to sell just one more car to qualify, it might behoove them to sell it at cost, or even below, to earn several thousand dollars from the manufacturer.

I really don't know what factors were behind the quotes we had received; I only knew that they looked pretty good. Since we had taken up a lot of the local dealer's time, I decided to give them a chance to match our best offer before we took our business elsewhere. I called the salesman and told him that if he could match that price, I would be in that evening to complete the purchase. He said "yes," so we shuttled off to the dealership, believing that the third time would be a charm.

The salesman was with another customer, so hubby and I poked around the lot. We weren't looking at a specific car, just any Element LX with base equipment. We had seen a couple of vehicles come and go on the lot over the past three days, and we wondered what colors were currently in stock. It looked like we were going to end up with silver; I prefer blue, but for the right price it could be Teaberry Pink or Horse Poop Brown.

Inside the dealership, I gave the salesman my notes, with a list of the quotes I had received. He asked if I had the lowest one in writing; I explained that I didn't but that I would be happy to call that dealer back and let him listen in while it was confirmed. Instead, he asked me to send copies of all my emails to one of the sales managers. I plopped down in the dealer's internet cafe and forwarded a copy of everything that I had sent out and the quotes that had come back via email.

At the salesman's desk, he pulled out an infamous four-square sheet and asked me to sign it to show my intent. I was a little puzzled because showing up for the third time should be a pretty strong sign of intent! The four-square is usually used to divert payment buyers and people with trade-ins from the numbers that the dealer doesn't want them to focus on; it's also used to make offers back and forth. That puzzled me, since I'd made it clear that I had one number; either they matched it or I'd buy from the other dealer.

As I scanned the sheet, I realized that there were no numbers at all. I told the salesman, "First. fill in the price we agreed to and all the details, and I will be happy to sign."

He said, "Okay, one minute," and disappeared. When he returned, it was suddenly impossible to do the deal unless I produced the lowest quote in writing. When I had called earlier, the salesman had asked if I had it, and I had made it quite clear that it was a phone quote. Now the terms were suddenly changing, which didn't sit too well with me.

A manager came out to tell me how the offer was probably a low-ball and I'd never get the car at that price unless the other dealership really, really needed to make another a sale regardless of the profit. He said he would still meet it if they would put it in writing, but he bent our ear about how it would practically be a loss and he'd only be doing it because it was the end of the month...blah...blah...blah. I don't really care about the reasons; all I wanted to know is would they sell me the car for that price or not.

Since he insisted on a written quote, our only option was to leave. He said to bring not only the price, but also a specific VIN number of the vehicle the other dealer would sell us. As we walked out to Canyonero, I thought, "If I go through all that trouble, why should I come back here? They've let me walk twice already, so they could easily pull the same trick again. Why not just go with the other dealer?" Sure, we liked our salesman and we'd had the test drive there, but now they had just wasted a couple hours of our precious time. If they believed that the quote was a lowball, they should have simply said on the phone, "If the deal doesn't work out, please give us a chance to match the second lowest quote."

We decided to eat out, and on the way to the restaurant, I called the low-offer dealer to see whether they would re-confirm the price. The person I had spoken with was gone for the day and wouldn't be returning till Friday. We had a nice dinner at Mimi's Cafe, and when we got home, I got a new email from yet another dealership. Coincidentally, it matched the second-lowest offer we'd gotten earlier. I fired off an email to our salesman, explaining that we appreciated his help but that we were just going to go with the low-quote dealer if they confirmed their offer because it didn't make sense to risk wasting our time again.

The next day, the local manager emailed me and also left a phone message asking me to submit the second lowest quote; he said he would let us know for sure if he would honor it. Duh! He already had that quote, since I had forwarded it right there at the dealership internet cafe at the salesman's request. Besides, why would I want the second lowest quote matched when I was reasonably confident of getting the lowest price?

I responded by reminding him that he already had the second lowest quote but that I wasn't worried about matching it because I had two other dealers who had confirmed it in writing. I explained that while I wanted to purchase locally, I was leery of being burned again. I rereiterated that we had visited his dealership fully prepared to buy a car twice; if they were serious, they could have either made a counter offer the first time (which I probably would have accepted) or offered to match our second-lowest quote if the rock-bottom deal didn't pan out. Why call and make that offer now, and worse yet, not have a definitive answer?

I hate it when a dealer feels that a customer should jump through hoops. If you think my offer is too low and don't want to be bothered, just tell me so. I'm not interested in reasons, justifications, etc. A simple "yes" or "no" will save us both time and energy. And the worst thing that you can do is make me an offer, then back down when I show up on your doorstep.

I emailed a request to the low-quote dealer (Holler Honda in Winter Park) to confirm their price in writing. On Friday, the salesman from the local dealer called, and I explained that I had responded to his manager via email and that I was now waiting for a call from the low-quoter. He said he would talk to his manager and call me back; in the meantime, Holler called me and promptly followed up with email verification. I called back our salesman to tell him that it was all a moot point now; I certainly wasn't going to give his manager another shot after being told "yes" and having it turn to "no" once already.

I said, "I'm sorry that he didn't believe me when I didn't have it in writing." The salesman kept insisting that it wasn't me they didn't believe, but rather the other dealer. I was snickering internally, remembering the old car sales motto: "Buyers are liars." No matter what they say, I think they let a foolish stereotype kibosh the sale. Perhaps they're just not used to people who present an offer up front; they're conditioned to dicker, so something in their genes prevents them from just saying "Yes" to a figure without increasing it in some way.

But thankfully not all dealers are like that. Dealing with Holler Honda turned out to be a very pleasant and painless process. I probably shouldn't even have gotten the closest dealer involved beyond the test drive; I like to support local businesses, but not when they make me waste time and actually work to give them my money!

Holler took my deposit over the phone and told me my new Element would be waiting for me on Saturday (they didn't have any in stock, so they traded with another dealer in Lakeland). Since they could get whatever color we wanted, we chose the nice midnight-blue color that we'd been favoring.

We did get a call from another dealer who offered the vehicle at $100 below Holler's price, plus a free extension of the powertrain warranty and free maintenance for a year. It was tempting, but they are out in Tampa so it wouldn't be practical to run out there for maintenance. It would have been nice to save an additional $100, but I was tired of negotiating and decided to stick with the known quantity.

On Saturday, hubby and I decided to combine the car pick-up with a stop at the spa store to replenish our supply of chemicals, since they are close to the dealer. We climbed into Canyonero and drove it off to meet its new sibling, stopping for lunch on the way.

We ate at Cafe Tu Tu Tango, reveling in the weekly specials (steak brushetta and a grilled goat cheese and crab sandwich with tomato and red pepper soup, and French cake with pears and homemade pistachio gelato for dessert). Tummies full, we tooled towards the spa store. Suddenly I looked at my husband and said, "Did you bring the check?"


Back to Duloc Manor for the check, then back to I-4 for a grueling repeat journey. Now we didn't have time for the spa stop; instead, we headed directly to Holler. We managed to get lost once we got off the expressway, but after wandering aimlessly a bit in Winter Park, we finally reached our destination.

