Thursday, December 25, 2008

An Unseasonably Warm Christmas

This year was the sort of Christmas that reminded me why we moved to Florida. Here in Celebration the days have been unseasonably warm, with temperatures flirting around in the 80s. Back in Chicago, where most of my family is stuck, the weather is bitter and vicious and the streets are coated with ice. For the last few days, the news has been full of horror stories about stranded holiday travelers. Granted, northern winters are never a treat, but this year seems to be much worse than usual.

In Celebration, the only thing I can complain about is a nasty cold that overtook me just in time for the holiday. It struck me down with a head stuffed with snot and a nasty, ragged cough. We didn't have major plans anyway. For Christmas Eve, we just planned to have a nice dinner at the Columbia Restaurant downtown, then pop over to the 7:30 p.m. church service. We usually go at 11 p.m. because there's something so magical about ending the service at midnight with everyone holding candles and singing "Silent Night," but this year, in my peaked condition, the earlier service sounded more appealing. There were 3 and 5 p.m. services too, but by 7:30 I figured it would be dark enough for the candles to have their full effect.

I thought that the Columbia was going to have a special holiday menu, but it turned out to be the regular fare. That was fine with me, as I always enjoy their Spanish/Cuban-style food. Hubby and I ended up splitting a salad, and I had mahi-mahi for dinner. The restaurant was packed to the gills, and the streets were crowded elbow-to-elbow with tourists waiting for the soapy snowfall. Every hour, from 6 to 9 p.m., "snoap" falls on Market Street from Thanksgiving weekend through New Years Eve. Even though I've seen it a million times, it's still fascinating to watch the people dance in bubbly flurries that smell like Ivory Soap.

Since we got done eating fairly quickly, we walked down Front Street to see if we had time for a horse-drawn carriage ride. Unfortunately the wait was long, so we hiked back to the church. As we walked down Celebration Avenue, we noticed a stocking dangling down onto the sidewalk. A family in the condos above were handing out candy canes to the passers-by. Hubby chucked and said, "Only in Celebration!"

It's a good thing we got to church early, as the service was so packed that the people spilled over into the expansion room. Even though there was no communion at 7:30, I was pleased because it featured the handbell choir during the offeratory. I just love bells, so even with my ears feeling like they were stuffed with cotton due to the congestion, I still reveled in the tinkling tones.

I was worried about hacking through the service, but I soon discovered that I wasn't alone. I was merely one small part of a cacophony of coughs that cropped up throughout the sanctuary.

After the service, we stopped at Starbucks so I could sooth my raw throat with a nice, cold iced gingerbread latte. The line stretched back almost to the door, but thankfully it moved quickly. By this time, it was nearly 9 p.m. and people were waiting for the very last snoap-fall of Christmas Eve. We skipped the revelry and headed back home; I'd had enough of the crowd to last me for the evening.

The next day we had booked hot rock massages at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. we figured we'd have a nice spa treatment, then gamble for a bit, returning to Celebration for a 4 p.m. dinner at the Mona Lisa hotel restaurant. It sounded like a good plan...but it wasn't to be. We found the casino easily, thanks to the wonders of Onstar. In Illinois, when you're nearing a casino there are signs every ten feet till you get there. In Tampa, you'd never even know that the Hard Rock is there because there is no sign at the I-4 exit and no directional signs as you approach. We got lost last time we visited, but this time Onstar guided us right up to the parking garage.

We trudged through the casino and over to the spa, where the receptionist said, "Oh, we wanted to call you but we couldn't find your number." (Duh! I have it to them when I booked the treatments, plus we're listed in the phone book.) "We only have one therapist, so we can only give one of you a massage." Hubby offered to let me take it, but that just didn't seem like a nice, Christmasy thing to do. Besides, I figured that my nose would be dripped and distract me from the relaxation. We opted for neither one of us to have a treatment and figured we'd just start our gambling early.

We both played "Jackpot Party," our favorite slot machine. At one point I would have been up by $60 if I'd simply cashed out, but I ended up giving it back and spending my whole allotment. Hubby quit before he spent all of his, opting to use the rest for lottery tickets. When we first arrived, the casino was sparsely populated, but by the time we left the crowds had arrived. Everybody must have been running over with the money Santa left in their stockings.

Gambling is okay, but I never get too overly excited about it because it was legal in Illinois for years before we came to Florida. It's a novelty when you can't readily do it, but when you live near a casino it's just another expensive activity. Also, because the Hard Rock is owned by the Seminole tribe, it's exempt from Florida's no-smoking laws so I can only stand it in small doses. Fortunately my coughing, hacking and horking of snot kept most of the smokers at bay until it got really crowded. Whenever someone would approach the machine next to me with a cigarette dangling from their lips, I'd work up the grossest, wettest hork I could muster, punctuated with some deep, rattling coughs. That tended to send them in search of safer, less germy climates.

