Tuesday, November 21, 2006

America's Wang Revisited

One of my favorite lines from the Simpsons, which I've quoted in my blog before, is Homer Simpson's lament when Dr. Hibbert suggests that he pay a visit to Florida: "But that's America's wang!" (Hibbert does correct him: "They prefer the Sunshine State.")

Recently I was Googling some of my favorite Simpsons quotes, and lo and behold, I found the following website:


Click here: Florida's Morning Wood

I have to admit that this site, and particularly its graphic animation, appealed to my rather perverse sense of humor. Remember, I am a person who has been known to wear an aluminum beanie to deflect the evil influences of the black balls that hang throughout town (granted, I was suffering from severe road fatigue at the time so psychotic hallucinations would not be out of the realm of possibility). I have visited a nudist colony (twice!) to oogle the painful piercings and flabby flesh; yes, I kept my clothes on, but it still takes some moxy (and/or margaritas). With that sort of mindset, the idea of living on America's Wang is a source of amusement for me.

I just hope that Disney World doesn't get wind of this. In their never-ending quest for corporate sponsorships, I can just imagine Wang Lang, their newest addition. For starters, Trojan could sponsor Pooh's 100 Acre Wood playground, and I'm sure that Viagra would pony up the dough for a new section of inflatable bouncy houses. Instead of Mickey and the gang, Smiling Bob from those Enzyte commercials would be on hand to sign autographs at the end of his company's sponsored ride, "It's A Small World After All...(till you use our product)."

Okay, enough wang jokes. I'm outta here...if you need to find me, I'll be at the Annual Passholders preview of Wang Land, hanging out near the foot long hot dog cart.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

In Search of a Microwave

In this day and age, you would think that purchasing a microwave would be a straightforward, and even mundane, task. Leave it to hubby and I to turn a simple shopping trip into a quest of "Lord of the Rings" proportions.

Those who read my previous blog entry know the background of the Microwave Trauma. While cooking frozen lasagna, the microwave fritzed out and the electrical outlet melted down like a nuclear tower on Three Mile Island. An electrician removed the scorched and twisted remains of the outlet box, snipping off the microwave plug which had fused itself to the melted mess. She warned us that the outlet had not been installed properly; one of the connections had never been tightened, so over time we were building up to the catastrophic failure that finally occurred.

She checked our breaker box and found several loose connections in there, too, as well as a stripped circuit breaker that couldn't be tightened at all! Perhaps not coincidentally, the stripped breaker was for the master bedroom, where we've had a plethora of electrical problems. Between the current mess, the loose neutral when we moved in, and various outlet problems over the first year of residency in Duloc Manor, I theororize that the original electrician was either drunk as a skunk or nursing one hell of a hangover. Either way, his mind was clearly not on this work.

Once our happy home was in an electrically safe condition, we shifted our focus to replacing the microwave. Technically, the existing microwave could be repaired. At the very least, it needs a new plug; it's even possible that's all it needs. It's covered under our extended warranty, so we'd pony up a $50 co-pay to get it back into working order.

As soon as the electrician was done, I called the warranty company to arrange for an appliance repair person. Warranty work is a slow process, especially when you call on a Friday afternoon. They fax a work order to the selected repair facility, who then calls to make an appointment on the next business day (in this case, Monday). However, when I hung up the phone, I realized that I'd been given the name of a company that doesn't service the Celebration/Kissimmee area because they are out in Oviedo. We'd been given the same company when our dishwasher died a few weeks ago, and it added an inordinate amount of time to the whole muddled mess.

I didn't really care with the dishwasher, since we only use it sporadically. But losing the microwave is nearly akin to losing a limb! My husband is the chef in our home, and while he does a lot of stovetop cooking, he relies on the microwave for plenty of small tasks. Both of us depend on it to heat up our lunches, warm up leftovers, etc. It was utterly pathetic to see the poor man heating up coffee in a saucepan on the stove this morning before church (if he makes it the night before, he will drink it the next day rather than brew up a whole new pot).

Besides the trauma an extended wait for repairs would cause us, hubby was leery of our trusty old microwave. According to the electrician, the outlet had been malfunctioning for a while, so he was suspicious that the oven's innards might have sustained some non-apparent damage. I was willing to take the chance, as my Premonition of Danger meter is close to zero. But my husband's attitude was to start from scratch; the identical microwave (albeit a newer version) is $199, and he felt that $149 wasn't an unreasonable price to pay for peace of mind.

I agreed to retire our current unit to Nuker Heaven and get a new one. He located the GE Spacemaker at both Home Depot and Appliance Direct (if you live in central FL, you are more than familiar with AD's hyperkinectic commercials from hell, but they really do save you a few dollars...$12 in the case of the microwave). AP said it would have to be ordered, while the Kissimmee Depot assured us that it was in stock. Thus we hopped into Canyonero (our Aztek) for what we believed would be a simple, unchallenging mission.

