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. Ahhhh...it 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 back...so 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 yesterday.....it 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 cold...it 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.

Visit my Celebration, FL website: http://www.celebrationinfo.com/

Click below to visit my Life Coaching office at Kasamba:

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