Monday, August 14, 2006

Love That Storm Froggy-Style!

Hurricane season has been here for a while yet, and thankfully there has been no major activity. Even our usual summer thunder-boomers are showing up with less frequency, much to the disdain of my flower beds.

But when and if the big storms come, I'm going to petition for John-John Mackey to come to the Orlando area. Who is John-John Mackey? You might remember him better as Tim Meadows, formerly of Saturday Night Live (during one of those periods when it was actually good). In one of my favorite skits, he played a weatherman in a spoof of those "We've got the best weather forecast because we have Uber-Doppler Mega-Radar 6 Trillion" commericals. A transcript follows:

Lame Weatherman (played by Will Farrell): So this low pressure system is going to be very active. We're ognna have a cold front that's gonna push through - it's really gonna result in some precipitation, so you may want to bundle up and put on your galoshes..

Announcer: Are you tired of little boys trying to talk like weathermen, telling you what the weather may or may not be? Then turn to News 4's John-John Mackey and his Storm Tracker Accu-Cast. John-John doesn't just tell you about the weather. He grabs that bastard weather and pounds it into little, pathetic shards, then shoves those shards into your pink, puffy face!

John-John Mackey: I'll get you inside the storm! I'll let you live the storm, be the storm! And then, baby, I'll make you love that storm Froggy-Style!

Announcer: So, if you want to hear vague forecasts full of hot air - watch someone else. But for Storm Tracker in Accu-Cast, turn to John-John Mackey, who will fill every hole you've got with the latest breaking weather! So, when you want to know what storm is breaking, count on John-John Mackey to lasso the storm, take it apart, and show you how sad it really is.

John-John Mackey: When I see a storm front coming, I'm all, "What's up, bitch?!" And the storm is all, "Not, much, Sir." And I'm all, "That's right, bitch! Now, go make me a sandwich!" And you want that kind of confidence in your weatherman!

Announcer: "Confidence."

So, for earlier warnings, more accurate forecasts, count on News 4's John-John Mackey and his Storm Tracker Accu-Cast! When the weather leaves its house, John-John bangs its wife. "Confidence." John-John Mackey: Weekdays, 7 and 11, Channel 4 Pulse News. Be there!

Sure sounds a lot better than the lame local options, like "Fox Orlando, Your Calm in the Storm" (yes, that's really their tag line). And Fox, like the other stations, is only "your calm" when there is nothing on the radar that they can hype up into the Killer Storm of the Century. I used to think that was a Chicago phenonenon, used to turn meek, powdered-sugar-coating snowfalls into vicious blizzards poised to bury millions alive under suffocating heaps of ice and snowflakes. But having weathered more nasty thunderstorm clusters than I could ever count, I know that the forecasters are just as happy to hype thunder and lightning as they are to hype innocent snow.

Granted, the storms can be pretty wicked. I've counted two with fair-sized hail this summer, and a couple of times the wind has been strong enough to topple trees here in Celebration. But after the Hurricane Trio a couple of years ago, I'm not impressed by an uprooted palm here and there when I can still remember a time that every tree on Celebration Boulevard toppled in a domino-like row.

Hopefully this year Florida won't need a "calm in the storm" because the hurricanes will stay away. I know we're not out of the woods yet, but the edge of the treeline is in sight. And if we do get socked, I'm going to take a page out of John-John Mackey's book. I'll be the one clinging to a tree trunk, trying desperately not to get blown away as debris swirls all around me, yelling, "That's right, you bitch storm!! Now go and make me a sandwich!!!!!"

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Friday, August 11, 2006

The Kids Are Away, The Adults Are At Play

Now that the kidlets are back in school, the adults can head off to play at Disney World. Even though it's still fairly early in the month, the crowd density at the theme parks has taken a noticable drop. A friend and I went to the Magic Kingdom this morning, and we didn't wait more than 5 or 10 minutes for anything.

It was a good sign for light crowds when we boaded the ferryboat to take us to the park and only a handful of people joined us. We had arrived around 9:30 a.m., which should have been prime time for the morning droves of tourists. There were no lines at the turnstiles, and Main Street was littered with little knots of scattered bodies but nothing like the inpenetable fall of humanity that had graced the pavement just a month or so before.

We headed directly to "Pirates of the Caribbean," since I hadn't yet seen the addition of Johnny Depp. Johnny...sigh! Swoon! Such a versatile (and sexy) actor. From Ed Wood to Edward Scissorhands to Willy Wonka to Captain Jack Sparrow, he has the adaptability of a chameleon. Even with parts that are polar opposites, he fits them all flawlessly.