After our minor financial scalping, we returned to Celebration for our Christmas meal. We were running early, so we decided to stop at Walgreens to pick up some pseudoephedrine. I had bought some phenylephrine the day before at Publix, and it didn't work nearly as well. I did some internet research after take some with no noticable effects and found that it's essentially worthless. Unfortunately, pseudoephedrine is kept behind the pharmacy counter at Walgreen's because it can be used to manufacture meth, and when we arrived at the closest Walgreen's we discovered that the pharmacy was closed for Christmas. We headed off to a 24 hour Walgreen's...same thing. Ugh! We stopped at a rinky-dink tourist supermarket, and my hopes soared when I saw that they had the sinus drugs stored behind the counter. Turns out they were just being overaly paranoid and were protecting the worthless phenylephrine-based products. I resigned myself to an evening of dealing with a faucet nose.

We returned to Celebration and popped into the Mona Lisa, where we were seated at a table with a lovely view of the pool. The holiday meal choices were turkey or prime rib, and we both opted for tradition. The stuffing was so wonderfully spiced, and the turkey was stuffed with some sort of cheese (I think...whatever it was was delicious). There was a salad with poached pears and Boursin cheese as a started and creme brulee and a yule log for dessert. The desserts where such a lovely work of art that I almost hated to dig in my spoon.

After dinner we headed home, where I fielded phone greetings from our poor, freezing Chicago relatives and caught the last part of the last showing of "24 Hours of A Christmas Story." Another Christmas was drawing to a close, and it had been a good one despite my annoying cold. Next up: New Years Eve. Hopefully my disease will be gone by then, and if not, I'll make sure that I keep a healthy supply of pseudoephedrine on hand.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Elusive Bolt and Mittens

We recently disembarked from our 65th Disney cruise, and one of the onboard events was Bolt in 3-D. For those who aren't aware (and given the box office returns, that's a lot of people), Bolt is Disney's latest CGI cartoon. Given their last two offerings (Chicken Little and Meet The Robinsons), I wasn't expecting much and I don't think many other movie goers were either. Almost everyone I know who has seen Bolt has said, "Wow! It was much better than I thought it would be."

I probably would have waited until it came on cable if I didn't see it on the ship. But they had several 3-D showings, and it's included in the cruise cost, so I figured what the heck. My husband saw it the day before I did, but the showing was late and I needed to work so I decided to wait till the next afternoon. When he returned to our stateroom, he said he liked it but didn't think I would. Still, I went through with my plans to see it. The theater was only moderately crowded since everyone had seen it the night before, so I found a good spot off to the side without anyone else around me. I donned the 3-D glasses and settled in.

I already knew the whole story, having seen it online. I'm one of those people who can read the last page of a book with a surprise ending or hear a movie spoiler and not have it impede my enjoyment one bit. Bolt is actually a pretty simple flick anyway, with no stunning plot twists, or at least none that aren't fairly predictable. Bolt is a TV star, although he doesn't know it (shades of the Truman Show). He believes he has super powers like heat vision and a destructive super bark, and the director takes great pains to nurture that belief because he is a believe in method acting. Penny, Bolt's owner, wants to take him home and give him a taste of really doggy life, but her smarmy gent thwarts her.

The show always centers around Bolt saving Penny from the evil Dr. Calico and his feline minions through the use of his super powers. To boost ratings, one day it ends in a cliffhanger, with Bolt returned to his trailer believing she is in mortal danger. He breaks out and accidentally gets sealed in a box and shipped to New York. Once there, he searches for a cat since in his mind all cats are in league with Dr. Calico and therefore would know where Penny is.

Soon Bolt links up with Mittens, a cynical feline who thinks he is crazy but who gets forced into helping him. She sees "Hollywood" on his tag, so with the help of a waffle house placemat, which she convinces him is a "secret map of the world," she shows him where he must go. He drags her along, and on the way they also link up with Rhino the fanboy hamster, as they continue with their westward quest.

I won't say any more so I don't spoil it for those who haven't seen it, but it's really a sweet, touching store with more character depth than I expected. Mittens and the other cats have all the best lines. One of the funniest sequences happens when Bolt's feline co-stars torment him in his trailer, playing on the fact that he thinks the show is real.