There was a blue Element sitting right near the gate, so we gravitated to it immediately, thinking that it was Truckster. A salesman came out and greeted us by name, guessing who we were by the vehicle we had approached and the sheaf of paperwork in our hands. Turns out it wasn't Truckster, which was still getting its final detail work. He showed us the correct vehicle, and we poked around looking for any scratches, dings, or other imperfections. After all, it might manage to survive for a whole week, or perhaps even two if we're lucky, in Tourist Land before the first door smack mars its perfect blue body. It looked great; I doubt that it was even test driven much at the dealer it came from. They are 58 miles away from Holler, and it had 63 on the odometer, meaning that it only ran up 5 miles at its original home.

The salesman started our paperwork, and everything was in order. I breathed a sigh of relief; after our experience with the local dealer, I was expecting some bogus fee or other deal breaker to pop out of the woodwork. The only bump in an otherwise butter-smooth road was a long wait for the finance person. But it was Saturday evening, and the dealership was packed, so that was understandable; even if three finance people working, the customers were backed up.

To kill time, the salesman gave us an in-depth review of Truckster's features. I tried to pay attention, but I couldn't help being distracted by that intoxicating new car smell. Still, I think I managed to key into the main points, i.e. how to turn the car on and how to use the headlights and windshield wipers. Anything beyond that is gravy!

In the finance office, we were offered the usual array of extras, but we took a pass on all of them. Most are high-profit for the dealer and low-value for the consumer, although we are still considering the pre-paid maintenance plan. But I wouldn't buy any of that without considering it and running some numbers, so we declined for the time being. Also, I never buy a car without having my own financial terms worked out; if you use the dealer for financing, you open the door to all sorts of schemes. At the very least, you're likely to pay too much in interest unless the manufacturer has a special program and if you qualify for it.

The only tactic that I didn't like at Holler was having to sign a mandatory arbitration agreement, which takes away your right to sue. Granted, you don't have to sign it, but some dealers will refuse to sell you the car unless you do. I had forgotten all about those agreements; since I was sick of shopping around, I signed and crossed my fingers that we'll never have to test it. But next time, I will make "no arbitration agreement" a condition of my internet quotes.

Another stipulation that savvy shoppers often plan on their offer is to not allow the dealer to affix a sticker with their name to the vehicle. The reasoning is, why should you provide free advertising? Here in the Orlando/Kissimmee area, my reasoning is just the opposite. I want that sticker, free advertising or not. Heck, I want anything that differentiates my car from the scores of rentals on the road. If a criminal looking for someone to "bump and mug" notices Truckster was is a private vehicle, he'll probably think, "Uh oh, a local! They could have a gun, and if they do, they can blow my head off legally if I dare to threaten them! Better look for easy rental car pickin's. After all, what's a tourist going to shoot me with? Their suitcase?"

Once the papers were signed and the payment was taken care of, our salesman showed us a few last things. Then he shook our hands, and we drove our new "baby" home (well, I did; poor hubby was stuck in Canyonero...I felt bad for him sitting in the dirty, dusty workhorse car that probably reeked of my barn gear and the tomato soup I spilled last week while I was breathing Eau di Assembly Line).

I did let him drive to our "celebratory dinner" at Mimi's (yes, we go there a lot...their French Quarter burger with avocado is to die for), and on the way home he took an abrupt detour. "I'm going to be the first person to drive it on Disney property!" he announced, heading for the Osceola Parkway gate. Sigh! Pretty soon the novelty will wear off, and I'll be the primary chauffer again, so I'll enjoy it while it lasts.

After church today, we outfitted Truckster with Celebration license plate frames and a Celebration plate on the front. At the moment, it has a "barfing orange" plate on the back (if you're not sure what I mean, click here). That will change at renewal time in October, when I get to choose from Florida's ridiculousy vast selection of affinity plates. We have everything from "State of the Arts" (whatever that means) to "Imagine" (imagine what?) to "Parents Make a Difference (especially if you're raised in a dysfunctional family!). I'll probably just get "Animal Friend," which promotes spaying and neutering, as the world definitely doesn't need any more spoiled, belligerent cats like the ones that run my household.

I find myself comparing Truckster to Canyonero, and my 'Tek still comes out the winner. The main things it's missing are daylight running lights/auto-on headlights, built-in compass/thermometer, a roll-out tray, and extra electrical outlets. But the Element is the next best thing, and I do like the fact that not only do the seats come out, but you can also flip them up and "hang" them out of the way. Also, the front seats have waterproof fabric, and there is no carpeting on any of the floor surfaces, so they are easily cleanable. (There's an urban legend that you can clean an Element out with a hose, but don't believe it. Technically you can do it...but only once.)

Hopefully my Element will stick out here in Celebration, the Land of Extremes (sometimes I feel like I'm surrouned by Hummers and Minis, with not much inbetween). I am ordering a decal for Truckster that I think will sum up its role here in our town quite well:

Overall, I'm pleased with Truckster. Sure, it's not an Aztek, but it's a pretty reasonable facsimile. I'm proud of my toaster on wheels and proud to echo the slogan of Element afficianados everywhere: "The Element...screw aerodynamics!!"

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

America's Wang Revisited

One of my favorite lines from the Simpsons, which I've quoted in my blog before, is Homer Simpson's lament when Dr. Hibbert suggests that he pay a visit to Florida: "But that's America's wang!" (Hibbert does correct him: "They prefer the Sunshine State.")

Recently I was Googling some of my favorite Simpsons quotes, and lo and behold, I found the following website:


Click here: Florida's Morning Wood

I have to admit that this site, and particularly its graphic animation, appealed to my rather perverse sense of humor. Remember, I am a person who has been known to wear an aluminum beanie to deflect the evil influences of the black balls that hang throughout town (granted, I was suffering from severe road fatigue at the time so psychotic hallucinations would not be out of the realm of possibility). I have visited a nudist colony (twice!) to oogle the painful piercings and flabby flesh; yes, I kept my clothes on, but it still takes some moxy (and/or margaritas). With that sort of mindset, the idea of living on America's Wang is a source of amusement for me.

I just hope that Disney World doesn't get wind of this. In their never-ending quest for corporate sponsorships, I can just imagine Wang Lang, their newest addition. For starters, Trojan could sponsor Pooh's 100 Acre Wood playground, and I'm sure that Viagra would pony up the dough for a new section of inflatable bouncy houses. Instead of Mickey and the gang, Smiling Bob from those Enzyte commercials would be on hand to sign autographs at the end of his company's sponsored ride, "It's A Small World After All...(till you use our product)."

Okay, enough wang jokes. I'm outta here...if you need to find me, I'll be at the Annual Passholders preview of Wang Land, hanging out near the foot long hot dog cart.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

In Search of a Microwave

In this day and age, you would think that purchasing a microwave would be a straightforward, and even mundane, task. Leave it to hubby and I to turn a simple shopping trip into a quest of "Lord of the Rings" proportions.

Those who read my previous blog entry know the background of the Microwave Trauma. While cooking frozen lasagna, the microwave fritzed out and the electrical outlet melted down like a nuclear tower on Three Mile Island. An electrician removed the scorched and twisted remains of the outlet box, snipping off the microwave plug which had fused itself to the melted mess. She warned us that the outlet had not been installed properly; one of the connections had never been tightened, so over time we were building up to the catastrophic failure that finally occurred.

