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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Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

According to Andy Williams, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. As a resident of the Orlando/Kissimmee area, I would beg to differ. For me and many other theme park-addicted locals, the brief interlude between Labor Day and October is just about as wonderful as you can get.

All summer long, Disney World is a mob scene. I don't visit the theme parks in July and August unless I'm feeling the need for self-punishment. But once Labor Day passes, the kids are all back in school and Mom and Dad don't want to pull them out for a vacation because its so early in the school year. Thus the parks are deserted by summer standards, and the locals all come out to play in the virtual ghost town.

Over the past couple weeks, I've been over-indulging on a huge dose of Disney. I went to Epcot last weekend and racked up four rides on Soarin' in the morning, including some in the standby line. In the summer, it's often two hours; I will not deign to wait in it unless its 20 minutes or less. Thus you can guess just how dead the park was!

I returned to Epcot with a friend this past week to see if the lines were still non-existent. Sure enough, between the standby and Fastpass lines we rode it five times and could easily have done a sixth. I have a limitless capacity for flying over the orange groves and diving over ocean and forests of California, but after the fifth ride she was ready for some lunch. We hiked over to Mexico and then took walk around World Showcase. I was utterly amazed at just how deserted the park was. There were a few scattered knots of people, but compared to the summer it was downright barren. We also rode Living With The Land and Test Track (singles line) before calling it a day.

This weekend hubby and I wanted to visit Typhoon Lagoon. As the weather cools, my thin Floridian blood won't be able to handle water parks much longer, so we wanted to take advantage of the still summer-level temperatures.

We had planned to go on Saturday, but we got a late start because I had to work so we ened up going to Universal Studio instead. We had a very late lunch at Bubba Gumps, followed by a walk to the park. The standby wait times were only 20 to 30 minutes, but since we have Premier Passes we had pretty much no wait at all via using the Express lines.

On Sunday, we decided to hit the water park right after church. We ate a late breakfast to tide us over so that we could skip lunch and then have an early dinner after our playtime. Typhoon Lagoon was only open until 5 p.m., but we figured we'd actually have even less time due to the typical afternoon thunderstorms. The sky started out clear, but questionable dark clouds were already gathering on the horizon as we floated around the lazy river.

Typhoon was just as uncrowded as the theme parks. The number of times you could ride the water slides was dependent only on your ability to keep climbing the stairs. There was a short wait for Crush N Gusher, the water "roller coaster," but nothing too terrible.

Even with the sparse crowds, I recoiled at the grossness of my fellow human beings. We stopped at the restrooms near the snorkeling reef, and I witnessed the second worst bathroom that I've ever seen in my life (the absolute worst was at a beach on Lake Erie in Ohio). In the first stall, someone had taken a healthy dump and had conveniently forgotten to flush. The second contained a mixture of wadded toilet paper and blood whose origins I was frightening to contemplate. The third contained a dump that rivaled the first. Maybe the creators hadn't actually forgotten to flush. Maybe I had inadvertently stumbled into the 2007 World Crap Championships and was viewing entries waiting to be judged. Thankfully we found cleaner restrooms by Crush N Gusher, but I was still reeling from the filth I had witnesses.

My next reminder of the grossness of the human animal occurred when I was leaving the wave pool. A guy walking with his family suddenly did a huge hocker and spit his big wad of phlegm into the pool. Ugh! Apparently he, or perhaps a relative-in-training, had visited the next water fountain I used, too, and had left a big, festering, slimy wad right beside the fountain. At that point, I was ready to take a bath in antibacterial soap and swath myself in Saran Wrap before entering any more bodies of water.

Even with the gross-outs, we were having a wonderful day. We had originally planned to stay for a couple of hours, but we were having so much fun that we quickly lost track of time. The storm clouds overhead seemed to be blowing over, so we thought we might actually make it until 5 p.m. Unfortunately, as we were taking another spin around the lazy river while planning our next round of watersliding, it started to rain. Then it started to pour, although we just ignored it since we were wet already. But then we heard a sudden crack of thunder that sounded like it was right overhead. Immediately we knew that the day was over; at the first sign of thunder and lightning it's "Everybody out of the pool."

Reluctantly we headed to our locker to drag our drowned-rat carcasses home. All around us was an amusing sight: soaking wet people in swimsuits huddled in stores and doorways and under canopies, trying desperately to avoid the rain. Duh, people, you're wet already! Really, really wet...the rain ain't gonna get you any wetter! Do you think that you're fine in chlorinated pools but that rain water will cause you to melt?

Thankfully we had a plastic bag in which to stuff our beach duffel. We traipsed through the downpour to the Family Truckster and joined the conga line of bailing bathers heading out of the parking lot.

After drying off at home, we headed out to the Chevys at Lake Buena Vista for dinner. Hubby noticed that they had window frames as decorations between the sections; he thought that they were knew, but I was certain that I had seen them before. Suddenly it hit me: they were from the Chevys on 192 that had closed. We asked on the way out, and sure enough they had been salvaged from the defunct location. The Kissimmee Chevys may be gone, but a little piece of it will live on across the street from Disney World.

Even with the washout, it had been another great day in the off-season. I'm hoping that I have one more week before the crowds return; in the meantime, you can find me particpating in a Soarin' marathon or romping through the near-deserted streets of one of the other parks.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Church Bells

Celebration is supposed to be the archetypal Small Town U.S.A. of a bygone era. While it does have some facets that remind me of my growing-up years, there are also some glaring differences...and a few precious things that are the same.