I knew there were three Audioanimatronic Johnnies; my friend had already been on the revamped ride, but it was a new life experience for me. "Pirates" was walk-on when we arrived, so soon we were launched off into the coolest waterfall effect that I've ever seen before drifting into the midst of a raging battle with Captain Barbossa.

The first two Johnny additions are subtle; they fit in nicely and don't change the character of the ride. The last one is very obvious, but still quite cool. It's amazing to see just how life-like the new Audioanimatronic characters are. Their movements are uncannily "human." So many people refer to Celebration as "Stepford"...perhaps I should be worried that those new figures are prototypes for new Celebration residents.

The wait was so short that we rode again, then headed off to the Jungle Cruise for a rousing dose of corny humor. Before we left Adventureland, I had to get a fix of twisted orange juice and soft serve vanilla ice cream. It's my favorite treat at theMagic Kingdom; the orange is real frozen juice, not sherbet....mmmmmmm!

After that, we hit "Haunted Mansion," "Small World" and "Wedway People Mover," (I refused to call it by its current name)...there was no line for either. I committed a minor faux pax at the Mansion; a couple with their small boy asked my friend and I whether we had ridden it before. When we said "yes," they asked if it might be too intense for a little one. I shared my opinion ("Oh, no, I don't think so. It's really more cute than scary") just as we passed one of the Cast Member butlers. He gave me a perfectly in-character haughty looked and echoed "Cute?" Oops!

By then, it was nearing lunchtime, so we headed out of the park for a seafood fix at Red Lobster. On the way, I had to stop for some fudge on Main Street to bring home as a late night treat.

It was a great kick-off to the "off-season season." I've missed the parks all summer, but I refuse to go anywhere near them just as any sane person would refuse to jump into a pirannah tank. Even when I can't visit, I'm comforted just by knowing that Disney property is only a mile or two away. I get a small fix by visiting the hotel restaurants, and every night I am soothed by the sounds of Illuminations and Wishes that can always be heard from Duloc Manor.

And now my patience has paid off. I can finally visit the Mouse again without braving the teeming masses and lines that take longer than an average person's lifespan. In Chicago, I would be sad that fall is nearly here; in Florida, it simply means the beginning of my favorite theme park season.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

Back to School

Where on earth did the year go? Here in Celebration (and the rest of Osceola County), today is the first day of school already!

Really, though, the year's as not far gone as it seems. It's only early August, but in my mind the return to school coincides with late in the month or early September. When I was a kid in Illinois, Labor Day was typically also D-Day. We either went back the week before or the week of the holiday.

Here in Florida, where education revolves around the Holy Altar of the FCAT Test, the poor kids are forced back early in order to have more time to prepare. But next year will be different, thanks to law that goes into effect for the 2007-2008 school year. It mandates that the school start date can be no earlier than 14 days before Labor Day, which will be Aug. 20 next year.

But that's no help to the poor kiddies this year; the streets were void of child life this morning, and the community pool were virtually deserted early this afternoon. Instead, the Celebration young uns are slaving away over reading, writing, and 'rithmatic while the summer sun blazes outside and their counterparts in other states still run wild and free.

While the kids are away, the adults will play...I've already got plans to visit Disney World this week with a friend whose children are back in the classroom. That might sound cruel on the surface, but most kids who live in Celebration are sick of the Mouse House. While it might be preferable to school, it's not the wonderful treat that it would be to those who don't live right next door to the pixie dust.

Even though August is still pretty young, Labor Day is not all that far away. In my youth, it marked the end of summer and a return to the educational grind. In my Florida adulthood, it stands for something quite different: The peak of hurricane season. For two years in a row now, we're cruised around Labor Day and the storms have forced us to embark in Fort Lauderdale instead of Port Canaveral. I sure hope that this year three is a charm! If not, we're going to have quite a convoy, as I'm sailing with several other people from Celebration.

So far, so good on the hurricane front (I don't want to say that too loudly to curse it). Meanwhile, I think I might take advantage of the child-free lull and the continuing hot weather to get some use out of the community pools. I usually do my laps at the health club, but sometimes it's nice to walk down the street and hop into the circular East Village "basin." Based on its size, I wouldn't rightfully call it a pool, but I like to water-jog around the concrete island in the center. There are full sized facilities in North, South, and Main Villages, but I like being able to just hike over right from our home...those three require a bike or NEV ride.

Maybe in 2007 it won't feel like the year whizzed by quite so quickly...instead of August 7th, my lamenting blog entry won't be until the 20th. By that time, with two extra weeks of 90+ heat behind me, I'll probably be more than ready for fall!