She checked our breaker box and found several loose connections in there, too, as well as a stripped circuit breaker that couldn't be tightened at all! Perhaps not coincidentally, the stripped breaker was for the master bedroom, where we've had a plethora of electrical problems. Between the current mess, the loose neutral when we moved in, and various outlet problems over the first year of residency in Duloc Manor, I theororize that the original electrician was either drunk as a skunk or nursing one hell of a hangover. Either way, his mind was clearly not on this work.

Once our happy home was in an electrically safe condition, we shifted our focus to replacing the microwave. Technically, the existing microwave could be repaired. At the very least, it needs a new plug; it's even possible that's all it needs. It's covered under our extended warranty, so we'd pony up a $50 co-pay to get it back into working order.

As soon as the electrician was done, I called the warranty company to arrange for an appliance repair person. Warranty work is a slow process, especially when you call on a Friday afternoon. They fax a work order to the selected repair facility, who then calls to make an appointment on the next business day (in this case, Monday). However, when I hung up the phone, I realized that I'd been given the name of a company that doesn't service the Celebration/Kissimmee area because they are out in Oviedo. We'd been given the same company when our dishwasher died a few weeks ago, and it added an inordinate amount of time to the whole muddled mess.

I didn't really care with the dishwasher, since we only use it sporadically. But losing the microwave is nearly akin to losing a limb! My husband is the chef in our home, and while he does a lot of stovetop cooking, he relies on the microwave for plenty of small tasks. Both of us depend on it to heat up our lunches, warm up leftovers, etc. It was utterly pathetic to see the poor man heating up coffee in a saucepan on the stove this morning before church (if he makes it the night before, he will drink it the next day rather than brew up a whole new pot).

Besides the trauma an extended wait for repairs would cause us, hubby was leery of our trusty old microwave. According to the electrician, the outlet had been malfunctioning for a while, so he was suspicious that the oven's innards might have sustained some non-apparent damage. I was willing to take the chance, as my Premonition of Danger meter is close to zero. But my husband's attitude was to start from scratch; the identical microwave (albeit a newer version) is $199, and he felt that $149 wasn't an unreasonable price to pay for peace of mind.

I agreed to retire our current unit to Nuker Heaven and get a new one. He located the GE Spacemaker at both Home Depot and Appliance Direct (if you live in central FL, you are more than familiar with AD's hyperkinectic commercials from hell, but they really do save you a few dollars...$12 in the case of the microwave). AP said it would have to be ordered, while the Kissimmee Depot assured us that it was in stock. Thus we hopped into Canyonero (our Aztek) for what we believed would be a simple, unchallenging mission.

The first hint of a possibility that we were laboring under a Gypsy curse occurred when we arrived at Depot and were told the oven was out of stock. Wielding his printout of the store phone number and location, hubby determined that we were indeed at the right location. The sales associate had no explanation (although I picture some guy passing through the appliance department and picking up the phone on a lark, saying "Yeah, yeah, sure we have that!" while snickering into his hand).

But the associate assured us that he could get what we wanted from the warehouse by next week; better yet, there was a delivery charge rebate going on, so we could get it delivered for free and have it installed by the delivery person for only $20. My husband wasn't looking forward to the prospect of installing it himself, so we readily agreed.

After tapping on the computer for an inordinate amount of time, the associate excused himself with a look of worried confusion. When he returned, he broke the bad news: The free delivery option was only available for items of $299 and up. Since we didn't want to pop an additional $55, we decided to take our chances elsewhere. Since Depot had claimed it was in stock and it wasn't, maybe the opposite was true at Appliance Direct. They weren't all that far away, so it was worth a shot.

On the way out, we picked up an outlet tester; in view of our experience, I've decided that they should be standard issue to anyone buying a home in Florida (ours is not the only case of builder negligence that I know of...another Celebration resident even had a nasty house fire because of a similar problem with a loose neutral).

Well, in theory Appliance Direct wasn't all that far. In practice, we hadn't brought their address, so a spirited debate ensued over whether they were located on John Young Parkway or Orange Blossom Trail. Turns out it was OBT, but we had a heck of a time finding it because it goes by the name of Main Street where it meets 192.

Apparently the frenzied ads are successful, as Appliance Direct was jam-packed with fridge and stove-hungry customers fighting over the limited sales staff. We did a quick reconnaissance mission and located a GE Spacemaker on display in the exact model that we wanted...except that it was black rather than white. There was a white one in a box, but it was marked "Sold." Still, that was a good sign, as it meant that they actually stocked what we wanted.

We milled around for half an hour, stalking the sales staff like a hunter stalks a deer. It's pretty sad when you're competing with a dozen other people for the privilege of giving your money away. Eventually we corralled someone, but she broke the bad news: There was nothing in stock; it could be ordered, but it would take even more time than Depot and the installation charge was ridiculous.

We politely declined and headed back to Canyonero. To add insult to injury, hubby begged a quarter from me to buy M & M Peanuts from a neglected-looking gumball machine at the door. I wrinkled my nose and warned him, "It doesn't look like anyone has patronized that thing in a while." In blind optimism, he plugged in the quarter and held out his hand. Into his palm dropped several broken fragments and a couple of intact but dusty pieces. Ugh! He quickly deposited the unappetizing mess into the nearest garbage bin.

We debated the merits of searching for the Appliance Direct by Florida Mall, where we'd purchased our washer and dryer, vs. checking out Best Buy. AD won out, despite the fact that we had no idea where it was. Back when we had first shopping there, we didn't know our way around and relied entirely on maps. Thus, while we knew it was near the mall and located on a street beginning with "L," we were pretty much in the dark.

After a futile search, including crossing the Railroad Tracks of Doom into some sort of deserted alternate universe, we decided to head for Best Buy. By this time, hours had literally passed and my bladder was clamoring for attention. At the very least, Best Buy would have a restroom, even if the Coveted Microwave continued to elude us.

We rolled into the parking lot, not daring to let a shard of hope slip into our exhausted minds. We located the appliances, poked around a bit, and suddenly a chorus of angels broke out in song as a heavenly light shown down upon the display. There it was! A white GE Spacemaker in all its glory!

Still, we weren't going to be drawn in so easily. Seeing it on display is not the same as actually having a boxed model in your hot little hands. We looked up at the stock, which was stacked above the displays, and lo and behold...not one, not two, but half a dozen of the suckers were up there!

We weren't out of the woods yet. Like an insidious video game in which you complete one challenge, only to find yourself facing yet another, we realized that we would have to locate a salesperson. I left hubby guarding the microwaves while I went in search of The One Who Has Power to Take Down Stock. After two unsuccessful circuits of the area, I was ready to admit defeat. But after toying with me all day, God apparently decided to show me some mercy...a sales person suddenly materialized with a cheery chorus of, "Can I help you with something today?" ringing on his lips.

I nearly tackled the poor guy and dragged him to the microwave display. Hubby looked as though he might be seeing a mirage before he finally dared to believe that our quest was over. At this point, we had decided to worry about installation later; all we wanted was to know that the replacement oven was in our possession.

