Monday, December 31, 2007

Bingo With Reels

As a part of our Christmas festivities, hubby and I usually exchange a batch of lottery tickets and scratch them on Christmas morning. This year we were just too darned busy, so we decided to do the tickets on New Years. Then a Travel Channel show on Las Vegas gave me a better idea: Why not just go to the Indian casino in Tampa?

We hadn't been to a casino in years. Back in Illinois, gambling had been legal for ages so it wasn't anything unique for us. The Illinois progression of legality was an interesting one. First, the casinos had to be on riverboats that actually went out and sailed. Thus, you would board and be stuck on the boat for 2-3 hours, even if you had tapped out all your funds.

Next, the law was loosened to allow gambling while the boats stayed docked. This meant that they could let people come and go as they pleased. Not much different than a land-based casino, other than the remote possibility of sinking.

Nowadays, the boats don't even pretend to be actual riverboats. They're just barges that are virtually indistinguishable from a land-based casino.

We lived within 30-45 mins. of the boats, so we'd go every now and then when the urge to throw away a chunk of money hit. I'm not much of a gambler; I bring a set amount and view it as paying for any other entertainment. I could go to a play for $50, or I could plug it all into a slot machine. Either way, I count it as an hour or two of amusement with the money gone at the end. Any funds that are left over after a casino trip are a bonus.

Having been able to gamble at will in Illinois meant that it didn't hold any special appeal in Florida. Also, when I visit a casino, I have to count on at least one day of a running faucet nose anyway, because I am very sensitive to cigarette smoke and the air in a typical gaming facility is 1% oxygen and 99% noxious burning tobacco. Even though smoking inside buildings is banned in Florida, the casinos are run by Indians so they are exempt from the law.

Ironically, Illinois has just passed its own smoking ban and did not exempt its casinos. They are not Indian-run, so the only way they could have been exempt would have been a special provision in the law. It will be interesting to see if one is added later, but in the meantime I sort of wish I was there so I could dump a few bucks into the slots and actually be able to breath at the same time. The jitters of the severely tobacco addicted going through withdrawals, yet unable to tear themselves away from the machines that feed their secondary addiction, would provide some great entertainment.

But it had been long enough to where I decided I could sacrifice my lungs for a dance with Lady Luck. Thus hubby and I piled into the Family Truckster, dubious directions from MapQuest in hand, and tooled down I-4 to the Hard Rock Casino.

On the way, we noticed a winery sign as we approached Plant City. Always game for wine tasting, and fascinated with the concept of wines made in Florida, we decided to take a detour. We're big fans of the Lakeridge Winery in Clermont, which actually has its own vineyards, so we thought this might be another neat little find.

The winery was a few miles off the interstate, but thankfully the way was marked with frequent signs. Soon we found ourselves pulling into the parking lot of something called the Keel and Curley Winery, home of blueberry wine (yes, made totally with blueberries instead of grapes) as well as a number of fruit-infused varieties made with a traditional grape wine base.

The tasting bar was packed, so we browsed for a bit until a spot opened up. I was drooling at many of the varieties on the shelves: Blueberry semi-dry, Key Lime, Black Raspberry, and Peach Chardonny, just to name a few. They didn't sound all that different than my favorite Wild Vines Fine Wine Product (blackberry flavored) at Publix, except with a larger price tag.

The tasting itself offered a sampling of six wines of your choice for $3. Hubby and I each chose six different ones so we could end up tasting a dozen. Almost all of them were delicious, and he was especially fascinated with their red ice wine. He is a big ice wine fan (a dessert wine that tends to be very sweet because it is made from frozen grapes), but 99% of them are white. The red was so good that we ended up getting a bottle. Actually, they were all so good that we ended up getting a case of 12 bottles that we mixed and matched.

Suitably stocked up on wine, we resumed our quest for the Hard Rock Casino. I was also rather hungry, since we didn't have breakfast or lunch, but we didn't want to go to a typical chain restaurant and that's all we saw all the expressway. We did see something called a Country Market, but it turned out to be a not-so-appealing buffet so we skipped it. Hubby tried to sooth my savage stomach by pointed out that the casino would probably have some good restaurants.

As we tooled along, I was a bit worried by the fact that there wasn't one billboard. Not one. In Illinois, starting about 50 miles out, you'll see signs: "Casino, 50 miles ahead," "Casino, 49 miles ahead" and so on. The only gambling-related billboard I had spotted was one touting a toll-free helpline for addicts.

As we got closer, the absence of signs continued. I followed hubby's directions and exited I-4, but it turned out they bore utterly no relation to the actual location of the casino. After driving aimlessly on the outskirts of Tampa, he finally called the casino and they gave us real directions. This isn't the first time that MapQuest has led us astray, and the non-existent directional signs merely added to the confusion.

Finally the Hard Rock was in sight. I pulled into the parking garage and headed up to the casino entrance (the complex also houses a hotel). The moment we entered the hallway, the stench of stale smoke, infused with fresh, slammed me like a noxious wall. It grew in power as we approached the gaming floor, and soon we found ourselves in the midst of slot machines of every variety. Well, at least I thought they were slot machines. They sure looked like 'em and worked like 'em, with the exception of not using tokens. Instead, you fed your money in and were paid out with an electronic slip.

I tend to like Double Diamond, Red White and Blue, and the novelty machines like Jackpot Party. Hubby and I tried a bank of machines near the poker room, but we ended up moving to a different section where I found a semi-generous Double Diamond machine. Just as hubby settled in, I noticed a section of Jackpot Party slots just beyond, so he hurried over there. I stayed with my current machine, as I had been down and it had just about gotten me even again.

When I had recouped my losses, I moved over to Jackpot Party. Hubby's machine was a dud, but mine was actually quite generous. At my highest point, I could have left with a $50 profit but I played it away and stopped once I was even.

On all of the machines, we noticed that there was a digital display having something to do with Bingo. We figured it was some sort of progressive jackpot and didn't pay it any mind, but I'd never noticed that on every machine in any other casino.

After cashing out, we sought out the restaurants and ended up eating at the first one we came to, Floyds (they also have a steakhouse, a mid-range place, and the requisite casino buffet, but we were too lazy and hungry to seek them out).

As we entered, I made it a point to ask if the restaurant was non-smoking. Being Indian owned, I knew they didn't have to follow the law. The hostess assured me that it was, so we took our seats and finally indulged in our first meal of the day. It was dinnertime so I was more than ready!

I had butternut squash and crab soup as my appetizer, group for dinner, and egg nog creme brulee for dessert. It was a lovely meal, spoiled somewhat by the horror of seeing the people right next to us (in a raised section) all lighting up their cigarettes and blowing the smoke in our direction. What the &^!*#@?!

I am not shy about confronting people directly, but I had a sneaking feeling that there was some loophole despite the hostess's assurances. Sure enough, I grabbed her as she walked by and she said, "Oh, that's the bar area. They can smoke there." Uh, the bar is in the middle of the restaurant, with tables right next to the dining tables. That is not a non-smoking restaurant. It was the old Illinois concept of the "invisible wall" all over again, and the smoke never seems to know how to stop there.

Thankfully by that time we were on dessert. After we completed our meal, we checked out the other restaurants for future reference. The moment we saw the steakhouse menu, I regretted just grabbing the first choice. They had steak tartare!!!! YUM!!! Raw steak!! It's nearly impossible to find because of the liability issues, since basically they serve you a raw, ground-up filet. I gave the hostess the third degree about the smoking policy, and she claimed that the bar was totally closed off and separate from the restaurant, so it looks like I'll be able to return.

Then we headed up to check out the buffet. I'm not normally a buffet person; I've been through too many meals at Disney World where I've watched kids taste stuff and toss it back or cough right onto the chow to ever be fully comfortable with them. But this buffet looked wonderful, and much of the food was at cook-to-order stations, eliminating the risk of child (or rude adult) contamination. There was no bar at all, thus no smoking. The snow crab legs alone were a powerful lure for me.

We decided that the steak tartare would be enough to lure us back someday, even if we didn't bother to gamble or only dropped a few bucks.

In the car, hubby was telling me about some deal the Florida governor is trying to make with the Indians. It didn't seem to make sense, since they already have gambling and the state has no say in it. My curiosity piqued, I looked it up on the internet. Part of the deal would allow the Indians to have "Vegas-style slot machines." Now I was really confused because it sure seemed like I had just been playing Vegas-style slot machines. They were all the familiar game types, and they certainly worked the same way as any other slot I'd ever played.

I did a little more research, and suddenly the little Bingo display on each machine made sense. Apparently Indian casinos can have certain kinds of games without state approval, one of which is Bingo. However, they can't have slot machines unless they make a pact with the government. The Seminoles in Florida cleverly get around this by somehow hooking up their slots into a computerized Bingo system and paying off with the slips rather than coins. I don't know the relevant law, but apparently this makes them "Bingo" rather than slots. They're limited on their gaming (only pseudo-slots and poker), but they get to keep all the profits. If the deal with the state goes through, they'll be able to have Las Vegas-style slots and expand to other games like blackjack, but they'll have to give a cut to Florida.

