Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween Hoardes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly, we only got four groups of kids this year...yes, four. Talk about a disappointment! From 100 to 4...an unbelievable drop. I guess we've just too far off the beaten path, and only three houses on our block had their lights on. The kids on the main street probably figured that our dark little cul de sac wasn't worth the effort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Galloping Through The Groves

Nothing says "Florida" more than an orange grove; unfortunately, they are an endangered species in the Disney World area. I never saw one in all my trips to the Sunshine State until I started looking for a home for my horse, Figment, and I must say they caught me by surprise! I knew that they existed, but in this tourist mecca they're just about as elusive to spot as Bigfoot. It was only when I ventured beyond the 192 Tourist Hell and into the hills of Clermont that I finally got a taste of what Florida farmland looks like.

The barn where I board Figment is next door to an orange grove, and the owners have several orange trees on their property, too. Before I started taking Figment out to the woods, I gave him refresher lessons under saddle while riding among the ramrod-straight tree rows. Once he was reliable, we shifted over to Lake Louisa State Park. Most of the terrain there on the Bronson Trail (the main equestrian loop) is pine forest and Florida scrub land. It's shady and relaxing, and I often spot deer or other wildlife as we transverse miles of trails. But all summer I've had a hankering to head over to the South Trail, a much longer and farther riding path.

Now that the weather has cooled down, I finally decided to tackle the South Trail...not all of it at once, but an offshoot loop called Rangers Pass. I knew nothing of the trail other than the thick black line on the printed map. Little did I know that it winds around the periphery of endless acres of orange groves!

When I first saw the trail, I had visions of galloping Figment along the long, flat stretches of grass with me clinging to his back, enjoying the breeze in my hair and the sun on my face. It was the perfect spot to give him his head and let him race the wind a bit. Unfortunately, it didn't go quite as planned; I urged Figgie to pick up the pace, but he has a touch of Attention Deficit Disorder whenever I take him to a brand-new place. He could run because he was much too busy gaping at anything and everything around him. His head bobbed from side to side and his eyes widened, taking in the rows and rows of trees. Now mind you, these trees look identical to the ones right next door to the barn. If you've seen one orange grove, you've pretty much seen them all. But Figgie didn't see it that way! He trotted along on high alert, making an occasional snort to indicate that he was well aware that the trees could come to life at any given moment ala the apples trees in "The Wizard of Oz." If that happened, he was fully prepared to whirl around and flee madly to safety.

Eventually Figment realized that the trees in the state park are as harmless as the ones at the barn. Now that he was familiar with the area, I decided to head there again the next day.

Our next ride aligned more closely with my equestrian fantasies. Figgie was feeling his oats, and he willingly broke into a canter as soon as I touched my heels to his sides and clucked encouragingly in his ear. I could hear his hooves pounding in the grass and feel the sheer strength as his muscles flexed rhythmically beneath me (hmmmm, that sounds like a line from a racy romance novel!). Humans are certainly optimistic creatures to presume to harness 1200 pounds of raw power and bend it to their will.

The South Trail terrain is very much different than the Bronson Loop. The orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see, and we also passed a scenic little lake that sparkles just off the trail. If I ever do an all-day ride, it looked like the perfect spot to stop for lunch.

Cantering is fun for Figment since its his nature as a horse; for me, it's very therapeutic. I am a doctor of psychology, so I spend my days helping people sort out their stress and mental anguish. But what does the doctor do to escape from her own stress? She turns to her equine therapist! I am highly trained in cognitive techniques, and I practice what I preach in my everyday life. But that only goes so far; sometimes you simply need to be. Once you've processed your issues and feelings, you need a way to release them. As I gallop Figgie through the groves, I can feel my problems, worries, and fears flying out behind me and getting left behind in the dust.

All too soon the ride was over. I was shocked to discover that I had spent almost four hours in the saddle! Figment had worked up a good sweat, but he still had enough spring in his step to spook on the way home and nearly deposit me in the dirt (he spotted the same neighboring horses that he sees every day on the road to the park, but for some reason today they were apparently flesh-eating zombie horses hell bent on bursting through their fence to destroy him, or so he believed).

I'm so glad that fall is here now. Even though it means that water park season is over (for thin-blooded Floridians like me anyway) and that I'll soon be shivering and donning a jacket along with the natives, it also means that I can do longer sessions of "equine therapy." I can hardly wait to go galloping in the groves again tomorrow.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Halloween Horse and High-Intensity Headlights

Halloween is only a few days away, but apparently my horse, Figment, decided to get into costume early.

This morning, my husband and I were slated for an early-morning ride. We were planning to meet the barn owner and a fellow boarder at 8:15 a.m. But we got home later than planned last night, so I was sleeping like the dead at 7, when I would have had to haul my carcass out of the nice, warm bed. My husband woke up briefly, but rolled back over when he saw that it was raining. Thus, we were both still romping through the vast valleys of Dreamland when the phone rang at 9.

Turns out the other boarder hadn't shown up at the appointed hour, and meanwhile the weather over Clermont had cleared. The barn owner was still itching for a trail ride, so we hopped in Canyonero (my Aztek) and headed down the road.

Every morning, the horses are turned out to pasture after they've eaten their breakfast. Since we were on our way, the barn owner put Figment and her horse, Boudreaux (my husband's mount-to-be), into the round pen instead of the large, grassy field so they would be easier to catch. A round pen is a circular fenced area that is handy for training horses. It has no grass; typically the footing is sand, dirt, or, in this case, red clay. Boudreaux resisted the temptation, but Figgie couldn't help himself...down he went! He loves to roll in that clay, but the problem is that it sticks to his coat like yucky, dirty dye.

As we pulled up to the barn, I barely recognized my boy. Normally he is a reddish color, but it's mixed with roaning and a big, white Appaloosa blanket on his rump, studded with sorrel spots. Today all I could see was a buckskin (Boudreaux) and a solid sorrel standing beside him. Of course it was Figgie in stealth mode, with a covering of clay camouflaging his markings.