FINALLY! The journey was over, or so we thought...but there was one final, inexplicable complication. Hubby's charge card was declined, even though he had used it mere hours before to pay for lunch (and it worked fine the next day). I whipped out my card to complete the transaction and we rushed out the door with our precious booty before any other disasters could befall us.

The microwave is now resting safely in the frontroom, awaiting the installer who is coming tomorrow morning (we called the same person who fixed the ceiling hole resulting from our last builder incompetence disaster, i.e. the air conditioner leak). Meanwhile, we're still living like heathens, eating meals cooked (gasp!) entirely via stovetop. Tomorrow we'll have to have a little celebration as we press the button of Spacemaker II for the very first time and return to the wonders of irradiated food.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Burning Down The House

For the second time in its relatively short history (three years), Duloc Manor has managed to escape incineration. The first time, it was an improperly installed ground outside at the meter. We noticed that our lights flashed and wavered like a disco, so we called Progress Energy. The technician took one look at the mess, cut off our power, and said that he wouldn't turn it back on until the unsafe condition was corrected by an electrician. Basically, it was a fire waiting to happen. Since this was shortly after our closing, the house was still under warranty so the builder took care of it.

In that first year, we had two other outlet problems, but nothing particularly threatening. Both were repaired under the builder's warranty, and we didn't think any more about it.

Fast forward to the present day: It's dinnertime, and Barb is innocently preparing to nuke up some Stouffers lasagna. Little does she know that's she's about to flirt with fire once again.

Actually, I suppose that we should back up 15 years or so first to examine my fire paranoia. While I've never been in a house fire (thank God!), it happens to be a particular fear of mine. I don't know its roots, although the house next door to ours burned to the ground when I was an infant. Maybe some residual memory?

I also seem to have a premonitory sense where potential blazes are concerned. I always had a bad feeling about my brother's house, and I shared it with my husband. Sure enough, that creepy old place burned. Thank goodness only my nephew and grandnephew were home, and they both made it out safely.

I also absolutely hated my husband's house, which he had purchased before we were married. Since I lived in an apartment, I moved to his place after the wedding. That awful 1970's avocado-sided nightmare gave off the worst vibes I've ever felt. I was firmly convinced that one day we would come home to a smoldering heap of cinders.

Thankfully it never burned, but it did get destroyed by a flood. While we were gone for the weekend, the upstairs toilet tank cracked. The ensuing water did so much damage that it had to be gutted, and we had to move out for three months while it was almost entirely rebuilt. Interestingly enough, when the contractor was working on the basement rec room, he said that the wiring was a fire hazard. The former owner had installed it himself and apparently had no idea what he was doing. We had to have it all redone, and we sold the house shortly thereafter.

I never got that "danger sense" in my apartment or in our condo, which we bought after fleeing the Nightmare House. I never really had it at Duloc Manor, either, even after the initial electrical problem.

But then, a month or two ago, I was sitting out back in the hot tub and gazing through the window, and I had the oddest sense. I was looking in at the family room and kitchen, and overlaid onto the scene was a mental image of what it would look like in the aftermath of a blaze. I could picture the charred, blackened interior and the jagged, broken window. Despite the 99 degree water, it chilled me to my core.

I convinced myself that I was just paranoid and that it was my old fire phobia rearing its ugly head. I never said anything to my husband, and I forced it out of my mind. The sense came over me one more time, a few days later, but once again I pushed it away.

Now, let's jump to the day before all the excitement. I popped some tuna noodle casserole into the microwave, intending to have it for lunch. As it cooked, I went upstairs to shower since I'd just returned from the barn. Oddly, I flashed on something that hadn't entered my thoughts for years. I had a very good friend whose sister lived in a trailer. One day, the sister started nuking her dinner and fell asleep while it was cooking. Somehow, the microwave caught on fire; her house was totally destroyed, and she suffered some nasty burns while trying to rescue her pets.

I thought fleetingly, "Maybe it's not such a good idea to leave the microwave while it's running." But the thought had no real power; after all, my husband and I do it all the time. We'll pop something in, then wander off to another part of the house or even out in the yard. What are the odds that something will happen? They must be infinitesimal.

Now we can jump to the present. Once again, I was preparing to nuke some food. Since my husband was out, I dug out the frozen lasagna that would serve as my evening repast. I punched in 10 minutes at 50 percent power and pressed the magic start button.

This time, I had no time to ponder the wisdom of leaving the room. Almost as soon as I turned on the microwave, it started acting funny. It popped off and on twice before finally settling down into an erratic and wavering hum. I was a little disconcerted, but when it's on 50 percent it's normal for the motor to cycle. Still, this was going beyond the norm...the light inside, and even the time display, were flashing from bright to dim and back again.

I don't panic too easily, so instead of cutting the power, I called my husband on his cell phone to get a second opinion. He tends to err on the side of caution, so his advice was, "Turn it off!" I was reluctant, as I wanted that darned lasagna! True, the microwave motor was thrumming up and down as though it was bipolar, but it didn't seem to be spewing radioactivity. I figured I could nurse it through one last cook cycle before it gave up the ghost.

Hubby was still yammering with the voice of reason in my ear, while I tried to silently will the microwave to settle down and complete its task. But its erratic behavior was getting worse, and at this point my husband was urging me to turn it off and pull out the plug. "But I don't know where the outlet is," I lamented. He explained that it was in the upper cabinet, so I pulled up a chair and climbed up to locate it.

When I opened the cabinet door, the outlet was spewing blue sparks like a mini fireworks show gone terribly awry. There was no need for further discussion...I slammed that Off button with every ounce of strength in my index finger! Then I tried to pull out the plug, which was eerily hot to the touch, but it wouldn't come out. I felt the faceplate, and that was hot, too, as was the wall above it. Not good.

My husband instructed me to pull the circuit breaker; it bothered me that it hadn't tripped on its own, but I dutifully ran upstairs to cut the power. Then I cautiously approached the outlet, which was still quite hot. I decided to open it in case anything might be smouldering inside.

Once I had the thing dismantled, I realized just how closely I had flirted with disaster. The outlet had suffered a catastrophic meltdown, and I mean melt literally. The plug wouldn't come out because the heat had melded it to the socket. The wires and melted plastic were blackened by scorch marks, and the whole thing had a nasty burned odor. Thank God I had opened the cabinet door; the timer still had five minutes to go, and by that time I think there would have been a blaze in the wall.

I shivered, realizing just how close my vision of a blackened kitchen had come to reality. Believe me, if another appliance ever starts acting erractically, I'll turn it off first and ask questions later. The lasagna that had once been so important was now a half-thawed, forgotten lump.

For the third time this year, I pulled out the papers for our extended home warranty. I'm sure the company rues the day that they ever offered us coverage. First it was the leaking air conditioner pipe, then a broken dishwasher pump. Now, it will be an electrician. I said a silent prayer of thanks that we had purchased the coverage. If we hadn't, I can't even imagine how much we would have racked up in repairs this year.

