Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Europe, Here We Come!

On Tuesday, Disney Cruise Line finally made their long-held "secret" public: The Magic is going to cruise the Mediterranean in summer of 2007. I use the word "secret" loosely, as it's been fairly common knowledge among Disney-obsessed internet communities.

Last year, the Magic did cruises out of California to celebrate Disneyland's birthday. My husband and I couldn't spare two weeks for a repositioning cruise; we were booked on the West Coast itinerary in July, but we had to cancel it due to work obligations. This time around, we're hoping to do the trans-Atlantic repo. It would be so wonderful to bring the Magic home from Barcelona! Better yet, I hate flying, so if we do the repositioning, I only have to fly one way. And if we do the cruise back to Florida, we get the air part out of the way early. The time change won't be as bad, either, as we can ease ourselves back into the U.S. time zone as the ship chugs across the ocean.

My only hesitation is that the cruise features six days at sea. That's a loooong time for a land lubber! I wonder if I would go stir crazy confined to a ship for nearly a week, with no opportunity to set foot on solid land. But Disney is expert at implementing fun activities, so I imagine that the time would go fast. I'd probably be working a lot of the time anyway; thankfully, both of my businesses are conducting mostly online. I just hope that I'll be able to get a reliable satellite connection for my laptop out in the middle of the ocean. The biggest danger will probably be gaining extra pounds, as cruise ships are notorious for rich, bountiful meals...and who wants to exercise when you're on vacation?

Disney made the announcement at the entrance to World Showcase in Epcot. Since I am a veteran of 49 Disney cruises, with something like nine more currently booked, I probably qualify as an obsessive. Therefore I decided to take a ride to the park to see it live and in person.

I figured I should have plenty of time if I reached Epcot by 9 a.m. I dragged my lazy carcass out of bed at 8 a.m. and forced myself into consciousness. I was on the road by a quarter to 9; by the time I arrived, the early birds were already being let through the parking plaza. I joined one of the snaking lines and flashed my annual pass and AAA Diamond parking pass. Thank goodness for that AAA gem...I pitied the poor souls stuck in the regular parking conga line. I zipped past them and off to the special parking area, located near the handicapped parking. The AAA lot had plenty of spots, so I maneuvered Canyonero into one and headed toward the park gates.

It took a while to get in, as I had to submit to a fanny pack search and then wait in another line to get inside. I was hoping for enough time to grab a Soarin' Fast Pass before heading to the stage where the cruise line announcement would be made. It seemed like everyone else in the park had the same idea about Soarin', as I found myself in a moving wall of people. Dozens upon dozens converged on The Land pavillion, and even though the park had just opened, the standby wait time was already approaching an hour. I got a Fast Pass for 10:45 to 11:45, pocketed it quickly, and headed to the World Showcase entrance.

I thought there would be a lot of guests milling around, but mostly there were just media people and cruise line cast members. The general public wouldn't be let in until the media was situated, so I waited near the entrance. I saw a few people who I know, both among the cruise line people and the spectators, so the time went quickly as I chatted with them. I was surprised to see that even Captain Tom, the Magic's commander, was present for the big event.

Once we were let in, I got a good spot with a view of the stage. I was amazed that the number of guests was still sparse, but the announcement wasn't publicized too widely so I don't think most people knew. They were probably too busy rushing to Soarin' and Mission: Space to wander near the far end of Future World. Those of us who were present were Disney Cruise Line obsessives, and our level of anticipation was almost palpable. All of us seemed to be in agreement that the Med would be the new destination. Hawaii and Alaska had been bantered around, but I dismissed those long ago. The Magic is not a cold weather ship, considering that its three pools are not enclosed, and there are immigration challenges with U.S.-only cruises. My money was definitely on Europe (and World Showcase was certainly an appropriate place to announce that destination).

Shortly before the announcement, a passel of Disney Cruise Line workers filled in the spectator area. They seemed to be just as excited as the rest of us. Promptly at 10 a.m. we heard the first strains of music as a group of dancers took the stage for an upbeat introduction, along with several Disney characters. Then the president of Disney Cruise Line took the stage along with Mickey. The Chief Mouse himself unfurled the banners to a backdrop of pyrotechnics: Spain, France, and Italy! The rumors were true, and I was already drooling with anticipation of a trans-Atlantic repositioning voyage.

Even though it wasn't a surprise, I still enjoyed the hoopla surrounding the official announcement. In this day and age, the internet makes it almost impossible to keep a secret because it's too easy to access port records and foreign news reports. But it was still fun, and Disney Cruise Line poured fuel onto the fire by posting various clues on their website. Many of them involved the dying art of Morse Code...I was too lazy to interpret it myself, but my husband took a stab at it. Most of the clues were cryptic, but in retrospect they make sense.

After the announcement, I still had time before my Fast Pass started, so I headed over to Test Track. I was hoping to get a quick ride in the Singles Line, but during Spring Break I discovered that "quick" equals 30 minutes. Actually, it was closer to 45 because the ride broke down while I was waiting. Thankfully they got it up and running pretty quickly, so I managed to fit in my spin before heading to The Land.

I decided to have a quick lunch before riding Soarin' because I had skipped breakfast, and I didn't want low blood sugar to make me feel motion sick. I ate a beet and goat cheese salad and then hopped into the Fast Pass line. The standby line was up to 100 minutes, and the Fast Passes being handed out weren't good until 6 p.m., so I was glad I had stopped by early.

While waiting, I chatted a bit with the party in front of me. They had ridden Soarin' once before, but they didn't realize that the three rows of seats had moved so that one was higher than the others, with one in the middle and one towards the bottom. I ended up in the first seat of the middle row, which is right above the person at the control console. I was torn between watching him and the screen; it's a good think I'd gotten my sugar level up because it was quite disorienting to switch my visual field from the huge screen in front of me to the console and back again. Finally I lost interest in watching the cast member, as his role seemed limited to pushing buttons and then making sure that everything was running smoothly. Instead, I immersed myself in the familiar images of California, combined with the scent of evergreens and oranges and an uplifting musical score. Ah, I love Soarin'!

