Tuesday, January 31, 2006

To Drive...Perchance To Park

I witnessed Celebration's "parking challenges" firsthand this afternoon. For those who don't live here, a bit of background: the lack of parking in the business district has been an ongoing issue. It escalated in 2005, as the main downtown parking lots were shut down to become new condo developments.

Normally, I only notice it during special events like the Fourth of July fireworks. Even then, it doesn't bother me much because I prefer to walk downtown. I've heard complaints of day to day issues, but so far they haven't affected me. When I need to run to the bank or Town Hall, I either hike over via the boardwalk or drive late in the afternoon, after school has let out. I'm not the sort of person who needs a parking spot right in front of my destination, so I've always been able to find a spot somewhere in the general downtown area.

Today, I headed out earlier than usual. I drove down Celebration Avenue, hoping to find a spot somewhere between Stetson and the church, a span of several blocks. But alas, there was not a parking spot to be had! I circled twice, and I couldn't even find a spot on the side streets. On my third circle, I gave up and headed to Front Street, which runs along the lake. I haunted Front and Market Streets, but both of them were solidly lined with cars. The parking lots were full, too, and fellow hopefuls were circling like predatory lions staking out a herd of wildebeests.

Granted, I could have found a spot fairly easily if I had parked illegally. I lost count of the vehicles left in no-parking-zones with impunity. In Celebration, parking tickets are as rare as Disney stockholders who miss Michael Eisner. But I just couldn't bring myself to do it; call me old-fashioned, but I just don't cotton to the idea of only obeying rules that don't inconvenience you (unless said rules involve the correct direction of travel in my alley, of course). Selectively obeying the law is a slippery slope that society is rapidly plummeting down. Don't believe me? Go for a drive in town and count the number of people who actually fully stop at the stop signs.

Soon I was beginning to think that I'd run out of gas before I located a parking spot closer than 192. As I mentioned before, I don't mind walking several blocks, especially on such a beautiful day. The sun was shining, and the air was that rare, perfect mix of not-too-hot/not-too-cold. But I do require my parking spot to at least be somewhere within Celebration. I was getting so discouraged that I actually considered driving home and returning downtown on foot, but I hadn't walked in the first place because I was under a time constraint.

Then, just when I thought all was lost, I heard the Herald Angels singing...there, right ahead of me, a car was backing out of a spot! I positioned Canyonero to snatch it the moment it was vacated. Amazingly, there were no other vehicles around to challenge me, but I was prepared to defend my territory with all the vigor of a mountain ram.

The spot was all the way down by Lakeside, but I didn't mind the exercise. The downtown lakefront and quaint shopping district is one of the things that I love about our town. I soaked up the sunshine as I strolled along, watching the kids play in the fountain and little knots of people swaying in the rocking chairs. I peered in the shop windows on Market Street along with the tourists and waved at the locals. It was a pleasant little walk, but it saddened me to realize that I'd spent more time searching for a parking spot than my stroll and my stops at Town Hall and the bank combined. If this becomes a regular event for visitors to our fair town, it doesn't bode well for the business district.

On a more positive note, there were no parking challenges when I drove to Water Tower Place, the shopping area on 192, for some refreshments at P.J.'s. They're a new coffee shop/wine bar, and they had tempted me in with a coupon for a free pastry. I selected an ooey, gooey cinnamon bun and purchased flavored iced tea to accompany it. I am an iced tea gourmand, although I'll never be a true Southerner because I can't stomach any sweetener in it.

The flavor of the day was strawberry kiwi, and it was delicious. The flavored teas are not sweetened; you can add sugar if you like, but for me straight up is the only way to drink them. The roll was yummy, too, although sugary enough to make my teeth jangle. It definitely gave me my sugar buzz for the day.

When I first heard that P.J.'s was opening, I wondered how they would compete with Barnie's. After all, Barnie's is located right downtown and has been around for years. Would people really be willing to make the drive to Water Tower Place? Now that I know they have flavored teas, I for one will make the extra effort to go there. I've also had their cold chai, and it was quite tasty, if a bit on the sweet side. I won't totally give up Barnie's, as my husband and I are addicted to their flavored coffees. But Barnie's is discontinuing my favorite drink (the Coolers), so if my husband can find something he likes at P.J.'s, that may become our new pre-church stop.

The wireless internet access seems to be attracted a lot of people to P.J.'s. Both times I've been in there, there have been multiple people using their laptops at the tables. There are always people inside clustered around in little groups, too, relaxing and chatting. The larger, more comfortable indoor seating area is a big advantage over Barnie's, which has very few tables inside. Their outdoor patio is nice, but a bit too smoky for people like me who go into sneezing fits when exposed to too much tobacco smoke. P.J.'s offers an alternative, as the inside is smoke free and large enough to accommodate many more people than Barnie's.

Inside seats are also not dependent on the weather; in a state known for its afternoon rainstorms and blistering summer heat, an outdoor patio isn't always the most desirable place to be. People on the town intranet are already forming a book club that will meet at P.J.'s, and I suspect that it will become a popular hangout for similar groups.

Hopefully there is a place in Celebration for both Barnie's and P.J.'s. I will probably split my business about 50/50 between them. Barnie's will remain my place for flavored coffee, but P.J.'s will win out for cold drinks and, possibly, specialty drinks.

It's nice to see new businesses coming to town. Now, if we could just get some "new" parking spots, life would be perfect once again.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

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

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Happy Anniversary!

It's hard to believe, but we've lived in Celebration full-time for one whole year now. Saturday was the first anniversary of setting off in Canyonero (my Aztek), packed to the gills with three cats, two fish, a bird, and as much miscellaneous junk as we could cram in. The car was packed so tightly that the passenger seatback was actually tilted forward. But as long as we had enough room to expand our rib cages for respiration purposes, we were good to go.

I still remember a pang of regret as we pulled away from the condo where we'd lived for the past decade. Making it even more bittersweet was the fact that I was leaving a job that I'd held for 16 years. A major change is never easy, even when it's something you've been looking forward to. Still, it cheered me to know that we were leaving the bleak Chicago tundra and heading south to tropical Floridian bliss. 24 hours (and a vicious ice storm) later, we pulled into the driveway of Duloc Manor, and I've never regretted it since.

The last 365 days have been a whirlwind of activity and revelry in our adopted hometown. From the very first night, when the NEV train pulled up to our front door, blasting party music and packed with Margarita-swilling Bunny Brigade members celebrating the birthday of their High Priestess, I knew that life would never be the same.

I thought I would miss Chicago more, since I was born there and spent almost my entire life within a 20 mile radius of my childhood home. But with the advent of cell phones and free long distance, my family is always a quick call away. Most of our friends are scattered all over the suburbs, so we got together sporadically even when we lived in Illinois. Since my husband still commutes regularly to Chicago, I simply join him for a weekend every two months or so, and we get together with the old gang almost as frequently as before.

I was looking forward to commemorating our anniversary with a special dinner, and what would be more fitting than Disney World? After all, it was the Mouse who lured us to Florida, and then to Celebration. As luck would have it, some friends from Chicago happened to be in Florida this weekend, so we all planned to meet up for dinner at Le Cellier (the Canadian steakhouse in Epcot). I thought it would be lovely to celebrate Year One by diving into a bowl of divine cheddar cheese soup and then crowning an exellent meal with maple-flavored creme brulee.

Our dinner reservation was for 7:40 p.m., but hubby wanted to go to the park early. Ever the optimist, he was hoping to sneak in a Fast Pass ride on Soarin'. I love that ride dearly, but I'm enough of a realistic to know that the Fast Passes are long gone by the evening. Still, I humored him, figuring that we'd find something to do. I had been housebound with a cold for the past few days, and now that I was feeling better, my malady had morphed into a raging case of cabin fever.

The evening weather was absolutely gorgeous. It was warm enough for t-shirts even after the sun went down. We headed to the Land pavillion, home of Soarin', but of course there were no more Fast Passes to be had, and the standby wait was an hour. We decided to check out the changes to the Living Seas, which now has a "Finding Nemo" theme, and then buzz through the Single Riders line at Test Track. before trekking off to Canada.

When we entered the pavillion, the line for the "Turtle Talk With Crush" show snaked all the way back to the door. I was disappointed, as I love that show. It's one of the few truly innovative things that Disney has added lately in its Epcot revamps. During the show, an animated Crush actually talks to the audience...and I mean specifically to them. He takes questions from the children and singles out particular people in detail, referring to their position in the theater and exactly what they're wearing. Although there are certain basic themes, every show is different. Dory usually makes a special guest appearance as well.

As the people started filing into the theater, I realized that the line wasn't as bad as it had appeared at first glance. They weren't using the queues, so in actuality it was only half the size I had estimated. We joined the end, crossing our fingers that we might actually make it in. I held my breath as the cast member stopped the couple in front of us, saying she needed to check the remaining available space. Then she returned and let us in! We had to stand in the back, but that was fine with me.