I also said a prayer thanking God for averting disaster. I don't know if my premonitions were some sort of warning, but I do know that if this had happened just one day earlier, I would have been in the shower and the blaze would almost surely have taken hold. I can't even imagine walking downstairs to a fiery kitchen disaster.

It will be interesting to hear what the electrician says. It seems to me that the circuit breaker should have tripped, so I wonder if there is a more fundamental problem than just a faulty outlet. Between this and the other electrical faults that cropped up right after closing, I wonder if our wiring was done by someone who was either drunk or suffering from a massive hangover.

Oh well, the important thing is that my vision didn't come to pass. As scary as it was, at least the meltdown is safely over now. And perhaps it was meant to happen the way that it did...if the outlet had to fry, at least it occurred when someone was right in front of it.

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It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Here in Celebration and the surrounding environs, signs of the holiday season are springing up like the weeds that love to invade my flower beds. Halloween was barely upon us before the first Christmas decorations popped up in store windows. Of course, it was the same in Chicago, but here we have an extra layer: The holiday tourist attractions. Driving by the Gaylord Palms hotel, our eyes were assailed with the giant "ICE!" sign. Ads are everywhere for the Dixie Stampede's special Christmas show.

At Disney World, the switch was thrown on Monday for the annual Osborne light extravaganza. This year, playing on last's year viral internet sensation (the video of the house with lights choreographed to Trans Siberian Orchestra music), Disney's lights are now dancing. The millions of twinkling bulbs will now perform to musical strains. That should be really cool...for about five minutes. I hope they have a plan in place for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder treatment for the poor Cast Members who are subjected to it for hours at a stretch.

I am dying to see the Osborne lights, so one of these evenings I am going to play hooky from my online counseling work and run over to see them. But my favorte Disney activity doesn't start until after Thanksgiving: The Candlelight Processional. It's a beautiful retelling of the Christmas story by a celebrity narrator, with a live band and wonderful, stirring music sung by a chorus of cast members and high school students.

This year, there are several narrators who I would like to see. We saw Gary Sinise before, but I wouldn't mind a repeat performance. I'd love to see Cuba Gooding Jr.'s debut this year, as well as Neil Patrick Harris (although I wonder if the Christian fundamentalists who get so bent out of shape over Gay Days will be there to protest because an openly gay person would dare to tell the Christmas story...they seem to forget that Jesus was all about love and acceptance).

In conjunction with the Processional, I love to stick around for the special holiday version of Illuminations. At the end, they do a special show to the strains of "Let There Be Peace on Earth," capped with an explosion of fireworks that literally shakes the ground. Breathtaking!

'Round about that time, it will start snowing nightly here in Celebration. I just love that event...I walk downtown almost every night to marvel at the spectacle of kids swarming Market Street to play in the soapy pseudo-snowflakes. There is something about it that underscores why I chose to move to Celebration. It's just so touristy and surreal and cool. I live in the place that people go out of their way to visit! I can see the snowfall every single night! How cool is that?

For two years, I've been miffed that when Lexin took over from Disney, they changed the musical accompaniment and eliminated "Merry Christmas Everyone" by Shakin' Stevens. It was the perfect song...I mean, look at the first few lines:

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...

Time for Celebration, indeed! Oh well, this year I have an MP3 player, so while everyone else is subjected to the tinny strains of the lame current line-up, my ears will be filled with the appropriate tune.

But while it looks like Christmas in the populated environs, it's hard to tell that we're only two weeks away from December out in Lake Louisa State Park. Back in Illinois, I would be counting the last precious days of horseback riding before ice and snow make the trails too trecherous and the wind chill factor drops below the tolerance point. Here in Florida, this is prime riding time! Nice and cool, and virtually no bugs, at least as compared to the swarms in the sweltering summertime.

I'm sure that the trees are skeletal by now in the Cook County Forest Preserve District where I used to ride. Out here, there are a few seasonal skeletons, but the stately pines are still shrouded in green and the ground cover is dotted with flowers and berries in goreous shades of white, yellow, pink, purple and red. The orange groves are dotted with brightly colored bounty. In Florida, winter doesn't make an end, but rather a beginning...the kick-off of the prime riding season. I've already had Figment out for a couple of four and a half hour jaunts. Poor horse! Little does he know that it's just a taste of many long winter journeys to come.

Once Thanksgiving comes, the time-speed will kick into warp gear and Christmas will be here in the blink of an eye. Every year, I can help but feel melancholy on December 26th...such a massive build-up, and then the rug is jerked out from under you. No more Peace on Earth and Goodwill Towards Men, just back to the humdrum regular rythmn of life. But that's okay, as I suspect that the wait won't be nearly as long for next year. Since Christmas started before Halloween this year, I'm laying my bets that we can stretch is to as early as Labor Day in 2007...and maybe even kick it off in tandem with 4th of July in 2008!

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Happy Founders Day: 10 Years And Counting

bloThis past weekend was Founders Day Weekend, a holiday unique to Celebration. Back in the day, this pseudo-holiday was created by Disney as one of the components to start new traditions and bind us together with a sense of community. To that end, it features happenings such as a carnival night, Town Photo, unveiling of bricks with the names of new homeowners, and the handing out of annual community service awards. At its best, it ends with a bang as fireworks light up the sky over Lakeside, although they were absent last year. Thankfully, they were restored in 2006.

So what exactly do we celebrate, you might ask? The actual founding of Celebration itself? The initial founding families who moved in during that first year? Our earliest founder, the Walt Disney Company? And what, exactly, would that mean? The day the town was conceived in a brainstorming session? The day it got the green light? The day The Celebration Company (TCC) was created? The initial groundbreaking? The date the first home was sold? Built? Moved into?

Near as I can tell, it celebrates the lottery that was held in such fanfare to determine those lucky folks who got to purchase the very first lots or to rent into the first wave of apartments. Or maybe it's actually the first move-in date, since that occurred in 1996 and we're celebrating the 10th anniversary this year. Who really knows? Who really cares? We'll take any excuse for a party!

Last year's Founders Day Weekend was a bit of a let-down. It was our third since purchasing Duloc Manor in 2003 (we closed just a couple of months before the "holiday"), and seeing the same old booths and restaurant offerings just isn't all that exciting the third time around. Also, each year we noticed that the turnout for the town photo was more and more anemic. Instead of growing, you'd think that our population was shrinking rapidly or that some secret toxic plague was killing us off ala the Love Canal.

But worst of all was the absence of fireworks. With Disney no longer owning downtown, there was no one to foot the bill. How can you properly cap off a holiday (even a made-up one) without a light show exploding in the sky? With nothing to entice us to stick around town last year, we did a quick once-over of the booths and then headed off to Logan's on 192 for dinner with our neighbors.

Thankfully, this year Lexin (downtown's current owner) ponied up for the return of the fireworks. If they hadn't, the Bunny Brigade was planning to take matters into our own hands by donning our trademark ears and running around the lakeshore holding sparklers and yelling, "Bang! Bang!"

Even though we've been at the Saturday festivities each year since 2003, my husband and I have always managed to be out of town on Friday night (the day of the carnival). This year we were bound and determined to finally attend.