Perhaps one of the biggest gaps is the absence of the corner store. We used to have a grocery store downtown that is long gone now, but even when it was there, it wasn't quite the same. In my old neighborhood, there was a corner store literally every few blocks. I look back in wonderment on how they could have all survived in such close proximity. But of course that survival was limited, and as the supermarkets gained dominance they died out one by one. If you go through my old neighborhood now, you can see the faint ghosts of Corner Stores Past. The buildings are all still there, but the windows are long since boarded and painted over and the shop space is now just extended living areas.

I miss those corner stores, where the main stock in trade was milk and bread and lunchmeat. All of those stores seemed to have the same smell, sort of an odd, musty odor of vague disrepair. Indeed, they weren't the cleanest places, not like the antiseptic, white-flourescent stores of the modern world. But instead of a faceless cashier, you were rung up by your neighbor Joe. Even before you said it, he knew you were going to order a quarter pound of sliced ham.

I made many runs to the local shop, money clutched tightly in my grubby fist and mind focused on my mission, which was usually to buy a gallon of milk. As a matter of fact, that's what everyone in our neighborhood called our nearest shop: The Milk Store. It had a real name, but nobody knew or cared.

Corner stores were also treasure troves for kids, as they tended to have a great stock of sweets. I'm old enough to actually remember penny candy, although young enough to recall when it moved up to two cents and then to a nickle. It was pure heaven to head out with a quarter, or maybe even fifty cents, to buy a bag of Heaven. Candy lipsticks, candy necklaces, Pixie Sticks, Alexander the Grape, Pez and their bastard cousin, Candy Tabs (which I actually preferred), Razzles, Beechnut candy coated gum (make mine pepsin or fruit, please), Super Cherry Chicklets...ah, the list could go on and on.

But alas, here in Celebration the kids have no equivalent. The grocery shopping gets done at Super Target or Sam's or Publix or Wal-Mart, and interim milk or bread can be grabbed at a gas station or convenience store.

We do have pools, but they're nothing like the neighborhood pool of my childhood. Our local pool had three diving boards; back then, high dives were seen as something fun instead of as potential lawsuit magnets. I'll never forget the first time that I ventured off that high dive. It was only ten feet tall, but it seemed like at least one hundred to my scaredy-cat younger self. I ventured up the concrete stairs a few times, sidled my way to the edge, and then retreated in terror. But finally one day I got enough guts to actually take the plunge. What a rush!

In those days, we also loved to do the Nestea Plunge from the sides of the pool. Nowadays I imagine it would be forbidden as a good way to crack your head open.

That pool also had the world's best snack bar, serving up greasy cheeseburgers and fries and frozen Charleston Chew candy bars for dessert. In my adulthood, I have eaten at some of the finest restaurants, but I would trade them all to go back for just one summer and relive the simple joy of huddling beneath a towel and downing french fries drowned in ketchup as rock music blasts on a tinny speaker system and the smell of chlorine tickles my nose, beckoning me back to the water. There are no snack bars or high dives at the pools in Celebration, and I feel sorry for the local kids who will miss out on the memories that those things would create.

A couple of years ago, I read that my old neighborhood pool was shut down and concreted over. A year before that, two kids had scaled the fence for a midnight swim and drowned. I imagine the ensuing lawsuit spelled doom for my childhood stomping ground. After all, the neglegent park district didn't have the fence electrified and patroled by Dobermans, with half a dozen security guards, strobe lights, and signs posted every two feet reading, "Warning: Acting Like a Dumbass Can Be Fatal."

But even though Celebration lacks many of those genuine small-town touches, I was reminded today of one small thing that instantly transports me back to my childhood: the church bells. As a kid, my house was only a couple of blocks away from a church whose bells sounded on every quarter hour. It became an accepted part of the background soundtrack of my childhood. There was something comforting about the bells...I could always tell that time it was, and I always knew that I was on my home ground.

I don't know the name of the melody they played, but I think it might be the Big Ben chime. It would play a brief part for the quarter hour, a little more for the half, a bit more for three quarters and then the whole melody when striking the hour. It's funny how that made an impression on me, even in my earliest years. My grandparents lived in the house before we did, and I still have vague memories of being perhaps two or three years old. My grandpa was pushing me in the kiddie swings at the park down by the pool. It was just turning dusk, and I remember feeling the breeze on my face, looking up at the twightlight sky, seeing the treetops beyond the park, and hearing the hour chime. Ah, to be that age again, with no worries of a mortgage or work responsibilities or why the car is making a funny just be and to know that you have grandparents who love you and that everything is right with the world.

I was driving down Celebration Avenue recently, and as I passed Community Presbyterian Church I heard the bells toll the half hour. At first it startled me, as we don't live close enough to the church to hear that from home. Thus, I always forget that little bit of nostalgia unless I happen to be downtown at the right time.

They say that smells are powerful at stimulating memories, but in this case sound was just as effective. There I was, in the midst of frantically running errands, when suddenly the bells made me pause and return to a simpler time. The stress melted away, if only briefly, replaced by a spreading smile.