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Friday, August 04, 2006

The Gasoline Game

Once upon a time, buying gasoline (and getting a fairly decent price) was easy. We had a Mobile station right here in Celebration. Granted, it was on the outskirts (the Water Tower shopping center in 192), but you could access it without technically leaving "The Bubble." Because there was a Race Trac station right across the street, the Mobile kept its price competitive. Usually it would match the Race Trac or set its price a penny or two above it, which I considered a "convenience fee."

But several weeks ago, lightning struck the Mobile, and the resulting fire put it out of commission. I think it's supposed to reopen soon, but in the meantime I've been a Gasoline Nomad, wandering aimlessly in search of a rare combination: the best deal and the most convenient station.

The Race Trac is still there, but it's not particularly easy to get to even though it's right across the street from Water Tower. You have to go out on 192 and make a U turn. Once you arrive, you'll discover that every tourist in the greater Central Florida area has made a beeline for that same station. I have a theory that they must give the gas away, but somehow I'm never included in the giveaway that attracts customers from near and far.

The trick is not only to find an available pump, but to locate one on the correct side that matches with Canyonero's gas tank. The tank is on the driver's side, but 9 times out of 10 the available pumps are in a spot that matches up with passenger side tanks. Grrrrr! Granted, I could back in, but that's a virtually impossible acrobatic feat with cars constantly buzzing around like lions circling a herd of wounded wildebeests. They're ready to swoop the moment they spot an open gas pump, and if you're trying to take it yourself, God help you! When you're driving backwards, it's virtually impossible to outmaneuver an aggressive front-facing driver who decides to stake a claim on your pump.

Often, all of the pumps are taken, so you must stake out a territory and pray that someone will pull out soon. Generally, that works out as well as picking the quickest line in the bank or grocery store. I always seem to pick a block of pumps where the drivers are not merely fueling up, but also saving some money on lodging expenses by settling in for the long haul. After all, they have a rest room and snack shop in close proximity. Why pay for a hotel room when they can just crash in their car for free?

Even though the Mobile was generally busy, I never had to wait for a pump. It had a steady flow of traffic, but I always had a fighting chance of being able to purchase gas without turning it into a competitive sport. I hate it when filling up my tank is akin to finding a parking spot at the Florida Mall during the Christmas season.

In order to avoid the world's busiest Race Trac, I generally buy my gas on the way to or from the barn in Clermont. There is a Hess station near the Wal-Mart on 27 that is generally cheap (with "cheap" being a relative term, i.e. barely under $3) and somewhat less crowded than the Race Trac on 192.

I never, ever stop for gas on 192 between Celebration and Clermont because for some odd reason those stations are way higher than the ones heading east. Heading towards Kissimmee, you can buy your gas for less than $3 per gallon, but just a few blocks to the west you'll pay $3.04 and up. I've never figured out the difference...perhaps the West 192 gasoline is mixed with gold flecks or diamond chips.

We also frequent the Hess stations on Disney property. Logic might tell you that Disney stations would be much more expensive than the norm, but surprisingly that's not the case. At most, the WDW Hess stations are two or three cents more per gallon, and they're generally not too crowded unless you visit them at park closing time.

How I long for the day when I won't have to play Gas Station Roulette any longer because the Mobile has reopened. I never realized how often I patronized them until they were gone. Celebration needs its gas station! Hopefully they will be back in business soon.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Illuminations By Phone

My husband is certifiably insane. Or perhaps he just has a major streak of masochism hidden beneath his laid-back exterior. He will actually voluntarily visit Disney World during the summer peak season!

Sure, I know a few locals who will visit the parks in the summertime, but usually it's with a passel of out-of-town visitors in tow. But hubby gets a hankering to see Fantasmic and Illuminations every few weeks, and like a crack addict slinking down a dark back alley for a fix, he slips off down World Drive to the seamy summer environs of the Mouse.

He's usually forced to go solo on his jaunts, as I rarely go anywhere near the Magic Kingdom et. al. from mid-June through late August. It's bad enough dealing with the traffic overflow on the Road of Tourist Trap Hell, aka 192, whenever I want to venture outside of the Celebration Bubble. I have different needs, and I get my fixes driving way out to the calm, woodsy outskirts of Clermont, where my horse Figment and I have our mental moments of "oooommmmmm" on the equestrian trails of Lake Louisa State Park.

I've been riding just about every morning since Figment was delivered from Chicago in early June. I have to get to the barn early in order to avoid the most oppressive heat of the Florida summer. Usually I get in an hour or so of riding. When the bugs aren't too bad, we venture into the thick of the state park. My favorite spots are the loop that goes around Dude Lake and an open area on the way back to the horse trailer parking lot that is just perfect for a canter.