The show was cute, as always, and quite different because the kids were throwing poor Crush some curveballs. But he handled them all as smoothly as only a 150 year old turtle can. He joked about the man in front of us, who wouldn't raise his "flippers" like everyone else. The guy didn't speak English, so he was utterly clueless that the joke was on him. Crush also made a reference to my husband; we were pretty easy to spot, since we were standing in the back corner.

After "Turtle Talk," we headed over to Test Track. On the way, we paused to watch the fountain, which is one of my favorite low-key Disney World pleasures. Many people don't realize that every 15 minutes, the Epcot fountain launches into a water show choreographed to music. There are a variety of random songs; my favorite is Yanni's "Standing In Motion." Since it was only five minutes to the next performance, we sat on a ledge to wait.

The song wasn't Yanni; in fact, it was one that I hadn't heard before. I wasn't impressed by the music, but the fountain's performance was spectacular. There were lots of air cannon shots blasted the columns of water high into the sky. It's even better at night because you can see the colored lights along with the dancing water.

All too soon it was over, so we headed off to Test Track. As we approached the cylindrical building, we noticed that it was ominously quiet. There was no one around, save for a single bored looking cast member. She informed us that it was closed for rehab until some point in February. Sigh! No singles-line ride for us.

Next, it was onward to Canada. We still had time to kill, so we strolled around the rose garden before settling on a bench near the restaurant's entrance. It was funny to watch people come toddling out the door, stroking their bellies and exclaiming, "That was so delicious! I couldn't eat another bite!" Based on the conversations we overheard, Le Cellier was still as wonderful as it has always been.

When our friends arrived, we checked in at the podium. About 10 minutes later, we were seated in the Yukon section, in a nice little tucked-away table. I dove into the pretzel bread, which is probably the best bread on Disney property. I started off with the cheddar cheese soup, as planned, but instead of ordering steak, I was swayed away by the vegetarian option. I took some ribbing from my companions for ordering a vegetarian meal in a steakhouse, but it turned out to be delectible! I would order it again in a minute. It was some sort of risotto with goat cheese and pecans, stuffed inside an acorn squash half.

My husband had a thick, juicy steak, so I was able to barter some of my meal for a nice, tender hunk of cowflesh. He had also ordered a side of mushrooms, which were perfectly seasoned to complement the meat. For dessert, I had my all-time favorite maple creme brulee, which is served with cinammon whipped cream.

The service was attentive, and our waitress somehow timed it perfectly so that we finished up just in time for Illuminations. I had heard that the stairway to the Canadian pavillion was a good place to watch it. Since we we were right there, we decided to give it a try. A viewing area is roped off at the top of the stairs. A small crowd of people had already gathered, but we managed to find good spots. Watching it from a higher perch was a much different experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it. We noticed some lighting effects on that water that we had never seen before.

As the finale fireworks bathed the sky in an explosion of color, I thought, "What a fitting end to our anniversary day." One of the main reasons that I wanted to move to Florida was because it always broke my heart to leave Disney World. Now, we can go to see Illuminations any time we want, and we never have to truly leave. We simply head right next door, to Duloc Manor, which sits on property once owned by the Mouse. And if we so desire, we can return the very next day. What a treat! I often feel that I'm one of the luckiest people in the world because I live in a place where I can pretend that I'm on a permanent vacation. Sure, I still have to work everyday, too, but it's a lot easier to put in your time when you hear the distance rumble of fireworks every night and can take a break and run to Disney World any day that you desire.

Better yet, Celebration is such a great place to live. I don't know where we would have ended up if we had never found it. There are some nice developments in Dr. Phillips and Clermont and several Celebration wanna-bes like Harmony and Independence, but I can't imagine living anywhere else. We've made such wonderful friends, and we absolutely love our neighborhood. It may sound like a cliche, but Celebration really does capture the spirit of the small towns of yesteryear. There may be countless imitators, but there can only be one original, and we'll always hold that honor.

On the way out of Epcot, I stopped in one of the stores to see if they had the music from Soarin' on a CD. I love the soundtrack almost as much as I love the stunning visual images of California's mountains, rivers, and vineyards. Amazingly, they had it! On the drive back to Celebration, Canyonero hummed with the rich orchestral sound blasting out of the speakers. In that moment, I wished that everyone in the word could share my joy of living in a place where they are truly happy.

I still remember days before we made the permanent move. I would be swimming in the East Village pool or walking down the boardwalk on Sunday mornings, and my mind would be consumed with the thought that I'd soon have to leave. I couldn't relax and enjoy myself because in just a few hours I'd be winging my way back north, where I would spend a week or two pining to return to Florida.

During that time, I would try to imagine what it would be like someday when I lived in Celebration full-time. I knew there would be a magical day in the future when I would never have to go back unless I wanted to. To cheer myself up, I'd picture that time and wonder just how far off it would be. It came more quickly than I expected, and I consider that a special blessing. We had a wonderful first anniversary, and I'm looking forward to many more to come.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

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

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Expedition Everest

After what seems like years of waiting, Expedition Everest, the latest attraction at Disney's Animal Kingdom, has finally made its debut. At the moment, it's only on a limited basis, but Cast Members, Annual Passholders, and DVC members have all had the opportunity to experience its excitement firsthand.

Since my husband and I both have APs (and since hubby is a roller coaster buff), we've been waiting anxiously to experience it. We've watched as it grew from a cleared-out plot of land to a massive structure looming over the Asia section of the park. It's a giant, snow-capped mountain with metallic tracks surrounded it; the ride runs both inside and out, sort of like Big Thunder Mountain, but it's a heck of a lot cooler.

The AP preview event started today, so we trooped off to the Animal Kingdom around noon. We figured that the intense die-hards who wanted to be the first to ride would have cleared out by then. We were still expecting healthy-sized lines, but we figured that they would have slacked off somewhat if we arrived a little later.

We debated getting a Fast Pass for Kilimanjaro Safari before heading to Expedition Everest, figuring that we could do a quick safari ride on the way out. But laziness won out; we didn't feel like walking all the way to Africa when the Asia section of the park is so much closer.

The area near Everest is blocked off, with Cast Members checking APs and DVC memberships before they allow anyone in. They were also requiring photo IDs so "cheaters" couldn't borrow someone else's pass. Hubby and I produced the required proof and were soon heading to the base of the "mountain" with a hoard of other excited previewers.

Amazingly, Fast Passes were being offered for Everest. I guess that the preview is a training exercise for the CMs, too, so they're running the ride just as they would on a "real" day. The standby line was listed at 20 minutes, so we decided to grab Fast Passes, ride a time or two through the regular line, and then zip through with our passes as the finale.

Disney has really been plugging the theming in Everest's queue line. At first, I wasn't to impressed; it was detailed enough, representing a supply shop where you could stock up on goods for your trip to the top of Mount Everest. But overall it didn't strike me as any more impressive than Test Track or The Great Movie Ride.

Once we got farther inside, my level of admiration grew. There were cases with all sorts of cool "artifacts"; my favorites were the animal masks. There were also the remains of a camp that had apparently been ravaged by an unknown beast. The yeti, perhaps? Or is he just a legend? We were about to find out firsthand!

At first, the line moved quickly, but suddenly it went 101 (i.e. broke down). That's not really surprising during a preview, when they are still working the bugs out. My only worry was whether they'd get it running again quickly, or whether we'd be caught in the queue till closing time, clinging to false hopes.

Fortunately, it wasn't too long before the line of anxious Everest trekkers continued its progress toward the loading station. Before I knew it, we were being directed to our row (row 6, in the middle of the train) and clambering into our seats for our newest Disney experience.

The seats have high backs to support your neck, and you are secured in with an individual lap bar. Each seat has a storage net where you can stash bags, backpacks, and whatnot if you don't feel like clutching them throughout your trip. That's a major plus for true coaster fans, who like to spend the entire ride waving their hands in the air without having to cling to extraneous items.

In the months and years of waiting for Expedition Everest, I tried not to get my hopes up too much. After all, I am married to a die-hard coaster fanatic who has dragged me across the country to ride such gems as Magnum XL at Cedar Point (a masterful coaster with a 200 foot first drop and a bowtie where you literally float out of your seat for several seconds, topped off with a wicked string of nut-crunching bunny hills that make me glad to be female). After experiencing some of the top coasters in the country, Disney World's offerings are baby carriages by comparison.

But still, I think Disney needs to up the thrill ride ante to compete with parks such as Islands of Adventure and Busch Gardens. Deep in my heart, I nurtured a small hope that Everest would be their first salvo in a "real" coaster war. And if not...well, hopefully it would at least measure up to the other "mountain" coasters.

An air of excitement swept through the train as we raced towards our date with the Yeti. Right off the bat, as the chain lift ratcheted us into the sky, I was impressed by the panoramic view of Disney World. On one side, the entire Epcot area is spread out in front you, while the resorts near 192 beckon on the other. If you can manage to turn around, you'll see the Contemporary and Space Mountain jutting up out of the trees.

But the view doesn't last too long, as you are soon plunging into the mountain on a wild ride with wicked lateral forces. CAUTION: SPOILER AHEAD...DON'T READ ANY FARTHER IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW TOO MUCH ABOUT THE RIDE.