I brushed him as best as I could, but I didn't want to bathe him because he could get sores with the saddle rubbing against a wet hide. Out on the trails, we met several people that I know, and all of them did a double-take. They'd look, then suddenly their eyes would swing around again and they would ask, "Where's Figment?" I'd point out that I wasn't really on a solid-colored horse, but rather an Appaloosa who apparently thought he was in the Witness Protection Program.

We had a lovely ride; even though it was a bit humid for my taste, the breeze made up for it. Deer flies and horse flies are usually a constant annoyance on the trails, but today it was mercifully bug-free (other than occasional swarms of no-see-ums, but at least they don't suck equine...or human...blood).

On the way back to the barn, my husband came up with a logical explanation for Figment's disguise. "It's almost Halloween," he said, "so obviously Figgie decided to don his costume early." It made sense when I thought about it; Figment is quite obsessed with treats, so I could easily imagine him trotting down the road with a trick-or-treat sack dangling from his muzzle, accumulating a stash of apples, carrots, and sugar cubes. Perhaps this morning was his practice run, to see if I could recognize him.

If so, I'm sure that he was sorely disappointed, as I gave him a thorough bath with Suave coconut body wash. If he wants to don his costume again, he's going to have to figure out how to get back into the round pen, as there is no red clay in the pasture. I couldn't get all of the coloring off him, but at least he looks somewhat like a blanketed Appaloosa now (and he smells good too).

After our interlude of fun, hubby and I set off to take care of some chores. Top on the list was replacement headlights for Canyonero. A couple of weeks ago, we noticed that one of the headlights was out. My trusty Aztek was due for its 30,000 mile service anyway, plus there was some sort of recall notice, so we had made an appointment with the dealer. Canyonero had its service and was returned to us with a comprehensive checklist. Unfortunately, although the list indicated that the headlights had been checked and were in working order, the service personnel must have been traipsing around in some alternate universe. The headlight was still out. Grrrrr! That didn't give me much confidence that they had checked anything else on the list either.

As luck would have it, the second headlight promptly went out too. It's too much of a pain in the butt to go back to the dealer (plus they quoted me over $400 to replace each headlight!! when I called them back, reaffirming my belief that they are smoking crack in Alternate Universe Land), so hubby said he would do the job himself.

We stopped at Wal-Mart on the way home from the barn; normally I hate making a Wal-Mart run because it always seems to be crowded with wall-to-wall confused, gaping tourists and aggressive locals determined to run the tourists down with the Shopping Cart of Death. Somehow I always seem to get caught in the cross-fire of this age-old battle. But this time my husband pointed out that we'd have a secret weapon: the fact that we both reeked of Eau De Equine. If we were lucky, nobody would want to get within 20 feet of us.

I don't know whether it was just a quiet day or whether the horse stench worked, but there seemed to be less fellow shoppers than usual. In the auto aisle, we pawed through the dazzling array of selections. Normally, choosing a headlight would be a mundane task, but on this day I was flush with the heady joy of finally being able to dish out some sweet retribution.

Up until this point, Canyonero had sported plain old headlights, which is quite passé in this age of the Xeon Eye Destroyer...you know, those blue-white headlights that sear your cornea like a steak on an iron skillet when you have the misfortune to get a set of them behind you. Their advantage is supposed to be throwing more light than the old, traditional bulbs, but I think an unspoken side effect is to get other cars out of your way. After a few miles of those white-blue laser beams bouncing off the mirror and into your eyeballs, you'll feel an overwhelming compulsion to change lanes.

I know that such heady power can be addictive. After all, I've owned an Aztek since 2002...in other words, since the time that it was actually the ugliest vehicle on the road. Back in those days, people had respect for Canyonero. They realized that anyone bold/crazy enough to drive such a hideous vehicle is only half a notch away from road rage at any given moment. They would never dare think to cut off an Aztek driver, or even come near it for that matter.

Sadly, over the years a rash of utterly horrendous vehicles has rolled out of the showrooms and onto the roads. Azteks have lost their power and prestige and have slipped down into the ranks of the mundane. Tourists cut me off with impunity, even if there is no one else for two miles behind me. People run stop signs in front of me, stop in the middle of the road, and do all sorts of other stupid things because they're no longer cowed by Canyonero.

Now, thanks to Xeon headlights, all that is about to change. Want to break your butt to get in front of me? Suffer the wrath of my finely honed laser beams! Want to do something else stupid? I will use the concentrated power of their ultra-luminescence to burn a hole in your car body!

There are actually quite a few options in the realm of Xeon lights. Sadly, Wal-Mart only carries the sort that are marked "guaranteed street legal." I was sort of hoping that some shady type might notice my disappointment and beckon me over once I reached the parking lot. I could just imagine the scene: glancing nervously from side to side, he would slip open his trench coat to reveal a dazzling selection of sight-destroyers at levels 10 times greater than the law allows. I would guiltily slip him some cash and he'd thrust a plain paper bag into my hands. Unfortunately that didn't happen, so I have to be happy with headlights at the upper range of the legal level.

I didn't have an opportunity to try out Canyonero's new-found power tonight, but next time I have to do some night driving, will see if its former fear factor has been regained. As the Simpson's song proclaims:

She blinds everybody with her super high beams
She's a squirrel-squashin', deer-smackin' drivin' machine

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Full Exposure Redux

At this same time last year, I wrote my most popular blog entry ever:
Party Naked

It chronicled the Mickey Mommas' trip to Cypress Cove Nudist Resort, a place that is exactly what its name implies. Residents, day guests, and even workers romp around in the buff (although the bartenders and restaurant employees are clothed, probably due to health regulations). And trust me, the majority of the naturists, as they are referred to, represent all body types, particularly the less-than-perfect. Just one look at all that sagging flesh boosts my self esteem 20-fold.

Since it was such an exciting trip last year, we decided on a repeat performance this fall. Now, mind you, the Mommas don't get naked. We visit during the yearly Naked Art Festival, when repressed members of the general public are welcomed into the Garden of Eden. On that day, we can noodle among the nudists safely, without having to bare our own souls (and everything else).

No trip to Cypress Cove is complete without a few rounds of margaritas or other alcholically-enhanced beverages. Considering just how scary some of those bodies look through "tequila goggles," I can't even imagine what I would think if I visited while stone sober.