Either way, it doesn't matter to me as long as they have Double Diamond, Red White and Blue, and Jackpot Party. I never figured out how the Bingo part worked, but it doesn't really matter. As long as I can spin the reels and take my chances, it's a slot machine to me.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Christmas Ham on the Hoof

Theme park Christmas activities are fun. How can you not love the Osborne light spectacular or get chills at the stirring rendition of the nativity story at the Candlelight Processional? But as much as I enjoy all that, I'm still reveling in the novelty of being able to go horseback riding in December without trekking through a foot of snow with a temperature hovering the 20s.

Today, the owner of the barn where I keep Figment had a pre-Christmas get-together. She invited all the boarders for a ride this morning, followed by a little party. Usually it's against my religion to wake up early on a Saturday, but it sounded like a lot of fun. I had to work in the afternoon, but since we were meeting at 9 a.m. for the ride I figured I'd have enough time.

The morning dawned grey and murky, but the weather said there was no chance of rain. Even tho' it was a bit chilly (for Florida anyway), I donned a t-shirt just because I could. Out at the barn, I discovered that two of the boarders were running late. Since I was on a time schedule, I hurriedly saddled Figgie and planned to meet everyone out in the woods.

Figment has a split personality. Heading away from the barn you would think he was on the verge of collapse because he moves so slow. The gopher tortises whiz by us as Lead Butt drags his lazy carcass towards the state park entrance. It's only half a mile down the road, but sometimes it takes us nearly half an hour. Not only does he move like frozen molasses, but he has to stop and gap at the other horses, cows, and things that exist only in his own imagination as we pass by all the houses and barns.

Finally we made it out, and I could tell that he was going to be spooky. It was a breezy day, which meant lots of rustling that could indicate a predator stalking the poor, innocent Appaloosa. I had to laugh, tho', as he focused his attention on something in front of him and a killer deer suddenly bounded out from behind us, causing my chicken horse to bolt.

Other than being on high alert, he was behaving quite well. The other riders called when we were about halfway out. We headed down the Bear Lake trail, planning to intercept them, when Figment suddenly went into Alert Level Bright Red as we prepared to round a curve. I could tell that he wasn't just being silly so I let him stop as I tried to listen and look ahead. I could hear a strange sound...I couldn't identify it, but something alive was definitely just ahead of us. I dismounted and lead him around the curve...smack dab into a pack (herd?) of wild hogs!

If you're never seen the wild hogs that range throughout Florida, they're little black menacing creatures that don't have much fear of anything. They breed like rabbits and tear up the landscape, so I'm not particularly fond of them. Once or twice a year the state park removes some of them, but the population seems to rebuild and redouble in the blink of an eye.

Thankfully most of them ran off into the underbrush (although not very far), but one held his ground in the middle of the trail. Figment started in awe, probably thinking it was a dog but wondering why it smelled so different. I yelled and managed to shoo it away, and I made sure I put plenty of distance between myself and the hogs before remounting. Too bad I didn't have a gun or I'd have had me a nice, fresh Christmas ham!

Actually, I could never harm a critter, even one as obnoxious and destructive as a wild hog. I'll never forget the day that the armadillo that was tearing up my yard sauntered right in front of my car as if daring me to run it over. Ah, the temptation! But I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

After our hog encounter, we turned on a different trail than I had planned so our path wouldn't intersect theirs again. Eventually we came to the Boy Scout camp, where someone had inexplicably raked many large piles of pine needles. Considering that the needles cover about 80 percent of the trails, it seemed odd to rake up one little area.

In Figment's eyes, the piles much have looked like big, brown porcupines just waiting to impale him. He planted his heels and let me know he was not going anywhere near them. Sigh! Even when I dismounted to lead him up for a sniff, I practically had to drag him. Finally I poked a pile with my toe, and when it didn't dismember me he seemed to accept that it was safe.

Thankfully that was the end of the drama on our ride. I called the others, but they were rather far off so I ended up turned towards home. I was shocked that I had been out for over two hours! But the weather was almost perfect for riding so it was easy to get caught up in the relaxation of trotting along on my horse and to lose track of time.

It had been an interesting pre-holiday adventure. Back in Chicago, I wouldn't be out in the woods marveling at Christmas ham on the hoof, and I probably wouldn't even be at the barn. No doubt I'd be holed up inside, giving thanks for central heating and wishing that springtime would hurry.

But now I can enjoy the Great Outdoors year 'round with my intrepid equine companion. I can't think of a merrier way to spend part of my Christmas season here in the Sunshine State.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Melting Pot Mayhem

The Melting Pot has long been one of my favorite restaurants. I visited it frequently in Chicago, although they seemed to have an obsession with trying to seat me in the smoking area. Their non-smoking section was woefully inadequate and always had a long wait, so they tried to talk poor non-smoking suckers into sitting in the nicotine haze. Nope, I don't think so! But without fail, they would claim, "You made your reservation for smoking," even though both hubby and I had gotten into the habit of forcing them to repeat "Yes, this is for non-smoking" whenever we called to make it.

For any other restaurant, that annoyance would have caused me to cross them off my list. But the Melting Pot is like no other. It's a 1970s throwback of heavenly melted cheese and divine chocolate dip, sandwiched around a meal cooked at your table in your choice of broth or oil (make mine mojo broth, please). It's not exactly easy to find that someplace else, so the Melting Pot had me in its grip.

When we moved to Florida, I was pleased to discover one in Dr. Phillips, just a stone's throw away from Celebration. Better yet, Florida's smoking ban meant that I never had to argue to get a table where I could actually breathe.

The Melting Pot is good for an indulgent meal any time, but it's also a great place to celebration special occasions. Thus it happened that I went there tonight with two friends for a birthday bash. Not only was December 20th the birthday of one of my companions, but it was also the first day of "Get Lit," a holiday we started in 2006. Get Lit encompasses 12 1/2 days, which allows you enough time to get sober by New Years Day afternoon. One of its main components is the melding of Coke and Mentos at midnight on January 1st, but we also spend the intervening days celebrating the melding of human and alcohol.

The Melting Pot is an excellent place to do that, with yummy drinks like blackberry margaritas and my all time favorite, the Yin and Yang. That tasty little ice cream drink blends chocolate and vanilla into a smooth taste treat that goes down much too smooth. You're lit before you know it!

I put a couple Yin and Yangs under my belt as my friends downed the margaritas, and we worked our way through a multi-course meal of Mediterranian cheese, salads, chicken, seafood, and dark chocolate with raspberry for dessert. At some point, there was also the ritual present opening, although we spared the birthday girl a drunken rendition of "Happy Birthday."

At the end of our feast, two of us made a quick restroom visit before hitting the road to home. I was the last one to return to the table, so I stood at the edge as the others packed up to leave. Somehow the birthday girl managed to unite the tissue wrapping paper from her gifts with the candle on our table, and WHOOSH! The tissue went up in flames. It's utterly amazing to see just how fast that paper will burn.

Time slowed to a crawl as I watched the pyrotechnics erupt before my eyes. Amazingly, I remained calm and collected enough to say, "Uh, we'd better put some water on that." One of my friends was staring in awe, while the birthday girl flailed at it while inexplicably stating the obvious, " Hot!" Unfortunately, she then tried to smother it with another piece of tissue, which only made it flare up bigger and brighter than ever. The flames were shooting up and ash was swirling in the air.

At that point, I was tossing whatever water glasses I could find at it, as was my friend and a waiter who had happened along and noticed the disaster in the making. I don't think I've ever seen anyone's eyes get as big as his did when he saw the flames.

Thankfully no one around us was panicking. The family in the booth behind us seemed fascinated by the chaos and helpfully provided additional water glasses. Finally the flame were doused, and all I could think to myself was, "Oh, Lord, we almost burned down the Melting Pot."

Here is a photo of the aftermath (note the little pile of ashes and the ice and straws from the water we were tossing):

I wasn't quite sure what to do. Should we add some money to the tip for firefighting duties? (The poor waiter wasn't even the one who had served us.) Slink out in shame? Ask why they hadn't brought us extra marshmallows?

We opted to take our leave, and I wondered if I would ever be allowed to dark their door again. My husband and I visit The Melting Pot so often that they have our information in their reservation system. They know that we always get mojo broth and that we only want the green goddess, teriyaki, and curry dipping sauces. Now we probably have a new note in big red letters:

"NO candle on table!"

Out in the parking lot, the three of us burst into uncontrollable laughter. What a way to celebrate Get Lit...with a literal lighting! We still couldn't believe that we'd just set our table on fire. Granted, New Years Eve is supposed to be a pretty wild time, and we'll all be together again on the 31st, but somehow I just don't think we'll ever manage to top getting lit at The Melting Pot. But somehow I have a sneaking suspicion that next time I call for reservations, the response will be, "Sorry, I'm afraid we're fully booked for the rest of 2008."

