Monday, December 31, 2007

Bingo With Reels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Christmas Ham on the Hoof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Melting Pot Mayhem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"NO candle on table!"

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

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