We stopped at Chili's for old time's sake, since that is where we had started last year's field trip, too. After lunch and 2 for 1 margaritas and electric lemonade, we piled into the van for the trip to Poinciana, home to Cypress Cove. It's not all that far from Disney World (maybe 20 minutes), which might shock some of the straightlaced tourists who flock to Orlando each year for what they consider to be wholesome family entertainment. While nudist resorts are touted as "family friendly," bopping around in the buff usually doesn't pop into mind when Mr. and Mrs. Middle America chose their vacation destination.

But I can't help but suspect that Walt was open-minded about nudity. After all, Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy are all fully clothed, but Donald flaunts his feathery body with a top but no pants. Also, he sports that essential nudist wear item: a hat. The vast majority of nudists sport head gear, which may sound odd until you realize that they need a place to store their valuables. Take a close look at their chapeaus and you will notice that they all have a handy-dandy pocket.

Two of us in our little group had made the trip last year; the other two were Nudity Virgins. I could tell they had no idea what to expect; after all, I had been in the same position last year. Cypress Cove is surrounded by a solid fence so the curious can't gawk at will. You must pass a manned entrance before you are granted admission to the Promised Land of No Tan Lines. You can't see a thing before you head through the gate, so of course your imagination runs wild. Will there really be naked people? Will they be completely nude? Sure they won't just be parading around...will they? Those are the questioning that dance through the minds of the uninitiated.

Once you roll onto the resort grounds, those questions are quickly (and graphically) answered. Yes, they are naked, and yes, they are parading around everywhere. You feel like your eyes are popping out like some insane cartoon character as non-chalant naturists pedal by on bicycles, zip along in golf carts, sprint around on the tennis court, or just putz around in front of their campers.

One thing you quickly realize is that reality is nothing like the titillating images that the words "Nudist Resort" usually conjure up. There's nudity everywhere, but it's not "dirty" or even particularly explicit. Yes, you do see everything, but when you're virtually surrounded by it, it quickly becomes old hat. It reminds me of the book Split Infinity, by Piers Anthony. It's a sci fi/fantasy book about a world in which "serfs" (the working class) serve ultra-rich "citizens" on the planet Proton. The cities are all located in climate controlled domes, and by law serfs must all be naked at all times (citizens have the option of wearing clothing if they wish). Rather than nudity being arousing, the biggest turn-on for the serfs is wearing forbidden apparel. When everything is all hanging out all the time, leaving something to the imagination becomes the more arousing option.

Another thing that stands out is that nudists have impeccable coiffures...and I'm not talking about the hair on their heads. I wouldn't feel at all self conscious about baring my flesh at Cypress Cove, given what there is to compare it to, but I would be quite ashamed of my...uh, shall we say "untended garden." Laser hair removal technicians must make a fortunate from naturist clients.

We parked our vehicle and headed to the lakefront where the artists were touting their wares. But it was hard to pay attention to the artwork when we were surrounded by so many of God's masterpieces (well, okay, maybe not masterpieces, but they were certainly as He had made them!). I found the nudists who wore clothes to be much more interesting than those who were totally in the buff. There were two women in wrap arounds with no underwear, and their skirts were slit all the way up to their navels. Thus, the fabric flapped open continually, exposed everything in wind-whipped "winks." Why not just leave off the clothes altogether? Perhaps they had some deep-seated exhibitionist fantasies.

Then there was a woman wearing one of those gauzy little see-through skirts that people often wear over a swimsuit. But of course she had no swimwear on underneath it! So what's the purpose, when you can see right through the material? In my view, it might as well be all or nothing. If you're going to bare your flesh, bare it all.

But the most interesting sight had to be the woman with pierced lips...and no, I don't mean the ones on her face. Not that I'm a prude, but I'd never, ever do it because it had to hurt like hell! Some things were not meant to have metal driven through them, and my private tender regions definitely fall into that category. I have to give her credit...her pain threshhold is obviously through the roof.

After gaping at the art (and other things), we headed off to Cheeks Bar for a drink (their motto: Rest your cheeks on ours). Three of us plopped down around a table, but the fourth Momma refused to touch her tender bottom on the same plastic chair where a bare butt might have rested before her. We reminded her that proper naturist etiquette requires that a towel be carried around at all times; it serves the same purpose as a toilet seat covers whenever one wishes to sit...not on the toilet, but anywhere. Thus, it was highly unlikely that the chair was contaminated in any way. But she just couldn't bring herself to risk it, so she remained standing while the rest of us took our chances.

Ironically, the chairs at Cheeks were the exact same type of white plastic cheapies that had traumatized my horse, Figment, so badly on Friday (see my previous blog entry). My traumatized friend pointed out that Figgie was probably quite smart to avoid them, as the chairs could well have been on loan from Cypress Cove.

(On a side note, for those who read my blog entry about the upcoming Lake Louisa Trail Challenge, Figment and I had to bow out. On the morning of the competition, he developed colic so he was out of commission. So much for all my preparation! Happily, he is fine now, and we're hoping to try again in the spring.)

We savored both our drinks and the sights around us (there was one hard-bodied man who was very well-endowed and who seemed quite willing to flaunt it), but finally we realized that we'd had enough fun for one day. After a quick trip to the gift shop to stock up on Cypress Cove logo merchandise (put a couple items around your house and watch your guests' eyes widen), we were on our way.

Now, as I sit here recouting our experience, I can't help but feel sorry for the guests at Cypress Cove. Tonight the temperature is supposed to flirt down around the freezing mark, and it will be plenty chilly tomorrow. I don't think there will be a lot of flesh showing, and if there is, it will have a marked bluish tinge. In the winter, do nudists dress up, or do they simply slip on jackets and coats over their bare flesh? I might have to take another trip out to Poinciana just to find out!

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Killer Chairs and Concerts

It was quite an industrious day today that ran the full gamut, from encountering killer chairs on horseback to rocking along with "Two Dog Night" at Epcot.

Last night, I was chained to my computer because we had just gotten home from Disney cruise #53, and I had a lot of work to catch up on. I can do a lot in the internet cafe on board, but there are some things that require my laptop. Thus, after a late night of catching up with online counseling clients and Disney cruise line confirmations for my travel agency, this morning I was ready for a little leisure time.