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Barrel of Laughs

My blogging has fallen by the wayside with the onset of the holiday season. For me that starts with Halloween, and this year it actually started early because we got Frequent Fear passes to Universal's Halloween Horror Nights. But that merits a post of its own, so I will give it one later.

In the meantime, we had some sorrow at Duloc Manor. I lost my cockatiel, Bradley, who I owned for nearly 15 years. Bradley traveled with us to two different houses in Illinois and then from Chicago to Celebration. I remember how terrified I was that he was going to catch a chill on that long, bitter cold January drive when we got caught in the Atlanta ice storm. His cage was wedged in the back of Canyonero and heavily covered with blankets. That night, the expressway was closed down due to accidents on the asphalt-turned-ice-rink, and I was worried about poor little Brad isolated all by himself in the back of the car. But as the sun rose, he broke into his cheery little morning chirping and I knew that he was fine.

He took to Duloc Manor immediately and took over the family room couch. He was a rather cranky old man, but then again he was cranky even in his youth. He wasn't hand tamed when I bought him, so it was a long and painful process to teach him to be handled. I made it through the bloody bites and he eventually gave in and tolerated my touch. But he was never a cuddly, lovely dovey bird. Even though he liked to fly over and sit on my shoulder or knee, he'd chomp me if I dared to move.

Here is the feathered crank:

I left Bradley fully flighted because I figured that if I clipped his wings, he'd be no match for the feline duo. Actually he got along fine with Tooncinator and Stitch. He and Stitch would sit together on the couch, and he often got into bitch slapping/biting matches with Toonce. It was all in fun...Toonce would do a little paw bat and Brad would chomp back at him. Slap, bite, slap, bite...they would go back and forth until they got bored.

But Farquaad is a born hunter, and he and Bradley shared an uneasy truce that was subject to breaking at any time. Brad would sit with me on the couch, and Quaad would try to sneak up on him. But his belled collar would give him away, and Brad would whirl around and do a war dance. It was a riot to see the little lump of feathers doing his spread-winging, hissing threat to a 20 pound cat. I could almost hear him taunting, "Nya nya! Mommy's here so you can't do anything!"

Brad's cage was left open 24/7 except when we were on vacation, as he never went anywhere but the couch or his cage-top jungle gym. I think he enjoyed the freedom, but after 15 years of no problems his wings were finally his undoing.

I was bringing in the step ladder from outside when I heard the familiar sound of a bird heading at me full speed. Unfortunately, it happened too fast for me to take the proper action. I was closing the door as I heard it, but I didn't realize that Bradley had managed to fly around it and outside. It's always been his habit to fly down the hall and circle, so I'm sure he tried to circle around this time too. But the door was already closed, so he must have hit it, panicked, and flown off to goodness knows where.

I was hoping he had hit the door inside and fallen somewhere in the house. No such luck. We searched futilely for several days, but my dear, sweet little Bradley was gone. As bad luck would have it, he disappeared at the same time that we had a wicked cold snap. Even if he could figure out how to eat something other than Nutriphase seeds, he surely would have succumbed to the cold.

Birds are a lot of work, so I always used to say that when Bradley died, I'd retire from avian pet keeping. But I always thought he'd be around for another 5 years at least. Now that he was gone so abruptly, the house was much too quiet. I missed his good morning squawks and his cheery greetings whenever we walked in the door. I missed having a birdy companion as I worked at night. I decided that the best way to put closure to his loss was to get another bird.

I've always wanted a quaker parrot, so I was torn between that and another tiel. I called around and located a place called Chief's Bird Cabin in Orlando that had both (as well as just about any other bird you can imagine). Thus we started off on a long I-4 journey to the other side of the city to add a new family member.

There were two little quakers in a cage. The shopkeeper grabbed one and handed it to me; the poor little disoriented critter snuggled in my arms and climbed up on my shoulder. He was so cute! I went to the tiel cage, but there was no way I could look at them. Memories of Bradley poured back into my mind, and I could feel the grief rising. No, if I was going to get another bird, it had to be something completely different.

The little quaker seemed good natured, so I didn't both to look at the other one. I bought him, along with a plethora of toys and treats, and hubby was relegated to hold the little birdy container as we navigated the special hell of I-4 to get back home.

I was contemplating a literary name. My cockatiel was actually named after Ray Bradbury, my favorite author. Bradbury didn't really roll off the tongue, so I corrupted it into Bradley.

But as I was considering, my husband said, "What are you going to name him? Truman?"

He was referred to the name that almost became Stitch's. Before he ended up at the animal shelter, Stitch had been found in a field in the suburb of Burbank. That immediately brought to my mind the name Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) of "Truman Show" fame.

But because Stitch's cage was marked that he was not for adoption, I couldn't help but name him after the blue alien that had been in the same situation. Besides, Truman was a little too close to Toonce's name, and I didn't want to confuse the cats when I called them. I latched onto Truman for the bird, since it meant that I didn't have to think any further.

Finally we made it home; I was half convinced that the bird was dead, since he had been totally silent. Thankfully he was still alive and kicking when we let him out in the kitchen.

I had cleaned Bradley's cage, so I festooned it with the new quaker toys. I had also bought a new cage top jungle gym, hoping that the new little bird would love it as much as my old tiel had. Truman was unceremoniously plopped into his new home, and I could tell that he would much rather be back at the shop with his birdy friend than surrounded by two baby-talking humans and three furry predators ready for the kill.

At least he was able to take comfort in his Happy Hut, a tent-like thing that you hang in the cage. Apparently they think it's like a nest, and it becomes their safe zone. Here is Truman holed up in his:

Truman is still not thrilled with his new circumstance, but he is slowly giving in. Like the Borg, we will eventually assimilate him. Poor little critter doesn't stand a chance.

Stitch has already greeted him, and Toonce has tried to play the slap game but Tru wants no part of it. Quaad new immediately that he was a different bird, and you could tell he was hoping that this new avian wasn't under the protection of the humans like Bradley was. I have finally convinced him that it's not acceptable to eat his little birdy "brother."

I soon discovered that Truman is narcopleptic. Bradley must have had some owl in his lineage because he always stayed up late with me. Actually I think he was probably dozing, but he always hung out on the couch until I went to bed. Then he would reluctantly fly back to his cage and turn in for the night.

Truman puts himself to bed in his Happy Hut by 6 p.m. every night. He cuddles in and immediately sleeps like the dead for the next 12-14 hours. Here I thought I'd have evening company again, but sadly I am a night person stuck with a stictly daytime loving bird.

Quakers are supposed to be prolific talkers, but thus far all I've heard from Tru is a semi-recognizable version of hello. He does seem to be mumbling other things, but he hasn't said anything else clearly yet.

That all changed today as I was working and he was perched on his play gym. Suddenly I heard a string of sounds that at first made me think, "Is he imitating a chicken?" He kept it up, and it clicked with me that he was imitating something. Another click: He was laughing! Every day I watch the court shows (Judge Mathis, Peoples Court, et. al.), and the audiences tend to do a lot of laughing. Tru had taken it upon himself to chuckle and guffaw along with them. Once I paid close attention, I realized that my silly green bundle of feathers was saying, "Hee hee hee! Ha ha ha!"

Hopefully this means he's going to be talking and mocking a lot more sounds. I just know he's going to come out with a meow someday soon, since he's constantly subjected to Quaad's siren calls at breakfast and dinnertime.

In the meantime, I have a birdy barrel of laughs every afternoon. I'm still mourning my sweet little Bradley, but it helps a lot to have Truman. When I hear that "Hee hee hee! Ha ha ha!", I just can't help but smile.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Indian Summer

Recently I made one of my rare visits to Chicago to consort with family, visit my elderly horse, and dine with friends. Since it was October, I was looking forward to a dose of real fall weather. I could just imagine the crisp breeze rustling the red, orange and yellow leaves as the smell of bonfires tickled my nose. I'd feel the chill that heralds the coming winter and revel in the fact that I could enjoy a dose of autumn and then flee back to Florida before the cold and snow take over.

As I headed for the airport, I was hit by a dose of true Floridian weather: Heat, humidity, and thunderstorms. The bleak sky, laden with evil-looking clouds that spat out sheets of rain and crackling lightning bolts at regular intervals, warned me that my flight was almost certainly delayed. would feel good to get to Chicago and get some relief from the heavy air and oppresive heat. I love palm trees, but I was ready to see leaves in some color other than green. Of course, we do get the fall colors here, but those are made of paper and fall from the lamp posts in downtown Celebration!

Sure enough, my flight was listed as delayed. I made my way through security and took the tram to the Southwest gates. Once upon a time, the idea of braving the Southwest cattle call boarding process was anathema to me, but after ATA went bankrupt I quickly became a convert.

For those who have never experienced it, basically Southwest has no assigned seats. You get a boarding pass lettered A, B, or C, depending on your check-in time, and you board in order of your assigned letter. Generally, die-hards will start lining up in their lettered chute long before boarding time in order to maximize their seat selection options.