On my way out, I decided to get a pastry at the bakery and watch the fountain. Every 15 minutes, there is a water show choreographed to music. It's amazing, especially when they use "Standing in Motion" by Yanni (there are multiple songs rotated randomly). Sadly, when I emerged from the shop with my cake to take a fountainside table, I realized that the water was turned off. Darn! No water show for me. Oh well, I still had my boston cream cake to enjoy.

It was tempting to stick around a little while longer, but I knew that work awaited at home. I'd managed to slip in a bit of play time, but now I forced myself to head back to Canyonero and return to reality. I couldn't help but feel excited as I drove back to Celebration. Up until now, my visits to Europe have been limited to World Showcase. But next summer I'll be seeing it in the best way that I can imagine...onboard the Disney Magic.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Friday, March 17, 2006

Winn-Dixie...Now With 50% Less Dirt!

One of the side effects of moving to another state is getting used to a whole new set of brand names. Sure, there are national chains like Target, Wal-Mart, Shell, and McDonald's that help you to feel at home. But in my Illinois existence, I never saw a Circle K (except in "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure), nor did I ever purchase gas at a Race Trak or chicken nuggets at a Chik-Fil-A. I most certainly didn't shop for groceries at Albertson's, Publix, or Winn-Dixie, and none of my clothes came from Burdines, Ross or Bealls.

Being tossed into the deep end without a life preserver, I had no idea of the reputation of the various Florida "brands." It was a matter of trial and error; for example, I was suckered into visiting Ross by the tantillizing commercials featuring happy models dancing around in gorgeous clothes while a voice-over enthused about how little they had paid. But in the store I visited, none of the clothes smooshed carelessly onto the groaning racks bore any resemblance to the outfits in the ads.

I have relatively simple tastes in clothing. My standard uniform is jeans or khakis (shorts in the summer), bright solid-colored tops, and sandals. At Ross, the clothing look like cast-offs from a Las Vegas costuming department. I wouldn't have been caught dead wearing any of their apparel in public; most of it resembled something my Polish grandma would have worn if cataracts had rendered her mostly blind and a stroke had destroyed any last vestiges of taste.

My Ross trauma kept me from visiting Bealls for quite a long time. I liked their commercials, which emphasized the Florida lifestyle of endless beaches, swaying palms, and continual fun in the fun, but I suspected that it might be a trick to lure unsuspected transplants like myself to what would turn out to be a Ross clone.

But one day, when I was stocking up on pet supplies at Petsmart, I noticed a Bealls next door. As I entered the door, I could faintly hear a choir of angels humming in the background. This was it! A store with normal clothing! A veritable rainbow of pastel shirts, acres of pants and shorts, and the cutest little seashell-studded sandals. I gave a sigh of relief...I was home.

Gasoline wasn't nearly as complicated as clothing. We bounce between Race Trak and Mobile, both of which are located just outside of Celebration and are engaged in an ongoing price war. If we're on Disney property, we might stop at one of the various Hess stations; remarkably, they don't gouge you on price just because they're onsite at Disney World.

For groceries, we selected Publix by default, since it's the closest store to Celebration. Apparently, the other two big chains are Albertson's and Winn-Dixie. While Albertson's has a Chicago connection (they purchased Jewel, the dominant Windy City chain, a few years back), I didn't feel any affinity with them. They had never rebranded Jewel, so there was no familiarity. We tried them out in Florida but we weren't too impressed; they seemed to be more expensive than Publix, as well as being out of the way.

We never tried Winn-Dixie either, and given their current ad campaign, I'm glad! They're gone through some major financial troubles, and right now they're in the middle of a big restructuring, closing underperforming stores and trying to rebrand themselves. Apparently, they had built a reputation for dirty stores and surly service. Thus, their new tagline is: "Winn-Dixie, Getting Better All The Time"...and it seems that they have a lot of room for improvement.

The commercials are funny in a Twilight Zone kind of way. For example, they promise better service and cleaner stores. Isn't that basically admitting that your service sucked before and your stores were dirty hellholes? Worse yet, many of the TV spots are capped with an obnoxious little kid spouting the tagline in a Southern accent so thick that it makes most Dixie natives sound like they were born and bred in Canada in comparison. I'm not a big fan of gratuitously cute commercials, especially ones that define "cuteness" by the inclusion of an actor under age 10 (bonus points if the kid has a speech impediment).

My husband and I were discussing this last night as we returning from our weekly grocery blow-out. We decided that Publix was missing a major opportunity for a rebuttal ad campaign. I can see it now: "Publix, We Don't Need To Get Better" or "Publix, Our Stores Are Clean Already." But alas, they've stayed out of the fray, choosing instead to focus on their 75th anniversary.

Publix isn't perfect by any means. We didn't buy chopped onions or tomatoes because they expired the next day, and occasionally I've almost grabbed dairy items that had already reached the end of their useful lifespan. But all in all, the convenient location makes up for occasional lapses.

At least they're not as bad as the ill-fated Goodings that lasted all of four months at Water Tower Place, the strip mall on Celebration's edge. I loved their salad bar, but most of their perishable items were an expiration date nightmare. Worse yet, in the first week that the store was open, I purchased some microwave carmel corn to bring to a friend's house. We noticed that a coupon in the package had expired, so we looked at the expiration date...and it was long past! They had actually stocked a brand-new store with old stock!

Still, I miss Goodings because they had a wonderful bakery and deli, and the salad bar was a grazer's lunchtime dream. Towards the end, they stopped stocking or cleaning it, and it became a mockery of the original lovely salad selection. Oh well, now the store is just another part of Celebration history and lore, and the cavernous building sits empty, with papered-over windows.