We got a stuffed Bolt on the ship, but they didn't have Mittens (I didn't want Rhino; he was funny, but only for about five minutes). I figured I'd find her at Disney problem, right? Wrong! Bolt toys are totally absent from the parks, or at least the Magic Kingdom, Disney Hollywood Studio, and the toy store in Downtown Disney. The scariest part was that literally two Cast Members at MK had no idea what Bolt even was! It's Disney's latest movie, but you would have thought I was speaking a foreign language.

We figured there had to be some merchandise at the Studio because the Bolt characters are there for photos, but I think they had stuff from every movie but Bolt. No Mittens for me! I brought my plush Bolt with me because I also wanted to get photos with Bolt, Mittens and Rhino while we were there. The line was hellaciously long, but I bit the bullet because I figured if there were no toys, they might get rid of the live characters next. It moved very slowly, particularly since they spend quite a bit of time with each group. Tedious while you are waiting, but fun when you finally get to meet them.

When it was my turn, the trio went wild over my little Bolt doggy. Lord knows they had probably never seen one, judging by the conspicuous absence of Bolt merchandise at the World. Bolt and Rhino started tussling over him, and Mittens finally had to step in and restore order. We got some great pictures, and I plan to return when I finally get my Mittens doll (I gave up the search last night and just ordered her online).

We also saw Frozone and the Incredibles, and Mrs. Incredible just loved the Bolt doll. Through hand gestures, she told Mr. Incredible in no uncertain terms that she wants a puppy for Christmas. We got some good shows with them, then headed out to see the Osborne dancing lights. The first song for the "dancing" was Streisand's tedious version of "Jingle Bells," but we stuck around and thankfully the next one was Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Carol of the Bells." So much better! We also rode Star Tours and the Tower of Terror before heading home.

Disney really missed the boat with their Bolt marketing. I lost count of all the people I passed who commented that they'd love to find a Bolt doll to buy. It also makes me sad that so many people have skipped the movie completely based on the last two abysmal non-Pixar CGI offerings. Disney fans will love it; it's truly of the quality of the older movies that had heart instead of being an ADHD explosion of pointless music and color like Madagascar 2. It also has a good underlying message about shelter pets and responsible pet ownership, which is a welcome change from the purebred promoting flicks like 101 Dalmations and Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Oh well, maybe Bolt will have "legs" to carry it through respectable earnings through the holiday season. If not, it's a real shame because even though it's no Lilo and Stitch or The Incredibles, it's the best Disney movie to come around in quite a while.

Here are some pics. of my plush Bolt and his Disney buddies:

Bolt shares a tender moment with his Mini-Me.

Rhino gets his paws on the Bolt plush.

Mittens breaks up the tussle.

Us with the whole gang.

You can see how much Mrs. Incredible likes little Bolt!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Celebrating Turkey Day

Thanksgiving in Florida is a bit different than other parts of the country. Because the Sunshine State is made up of so many transplants, it tends to be celebrated by de facto groups who gather together as families of choice rather than being linked by blood. While relatives shiver in far-off northern states, we join up with friends to enjoy our turkey dinners amongst the sunshine and palm trees.

Back in Chicago we celebrated Thanksgiving one of two ways. We'd either visit my brother's house, where partaking of the meal was something akin to fighting your way around a Ponderosa salad bar during the dinner rush (he was eight kids, plus there were usually assorted friends and perhaps a grandchild or two) or we'd go on a Disney cruise. Every once in a while hubby would cook up our own private holiday feast, but usually it was either bro's house or the high seas.

Now that we live in Florida, I never even consider flying back to see the family. They're always right at the other end of my cell phone, so I don't feel the need to see them in person (especially not in the cold part of the year). The only thing I miss is the traditional family potato salad and cucumber salad. I come from a family of garlic loves. I kid you not, my mother could actually bite into a raw garlic clove and much it as though she were enjoying a tasty apple or orange. My love of garlic doesn't extent quite that far, but I have an amazing capacity for it that is shared by my brother and his offspring. The family cucumber salad recipe is loaded with enough garlic to drop an elephant. In the early years of our marriage, my husband would stare in amazement as we all packed down copious amounts...he didn't dare touch the stuff. Finally my sister-in-law started making him his own garlic-free batch.

This year, hubby concocted what has become our own holiday tradition: a sweet bean salad that we bring over to our friends' house here in Celebration when we join them for Thanksgiving. We also stocked up on sweet wines from the Plant City winery. We discovered that they're actually cheaper if we buy them at a scary little liquor store near the airport (the only place nearby that carries 'em). Although it's a necessary evil to get our fix of sweet blueberry wine, I'm always glad to have pepper spray when I visit that store. On this trip, a heavy cloud of old cigarette smoke hung heavy in the air in direct defiance of Florida's anti-indoor smoking laws. I imagined that if I'd have dared to point that out, I'd have been tied up in the back and horse-whipped.