Because of the cruise, I hadn't ridden my horse, Figment, in a week. Tomorrow is the Trail Obstacle Challenge at Lake Louisa State Park, so I knew that I needed to exercise him today. I headed out to the barn this morning, saddled him up, and turned him loose in the round pen before mounting so he could burn off his excess energy. He ran, kicked, and bucked like a bronco, then settled down for work time.

Most of the obstacles were already set up, although they were roped off so early arrivals couldn't gain an unfair advantage by practicing (besides the locals, there are campers who come out a day early). I figured that it would be good for Figgie to just pass by the obstacles and to get familiar with their location.

The first two didn't phase him; one has been under construction for some time, so he's passed it many times before. However, he did have a mini-meltdown when he saw a round pen set up nearby, with a sawhorse and large water bucket sitting by the fence. I managed to convince him to walk up to it and sniff everything over thoroughly, and he finally decided that no equine-flesh-loving predators were hiding inside.

The other was in the Boy Scout camp area, where he is used to seeing various strange objects like tents, grills, and whatnot, so he didn't give it a second glance.

But he spotted the next one from a good distance away and froze in abject terror. From what I could see, it didn't look all that threatening; there was a numbered sign, two chairs for the judges, and several poles wound with caution tape. Unfortunately, Figment was acting as though a horse-killing devil creature had landed right in front of his nose. I wasn't aware that horses can run backwards, but he showed me that they can indeed! I would get him to go a little ways forward, then suddenly he would freeze and shift into a quick reverse.

This went on for several minutes, and I could tell that we'd probably be there till the trail challenge started the next morning if I didn't take drastic measures. I dismounted him and led him towards the death obstacle so he would see that it didn't devour me alive. It turns out that what he was so petrified of was the two chairs. They were those cheap white plastic chairs that you can get for a few bucks each at Wal-Mart, but apparently they are also extremely toxic to horses. Figment acted as though they were going to rush towards him on their little plastic legs and engulf him in a fatal embrace. He didn't even seem to notice the poles or caution tape off to the side.

I finally convinced him that the chairs were okay by sitting in one and feeding him a carrot. He still looked skeptical, but munching on his favorite treat had a calming effect. I rode him back and forth several times before continuing on down the trail.

Every one of the obstacles had a pair of identifical chairs set up by it. He was a little leery of the next set, but I managed to get him to go up and sniff them, then slipped him a bit of carrot. Soon he caught on to the fact that whenever he saw killer chairs, he would get a reward if he touched them with his nose.

We passed a variety of obstacles; I have no idea what we'll be required to do with most of them tomorrow, but there were various configurations of poles, fences, etc. It looks like there will be things to go over, through, and around, and also potentially something to pick up or drag. I did have to go through one of them: a water crossing. But that won't give me an unfair advantage because Figgie and I have been through that same waterhole dozens of times. It's one of our favorite trails. He's such a silly boy...he loves to splash through the giant puddles.

I hope that by tomorrow, Figment will still remember that chairs are friends, not predators. Things will look quite different, since people will be manning each obstacle and judging the horses' performance. I'm not expecting to win, but rather to simply get him used to new things. Being around large groups of people and horses, and going through all sorts of new, spooky items on the trails is excellent training.

Horses are funny creatures; all his life, Figment has been around heavy equipment so he is very road-safe. He was born next door to a heavy equipment business, and when I bought him, there was one next door to the Chicago boarding barn where I kept him. Now, the people where he lives in Florida have a similar business, and he sees giant trucks, trailers, and Bobcats on a daily basis. Giant noisy, rattling vehicles can pass inches away from him, and he won't bat an eye. But put a couple of plastic lawn chairs in his path and he has a heart attack.

He used to be a little spooky when we would run into trucks and people on the Lake Louisa trails because he wasn't used to seeing humans and vehicles in that environment. Now, he has learned that they might pop up at any time on the trails, so he passes them with a bored yawn. Hopefully he will remember all the strange things that we saw today and treat them as routine when I ask him to get a little closer to them tomorrow.

This evening, after work, we joined friends to head over to Epcot for the Food and Wine Festival...and, more specifically, for the "Three Dog Night" concert. Actually, it's more like "Two Dog Night" if you go by original band members, but it was still a good show.

On the way to the theater, we grazed at various food stands. You can buy little sampler portions of items from various countries at stands located throughout World Showcase. I enjoyed curry and mango soup from Thailand, vegetable strudel and apple strudel from Germany, cheese soup and maple custard from Canada, beef with mango chutney, chicken, and custard cake from South Africa, and sauteed shrimp from my home state of Florida.

By the time we reached the concert line, I was quite full. The portions may be small individually, but they add up quickly to a full meal! We were fortunate enough to get front-row seats for the 7 p.m. show (seating is first come, first served) and rocked along with the two Dogs and their band. They didn't play my favorite, "Out in the Country," but I had figured that they wouldn't because it's one of their lesser-known songs. They did do a couple of obscure tunes, as well as biggies like "Black and White," "Old Fashioned Love Song," and "Joy to the World," and also a hilarious rap version of "Mama Told Me Not To Come."

As we left the park after the concert, I marveled at how cool it is to be able run over to Epcot for a couple of hours and then to head home. When we used to vacation at Disney World, I thought it would be a pain to visit as a local, braving traffic and having to navigate the vast park-lot wasteland (we always stayed at on-site hotels and relied on Disney transportation). And worst of all, I thought it would probably feel mundane vs. being pumped up on the excitement of being on vacation.

Now I know the truth...the excitement is still there. It doesn't matter that I have to work when I get home. Vacation is a mindset as much as it is a physical activity. Living in Celebration, with the theme parks in my backyard, is a sort of permanent mental vacation that makes it easier to work and carry out other humdrum responsibilities because I know that "play" is always close by with no plane ride required.

And speaking of excitement, I should have plenty of that tomorrow. It's time to head off to bed and rest up for the next episode in the continuing drama of "Figment Vs. The Killer Chairs."