Meanwhile, it's been over a year, and I've gotten used so used to Florida brands that I feel lost when I return to Illinois. A few Midwest chains have followed me to give me a taste of my former home when I need it...for example, a Kohl's department store opened up nearby last year. Back in Chicago, I was a major Kohl's fan, even in the old days when it was known as "Mainstreet" (I'm probably the only person left alive who remembers that). But now I've become such a Floridian that I haven't even bothered to visit since it opened. I've been assimilated by the Florida lifestyle.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Nyah Nyah Poo Poo

Out of the mouths of tourists come some of the world's best one-liners.

When I moved to Celebration, I knew that there was a downside to living in Tourist Land. I expected the traffic jams and wall-to-wall bodies that descend during peak vacation season. The prospect didn't bother me because I moved next door to Mickey with no rosy illusions. I knew that summer and the holidays would be hell. A smart Floridian simply learns to work around the crowds.

But little did I know that the tourists would bring a wonderful bonus. If I have the patience to listen, I hear some of the most hilarious comments and conversations. Who needs big ticket attractions like Soarin' and Expedition Everest for amusement? Sure, they're a blast, but you can have even more fun simply by lurking around the parks and keeping your ears open.

Tonight, we didn't go to a theme park; we had dinner at Artist Point in the Wilderness Lodge. But since the Spring Break crowds were out in full force, we still had a decent "dinner show."

Actually, the best part occurred after dinner. During the meal, there was some low-key entertainment at a nearby table, although it wasn't the best I've ever heard. There was a family (mom, dad, and two daughters), and Mom was trying to convince the older daughter that she had been to Disney World before. The kid wasn't buying it; she adamently denied ever having visited Mickey in the past. Finally, Mom blurted out the punch line: "Sure you did! You were in here!" She beamed as she said it, patting her stomach. "I was pregnant with you, and I was soooo faaaaat." Oops, a little bit more information than I needed to know!

Other than that, there wasn't much going on around us. We enjoyed a lovely meal of mushroom soup (me) and mussels (hubby), a cheese plate shared between us, and then beef (me) and tuna (hubby). All of the dishes at Artist Point are excellent, but the one item that stands out the most is the mushroom soup. I don't think it's actually cooked in the kitchen...rather, it's sent down in big vats from Heaven. I just wish that they offered it by the gallon rather than by the bowl.

We topped off our meal with raspberry sorbet (me) and coffee two ways (which is actually a dessert and which was eaten by's a piece of cake and a small bowl of expresso creme brulee). Then we headed out, although we took a little detour to walk around the courtyard. I just love strolling the grounds of the Wilderness Lodge. It's my favorite Disney World resort; we have lots of happy memories from our tourist days centered around that hotel. It was the first Disney hotel that we ever stayed at as a couple, so both my husband and I have a soft spot in our heart for it.

One of my favorite memories was a trip on which I had purchased a stuffed Figment toy. The next evening, as we headed through the courtyard, I glanced up and said to my husband, "Did you leave the lights on in our room?" I pointed up at the glowing window, but he shook his head and said, "No, that must not be our room." I was sure that it was, but the light puzzled me.

The mystery was solved when we opened the door. My Figment was propped up in bed, holding the television remote. The TV was on, tuned (of course) to the Disney Channel. Every night, Figgie was up to something different when we returned from the parks. My favorite was the night he was wearing a shower cap and holding a bar of soap, with a towel draped on his arm. Our maid definitely got a nice tip.

But aside from good memories, I just love the ambiance of the Wilderness Lodge. It's patterned after the National Park Service lodges, and if you've ever visited them, you know what a phenomenal job Disney did in the theming.

We rounded the pool and approached the main building, where there is an overlook with several rocking chairs. As we approached, I noticed a grandma chasing two little kids around. She was yelling to them as she tried to corner them among the chairs: "Nyah nyah poo poo! Nyah nyah poo poo!" For some reason, it really tickled my funny bone to hear that chant echoing in the night air. It sounded like the sort of thing you'd hear on the was so surreal to hear it coming from a gray-haired woman. They say that Disney brings out the kid in everyone, and in this case it certain seemed to be true.

As we walked through the lobby, I chanted it softly to myself. My husband, who apparently had missed the scene, gave me one of those, "What the heck is she babbling about now?" looks. I expained the scenario to him, but he at first he didn't understand the humor, as he misunderstood and thought I meant the kids were the ones saying it.

"No, no," I quickly corrected him. "Grandma was the 'nyah nyah poo poo' chanter."

Leave it to my hubby to come up with a wry observation that made me nearly bust a gut: "Well, maybe she was wearing Depends and was trying to tell them she had an accident." I know it's rude, but that totally set me off into a fit of the giggles. I thought I might have an accident myself. He kept it up, embellishing the scenario: "The poor kids were probably running from the stinky smell, and she was warning them. That's what 'nyah nyah poo poo' meant!"

I'm sure that poor woman, having some innocent fun with the young 'uns, had absolutely no idea that she had also provided entertainment for two locals with a warped sense of humor. It was one of those times that you just had to be there.

As we headed back to Celebration, I tried to sober up my thoughts, but just the thought of that phrase set me to snickering again. The sad thing was, neither my husband nor I had any alcoholic beverages (unless our server made my iced tea into a Long Island without my knowledge). It was one of those times when a mind-altering substance wasn't needed to put a skewed spin on the world. Personally, I think it was the influence of the full moon. The big yellow sphere beamed down in all its glory from the night sky, inspiring all sorts of craziness in the humans below.

Back at Duloc Manor, the hilarity had worn off as both my husband and I settled down to work (we don't have typical 9 to 5 schedules, so our evenings are usually spent slaving away to afford the extravagent meals that are our downfall). But every now and then I would picture the kids dodging among the rockers, just out of grandma's grasp and hear her chant drifting on the night breeze: "Nyah nyah poo poo! Nyah nyah poo poo!" and I would smile to myself.