As we gathered several bottles of Plant City wines and some of hubby's favorite Sutter Home moscato, I noticed a man come in with two little boys. He plopped them in a shopping cart as though they were buying their weekly groceries from Publix, but instead of milk and cereal and the like he loaded the cart with their holiday supply of booze. The whole scene just seemed surreal: weekly shopping trip at the ol' liquor store. But we made it out with our wine unscathed (well, except for my hacking post-smoke cough) and managed to not be mugged by the deviant characters lurking in the parking lot...I had my pepper spray poised just in case.

On Thanksgiving, we headed out to our friends' house. Our little group was quite an eclectic bunch, linked through Celebration and also through the writers' group. We enjoyed a sumptuous luncheon feast and then settled in for a few rousing rounds of "Apples to Apples" (a game that inevitably disintigrates into amazing depths of depravity). We're probably the only group alive who can link the words "flirtatious" and "amputations." It's hard to describe the hilarity, but let's just say that it brought my husband to tears.

I was feeling a little guilty because I knew that I should be home working. But whenever I was ready to leave, I ended up staying "just a little longer" until finally it was after 8 p.m.

As I reflected on the past year, I realized that I had much to be thankful for. I live in Celebration, right next door to Disney World, so that in itself makes life pretty darned good. My husband and I have wonderful friends with whom to share the holiday, and I scored my first book contract this year. Sure, life has its ups and downs, but those ups are more than enough to smooth out the downsides.

Another Turkey Day is gone and we're heading full tilt into the Christmas season. Hopefully 2009 will bring as much to be thankful for as 2008.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

House Arrest

As much as I'm thrilled about getting a book contract, sometimes it feels like I'm on house arrest. With a deadline of 12/31/08 looming and just under 34,000 words done, I've still got a long way to go. I've been assigned to an editor and cover designer so the excitement allows me to battle the fatigue. Still, it feels like I'm spending most of my waking time chained to the laptop.

It's not so bad when I remind myself that this is the time of year I would not want to be at Disney World. I briefly envied my husband a few days ago when he declared his intention to visit the Magic Kingdom. For a brief moment visions of riding Space Mountain or the Haunted Mansion danced through my head, but they were pushed out by the realization that it's Thanksgiving week.

"Are you crazy?" I said, barely looking up from the keyboard. "You know the lines are going to be long." Unlike me, he has a much higher tolerance for the peak season crowds. Of he traipsed to Disney World while I returned my focus to my manuscript.

When he returned, he confirmed that the crowds had arrived. No more walk-on the waits were up in the one hour-plus range. He'd used Fastpasses to ride his favorites, but the idea of slogging through the crowds and being a slave to Fastpass return times didn't sound too appealing to me.

There will be a bit of a slow time right after Thanksgiving, but then the Christmas and New Years crowds will descend on Orlando like locusts on a field of fresh crops. I'll be chained to my laptop but it won't be all bad. I'd rather be working on my book than standing in a multi-hour line, surrounded by sugared-up children and praying that the ride doesn't break down the moment I make it to the loading station. By the time things quiet down again in January, my manuscript will be all done and I'll be ready for some quality theme park time.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Accidental Book Contract & A Meal Fit For a Queen

A couple of years ago, I gave some serious consideration to adapting my blog into a book. I had many reader requests, and I was a fairly successful freelance writer back in the late 1980s and early '90s, so it looked like it might be time to pursue that career again.

Turns out the blog was too "close" to me. I got some some work done but it grew very boring. I prefer working with new material rather than polishing and rewriting so much of the old. But I pursued magazine work and quickly found moderate success again. For most of 2008 there wasn't a month when I didn't have an article in at least one magazine at Books-A-Million. That was very fulfilling, but the idea of a book was still dancing through my mind. Not a blog adaption; a new non-fiction topic in the self-help or animal or travel genres.

Writing/selling books has always been on my "short list" of things to accomplish in life. It takes a lot of work, as you have to create a full-blown proposal, outline and sample chapters which is shopped around to agents and/or publishers. I had a few ideas, so I devoted myelf to working up the proposals and started sending them around.

In the meantime, on a writers' forum where I hang out, there was a call for writers for a book in the "Complete Idiots Guide" series. It wasn't a topic that was quite right for me, but I pitched a book on choosing a counselor. They asked to see an outline, so I devoted a frantic weekend to preparing one. I wanted to strike while the iron was hot and the idea was fresh in the editor's mind.