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Finding Clamshells

Now that The Land pavillion at Epcot has gotten a new lease on life with the addition of "Soarin'," the Living Seas is following suit with a make-over. I was quite impressed with "Turtle Talk," which opened a while back. It's a show in which you actually get to talk to Crush, the ancient turtle dude from "Finding Nemo" And when I say "talk to," I mean that quite literally. Crush answers back and calls on individual audience members, responding to their specific questions. It's quite a marvel of technology; I'm sure that the little kids leave the theater believing that they really just met Crush.

Now, the newest edition is just about ready to open to the general public. I'm not sure of the official name, but to me it's the "Clam Shell Ride." It's a cute little Nemo-themed dark ride that takes guests on a journey to find the elusive little clownfish yet again. He sure does have a propensity for getting lost...maybe Marlin should buy one of those "kid leashes" for him!

Hubby and I got a sneak peak, courtesy of a cast member friend. The cast preview was this morning, so we all piled into Canyonero and headed off to Epcot bright and early. Our plan was to grab Fast Passes for "Soarin'", aka "The Ride of the Ever Expanding Line," and then to head over to the Living Seas to check out the clams.

The sky was an ominous shade of smoky gray as we entered the park gates, but it looked like the rain would hold off long enough to let us fulfill our carefully laid plans. We had to leave early anyway, as hubby and I had to get back to work. I figured that even if we only got one ride on the clams and then "Soarin'", I would consider it a successful foray.

It's so funny to arrive early and watch how the crowd channels itself. "Soarin'" seems to have some sort of magnetic draw; 80 percent of the human-cattle crowd heads straight to The Land pavillion. It's amazing how what is essentially a motion simulator Omnimax can attract (and wow) a jaded themepark crowd. But there is something magical about "Soarin'". I can't put my finger on it, but I am one of the addicts who has to see it on a regular basis. I even have the soundtrack on CD so I can get a fix inbetween times, although I don't go so far as to close my eyes and imagine the movie while forcing hubby to hold pine needs and peeled oranges under my nose.

The above line probably doesn't make sense for those who've never been on the ride. Basically, "Soarin'" is a simulated (but very, very tame) hang gliding experience. You sit in three rows of chairs with your feet danging, held in by a seatbelt. Then, the rows all whisk up into the "sky"...if you are in row one, you'll be at the highest point, with row two in the middle and row three at the lowest point. Rows two and three are a bit disconcerting, since you can see the dangling legs of the guests above you.

Soon an Omnimax movie of various California scenes fills the screen, accompanied by appropriate smells (pine needles in the forest, oranges in the citrus groves, etc.) and a rousing musical score. There is some movement of your seat, too, but not enough to frighten the faint of heart. This ride is suitable for anyone from Junior to Grandma.

My favorite part of the music starts with the orange grove scene, the scent reminds me of the long-gone "Horizons" ride, which also featured scented orange trees. I love the scene that follows, which shows riders galloping along a mountain trail. Every time I see it, I imagine flying along on Figment's back.

I also like the skiing scene, especially the poor guy who jumps off a giant rock and wipes out. It always reminds me of the "Agony of Defeat" segment of ABC Sports. I recently found "Soarin'" on YouTube, and for some reason you can hear the voices of the people better on the recording than while watching the live version. Most of their vocalizations are just yells and whoops anyway, but for the first time ever, I realized that the ski guy yells out, "I'm okay!"

I knew that the clam ride wasn't likely to supplant "Soarin'" as my favorite, but I was still quite curious to see it. When we arrived at the pavillion, we discovered that the preview hadn't started yet due to technical difficulties. We hung around for a bit, and soon enough they were ready for us. We trooped through a nicely-themed but neverending queue (they must be expecting some pretty impressive crowds over the holiday season) and hopped about the giant pink clamshells, which look quite a bit like the Haunted Mansion ride vehicles and which are boarded in the same way (i.e. on a moving walkway).

I do have to say that the clam ride is a marvel of modern dark-ride technology. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but suffice it to say that you will see almost all of your favorites, from Marlin and Dory to Bruce and Crush, and you'll even brave the jelly fish forest. For some reason, Bruce is rather evil in the ride...his spiel makes it sound like he's definitely fallen off the wagon and is ready for a fish dinner. You'll get to surf the East Australian Current, which can be a bit disconcerting (think of the tunnel with all the animation on the walls in the Buzz Lightyear ride, only milder), and at the end you can't help but be amazed when you see Nemo and all this buddies in the real tank with the other denizens of the Living Seas.

I was sad to see that the aquarium fish were absent (too bad...Gill is my favorite), as was Darla (I know the ride takes place under the sea, but couldn't her dentist uncle take her scuba diving?). One resident of the aquarium was there, though, and she has the best line. Peach, the starfish, is hanging on the glass at the very end, just past a scene in which all the young fish are singing a Disney-style happy ending song. Peach says something like, "It's a nice song, but it goes on...and on....and on...." Dory has some good lines too; you'll need to ride it a couple times to hear all of them.

We did the ride twice, and I think we still didn't catch all of the detail. Even the queue is worth of close scrutiny; I didn't realize that there was a boat above us till someone pointed it out to me. There are neat little touches everywhere, and I'll be watching for more in future rides.

After riding the clams, we managed to catch "Turtle Talk" (it was my CM friend's first time seeing it) and rode "Soarin'" twice. We had Fast Passes both times, which was a good thing because by the second time the standby line was up to 75 minutes.

All too soon it was time to head home for work, but it had certainly been a fun morning. That's one of the advantages to living in Celebation....having the ability to slip four theme park rides into your workday!

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Amish Teens on the Town

My husband and I have both been buried in work lately, so tonight we decided to make a quick run to Max's, aka Market Street Cafe, for dinner. The house has been as barren as Old Mother Hubbard's cupboard all weekend because we haven't been to Publix in over a week. Hubby finally did the shopping tonight, but by the time he got home it was a little late to start cooking. Thus, we figured we'd hop into Crush and have a meal downtown.