Perhaps one day around twilight I will walk down to Lakeside Park and sit in one of the rockers near the pool, looking at the treetops beyond the park. My beloved grandpa won't be there, except in spirit, and rocking will be much tamer than soaring in a swing. But when the church bells chime, perhaps I can just be for a few moments and know that everything is right with the world.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Swimming in the Poo-uhl

This week I went for a swim in the East Village pool, and as I splashed around in the balmy water I realized that it was the first time in well over a year. I'm not sure what caused me to break my self-imposed exile from the pool. I think it just looked too tempting; I drove by it several times, and each time it was completely empty (it was early so the kids were still in school). The temperature was hovering near 90, so the crisp blue water just looked too inviting to resist. Finally I gave in to its siren song, slipped on my swimsuit, and hiked over to get some aquatic exercise.

Exercise is a bit of a challenge in the East Village pool iteration. In Celebration, several villages have pools that can be used by any member of our homeowners association. The pools in Main, North, and South Villages are all large rectangular pools with lap lanes. In East Village we were an afterthought. Our "pool" is small and round, with a concrete island in the center, making it a challenge for lap swimming unless you want to know how an endlessly circling goldfish feels. I usually jog in the water, but the pool is shallow (three feet) unless you are close to the concrete center, where it is four feet. Thus, when I want to exercise. I dizzily jog 'round and 'round the island.

I think one of the main reasons that my visits to the local pool ceased is because I belong to the fitness center at Celebration Health. They have a lovely indoor lap pool where I can get my exercise much more easily. Sure, I could go to one of the pools in the other villages, but if I'm going to drive that far, why not just go to the fitness center? There I don't have to worry about the weather or of kids doing cannonballs in the lap lanes.

Another reason I avoid our in-town public pools is that often they become poo-uhls. This year, there was a rash of closings due to "accidents." We have lots of kids and babies in town, so such things are inevitable. Still, I agree with an internet poster who likened swim diapers to "fecal tea bags." Yes, I know that chlorine kills most germs, but I still prefer to confine myself to environments that are feces free whenever possible. In the bigger pools it's not as bad, but the East Village pool is so tiny that any contamination is magnified exponentially.

The last reason is complacency. Once upon a time, back when we were commuting regularly between Illinois and Florida, we visited the pool almost every time we were in town. I still harass my husband about his comment the first time we walked to the pool from our house. As we set out, he lamented, "When we bought the house, I thought the pool was a lot closer. It's soooo far!"

Now, mind you, the pool is all of a five minute's walk, and that's if you're really going slowly. To give you some perspective, there is a larger soccer/athletic field. Duloc Manor is perhaps half a block away from the field on one end, and the pool is at the other end. In Chicago terms, it would be two and a half to three "long blocks" away.

Hubby quickly saw just how off-kilter his comment had been. I suspect that he had somehow mixed up his perspective on where the pool was actually located in relation to our home. If you've ever driven down the curvy spaghetti bowl of Celebration streets, you'll know that's entirely possible. He never admitted it, tho', so every time thereafter that we'd go for a swim, I'd offer to back some dinner and a tent.

In those days, we usually spent less than 48 hours in Celebration at a time. We'd arrive after midnight on Friday and leave on Sunday afternoon. There wasn't time for spontaneous trips to Disney World or Universal because we were usually involved in some house-related project. The pool was a simple nearby pleasure, especially in the winter months. How precious it was to go for a swim, basking in the sunshine while knowing that back in the Windy City the ground was frozen and blanketed in snow.

Back then our pool pass only worked about 20 percent of the time, and whenever we complained, the issue was always blamed on a lightning strike. They say lightning never strikes twice, but I think it must have had a direct, multiple-strike line to that pool gate. We'd "break in" by bringing a stepladder to facilitate climbing over the gate.

Now, being here full time, we can devote our energies to other activities. When we do decide to swim, it's a lot more tempting to take a dip in our hot tub right in the backyard. The tub is a fancy seven-person model with a different set of therapeutic jets in each seat. The temperature is always a nice, toasty 99 (or wherever we set it). I know that no poopy diapers have sullied its pristine waters and that the chemical mix is just right. And, given the size of the East Village pool, it's really not all that much smaller! (Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but just a little.)

Since my blood is now Floridian-thin, I doubt I could even manage to swim in the pool during the winter months. In the commuting days, I could swim down to around 70 degrees. We'd visit Disney World every December, and I remember floating casually down the lazy river at Typhoon Lagoon in my swimsuit and seeing the lifeguards shivering in swim trunks and heavy jackets. Now I'm in a jacket at 70 degrees too!

But for now the temperatures are still at near-summer levels, and with the kids in school the pools are quiet in the morning and early afternoon. I really enjoyed my dip, and it gave me a chance to reach back in time and touch base with my earlier self. As I jogged around in the water, I thought back to those days when we usually visited the pool on Monday morning before getting ready for our flight to Chicago. Back then, the time whizzed by at light speed. I'd enjoy the swim, but I hated the fact that it heralded the end of another visit to the place that I truly felt was home.

I remember thinking about what it would be like when we finally lived in Celebration full-time. Would that day ever come? What would it feel like? Wouldn't it be wonderful to visit the pool as often as I wanted and to be able to stay as long as I liked?