Unfortunately it got rejected because they didn't think there was enough of a market. I'm the sort of person who believes that things happen for a reason, but at this point I was stumped as to the purpose of my putting so much effort into the outline to go for a tempting opportunity that was subsequently yanked away. Meanwhile I was shopped some other proposals around, and I decided that since I already had the outline done I would start sending out this one too.

Fast forward a bit to a fateful phone call. A publisher had liked the proposal but, like the initial company, didn't think there was enough of a market. However, he was producing a series of career guides and wanted to include one on becoming a counselor. Might I be interested in writing that?

I was indeed and promised to send a proposal, although in my mind I was worried that my chances of actually getting the assignment were slim. I guess it was a bit of paranoia over all the work I'd put into the original outline, which turned out to be for naught. I put it somewhere on my to-do list, where it promptly plummeted to the bottom because I was buried in magazine assignments.

Fast forward again to another phone call from the publisher checking to see if I was still interested. At that point I realized that I'd made a misjudgment and that they were really serious. I whipped together an outline and quickly dispatched it, and the publisher said that they would be assigning an editor once I returned the signed contract. I responded that I hadn't received one, and they responded with one posthaste! Yikes! Just like that, one of my goals for 2008, which I'd thought I'd have to roll over into 2009, had been achieved.

With a deadline for the manuscript of 12/31/08, I plunged headfirst into writing the manuscript. I'm still busily working at it and drooling at the thought of seeing it in trade paperback form in June, 2009.

Since this was a huge milestone, hubby suggested going to Victoria and Albert's at the Grand Floridian to celebrate. It's one of the few WDW restaurants that we've never visited. As tourists we didn't bother because they require a jacket for men and a dress or fancy pantsuit for ladies and we didn't bring those type of clothes on vacation. Once we moved to Celebration it shifted to our "gonna do someday" list but never quite made it to the top.

Victoria and Albert's is named after the former Queen of England and her husband. It's located just off the Citrico's lobby, and stepping through the doors is like walking into another world of peace and serenity. The diningroom is dark and candlelit, and live harp music provides a soothing backdrop to hushed conversations. Everyone is dressed in formal attire, and the attentive waitstaff seems to psychically sense each diner's needs.

There is a set price for a seven course meal that is roughly equivalent to the annual economy of a small third-world country. You have several choices for each course, and you can add an optional wine pairing. Most of the portions are small, with the exception of the main entree and dessert, but with that many courses you end up quite full by the end. It's sort of like a "taster" of constantly-arriving gastronomic delights.

Better yet, your menu is customized with your name and anything that you might be celebrating. This gave me a lovely momento to stash away with my signed contract. The menu itself was overwhelming in its choices, and I decided to be somewhat adventurous so it was very difficult creating my mix and match meal. I finally ended up with: sesame seared tuna, poached quail (although I have to say that hubby's elk in this course was to die for), Alaskan king salmon, veal tenderloin (which was topped with sweetbreads...i.e. bull nads...which actually taste very good), a goat cheese selection (although the white chocolate gelato that hubby opted for was, in his crude and wine-sodden assessment, "An orgasm in my mouth"), and a chocolate selection for dessert. There was also a special chef's appetizer (four kinds of duck) which comes at the beginning of the meal.

In addition to the main courses, there are three types of bread. All were good, but the absolute best (and one of the best breads I've ever had at a Disney restaurant, which I don't say lightly) was the pumpkin soda bread. That's not really what it was called, but that pretty much sums up the taste. Like the other breads, it had its own special matching butter.

If you ever eat at V&As, you must order the coffee at the end, if only to see the 1800-esque coffee maker that they bring right to your table. At the end of the meal, ladies are presented with a rose and you get a mini-bread loaf to take home.

Everything at V&A was impeccable, from the hook they put on your table to your purse to the fact that they phone down to valet to have your car waiting for you (we didn't use that service because we wanted to stop in the lobby to buy some gingerbread and didn't know how long that would take). The hushed atmosphere is so different from the wild antics just outside the door in Citrico's. At V&A, children under 10 are forbidden and there is no kids menu. On the night we dined there it was strictly adults; I guess no one wanted to pop $120 for food most 10-year-olds would refuse to eat.