We've seen quite a bit of wild life, from deer to gators to eagles, and of course the ever-present aramdillos. We haven't stumbled across the wild pigs yet, thank goodness! I am quite content to ride in the wilderness; it reminds me of my youth, when I first got my old horse, Cochise, and I would spend hours exploring the Chicago forest preserves on his back.

I bought Cochise when I was only 16, and I distinctly remember heading back to the barn one afternoon on the main trail while my mind wandered off to the future. I wondered, "How old will he live to be?" If he made it to 20, then I would be almost 40...ancient, from a teenager's perspective! I speculated...would I still be riding? Would I still love it as much? Would it still bring me the same level of peace and tranquility? It was hard to imagine what life would be like two long decades from that innocent time.

Now, Cochise is 29 and retired, and I'm a 40-something-year-old coot. But if I could go back in time, I would reassure the teen-aged Barb that horses would still be a big part of her life. The outer body might change, but there's not much difference on the inner core. I might have a new equine trail companion (Cochise is retired in Illinois), but the pleasure remains the same.

But tranquil pursuits aren't enough for hubby. He craves the excitement of peak season Disney World to fulfill his own inner needs. This is a man who went to the parks a couple weeks ago and actually waited 90 minutes to ride "Soarin'!" Now, don't get me wrong...I love that ride. But I don't love it quite enough to cough an hour and a half in July when I know that the lines will be nearly non-existent this fall, or at least I'll be able to get a Fast Pass without arriving at 8 a.m.

But long lines don't faze hubby one bit. He uses the time for people watching, which is always an active sport at WDW. The peak season crowds just roll right off his back. Thus tonight he headed off in Canyonero to see Fantasmic and Illuminations while I remained at home to work (yes, to me, work is preferable to summer season theme park hell!).

Shortly after he left, thunder clouds rolled over Celebration and filled my ears with ominous rumblings. I called hubby on his cell and reached him in the middle of the Great Movie Ride. So far, things were dry at Disney-MGM. He called me back later with an impressive report: He'd managed to do the Movie Ride, Tower of Terror, and see the Millionaire show, and he was on his way to Rockin' Roller Coaster with a Fast Pass. That's pretty darned aggressive for August at Disney!

Later, he gave me a buzz from the Canadian pavillion, where he was preparing to watch Illuminations. As much as I hate the crowds, I do get a hankering to see that show on a regular basis. I love the music, which I have on CD, but it's not quite the same as being in the midst of the blazing fireworks and watching the globe glide across the lagoon. I still get chills when they fire up the lasers and the countries of World Showcase suddenly light up.

Hearing the initial blast of fireworks and the musical strains put me into a state of withdrawal. I know it sounds pathetic, but I actually stayed on the phone until I could hear my favorite part of the musical score! Vicarious Illuminations is better than no Illuminations at all. I listened through the temptuous beginning and imagined the Epcot sky blazing and the smoke billowing across the lagoon. Then the music slowed down and the explosions ceased, and I imagined the globe gliding slowly across the water. Finally, my favorite part! As the orchestra swelled, I imagined the globe turning orange and blue as the video scenes flashed on its face. My favorite scene (not surprisingly) is the white horse galloping across a blue sky background.

Once that part was over, I reluctantly hung up the phone. I needed to get back to work, and at my ankles Farquaad was reminding me that it was ten minutes past cat feeding time and he was close to collapse from hunger.

As a I parsed up the cat food between the Feline Trio, my mind drifted back to the early days of our Celebration experience. Ages ago, I blogged about the time when Duloc Manor was still being built and I called our real estate agents. I reached them on their cell phone as they headed to Epcot to spontaneously see the Candlelight Processional, topped off with Illuminations. Oh, how I envied them and longed for the day when that would be my reality too!

I wonder what it would be like if we could drift back in time for a moment or two and talk to those "early versions" of ourselves. I wonder what Young Barb would have thought if I could have told her, "By the time you're 40, you'll be living next to Disney World and riding a new horse through Florida scrub land." I'm sure it would have been a shock because at that point I'd never been to Disney World yet. I knew that I wanted to be a traveler, but I'd never cconsidered moving away from Illinois.

The only thing that wouldn't have surprised me would have been that I still owned a horse. I subscribe to a quote from Monica Dickens: "When I can't ride anymore, I shall still keep horses as long as I can hobble along with a bucket and a wheelbarrow. When I can't hobble, I shall roll my wheelchair out to the fence of the field where my horses graze, and watch them."

The Barb who was waiting eagerly for her house to be done probably wouldn't be too surprised that her present-day counterpart is still so happy in Celebration. But I suspect that she'd roll her eyes if I told her that she'd be enjoying "Illuminations by Phone." Hey, it's better than fighting the crowds!

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