Now that I have the capability, I take it for granted. I still know how lucky I am, but that luck is an accepted part of my life, not a tantalizing gem gleaming just out of reach. Perhaps I should go for a swim more often and reconnect with the ghost of that woman who was so homesick for Celebration just a few short years ago. It never hurts to reminded just how precious it is to live somewhere that you truly love.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Tonight, in my quest for fresh guacamole, I had a flashback to my days in Illinois. Here in Florida, authentic Mexican food is just about as rare as a bargain at Disney World. Even though I miss it, my taste is somewhat saited by the pseudo-Mex at Chevys. They serve something called Fresh Mex, which means that nothing comes out of a can. While their dishes are not necessarily authentic (I babysat for a Mexican family as a teen, and nary a crab and shrimp flauta nor portabello mushroom quesedilla issued forth from their kitchen), I still enjoy them. Chevys is one of my regular haunts for a quick lunch or dinner.

Once upon a time, back in Illinois, there was a Chevys doppleganger called On The Border. Actually, it wasn't an exact replica; although they share menu items like fresh guacamole made tableside, Chevys doesn't have one very important delicacy that was featured at On the Border: Chocolate Turtle Empanadas.

How do I describe them? How can one put into words the pure ecstacy and bliss of the world's perfect dessert? I'll start off with the official menu description: flaky pastries filled with chocolate, caramel and pecans, rolled in cinnamon sugar. Served warm with vanilla ice cream.

Take it from me, they don't need ice cream. I always turned it down because ice cream merely distracts from the culinary symphany of chocolate, nuts, caramel and pecans all playing their masterpiece on my tongue. Sadly, Chevys doesn't have any dessert items that even come close. Or maybe I should say "gladly," since the absence of that calorie laden temptation has probably saved me from an untold number of additional pounds of body weight.

But when I lived in Illinois, the turtles were easily attainable. I lived in ignorance of their existence for years, until one day I was at a training seminar and went to On the Border for lunch. Upon discovering its wonderful food, of which the dessert was only the cherry on the sundae, I decided to see if there was a location closer to home (the seminar was over an hour's drive away).

I discovered a location at a shopping center called River Oaks; not right in my backyard, but neither was it outside of reasonable striking distance. Thus, On the Border became a regular stop on my regular restaurant rotation. Hubby and I also had a particular fondness for the tableside guacamole, which your server would create right before your very can't get much fresher than that.

One day, only a few months after discovering On the Border, we innocently drove out to Calumet City, all set for avocado heaven and chocolate bliss. As we approached the building, I wonder, "Why does the parking lot look so deserted?" Upon pulling up, we discovered the reason. It was boarded up tight as a drum and obviously no longer in business. We had been there only a couple of weeks earlier, and our server had excitedly described several new menu items that they were planning to add. There had been no hint of the doom just around the corner.

Alas, there were no other On the Border locations within reasonable striking distance, so they became a distant, melancholy memory. Sometimes I would think back, and it boggled my mind to remember pulling up to the building, my taste buds all set for a familiar meal, only to discover the restaurant gone. The only other time I had ever experienced that was with my favorite German restaurant; one weekend we were going to stop there, but there was a festival so we couldn't find a parking spot. We vowed to return soon, but when we did only two weeks later, we found that it had literally burned to the ground.

Meanwhile, we had discovered Chevys in Illinois. They weren't close by, but we'd go every now and then in memory of On the Border because the food was very similar. When we moved to Florida, we were pleased to discover not one, but two Chevys in our area. We found one at Lake Buena Vista, near the entrance to Disney World, and another on 192 in the heart of Kissimmee.

We generally visited the Lake Buena Vista location, but occasionally we'd go to the one on 192. Tonight, I was in the mood for some guacamole, and I figured that 192 would be less crowded than the one near Disney, so I set off in search of my green, smooshy reward. It was nighttime, so I kept an eye out for the Chevys neon beacon that would signal me when to turn left. I drove and drove...hmmmm...I thought it was near the Target. But I didn't see it, so I kept on going. My inner sense of direction was shooting off alarm bells, but I was sure that I hadn't seen the sign so I kept on going. I passed the K-Mart, passed the half-vacant now I was certain that I'd gone way too far. I made a quick u-turn, wondering how I could have missed my destination.

I slowed when I approached the Target, my eyes peeled for the restaurant. I almost missed it again, and I quickly discovered why. It was dark. Totally dark. There was not so much as a night light or security light shedding the smallest beam on the forlorn parking lot or in the deserted building. It wasn't boarded up, and hubby wasn't with me...otherwise, it would have been a near total flashback to my On the Border experience.

I pulled up gingerly to the building. Normally its neon looked so inviting, but tonight it was sinister as it sat enveloped in blackness, with not one sign of humanity around it. It was like a blown out bulb on the gaudy string of lights that make up the 192 corridor.

I was hoping that there might be a sign in the window, but no such luck. It was so dark that I couldn't see inside to tell if the building had been stripped. I think that the Chevys sign had been painted over, but in the gloom I couldn't be sure.

Dejectedly I got back in the Family Truckster. At this point, it wasn't about guacomole. It was more about the shock of seeing something I had taken for granted in my world suddenly and unexpectedly disappear. In a way, it was symbol of all the things we take for granted until one day poof! They are are gone. And it was made doubly ironic by the fact that this is 9/11, the day when an entire country lost something it had taken for granted. On that day, we lost something tangible: The Twin Towers. And we lost something intangible, too: A sense of security on our home soil. Before I saw those towers fall, I never could have imagined such horror on American soil. Now, forevermore I could never be that innocent and naive again. That day subtly but permanently changed my entire outlook and the outlook of all my fellow Americans.