The carnival has the greatest small-town feel of any of the Founders Day Weekend activities. Even though the name might imply it, you won't find crazy-eyed carnies running staple rides like the Zipper and the Tilt-A-Whirl. It's really more of a fun fair, with various game booths were the kiddies can try their luck. There were also hayrides pulled by your choice of draft horses or a tractor.

We brought Crush, my NEV (Neighborhood Electric Vehicle) and scored a very convenient NEV parking spot. Market Street and Front Street both looked quite festive, with colored lights strung on the booths and excited, squealing kids running here and there. The weather was perfect...a clear black-velvet sky and just the smallest hint of fall coolness. It wasn't enough to require a jacket, but you were reminded that summer's humidity was now just a memory for a few precious months. We strolled around, observing the festivities, and I got a fresh-squeezed lemonade at Kilwin's. I indulged in a round of the cakewalk, which I haven't done since I was a kid, although thankfully for my waistline I didn't win.

We didn't stick around too long. We just wanted to get a flavor of the most resident-oriented piece of the festivities. On Saturday, there are plenty of locals, but lots of out-of-towners also drift in to partake of Taste of Celebration and check out the fireworks show.

The next day, we had planned to attend the Town Barbeque and the Town Photo immediately following it; then, we'd go home till the evening and return to browse the booths before the fireworks. But at the appointed time, my husband and I both realized that we didn't have much of a taste for barbeque, thanks to God's ironic sense of humor.

Just a couple of days beforehand, we had planned to eat at Artist Point, the fine dining restaurant at Disney's Wilderness Lodge. In addition to its signature Cedar Plank Salmon, it also offers buffalo steak and a variety of other tempting main dishes, as well as the absolute world's best cream of mushroom soup. Heaven would be to float along in a vat of that soup with a straw running directly into my mouth.

I always make reservations when we dine at Disney World, even if I call right before we leave the house. Getting into the most popular restaurants is akin to an Olympic sport, so by calling I can work my way through a list of alternates if our first choice isn't available. Artist Point is one of those alternates; when literally nothing else is available, we've always been able to get in even if we call half an hour before we plan to show up. And I mean always...we have eaten there more times than I care to count and have never failed to get a same-day ressie.

Given our track record, I didn't both to call. My husband warned me that this just might be the time that we needed a reservation, but of course I pooh-poohed him. It was a weeknight in a semi-dead time of the year at the restaurant that is never full. What could possibly go wrong?

(At that moment, I'm sure that God was rubbing His hands together with glee and snickering, "Let me show you, Barb!")

It only takes a few minutes to get from Celebration to the Lodge. We traipsed through the hotel and bounced confidently up to the podium. Beyond me, I could see the nearly-empty restaurant as usual. I announced, "Two please, and today we don't have a priority seating."

"I'm sorry," said the host, "but we're not talking walk-ups today because we are completely booked."

I glanced at the deserted diningroom, then back at him. "But you're never full," I gasped in disbelief, sure that I had either heard him in correctly or had landed in some Bizarro World where words had taken on the opposite meaning.

"Well, tonight we've got two parties of 20 and one of 17, and we're understaffed," he explained. I just gazed at him with glazed eyes as the ugly truth sunk in...God had once again seized an opportunity to pimp me. Fortunately, my husband maneuvered me away from the podium before I could drop to my knees and start begging for some soup in a to-go cup.

We stopped at the concierge desk to check availability at our other favorite restaurants, but alas, they were all full too. I noticed that Whispering Canyon Cafe, the Wilderness Lodge's casual diningroom, didn't seem to have a wait, so we opted to stay where we were. Granted, it's quite a leap down from salmon roasted on a cedar plank to a barbeque platter, but beggars can't be choosers.

We ended up having a very pleasant meal, and after some sort of special martini that came with a light-up plastic ice cube and a lot of alcohol, I was in a much better mood. Whispering Canyon is a neat place (especially if you have fidgety kids), with lots of noisy revelry. The young un's parade around the tables at various times, ride stick horses, and engage in various other Disney-esque activities designed to burn off energy. Even though they seated us on the back patio, which seems to the be "quieter" area, I could still hear the sounds of excitement echoing in the main diningroom.

After our recent barbeque meal, the idea of similar chow on Saturday wasn't too appealing. We ended up going to Cracker Barrel, and it was a good thing we did, as we heard that the picnic food ran out very early. I guess word got around that free food was involved, so the crowd was bigger than anticipated despite a request for RSVPs.

We stopped home after lunch to round up our next door neighbors for the photo. Normally it is taken at Lakeside, but this year it was to be snapped in Market Street in homage to the original town photo, which was taken in the same spot. I've seen that first picture, and the crowd crammed onto the street is larger than it's ever seen in subsequent years. I've heard rumor that it was supplemented with Disney employees; sounds credible, since I don't think there were enough homes existing to fit the number of bodies posing as "residents."

This year, the crowd could definitely have used some Disney stand-ins. I was sad as I stood among my fellow diehards and wondered what the street would have looked like if most of the residents had actually shown up. But I suppose that "resident" is a rather loose term, since so many of the houses and condos are vacation homes or unoccupied properties whose owners were hoping to "flip" them before the real estate market went belly up.

But my cheer returned when I realized that it didn't matter; I was here, in Celebration, only eight miles from the Magic Kingdom! I was standing with my wonderful next door neighbors, unlike Illinois where I didn't even know the people who literally lived below me and within spitting distance across the hall. It was mid-November, and I was wearing a t-shirt and basking in the sunshine. How could I not be happy?

First was a general group photo, and then we all lined up based on the year we had moved in. Hubby and I dutifully trotted over to the 2003 line, along with our nextdoor neighbors, whose house had risen up in tandem with Duloc Manor. Most of us were from East Village, since that was the phase that sprang up in that timeframe.

After the photo, we returned home to put in a few hours of work before the night's festivities. Then it was back into Crush to venture downtown once again. We found a fairly decent parking spot and trooped off to Front Street, with music from the lakefront stage guiding us to the midst of the action. None of us had had dinner, so we decided to eat at Columbia. They usually don't have a wait, and their Spanish/Cuban cuisine is delicious (the sangria is pretty darned good too). They're located right across from the lake, so we figured that we would eat and then stroll over for the fireworks show.

I had forgotten just how leisurely a meal at Columbia can be. It was ten minutes to fireworks time, and we had only made it through a pitcher of sangria and our appetizers. We promised our server that if he saw us all suddenly run outside, we weren't running out on the bill! As luck would have it, our main courses arrived five minutes before the show; he offered to bring them back to the kitchen to keep them warm, but since they were piping hot we figured they'd still be fine by the time the fireworks were over.

We dashed out onto the patio at the appointed time, and the first explosions boomed across the lake directly at 9 p.m. We were treated to what I would call a "stutter fireworks show," as it paused several times and people broke into applause, thinking that it was over. Then, it would suddenly start up again! It was a long show, lasting a full 20 minutes, with several points where the burst was exciting enough to have been considered a finale.

Once it had really concluded, we returned to our neglected dinners, which had indeed remained relatively warm. By the time we were done eating, most of the crowd had cleared out so there was no traffic on the ride back home.