The first hint of a possibility that we were laboring under a Gypsy curse occurred when we arrived at Depot and were told the oven was out of stock. Wielding his printout of the store phone number and location, hubby determined that we were indeed at the right location. The sales associate had no explanation (although I picture some guy passing through the appliance department and picking up the phone on a lark, saying "Yeah, yeah, sure we have that!" while snickering into his hand).

But the associate assured us that he could get what we wanted from the warehouse by next week; better yet, there was a delivery charge rebate going on, so we could get it delivered for free and have it installed by the delivery person for only $20. My husband wasn't looking forward to the prospect of installing it himself, so we readily agreed.

After tapping on the computer for an inordinate amount of time, the associate excused himself with a look of worried confusion. When he returned, he broke the bad news: The free delivery option was only available for items of $299 and up. Since we didn't want to pop an additional $55, we decided to take our chances elsewhere. Since Depot had claimed it was in stock and it wasn't, maybe the opposite was true at Appliance Direct. They weren't all that far away, so it was worth a shot.

On the way out, we picked up an outlet tester; in view of our experience, I've decided that they should be standard issue to anyone buying a home in Florida (ours is not the only case of builder negligence that I know of...another Celebration resident even had a nasty house fire because of a similar problem with a loose neutral).

Well, in theory Appliance Direct wasn't all that far. In practice, we hadn't brought their address, so a spirited debate ensued over whether they were located on John Young Parkway or Orange Blossom Trail. Turns out it was OBT, but we had a heck of a time finding it because it goes by the name of Main Street where it meets 192.

Apparently the frenzied ads are successful, as Appliance Direct was jam-packed with fridge and stove-hungry customers fighting over the limited sales staff. We did a quick reconnaissance mission and located a GE Spacemaker on display in the exact model that we wanted...except that it was black rather than white. There was a white one in a box, but it was marked "Sold." Still, that was a good sign, as it meant that they actually stocked what we wanted.

We milled around for half an hour, stalking the sales staff like a hunter stalks a deer. It's pretty sad when you're competing with a dozen other people for the privilege of giving your money away. Eventually we corralled someone, but she broke the bad news: There was nothing in stock; it could be ordered, but it would take even more time than Depot and the installation charge was ridiculous.

We politely declined and headed back to Canyonero. To add insult to injury, hubby begged a quarter from me to buy M & M Peanuts from a neglected-looking gumball machine at the door. I wrinkled my nose and warned him, "It doesn't look like anyone has patronized that thing in a while." In blind optimism, he plugged in the quarter and held out his hand. Into his palm dropped several broken fragments and a couple of intact but dusty pieces. Ugh! He quickly deposited the unappetizing mess into the nearest garbage bin.

We debated the merits of searching for the Appliance Direct by Florida Mall, where we'd purchased our washer and dryer, vs. checking out Best Buy. AD won out, despite the fact that we had no idea where it was. Back when we had first shopping there, we didn't know our way around and relied entirely on maps. Thus, while we knew it was near the mall and located on a street beginning with "L," we were pretty much in the dark.

After a futile search, including crossing the Railroad Tracks of Doom into some sort of deserted alternate universe, we decided to head for Best Buy. By this time, hours had literally passed and my bladder was clamoring for attention. At the very least, Best Buy would have a restroom, even if the Coveted Microwave continued to elude us.

We rolled into the parking lot, not daring to let a shard of hope slip into our exhausted minds. We located the appliances, poked around a bit, and suddenly a chorus of angels broke out in song as a heavenly light shown down upon the display. There it was! A white GE Spacemaker in all its glory!

Still, we weren't going to be drawn in so easily. Seeing it on display is not the same as actually having a boxed model in your hot little hands. We looked up at the stock, which was stacked above the displays, and lo and behold...not one, not two, but half a dozen of the suckers were up there!

We weren't out of the woods yet. Like an insidious video game in which you complete one challenge, only to find yourself facing yet another, we realized that we would have to locate a salesperson. I left hubby guarding the microwaves while I went in search of The One Who Has Power to Take Down Stock. After two unsuccessful circuits of the area, I was ready to admit defeat. But after toying with me all day, God apparently decided to show me some mercy...a sales person suddenly materialized with a cheery chorus of, "Can I help you with something today?" ringing on his lips.

I nearly tackled the poor guy and dragged him to the microwave display. Hubby looked as though he might be seeing a mirage before he finally dared to believe that our quest was over. At this point, we had decided to worry about installation later; all we wanted was to know that the replacement oven was in our possession.

FINALLY! The journey was over, or so we thought...but there was one final, inexplicable complication. Hubby's charge card was declined, even though he had used it mere hours before to pay for lunch (and it worked fine the next day). I whipped out my card to complete the transaction and we rushed out the door with our precious booty before any other disasters could befall us.