As far as I know on the Mexican food front, the Lake Buena Vista location is still open so I can still get my fix. But my unrequited jaunt tonight was a reminder of a much bigger and more important picture. We must never grow too comfortable in our expectations because the solidity of life is an illusion, and we will be reminded of that fact at the most unexpected times.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Chip is Working at Full Strength

In the novel "The Stepford Wives," one of the main villians is nicknamed Diz because he used to work on audioanimatonics at Disney World. Later, the implication is that he has a major role in perfecting the robot wives.

I don't know about robotics, but I do know that Disney has perfected their cranial implant to a frightening degree. I imagine that mine was implanted on my first trip to WDW, in 1989 or '90, when I visited with my sister and stayed at the Contemporary. All of the on-site, Disney-owned resorts have an installation facility, and they do it so quickly and efficiently overnight that you're totally unaware anything has happened when you wake up in the morning. The only things you might notice are an increased craving for Mickey ice cream bars and souvenir t-shirts, a magnetic draw to the Disney theme parks, a zap akin to a shock color when you even consider trying out Universal or Sea World, and a homing pigeon urge to return to WDW at least once a year.

Those who don't believe need only to look at my husband. I was raised in a home laden with Disney propaganda. I had Disney Golden Books and storybooks, watching the Wonderful World of Disney on the Radiation King every weekend, and saw each new big screen cartoon extravaganza. Indoctronated early, I only needed the standard-strength chip to orient me to the Florida homing beam.

Conversely, my husband's household was Disney-free. He knew none of the characters, save for the really, really obvious ones, had never seen a Disney movie and had no desire whatsoever to visit either Disneyland or Disney World. When I married him, I didn't disclose that I was a Disneyphile, but he didn't warn me that he was a Trekkie so I figure we're even. But once the knot was tied, I quickly began working on him for a trip to Orlando.

He's a roller coaster fanatic, so Space Moutain and Big Thunder Mountain were enough to make him consider it. Unfortunately, once we had our first trip planned, our house was flooded so our life was put on hold for three months while it was gutted and rebuilt.

The next year we tried again; the Contemporary was full, so we stayed at the then-new Wilderness Lodge. Since the hotel was brand new, I imagine that the chip installation facility was too. All I know is that I left Chicago with a man who didn't give a rat's patooty (okay, a mouse's patooty) for Disney World, and by the time we had returned he was already chafing at the bit to book another trip.

Over the next decade, we planned other trips too, but we still managed to squeeze in at least one or two Disney World jaunts. In our most active year, we bought Annual Passes and watched ATA's fares; whevever they had a sale, it meant an impromptu weekend trip. That year, we visited so often that I actually started to get tired of Morocco, my favorite Epcot restaurant.

I suspect that Disney can now do remote upgrades, based on our experience with the cruise line. In 1997, we visited the preview center at the Magic Kingdom to see a little movie about Disney Cruise Line's launch the following year. Hubby had no inkling to ever go on a cruise, but his trust in Mickey made him take the leap (actually, I think that "trust" was based on upgrade microwaves beaming out of the preview screen). Now, 58 Disney cruises later, it's obvious that both of us carry the prototype cruise line chip.

I think that actually being in the parks boosts the chip's potency too. It needs a recharge every now and then. Hubby will go, even in the thick of the summer stampede, to see Fantasmic and Illuminations pretty regularly. I remain at Duloc Manor, content to hear the fireworks from a distance. But when he went on Thurs. and told me the Soarin' line was only 20 mins. long, I just had to go on Fri.

As chronicled in yesterday's entry, the lines were considerably longer on Fri. but I still managed to get two rides. Unfortuntately my chip was also boosted to the point where I actually returned this morning! Hubby had his sights set on Typhoon Lagoon, but Soarin' was singing a siren song to me so he set out for TL while I went to Epcot. I figured the lines might be bad since it's a weekend and there is an event going on, but nothing ventured nothing gained.

I got to the park around 10, and amazingly enough the Soarin' line was only 20 mins.! I grabbed a Fast Pass, then rushed through the standby line. Afterwards, it was already time to use my Fast Pass, so I grabbed another and then used up the first. I still had some time to wait for the second one, so I hustled to Test Track and caught a quick ride in the single riders' line, which is usually in the 10 minute rage unless the park is insanely busy.

After that, it was back to Soarin'. At this point, the standby line was fluctuating between 45 and 55 minutes, but that wasn't a worry with my trusty Fast Pass. Being greedy, I grabbed one more pass and then popped in the line to use my current one. After that, I had some time to kill until the third one's timeframe started, so I had some lunch in the food court and caught a quick spin on the Living With the Land boat ride.

Before boarding Soarin', I decided to get one more Fast Pass. Granted, the return time was too late for me to use it, but I figured I could give it to one of the CMs to hand out to a single rider going through standby at the appointed time. Fun stuff like that can make a person's day.

They say no good deed goes unpunished, and indeed that was the case here. The stinkin' Fast Pass machine ate my Annual Pass! Worse yet, it didn't even disgorge a Fast Pass. One of the Cast Members managed to sort it out, but he told me I needed to have Guest Services fix my AP later.