Max's is a diner-style restaurant that serves "comfort food" like meatloaf and country fried steak. There are also burgers and a wide variety of sandwiches, and a few more "fru fru" items like coconut encrusted fish. No matter what your tastes, you're likely to find something to satisfy your craving. They also offer a discount for people with the Disney Dining Experience card, and they have their own rewards program as well in which you can earn free items, so they appeal to my intrinsic thriftiness as well as my fondness for their food.

When we arrived, it looked quite busy for a weeknight. Indeed, we were handed a pager and told that there would be a wait while a table was bussed. There was immediate seating outside, but even though it was a very pleasant evening, I didn't want to sit in a cloud of cigarette smoke. In Florida, outside eating areas are the final refuge for smokers, since most indoor puffing is banned. It reminded me of the old days in Chicago, when smoking sections often had immediate seating, even when the wait for non was an hour or more. But in this case, the wait was only a few minutes, and soon we were settled into a booth directly across from one of the outside doors. I didn't notice at the time, but my awareness level soon skyrocketed, as I shall recount later.

I was quite pleased to discover that breakfast was being offered even though it was dinnertime. I know they were experimenting with doing that a few weeks back, so perhaps that was a success. I hope it's a permanent change because I am a "pancakes for dinner" kind of gal. I immediately shifted my thoughts from country fried steak to a blueberry pancake short stack. Max's is my favorite place for pancakes because they cook mix the fruit (apple or blueberries) or chocolate chips right in the batter. Most places simply slop the fruit on top, which is not the same. I grew up with a Hungarian grandma who whipped up the most godly silver dollar pancakes liberally stuffed with apples. No fruit topping can match the sheer bliss of cooking the fruit inside.

I ordered breakfast, while hubby stuck to his original plan of meatloaf. Then we settled in, sipping my favorite mango iced tea, while we waited for our grub. Unfortunately, I noticed that every time the door to the outside patio was opened, it sucked in a goodly helping of smoke-laden air and whooshed it right in my direction. Ugh! It didn't look like there were too many options for moving to another table, so I steeled my lungs and pretended I was back in Chicago.

Soon the smoke became secondary to yet another annoyance: The Never-Ending Camera Flash. Living in Tourist Land, I'm used to people taking photos in restaurants. After all, you might want to memorialize your most memorable meals, especially if you are an avid scrapbooker. A photo and a copy of the menu might make a nice momento. Still, it does boggle my mind when the visitors snap a shot someplace mundane, like Cracker Barrel or Ponderosa. But hey, whatever...for all I know the Endless Salad and Dessert Buffet might be a high point of the trip.

But in this case, I think that the party with the camera was actually a group of Amish teens in disguise. They took a photo, which wasn't too surprising. Then, they took another...and another...and another.... And of course it was one of those annoying cameras that strobes before the flash. Hubby was ready to don his sunglasses in order to avoid blindness, and still the flashing went on and on.

The reason that I suspect they were Amish is that no one other than the technologically deprived could be that enamoured of a simple digital camera. After each photo, they would gape at the display screen and ooo and ahhh as though they had just discovered the cure for cancer. "Oooo, look! The magic screen has captured our image! Do it again! Again!"

I supposed they could have been Unfrozen Cave Teens, but I am loathe to make sport of cavemen after seeing the Geico commercials. They are apparently quite a politically active group, always on the look-out for breaches of political correctness. With the Amish, I figure that their aversion to technology will work to my benefit; if those kids are just discovering a digital camera now, they have to be at least five years away from internet blogging, so it's not too likely they will read about themselves any time soon.

Actually, for all that I know, they were in the midst of "Rumspringer." That is a period in which Amish teens are allowed to experience the modern world before returning to the fold and focusing on traditional life. They probably won't even discover the internet before they return to the farm, with only thousands of digital images to remind them of that one carefree year.

Eventually, between the smoke and the strobe lights, I simply decided to pretend that I was in a nightclub enjoying the special effects. By that time, our food had arrived, and I tucked into a giant blueberry pancake laced with brown sugar butter. I rarely eat syrup on pancakes, preferring to risk a heart attack by slathering them thickly with butter. Apparently, it is a family trait, as my brother does the same thing (although he goes for the syrup, too). My husband and my brother's wife have often looked on in horror when we've all gone out to breakfast together...oblivious to their shock, my brother and I dip each bite into the individual butter portions that we have ordered.

Another odd familial trait is our propensity for eating gum. Yes, eating it. As a kid, I wasn't taught that it was for chewing; my brother ate it like candy, and I followed suit. Hubby never believe me until the time that I ordered a box of bulk gumballs in order to pick out the flavors that I like best. Once I had culled the good stuff, I turned over the remainder to my brother's kids. Like a plague of locusts, they descended onto the box of gum and shoveled it into their mouths in frenzied handfulls. Just one or two chomps, then gulp! Down the hatch. My husband just shook his head in disbelief.

Bro and I also share an affinity for hackepeter...despite the cannibalistic sounding name, the meat comes from cows. It's a German dish which is made by grinding up a raw filet. It is served, uncooked, with a raw egg on top and onions and capers on the side. But instead of watching in horror, my husband will join right in on that dish. It's hard to find in restaurants for obvious liability reasons, but there is a German place in the Chicago suburbs that offers the best raw beef you've ever consumed.

But there is no hackepeter on the menu at Max's, so I contented myself with the pancake. Hubby didn't seem to be suffering too badly with the meatloaf, even though it had gone through an oven. It was a nice, quick meal to refuel us for Round Two of work.

Thankfully, the effects of the flash had worn off sufficiently by the time we left so that I didn't wrap Crush around a tree on the way back to East Village. Usually, dinner at Max's is quite uneventful but this evening will stand out in my mind as unique. Not only did I have a good feed, but I also learned what those poor Disney characters must feel like as they pose for photo after photo after photo after photo. I sure hope that they get extra opthomolgic coverage as a part of their benefit package. An hour was long enough...I can just imagine the effects of flash photography after an 8-hour shift, day after day after day.

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Irony of Florida

Even though I've been a full-time Floridian for a couple of years now, the seasonal irony still baffles my mind. In Illinois at this time of year, I'd be mourning the fact that all too soon we'd be measuring the temperature by wind chill factor. I love autumn, but it descends into winter much too quickly in the north, and then you're stuck in the dry, stale, furnace-spewed air staring out at the dirty-gray snow piles and longing for the distant jewel that is spring.