I don't know how strictly they enforce the dress code, but I do know that on this night everyone was suited up properly. The other Disney "signature restaurants" are supposed to have a code, too, albeit a much more relaxed one, but I've never seen anyone turned away even when they've arrived in jeans with gaping holes in places that give me too much information. Cell phones are supposed to be forbidden too and I do have to say that never once during our meal did I hear an annoying ring, followed by a high decible conversation, as I so commonly do in other WDW restaurants. It was hard to imagine that I was actually at Disney; I could easily have been in an upscale restaurant in Chicago or New York.

There was only one minor annoyance. In one corner, two women with one of those annoying strobe cameras were taking 3 to 4 photos of every single course. At a minimum, 3 pictures multiplied by 14 food items is 42 eye-searing flashes, made all the more noticable by the extreme dimness of the restaurant. They actually probably took closer to 75 photos as they took enough of the coffee pot to fill an entire album. Granted, taking photos isn't against the rules but it was lilke an intrusive lightning storm overtaking the serenity of the dark, calm dining room.

That was just a minor annoyance in the midst of an otherwise amazing meal. The taste combinations of the dishes, sauces and spices were phenomenal, even with the most commonplace items. For example, the spices made plain old raw tuna sing a brand new tune to my taste buds. I wasn't disappointed in any of the new items either. The quail was delicious (reminded me of duck), and even the sweetbreads were yummy.

After the meal, we hustled down to the gingerbread shop, which is only there for the holidays, to pick up some cookies for our neighbor (and of course for us too). I was still somewhat stunned at the evening's tab (high enough with the basics, but hubby had upgraded one of his courses in addition to doing the wine pairing), but I have to admit it was worth every penny. The only problem is, I'd love to go back but it definitely has to be an occasional treat. Oh well, it will serve as the perfect motivator to future literary achievements. We're already decided that once I get an agent, or when my book is released, we'll be back at V&A for another celebration.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Deserted Theme Parks

Next week the Disney theme parks will no doubt be crowded with wall to wallk holiday revelers, but this week they're downright deserted. Last night my husband went to Epcot for Illuminations and stopped by to check the Soarin' line beforehand. It was walk on...literally walk on. It was so dead that they were only loading the front row.

Hearing that, I knew that I had to check it out for myself. He and I headed out to Epcot this evening, and in two hours (7 to 9 p.m.) we rode Soarin' a whopping eight times! Worse yet, that was with only one side running. I guess the economy, plus the current cold snap, scared a lot of people away.

I might pop back to Epcot one more night this week to enjoy a last dose of Soarin' before the holiday season crowds hit in full force. This was actually my first time back to a theme park since the end of Halloween Horror Nights, but how could I resist doing my favorite ride repetitively with little or no wait?

This is one of the best things about living in Celebration. If we were back in Chicago, we might see people bragging about the lack of lines on the Disney discussion sites, and we'd just have to drool long-distance. Living right next door to the parks, we simply pile into Kitt (our Saturn) and take full advantage of the situation.

I suspect the crows might pick up again as the week wears on, but hopefully I'll get at least one more night of decadence. You gotta take the good ride time when you can!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Ghost of the Mercado

Hubby and I love to eat out, and Tourist Land is a gastronomic paradise full of a dizzying array of options. Many of them are located on I-Drive, but we hate traffic so we tend to stick to dining at Disney, on 192, Sand Lake Road or CityWalk. Granted, none of those locations totally avoids traffic nightmares, but they're much better than International Drive Hell. Not only is I-Drive wall to wall cars at peak times, but tourists pop out between the cars like targets in Whack-A-Mole. We only go to I-Drive restaurants when we have a specific reason and destination. Thus it was that we ended up there tonight, searching for an elusive dining spot called the Butcher Shop.

Friends of ours had a gift certificate that they couldn't use by the due date, so they gave it to us. Since we usually dine out over the weekend anyway, we figured we'd tear ourselves away from BJ's or Chevy's and give the Butcher Shop a try. Its address said that it was right on I-Drive, but I knew that was probably a misnomer. Sure enough a bit of internet sleuthing turned up the fact that it was in the Mercado shopping center.

I don't know I-Drive nearly as well as I know most other areas, but we'd been to the Mercado a year or so before to see the Titanic exhibit. At the time I think Titanic was the only place that was actually open, stuck among a maze of mouldering buildings in a shopping center turned ghost-town. The one thing that stands out for me is using the public restroom, which won my personal award for Top Five Filthiest Bathrooms I've Ever Peed In.

Titanic is long gone, but I figured that at least some of the buildings must still be there since that's where the resaurant was located. Even though we have OnStar, I figured I didn't need directions. I recalled that there were large "Mercado" signs and I knew its general location so we headed off blindly into I-Drive Hell, fully confident in our ability to find the Butcher Shop.