With the trauma over, I joined the Fast Pass ride and had my last flight over California for the day. I just love Soarin'...out of all the rides in any of the Disney parks, if I had to pick just one I'd choose Soarin' without hesitation. Once upon a time my choice would have been "Journey Into Imagination," but alas the wonderful, imaginative, innovation, cute version no longer exists, and I can rarely stomach riding the current travesty.

Two trips to Epcot in less than 24 hours and half a dozen rides on Soarin'....hmmmmmm. Obviously my chip is working at full strength and my Disney World addiction is in full swing.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Spoiled Rotten Local

My trip to Epcot tonight really underscored just how spoiled I've gotten as a local. Living in Celebration, less than 15 minutes from the park and able to visit at virtually any time of the year, I rarely will join a ride line that is over 20 minutes long. Summertime typically brings hour to two hour wait times on the most popular attractions, but I simply avoid that whole mess. I either go very early in the morning or wait a couple of months till the off season.

Labor Day week is typically one of the slowest times at Disney World. I had to work last night, but my hubby buzzed over to Epcot to see Illuminations. Amazingly, he discovered that the Soarin' line was only 20 minutes, so he slipped in a trio of rides before the fireworks.

I hadn't ridden Soarin' for months, since in the summer a two hour wait is the norm. In a way that's ironic since it's actually a rather simple ride. At its core, it's an Imax movie combined with motion seating. You sit in one of three sections which are then elevated to form three tiers. As you watch the movie, the seats move in synch with the on-screen motion and you're surrounded with appropriate smells, like oranges when you're over the groves and pine trees as you buzz the forest. You really lose yourself in the experience, although if you are in rows two or three the feet of your fellow riders above you will distract you a bit.

The movie has various scene of California, including the Golden Gate Bridge, snow skiing, rafting, golfing, hang gliding, horseback riding, rock climbing, hot air balloons, orange groves, surfing in the ocean, and landing on an air craft carrier. It's all set to a powerful musical score. I love it so much that I bought a 2-CD collection just to get that one song. It's one of the few rides where people often break into spontaneous applause at the end.

As far as amusement park attractions go, it's really a simple concept. It has no thrills or chills unless you happen to be deathy afraid of heights, and even then you don't really see just how high you are (also, you could also request row three, which doesn't go nearly as high). Yet for all its simplicity, people love it. As I mentioned earlier, in the peak season its lines are downright ridiculous.

Hubby's description of his rides on the previous night, coupled with a Soarin' t-shirt that he'd bought me, whet my appetite to ride my favorite Epcot attraction very soon. I thought perhaps on Friday the park would still be relatively uncrowded, so after dinner I donned my new t-shirt in honor of our intent and we headed over.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be Extra Magic Hours at Epcot, meaning that it was open later exclusively for Disney resort guests. Since Magic Kingdom closed early due to Night of Joy (a Christian music event), virtually every person on Disney property seemed to be heading to Epcot instead. When we arrived, the line for Soarin' was 55 minutes. As a local, I just couldn't bring myself to wait that long.

Feeling rather disgruntled, I suggested that we ride Test Track via the singles line. It's a lot shorter than standby, but your group is split up and rides in different vehicles that need a "filler person." After that, we checked the ride times, and Soarin' had dropped to 45 minutes, but that was still above my comfort zone. I was hoping that the time would plummet as people headed to World Showcase to see Illuminations, but I wasn't placing any bets on it.

We happened to be near the fountain, which performs a water show choreographed to music every 15 minutes. They use a variety of songs, which are rotated at random, but my all-time favorite is "Standing in Motion" by Yanni. Amazingly, I lucked out as that was the selection of this quarter-hour. I stood transfixed as the water "danced" to the strains of my favorite Yanni song. Sadly, none of the people walking by even noticed what was going on. There was a thing of beauty right in front of them, but they were more worried about getting to their next destination than pausing for a moment, catching their breath, and admiring a thing of quiet and peaceful beauty.

After the fountain show we hiked over to "Turtle Talk With Crush," my second favorite Epcot attraction. It had been moved to a larger theater since the last time we'd seen it. I love it because it is very innovative. Crush actually talks to the audience in real-time, picking up specific people in the audience and answering specific questions. He tends to be quick witted, too, so depending on the audience, sometimes it is hilarious. Tonight the audience was rather dead; kids kept raising their hands to ask questions, but then they would suddenly clam up when presented with the microphone. Oh well, I still enjoyed it.

Next up, we headed to the Land pavillion, home of the ever-popular Soarin', to see if the wait times were still ugly. Supposedly the wait had dropped to 35 minutes. As a spoiled rotten local, it pained me to wait for over half an hour. Still, it was either that or miss my favorite ride entirely. Reluctantly I joined the line.

A few months back, some Disney rocket scientist had the "brilliant" idea to add interactive games to the Soarin' queue. You stand in front of the screens and control them with your body motion. Unfortunately that means that even though the rest of the people ahead of you have gone on, you block everyone else as you sway or swat or whatever the game requires. I would think Disney would want to find ways to move the line faster, not to gum it up even more.

A sheep herd of people was engrossed in playing, but others were just blowing past them and hubby and I joined the passers, which probably cut 5 to 10 minutes off our wait. The players were so hypnotized that I doubt they even noticed.