Here in Florida, it's just the opposite. Instead of dreading winter, I'm ready to welcome it with open arms. Autumn isn't the harbinger of bitter, snowy days to come but of chilly-yet-sunny weather. Even if the night time temperatures dip close to freezing, the palm trees will still be swaying in the place of barren, skeletal Chicago trees and there will never be a need to scrape icy car windows or shovel the sidewalk.

This year, I have another reason to celebration the coming of winter. Figment, my horse, arrived in June, and it's been so beastly hot for riding. In the most oppressive heat, I rode him no more than half an hour at a time. As the temperature and humidity have slowly declined, our ride times have steadily increased. On the nicest days, I've had him out for three-hour trail rides. Instead of just plodding along at a walk, we can trot and canter without giving the poor creature heat stroke.

Our rides are building up to eventually doing the entire Lake Louisa trail system. There is a South Loop that I've never ridden, as it takes over four hours. This winter, we are going to tackle it. I will also be working my way through the various levels of the Appaloosa Horse Club's trail awards program. You earn patches for your riding time at various milestones, such as 100 hours, 300 hours, etc. I finally got around to registering Figment, as you are required to use a papered Appaloosa in the program. It's a shame all my summer riding time won't count, but we should be accepted into the program by the time the coolest weather starts hitting.

I'm not alone in my seasonal anticipation. Whether it be horseback riding or any other outdoor sport, my fellow Floridians are anxiously awaiting relief from the heat so they can indulge in their favorite activities. During the hottest, most beastly part of the summer, Celebration is a ghost town in the afternoons. The only people brave enough (crazy enough) to stir outdoors are the tourists, and that's because they have to in order to get enough value out of their vacation dollars. It's not much fun to hole up in an air-conditioned hotel room...the whole purpose of visiting Orlando is to sweat it out in the theme parks while trying to convince yourself just how much fun you are having. I feel sorry for the poor souls who have no choice but to take their vacations during the hottest part of the year. Hubby and I always visited in the fall and winter, so we never had much exposure to the famous Florida heat that so many people warned us about.

Actually, I've noticed an interesting phenomenon: I am now much more tolerant of high temperatures. Many people in Illinois warned, "You're going to hate living in Florida in the summertime. You'll be wishing you were back in Chicago." I feared the worst, as humidity used to make it difficult for me to breath and high temperatures wrung out my energy like a ragged dishcloth.

But that quickly passed once we moved to Celebration. Now, even some of the natives marvel at my tolerance and activity level at the hottest time of the year. Everyone at the barn was amazed that I managed to put in at least a short ride on Figment almost every day. Yes, it was hot, but I slathered myself in sunscreen and packed enough bottled water to hydrate an army. It was actually quite enjoyable to have the riding trails virtually to myself.

Now it's very apparent that fall is upon us, as the horse trailer lot is usually packed with vehicles on the weekends. Figment and I run into many other horses, and we've started to see a few intrepid hikers too.

I know that my blood has thinned, so I may find myself shivering among the other Floridians in a hat and mittens when the temperatures hit the 50s. I'd like to think I still have a bit of northern hardiness buried somewhere in my constitution, but that's probably wishful thinking.

Ah, I remember the old days, when my husband and I would visit Disney World in that nice little lull between Thanksgiving and Christmas. By then, we'd typically been battered down by at least one good snowfall in Chicago, not to mention the frigid temperatures. How good it felt to step onto the jetway at Orlando International Airport and to be smacked in the face by a wave of humidity! For Floridians, it was probably chilly, but to us it felt downright balmy. How wonderful to enjoy that every day without having to return to the Chicago tundra.

Soon I'll get to see falling leaves, or at least what passes for that here in Celebration. Next weekend the paper leaves will be released downtown on Market Street. The pumpkin patch is already set up on the lawn of Community Presbyterian Church, along with a very cool-looking inflatable "haunted house." Halloween decorations are cropping up in yards throughout town, and when the wind is right I hear the late-night fireworks display at Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party.

Perhaps all these signs of fall are stirring something deep inside. The other day, as I was gazing out the window at the reserve area across the street, I had the oddest feeling. I remember what it was like to be in my warm and toasty Chicago condo staring out at a blanket of white. I could feel what it was like to hustle through the brisk and bitter wind outside, bundled like an Eskimo, snow crunching beneath my boots and cold nipping any small patches of exposed skin. In a way, it felt invigorating...energizing. Then, when you finally made it inside, it felt so good to be embraced by the warmth.

I know that my memory was idolizing the experience. The reality was taking half an hour to chip a layer of ice from the windshield and air so cold it stung your lungs. The sky was typically gray and gloomy, and ice patches hidden beneath the innocent mantle of snow made walking an Olympic sport.

I may wax nostalgic about winter in Chicago, but you can bet that I won't take action on that feeling...the closest I intend to get this year is the "Ice" exhibit at the Gaylord Palms Hotel and the soapy snowfall in downtown Celebration. That will give me a quick fix, and then it'll be right back to sunshine and greenery and temperatures that stay above the magic freezing mark. Yes, it feels so ironic, but I love the winter!

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Coffee is Dead...Long Live the Coffee

Barnie's Coffee and Celebration...they go together like Mickey and Minnie, like Donald and Daisy, like Florida and hurricanes (well, okay, maybe not the last one). Barnie's has been an icon on the corner of Front and Bloom Streets since the early days of our town. It was a spot where you could always get a hot or cold drink to sip in the shady courtyard or in one of the rockers by the lake. It had such a hometown feel; you'd almost always see at least one familiar face.

It became a comfortable and familiar part of our lives; my husband loved their wonderful flavored coffee beans, and I switched off between Coolers and smoothies as my favored libation. Even before we moved to Celebration permanently, we often stopped at Barnie's for a consolation treat as we headed for the airport to return to Chicago. I even managed to get an Illinois co-worker hooked on Barnie's beans, and I'd bring her a stash back regularly (in the Chicago 'burbs, the flavored-coffee fad died out a long time ago, so flavored beans are not available fresh in coffee shops...you have to settle for the grocery store variety).