I love the part where you zip towards an area where the track ahead of you seems to be ripped up. If you continue, you'll plummet off the edge! Much like the boat ride in Norway, the train stops and you suddenly find yourself zooming backwards into almost total darkness. There is no big drop, but the dual punches of being nearly blind in the blackness and curling through sudden twists and turns in extremely disorienting. If you are prone to motion sickness, this is the most likely part to affect you.

Eventually you stop and watch a shadow projected yeti, but I quickly learned that it was more fun to watch the track in front. If you look closely, you'll see it literally rotate so you can continue your journey going forward.

After more wild twists and turns, you'll zoom past a 40-foot shaggy Yeti before the ride abruptly ends. And I do mean abruptly...trust me, the brakes work very well! I thought that the quick end after the Yeti was a bit of a let-down. It seemed like there should be something more. But that's only a minor criticism of what is a very cool ride overall.

To put my opinion in perspective, I call it "cool" from the standpoint of a Disney family attraction, not a mega heart-pounding roller coaster. It's not in the same league as Hulk or Dueling Dragons at Islands of Adventure...not even close. Think of a more exciting version of Thunder Mountain Railroad that offers great panoramic views of the Disney World resort and that also goes backward and you'll have a pretty good idea of its intensity level.

I didn't see many teenagers, but there were lots of younger kids around, and every one of them who I spoke with loved the ride. It seemed to be a winner with the parents (and many childless riders) too. It's rough enough to offer some harmless thrills while still being smooth enough not to cause whiplash (unlike the innocent-looking but surprisingly vicious Primeavel Whirl mad mouse coaster in Dinoland...that thing should be called Prime-Evil, as it put my neck out of whack for a week!).

My husband and I stopped in the requisite gift shop at the ride's exit to purpose Expedition Everest t-shirts. We noticed that the standby line seemed even shorter than before, so we hopped in for another ride. That turned into another...and another. We couldn't help it; we just had to take advantage of the low crowd density. Soon enough, summer will be upon us, with multi-hour waits. Florida residents know how to strike when the iron is hot.

Eventually, it was time for our Fast Pass. We used it for an even shorter wait ("shorter" was a relative term, since the standby line was no more than ten minutes). As we hiked through, we noticed a Single Riders entrance. Intrigued, we decided to ride one more time to give that a try. You could get on even more quickly as a single rider than with a Fast Pass. Hubby and I did it multiple times, and we ended up on the same train all but two times. As a single rider, you must sit wherever you are directed, which means that you will be separated from your party. It's actually kind of cool, as you typically sit to another single, and many like to chat. Both my husband and I had some very interesting conversations with our row mates.

But all good things must come to an end, and finally we decided that it was time to leave. We had set a goal to ride Expedition Everest a lucky 13 times, and we accomplished that easily. I was game for more, but I hadn't eaten lunch, and my low blood sugar had given me a head rush the last few times of going through the backwards part. At least I wasn't along in ignoring my physical needs for the thrill of the ride; as I was mentioning my dilemma to my husband, a woman near us in the line said "Same here!" and pointed to her hypoglycemia Med-Alert bracelet! Now that's a true ride fan!

Thus, we threw in the towel at 13 and headed out of the park. We were both still amazed at what a wonderful experience it had been. We'd planned on riding twice at most, picturing neverending lines of frothing fans. Getting rides in the double digits was beyond our wildest dreams.

13 isn't the most times that I've ever ridden one coaster in a single block of time. Years ago, I managed to hit 40 on Batman at Six Flags in Illinois. It happened at a special hard-ticket event where the lines on every ride were virtually non-existent. I didn't even have to get off the ride, other than to switch seats if someone happened to be waiting for my row. At that time, I had loaded up on plenty of sugar and was prepared for marathon riding. I thought that I did pretty good on Everest, considering that the decision to rack up so many rides was spontaneous.

Everest isn't a contender among the mega-coasters of the world, but it's a nice additional to Disney World. It's family friendly and definitely a kid-pleaser, and it's insinuated its way among my top three favorite Disney rides (the others being Soarin' and Tower of Terror). Next time you're at the Animal Kingdom, be sure to give it a try.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

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

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Home of the Barfing Orange

I will never be able to look at Florida's new license plate design again without thinking about barfing oranges. In theory, the plate shows two oranges, with a spray of orange blossoms in the middle. I hadn't even noticed that there was a new plate design; I still thought it was the old single orange.

But as I was walking through the Downtown Disney parking lot last week with a group of friends, one of them pointed to a plate and said, "Doesn't that new design look like a barfing orange?" I squinted at it, and from a distance that's exactly what it looks like! I am a "Little Shop of Horrors" fan, and to me it looked like the man-eating plant, Audrey Two, regurgitating some sort of white substance through green lips. I'm posting the plate design below...you won't know what I'm talking about if you look at it closely, but back off from your computer and it will become readily apparent:
My husband thinks I'm insane. He insists that all he can see is a lovely Floridian portrait of fruit and orange blossoms. But I'm forever traumatized, and I'll never be able to see that plate again without envisioning a barfing orange.

Fortunately, I didn't have to subject Canyonero (my Aztek) to the indignity of bearing one of those plates. Besides being the land of oranges, lizards, gators, and hurricanes, Florida is also Vanity Plate Central. There are literally over 100 plate designs to choose from. Here in the Sunshine State, they'll issue a plate promoting anything from sharing the road with cyclists to paratrooping. Here are just a few examples...we have plates honoring: hospice, golfing, the arts, the state wildflower, the Tampa Bay Estuary (whatever that is), manatees, dolphins, panthers, bass, Native Americans, and survivors of Pearl Harbor. That's just a small sampling! In addition, every college and sports team has their own plate design, so there are over 40 plates in those two categories alone.

If you think I'm exagerating, click here to open a PDF file listing the various options. Sadly, this eight page list doesn't even include some of the newer ones!

When I trooped off to the DMV a few months ago, I had decided that I wanted the spay/neuter plate. I like to do all that I can to prevent more lazy, spoiled rotten cats like mine from entering the world. As I waited in line, I was visually overwhelmed by the wallfull of license plates on display. I was glad that I had pre-determined my choice because otherwise my brain might have exploded from choice overload.

Unfortunately, when I asked the clerk for the spay/neuter plate, she looked at me like I was off my rocker. "I don't think we have that one," she said. "Do you see it up there?" I knew that such a plate existed, but I also knew that I'd never find it among the dozens of little metallic rectangles mounted behind the counter. The pressue was on...what should I do? I knew that no matter what, I didn't want the standard plate. Even before I realized that it portrayed a barfing orange, I didn't want Canyonero to be one among the teeming masses. I wanted something at least halfway unique.

Impulsively, I said, "I'll take the Florida Panther plate." Out of all the choices, it seemed like one of the prettiest:
I like all feline life forms, so I figured it was for a good cause, too. Thus, Canyonero now sports a snarling panther on its backside.

At home, I went online to assure myself that I hadn't imagined the spay/neuter plate. Sure enough, it did exist (I knew that it had to, since Florida has a plate for everything...I think there might even be one to commemorate "My First Hurricane" for new residents). The trick is, I would have had to ask for the "Animal Friend" plate:
Unfortunately, it was too late, so now I'm just a panther friend...to heck with the other critters.

At the moment, my husband and I are getting by with just one car. Since we both telecommute, and we don't have kids who need chauffering, it's pretty easy to juggle one vehicle between us. But I live in fear of the day that a second vehicle might ever become necessary and we might have to go through "plate choice trauma" yet again. Maybe between now and then, they will develop a special plate for people like me: the "I Can't Choose Between So Many Freakin' Options!" plate. I'm sure that would be a popular one.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

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

Saturday, January 21, 2006

R. I. P. Tarzan Rocks

Today was a tragic milestone in Disney World history: The very last performance of the Tarzan Rocks stage show. After seven years of performances, this high-energy combination of live rock music, acrobatics, and daredevil skating has been permanently retired. The official party line is that it's been shut down so the Theater in the Wild, where it was housed, can be fully enclosed. But when it opens again with a new show, I'll bet a big sum of money that it will feature a much smaller cast. After all, a full troupe of skilled performers means more and larger paychecks, and Disney's current trend is to revamp attractions into low-maintenance shows that can be manned by the smallest number of cast members possible.

Don't believe me? Case in point #1: The Lion King show at Magic Kingdom, which became Mickey's Philharmagic a few years back. Lion King featured a live Rafiki in the pre-show and a host of puppeteers who brought the story to life in the theater. Philharmagic is a run-of-the-mill herd-'em-in-and-push-the-button 3-D show.

Case in point #2: Does anyone remember Superstar Television? It was a show at Disney-MGM that magically put members of the audience into classic TV shows like "I Love Lucy" and "Cheers" via blue screen trickery. It was a very labor-intensive show, but for me, it was the essence of the sort of attraction that should be in a studio. Alas, it is long gone, as is another old favorite, the Monster Sound Show. That one featured lots of audience participation, too; it went through two versions (the second one had a Saturday morning cartoon theme) before being dumbed down into Sounds Dangerous, a non-interactive, stare-at-a-screen offering.