The microwave is now resting safely in the frontroom, awaiting the installer who is coming tomorrow morning (we called the same person who fixed the ceiling hole resulting from our last builder incompetence disaster, i.e. the air conditioner leak). Meanwhile, we're still living like heathens, eating meals cooked (gasp!) entirely via stovetop. Tomorrow we'll have to have a little celebration as we press the button of Spacemaker II for the very first time and return to the wonders of irradiated food.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Burning Down The House

For the second time in its relatively short history (three years), Duloc Manor has managed to escape incineration. The first time, it was an improperly installed ground outside at the meter. We noticed that our lights flashed and wavered like a disco, so we called Progress Energy. The technician took one look at the mess, cut off our power, and said that he wouldn't turn it back on until the unsafe condition was corrected by an electrician. Basically, it was a fire waiting to happen. Since this was shortly after our closing, the house was still under warranty so the builder took care of it.

In that first year, we had two other outlet problems, but nothing particularly threatening. Both were repaired under the builder's warranty, and we didn't think any more about it.

Fast forward to the present day: It's dinnertime, and Barb is innocently preparing to nuke up some Stouffers lasagna. Little does she know that's she's about to flirt with fire once again.

Actually, I suppose that we should back up 15 years or so first to examine my fire paranoia. While I've never been in a house fire (thank God!), it happens to be a particular fear of mine. I don't know its roots, although the house next door to ours burned to the ground when I was an infant. Maybe some residual memory?

I also seem to have a premonitory sense where potential blazes are concerned. I always had a bad feeling about my brother's house, and I shared it with my husband. Sure enough, that creepy old place burned. Thank goodness only my nephew and grandnephew were home, and they both made it out safely.

I also absolutely hated my husband's house, which he had purchased before we were married. Since I lived in an apartment, I moved to his place after the wedding. That awful 1970's avocado-sided nightmare gave off the worst vibes I've ever felt. I was firmly convinced that one day we would come home to a smoldering heap of cinders.

Thankfully it never burned, but it did get destroyed by a flood. While we were gone for the weekend, the upstairs toilet tank cracked. The ensuing water did so much damage that it had to be gutted, and we had to move out for three months while it was almost entirely rebuilt. Interestingly enough, when the contractor was working on the basement rec room, he said that the wiring was a fire hazard. The former owner had installed it himself and apparently had no idea what he was doing. We had to have it all redone, and we sold the house shortly thereafter.

I never got that "danger sense" in my apartment or in our condo, which we bought after fleeing the Nightmare House. I never really had it at Duloc Manor, either, even after the initial electrical problem.

But then, a month or two ago, I was sitting out back in the hot tub and gazing through the window, and I had the oddest sense. I was looking in at the family room and kitchen, and overlaid onto the scene was a mental image of what it would look like in the aftermath of a blaze. I could picture the charred, blackened interior and the jagged, broken window. Despite the 99 degree water, it chilled me to my core.

I convinced myself that I was just paranoid and that it was my old fire phobia rearing its ugly head. I never said anything to my husband, and I forced it out of my mind. The sense came over me one more time, a few days later, but once again I pushed it away.

Now, let's jump to the day before all the excitement. I popped some tuna noodle casserole into the microwave, intending to have it for lunch. As it cooked, I went upstairs to shower since I'd just returned from the barn. Oddly, I flashed on something that hadn't entered my thoughts for years. I had a very good friend whose sister lived in a trailer. One day, the sister started nuking her dinner and fell asleep while it was cooking. Somehow, the microwave caught on fire; her house was totally destroyed, and she suffered some nasty burns while trying to rescue her pets.

I thought fleetingly, "Maybe it's not such a good idea to leave the microwave while it's running." But the thought had no real power; after all, my husband and I do it all the time. We'll pop something in, then wander off to another part of the house or even out in the yard. What are the odds that something will happen? They must be infinitesimal.

Now we can jump to the present. Once again, I was preparing to nuke some food. Since my husband was out, I dug out the frozen lasagna that would serve as my evening repast. I punched in 10 minutes at 50 percent power and pressed the magic start button.

This time, I had no time to ponder the wisdom of leaving the room. Almost as soon as I turned on the microwave, it started acting funny. It popped off and on twice before finally settling down into an erratic and wavering hum. I was a little disconcerted, but when it's on 50 percent it's normal for the motor to cycle. Still, this was going beyond the norm...the light inside, and even the time display, were flashing from bright to dim and back again.

I don't panic too easily, so instead of cutting the power, I called my husband on his cell phone to get a second opinion. He tends to err on the side of caution, so his advice was, "Turn it off!" I was reluctant, as I wanted that darned lasagna! True, the microwave motor was thrumming up and down as though it was bipolar, but it didn't seem to be spewing radioactivity. I figured I could nurse it through one last cook cycle before it gave up the ghost.

Hubby was still yammering with the voice of reason in my ear, while I tried to silently will the microwave to settle down and complete its task. But its erratic behavior was getting worse, and at this point my husband was urging me to turn it off and pull out the plug. "But I don't know where the outlet is," I lamented. He explained that it was in the upper cabinet, so I pulled up a chair and climbed up to locate it.