As I maneuvered Crush down the winding roads of East Village, I could barely believe that this was my fourth Founders Day weekend. Not so long ago, moving to Florida had been a distant dream, slated for a decade in the future. Now, we've owned our home in Celebration for over three years already! Where does the time go?

The town has changed quite a bit in that timespan...I can only imagine how different it must look to those who moved in way back in 1996. Not all of the changes have been positive, but still, at its core it remains the wonderful, friendly place that we fell in love with the first time we ever visited. Hopefully we'll still be here when Founders Day #20 rolls around.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Gatorland is Gutted!!

In this era of glitzy theme park attractions, where multi-million-dollar roller coasters and state-of-the-art, special effects laden shows are the norm, it's hard to imagine a simpler time when Mom and Pop attractions were the bread and butter of Florida tourism. Anyone remember Xanadu, the Home of Tomorrow? Sadly, after sitting dormant for years (other than an occasional stint as a squatting ground for the homeless), it was recently demolished. Water Mania survived up until a few months ago, but now it is being leveled to make way for the "Shoppes of Celebration" (having comendeered our name, even though it is across 192 from our fair town).

But one great kitchzy Florida landmark has survived and thrived for the past 57 years: Gatorland.

At left is the world-famous (well, okay Florida-famous) entrance in its original form. Every now and then we pass it if we're out on the Kissimmee end of Orange Blossom trail, and I always make the mental observation, "We really need to visit Gatorland someday."

But early this morning, the big news story was that the venerable landmark attraction was in flames. Here is the fire at its worst point, transforming the jaws into those of an angry, fire-breathing dragon caught in the midst of an inferno.

Here is the Gatorland entrance amidst the smoky aftermath. Thankfully the landmark "jaws" are made of concrete, unlike the old tinder-wood buildings, so they are scathed but still standing.

Here are the sad remains of the main building. The jaws bear the black battle scars of the morning's inferno.

As far as I know, they haven't figured out the cause of the fire yet. But according to the news, the attraction will rise like a scaled phoenix from the ashes. Here is a quote from the president, lifted from the media (the photos above are media photos, too):

"This ain't our first rodeo," said President Mark McHugh, whose wife is the granddaughter of original owner Owen Godwin Sr. "In 57 years we've had hurricanes, gas crisis, recessions, 9-11. A fire's not going to stop us."

The good thing is that the fire was contained in the front of the property. Gatorland's animal habitats are scattered around, so the only thing lost besides the gift shop/offices/main building were two snakes and an unfortunate croc.

I hope that they will reopen because in all the time I passed and made a mental note to schedule in a visit, I never quite got around to it. After all, it had been there for over half a century. Surely it wasn't going anywhere any time soon!

I should have remembered that God has an ironic sense of humor. He demonstrated it for me in similar circumstances a couple of times in Illinois. The most notable was with one of my favorite restaurants, Die Bier Stube (which featured German cuisine, in case the name wasn't a dead giveaway). It was an old hellhole that had been around for eons, housed in the most fire-trap building you can imagine. But their food was the absolute best, from the giant, plate-sized schnitzels that came in a dozen or more varieties to the salad bar featuring delicious home-made selections.

Thankfully we got to eat there a few times; then, one day, as we approached the restaurant, we realized that there was no parking for what seemed like miles. We had apparently arrived in the midst of some sort of car show. Traffic was jammed, roads were blocked, and it was just a huge balls-up in general. I remember my famous last words: "Let's just go eat somewhere else. Klaus's will be here forever." (Klaus's was the local name for the place, sort of like Market Street Cafe is Max's to long-time Celebrationites.)

A few weeks later, we returned...our taste buds and bellies were primed for a lovely slab of schnitzel. As we approached the building, I observed to my husband, "That's weird. There's parking right in front!"

A moment later, both of us could see why. We were pulling up to a gutted, fire-scorched structure. Klaus's had burned down literally the day before! So much for, "They will be here forever."

A few years later, we won a gift certificate to a Chicago restaurant in a charity raffle. We kept putting off our visit, and lo and behold! One day, the top news story was that very restaurant burning to the ground.

Actually, as I type this, an ancient childhood memory has resurfaced. My mother and I used to frequently pass a restaurant called "The Surrey" on south Western Avenue. I remember the name because even as a toddler, we were big on show tunes in our house. At the tend age of four or so, I knew all the words to "Surrey with the Fringe On Top" from the play Oklahoma. Each time we passed, she would say, "Someday we'll stop there to eat." Someday never came, and then one evening we passed and saw the place surrounded by fire trucks and squads. Another one bites the was an incincerated heap of rubble.

Of course, Gatorland is not a restaurant, and unlike the three eateries I've mentioned, it will (hopefully) be resurrected (actually, a new Klaus's was opened 45 minutes away from the original location; we ate there pretty steadily, considering the distance, but it never quite measured up to the original).

But still, it won't quite be the same. We'll be stepping through the same (albeit repainted) portal, but 57 years of history is gone so it will just be sloppy seconds. Like Klaus's, which lost a diningroom-full of German treasures (the walls were lined with dolls, steins, knick-knacks, and antiques, and the owner literally cried in the street as it all went up in the conflaration), most of Gatorland's memorabilia is now toast. We will only see a second-tier re-creation.

Still, I am glad that they will reopen. The last thing we need is another subdivision or big box retailer out there on Orange Blossom Trail. "Old Florida" is fast disappearing, and Gatorland is one of the last remnants. When it is finally rebuilt, you can bet that I will be one of the first customers in line. No more "somedays" for me, because too often someday never rolls around.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006


As much as I love Florida, it does have one disquieting feature: larger than life insects. I'm not afraid of reptiles and most bugs, but spiders throw me into fits. I don't mind the small, harmless sort, but the gigantic, hairy, dagger-fanged behemoths that make their home in the Sunshine State are enough to scare a hard-core entomologist.

I never see any around our house because Duloc Manor is sprayed by Terminix regularly. That's not done so much for the spiders as for the optimistically tagged "palmetto bugs" (that's roaches to the rest of the nation). We don't have any roach-like critters in our house, and if I have my way we never will.

But I ride my horse, Figment, regularly in Lake Louisa State Park, and it's a haven for huge, hideous arachnids. We used to have some pretty large ones in Chicago, particularly the hairy, pointy legged basement spiders that would actually run at you if you tried to send them to Arachnid Heaven with a roll-up newspaper. But those look like circus midgets compared to their Floridian counterparts.

The state park spiders build their webs in trees, often between branches that spread across the riding trails. Supposedly they are banana spiders; not the poisonous South America variety, but a "harmless" species with venom that won't cause more than a welt in human victims. They may be harmless, but they're freakin' big! Huge! To get an idea, use Google Images and you'll find a photo of someone holding a cigarette pack up to a banana spider web. It's eight-legged occupant is easily as large as the pack.

In a way, I'm glad that the state park is infested with spiders, as they eat the other, more annoying insects. Unfortunately, they also like to block some of my favorite trails, particularly the ones with standing water (which much draw more bugs). This means that I must knock down their webs with my fly whisk in order to pass. The spiders are bold and stand their ground in mid-web, even as the Stick of Doom descends. I doubt that it harms them, but I'm sure they're pissed that I ruin hours of web-spinning in one fell swoop.