Of course, Disney-MGM has little resemblence to a real working studio these days. The death knell was the shutdown of the Orlando animation branch. I remember the early days, when they had a real animation tour where guests could peer through the windows at real artists working on the latest Disney animated features. Now, the artists are long gone, and the "tour" is a clone of the dull California offering.

Disney World has introduced a few innovative attractions in recent years, such as the technologically amazing Turtle Talk where Crush actually converses with the audience, Test Track (a giant slot car set with an enjoyable burst of speed) and the nausea-inducing Mission: Space. Wishes and the Illuminations holiday show are also spectacles to behold. But overall the minor instances of innovation have been overshadowed by a major trend toward mediocrity.

I've also noticed a tendency toward shortening the theme park shows. Besides its big cast, I'm sure that the half hour length of Tarzan was another strike against it. Years ago, the Beauty and the Beast show was pared down in length, and the same was done to The Little Mermaid after its last rehab. The new ADD versions are mere shadows of the originals, but they are a sad reflection of entertainment in the new millenium. ADD isn't a disorder...it's a tragic cultural trend (and I say that as a doctor of psycholgy). Pretty soon, thinking in short bursts will be the norm, and people who can focus for any length of time will be seen as the ones with a "problem."
Having seen so many of our beloved old favorites shuttered and replaced with A-ticket schlock, my husband decided that he wanted to see Tarzan Rocks one last time. Today was the very last day; it was cloudy, with a threat of rain, so we kept our fingers crossed that the weather would hold and the crowd wouldn't be too bad.

We arrived before noon, and the next show was scheduled for 1:45, so I decided to grab a bite to eat before heading to the theater. First, we got Fast Passes for Kilimanjaro Safaris so I could look for the elusive cheetah. We figured we could eat, catch Tarzan, and then do the safari before we left. The wait times were all at least 30 minutes, so we didn't plan on doing anything else. Florida residents are a spoiled lot...we won't wait more than 10 or 15 minutes for a ride because we can always come back during the off season.

We hiked back to Africa to pick up our safari Fast Passes. As we worked our way through the park, I was shocked at the crowd density. Now that the holidays are over, I expected a fairly light crowd, but the people were shoulder to shoulder. Of course, the walkways in the Animal Kingdom are narrow to begin with, and they're made more challenging by the looky-loos who love to stop dead in the middle of the path. Someday there's going to be a pile-up like the elephant smash-up scene in The Jungle Book.

We managed to make it to the back of the park without any major collisions and picked up our Fast Passes. Happily, the timing would work out perfectly with Tarzan. Next, we stopped off in Asia, where I hope to nosh on potstickers from the chicken stand. The queue line was packed and trailing out onto the walkway. We joined in with some trepidation, as we wanted to get to Tarzan early. Sure, we had over an hour and a half till showtime, but at the rate the food line was moving, we saw that it might not be enough. There were two windows...a guest's order would be taken at one, and then their food would be disgorged at the second. But only one party's order would be taken, and the next party wouldn't be served until the previous party had received their grub. This meant that the line moved at the pace of a crippled snail. Compounding the delay was the fact that every time a person paid with their room key card, it took two or three cast members and several additional minutes to figure out how to process it.

It looked like we might eventually be served by default, as the people in front of us were bailing out of the neverending line in droves. But as the delays compounded, we decided to head off to Dinoland in search of a dining alternative. That's where the Theater in the Wild is located, so we figured that we could (hopefully) find a food cart with a shorter line and then jump into line for Tarzan.

As we arrived at Dinoland, I heard a cast member yelling, "The line for Tarzan is back there! Get in line now! We will be loading the theater early." I glanced where she was pointing and saw a conga line of people snaking along the perimeter of Dinoland. It was over an hour to showtime, but apparently half the population in the park had the same idea as we did. They were going to make sure they saw Tarzan one last time before its final curtain call.

We joined the line, hoping that the theater wouldn't be full before we made it to the entrance. Besides the usual array of park-goers, there was a heavy population of cast members. They had come for the cast preview of Expedition Everest, the new roller coaster, and apparently most of them were also stopping by to give Tarzan a jam-packed farewell.

They did, indeed, open the theater early, and we inched our way towards the entrance, hoping that we would be able to squeeze in. If not, there was only one more chance, at 3:15, and then Tarzan Rocks would be gone forevermore. Fortunately, we made it in with plenty of room to spare. Our choice of seats was somewhat limited, but we were able to sit in the middle section. We were pretty far back, but that was partially due to the fact that a good chunk of the center was reserved for family members of the Tarzan cast. It was sad enough for my husband and I to know we were seeing the show for the last time; I can only imagine how melancholy it must have been for the people associated with the show as they watch the final performances.

The people kept piling into the theater like clowns pouring out of a circus car. They would disappear down the aisle, and I have no idea where they went since the rows were packed like a salmon stream. Shortly before showtime, the remaining space in the "family" section was opened up to the general public, and a last burst of bodies crammed into the final block of seats.

The show started right on time, and it was just as good as I remembered it (we hadn't been to Animal Kingdom in a while). One of my favorite things about it was that it featured a live band. Live music is becoming a rarity; even Broadway theaters tried to move to canned music a few years ago until union musicians backed them down with strike. I love the Tarzan soundtrack, and the Tarzan Rocks band brought high energy and excitement to the familiar songs.

But Tarzan Rocks wasn't just a "concert." It featured arial maneuvers and a troupe of skaters performing amazing acrobatics and jumps. The show was fast paced and fun, ending with Terk leading the audience in a particpative finale.

As I watched the show for the last time, I tried to view it from an economic standpoint. Instead of a stage full of performers, I pictured each person as a paycheck. Cutting back on cast-intensive shows is good for the bottom line, but for me it narrows the gap between Disney and other theme parks. Once upon a time, Disney set the standard and others tried to play catch-up. Now, it's less about the "show" and more about squeezing every last nickle out of the teaming masses while cutting costs to the bone. The decline in quality is glaring; that's why we prefer Disney Cruise Line to visiting the parks. Onboard the Wonder and Magic, the old "Disney difference" is still hanging on.

Even though it was the last day, and the second to last show, the performers gave it their all. Since the theater was packed with their family members and a high percentage of fellow cast members, the energy was amazing. The only slight annoyance was a foreign family behind us. Apparently the father was the only one who understood English, so he spent the whole time"translating" in a bellow that even managed to rise above the pulsing rock concert volume of the music.

Every time I've seen the show, the performers have earned many rounds of applause as they twirl through the air, turn backflips, and execute daring leaps on their skates. Today, the applause was much more enthusiatic, as though the audience was trying to pack seven years worth of approval into the final sendoff. It ended with a thunderous standing ovation for the talented troupe of performers.

As we filed out of the theater, people were already lining up for the 3:15 performance, even though it was only 2:15. In just 90 minutes, the last chords of music would fade from the Theater in the Wild and Tarzan Rocks would enter the annals of Disney World history.

We headed to Kilimanjaro for our safari, which was amazingly good. Most of the animals were out in the viewing areas, and I saw not one but three cheetahs! And they weren't hiding among the foliage where I could barely spot them...one was lying sprawled in the grass, one was sitting up, and the third was casually strolling along as though we was showing off for us.

We also saw two baby elephants, in addition to the usual menagerie of hippos, warthogs, rhinos, giraffes, crocodiles, ostriches, gazelles, and the like. After the safari we called it a day, heading out of the park and off to Cracker Barrel for an early dinner. Hubby had a taste for country fried steak, but he was quickly tempted away by their steak tip special. He wavered between his original choice and the succulent beef tidbits smothered in cheese, onions, and baby portobello mushrooms. I solved his dilemma by offering to order one of those two dishes while he ordered the other; that way, we could share them and have a little of both.

I enjoy the hearty meals at Cracker Barrel, and the service is always attentive. I hadn't eaten breakfast, and at Animal Kingdom I'd only managed to grab a raspberry iced tea for lunch, so my rumbling stomach welcomed the influx of food.

All in all, the day was enjoyable but tinged with an overlay of melancholy. I wasn't quite as sad as my husband...I liked the Tarzan show and I'll miss it, but it was one of his top favorites. I could feel his pain, as I remember the last time I saw the original Journey Into Imagination. I loved Figment and Dreamfinder, and I never got tired of journeying into their world of music, color, art, and science. The travesty that exists with the same name now has no resemblence to the wonderful original. On that last day many years ago, I rode it several times and had hubby videotape it twice so it was memorialized from every angle. Few things make me cry, but watching that old tape of Journey is one of them. For me, it sums up the memory of the Disney World that once was, before cost cutting pared it down from a special place into Six Flags Florida.