Our next Disney World restaurant will be O'hana...I can't wait to discover what new adventure awaits us there.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Mommas Crash the Clubhouse

Within Celebration, there is an exclusive enclave that is off-limits to the common folk. Artisan Park is the newest area in town (that is, if you don't count the condos being constructed on the former parking lots downtown), and it's the only "village" that has its own private pool and clubhouse. The pools in North, Main, South, and East Villages are open for use by any Celebration resident. In Artisan Park, their pool and clubhouse is open to "members only." They pay extra dues for the privilege of having private facilities that cannot be invaded by the hoi polloi.

But on Friday night, the intrepid Mickey Mommas had the honor of being invited guests. One of the Mommas is an Artisan Park resident, so she invited the whole gang to Happy Hour at the clubhouse. Actually, it ran much longer than an hour...from 5:30 to 8 p.m., to be exact.

At the appointed time, my next door neighbor stopped over. She was wearing her blue diddly boppers on her head (a legacy of last year's Davy Jones concert), so I dug out my green ones. Weird headgear is a trademark of the Mommas, so we figured we'd be right in style. We piled into Crush (my green-shelled NEV) to pick up another Momma who lives a little further down the street. Then, we headed to the hallowed halls of Artisan Park to experience the inner sanctum for ourselves.

Artisan Park abuts East Village, so we didn't have too far of a drive. I parked Crush outside the clubhouse and our trio approached cautiously, wondering whether we dared to venture inside without our host. Finally we worked up the guts to cross the threshhold and slip into the Promised Land. I'm sure that my neighbor and I looked quite inconspicuous with the neon colored diddly boppers bouncing and swaying merrily on our heads.

Apparently we were the first to arrive. We glanced around nervously, wondering if we would be asked to leave. But no bouncer approached us, so we sat down in a nice little area furnished with couches and chairs. The clubhouse was very inviting; it still had that "new building" smell, and the decor and ambiance was reminiscent of a Disney hotel lobby. Before long, familiar faces started showing up, and we breathed a little easier.

I had been hoping for a margarita, but it turns out that Happy Hour consists strictly of beer and wine. An array of appetizers is also available, but I'd eaten a late lunch so the food didn't appeal to me. I bring a bottle of water virtually everywhere I go, so I skipped the alcoholic beverages in favor of my portable H20.

We all sat around an kibitzed as the sky grew darker outside and the clubhouse filled with other revelers. It appeared that Happy Hour attracts quite a respectable crowd. Besides the Mommas, there was at least one other large group, plus scattered knots of people. Several people had ordered appetizers, and they looked quite tasty. I tasted a tortilla chip with salsa, which was quite good; the spring rolls looked yummy, too, but I skipped over those.

Before we knew it, it was almost 8 p.m. I was due to pick up my husband at the airport at 10, but by this time my stomach was rumbling. We had spent the last half hour chatting about Buca Di Beppo, a wonderful Italian restaurant, and the idea of food had firmly implanted itself into our consciousness. Several of the other Mommas were hungry, too, so we decided to head off in search of food.

Due to the conversation, our first choice was Italian. Unfortunately, it was prime dinnertime on a Saturday night, so our chance of getting into a place like Olive Garden before we died of hunger was slim to none. Enter the coveted "Out of My Way, Mere Mortals" card, which I described in my last blog entry. For those who may not have read it, it gives you front-of-the-line access at Joe's Crab Shack, which has a convenient location on the outskirts of Celebration.

I had just eaten at Joe's the week before, but it's hard to get tired of their coconut shrimp. Five of us had decided to head off in search of food, so we caravaned to Water Tower Place, the shopping center where Joe's is located.

The wait was well over an hour, but a quick flash of the coveted card and we were whisked to our booth immediately. Ah, the privileges of membership! We might not be able to buy spring rolls at the Artisan Park club whenever we want, but we can order crab legs on demand, even on the busiest nights.

Soon, we were all tucking into salad and rolls, awaiting our main courses. My neighbor and I also started off steaming bowls of lobster bisque, piled high in the center with lobster meat. I'm quite boring when it comes to my Joe's order; I almost invariably order the combo of snow crab legs and coconut shrimp. I stayed true to form, although I must admit that my tablemates' dishes were quite tempting. On my left was the 33 shrimp special, and on my right was a lovely shrimp pasta with garlic bread.

Joe's has nice little mini-margaritas, but I resisted the temptation. After all, I would soon be driving to the airport. I doubt that one micro-sized alcoholic beverage would have impaired my driving ability, but I prefer to err on the side of caution. After all, Pontiac stopped making Azteks in 2006, so it would be hard to replace Canyonero if I destroy it in a drunken demolition derby.

My husband's plane was slated to land around 10 p.m., so I dug out my cell phone and placed it where I could hear it ring. The plane had taken off late, so I was counting on a late arrival. But they'd managed to make up some time in the air, so he actually arrived earlier than expected. When he called to say he had landed, I was just paying my bill at Joe's; the airport is a good half an hour away, and I still needed to drop off Crush and pick up Canyonero (my Aztek).

Fortunately, hubby is understanding of my wander ways. I zipped home with my neighbor, dropped her off, and switched vehicles. I had to pause in the house to feed the pitifully crying cats. They acted as though it had been days since their last can of food; in reality, it was a mere 24 hours ago, and they're never without dry cat chow, but they're spoiled rotton drama kings.

On the way to the airport, I gaped at the long line snaking from the toll booth back a good half mile. I stayed to the left, which is the Sun Pass lane, but it seemed to be stopped, too. Soon I figured out why...some rocket scientist had decided that either a) he didn't have money for the toll; or b) he was hopelessly lost. Thus, he was just sitting there, blocking the Sun Pass booth. Suddenly and abruptly, he screeched his van around and plowed across the median to the other side of the tollway. A moronic move on his part, but at least he was out of the way.