Every now and then, I won't see a web until it's almost too late. The spiders always seem to perch right at eye level, so if you don't duck in time, you stand a good chance of winding up with a creepy crawly on your face. My worst nightmare! Luckily, up until today I've always managed to duck at the last minute.

But this afternoon I was sleeping at the switch; Figgie and I had been on a four-hour ride to the South Trail, and we were both on autopilot as we headed back to the barn. Suddenly, whap! I didn't see the spider web and its horror-movie-sized occupant until a split second before it struck me in my face!

I immediately started writhing and screaming and batting at my face. Thank goodness Figment is a laid-back horse (and I'm sure the exhaustion of an hours-long ride didn't hurt). He just plodded along, ignoring my hysterics. Finally he realized that something was going on and politely stopped until I could pull myself together.

In the midst of my hysteria, I realized that the spider was actually stuck on my sunglasses. Thank goodness he wasn't touching my precious facial flesh! All I had to do was toss away the glasses and I would be safe from the Fangs of Terror. I chucked them off to the side of the trail and immediately brushed off the rest of my body, just to be safe.

When I had calmed down, I dismounted to retrieve my sunglasses. Figment was still calmly taking it all in, so I allowed him to graze as a reward for not dumping my panicky butt in the sand. I found the glasses, which were thankfully sans spider, and dragged my carcass back up into the saddle. There were no more close calls, but my skin was still crawling with the memory of my traumatic encounter.

Oh well, as yucky as the spiders are, I'll take Florida's sunny winters any day; an occasional creepy crawly in the face is well worth the payoff.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween Hoardes

Every year since we purchased Duloc Manor, I had heard horrific tales of Halloween in Celebration. Supposedly it has reached legendary proportions, with the long-suffering downtown homeowners passing out literally thousands of pieces of candy before collapsing from exhaustion in their front yards (no sense in staying inside, as you'd end up propping your door open since the stream of people doesn't cease for hours).

Halloween has always been special to me; besides falling right around my birthday, it has always appealed to me because it's the one day a year when you can assume someone else's identity, dress crazy, and run around like a lunatic, and no one will slip you in a white jacket and drag you away to the Sunny Hill Farm for Broken Brains. It's also the one magical day per year that candy contains 0 calories (or so I keep telling myself).

It also has special meaning in terms of our moving to Celebration. It was Halloween week when I attended a conference, and hubby rode on my coattails so he could visit Disney World while I was working. The conference had come up at the last minute, and little did I know that it was one tidy paver in the pathway that God was laying to lead us to life in Celebration.

Since we are Disney cruise fanatics, we stopped by the shoreside offices, which are located in Celebration, before we headed to the airport for our flight back to Chicago. At the time, moving to Florida was still a vague 10-year plan, and we had no idea where exactly we would end up. We figured it would be in fairly close proximity to Disney World, but our exact criteria was vague.

Once we were done at shoreside, we still had a little time to kill. We drove into the thick of town, poked around, fell in love...and the rest is history. We knew that this was the place and set about figured out the logistics. Thus, Halloween is a sort of anniversary for us. (Actually, it was October 30th.)

In Chicago, we lived in a condo, so of course we never had any trick-or-treaters. How I missed the ringing door bell and the cute little ghosts and goblins begging for a sugar fix! I was so glad to be moving to a house where we would once again hear the pitter-patter of ghoulish feet on the front porch every All Hallows Even. I was also looking forward to seeing the wild melee in Main Village; passing out candy to the occasional gaggle of kiddies is fun, but trick-or-treaters in the thousands was the stuff of dreams for me.

Unfortunately, circumstances intervened every year to keep me from making it downtown. The first year, I was in Chicago. Last year, I was in town, but my husband was back in the Windy City and I didn't want to shaft the trick-or-treaters who made their way to our house. If someone managed to get all the way back to East Village, they should definitely be rewarded. Even though the trickle of kids was nothing like Main Village, I think I ended up getting 100 or so in 2005.

This year, I insisted that my husband be in town so he could man our front door while I escaped to the downtown revelry. We were invited to a party at a home in the absolutely perfect location to be right in the thick of the mayhem.

We figured that we'd stick around the homestead front for a couple of hours, then head downtown once things calmed down in East Village. Last year most of the kiddies came early, so we'd have plenty of time to pass out candy at home and then catch the tail end of the insanity.

Sadly, we only got four groups of kids this year...yes, four. Talk about a disappointment! From 100 to unbelievable drop. I guess we've just too far off the beaten path, and only three houses on our block had their lights on. The kids on the main street probably figured that our dark little cul de sac wasn't worth the effort.

When I realized that dozens of kids weren't going to suddenly appear on my porch, I admitted defeat and we jumped in Crush (our NEV) for the drive to Main Village. Since it was getting late, I figured that traffic would be thinning out. Wrong! I was soon stuck in an endless ribbon of traffic that wound from Front Street to the entrance of town. I pulled over into a handy spot, and we hiked the rest of the way to our destination.

As we hiked along, I was amazed at the mass of people climbing out of cars and clogging the sidewalks. There were kids, teens, and adult arriving in town en mass in a neverending stream, even though it was nearing 8 p.m. I doubt that more than 1 percent were locals; people who live in Celebration wisely stick to quieter sections of town for their candy collecting.

When we reached our destination, we had to force our way through a solid stream of trick or treaters gathering goodies at the gate. It was constant, with another family stepping up as soon as the one ahead of them had scored a treat. I was glad to make it to the other side of the fence unscathed so I could watch the hoopla from a safe distance. Party guests took turns at the gate, handing out the booty.

Most of the houses surrounding us were dark, having already given out their quota of candy. If you live on Celebration Avenue, you can literally go through a couple of thousand pieces. Believe it or not, one of the trick or treaters actually complained about only getting piece of candy. The person handing it out said, "Uh, yeah, we've had over a thousand kids," but I'm sure it went over Miss Augustus Gloop's head.

But my favorites were the tourists. I had always thought that all of the people who descend onto town are from surrounding areas, and for the most park that's true. But people who are visiting Disney World also find that Celebration is convenient for a trick or treating fix. There was one dad who had come from England with his two little boys. You'd think they would be clamoring for more theme park time, but no! He said they had insisted on trick or treating!

We also got some Japanese visitors from the foreign program at Epcot. Even though they were past traditional trick or treat age, they held out their bags, chanted the proper words when prompted, and recieve their reward.

Sadly, the candy ran out a little past 9 p.m. I had been dreading that moment, since I figured it would be akin to cutting a ride line at Disney World. How do you gently tell the line of people at your fence, "Uh, sorry, the well just ran dry?" I was handing out candy at that point, but when I saw that the bucket was just about empty, I managed to defty slip away just before the moment of truth.

Another Halloween is now over, and I finally got to see (and experience) the craziness for myself. Next year, I'm not even going to bother sticking around Duloc Manor at all. I'm heading downtown early, armed with bags of goodies to donate to my hosts, and I'll enjoy my favorite holiday as only those fortunate enough to live in Celebration can enjoy it!

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