When I opened the cabinet door, the outlet was spewing blue sparks like a mini fireworks show gone terribly awry. There was no need for further discussion...I slammed that Off button with every ounce of strength in my index finger! Then I tried to pull out the plug, which was eerily hot to the touch, but it wouldn't come out. I felt the faceplate, and that was hot, too, as was the wall above it. Not good.

My husband instructed me to pull the circuit breaker; it bothered me that it hadn't tripped on its own, but I dutifully ran upstairs to cut the power. Then I cautiously approached the outlet, which was still quite hot. I decided to open it in case anything might be smouldering inside.

Once I had the thing dismantled, I realized just how closely I had flirted with disaster. The outlet had suffered a catastrophic meltdown, and I mean melt literally. The plug wouldn't come out because the heat had melded it to the socket. The wires and melted plastic were blackened by scorch marks, and the whole thing had a nasty burned odor. Thank God I had opened the cabinet door; the timer still had five minutes to go, and by that time I think there would have been a blaze in the wall.

I shivered, realizing just how close my vision of a blackened kitchen had come to reality. Believe me, if another appliance ever starts acting erractically, I'll turn it off first and ask questions later. The lasagna that had once been so important was now a half-thawed, forgotten lump.

For the third time this year, I pulled out the papers for our extended home warranty. I'm sure the company rues the day that they ever offered us coverage. First it was the leaking air conditioner pipe, then a broken dishwasher pump. Now, it will be an electrician. I said a silent prayer of thanks that we had purchased the coverage. If we hadn't, I can't even imagine how much we would have racked up in repairs this year.

I also said a prayer thanking God for averting disaster. I don't know if my premonitions were some sort of warning, but I do know that if this had happened just one day earlier, I would have been in the shower and the blaze would almost surely have taken hold. I can't even imagine walking downstairs to a fiery kitchen disaster.

It will be interesting to hear what the electrician says. It seems to me that the circuit breaker should have tripped, so I wonder if there is a more fundamental problem than just a faulty outlet. Between this and the other electrical faults that cropped up right after closing, I wonder if our wiring was done by someone who was either drunk or suffering from a massive hangover.

Oh well, the important thing is that my vision didn't come to pass. As scary as it was, at least the meltdown is safely over now. And perhaps it was meant to happen the way that it did...if the outlet had to fry, at least it occurred when someone was right in front of it.

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It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Here in Celebration and the surrounding environs, signs of the holiday season are springing up like the weeds that love to invade my flower beds. Halloween was barely upon us before the first Christmas decorations popped up in store windows. Of course, it was the same in Chicago, but here we have an extra layer: The holiday tourist attractions. Driving by the Gaylord Palms hotel, our eyes were assailed with the giant "ICE!" sign. Ads are everywhere for the Dixie Stampede's special Christmas show.

At Disney World, the switch was thrown on Monday for the annual Osborne light extravaganza. This year, playing on last's year viral internet sensation (the video of the house with lights choreographed to Trans Siberian Orchestra music), Disney's lights are now dancing. The millions of twinkling bulbs will now perform to musical strains. That should be really cool...for about five minutes. I hope they have a plan in place for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder treatment for the poor Cast Members who are subjected to it for hours at a stretch.

I am dying to see the Osborne lights, so one of these evenings I am going to play hooky from my online counseling work and run over to see them. But my favorte Disney activity doesn't start until after Thanksgiving: The Candlelight Processional. It's a beautiful retelling of the Christmas story by a celebrity narrator, with a live band and wonderful, stirring music sung by a chorus of cast members and high school students.

This year, there are several narrators who I would like to see. We saw Gary Sinise before, but I wouldn't mind a repeat performance. I'd love to see Cuba Gooding Jr.'s debut this year, as well as Neil Patrick Harris (although I wonder if the Christian fundamentalists who get so bent out of shape over Gay Days will be there to protest because an openly gay person would dare to tell the Christmas story...they seem to forget that Jesus was all about love and acceptance).

In conjunction with the Processional, I love to stick around for the special holiday version of Illuminations. At the end, they do a special show to the strains of "Let There Be Peace on Earth," capped with an explosion of fireworks that literally shakes the ground. Breathtaking!

'Round about that time, it will start snowing nightly here in Celebration. I just love that event...I walk downtown almost every night to marvel at the spectacle of kids swarming Market Street to play in the soapy pseudo-snowflakes. There is something about it that underscores why I chose to move to Celebration. It's just so touristy and surreal and cool. I live in the place that people go out of their way to visit! I can see the snowfall every single night! How cool is that?

For two years, I've been miffed that when Lexin took over from Disney, they changed the musical accompaniment and eliminated "Merry Christmas Everyone" by Shakin' Stevens. It was the perfect song...I mean, look at the first few lines:

Snow is falling all around me, children playing, having fun,
It's the season, love and understanding, merry Christmas everyone,
Time for parties and celebration...

Time for Celebration, indeed! Oh well, this year I have an MP3 player, so while everyone else is subjected to the tinny strains of the lame current line-up, my ears will be filled with the appropriate tune.