The rest of the trip to the airport was non-eventful, and soon I was rolling up to Departures (Arrivals is too darned crowded, so I've learned to do my pick-ups on the upper level). Poor hubby had cooled his heels for half an hour or so, but he forgave me. He knows that the power of a Mommas outing is strong and a meal at Joe's is irresistable. The important thing was that he was on his way home to Celebration after a week of winter redux...he didn't mind the wait, so long as it was in the Florida mug and not the Chicago chill.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Friday Night at Joe's

My husband and I are supremely lazy. He is the "chef" in our home, but with so many good restaurants nearby, he often gets a reprieve from cooking because we opt to eat out.

If we're ambitious and don't mind driving a bit, there are dozens of restaurants spread between Disney World, I-Drive, and Doctor Phillips. If we're more sedentary, there are plenty of options in Celebration, such as Town Tavern, Max's, D'Antonio's, Columbia, and and the Plantation Room at the Celebration Hotel. On the outskirts of town, at the Water Tower Place shopping center, there is Joe's Crab Shack and a plethora of fast food options (Moe's, which serves mexican food, World of Wings, and Chik-Fil-A, as well as Cold Stone Creamery for decadent desserts).

Last Friday, we both had the same idea. A little before dinnertime, hubby asked, "What do you want to eat tonight?" Before he could start listing options, I blurted, "I have a taste for snow crab. Let's go to Joe's!" He snickered and admitted, "That's exactly what I was thinking, too. I was going to list all the stuff in the pantry and then say 'Or maybe we should just go out for seafood.'" I guess we've been married long enough for our cranial patterns to synchronize...or maybe we were both just brainwashed by the the continual Joe's commercial plugging their shrimp special.

Since it was the weekend, and prime dinnertime to boot, we thanked our lucky stars that we have a Rainforest Cafe card. I like to refer to it as the "Out of My Way, Mere Mortals" card for its ability to move the bearer to the front of the line at Rainforest and its related restaurant chains, including Joe's. No matter what day of the week it might be, no matter whether it's a peak diningtime, and even if it's the middle of prime theme park season, it's nice to know there are a couple of restaurants where we can get immediate seating.

We piled into Crush (our NEV) and set off for Water Tower Place. I really enjoy having a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle; we never drive Canyonero anymore when we're staying within the Celebration Bubble. I just wish that we had a grocery store within NEV reach, but that seems to be the Impossible Dream ever since Goodings bailed out of WTP. For now, we have to fire up our fossil fuel-burning behemoth of an SUV in order to navigate 192 to Publix.

But Joe's is well within NEV reach, and soon we were pulling into the parking lot. I didn't even bother to try for a nearby parking spot. I left Crush on the other side of the "park" (I use that term's a scraggly-looking rectangle of grass, columns, and an algae-laden fountain) and we hiked over to the restaurant. Knowing that a big seafood meal was comin up, I figured that we could use the extra exercise.

Joe's was just as crowded as I had imagined that it would be. People were clustered in little knots outside the building, and a crowd was milling inside, too. Apparently the wait was well over an hour. We stepped up to the podium, wielding the Brown Card of Power. The person working check-in glanced at it briefly and told me, "You give that to your server for your discount." Her pen was poised over a list of names thicker than "War and Peace" as she prepared to add our name to the end.

"Uh, don't we get to cut the line with this?" I blurted. She looked at me as though I was speaking Chinese, and I had the sinking feeling that me might be denied our meal. I certainly didn't want to wait 90 minutes, and I knew that the wait at the other restaurants on 192 would likely be just as bad. I could picture us back at Duloc Manor, eating spaghetti or some other hastily whipped-up option.

Thankfully, another worker was passing by and overheard the exchange. She explained the power of The Card to the newbie, and a moment later we were being led to our booth. I felt a bit of sympathy for the hoi polli, but it was tempered with the knowledge that they, too, could purchase a card and gain the same privilege.

This was the first time we had eaten at Joe's since they added biscuits and salad. Their meals were plenty hearty in the past, but I guess they're trying to compete with Red Lobster so now they have reach a new level of decadence. I knew that I didn't need an appetizer, but I ended up getting one anyway. Two things spurred me: a) it was free with the God Card (you have a choice of either an appetizer or a 10% discount on your total bill); and b) the lobster bisque is just so darned delicious. I knew that my husband would help me consume it, especially since Joe's is very generous with the portion of lobster meat.

I discovered an intriguing new addition to the drink menu: a mini-margarita. Of course I had to give it a try. For dinner, I selected my usual, which is a snow crab and coconut shrimp combo, while my husband opted for a shrimp special from the promotional menu.

The new salad is served family-style like it is at Olive Garden (vs. Red Lobster's individual portions). This means that you have no choice other than house dressing, but thankfully it was quite tasty. Rolls and cornbread also come with the meal now. My husband took custody of the roll, which was fine with me. I am a corn bread buff, so I was more than happy to claim it.

My crab legs were yummy as always, and the coconut shrimp was a real treat. It's become such a popular item at so many restaurants...everywhere from Red Lobster to Bubba Gump's (and that's a good thing).

The service had been prompt, and our food had come up quickly, so we were in and out within an hour. As we headed back to Crush, my husband pointed out that some of the same people we had passed on our way in were still waiting. I felt a slight pang of guilt, but once again I reminded myself that the cards are available to all comers who care to buy one. It's actually a great bargain because they refund the fee back to you in restaurant gift certificates.

I suppose that it would have been healthier to eat at home, but sometimes you just need to treat yourself. I'll just blame it on the television commercials.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Kitty Crisis

On Thursday morning, I woke up to the aftermath of a kitty crisis in Duloc Manor. First, a little background: we have three kitties, two of which are normal, friendly felines and one of which spends 99% of his life hiding under the upstairs bed. The other 1% is spent eating, using the litter box, and being chased by Stitch and Farquaad (the normal cats).