Previously, those who lined up early still found themselves at the mercy of that dreaded hoarde known as the Family Pre-Boarders. Southwest allowed families with children age 4 and under to board ahead of the As to help ensure that they'd get seats together. In theory, only one or two adults were supposed to board with the child. In practice, one tiny infant would be acompanied by an entourage to rival the Queen's. There'd be Heather and her two mommies, three daddies, four sets of grandparents, second cousin twice removed Lurch and his three polygamous brides, a wicked stepmother, trio of wicked stepsisters, and the fairy godmother. Multiply this gang by multiple kids, especially on Orlando flights, and sometimes literally half the plane would be pre-boarding.

Due due this rampant abuse, Southwest just implemented a wonderful new policy. Now, the family pre-boarders board between the A and B groups. If they want the primo choice of seats, they can log on 24 hours in advance and get an A pass like everyone else. If they're too darned lazy, they can get their butts to the back of the plane (since people who board early tend to sit close to the front).

This flight would be my first experience with the new policy, and I was quite anxious to see how it played out. Families have been lambasting the Southwest online; obviously, they don't realize that many other airlines have done away with family pre-boards entirely. Now they have to sit in the what? Every part of the plane will get to its destination at the same time (hopefully), and since most families have checked luggage it's not like there is any benefit to rushing off the plane like a pack of rabid greyhounds. Actually, it's more like a pack of limping, three-legged greyhounds, since families tend to be the slowest on and off due to having to manage kids, luggage, and a variety of kid amusement implements.

In contrast, the most anal-retentitve As tend to be business people or commuters who don't check luggage, so it's to their advantage to be able to get off more quickly. Once they're deplaned, they can be on their way.

I don't check luggage when I visit Chicago, but I don't generally bother with the front seats because I prefer being in or near an exit row, which is row 11. Sometimes I'll plop down in an aisle seat towards the front, but the roomy exit is my preference. It's a coveted plum, so you have to be close to the front of the line to pluck it; thus, once I arrive at the gate, I always camp out in the A line immediately. Even before the change, I didn't have to worry about a pre-boarder glomming the exit because they're not allowed to sit there.

I was quite anxious to see how the new policy worked out, especially after reading so many complaints online (all written by people who hadn't even experienced the change firsthand yet). Would it speed up the turn-around process? Would children be wandering the plane, dazed and confused, as a result of being separated from their parents and families? Would anarchy reign in the flying metal germ tube? I could just imagine Mrs. Lovejoy running amok down the aisle screaming, "Won't somebody think of the children?!"

It would be a while till I found out, since the delays were so severe that the previous plane at our gate hadn't even left yet. Chicago As were hawking around the end of the boarding line, ready to start their own queue as soon as the current crop left. It was all too confusing for me, so I stood off to the side and waited until the other plane left. That put me 6th or 7th in the Chicago A line. I killed the time immersed in a novel and chatting with fellow "A campers."

Our plane arrived over half an hour late, and the wicked weather still hadn't let up. We trooped down the jetway, and I couldn't help but feel a bit smug to bypass the conga of extended families casting glares at those of us who had made the effort to get our boarding passes early rather than relying on our powers of reproduction to get us on board quickly.

The exit row was open, so I parked myself in the window seat. Shortly thereafter, a man took the aisle seat and strategically placed his briefcase onto the middle one to ward off others who might sit there. A bit cruel, but if it worked I would benefit from the extra space too so I couldn't condemn him too severely. Sure enough, no one else took the seat.

When the families boarded, there were plenty of seats together, albeit towards the middle and back of the aircraft. One parent lambasted the flight attendant, but the rest seemed to accept that their days of entitlement were over.

When we were all settled in, the captain got on the PA system with the good news and the bad news. Good: We were getting ready to taxi to the tarmac. Bad: We were #17 to take off, which meant we'd be little there for 90 minutes. I have a rather odd fear of flying, which is not focused on crashing but rather on being trapped in a fast-moving flying cigar tube without being able to escape. It's a form a claustrophobia that I developed after being stuck on a plane for hours, including endless circling because the weather precluded landing, having to make a fuel stop, and having an aborted landing before finally being able to roll down the tarmac and get the heck off the plane. I had a sinus infection, which made the assorted take-offs and landings a special misery. Ever since then, the idea of being stuck on a plane makes me crazy, even if it's just on the tarmac.

Fortunately, not too long after we rolled into place in the endless conga line, the captain broke some excellent news: We had been moved up to number six for departure. I have no idea why, but it sounded a heck of a lot better than wasting an hour and a half idling on the ground.

Sure enough, we were soon speeding down the runway and soaring about the palm trees, on our way to the good old midwest. We were still pretty late, but that's one of the joys of flying into or out of MCO with its seemingly ever-present storms. Hubby was waiting for me at Midway, as was a dose of heat! Fall? What the heck is fall? Instead, Chicago was in the grip of Indian summer. Obviously I didn't need the jacket I'd packed, and I had grievously erred in packing long-sleeved sweaters.

On the way home, we stopped at Pepe's Tacos for dinner. Whenever I return to my old stoping grounds, I go on a culinary tour of all my old favorites that I can't get in Florida. Ah, the joy of real, authentic, genuine Mexican food! My tastebuds were dancing with happiness as I tucked into my steak tacos, which were just as good as I remembered.

On Saturday, we were going to Bengston's Pumpkin Farm with my extended family. It's a tradition that has spanned for years and years, back since the time when Bengston's was actually a real pumpkin farm. In those early years, you took a tractor ride out to the pumpkin patch, where the big orange orbs were still attached to the ground by their stems. Now, the ground grows new houses instead of pumpkins; Bengston's has shrunk to a mere shadow of itself, and pumpkins are imported and scattered around a much smaller area.

There are lots of other attractions, too, from a petting zoo and pony rides to pig racing, a haunted barn, a fake cow to milk, and a corn maze. And for my brother, no trip would be complete without fresh corn on the cob and hot apple cider.

Problem is, this year “hot” was not exactly how anyone wanted their beverage to be. Instead, we all ordered our cider iced to ward off temperatures that were close to 90 degrees. It was as though I had never left Florida, save for a bit less humidity.

Still, we had all sorts of corny Halloween fun. Bengston's has basically morphed into an attraction that separates visitors from their money almost as efficiently as Disney World. But hey, it's fun to buy pumpkins and funnel cakes and to have a portrait taken to compare with previous years and see how much taller or grayer everyone has become.

On the way home, we stopped at JR's Hot Dogs for a large cup of Orange Bang. My husband claims it tastes like rancid Tang, but to me it's more like Tang mixed with an Orange Julius. I also had a Culver's custard sundae, since the chain doesn't exist in FL (although I keep hoping it will show up someday). That was more than enough indulgence, since we were going to Lawry's that night for prime rib. Even after my scarring experience last time, when they had instituted a new restroom attendance who lounged around reading magazines and who offered amenities such as Blow Pops (nothing says “high class restaurant” like candy-coated gum), I was willing to give it another try. They have truly the best prime rib on the planet, made even better by their whipped cream horseradish sauce.

Getting there was quite a challenge. We picked up my brother and sister-in-law and headed down the Dan Ryan. Traffic wasn't bad until we hit Lake Shore Drive, where it was at an absolute standstill due to a marathon scheduled for the next day, which had led to premature street closures. Somehow hubby managed to navigate a route that got us to the restaurant within five minutes of our reservation time. The restroom attendant was still there, and they had added one to the mens' room too (not a very logical move, since hubby says the restroom is the size of a broomcloset). But thankfully the food was still up to par; as a matter of fact, the meat was even more flavorful than usual. I don't know what kind of cow had given its life for our meal that day, but the taste of its slow-roasted flesh was utterly superb.

It was still miserably hot, and the unseasonable weather continued into Sunday when I went to visit my elderly horse, Cochise. Happily, he was still alive and interested in carrots. Unhappily, he had lost a ton of weight since my last visit. That's not a good thing going into the winter, when a horse needs to be in tip-top condition. The vet had recently pronounced him healthy and suggested a “senior feed,” so hopefully that will get some results. As much as it breaks my heart, I have to remember that he's 30, which is like a centurion in human years. If he's not fated to make it through the winter, I pray that he has a fast and painless exit. But hopefully the new feed will perk him up and get him through another year.

I hit Pepe's one more time for lunch, eager to toke up on prime Mexican cuisine since I won't get any more till my next visit. But I didn't want to eat too much, as we were going out with some old friends that evening. I had never heard of the place we visited, a Western-themed eatery called Ted's Montana Grill. Turns out that “Ted” is Ted Turner, and the menu is heavy on buffalo. It's also billed as “green,” with concessions to the environment such as paper straws and menus printed on recycled paper.

It's actually a chain and there are some locations in Florida, although none near Celebration. Even though meat is the main feature of the menu, I ended up opting for a plate of side orders because so many items intrigued me and I wanted to have a mini smorgasboard. I had had good meat the night before, so I could stand to have a vegetarian day with yummy options such as creamed spinach and squash casserole.