We wanted to sneak in the back way off Universal Boulevard, but I didn't see the shopping center nor any sign. Okay, I told myself, somehow we missed it. No problem. We circled around and came down I-Drive, squinting diligently in the darkness for the near-deserted location.

We made it all the way down to the convention center with no sign of the Mercado. I knew it had to be there somewhere because I'd made a reservation. We made two more passes and started watching the addresses. As we passed a vast, flat, open expanse of property encircled by a ramshackle fence, I commented to hubby, "Hmmmm, according to the address numbers that's where it should be."

We made a U-turn, and sure enough it appeared that the Butcher Shop should be in that very spot based on its street address. Indeed the whole Mercado should have been there, but apparently the whole tragically empty mall had been leveled. No wonder there were no signs. No wonder we had missed seeing it. It existed now only in our memories.

Okay, so where did that leave the Butcher Shop? We saw a bright, illuminated sign for the Sleuth's dinner show and various other establishments but nothing indicating that our steak house destination was actually still standing. Finally in the murky darkness I made out a banner draped on the fence. The Butcher Shop! We had to be close! I turned down a forlorn driveway that looked like it led into nothingness and followed it down to the last sad remains of the Mercado.

Apparently the Butcher Shop is last remaining part of that old complex, butting up against the fence and tucked into an area where it's nearly impossible to find. Even though the whole shopping center is now a wasteland, one old archway that proclaims "Mercado" still stands at the edge of the parking lot.

I was a bit conerned because there were only two other cars in the parking lot. Indeed, there were only two other parties in the whole restaurant...downright scary for a Friday night at 6:15 p.m. We glanced around apprehensively, but what the heck, we had a gift certificate. It just felt very odd to be a patron in an eatery where the staff outnumbered the customers 5 to 1.

We perused the menu, which was obviously heavy on steak. The prices were nearly at the level of Morton's or Ruth's Chris and we wondered if the cuisine would match the hefty price tag. We ordered a crab stuff portobello mushroom appetizer and split a filet mignon and an order of asparagus. Hubby got mushrooms as his own side dish, while I opted for a loaded baked potato.

They had a decent wine list so hubby tried a couple different varieties by the glass. I had my usual unsweetened iced tea. The service was prompt and our appetizer soon arrived. I must say, it was utterly delicious. They also served a loaf of fresh, hot bread...mmmmm.

Shortly thereafter our dinner showed up. When we ordered, they told us there would be a $7.00 charge for splitting an entree. At the time I agree but thought to myself, "Geez, that's a waste." I soon revised my opinion, as they had neatly divided everything up for us (the appetizer had been served pre-split too). They did such a good job that it actually seemed to be worth the seven bucks.

As I bit into my steak, I was prepared for disappointment. We tried Mortons last year, and for their prices I expected to be bowled over by the godliness of their filet in the way that Lawry's is far superior to any prime rib I've ever tasted. Nope. Morton's really wasn't much better than the Logan's right across from Celebration.

I chewed slowly, expected a repeat of my Mortons opinion. I was in for a pleasant surprise. The steak wasn't just was delicious! Excellent...flavorful, with a texture that melted like butter in my mouth. Even tho' they'd equipped us with knives that looked like they could have dropped a charging bear in its tracks, I could probably have eaten the steak with a spoon.

The other items were good too, but nothing special. The steak was the definite hit of the meal. I wished that the Butcher Shop was located in the Mortons spot on Sand Lake Road instead of its God and customer forsaken spot in the shadow of the long-gone Mercado. Sadly, not one other customer showed up in all the time we were there. It was just us and the two other parties, both of whom were totally obsessed with their cell phones. I can't imagine that the restaurant broke even that night, let alone turned any profit.

Even tho' we'd eaten heartily, the dessert menu was tempting so we ended up splitting a piece of Key Lime Pie. I didn't think anything would beat the steak, but it was a taste of Heaven on earth. It made me so sad to see such a good place suffering for business. I know it's partially the economy, but even people who might want to find them would be hard-pressed to ferret out their miserable location.

As we headed home down I-Drive, we passed Cafe Tu Tu Tango, a former favorite that never recovered in our eyes after being closed down by the health department. Once that hit the news we never went back; I imagine they corrected the problems, but when a place gets that taint in your mind it's hard to forget. I wonder if others felt the same way too as I noticed that their parking lot was literally empty. I called when we got home and there was no answer, so I suspect that they might have shut down.

I'm afraid that the Butcher Shop might follow suit, although they did have a sign in the window saying that they were moving to a new location in 2008. There's still a month and a half left for that to come true.