Tooncinator, the crazy cat, comes downstairs late in the evening, at feeding time, and sometimes he sticks around until I go to bed. When I take my nightly medication, I open the fridge to get a bottle of water, and Farquaad immediately goes into his "starving kitty" routine, hoping to cadge some lunchmeat. Toonce caught on to that, and he stands off to the side looking pitiful, so I end up giving him some goodies, too. I like to reward him any time he shows the slightest modicum of social behavior.

Generally, once everyone has had their treat, I head upstairs to bed with the feline trio trailing me (Stitch is always underfoot, but he doesn't like people food so he's not around for the mooching). On some nights, when the voices in Tooncinator's head are particularly strong, he stays upstairs through dinnertime and the treat interlude. Thus, it's not unusual if he's not around at bedtime.

On Kitty Crisis eve, my husband went to bed before I did. As part of the nighttime routine, he shut the frontroom window and closed the french doors. In builder talk, it's actually a "formal room," but since I am from Chicago, it will always be the frontroom (pronounced frunchroom) to me. We don't use it a lot; it has a futon and rocking chairs and makes a nice sitting room, but we tend to gravitate to the family room in the back of the house. But we leave it open because there is a cat perch in the front window, and the cats love to watch people go by on our little cul de sac.

We close off the room at night, since it's the only carpeted area downstairs. For those who are not cat owners, felines that are going to puke (and believe me, they puke a lot) are inexpicably and irresistably drawn to carpeted surfaces. Also, most of our house is dusted with an inch or two of cat hair, depending on the season, so we like to keep at least one room in relatively pristine condition. That way, we can pretend that sometimes we actually live like civilized people.

I continued to work in the family room for a while, with Farquaad curled up next to me and Stitch at my feet. Suddenly I heard scratching noises, but they didn't alarm me. Tooncinator's demons often direct him to scratch on walls and doors for reasons that I can't begin to fathom. I figured he was in the foyer, scratching on the front door. Quaad heard him and galloped towards the source of the noise. I yelled, "Leave poor Toonce alone!" but he totally disregarded me, and soon Stitch had joined him in the front of the house.

When I took my pills, I noticed that all three kitties were missing in action. I figured that the other two had driven Tooncinator upstairs, but it's odd that they hadn't come back down. But it was 1 a.m., so my powers of reasoning weren't at their peak.

I reached the kitties. Usually if they head up before me, I find their little furry bodies sprawled out on the perches of their "cat tree," which is next to the bed. If I had been more awake, I would probably have done some investigation. But it my haze, I assured myself, "They'll come up when they're ready," and I collapsed into bed.

I was almost asleep when I heard a ruckus downstairs. Once again, I thought I should investigate, but my brain was already 90% into dormant mode. I heard another crash, and then I thought I heard the bird squawk. But it wasn't repeated, so I rolled over and plunged the last 10% into Dreamland.

My husband typically wakes up before me; he has regular work hours, but my schedule is flexible. He was up at 7 a.m., and I worked my way into consciousness somewhere around 9 a.m. He poked his head into the bedroom and informed me, "There's a little problem with the cats." I figured that someone had yakked up a few hairballs in the hallway or perhaps had overturned a litterbox. "Nope," he said, "I screwed up last night and locked Tooncinator in the front room."

My heart sank. Not the sole civilized, decent room in our chaotic household! "How bad did he trash it?" I asked, picturing shredded curtains, smashed lamps and knick-knacks, and a ruined carpet. Turns out the damage wasn't as bad as my paranoid mind had conjectured...but it was still a mess. In the absense of a litterbox, Tooncinator had used the futon for his potty needs. And it's not just a cheapie K-Mart futon; it's a high-end model with a pricey innerspring mattress and patterned cover with bolsters. Since the front room doubles as a guest room, we wanted it to be as comfortable as possible. Unfortunately, the liquid had soaked through the cover and into the mattress stuffing. Ugh!

I am very picky and didn't want to even attempt to clean the mattress. The cover had absorbed most of the liquid, but if even a little bit had made it through to the stuffing, I knew that the unpleasant aroma of "litter box" would permeate the frontroom forevermore. Worse yet, if the cats could smell it, they might well decide to add to the mess, thinking that it was a new, cushy potty area. I could smell the odor overtaking the little room already, so my husband and I dragged it out to the alley (thankfully, it was garbage day, and the truck hadn't come yet).

Hubby, eager to fix his faux pas, found the futon store where we had originally purchased the set. Back in those days, when Duloc Manor was brand spanking new, we rarely had any idea of where we were going to pick out furniture. We'd locate a likely store in the Yellow Pages or online, run directions on Mapquest, and set off blindly on a new adventure. We didn't have any sense of direction, so we had no idea whether we were near Orlando or some boofoo suburb. We just did what the internet told us to do to get from Point A to Point B.

Now, I see that the futon store is out near downtown Orlando, not too far from where we bought our hot tub. My husband tried to call them to make sure that they had the same innerspring mattress in stock (and possibly the cover), but he kept getting an answering machine. Finally he decided to head down I-4 and take his chances. He tossed the soiled cover into Canyonero, too, so he could either match a replacement or drop it off at the dry cleaners.

As I waited for him to return, my mind slipped back to our early days in Celebration. That futon was one of the very first pieces of furniture in our home. We had ordered other pieces while Duloc Manor was being built, but they hadn't been delivered yet. We needed a place to crash that first night, so we searched out futon stores and started our quest. I remember how overwhelmed we were by all of the styles, colors, and covers.

My husband and I have diametrically opposed taste, so it took quite a while before we could come to an agreement on a selection. He likes wild, gaudy prints, while I wanted something a little more sudued. After all, it was for the formal room. Finally, we compromised...I chose a light wood frame and a cover with a bright but tasteful and soothing leafy print for the front room, and he chose a black frame an gaudy beige, black and purple oriental print for his office upstairs. For both of the futons, he insisted on an innerspring mattress rather than the usual uncomfortable bag of stuffing.