But while it looks like Christmas in the populated environs, it's hard to tell that we're only two weeks away from December out in Lake Louisa State Park. Back in Illinois, I would be counting the last precious days of horseback riding before ice and snow make the trails too trecherous and the wind chill factor drops below the tolerance point. Here in Florida, this is prime riding time! Nice and cool, and virtually no bugs, at least as compared to the swarms in the sweltering summertime.

I'm sure that the trees are skeletal by now in the Cook County Forest Preserve District where I used to ride. Out here, there are a few seasonal skeletons, but the stately pines are still shrouded in green and the ground cover is dotted with flowers and berries in goreous shades of white, yellow, pink, purple and red. The orange groves are dotted with brightly colored bounty. In Florida, winter doesn't make an end, but rather a beginning...the kick-off of the prime riding season. I've already had Figment out for a couple of four and a half hour jaunts. Poor horse! Little does he know that it's just a taste of many long winter journeys to come.

Once Thanksgiving comes, the time-speed will kick into warp gear and Christmas will be here in the blink of an eye. Every year, I can help but feel melancholy on December 26th...such a massive build-up, and then the rug is jerked out from under you. No more Peace on Earth and Goodwill Towards Men, just back to the humdrum regular rythmn of life. But that's okay, as I suspect that the wait won't be nearly as long for next year. Since Christmas started before Halloween this year, I'm laying my bets that we can stretch is to as early as Labor Day in 2007...and maybe even kick it off in tandem with 4th of July in 2008!

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Happy Founders Day: 10 Years And Counting

bloThis past weekend was Founders Day Weekend, a holiday unique to Celebration. Back in the day, this pseudo-holiday was created by Disney as one of the components to start new traditions and bind us together with a sense of community. To that end, it features happenings such as a carnival night, Town Photo, unveiling of bricks with the names of new homeowners, and the handing out of annual community service awards. At its best, it ends with a bang as fireworks light up the sky over Lakeside, although they were absent last year. Thankfully, they were restored in 2006.

So what exactly do we celebrate, you might ask? The actual founding of Celebration itself? The initial founding families who moved in during that first year? Our earliest founder, the Walt Disney Company? And what, exactly, would that mean? The day the town was conceived in a brainstorming session? The day it got the green light? The day The Celebration Company (TCC) was created? The initial groundbreaking? The date the first home was sold? Built? Moved into?

Near as I can tell, it celebrates the lottery that was held in such fanfare to determine those lucky folks who got to purchase the very first lots or to rent into the first wave of apartments. Or maybe it's actually the first move-in date, since that occurred in 1996 and we're celebrating the 10th anniversary this year. Who really knows? Who really cares? We'll take any excuse for a party!

Last year's Founders Day Weekend was a bit of a let-down. It was our third since purchasing Duloc Manor in 2003 (we closed just a couple of months before the "holiday"), and seeing the same old booths and restaurant offerings just isn't all that exciting the third time around. Also, each year we noticed that the turnout for the town photo was more and more anemic. Instead of growing, you'd think that our population was shrinking rapidly or that some secret toxic plague was killing us off ala the Love Canal.

But worst of all was the absence of fireworks. With Disney no longer owning downtown, there was no one to foot the bill. How can you properly cap off a holiday (even a made-up one) without a light show exploding in the sky? With nothing to entice us to stick around town last year, we did a quick once-over of the booths and then headed off to Logan's on 192 for dinner with our neighbors.

Thankfully, this year Lexin (downtown's current owner) ponied up for the return of the fireworks. If they hadn't, the Bunny Brigade was planning to take matters into our own hands by donning our trademark ears and running around the lakeshore holding sparklers and yelling, "Bang! Bang!"

Even though we've been at the Saturday festivities each year since 2003, my husband and I have always managed to be out of town on Friday night (the day of the carnival). This year we were bound and determined to finally attend.

The carnival has the greatest small-town feel of any of the Founders Day Weekend activities. Even though the name might imply it, you won't find crazy-eyed carnies running staple rides like the Zipper and the Tilt-A-Whirl. It's really more of a fun fair, with various game booths were the kiddies can try their luck. There were also hayrides pulled by your choice of draft horses or a tractor.

We brought Crush, my NEV (Neighborhood Electric Vehicle) and scored a very convenient NEV parking spot. Market Street and Front Street both looked quite festive, with colored lights strung on the booths and excited, squealing kids running here and there. The weather was perfect...a clear black-velvet sky and just the smallest hint of fall coolness. It wasn't enough to require a jacket, but you were reminded that summer's humidity was now just a memory for a few precious months. We strolled around, observing the festivities, and I got a fresh-squeezed lemonade at Kilwin's. I indulged in a round of the cakewalk, which I haven't done since I was a kid, although thankfully for my waistline I didn't win.

We didn't stick around too long. We just wanted to get a flavor of the most resident-oriented piece of the festivities. On Saturday, there are plenty of locals, but lots of out-of-towners also drift in to partake of Taste of Celebration and check out the fireworks show.