Once we made the move to Celebration, our house was almost always fragranced with the scent of Cool Cafe Blues, Santas White Chocolate, or another tempting flavor that was brewing up in the coffee pot. On Sunday mornings, I would have felt naked if I'd slipped into a pew at Com Pres without a carmel or vanilla cooler to give me my morning jolt of sugar-fueled energy.

But sadly, Barnie's has become another page in the Downtown Celebration ancient history book, alongside Goodings, renting paddle boats on the lake, and the availability of legal parking. It closed its doors forever on Sunday, September 27th, at 3PM. Most Barnie's locations have been bought out by Starbucks, and I'm told it will take about 9 weeks for the build-out/conversion. (Since this is Celebration, we can probably expect Starbucks to open sometime in mid 2007.) Starbucks is okay, but they don't have flavored coffee (I don't count the kind that is made with syrup...the flavor has to be in the beans or its not the real thing).

On that melancholy last Sunday, we were running late to church. But no matter what, I knew that I had to have one last Barnie's beverage in homage to the end of an era. We parked by Com Pres, and husband staked out a spot in the sanctuary while I rushed off to Bloom Street on foot. If all went well, I figured that I could make it back just before the opening hymn. No such luck! There was a crowd of people in front of me, and they were more interested in shooting the breeze about the closing than in actually placing/receiving their coffee order. I began to suspect that I wasn't going to have a last Cooler after all because their conversation seemed likely to last till the 3 p.m. closing time. Finally they got down to business, and once they were out of their way, I was able to place my final order of the era.

As I waited for my drink, I glanced around at the sparse interior that had once been a crowded, bustling coffee shop, with shelves of beans and various accessories. The cooler where baked goods had once sung their tempting siren songs was empty, and the walls looked as though looters had rampaged through town. I had gradually been getting used to the emptiness, as the shop had been a bit more sparse with each of my resent visits. But still, to know that it as D-Day added a special layer of sadness.

I hustled out the door, precious Cooler in hand, and galloped past the lake, through the Farmer's Market, around the corner, and across the street to the Com Pres compound. The first hymn had already started as I tried to slink in unobtrusively. I knew that God would find it in His heart to forgive me, and probably our pastor, too, since Barnie's plays an important role in the history of Community Presbyterian.

With Barnie's now officially closed, my husband jealously guarded his shrinking stash of beans in the pantry, but finally they dwindled away to critical levels. We had heard a rumor that the Barnie's in Dr. Phillips would remain open, so we took a jaunt out there (it was good excuse for lunch at Too Jays). The good news was: There was, indeed, a Barnie's, and it was still open. But there was bad news: We had quite literally stumbled across its very last day of existence.

This store looked even more forlorn than the Celebration Barnie's. It was stripped bare, save for a minisule stash of beans, and they hadn't even bothered to turn on the lights. The last-day customers were huddled in the darkness, drinking their farewell beverages in the shadowy gloom like something out of a Dickens novel. Although the selection was sparse, hubby did manage to find some suitable flavors to keep us going till we found a new "dealer."

Happily, we've discovered that the Barnies in the Loop shopping center is (supposedly) not closing, so we'll see...

But in the meantime, I have discovered a brand-new flavored coffee fix. My husband likes to grind and brew his fresh, but being a lazy sort, I prefer to buy it ready made. I discovered a heavenly flavored brew in the seemingly most unlikely of places: The Mobile gas station in the Water Tower Place shopping center at the entrance to Celebration.

Mobile has its own story...a few months back, it had a fire (supposedly from a lightning strike) that shut it down for months. I never realized just how often I patronized that station until it was gone. My fellow displaced Celebration residents and I wandered in confusion to the Race Trac station across the street, only to be swallowed alive in the constant quagmire of tourists who make getting a gas pump an extreme competitive sport. And even if it were not a crowded Hell on Earth, many of us don't like to cross 192 merely on principle. That requires leaving The Bubble, which we try to avoid as much as possible.

Finally we heard that Mobile was reopening. Better yet, they were handing out free mugs and coffee to celebrate their return to business. I'm a sucker for a freebie, so I headed over with a friend. Sure enough, not only were they giving mugs...

...but they were offered in two choices of designer colors/motiffs:

As a part of the deal, you could fill up your mug with your choice of free beverage. In the past, I had never bothered to enter the Mobile store. I'd purchase gas using my charge card at the pump and zoom off without any human contact. Little did I know that the innocent looking facade housed a wonderland of caffeinated delights.

It was like being a kid in a candy shop. My friend and I flitted from machine to machine, sampling everything from hot cocoa and Mint Chocolate Oreo cappucino to freshly brewed blueberry coffee! I've had flavors ranging from Bananas Foster to Chocolate Orange, but that was exotic even for me.

I finally settled on nice, conservative hazelnut, and it was so good! No more need to look for a dealer...my new source was identified. I just hope that lightning doesn't strike twice and burn the store again!

Now, hazelnut is my drug of choice, although I do waver and indulge in vanilla when I'm feeling particularly gutsy. I still haven't worked up the nerve to down a whole mug of blueberry, though. This month, I noticed that they also do seasonal flavors, and I highly recommend the pumpkin spice to any fellow coffee affeciandos who might have a Mobile nearby.

That Mobile is also a bastion of freebies. I don't even bother to use my mug for discounted refills because they are currently selling 20 ounce coffees for half price, which is even cheaper than the refill price. Better yet, they are handing out coupon books loaded with gratis items when you purchase a coffee. Want a breakfast sandwich? How about a baked good? Just make your choice, flip to the appropriate coupon, pony up less than $1 for your coffee, and it's yours for the asking. Today I was too late for breakfast sandwiches, but I got a fragrant cinnamon bun to compliment my hazelnut nectar from Heaven.

Thus, one coffee source has died out, but another has risen quite literally like a phoenix from the ashes to take its place. Mobile might not be as quaint as Barnie's, but I am a flavored coffee 'ho. I'll just have to learn to get up earlier for church, since Water Tower is a farther jaunt than downtown. Ah, the sacrifices I make for my addiction!

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