We found our way back to Celebration in our rental SUV and proudly carried in the first of our furnishings. I'll never forget my first night in Duloc Manor, sleeping in the frontroom (or rather, trying to) on that futon. I was restless in this new, strange place, breathing in the new-house scent and struggling to identify myriad unfamiliar sounds. My husband can sleep like a rock virtually anywhere, but it takes me a while to get used to my surroundings. When I finally drifted off, I was awakened abruptly by the sound of the sprinklers. Now, of course, they are a meaningless background noise to me, but it took quite a while for a Chicago girl to get used to them.

Now, the mattress on which I spent that first night was heading off to a landfill somewhere. A bit of Duloc Manor was slipping off into the annals of history. We ended up keeping the original cover, though, because of course the futon store was out of that particular pattern. Hubby toyed with buying a new one, but we already have pillows and bolsters to match the original. The dry cleaners assured him that they are experienced at dealing with pet "accidents," so we'll see when we pick up the cover on Tuesday.

The cats, meanwhile, were upset at being locked out of the room during daylight hours. When we placed the new, coverless mattress, we left the doors open, and they immediately had to rush in to explore the change in their environment. Once they marked it up with plenty of hair, they were content.

I remember the early days of Duloc Manor, when the cats were still in Chicago. Everything stayed pristine and lovely, with nary a trace of cat barf on the carpet, nor any cat hair tumbleweeds floating lazily across the floor. We didn't have to worry about locking felines into rooms or closets or cabinets, and our furniture remained as pristine as the day we had purchased it.

But in those days, the house was so lonely. There were no kitties to greet us in the morning with furry, purry bodies perched on our chests. There were no warm, fluffy critters to lie next to us as we worked or watched TV. There were no starving cats to remind us in high-pitched wails that the refrigerator contains milk and lunchmeat, both of which are essential to feline survivial. Yes, it was a pain in the butt (and expensive) to mitigate the damage of the kitty crisis, but the rewards of cat ownership are well worth it.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Never Say NEV-er

Well, we've finally done it...we've succumbed to the final requirement for being a true Celebrationite. My husband and I are now the proud owners of a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, or NEV for short. If you've never seen one, here is an example (ours is white like the one pictured below, but it has green canvas doors).

NEVs are an irrevocable part of the public's perception of Celebration. Despite the reality that we are just as fossil-fuel dependent as any other community (and perhaps even more so, considering the high population of Hummers), people often picture us as zipping around on Segways or maneuvering our glorified golf carts down the street. Yes, there are quite a few NEV owners here in town (although Segways are on the endangered list), but they're not a replacement for cars. They're more of a convenient novelty.

Actually, comparing a NEV to a golf cart is not quite accurate. NEVs are eletrically powered, and are light "plastic" vehicles, but they are street legal on roads with a limit of 35 m.p.h. or below. and they require a license plate and registration just like a car. They can be driven almost anywhere within Celebration, with the exception of certain parts of Celebration Blvd. where the speed limit is 40 m.p.h. We had one suicidal resident who drove hers across 192 to the Publix, but I wouldn't recommend that for many reasons. First of all, it's not legal because the limit on 192 is 45 m.p.h. But even if you don't mind being a scofflaw, you're certifiably insane if you're willing to challenge the manic tourists in their rental vans on the 192 Speedway. NEVs are cute, but they have no airbags, no passenger cage...heck, no protection at all, other than token seatbelts.

While Duloc Manor was being built, my husband and I debated whether or not to purchase a NEV. Despite the old legend, new homes in Celebration do not come complete with a brand spanking new NEV in the garage. We visited NEVrland, the dealership downtown, and got some prices and further information. But after bantering it back and forth, we just couldn't justify the additional expense.

During the time span while we were bi-weekly "commuters," shuttling back and forth between Illinois and Florida, we rented a car via Priceline whenever we were in town. When we finally made the Big Move last year, we drove Canyonero, my Aztek, down to Florida and became a one-car family. Once again, we talked about buying a NEV. It made sense on one level...if one of us was somewhere in town, the other would still have access to the car. But that situation didn't come up too often, and when it did, we were able to work around it. We kept an eye out for a reasonable used NEV, but the ones that met our criteria (four seater rather than two, and equipped with a cover so we wouldn't get soaked in the frequent Florida thunderstorms) were a little out of our price range.

The possibility of becoming NEV owners had been on the back burner for a while. Then, one day I noticed a four-seater being advertised on the Front Porch (the Celebration intranet). It was six years old, but it had a new cover, and the price had been reduced from $5200 to $4500. We figured that it was worth a look-see. We called up the sellers, who lived in North Village, and stopped over to take a look at the vehicle.

It was a nice little white NEV with a recently installed green canvas cover. It had a storage container on the back, and even a radio/CD player. I had no idea what to look for to ensure that it was in good shape, but it seemed to run just fine. My husband and I took it for a test drive, and the only thing that threw us was the steering and brakes, both of which are manual. But once we got used to that, it was fun zipping around in the little NEV.

We decided that we would talk to some of our NEV-owning friends to get their opinions. The sellers had another interested party who was supposed to return the following day, so we planned to make some phone calls and decide that evening. The sellers had told us that the vehicle had been serviced at Wheelz (the local NEV shop, which took over NEVrland's location when they closed a coupld of tears ago). On the way home, we stopped in to see if they thought it was in good shape.

The vehicle got a clean bill of health from Wheelz, and everyone we know gave their NEVs a big thumbs-up. But we were still not quite sure whether we wanted to take the plunge, so we decided to leave it up to chance. We asked the sellers to contact us if the other party ended up not buying it.

A few days passed and we didn't hear anything, so we figured that the NEV was long gone. Then we got a call informing us that it was still available; the other person had never followed up. At this point, my husband had gone back to Chicago for the week, so I called him to discuss a final decision. He was somewhat ambivalent, but I liked the idea of having a new toy. After chatting back and forth, we decided to take the plunge.