The next day, we had planned to attend the Town Barbeque and the Town Photo immediately following it; then, we'd go home till the evening and return to browse the booths before the fireworks. But at the appointed time, my husband and I both realized that we didn't have much of a taste for barbeque, thanks to God's ironic sense of humor.

Just a couple of days beforehand, we had planned to eat at Artist Point, the fine dining restaurant at Disney's Wilderness Lodge. In addition to its signature Cedar Plank Salmon, it also offers buffalo steak and a variety of other tempting main dishes, as well as the absolute world's best cream of mushroom soup. Heaven would be to float along in a vat of that soup with a straw running directly into my mouth.

I always make reservations when we dine at Disney World, even if I call right before we leave the house. Getting into the most popular restaurants is akin to an Olympic sport, so by calling I can work my way through a list of alternates if our first choice isn't available. Artist Point is one of those alternates; when literally nothing else is available, we've always been able to get in even if we call half an hour before we plan to show up. And I mean always...we have eaten there more times than I care to count and have never failed to get a same-day ressie.

Given our track record, I didn't both to call. My husband warned me that this just might be the time that we needed a reservation, but of course I pooh-poohed him. It was a weeknight in a semi-dead time of the year at the restaurant that is never full. What could possibly go wrong?

(At that moment, I'm sure that God was rubbing His hands together with glee and snickering, "Let me show you, Barb!")

It only takes a few minutes to get from Celebration to the Lodge. We traipsed through the hotel and bounced confidently up to the podium. Beyond me, I could see the nearly-empty restaurant as usual. I announced, "Two please, and today we don't have a priority seating."

"I'm sorry," said the host, "but we're not talking walk-ups today because we are completely booked."

I glanced at the deserted diningroom, then back at him. "But you're never full," I gasped in disbelief, sure that I had either heard him in correctly or had landed in some Bizarro World where words had taken on the opposite meaning.

"Well, tonight we've got two parties of 20 and one of 17, and we're understaffed," he explained. I just gazed at him with glazed eyes as the ugly truth sunk in...God had once again seized an opportunity to pimp me. Fortunately, my husband maneuvered me away from the podium before I could drop to my knees and start begging for some soup in a to-go cup.

We stopped at the concierge desk to check availability at our other favorite restaurants, but alas, they were all full too. I noticed that Whispering Canyon Cafe, the Wilderness Lodge's casual diningroom, didn't seem to have a wait, so we opted to stay where we were. Granted, it's quite a leap down from salmon roasted on a cedar plank to a barbeque platter, but beggars can't be choosers.

We ended up having a very pleasant meal, and after some sort of special martini that came with a light-up plastic ice cube and a lot of alcohol, I was in a much better mood. Whispering Canyon is a neat place (especially if you have fidgety kids), with lots of noisy revelry. The young un's parade around the tables at various times, ride stick horses, and engage in various other Disney-esque activities designed to burn off energy. Even though they seated us on the back patio, which seems to the be "quieter" area, I could still hear the sounds of excitement echoing in the main diningroom.

After our recent barbeque meal, the idea of similar chow on Saturday wasn't too appealing. We ended up going to Cracker Barrel, and it was a good thing we did, as we heard that the picnic food ran out very early. I guess word got around that free food was involved, so the crowd was bigger than anticipated despite a request for RSVPs.

We stopped home after lunch to round up our next door neighbors for the photo. Normally it is taken at Lakeside, but this year it was to be snapped in Market Street in homage to the original town photo, which was taken in the same spot. I've seen that first picture, and the crowd crammed onto the street is larger than it's ever seen in subsequent years. I've heard rumor that it was supplemented with Disney employees; sounds credible, since I don't think there were enough homes existing to fit the number of bodies posing as "residents."

This year, the crowd could definitely have used some Disney stand-ins. I was sad as I stood among my fellow diehards and wondered what the street would have looked like if most of the residents had actually shown up. But I suppose that "resident" is a rather loose term, since so many of the houses and condos are vacation homes or unoccupied properties whose owners were hoping to "flip" them before the real estate market went belly up.

But my cheer returned when I realized that it didn't matter; I was here, in Celebration, only eight miles from the Magic Kingdom! I was standing with my wonderful next door neighbors, unlike Illinois where I didn't even know the people who literally lived below me and within spitting distance across the hall. It was mid-November, and I was wearing a t-shirt and basking in the sunshine. How could I not be happy?

First was a general group photo, and then we all lined up based on the year we had moved in. Hubby and I dutifully trotted over to the 2003 line, along with our nextdoor neighbors, whose house had risen up in tandem with Duloc Manor. Most of us were from East Village, since that was the phase that sprang up in that timeframe.

After the photo, we returned home to put in a few hours of work before the night's festivities. Then it was back into Crush to venture downtown once again. We found a fairly decent parking spot and trooped off to Front Street, with music from the lakefront stage guiding us to the midst of the action. None of us had had dinner, so we decided to eat at Columbia. They usually don't have a wait, and their Spanish/Cuban cuisine is delicious (the sangria is pretty darned good too). They're located right across from the lake, so we figured that we would eat and then stroll over for the fireworks show.