Perhaps that's a bit harsh...yes, I do still enjoy the parks, and I'm not ready to turn in my annual pass just yet. But I hope they'll do a turnaround now that the Disney company is under new management. Next week is the Expedition Everest preview for annual passholders, so I'm hoping that the sadness of Tarzan's demise will be offset by the discovery of a new favorite.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

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

Thursday, January 19, 2006

January: Month of Mayhem

For a travel agent, January is a month of mayhem. For some reason, as soon as the holidays are over, people start planning out their trips for the year. I imagine that many of them are trying to lock in precious vacation days before a co-worker snatches all of the most desirable vacation time. Many others are plotting out how to spend their tax refunds; they put down a deposit to hold the price and their preferred dates, and then they make the full payoff when Uncle Sam sends the magic check.

Whatever the reason, the result is the same: A non-stop ringing phone with inquiries from potential clients. I specialize mainly in Disney cruises; having taken 48 of them myself, I can speak with some authority and can sell my product in good conscience. I enjoy helping clients plan their trips and sharing my expertise on good stateroom locations, how to find the best bargains, etc. But after a while, my eyes begin to cross from staring at the computer screen, and my ear starts to swell after being pressed against a receiver for hours on end.

Happily, I had a nice break today...a lunch outing with some friends from Celebration. Every couple weeks or so, we get together to share a meal and the latest gossip. I was looking forward to breaking up a long workday with some good food and great conversation.

For some strange reason, I thought that they were picking me up at noon. Thus, although I had showered by 11 a.m., I hadn't bothered to dress yet. Instead, I was slovening around the house in my undies and getting a few things done on the computer when the doorbell rang promptly at 11.

Actually, I wasn't literally in my undies, but I was slumming around in a sports bra and wrinkly old shorts, so it was nearly as bad. That's one of the advantages of working at home: you can get away with dressing like a slob and no one knows the difference.

I rushed upstairs double-time to toss on my clothes, which I'd fortunately laid out after my shower. My hair was still pretty damp, but since we were going to eat at Downtown Disney, I figured that I could pretend I'd just come from a water park. I forgot my necklace, which meant that my neck felt naked for the rest of the day, but other than that I managed to whip myself into a semi-presentable state in under five minutes.

We drove off to pick up the other members of our lunch klatch and headed for the Earl of Sandwich, my favorite quick-service restaurant on Disney property. It's located in Downtown Disney, and it serves the most delicious hot sandwiches, as well as fresh-made salads, tasty tomato soup, and a variety of other items. Supposedly it's owned by a descendant of the original Earl, esteemed inventor of the venerable sandwich that we know and love today.

Normally, the queue line is jam-packed with bodies, but on this day the crowd was light. It's hard to select from the vast array of offerings, but finally we all made our selections. The sandwiches are made to order, so you pay at a cash register and then anxiously wait for your food. Your receipt is numbered, and the baggers call out numbers as each order is ready. They don't go in numerical sequence, so it's a bit like a raffle. Every time the bagger approachs the counter clutching the latest sack of food, you tense up and hold your breath: will it be your number this time?

Soon we all had our food; I had ordered a ham and cheese sandwich, with a side of yogurt, fruit, and granola. My beverage was the Earl's Gray Lemonade, an odd (but surprisingly tasty) concoction of lemonade and iced tea.

We all chowed down while chatting; topics ranged from our crazy families to the lastest goings on in town (and in Celebration, there's always something going on) to black ball sacks (don't ask). We were there for over two hours, and by the time we finally left, my face literally hurt from laughing.

The fun time had passed too quickly; before I knew it, I was back at Duloc Manor booting up my laptop and sorting through the phone messages that had piled up while I was gone. When I'm out, my voice messages come to me via email, and I receive my faxes that way, too. I also do a lot of quotes via email inquiries. Basically, I can handle my entire business right from my laptop.

The rest of the evening was spent chained to my keyboard, sending out quotes and then completing paperwork for several new bookings that I made. It can be monotonous, but there are fun parts, too. I spent nearly an hour talking to a client who is renewing her vows in Celebration the day before her Disney cruise. Being a compulsive planner myself, I love helping clients plan out cool vacations like that.

Finally, by bedtime I was pretty much caught up. I hate quitting for the day without organizing my records first, as it's so easy to fall behind. Being a travel agent is all about organization, and if I don't enter client information into my database immediately or send out their confirmations in a timely manner, there's always the chance that something could slip through the cracks. So far that's never happened, but I don't want to tempt the fates.

No matter how busy January gets, I really can't complain. I know that by summer, the number of calls will have dwindled down to a trickle. June, July, and August are lean months; as they drag on, I start to wonder whether the phone will ever ring again. I guess people are too busy enjoying the sunshine and the summertime leisure to work about planning their trips. Still, by fall, things always pick up again. There is one more lull in the holiday season, but then, before I know it, January descends once again. It may be a month of mayhem, but it's so much better to be overwhelmed by business than to face the opposite dilemma.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

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

Monday, January 16, 2006

A Sense of Place

Celebration, Florida, is the first place I've ever lived that I've ever really cared about. I try to get involved because I love the town and hope to live here for the rest of my life. The only thing that would spur me to leave is if its character changed significantly. If the downtown ever disappears and the population density becomes too great, if the streets become too dark and empty because the vacation home owners outnumber the full-time residents, then I'll reluctantly leave. Why pay a premium to live in a town that's just like any other Florida subdivision? But so far, Celebration has retained most of its uniqueness, and I'm happy to call it home.

I never really though about why I love it so much and what defines a sense of place for me. I always thought it was the close proximity to Disney World and the overall quaintness of the town. But last night, through my online wanderings, I discovered that it's something deeper. It took a virtual return to my childhood neighborhood to show me that Celebration fulfills a sense of loss I didn't even realize that I had.

First, a bit of background. I spent my earliest years in a south Chicago neighborhood called Roseland. At the dawn of the 1960s, it was the quintessential old-town neighborhood. We lived in a cookie-cutter Chicago bungalow across the street from the grade school. Just a couple of blocks up, you could hop onto State Street or Michigan Avenue and head to the business district. It was known as "going up the Ave," and in doing so, you'd find movie theaters, hole in the wall Chinese restaurants that served the best food ever, mom and pop groceries with penny candy counters that contained all of paradise inside a glassy case, and gas stations where they still gave away free dinnerware with a fill-up. Go a little farther and you'd hit the big-time commercial zone, with the Peoples Store (an old-fashioned department store offering everything from clothing to housewares to a bakery, a grocery store, lunch counter that served burgers and Green Rivers, and even a barber shop), the Home Store (furniture) and a strip mall with drugstore, grocery, and coffee shop.

Sadly, that was the era of the infamous "white flight" to the suburbs. Within literally less than a year, every one of the neighbors on our block had fled. We stayed much longer than most, and I remember watching the mom and pop shops get boarded up one by one. One was owned by a friend of my dad's, and he tried to stick it out, but robbers shot him to death. The stores on the Ave were soon mostly abandoned, although some were converted to churches. The few that remained were fenced in by heavy-duty burglar bars. The gallant old movie house showed porno for a while before finally closing down for good.

People showed their homes to prospective buyers in the dead of night, and they moved out in the wee hours before dawn. One day a house would suddenly have new occupants, and the process would repeat itself a week or two later until we were the only original owners left on the block. I was much too young to understand the social, political, and economic forces behind what was happening. All I knew was that suddenly all my friends were gone and the streets that had once been familiar were now almost unrecognizable.

We stayed longer than most, so I witnessed the entire decline and fall of what had once been such a vibrant area. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't a racial issue, but rather an economic one. Our new neighbors were nice, but many had gotten FHA loans that they couldn't really afford. They soon lost their homes to foreclosure, and the abandoned structures were a magnet for squatters and gang bangers. The new residents who could afford their homes didn't want to stay in what was rapidly becoming one of the most dangerous areas in Chicago. Soon, our second wave of neighbors was moving out, too.

In the midst of all this, my dad died, and we moved to my grandparents' house in a nearby suburb where I did the rest of my growing up. But even though I only spent my earliest years in Roseland, it's the place I still think of as "home." We had a big backyard with a weeping willow, and I loved to swing from its branches. In the summer, I chased fireflies on the front lawn, and on the hottest days someone always opened a fire hydrant and flooded the street. In the winter, I loved to sled down the "hill" right across the street, formed by a grassy berm around the school.

For years, I put Roseland out of my mind. Occasionally I toyed with the idea of driving through my old neighbor, but by the 1980s it had one of the highest crime rates in all of Chicago. The one time I tried, a man banged on my car window at a red light and I peeled away, never to return.

Recently, I was looking for some information on the band Styx, which started in Roseland, and I found an online discussion site frequented by other displaced Roselanders. Someone mentioned that the county assessor's office has fairly recent pictures of all the properties. I followed the link, and soon enough I was looking at my very first home in a photo from five years ago. I could barely recognize it; there is an awning and a fence around the front yard now, and the maple tree that was a mere sapling four decades ago is massive. But the ghost of the home it had once been was superimposed in my mind over the picture on my laptop screen.