Since this was just a brief visit to Chicago, we were slated to fly out very, very early the next morning. Even as we headed back to Midway, the summer-like weather remained. As we headed towards security, we were greeted with an intimidating sight...people, people, and more people as far as the eye could see! I hadn't seen the lines backed up that far since the holidays. Originally, I had been hoping to get to the gate early enough to snare a good spot in the A line. Now, I was just hoping to get there in time to board our plane before it winged its way to Orlando without us.

Fortunately, the massive salmon stream edged its way forward with steady progress. I suspect that all the security checkpoints weren't open when we arrived but that they had finally been opened up. We got through in plenty of time to scope out the gate and grab the very first A spots. It wasn't long before other anal retentive travelers were lining up behind us for their shot at the prime seats.

The new pre-board policy was in place at Midway, too, but it didn't matter as much on such an early flight. Most families were still running in a frenzy around their homes, trying to remember every last bit of luggage before winging their way to the House of Mouse later on in the day. Since we were the first general boarders (after the disabled), there was no doubt that we would get the exit row. We took the window and aisle seats, since hubby likes to watch the view while I like to have easy access to the restroom. If someone sits in the middle, I'll generally offer them the aisle with the caveat that they have to potentially tolerate me climbing over them. However, this flight was so deserted that the seat remained open.

It felt so good to be back home in FL, although there was no weather contrast. Usually in October, I'd be reveling in the heat after a weekend of shivering in the autumn chill. Now, the only difference was a tad more humidity and a tropical landscape. Still, I knew that Chicago's reprieve was only temporary. Whereas I can count on a sunny, mild winter, there's no way my old hometown will avoid the ice and snow. I may have missed a taste of fall, but I can never get too much warmth and sunshine...even if it's of the Indian Summer variety.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Trail We Blaze

One year ago this weekend, my horse Figment had only been in Florida for four months and my hopes of riding in the Lake Louisa Trail Obstacle Challenge were dashed when he suffered a bout of colic.

Since that time, we managed to ride in the spring challenge (it's held in both October and May), and now the fall version had rolled around again. As my inner alarm clock woke me at 7 a.m. this morning, I feared that once again I wouldn't be riding in the October challenge. This time it wasn't because of a problem with Figment, but rather the fickle whim of Mother Nature. I could see a thick layer of clouds clotting the pre-dawn sky, and when I brought up the radar online I saw that Clermont (where the challenge is held) was under an ugly patch of green that signified a current rainstorm.

According to the radar, the giant rain blob was moving rapidly so there was a chance that it might blow over by the beginning of the competition. My innate hatred of mornings and desire for additional sleep was at war with my desire to ride as I tried to figure out what to do. It's a 90 minute roundtrip to the barn, so I didn't want to waste all that time for a washout. But if I crawled back into bed and woke up later to find sunny skies, I knew I would deeply regret staying home.

I called the barn owner to get a real-time weather report. She said that it was raining but that she was optimistic it would blow over in time for us to ride. You check in at the trail challenge and are assigned a start time that is usually at least an hour away. If the rain continued to move rapidly, we would be high and dry when our start time rolled around.

The television weather report seemed to bear this out. It looked like the soggy morning was well on its way to morphing into something more pleasant. I hopped into Canyonero and headed out to Clermont, telling myself that the downpour currently deluging my windshield was going to stop at any moment.

It rained for 40 minutes of my 45 minute drive, but when I got to the barn it had mercifully stopped and blue sky was just barely visible in the distance. The barn owner and two other boarders were already busily preparing their horses.

I had bathed Figment the day before, but he had promptly rolled in the dirt the minute I turned him loose in the pasture. Thus, rather than having a squeaky clean horse my efforts were aimed more at damage control.

Figgie munched the last of his breakfast as I groomed him and strapped on the saddle. He peered eagerly over his stall door, knowing that something special was up. I had ridden him in the woods the day before, and he had seen some of the obstacles that were already set up. They're wrapped in caution tape so no one can cheat and ride through them early, but just passing by them alerted Figment to the fact that something was different.

The barn owner had already signed us all in and secured a 10:15 start time. We rode over a little early to give the horses a chance to check out the flurry of activity. There are 100 participants, most of whom arrive with horse trailers and many of whom camp in the state park. There are signs and banners flapping, tables with all manner of activity, and dozens and dozens of equines and their owners all milling around. It's an excellent opportunity to desensitize a horse and get it used to crowd scenes.

Figment gave the whole scenario a cautious eye, but he didn't balk. I could see his spotty little Appaloosa brain working overtime: "Hmmmmm, I seem to remember something like this before. And we passed all that weird stuff has to be another one of those strange human events where they ask us to do illogical things like walk over a mattress when there is plenty of room to walk around it or go backwards between cones when going forward would get us to the end much more quickly."

Shortly before our start time I paid a quick visit to the outhouse. I didn't want a repeat of my adventure in the springtime peeing in the palmettos at the side of the trail! With nature's call answered, I swung up into the saddle and joined my group so that we could embark on the day's adventure.

The barn owner and one of the other boarders were riding in the competition with me, and the boarder's husband was tagging along although he wasn't officially entered. He is a beginning rider and his horse is only three years old, so it was more of a learning experience for them. A woman on a cute little paint had also been added to our group.

We set out right on the dot of 10:15 and headed for Obstacle #1. It was a rather easy one, meant asa confidence builder for the horses. You simply had to walk between two halfway-buried tractor tires. Figgie still gave them a suspicious stare, since he knew they didn't belong in this environment, but he sauntered through.

The rest of the obstacles offered a variety of challenges: weaving through poles without knocking tennis balls off the tops, walking across a teeter totter (with the added challenge of slickness from the earlier rain), walking over a path of logs, backing up along a prescribed path, walking across a mattress, opening/walking through/closing a rope gate and a regular gate, pushing a giant ball, riding through a water puddle, and walking up and down wooden “stairs.”

The only one that worried me was the rope gate; last year, Figment had refused to go anywhere near it, since it was orange and looked a lot like electric tape. I don't care what scientists say...I believe that horses can see color. Sure enough, this year it was a non-threatening blue and while blend, and Figment got close enough to let me unlatch it. We still didn't complete the obstacle due to my awkwardness in figuring out how to close it, but I was very pleased that he didn't think I was trying to electrocute him again this year.

The only other obstacle where we had an “incident” was the water crossing. Figment has no fear of water. We've crossed chest deep areas without any trouble, so the little ankle-deep puddle should have posed no problem. The barn owner went across first, and suddenly Figment decided that he needed to bolt across and follow her. The rest of the group was with us, but he still got it into his head that he would be abandoned if he didn't cross NOW.

I tried to hold him in, but he was dancing and prancing like a madman. Finally I resorted to my “emergency technique.” As a failsafe, I taught him to stop when I do a half-dismount. When he's spooking, backing, prancing, or doing something where he's lost all horsey logic and attention, that will usually settle him down. When he feels my leg swing over his back and I freeze in that position, he knows that it means to stop whatever he is doing. It's sort of like pressing control-alt-delete on a computer. It causes him to “reset.”

I think the judge thought I was trying to bail, as he asked if everything was okay. I reassured him that it was fine and that Figgie would settle down shortly. Sure enough, he got his attention off the other horse and back onto me and realized that he had to wait his turn. I swung back up, ready to tackle the water, but the judge was still skeptical. He asked a couple more times if we were okay...maybe he's never seen a horsey reboot before. Figgie went through the water, but he did it in a very sloppy manner so goodness only knows how many points we lost in that fiasco.
Oh well, at least we completed every obstacle but the gate, and he was an angel for most of them. He even nailed the backing-up...he knows how to do it but can get piggy when I try to line him up on a specific path between objects.

He did have another meltdown just past the teeter totter. I'm not sure what caused it; I think it was a Gator cart, but he's seen that cart many, many times before when we've been out trail riding. I guess he was just looking for an excuse to act silly and to burn off a burst of energy.

When we approached the last obstacle (a wooden platform with “stairs” to climb up and down), I swear he knew it was the last one because he couldn't wait to do it. He poised himself at the cones that mark the starting line, and all I had to do was give him his head. Up, over, and down, and we were done.

I bought a hot dog for lunch and waited a while for the pictures to be delivered from the course. They snap photos at the pole bending and log obstacles, and I was anxious to buy them. As you can see below, they turned out quite nice:

Seminole Feed had a scale at the event, so I weighed Figgie. He stepped willingly onto the platform, probably thinking is was just another trail obstacle, although he was a little sloppy and stood with most of hoof protruding over the edge. He was almost 1100 pounds, although some of that is accounted for by his saddle. But it was good to see that he was up from 900-something when I'd had him weighed in the spring. He lost a lot of weight last winter, so it was good to see that he had gained it back.

When we got back to the barn, I lavished Figment with treats for being such a good boy. It had been a long day for him and many hours under saddle.