I had forgotten just how leisurely a meal at Columbia can be. It was ten minutes to fireworks time, and we had only made it through a pitcher of sangria and our appetizers. We promised our server that if he saw us all suddenly run outside, we weren't running out on the bill! As luck would have it, our main courses arrived five minutes before the show; he offered to bring them back to the kitchen to keep them warm, but since they were piping hot we figured they'd still be fine by the time the fireworks were over.

We dashed out onto the patio at the appointed time, and the first explosions boomed across the lake directly at 9 p.m. We were treated to what I would call a "stutter fireworks show," as it paused several times and people broke into applause, thinking that it was over. Then, it would suddenly start up again! It was a long show, lasting a full 20 minutes, with several points where the burst was exciting enough to have been considered a finale.

Once it had really concluded, we returned to our neglected dinners, which had indeed remained relatively warm. By the time we were done eating, most of the crowd had cleared out so there was no traffic on the ride back home.

As I maneuvered Crush down the winding roads of East Village, I could barely believe that this was my fourth Founders Day weekend. Not so long ago, moving to Florida had been a distant dream, slated for a decade in the future. Now, we've owned our home in Celebration for over three years already! Where does the time go?

The town has changed quite a bit in that timespan...I can only imagine how different it must look to those who moved in way back in 1996. Not all of the changes have been positive, but still, at its core it remains the wonderful, friendly place that we fell in love with the first time we ever visited. Hopefully we'll still be here when Founders Day #20 rolls around.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Gatorland is Gutted!!

In this era of glitzy theme park attractions, where multi-million-dollar roller coasters and state-of-the-art, special effects laden shows are the norm, it's hard to imagine a simpler time when Mom and Pop attractions were the bread and butter of Florida tourism. Anyone remember Xanadu, the Home of Tomorrow? Sadly, after sitting dormant for years (other than an occasional stint as a squatting ground for the homeless), it was recently demolished. Water Mania survived up until a few months ago, but now it is being leveled to make way for the "Shoppes of Celebration" (having comendeered our name, even though it is across 192 from our fair town).

But one great kitchzy Florida landmark has survived and thrived for the past 57 years: Gatorland.

At left is the world-famous (well, okay Florida-famous) entrance in its original form. Every now and then we pass it if we're out on the Kissimmee end of Orange Blossom trail, and I always make the mental observation, "We really need to visit Gatorland someday."

But early this morning, the big news story was that the venerable landmark attraction was in flames. Here is the fire at its worst point, transforming the jaws into those of an angry, fire-breathing dragon caught in the midst of an inferno.

Here is the Gatorland entrance amidst the smoky aftermath. Thankfully the landmark "jaws" are made of concrete, unlike the old tinder-wood buildings, so they are scathed but still standing.

Here are the sad remains of the main building. The jaws bear the black battle scars of the morning's inferno.

As far as I know, they haven't figured out the cause of the fire yet. But according to the news, the attraction will rise like a scaled phoenix from the ashes. Here is a quote from the president, lifted from the media (the photos above are media photos, too):

"This ain't our first rodeo," said President Mark McHugh, whose wife is the granddaughter of original owner Owen Godwin Sr. "In 57 years we've had hurricanes, gas crisis, recessions, 9-11. A fire's not going to stop us."

The good thing is that the fire was contained in the front of the property. Gatorland's animal habitats are scattered around, so the only thing lost besides the gift shop/offices/main building were two snakes and an unfortunate croc.

I hope that they will reopen because in all the time I passed and made a mental note to schedule in a visit, I never quite got around to it. After all, it had been there for over half a century. Surely it wasn't going anywhere any time soon!

I should have remembered that God has an ironic sense of humor. He demonstrated it for me in similar circumstances a couple of times in Illinois. The most notable was with one of my favorite restaurants, Die Bier Stube (which featured German cuisine, in case the name wasn't a dead giveaway). It was an old hellhole that had been around for eons, housed in the most fire-trap building you can imagine. But their food was the absolute best, from the giant, plate-sized schnitzels that came in a dozen or more varieties to the salad bar featuring delicious home-made selections.

Thankfully we got to eat there a few times; then, one day, as we approached the restaurant, we realized that there was no parking for what seemed like miles. We had apparently arrived in the midst of some sort of car show. Traffic was jammed, roads were blocked, and it was just a huge balls-up in general. I remember my famous last words: "Let's just go eat somewhere else. Klaus's will be here forever." (Klaus's was the local name for the place, sort of like Market Street Cafe is Max's to long-time Celebrationites.)

A few weeks later, we returned...our taste buds and bellies were primed for a lovely slab of schnitzel. As we approached the building, I observed to my husband, "That's weird. There's parking right in front!"

A moment later, both of us could see why. We were pulling up to a gutted, fire-scorched structure. Klaus's had burned down literally the day before! So much for, "They will be here forever."