Intrigued, I plugged in street names and numbers and took a virtual tour of the old residential areas and business district. The properties are blighted, trash-strewn and boarded up now, and many of the buildings are completely gone. But the ghosts of what had once been welled up in my mind and dredged up memories buried for decades. My eyes grew misty at the thought that my very first neighborhood was gone forever. I still go back to my grandparents' old home, and to the neighborhood where I rented my first apartment (my brother's family still lives in that area). But they're not what I consider home; they were just substitutes that came later, out of necessity.

I was surprised at the well of emotion that my virtual tour stirred. Back on the discussion board, I read someone's post on how they frequently dreamed about Roseland. They said they believed that they were still haunted by their memories because there was no sense of closure. I pondered that thought, and it made a lot of sense. What a blow to lose every friend and neighbor in less than a year, with most of them disappearing literally overnight. How painful to see the stores with soaped up or boarded windows and to have to drive miles away just to get groceries. How frightening for a little child to overhear that the kindly old shopkeeper who gave her comics had been murdered in cold blood as he stood behind his counter.

Even though we didn't flee in the night, my world was ripped apart by the disappearance of everyone else. By the time my dad died, we were living a nomadic existence between Roseland and my grandparents' house so I could attend a suburban school. I wasn't allowed to have any friends lest they find out that we didn't live full-time in the school district.

The only good thing to come out of that whole sad era was that I learned not to be prejudiced. In my last year of school in Roseland, I learned how to felt to be a minority, picked on because of the color of my skin. But on the flipside, we had some wonderful African-American neighbors, and I saw that there is really no difference at a person's core. Even when we moved to the suburbs, I was fortunate enough to attend a diverse school, and my social circle had no regard for race. I had learned in childhood to judge people for who they are, and I'm thankful for that lesson.

After some introspection, I think I understand why Celebration is so important to me now. In many ways, it reminds me of that long-lost neighborhood. Back there, like here, the kids went to a neighborhood school and everybody on the block knew everybody else. You could borrow a cup of sugar or gather on the front stoop for an impromptu visit. You could walk to the business district to have lunch or catch a movie. The kids could bike around the neighborhood for hours or play games till darkness finally drove them home. Everybody knew everybody else; you couldn't venture to the post office or the coffee shop without waving or hollering, "Hi!" at least a dozen times. It had that sense of place that felt so good became you knew that it was your home.

Sure, Celebration has problems like vandalism and crime, but Roseland always did, too. No town is perfect, but some still manage to capture that elusive hometown feeling. In all the places I've lived between Roseland and Celebration, I had a house but not a home. I lived in those places for utilitarian reasons, but in my mind they were all interchangeable. I moved from each with no pangs of regret; they were simply stepping stones to new phases in my life.

But Celebration is a place I chose; I didn't believe all of the Disney propoganda, but I hoped that even a small kernel of it was true. And indeed it was...maybe it's just a self-fulfilling prophecy because others moved here for the same reasons, but I've found the place that I want to stay. It worries me to see changes that could affect the viability of the town because I never want to leave. I shudder at the thought of the downtown parking situation that could drive the stores out of business. I look at the empty storefronts in Water Tower Place, and a ghost of the soapy windows in Roseland dances around the corners of my mind. I watch more and more buildings go up, and their price tags keep going up, too, far beyond the reach of average families. Maybe we can overcome the challenges, but maybe someday I'll reluctantly leave and return to a utilitarian existence in a cookie-cutter Florida town with a smaller pricetag.

If that ever happens, I'll still carry a part of Celebration with me forever. Like Roseland, it will always be one of those rare places that I truly count as home.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

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

Friday, January 13, 2006

Decadence in the New Year

We're only two weeks into the New Year, but trying to eat healthy has been a special challenge. We just returned from a four-night cruise on the Disney Wonder. It was our 48th trip on Disney Cruise Line, and in all that time, you can imagine that we've gotten to know some of the crew members. That includes the chefs, so that adds an additional layer of challenge to the avoidance of overindulgence.

Actually, we do gravitate towards some of the healthier items. The vegetable curry onboard is delicious; even my husband, a died-in-the-wool meat eater, will scorn cow flesh for the veggie curries. But I also love artery-clogging treats like eggs benedict in the morning, chicken tenders and fries for lunch, and a juicy steak with bleu cheese sauce for dinner, capped with three scoops of homemade gelato.

Normally we try to follow good eating habits the week before a cruise. This time around, we threw caution to the wind and ate at the Melting Pot in Dr. Phillips the night before we sailed. It was a somewhat special occasion...we wanted to repay the friends who had helped us decorate and control traffic for the Holiday House Tour. It takes good friends to add the finishing touches that transform a house into a winter wonderland. It takes a very good friend to stand around for hours, directing hundreds of people with a canned smile while listening to Snow Miser sing on the TV for the twentieth time. And it takes a very, very good friend to stake out the perfect pine in a public park and lop off a limb, then transform it into a spitting image of Charlie Brown's Christmas tree.

Our friends hadn't been to The Melting Pot for over a decade, so we were anxious to re-initiate them into the pleasures of fondue. Any good fondue meal starts off with melted cheese. We selected a special offering that had a wine base and was peppered with mushrooms. Next up was salad (they have the best raspberry dressing), and then the main course. I ordered steak and portabello mushrooms, while my husband went with the French Quarter combo. One of our friends got that too, while the other stuck to chicken. We selected the mojo-style broth to cook it in. After the last tasty morsel had been fished from the cooking cauldron, we topped it all off with a chocolate mint dessert.

The meal was delicious but curiously non-eventful. Usually, when we all get together, something crazy happens. But this time the meal was quite serene, with no blogworthy occurences. When it was over, we all piled into Canyonero (my Aztek) for the return to Celebration, feeling full and content but just a bit disappointed.

Not to worry...the night was still young. I needed to stop at the All-Star Movie resort to drop off a package. We took Apopka-Vineland to the Lake Buena Vista entrance to Disney World. I wasn't too sure where the All-Star hotels were located, so I figured I would tool around until I saw a sign. I had a vague feeling that they were near the Animal Kingdom, but there was dissention in the car so I ended up at Wild World of Sports (I realized too late that I was taking directions from my husband, who a) is nearly blind at night without his glasses; and b) had consumed the better part of a bottle of wine at dinner.

I always poke fun at tourists who make a turn out of the wrong lane, but now I was the guilty party. I had missed the right turn only lane, so I gazed around worriedly for witnesses and then screeched into a turn from the "straight" lane. Thankfully it was late, so there were no other cars around. After a bit more confusion and dangerous tourist maneuvers, I finally found myself at the All-Star resort gate. Unfortunately, the marathon was slated for the next day, so I was in a neverending conga line of other people trying to get in. Each had to stop at the gate and show ID, a tedious process that slowed us to a turtle crawl. But the end was finally in sight. We had reached the hallowed All-Star grounds, so Movies had to be close by.

Of course, it turned out to be the farthest of the three hotels (Sports, Music, and Movies). I breathed a sigh of relief as we pulled up to the entrance. I gave hubby the package and instructed him, "If the checkout line is too long, try to find a cast member and just give it to them." I had forgotten that his blood alcohol level was high enough to cause most of my instructions to sound like, "Blah, blah, blah."

Thankfully, the line wasn't too bad. I guess most of the marathoners were smart enough to pick the closest resorts. Hubby jumped back in the car, sans package, and we tooled off to the exit. Now came another challenge: How to get to World Drive and back home to Celebration.

A spirited debate with hubby ensued, but as I merged onto the road he indicated, I realized that I was, indeed, on World Drive. After all, there was the familiar animated Tower of Terror sign that I use as a landmark. Unfortunately, a moment later I realized that I was going the wrong way! Instead of Celebration, I was headed smack dab at the gates of the Magic Kingdom. Oh well, not to worry. I knew that there was a turnaround area in the median somewhere up ahead.

At this point, I really felt sorry for our long-suffering friends, who were trapped in the back seat of the Aztek of Marital Discord. I blamed our predicment on my husband's faulty navigation, while he promptly hurled the blame back at me, saying, "Why would you listen to someone who's ten sheets to the wind?"

I toyed with the idea that perhaps we had all been somehow killed instantly. Perhaps a semi had plowed into Canyonero head on and we were whisked to the afterlife in the blink of an eye. Now, without knowing it, we were probably doomed to drive the long, lonely roads of Disney World forever, never reaching our final destination. We all agreed that my husband must have led the most sinless life, since he got to spend eternity with a pleasant buzz.

Finally we reached the turnout...and the %!^#*!)@ thing was blocked off with cones!!! Ugh! I had no other choice but to pass through the Magic Kingdom toll plaza. Of course, I picked the slowest lane, so I had plenty of time to mutter to myself about tourists who love to tell their life stories to toll collectors and parking lot attendants, making the conga line behind them wait.

I figured that we'd have to go the long way, past the Ticket and Transportation Center and the Polynesian Hotel. But when I explained my dilemma to the attendant, she said, "Oh, no! You can turn around right up there!" She proceeded to explain the location and process in detail, while the others in the car mocked me, saying, "Yeah, that poor person in the car behind you is going 'Damn tourists, always have to tell their life stories!'"