I'm very fortunate to be able to board Figgie right across the street from a state park with almost 20 miles of equestrian trails. The bi-annual trail challenge is a big bonus on top of that, and I'm already looking forward to the next one in the spring.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Saganaki and Pyromania

With my birthday rapidly approaching and a full weekend ahead, hubby suggested that we celebrate a couple of days early. Saturday is the Lake Louisa Trail Obstacle Challenge, so I'll be busy convincing my equine, Figment, that the poles and tires and teeter totters and plastic chairs that have suddenly sprung up in the woods are harmless to horses. Sunday there is a picnic event here in Celebration, so I'll be busy at the East Village Pool partying with friends and neighbors. Thus, it looked like Friday night was our best option for a nice birthday meal.

Picking the day was the easy part; when you live next door to Disney World and just a short drive down I-4 from Sandlake Road and International Drive, picking a restaurant plunges a person into the midst of a dizzying array of options.

I ruled out the usual Disney dining options because I am in a rut at our usual WDW restaurant choices. For example, if we went to Artist Point, I knew I would order the chef's cheese selection, a vat of the Mushroom Soup of the God, and either the venison spring roles or a salad, with sorbet and shortbread for dessert. Since this was a celebratory meal, I thought it would be fun to try someplace entirely new.

My mind wandered up International Drive and down Sand Lake Road, considering the plethora of eateries from which I could choose. Suddenly it hit me: Taverna Opa! I had read about it on Celebration's intranet, and it sounded like a fun place both in terms of food and ambiance. We had been meaning to try it anyway, so why not today?

I called to get a reservation, and at the appointed time we headed down I-4 to brave the traffic nightmare that is International Drive. Indeed, even I-4 itself was moving slowly but at least we made steady forward progress. The exit was backed up so far that we sat through three traffic light sequences before we finally managed to get moving again.

Taverna Opa is located in Pointe Orlando, a rather God-forsaken shopping center that I've passed often but never visited. It has a multi-story parking garage, which is the kiss of death for me (for some reason, I have an unreasonable hatred of parking structures...perhaps it's a leftover vestige of the general horror of parking in downtown Chicago, where garages are a special hell but are often the only option). But since we had a purpose in visiting, I steeled myself to park in the concrete cavern. There was a charge, but I figured that the restaurant would probably validate the parking slip.

When I had called for reservations, the helpful person I spoke with had instructed me to park on the third level and head across the walkway. Indeed, that was the simplest way, although Taverna Opa is not easily visible until you've walked quite a ways down. The area was a semi-ghost town; there was a Hooters and some other kind of restaurant that were both open, but there was also a huge former eatery that appeared to be abandoned, with a tax lein notice on the door. Not the sort of thing to inspire confidence in the financial viability of the shopping center!

Of course, it made me think of Mercado, another former shopping center just a bit farther down the road. We went there to see the Titanic exhibit a couple of months ago, and it's a good thing we did because the whole place is now shut down and mostly demolished. Titanic was virtually the only thing left open when we visited, and shortly thereafter they were evicted from the complex as one of the final steps to clear the way for the demolition. Apparently they are going to build a new shopping center there, which begs the question: If the old one couldn't survive, why on earth would a new one be able to?

At least Pointe Orlando didn't seem quite as forlorn as Mercado. There was a cinema that seemed to be doing an okay amount of business, although I couldn't tell whether the stores on the lower level were drawing any traffic.

I was a bit worried, however, when we entered Taverna Opa. Considering that at was almost 7 p.m. on a Friday night, I was expecting a capacity crowd. At many of the free-standing I-Drive restaurants, like Cafe Tu Tu Tango, you face an hour or more of wait time on the weekend. In contrast, the Taverna was almost empty.

We were quickly seated and began our perusal of the comprehensive menu. It was chock full of options with a Greek flair, including several iterations of lamb, lemon chicken, kabobs, and even a gyros plate! They start you off with bread and hummus spread, and that hummus was delicious! I also loved their iced tea, which had some sort of a subtle fruit flavor. I drink my tea unsweetened, despite the fact that that's a mortal sin in the South, so I always love flavored-but-unsweetened versions.

It was difficult to decide from all the mouth-watering options. To start with, we ordered yogurt/cucumber dip and saganaki (for the uninitiated, that is a flaming cheese appetizer). I was a little surprised when they didn't flame the cheese at our table, as the usual Greek restaurant standard is to bring it to the table, pour on the brandy, touch it with a match, and watch the resulting conflagration.

I need not have worried, as there was plenty of pyromania yet to come that would make flaming cheese look tame. But I'm getting ahead of the story...eventually I decided on the Chilean Sea Bass, while hubby had some sort of seafood-laden Greek paella, filled with mussels, scallops, and even octopus! He ordered the house white wine as an accompaniment, while I stuck with my iced tea.

As we munched on our appetizers, the excitement began around us. There was music, dancing around the restaurant by both the servers and the guests, and a vertiable shower of paper napkins that rained down from the ceiling! We watched, dazzled by the spectacle, as it progressed to literal dancing on the tables! It's a bit hard to make out, but below is a camera phone shot of the table dancing:

Fortunately, more diners had trickled in so there was more of a crowd to catch the energy and to participate in the revelry.

In addition to the group dancing, a belly dancer appeared and put on quite a performance. Her talent wasn't limited to gyrating her belly; she soon demonstrated her talent for handling fire as well! She tossed, touched, and even ate the flame...ouch!

Since the camera phone didn't have a flash, it came out rather blurry. But that bright blob in the picture below is flame, and you can also see the "snowfall" of napkins scattered on the floor around here. After the first dance number, the whole restaurant is pretty much covered in a blanket of napkins, much like the peanut shells that you encounter in Logan's Steakhouse:

The show was so entertaining that I realized I was neglecting my sea bass. I quickly tucked into my meal, and it was excellent. The portions were very generous, so I ended up taking a big hunk home that hubby will devour for lunch. Somehow he managed to finish every bit of seafood on his brimming plate and to still have room for dessert. He had walnut cake, while I tried the baklava. Since I was already quite full, I ended up taking most of that home, too.

I never dared mention my birthday; at a place where people dance on table tops and eat fire, I couldn't even imagine what sort of embarrassment I might be subjected to.

I noticed that more and more people trickled in over the course of the evening, although the restaurant never came close to filling. It needs to be in a more visible location; it would be very difficult to stumble upon it by accident. It's a wonderful eatery, and I'd hate to see it close down just because of a poor location.

It's still pretty new, so I hope that it catches on and pulls in some traffic from the convention center. It already has great word-of-mouth here in Celebration on our intranet, and that is rather rare as people in our town are often faster to condemn a business than to praise one.

We'll definitely be back to Taverna Opa, and if I indulge in a martini (or two or three) next time from their extensive menu, who knows...I might just be dancing on the tables too!

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Off Season is OVER!

I headed out to the Animal Kingdom this morning, as I've had a hankering to ride Kilimanjaro Safari and Expedition Everest. Having been spoiled by uncrowded parks and miniscule wait times, I was hoping to get in two or three safari rides and as much Everest as I could handle. I also like to ride Dinosaur if possible, and when I'm feeling particularly masochistic I take a spin in Primeval Whirl.

Today I also wanted to walk the nature paths in Africa and Asia. Africa's star feature is gorillas, but I actually had myself more primed to see the meerkats. Somehow I became a fan of "Meerkat Manor" on Animal Planet; I tried to avoid it, but those beady-eyed little rodents sucked me into their soap opera world like a furry, irresistable whirlpool. Since there is a meerkat gang at AK, I like to visit them in person every now and then. Asia's star feature is the tigers, although their fruit bat habitat is rather interesting too.

Little did I realize that I'd made a grave error in planning. I know that the off-season is pretty much over, but if I get to the park early I can usually get in quite a bit of activity before the restless, sweaty hoardes descend. Unfortunately, I failed to realize that AK was the early entry park today. That means that Disney resort guests were able to go in an hour before the official opening time...and apparently they had turned out in droves.

I headed directly to the safari, where I normally grab a Fastpass, then catch a ride in the standby line, which is usually no more than 20 minutes at opening time. Then I do my Fastpass ride, grab another Fastpass, and head to Everest for a mini-marathon. When dizziness overtakes me on the roller coaster, I do my last safari ride and leave. Usually I managed to fit Dinosaur in on the way out.

Unfortunately, today the standby line was already horrendous, and the Fastpass return time was much later than usual. I grabbed a Fastpass and killed time on the exploration trail. The meerkats were out and about, grubbing around for food. Just like on TV, one of them was stuck with sentry duty while the others foraged and gorged. The silly little critters don't realize that there aren't many predators to worry about in the safe confines of the Animal Kingdom. No gos hawks, puff adders, or king cobras like the poor Whiskers clan as to deal with in Africa!

I watched them for a while, then checked out the gorillas. They were all busily chowing down on breakfast. Finally it was Fastpass time, so I headed over for my safari ride. I got another Fastpass, but the return time was so late that I knew it would be nearly impossible to work into my schedule. I'd have to content myself with only one round of Kilimjaro.