A few years later, we won a gift certificate to a Chicago restaurant in a charity raffle. We kept putting off our visit, and lo and behold! One day, the top news story was that very restaurant burning to the ground.

Actually, as I type this, an ancient childhood memory has resurfaced. My mother and I used to frequently pass a restaurant called "The Surrey" on south Western Avenue. I remember the name because even as a toddler, we were big on show tunes in our house. At the tend age of four or so, I knew all the words to "Surrey with the Fringe On Top" from the play Oklahoma. Each time we passed, she would say, "Someday we'll stop there to eat." Someday never came, and then one evening we passed and saw the place surrounded by fire trucks and squads. Another one bites the dust...it was an incincerated heap of rubble.

Of course, Gatorland is not a restaurant, and unlike the three eateries I've mentioned, it will (hopefully) be resurrected (actually, a new Klaus's was opened 45 minutes away from the original location; we ate there pretty steadily, considering the distance, but it never quite measured up to the original).

But still, it won't quite be the same. We'll be stepping through the same (albeit repainted) portal, but 57 years of history is gone so it will just be sloppy seconds. Like Klaus's, which lost a diningroom-full of German treasures (the walls were lined with dolls, steins, knick-knacks, and antiques, and the owner literally cried in the street as it all went up in the conflaration), most of Gatorland's memorabilia is now toast. We will only see a second-tier re-creation.

Still, I am glad that they will reopen. The last thing we need is another subdivision or big box retailer out there on Orange Blossom Trail. "Old Florida" is fast disappearing, and Gatorland is one of the last remnants. When it is finally rebuilt, you can bet that I will be one of the first customers in line. No more "somedays" for me, because too often someday never rolls around.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006


As much as I love Florida, it does have one disquieting feature: larger than life insects. I'm not afraid of reptiles and most bugs, but spiders throw me into fits. I don't mind the small, harmless sort, but the gigantic, hairy, dagger-fanged behemoths that make their home in the Sunshine State are enough to scare a hard-core entomologist.

I never see any around our house because Duloc Manor is sprayed by Terminix regularly. That's not done so much for the spiders as for the optimistically tagged "palmetto bugs" (that's roaches to the rest of the nation). We don't have any roach-like critters in our house, and if I have my way we never will.

But I ride my horse, Figment, regularly in Lake Louisa State Park, and it's a haven for huge, hideous arachnids. We used to have some pretty large ones in Chicago, particularly the hairy, pointy legged basement spiders that would actually run at you if you tried to send them to Arachnid Heaven with a roll-up newspaper. But those look like circus midgets compared to their Floridian counterparts.

The state park spiders build their webs in trees, often between branches that spread across the riding trails. Supposedly they are banana spiders; not the poisonous South America variety, but a "harmless" species with venom that won't cause more than a welt in human victims. They may be harmless, but they're freakin' big! Huge! To get an idea, use Google Images and you'll find a photo of someone holding a cigarette pack up to a banana spider web. It's eight-legged occupant is easily as large as the pack.

In a way, I'm glad that the state park is infested with spiders, as they eat the other, more annoying insects. Unfortunately, they also like to block some of my favorite trails, particularly the ones with standing water (which much draw more bugs). This means that I must knock down their webs with my fly whisk in order to pass. The spiders are bold and stand their ground in mid-web, even as the Stick of Doom descends. I doubt that it harms them, but I'm sure they're pissed that I ruin hours of web-spinning in one fell swoop.

Every now and then, I won't see a web until it's almost too late. The spiders always seem to perch right at eye level, so if you don't duck in time, you stand a good chance of winding up with a creepy crawly on your face. My worst nightmare! Luckily, up until today I've always managed to duck at the last minute.

But this afternoon I was sleeping at the switch; Figgie and I had been on a four-hour ride to the South Trail, and we were both on autopilot as we headed back to the barn. Suddenly, whap! I didn't see the spider web and its horror-movie-sized occupant until a split second before it struck me in my face!

I immediately started writhing and screaming and batting at my face. Thank goodness Figment is a laid-back horse (and I'm sure the exhaustion of an hours-long ride didn't hurt). He just plodded along, ignoring my hysterics. Finally he realized that something was going on and politely stopped until I could pull myself together.

In the midst of my hysteria, I realized that the spider was actually stuck on my sunglasses. Thank goodness he wasn't touching my precious facial flesh! All I had to do was toss away the glasses and I would be safe from the Fangs of Terror. I chucked them off to the side of the trail and immediately brushed off the rest of my body, just to be safe.

When I had calmed down, I dismounted to retrieve my sunglasses. Figment was still calmly taking it all in, so I allowed him to graze as a reward for not dumping my panicky butt in the sand. I found the glasses, which were thankfully sans spider, and dragged my carcass back up into the saddle. There were no more close calls, but my skin was still crawling with the memory of my traumatic encounter.

Oh well, as yucky as the spiders are, I'll take Florida's sunny winters any day; an occasional creepy crawly in the face is well worth the payoff.

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