It took less than half an hour in total from the time we entered the line till the time our ride vehicle rose into the air. Soon I was engrossed in the smell of oranges, which always flashes me back to my defunct favorite, Horizons. I love the part of the sountrack best when you're gliding over the orange groves and then over a mountain where a group of horseback riders gallops down the train and the you pass over a group of rock climbers.

The park was open till 9 for non-Extra Magic guests. When we climbed off the ride, it was 8:57 so we sprinted like Olympic track starts to be first out of the theater and to cover the long hallway it record time to get just one more ride. We made it by the skin of our teeth, and this time around the line was almost non-existent. How wonderful to finish off the day with an encore Soarin' performance.

I was surprised that several people noticed my Soarin' t-shirt. Two were Cast Members, and the rest were fellow guests waiting in line with us. I'm so glad hubby found it; I just love how it incorporates all of the movie scenes.

As we headed out of the pavillion after our bonus ride, we saw that nearly every person in the park was heading to the Land. I wouldn't be surprised if Soarin's wait didn't boost up to near an hour again. We had probably managed our second ride with such a short line because Illuminations was just starting at nine. As we left, it was no doubt the post-Illuminations crowd all pouring in.

On our way to the car, I pondered just what a spoiled little local I have become. Once upon a time, I would have been estatic to see a 35 minute wait on a ride as popular as Soarin'. Now, I could barely convince myself to wait that long; after all, I could return to Epcot pretty much whenever I wanted to, choosing a day in the dead season or perhaps an evening when a thunderstorm had driven everybody back to their hotels before blowing out and leaving Disney World ripe for a local take-over.

When I go to bed tonight, I'll have to be sure to say a prayer of thanks. It's truly a privilege to live in Celebration; what is only a yearly vacation for most people, or maybe just a once in a lifetime experience, is an anytime adventure for me. Here I was miffed about the long waiting time for Soarin', but I'm sure there were many people who had to choice but to wait as they won't be returning anytime soon. Living next door to Disney World is a blessing that I have to learn not to take for granted. It's the most wonderful feeling in the world to live in a town where you can pretend that you are on vacation all year 'round.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Endless Summer Redux

A couple of years back, in a blog entry titled "Endless Summer," I lauded Florida as the land of eternal warmth and sunshine. Of course, warmth is a relative term, as what's warm to northeners can be downright arctic to natives. This topic came back to me as I hiked the boardwalk to downtown, my hair soaked with sweat, and the humidity of the day only partially relinquishing its hold as dusk dropped its curtain.

Could Labor Day really be past? In Chicago, that three-day September weekend was always a harbinger of cold days ahead. My husband and I had a tradition of going to Wisconsin Dells (a mega-tourist area known for its water parks) every Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend. Memorial Day was a cheerful time, as we were officially ushering in summer (even though the true start date of the season was over a month away), and we could bask in three months of sunshine, swimming pools, horseback riding, biking, and all the other outdoor activities we had sorely missed in the long, gray winter.

We always visited Noah's Ark Water Park and Riverview/Waterworld in the Dells. Most years Mother Nature smiled on us and allowed enough warmth for swimming. Of course, after a bitter Chicago winter, anything above 70 felt suitable for jumping in a pool. Everyone at the water parks was in good spirits, kicking off a season of fun.

In contrast, our Labor Day visit always felt melancholy. We knew that it was our last hurrah before fall hurtled at us and passed much too quickly, leaving us to face another cycle of snow, ice, and below freezing temperatures. We had fun, of course, but there was always a sense of finality tinging the enjoyment. As we'd float in the lazy river, we could see the lifeguards taking out the extra tubes and hauling them away for off-season storage. They'd stack and haul away the lounge chairs even while guests were still in the park, getting a head start on their end-of-season tasks, and their cleaning duties were much more thorough than on a typical day because they were battening down the hatches for the season.

Often, the week after Labor Day felt like Mother Nature had thrown a switch. Suddenly the temperature would drop a good 10 degrees, and people will pools in their backyards knew that drain-time was at hand bcause swimming weather was over for another year.

Here in Florida, Labor Day is just another holiday. Its significance lies more in signaling the start of the brief slow period at Disney World than it does in a weather change. Granted, things will cool down here too, but by "cool down" I mean drop from the 90s into the 80s and 70s. Instead of getting time off, my horse Figment's workload will increase. Instead of curtailing our activities, we'll be going to the theme parks more and will hit the water parks until my thin Floridian blood can't take it anymore. My husband still has some Northern heartiness, but I've already lost most of mine. Oh well, that's what our hot tub is for.

Instead of Wisconsin Dells, hubby celebrated the new season by running over to Epcot tonight. I had to work and then went to the contemporary church service, so I missed out on all of the fun. Imagine my insane jealousy when he told me the line for Soarin' was only 20 minutes! It was 90 to 120 minutes just a few weeks ago; once school starts, it's like a switch has been flipped slowing the stream of tourists to a trickle, although it will steadly rise again as October gets closer.

Even though I missed a marathon on my favorite Epcot ride, he brought me home a cool Soarin' t-shirt. It has a representation of literally every scene from the ride, from the hang gliders, aircraft carrier, and golf ball to the skiers, rafters, and horseback riders. Of course, the Disneyland fireworks are there, too.