Thankfully it was a good round. All of the animals were out and about, including the elusive cheetahs. They are my personal favorites, but they're always way back in the bushes, staying just out of human sight range. Today they were just barely visible, lying in the shade.

In the lion habitat, the big male was actually on the move. That's rare; whenever I see him, he's usually sprawled out on his rock in a feline coma. Today he was walking around and roaring, and it was quite a sight.

I also saw the usual assortment of critters: black rhinos, white rhinos (including a baby), warthogs (although it always seems to me that they should be in with the meerkats; after all, Timon and Pumbaa got along so well), zebras, ostriches, flamingos, giraffes, gnus, mandrills, elephants, various hooved cattle and antelope, crocs, hippos, and goodness only knows what else. Why go on a real African safari when I can head down Osceola Parkway and spot droves and droves of critters?

Next I went to the Conservation Station via the train, hoping to kill enough time to use my next Fastpass. Even though I did the "sounds of the rainforest" booth and wandered around a bit, it was still too early. I resigned myself to skipping my second safari, since I knew that I wouldn't have time to hike all the way back after riding Everest. By then, it would be time to head home for work.

Oh well, at least I'd get in a few roller coaster rides...or would I? The standby line was supposedly 40 minutes, although seeing the snake of people running past the entrance I think that was a bit optimistic. I joined the singles line, which was longer than I had ever seen it. Worse, it was loading like molasses. By the time 35 minutes had passed, I was just boarding a train. You know the park is crowded when singles is almost as long as standby!

Since it had taken so long, I didn't have time to ride it again. Instead I hustled off to check the Dinosaur line. Normally it's 10 minutes tops, but today the line was out the door. I debated on whether it was worth it, but finally I decided to grab a ride. Fortunately it moved pretty quickly, so I was done in plenty of time to get to work.

As I worked my way out of the park, I marveled at the massive crowds and the insane wait times. When I noticed that "It's Tough to Be a Bug" had a posted wait of 90 minutes, I knew for sure that the off season was done.

On my way to the car, I got my traditional iced coffee. There is a little kiosk on the way where I always get iced tea or some sort of fru fru coffee drink. As I left, I was amazed at the stampeding herd of humanity that was still making its way in.

I sighed, realizing that if AK was this bad, Epcot and the Food and Wine Festival must surely be a joke. Granted, early entry draws more people than usual, but so does the festival. Since World Showcase doesn't open until 11, that means that the waiting pack usually situates itself at Soarin'. No more grabbing a Fastpass, doing a standby ride or too, then gettung yet another Fastpass on the way to use the first one. If you're not one of the first on, the standby line quickly grows to immense proportions, and the Fastpass time ticks forward so rapidly that it makes you dizzy if you watch the clock.

Oh well, the off season was fun while it lasted. I suppose that I can't complain, as many people would give their eye teeth to be able to drive off spontaneously for even one ride on the safari, Everest, and Dinosaur. I just need to reset my expectations and shift them from power riding to primarily people watching. In the meantime, I know that Christmas (and the brief pre-holiday off season teaser) will be here all too soon.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Love Bug Jitter

There's a new dance craze sweeping the Walt Disney World resort: The Love Bug Jitter. It consists of hopping around frantically while screaming and slapping at your body. You can see it at any of the theme parks, and you can be reasonably certain that anyone you see performing this dance is not a Florida native.

Having lived in Celebration for a few years now, the twice-annual love bug invasion has become just another part of everyday life for me, like the ever-present lizards, the occasional 'gator, short but drenching afternoon showers, and the threat of hurricanes. I grimace when they splatter on my windshield and smack them away if they're tickling my bare skin, but otherwise they are an ignored part of the background.

Thus, it was with great amusement that I watched the reactions of unprepared tourists at Epcot the other day. You would have thought they were being swarmed with deadly stinging bees or fire ants; they jumped and writhed and slapped and screamed as though engulfed with dangerous, venemous insects.

The only danger from love bugs lies in their acidic guts, which have destroyed many a Floridian's automotive paint job. On human skin they are harmless. They alight but they don't bite; they are much more interested in getting as much mating done as possible before the end of their brief lifespan. This propensity for mating, and the fact that they tend to fly in attached pairs, is how they earned their name.

I saw the dance nearly everywhere I went. I could understand it if a person is truly bug-phobic, but the percentage of people I saw performing the Love Bug Jitter was way above the percentage of those who would harbor such a phobia. It's like being attacked by a piece of the real world when they thought they were immersed and protected in the womb of Disney's magic was too much for them to bear.

Perhaps the Epcot Food and Wine Festival played a role. Some of the most ardent dancers were freaking out about the bugs' proximity to their food. I wonder if they realize that the Food and Drug Administration allows a certain level of bug parts into the food consumed by Americans each day. For example, it's perfectly acceptable for peanut butter to contain 30 insect fragments per 100 grams, while wheat flour can contain a whopping 75 insect parts per 50 grams. Given those statistics, a love bug wing or two just added to the already-present "natural protein."

Whatever the reason, it was quite amusing to watch the acrobatics. I truly believe that some of those tourists could have tried out for "So You Think You Can Dance." Just release a few love bugs into the audition room and they'd launch into a dazzling performance.

Fortuntely, the nasty little buggers will die out over the next few weeks, and we'll have a reprieve till next spring. I'm sure that the popularity of the Love Bug Jitter will be renewed then too. If I happen to ever get bored in the theme parks during that season, all I need to do is plop onto a bench and look around me. There will be plenty of free entertainment, all brought to me courtesy of Florida's favorite bi-annual pest.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Milking the Last of the Offseason

In Chicago, spring and fall were always the shortest seasons. Muggy, humid summer and bitter, frigid winter always seemed to drag on and on. But for a few precious days we'd have beautiful, balmy weather. In spring, the sun would kiss your face and the breezes tickled your hair and teased you with the promise of warmth after an endless winter. It wasn't too hot or too was the kind of day when you could wear short sleeves and bask in the perfect temperature as you romped below blue skies and puffy white clouds right out of a watercolor painting. The flowers were blooming, the robins had returned, and all was right with the world.

Of course, that never lasted, nor did the fall that followed after summer's tyranical reign. Fall was always a bit depressing because it was the harbinger of winter, but how can you hate a season when the smell of wood smoke drifts on the air as nature brushes the leaves with broad strokes from a fiery palatte. Unlike spring, the warmth isn't a welcome harbinger. It's a temporary luxury to be savored because all too soon it will be gone.

We don't have those extremes here in Florida; summer and fall can be pleasant, but they don't have the impact here as they do in climates with temperature extremes. But we do have seasons to be savored: the brief breathers that come between the peak tourist times.

By now, I thought that the off-season would be just about over. My husband and I were hankering to head to the Magic Kingdom, since we hadn't rode Space Mountain in ages and were anxious to see the newly-rehabbed Haunted Mansion. We had hoped to get there closer to Labor Day, but our transatlantic cruise and the ensuing backup of work had put our time at a premium.

The coming of the Food and Wine Festival at Epcot ushers in the next wave of crowds, so we figured that we'd just have to use Fastpasses judiciously. Hubby had worked late on Thursday, so we was able to take Friday morning off. Since it was the first day of the festival, we hoped that some of the crowds would be drawn off to Epcot. Unfortunately, it was also the Little Ones Extra Magic Hour (LOEMH) at the Magic Kingdom, so I had nightmares of being trapped among a higher-than-usual concentration of Stroller Nazis running down hapless pedestrians in their character-seeking frenzy.

LOEMH runs from 8 to 9, so we figured that it might not be so bad if we arrived a little bit after opening. As we approached the toll plaza, there weren't too many cars so I took that as a good sign. We parked the Family Truckster and began the hike of life to the Ticket and Transportation Center (TTC), where you have to park to access the Magic Kingdom.

TTC is a vestige of Walt's old desire to not have any "regular" vehicles driving up to the park. When MK first opened, you could only access it via monorail or watercraft. Now a veritable platoon of WDW busses destroys the symmetry that Walt had hoped for, but cars are still verboten. You must park at TTC and choose the monorail or the ferry.

Normally, I choose the water route since the ferry is enormous and therefore has the shortest wait. But hubby is a monorail fan, and we hadn't ridden it in ages, so he convinced me to give it a whirl. There was a train sitting in the station, so he figured the wait wouldn't be too bad. Little did he know!

The waiting train was empty; it sat in the station for several minutes before being dispatched with no riders. We waited at the gates for the next train, which eventually glided in. The crowd pressed in anxiously, ready for the ride to the Magic Kingdom. Alas, we sat there...and sat there...and sat there. Periodically there would be an annoucement that we were holding for "traffic clearance" (later, they said that a train was being taken off the beam). After a good 10 minutes of inertia, we finally headed off to the park, albeit at a snail's pace. By the time they got there (no doubt after two or three ferry-loads of passengers had been disgorged in the meantime), my husband remembered graphically while we usually opt for the boat.