I drove out to North Village to finalize the purchase and pick up the NEV. Since hubby was out of town, the sellers drove the NEV to Duloc Manor and then I gave them a ride back home. I was anxious to take my new vehicle for a spin, but my desire was tempered by the fact that it wasn't insured or licensed. My husband informed me that a new purchase would be automatically covered by our auto policy during a grace period while we finalized coverage. That just left the license plate, and the police presence in Celebration is spotty at best, so I knew that it wasn't in too much danger of being pulled over.

I decided to take the risk and run down to Water Tower Place (a strip mall at the entrance to town) for a cup of coffee at P.J.'s. In the worst case, I figured they might cut me some slack if I showed them the title and receipt. The DMV was already closed for the day, so my hands were tied.

My only concern was the fact that the charge was dropping rapidly as I tooled along. As the power drained, the NEV's top speed dwindled. Granted, most of them don't go much over 25 m.p.h. even in the best of circumstances, but soon I was down to about 20. I had visions of pulling a "Fred Flintsone" and giving it some power with my pumping feet.

Since I had no clue whether the rapid drainage was normal or what I could do to remedy it, I called Wheelz to set up a service appointment. They offer an 11 point service check that includes checking the battery water and other maintenance items, so I figured that would get us off to a good start.

The technician makes house calls, so on the appointed morning he rolled up to the curb and began his work on the little vehicle. He was familiar with it already, since he serviced it for the former owners. It turns out that the rapid drainage was caused by severely under-inflated tires, which was easily remedied. The battery power levels were also uneven, so he explained how to fix that during the charging process. Other than that, everything was in good shape for a six year old vehicle.

Now the NEV was ready to roll, but it still needed its license plate. We had run into a glitch with the insurance; all of our friends recommended State Farm, which is the only company that will insure NEVs as recreational vehicles, resulting in hefty discount. But it was a catch get the discount, we would need to change our auto policy to State Farm, and their regular coverage rate was much more than we are currently paying. We ended up staying with our current company and paying a high premium for the NEV, since it was still cheaper than making the switch.

Once that was straightened out, it was off to the DMV in Kissimmee for a license plate. It's such a pain to make the trip down 192, but there no avoiding it. In Illinois, you can get your plates at a currency exchange; even though there is a surcharge, it's well worth the convenience. But in Florida, there is apparently no such have to pay a visit to Selma and Patty Bouvier.

The office was more crowded that usual, so I had time to study the overwhelming array of options mounted on the wall. Florida has dozens upon dozens of plate designs; Canyonero, my Aztek, as a panther plate, but I had really wanted a spay/neuter design. Unfortunately, at the time I hadn't realized that I would have to ask for an Animal Friend plate so I was told that there was no such design. This time I was prepared, and I quickly located the appropriate license (ironically, hanging right above the panther).

Although long, the line moved pretty quickly, and soon I was ponying up a hefty tax and registration fee. Then the plate was in my hot little hands and I was off to Celebration to make my NEV legal.

That was a little over a week ago, and since that time, my husband and I have had a lot of fun tooling around town in our toy. I've driven it to P.J.'s many times when a granita urge strikes, and we take it to church and to visit friends. Canyonero has relinquished its spot on the driveway; now, it lives in front while the NEV sucks juice from the garage outlet.

Speaking of Canyonero, you may have guessed that I enjoy naming inanimate objects. The habit of naming cars started when I was a tot and my mother slapped a moniker onto all of her clunkers. Once I reached driving age, I continued the tradition by dubbing my first car Christine (yes, it was a Plymouth Fury). Canyonero, named after the SUV of Simpsons fame, is just the latest in a long line of named vehicles.

I wasn't sure what to call the NEV, although my husband was referring to it as the Green Monster in reference to its canvas cover. But that didn't seem quite right...then suddenly the name came to me: Crush! Why not name it after the turtle dude in "Finding Nemo"? After all, it has a lot in common with the character: it is old, has a green shell, and doesn't go very fast.

Of course, "fast" is a relative term. When it is all charged up, it typically hovers between 23 and 24 m.p.h., sometimes hitting 25 for brief periods. Since the speed limit is 25, that should be good enough for the streets of Celebration. Unfortunately, many drivers have a need for speed, and they take anything below 35-40 as a personal insult, regardless of the legal limit. I haven't had a car push me yet, but I've come very close. Worse yet, when I drive to Water Tower Place, there is a stretch where the speed limit goes up to 35. It's legal to drive a NEV there, but it also borders on suicidal. In just over a week, I've been on the receiving end of more road rage than I ever knew existed. The cars whip around poor little Crush as soon as the street breaks into two lanes. Often, they are going to WTP too, so they whip back in front of me again. I snicker at the poetic justice when I catch up with them at the gauntlet of red lights.

I've encountered the flipside of the coin, too; I'm usually the tailgatee, but I've come awfully close to tailgating others myself...others in cars. Several times, I've been caught behind looky loos putzing along at 10 or 15 m.p.h. I force myself to be patient and resist the urge to subject them to Crush's horn, which has a remarkable volume level for such a modest vehicle.

In addition to the fun (and danger) of buzzing around town in an electric vehicle, I learned that NEVs elicit interesting tourist comments. On Sunday morning, I was sitting in Crush, waiting for my husband to purchase our pre-church Barnie's coffees. Two tourists were crossing the road, and one pointed to my vehicle and asked the other, "What's that?" "Oh, that's a golf cart," the other responded knowingly. "You rent those to drive around here."

But amusing comments aside, NEVs are a great form of local transportation. It took us a while, but we have finally assimilated...the NEV is an integral part of the Celebration landscape, and our driveway now fits right into the picture.

Click here for my Life Coaching website.

Learn more about Celebration on my website: