Friday, September 29, 2006

The Clip-Clop Returns to Celebration's Streets

Once upon a time, one of my favorite "ambiance items" in Downtown Celebration was the horse and carriage rides. One of my earliest memories was trotting down Celebration Avenue with hubby in a carriage drawn by a sturdy drafthorse. Such a unique way to see the downtown area! Somehow it all goes together....the clip-clop of hooves on the bricks of Market Street harkens back to an earlier age.

Of course, as a horse owner, my opinion is somewhat biased in favor of equestrian activities. Even back in Chicago, we would often do a horse and carriage ride in the Loop after a delicious prime-rib dinner at Lawry's. It probably harkens back to my teenage days, when I worked at a livery stable. In the fall, after a long day of guiding trail rides, we would all hitch rides on the hay wagons that ran throughout the autumn evenings. Back then, there were no subdivisions in that area south of the city. The big drafthorse teams would trot down the road, under a starry sky unmarred by any light save for the occasional street lamp. I loved the smell of the hay and of the bonfires when we returned to the barn. Even to this day, one whiff of that smokey aroma instantly makes me think of autumn. The chill air of September and October would drive us to huddle around the fire; the next day, that scent would still cling to my jacket. Those were wonderful, carefree days, but I always felt mournful when Halloween arrived. It's my favorite holiday, but the pleasure was melancholy because it meant that hayride season was over for another year.

Thus I was quite excited to see the carriages here in town. One of our earliest photos shows me standing on Front Street and beaming next to be a big, grey equine after our very first carriage ride in Celebration. It was taken around the time that we had just purchased our home; I thought that the carriages, like the yearly leaf drop and the soapy snowfalls, would be a perennial part of the town that I could enjoy as I strolled the streets or sipped coffee in the rockers at the edge of the lake.

But alas, it was not to be. Around the time that we made our permanent move, the horses vanished from the downtown streets. Apparently the barn that provided them went out of business, and no one bothered to find another source. It was another little piece of our town that faded away into history, chipping off yet a bit more of what made this such a special place.

Now, I'm happy to say that the carriage rides are back! Tonight my husband and I were among the first to take an inaugural ride. Lexin, the current owner of downtown, is bringing them back on weekends during the cool season. The carriage was here for a wedding at the Celebration Hotel, so the carriage firm used the opportunity to familiarize the horse team with the streets of town prior to their official return. I was among the group of volunteers invited to go on one of the "practice rides."

What a perfect season for the rides to return. In two more days it will be October, and a chill has crept into the morning and evening air. We're still flirting with 90 in the afternoons, but this morning, on my way to the barn to ride Figment, I left before 8 a.m. and I was downright chilly! Granted, fall is more subtle here in Florida; there are very few trees with falling leaves, but out in the state park the autumn flowers are blooming and some of the foliage is taking on a lovely fiery red tinge. Orange lights and jack-0'-lanterns are turning up on porches. Fall is slowly but surely embracing us in its grip.

Lexin hosted a nice little get-together at the Town Tavern, with snacks and drinks flowing freely, as we waited for our rides. The wedding took longer than expected, so the carriage arrived a little late, but no one seemed to mind (a couple of mudslides or rum runners definitely increase a person's patience level!). We spent most of the time chatting with our fellow attendees and with the representative from Lincoln Management (the firm that manages downtown for Lexin) and the special events coordinator.

It was quite an interesting conversation; for a long time I've been disturbed by the general lack of maintenance downtown and the potential for our special events to disappear. It seems like once Disney left, no more thought was given to the appearance of our downtown district. The landscaping was abysmal, the garbage cans overflowed, and little things like the carriages faded away into history.

Lately I've noticed that the landscaping and general upkeep have improved. Now that the weather is milder, I love to walk downtown in the evening and have an ice cream cone at Kilwin's (the walk eases my guilt for the calories, even though I don't think the roundtrip hike from East Village burns off more than a bite or two). Instead of chalking up more evidence of the decline in my mind, I've been been pleasantly surprised. It's starting to look good again...a cheery, inviting place where I might like to stop and spend some time instead of a sad little area that exudes a general air of disrepair.

I was quite excited to hear about additional plans for downtown. Besides the carriages, there will be more activities coming and the special events will continue to expand. How heartening to hear that! Downtown was one of the big draws that made us fall in love with Celebration. As I said before, I love to walk downtown and pause on the rockers by the lake. I like to hike down Market Street on the weekends and marvel at the crowd of people. I enjoy the special of my greatest joys is standing off to the side as the paper leaves fall or the soapy "snowflakes" rain down on eager children, just taking in the scene. I come downtown for almost every "snow night" in the winter, just to experience that little piece of the magic that reminds me why we moved here. If it ever disappeared, a big part of our town's specialness would be gone...and what would be the point of living here if we turned into just another vanilla subdivision.

Soon it was time for our ride, and hubby and I climbed into the carriage in front of the Town Tavern. It was dusk by the time the carriage rides started, so our photos didn't turn out too well, but here is a shot of the two of us repeating history...another Celebration carriage after quite a long hiatus.

Before we trotted off on our official ride, we made a quick stop at the horse trailer, which was parked on Front Street, so the horses could have a drink of water. Then we trotted down Celebration Avenue and turned onto Market Street, heading back to the tavern. The streets were teeming with locals and tourists, and it tickled me to see the out-of-towners pointing, waving, and even taking photos. I imagine that some locals might have been pointed, too, since newer residents probably don't even remember when the carriages were here originally.

It was so neat to ride by the storefronts, seeing Halloween decorations and even twinkling Christmas lights in the windows, basking in the fact that we have the great privilege to live in a place that tourists come to visit. They can only be here for a short time to enjoy our wonderful town, but for me it's a daily occurrence. What a blessing!

After the carriage ride, we paused for another quick drink before heading home to East Village. I hated to leave, as it's fascinating to sit on the Town Tavern patio and people watch on weekend evenings, but I still had work to do.

Oh well, now I can come downtown any weekend and watch the carriage rides just as I love to observe the leaves and "snowfalls." Whenever I'm feeling stressed by my workload or irritated about some local controversy, spending some time downtown is my panacea. How can I feel bad when I live in the best possible place that I can imagine? How can I feel stressed when people are having fun all around me? They have to make an effort to come here; for me, it's literally in my backyard.

I'm glad to see that downtown is on the upswing again and that the feeling will be preserved. I'm looked forward to seeing the rest of the changes, and I'll be sure to blog about them as they become reality.

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