We passed through the toll booth and screeched into a quick turnaround. Finally we were heading home! I had thought my stop at All-Star Movies would only take a few minutes, but we had been wandering aimlessly for the better part of an hour. I was so happy to see the Tower of Terror sign again, this time from the correct direction. Soon enough we were back in town and darned glad to be there!

Thus far it's been a decadent and eventful new year, and January is only half over. I can't wait to see how the rest of 2006 unfolds.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

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

Friday, January 06, 2006

Let There Be Light (One More Time)

Slowly but surely, I'm still coming down from my Christmas/New Years high. As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, it's easier to do that here in the Orlando/Kissimmee area, since the theme parks and tourist traps draw out the holiday as long as they can.

Even though it's the Epiphany already, my husband wanted one more Christmas fix. To appease him, I accompanied him to Disney-MGM to see the Osborne lights for the last time this season. They stay up until January 8th, and then they disappear into a warehouse somewhere till next November.

We made reservations for dinner at the Brown Derby, planning to enjoy a good meal before strolling through the light display. We figured the park would be crowded, since the annual marathon is being held this weekend, so we weren't going to try to ride anything; we'd come late, eat, check out the lights, and bail.

We left the house around 5:30 p.m., and even though I had expected a crowd, I was amazed at just how crowded the parking lot was. Fortunately, we have a AAA Diamond Parking Pass, so we were able to park just past the handicapped spots. Those passes are worth their weight in gold for Florida residents!

We hiked through the front gates and towards the Brown Derby. I absolutely love their Cobb salads, which are made of finely chopped lettuce, egg, bacon, egg, tomato, bleu cheese, and turkey. It is sooo good! My husband and I always split one as an appetizer, since it's large enough for two.

When we got to the restaurant, it was the most crowded I've seen it in a long time. We checked in and waited with our pager. As I watched endless streams of people pouring in through the door, I began to suspect that someone had parked a clown car outside. I have no idea how that many people managed to fit in the building!

We had to wait a little while, but soon enough we were led to our table. As always, we ordered a Cobb, and besides that, I had a noodle bowl with coconut crusted tofu, and my husband had tuna. We had a lovely meal, marred only slightly by the large party seated across from us. The apparent patriarch yammered on and on non-stop in a voice bordering on a yell. I know more about him that I know about some of my personal acquaintences, including his views on the cost of maintaining granddaughter vs. grandsons and his theory that it's okay to "embellish core truths to make them more interesting."

After dinner, we headed off to the Osborne display. It was resplendent in its full glory, despite the late date. They even had soapy snow falling and Christmas music blaring on the speakers. Much of the crowd had gone off to see Fantasmic, so we had the streets almost to ourselves.

As we wandered through the display, I noticed many little details that I'd never seen before. I loved the lit-up basketball net, and I even noticed that there was a Christmas Story leg lamp in one of the windows. It was quite a chilly night, which lent a further air of authenticity to the wintery holiday scene.

Finally we tore ourselves away from the lights and headed out of the park. We got caught in the mass exodus of the Fantasmic crowd, but finally we made it out to our car and headed back to Celebration. The drive home is usually almost as amusing as visiting the theme parks. I love to watch the tourists jockeying for position and trying to figure out just where to go. You'll see many of them driving along with their interior lights on, their nose buried in a map as they try to simultaneously interpret it and control their car in unfamiliar territory. At various points you'll see vehicles stopped in the middle of their rode; sometimes, they even have their flashers on, but usually they're just sitting there.

We made it through the tourist maze and back to Duloc Manor. My house still seems rather plain to me now that my Christmas decorations are down, but at least I'd gotten a bit of a fix. Christmas may be gone, but the Osborne lights live on...at least for two more days.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Bye Bye Christmas Tree(s)

Today was a sad day at Duloc Manor, as we finally took down our Christmas decorations. I had gotten used to living in a house festooned with Rankin-Bass characters on the main floor and Charlie Brown and his crew holding their pagent in the master bedroom. I miss the leg lamp in the front room, too, and my little "Christmas Story" figurines. The house looks so empty now that it has reverted to its normal decor.

Still, I knew that it was time to move on. Our real tree was finally starting to turn brown and drop its needles, despite my frequent watering. Our little Charlie Brown tree, which I had moved onto the front porch after the Holiday Home Tour, had disintegrated into a brown-needled corpse. Our neighbors had already put out their Valentines Day flag, so I knew that I should move on to the next holiday, too.

Even though it's not quite as exciting as Christmas, I have a soft spot in my heart for Valentine's Day, since it's also my wedding anniversary. My husband picked the date, and he tried to convince me that it was because he is an incurable romantic. But of course I know the real reasons: 1) It's nearly impossible to forget the date; and 2) He can try to get away with just one present.

For the holiday take-down, my husband was even more motivated than me. He got out all the storage boxes and ornament holders and plowed right in, dismantling the silver tree in the family room with gusto. That's quite a chore because not only do you have to keep the individual branches organized by size, but you also have to take apart the three accompanying color wheels.

I was in the process of stuffing my face with lunch, but once I had finished my BLT, I headed to the front room to do my part. My "Christmas Story" tree was festooned with ornaments, old-fashioned big-bulbed lights, and tinsel. As I stripped it bare, I felt a bit sad. Even though it was drying out, it still gave off that wonderful fresh-pine smell that I had enjoyed throughout the holiday season. How I hated to give that up!

But there is a time for everything, and sadly, it was time to drag the poor little tree out to the alley for the Wednesday garden waste pick-up after I stripped off the decorations and hubby unwound the lights. Oh well, even though it had a brief lifetime, it was admired by literally hundreds of people as part of the Holiday Home Tour. It was also admired by my cat, Farquaad, who love eating tinsel at every possible opportunity.

Even though Quaad will miss his tinsel snacks, I know that he and Stitch were happy to see the tree go because it means that they can reclaim their place by the front room window. Normally, a carpet-covered cat "tree" sits right there so they can lounge in it and watch what's going on outside. But ever since late November, they have been banished from the room, and their kitty furniture was displaced to make room for the Christmas tree. They would sneak in whenever I opened the door and stare with dismay at the big, green, needle-covered intruder taking up prime real estate at the window. Now they can go back to watching the world go by in front of the house.

I also stripped our upstairs fiber optic tree of its finery, and I joined my husband in pulling down the garland and colored balls from the valances and shelves around our homestead. Without the holiday razzle dazzle, Duloc Manor was soon looking quite bare. I had grown accustomed to the Christmas decorations in almost every room, so it was quite a letdown to return to our normal low-key decor.

I had purchased lots of excess ornaments and decorative items for the Holiday Home Tour, so now it was up to my poor, long-suffering husband to figure out where to store them. Since most Floridians don't have basements, and since attics and garages are prone to killer humidity, finding adequate storage space is always a challenge. Thankfully, he had purchase some handy plastic bins that could go in the garage or under the bed. He managed to fit everything into the bins and some leftover boxes, and soon they were squirreled away for the next nine months.

We managed to complete the task of dismantling Duloc Manor's decor with only a couple of casualties. The aluminum tree was in the tile-floored family room, so of course at least one ornament had to fall off and shatter. It's a well-known fact of nature that the gravity under a Christmas tree exerts a force three times stronger than anywhere else on the planet.

If NASA could harness the ability of ornament glass shards to travel huge distances instantaneously, our astronauts would be able to visit the farthest reaches of the universe. I tried to sweep up all of the pieces, but of course I kept finding more...and always farther away. Those little bits of glass made it all the way to the kitchen and the foyer, and I won't be surprised if I find some on the front porch, too.

By nightfall, our home had been transformed back into its usual self. I was sad, but I know that it's time to move on with 2006. There are plenty more holidays: Valentines Day, St. Patricks Day, Easter, etc., and before I know it, Thanksgiving and Christmas will be back for an encore engagement.

Besides, I don't have to let go of Christmas 2005 completely just yet. The Osborne lights at Disney World will be on display until January 8th...three guesses where I'm going to be on Friday night.

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Monday, January 02, 2006

Day Two and Counting

It's January 2nd, and so far the New Year is off to a great start. The weather today was just as lovely as yesterday, and technically it was a holiday since New Years Day fell on a Sunday. Of course, that wasn't the case for my husband and I. Our schedules are unconventional, so we usually end up working on holidays. We did sleep in Monday, though, since we had an impromptu hot tub party on the previous night.

I enjoy walking, but my husband is a certified, hard-core bicyclist. He wanted to hit 1000 miles by January 1st, so yesterday he pedaled off while I went for a hike. In North Village, he ran into some friends and invited them over for a soak.

Meanwhile, I was strolling around East Village, soaking up the last of the late afternoon sunshine. Unfortunately, my walk was somewhat marred by an annoying blast of air pollution. No, I don't mean the conventional, smoggy kind; as I passed a block of condo buildings, I heard a loud voice, apparently holding a phone conversation, with every other word being f*ck. I swear the speaker was trying to see just how many times he could use the f-word in one sentence. I don't know if he didn't realize how far the breeze can carry a voice or if he just didn't care. Or perhaps he knew full well what he was doing and enjoyed the potential for shocking passersby. It's not so bad for me, as an adult, but I cringing at the thought of the families with small children who were also out enjoying the perfect weather.