Still, we were in no big hurry; we figured the park would be so crowded that we'd grab a Space Mountain Fastpass, ride the Haunted Mansion, then use our FP and call it a day. Amazingly, as we headed into Tomorrowland, we saw that the waits for virtually everything were minimal to non-existent. We got our Fastpass, but we also rode the coaster in the standby line since it was too tempting not to. We rode Haunted Mansion twice, admiring the awesome new effects (I won't describe them here because I don't want to spoil it for those who have not ridden yet). Then we rode both Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain; on the latter, I was reminded why we usually avoid it, as we both got soaked. There was no wait whatsoever; the man behind us said that the line had been 40 minutes the day before.

We also rode Pirates of the Caribbean and the Wedway People Mover (I refuse to call it the Tomorrowland Transit Authority) before using our Space Mountain Fastpass. The standby line still wasn't all that bad, but sadly we had to leave. Hubby had made lunch reservations at Kona Cafe, and then we both had to work. It was hard to drag ourselves away without doing the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, Jungle Cruise, and Carousel of Progress, but alas, making a living has to come first.

We took the monorail to the Polynesian, and since no one else was waiting we were able to ride in the front. A grandmother and granddaughter joined us at the next stop, and the granddaughter excitedly told me all about her trip. Disney World can never get stale or boring for me because when I hear about it through the eyes of a first-timer I'm instantly drawn into their excitement and delight.

We had a delicious lunch at the Poly, then headed back to TTC on the monorail so that hubby would have enough of a fix to last him for a long time. As we drove back to Celebration, the adult part of me knew that it was time to attend to grown-up responsibilities, but the inner child pouted at having to leave and give up such prime park time.

At least we had some amusement on the way back. At the Grand Floridian, a family consisting of mother, father, and two girls embarked. Mom and the girls sat next to hubby and I; since there wasn't enough room for everyone, Dad sat across the aisle. The rest of the people in our car got off at the next stop, so the girls moved over to sit with dad. But even though there was plenty of room on that side, Mom stayed next to hubby. And I mean next to him; even though she had a whole empty seat next to her now, she stayed right up against him.

Their conversation was priceless:

Mom (as they boarded): Where does this thing go?

Dad: I have no idea.

Mom: Okay, we'll take it to MGM.

They were still on board when hubby and I got off at TTC, so goodness only knows where they finally ended up.

On Sunday, we decided to hit Epcot for the Food and Wine festival. We doubted that it would be as dead as the Magic Kingdom had been, but our main goal was to graze at the food stations. We figured we could get a Fastpass for Soarin' and maybe ride Nemo and Test Track, but for the most part we'd focus on the cuisine once World Showcase opened.

We got to the park right at opening time and trooped off to the rope holding eager guests back from the pathway that leads to the Land pavillion. At rope drop time, we all trooped in a massive mob behind the poor CMs, who must have felt like Simba trying to stay ahead of the stampeding wildebeest herd. I kept my eyes on the CMs in Soarin' costumes and followed them all the way into the Land pavillion, downstairs, and into the queue of my all-time favorite Epcot ride (well, existing ride anyway...the original Journey into Imgination will always be number one). Usually we grab a Fastpass, but I gave that up in favor of getting the first ride of the day.

The crowd density was lower than I had expected, so between Fastpasses and the standby line we managed to get in seven rounds on Soarin'. Inbetween waiting for our Fastpass times to come up, we rode Nemo and saw Turtle Talk With Crush. Turtle Talk is truly a gem; creative, amusing, and all-around fun. I'm sure that little kids leave the theater believing that they're really talked to Crush (sometimes I wonder myself!).

Our last Fastpass wasn't good until 3:30 and it was only noonish, so we headed out to World Showcase. The day before, we had printed out the menus and marked down our preferred choices. The food is served in "sampler" sizes, so it's a great way to taste a lot of new offerings.

I managed to consume a lamb slider from New Zealand, native peach buckle from Oklahoma, walnut baklava and iced mint tea from Morocco, honey wine from Poland, spaetzle with mushrooms from Germany, chicken with peanut sauce and a green tea plum wine cooler from China, curried butternut squash soup and rice pudding from India, and pudding with a sugar cookie from Peru. Even with the mini sizes, I was plenty full by the time we had completed our walk around the world.

We hit the singles line of Test Track on the way out, then used our Fastpass for one final Soarin' fling. That made a total of eight rides, my most ever. I'd like to hit the double digits someday, but that's hard on Soarin' since, as a spoiled local, I won't do any standby line more than 20 minutes long.

It had been a busy weekend of theme park fun; the crowds will continue to swell, and our visits will dwindle in number until the next breather between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But we've gotten a good "fix" to last us until then; I miss spring and fall in Chicago a little, but the theme park offseason more than makes up for it.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Dream a Little Dream With Me

Walt Disney World is currently in the thick of the Year of a Million Dreams (actually, it will be two million since they extended it for another year). People at the theme parks, the hotels, and even Downtown Disney are randomly selected for a variety of prizes. It can be something as simple as a pin lanyard or as fantastic as a DVC membership or a stay overnight in Cinderella's castle (which a family from Celebration actually won recently).

Winning one of the big ones is akin to hitting the lottery, but they're pretty generous with items like lanyards, Mickey ears, and Dream Fast Passes (which allow recipients to ride each FastPass ride in the park once). Still, with all the times I've visited WDW this year, I've never managed to luck out.
I've come very close more than once. One morning at the Animal Kingdom the ride vehicle in front of me won three separate times (Dream Fastpasses twice and ears once, twice on the safari and once on Dinosaur). Other than that, the closest I've come to seeing the Dream Team CMs is seconhand via seeing people wearing their prizes. The fastpasses are big blue rectangles worn around the neck, and the ears are blue with clouds.

I can console myself with the fact that the Dream Fastpasses wouldn't be all that useful to me in any park other than the Magic Kingdom. At Epcot, I focus almost totally on Soarin' and throw in a single rider line or two on Test Track; at Disney-MGM, I only bother with Tower of Terror; and at AK I have a good system down. I get there early, grab a fastpass for the safari and then ride it once stand-by. Then I hightail it to Everest, ride to fulfillment in the single riders line, do my second safari ride, and hit Dinosaur on the way out (it rarely has any line to speak of). The Dream Fastpasses serve a newbie much better than someone like me who knows how to work the system.

Still, I figured that it would be nice to win something, yet months went on and Lady Luck never smiled down on me. Hubby hadn't won anything either, but he tends to go to the parks late at night when the day's giving is done. I am more of a morning person, hitting them shortly after opening and riding my favorites repetitively until the crowd density makes the line too long.

This morning we decided to go to the Animal Kingdom, as we've both been hankering for a ride on Expedition Everest. The skies looked gray and threatening, but we're old hands at tempting fate. We wore waterproof sandals and brought rain ponchos, well prepared for the worst case scenario.

We approached the parking toll booths; I was headed to an empty one when another vehicle suddenly veered over and cut me off. That was rather annoying but not all that uncommon in the world of Me-First theme park goers. We waited until he had gone; then the attendant took care of the person on the other side (they alternate) and retured to our side where I was waving hubby's annual pass.

APs are good for free parking, and normally they only rate a cursory glance to make sure that they are not expired. This time, however, the attendant actually took it into the toll booth with him. Then we noticed him writing something, which was a real puzzle. When he came back out, we discovered that we had won Dream Parking! He handed us the placard below:

Ironically, I have a AAA parking pass, but Dream Parking is so much cooler! Of course, I noticed it was hubby who won rather than unlucky me; he enjoyed pointing out that it was his name on the placard. We drove up to the Peacock lot (closest to the front) and proudly displayed our sign of privilege in the Family Truckster.
The park was fairly dead, so we managed to get in two rides on the safari, four on Expedition Everest, and one on Dinosaur before we called it a day. It was a great day for animal spotting on Kilimanjaro; the white rhinos, giraffes, and zebras were so close to the vehicles that they were practically in the road, and the lioness was showing off on the top of the highest rock in her enclosure. When we first went to Everest, it had had some sort of catastropic failure and was broken down so we rode Dinosaur instead. When we returned, the coaster was up and running once again.
The Dream Team seemed to be rather stingy in the park today. I saw no ears or lanyards and only a couple of Dream Fast Passes. Hubby did see someone getting filmed in the front car of Everest, so hopefully that means they were winning some sort of big prize.
The rain held off for the most part, although we did get briefly sprinkled on. It held the crowds at bay for a while, but when we were leaving we noticed a huge influx. We didn't care, as we had milked the early part of the day for all that it was worth.
We returned to the Family Truckster, waiting patiently in its primo parking spot, and headed off to Cracker Barrel for lunch. Now I could no longer say that I'd never gotten a dream, even though it was by proxy. I know that it must be a huge thrill to win the major dreams, but I also know that the odds are quite miniscule. You have to take your fun where you can get it; even though Dream Parking might be small potatoes compared to winning a DVC membership, it put a little extra magic into the day for hubby and I.
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