Ah, how I love the endless summer! That's the name of a Beach Boys album, which brings to mind one of my favorite BB songs: "Wouldn't It Be Nice." The first verse, interpreted loosely, sums up our transition to Florida and Celebration:

Wouldn't it be nice if we were older
Then we wouldn't have to wait so long
And wouldn't it be nice to live together
In the kind of world where we belong

Since our initial plan was to move to Florida, somewhere near Disney World, in ten years, so of course we would have been older then...and it did, indeed, feel like a long time. We always knew that the Disney area was the world where we belonged.

The song says:

Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true
Baby then there wouldn't be a single thing we couldn't do

Our wishes, hopes, and prayers did come true more quickly than we had expected. Now, we can do all the experiences that we loved but that had to be relegated to precious vacation time, like hubby's impromptu visit to Epcot. And we don't have the prospect of blizzards and wind chills dancing in the near future; our endless summer will go on all year.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Land of the Lost

To all those who emailed me, the blog took a hiatus while I was preparing for my transatlantic cruise and then sailing in the Med and back across the Pond for two weeks. I'm back now, immersing myself in Celebration life and getting caught up with my work. You can find a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of my cruise, including real-life monkey knife fighting, at

In the meantime, if you're a child of the 70s, I suspect that you remember Marshall, Will, and Holly on a routine expedition...that took them to the Land of the Lost. In its Sid and Marty Krofft incarnation, the land was a creepy compilation of bad SFX dinosaurs, creepy humanoid/reptilian Sleestaks, and caveboy Chaka (who apparently pitches GEICO now).

Here in Florida, we have our own Land of the Lost. But instead of a tiny raft plummeting 1000 feet, you can easily access it on any road within 30 miles of Disney World. Instead of menacing prehistoric creatures, the poor souls caught in this harsh and forbidding land must battle giant roadside slingshots and other siren-calling roadside attractions, ambiguous directions, confusing intersections, and endless snaking lines of traffic. Unlike Marshall and his family, they are not searching for a way to get home, but rather to find the Mythic Land of the Giant Mouse.

In the original Land of the Lost, outsiders were quickly recognized by Chaka and the rest of the Pakuni by the fact that they wore clothing, spoke comprehensibly, and had considerably less body hair. In our present day version, the physical differences are not so apparent, but natives can still spot the noobs by some very easily recognizable traits:

-The make of their car. Impalas, minivans, and Dodge convertibles with Sunshine State plates (vs. those that list a county) are neon beacons that holler "Lost soul here!", and the effect is intensified by the passengers and/or driver busily reading a map spread out over the dashboard.

-Their erractic movements. On their quest for the Mouse, they frequently stop dead, backtrack, bolt sideways and even backwards, regardless of the other vehicles around them. Long ago I stopped marveling at the sight of cars driving in reverse full-tilt down I-4 exit ramps. No one ever really got hurt in Saturday morning cartoons, and apparently vacationers believe that they have the same sort of immunity, regardless of the wisdom of their driving decisions.

Any native who frequents I-4 and 192 quickly develops a special sense that allows them to detect lost souls and to even predict some of their behavior. Some of the signs are obvious. For example, lost people typically drive at least 10 miles below the expressway speed limit, usually in the middle lane so that they can easily swerve in either direction; tourists are notorious for refusing to commit to a solid right or left land.

But some of the signs are much more subtle. For example, there is a certain "pause" that a tourist vehicle makes before launching an erratic sideways move; it's invisible to the naked eye, but a true Floridian feels it rather than sees it and knows they have mere seconds to get out of the way.

At least you have plenty of room to maneuver around the Marshall, Will, and Hollys of the greater Orlando/Kissimmee area when you're out on a major road. We get our share of them here in Celebration, too, and our narrow roads are hard enough to maneuver even in the best of circumstances, let alone when you have a hopelessly lost soul in front of you.

I have learned a few survival tricks for dealing with hopelessly lost drivers in-town. First and foremost, NEVER signal a turn intention. This contradicts every instinct in my body, as I am one of the few Floridians who still knows how to use my turn signals. But I've learned that if the person in front of you is lost and you both come to a stop sign at a major intersection, the odds are good that if you put on your blinker they will suddenly flick on theirs, too, and turn the same way. Since they are in front, you now have to suffer with their 10 mph pace for an even longer spell of time.

At first, I thought I was imagining things. Finally I tried an experiment: whenever I had a lost person in front of me on East Lawn (the King Street of Lost Souls and Looky-Loos), I'd wait until we got to the stop sign at the dead end. If they didn't put on their signal, I would put on my right turn signal (even though I turn left there). Sure enough, theirs would flip on, and mercifully they could go the other way.

Just to make sure that my theory was correct and that it wasn't coincidence or the natural tendency of Americas to go right, I flipped on my left signal a few times when the person in front of me was obviously lost and clueless. Sure enough, they would turn left too. However, if I didn't put on my signal at all, the right-bias would come out and they would turn that way, usually after sitting at the stop sign for several minutes waiting for my blinker lights to send them the special signal.

All of this is magnified during the heart of the tourist season. Thankfully that's all over for a few months now; it's the low season until late October, when the holidays will draw droves and droves of adventure seekers to the Land of the Lost once again. But that's okay, I don't fear the outsiders. Between my heightened Floridian senses and my turn signal trick, I can survive any influx that earthquakes and rapids (or airplanes and vans) can bring.

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