I'd like to believe that verbal air pollution is isolated, but alas, it appears to be becoming more pervasive. At the end of my walk, as I headed down Old Blush, a passel of cyclists whizzed by. They were using the f-word even more liberally than the previous potty mouth. The sad thing was, the group was made up of both adults and children, and it was the grown-ups who were swearing up a loud blue streak. What a wonderful example for their kids.

Oh well, even a few flying f*cks were not enough to spoil my mood. Basking in the balmy weather, realizing that it was my first New Year as a resident of Celebration, Florida, I couldn't help but feel a deep sense of contentment.

Back at home, my husband whipped up dinner while I checked the supply of snacks and Publix wine in anticipation of our friends' visit. They showed up around 9 p.m., and we poured a round of drinks and headed outside for a hot, soothing soak. The air had turned a bit chillier now that the sun had headed off west, but it was still fairly comfortable. It didn't matter anyway, since we'd soon be soaking in 99 degree water.

When we purchased our hot tub, we bought one of the largest models so there would be plenty of room for company. As the six of us piled in, I was glad that we had gotten a party-sized model. The water level rose quite high, but there was plenty of room for everyone to ensconce themselves in therapy seats. Our tub features six seats with various jet configurations, plus a seventh "cool-down seat" that sits up higher. Since each seat offers a different type of therapy (anything from back to shoulders to calves and even hands and feet), we switched off periodically so everyone could experience the fully variety of aquatic massages.

We had a great time soaking and chatting amidst the swirl of mist colored by the rainbow lights. Finally, the number of bodys overwhelmed the thermostat, and the temperature sneaked up from 99 to 102. We all crouched or sat on the edges of the tub to cool off before adjourning to the house. There, we watched South Park's "Woodland Critter Christmas" (perhaps the most warped Christmas special ever created...between a porcupine giving birth to the anti-Christ, lion cubs learning to perform abortions on Christmas Eve, and Santa Claus graphically blowing out the brains of cute little squirrels, bears, and bunny rabbits, it's not for the faint of heart). After a few equally warped episodes of "Robot Chicken" (an indescribable series of Claymation shorts from Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim"), we finally called it a night.

On Monday, Day Two of the New Year, I continued my resolve to exercise daily. Usually, I go out walking in the evening, but the weather was so perfect that it drew me out in the morning. I hiked downtown to Barnie's and rewarded myself with an iced Coffee Cooler before heading back to East Village.

Since there was no mail delivery, and many offices were cold, Monday still felt a bit like a holiday. But by Tuesday, I'll have to concede that the holiday weekend is officially over. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted, and I've got another holiday coming up soon: Our one-year anniversary of moving to Celebration full-time. I'm not sure how we'll celebrate yet, although driving Canyonero through an ice rink might be appropriate in memory of navigating the vicious Atlanta ice storm. I'm sure I'll think of something exciting by the time the big day rolls around.

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Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy 2006!

It was our first New Years Eve as full-time Celebration residents, and even though my husband had to work, we managed to have a wonderful time. Poor hubby was tied to his computer until 9 p.m., and then he had to stay close to the phone and keyboard for the rest of the night in case something went awry. That mean we were tied to Duloc Manor, but no matter...we can have plenty of fun around the old homestead.

Actually, we did manage to slip out for a couple of hours for dinner at The Melting Pot. It's a fondue restaurant over in Dr. Phillips, on Sand Lake Road, and it's one of my favorite places for holiday dining. They typically have a special menu for the holidays; for New Years Eve, it featured champagne/Swiss cheese fondue as an appetizer, a special apple/ranch salad, and chocolate chip/mint fondue for dessert. The main course consisted of lobster, jumbo prawns, steak, pot stickers, and chicken.

In honor of the holiday, we also received a gift bag containing a Melting Pot chocolate bar, their famous seasonsed salt, a candle, hand lotion, and a disposable camera. It was funny to see the flashes popping in various parts of the restaurant throughout our meal as people used their gift to record the moment. The meal package also included a champagne toast during dinner.

We arrived a little before 6 p.m., and the restaurant was nearly deserted. By the time we left, an hour and a half later, it was quickly reaching capacity with New Years revelers. The parking lot had turned downright predatory, with people swooping in like hawks to grab the few remaining vacant spots. There are several other eateries in the same strip mall as The Melting Pot, and a couple of them take over big gobs of asphalt real estate for valet parking, so on busy nights things can turn rather rough.

Fortunately, we had beaten the crowd. Now it was off to Celebration, where we'd ring in the New Year at our East Village home base. Even though we had to stay at home, we'd invited some friends to stop over. We ended up having a great time, welcoming 2006 with a champagne while soaking in the hot tub!

We all piled into the spa around 11 p.m., after chatting for a while and indulging in snacks and Kaluha Mudslides, courtesy of the Magic Bullet. It's so rare that an infomercial product lives up to its promises, but the Bullet is a whiz at whipping up frozen drinks. We adjourned out to the hot tub with one hour left to go till the dawn of 2006. We were having so much fun in the hot, bubbly water that we lost track of time and didn't even realize midnight was fast approaching. Fortunately, my husband glanced at his watch and yelled, "Quick! We've only got a few minutes! Run in and grab the champagne!"

I dashed into the house for the chilled bottle of Korbel and some plastic cups (the closest thing we had to flutes, since we tend to live like heathens). Even though none of our watches were in sync, we knew when it was midnight by the wild explosion of firecrackers and bottle rockets. Technically, any firework that leaves the ground or explodes is illegal in Florida, but just like Illinois, there are plenty of loopholes that people blatantly exploit.

When we lived in the Chicago suburbs, it was just a short ride over the Indiana border, where you could get virtually any explosives that you desired. In Florida, the more high-powered fireworks are legal for agricultural and commercial use. In order to buy them, you simply have to affirm in writing that you're going to use them for an allowable use (for example, if you run a fish hatchery, you might set them off to scare away birds). I'm sure that all the explosions going off around us at the stroke of 12 were coincidental...they weren't meant to celebrate, but merely to scare off the owls that like to destroy flower beds and St. Augustine grass.

Besides the local revelery, we could hear the explosion of simultaneous fireworks shows at the Disney theme parks, and we could even see their glow pulsing in the distant night sky. My husband has always wanted to go to Epcot some New Years Eve. Personally, I cringe at the thought of wall-to-wall bodies and of being stuck at the park from morning to midnight (you have to go early because it usually reaches capacity before noon). Someday maybe he'll talk me into it, but for now I was happy with our small-scale celebration. Our nephew and niece-in-law were over at Epcot, so we'll have to get their full report.

We hung out in the spa for another hour or so before breaking up the party. It was a great time, with only one minor panic when hubby dropped part of the champagne bottle top into the filter, but he managed to fish it out before any damage was done. He hadn't received any frantic phone calls, but his ordeal wasn't over yet. He had to start work at 7 a.m. the next morning; we didn't get to bed until 2 a.m., so that meant he'd have to drag his zombie corpse to some measure of consciousness in just five hours.

I was hoping that he'd be done with work in time to accompany me to church, but no such luck. When I woke up around 9:30, he'd already been toiling for two and a half hours, with no end in sight. I know that God set the seventh day aside for rest, but in today's 24/7 society I hope He cuts some slack for those who are stuck with unconventional schedules.

Before church, I made my ritual stop at Barnie's for a coffee cooler. I'm used to my husband's curbside service; I usually pull up near the front and wait in the car while he runs in. Today I had to find a parking spot and run in for my own morning treat. I parked midway between the coffee shop and Community Presbyterian, figuring that I could use the exercise. The weather was so gorgeous...sunny and warm, just the kind of day that reminded me why I live in Florida. It was a picture-perfect day to kick off 2006.

I had half-expected the church crowd to be lighter than usual, due to the previous night's partying. Amazingly, the sanctuary was packed with people. I wondered how many among them had made a New Years resolution to attend services more regularly. Of course, some might have been refugees from the 8:30 service who needed a bit of extra sleep.

Years ago, I used to see church as an obligation, not something to be enjoyed. Now, I look forward to it, and it's become an integral part of my week. We are blessed with gifted pastors who weave complicated Bible passages into understandable, relevant messages. Community Presbyterian was the first church we attended in Celebration, and we never felt the need to look any further.

As the service ended, I was pleased to see that we were closing with a verse of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." We do that pretty frequently, and I love it because it's the perfect note on which to head forth into the day. Here are the lyrics:

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,
God of glory, Lord of love
Hearts unfold like flow'rs before Thee
Op'ning to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day.

As I lifted my voice with my favorite closing hymn, I realized that it was even more appropriate...a perfect song for starting 2006. As I headed out of church, I couldn't imagine feeling any sadness and doubt. Here I was, living in Florida, right next door to Disney World, in good health, with a loving, supportive spouse, standing on the cusp of another 365 days of adventure. I indeed felt filled with the light of day.

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