If they do, hopefully we'll return someday and hopefully it won't take many futile passes before we actually find them.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

My German Genes Resurface

As the grandchild of European grandparents, I was exposed to beer early on. My paternal grandparents had passed away, but on the maternal side Grandma and Grandpa were a big part of my life up until I was 9 or 10. Coming from the Old Country, they were of the mindset that kids indulged in alcohol along with the adults. Being German, for my grandpa that meant sharing his beer with me. Every night he had a can with dinner, and if I was visiting I got a small portion in my own beer mug-shaped shotglass. Having grown up drinking beer, you'd think I would have developed a taste for it but somehow that never happened. Although I liked the sweeter wines (probably thanks to my grandma's proffering of Mogan David and 7-Up cocktails) and various fru-fru drinks, I literally never ordered a beer.

Well, I guess I shouldn't say never because a brewhouse opened up in the vicinity when we lived in Chicago and we tried their sampler flight. It was okay, but nothing caught my attention. Add that to the fact that they also had a cigar bar, causing the whole place to reek, and we never returned. I also visited the brewhouse at Disney's Boardwalk and had a sampler flight there, but again nothing caught my attention. It looking like my beer-swilling German genes were due to lie forever dormant.

That all changed recently, when hubby and I discovered B.J.'s Brewhouse over at the Loop (an ever-expanding shopping center located not too far from Celebration). Friends of ours had recommended it months ago, but we didn't get around to trying it until a few weeks back. Having never been wowed by a brewhouse before, I saw no compelling reason to make visiting it a priority. Now that we've finally taken the plunge, it's become the top favorite on our weekend restaurant rotation.

I expected B.J.'s to have a Bennigan's or Friday's-esque menu, but the moment I cracked the pages I realized that I was wrong. They have such intriguing items as avocado egg rolls (now our favorite appetizer) and Cuban sandwiches, as well as deep dish pizzas with a crust that rivals anything I've had in Chicago (indeed, they advertise the pizzas as Chicago style, which is usually a lie in FL but which they actually live up to). They also have jumbo stuffed baked potatoes, which is perfect for a potato fanatic like me.

With all of that, the fact that B.J.'s is a microbrewery would be secondary except for the fact that their beers are delicious. Remember, I say this as someone who never before would have thought of ordering a beer as my beverage. Now, when we go to B.J.'s, my only dilemma is which one to choose.

The first time we visited, we had a sample flight of all their beers which allowed me to pinpoint two favorites. And I don't mean choosing the lesser of the evils. I mean choosing brews that I would (and do) happily order again. These delicious brews awoke my dormant German genes which are now clamoring to make up for lost time.

The good thing about B.J.'s is that you don't have to choose just one beer from their extensive menu. Rather than getting a full pint, you can buy five ounce samplers and get two or three. I tend to get the Blonde beer and the dark stout, although right now they have a seasonal pumpkin brew that makes my taste buds sing. Hubby usually gets a pint of that, I get samples of my two favorites, and then I swap him some stout for a sip or two of his pumpkin brew. I think he may go into mourning when they retire it for the season.

There's only one bad thing about the beers. B.J.'s also has an extensive drink menu of othet tempting concoctions. Problem is, I can't quiet the German beer swilling side of me long enough to actually order one. Having been surpressed for nearly 35 years, that Germanic need for malt beverages refuses to be denied any longer, especially with something as fru-fru as a chocolate or pomegrenate martini.

Perhaps in time it will reach it saition level and I'll be able to expand my alcohol-related horizons at B.J.'s. Until then, I'll be the one with the sampler of both the lightest and darkest brews, sipping them inbetween a heaping plate of avocado egg rolls.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Last of the Screams

It's November 1st, and the Halloween season is almost over. Almost, but not quite. The good thing about living in Tourist Land is that celebrations start early and get extended far beyond the norm. Such is the case with Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studio, which starts in the end of September and runs through tonight, even though Halloween was last night.

We've gone to HHN on almost every off-peak night, with the exception of while we were gone on my birthday cruise and while hubby was in Chicago. I think that brings us to somwhere like eleven visits. That may sound like a lot, but we have to get our fix in a very short time period since we'll be deprived for a whole year before it returns.

HHN is a far cry from Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party. It's most definitely adult oriented, with liquor stands every few feet and no child-price tickets. That doesn't stop the idiots from bringing terrified tots; last night, I watched as Security hustled a freaking youngster out of a haunted house and I've seen more than one parent berated a crying kid who refuses to even enter. Granted, some kids can handle the event. October is my birth month, and I come from a family that makes the Addams clan look wholesome, so I probably would have loved it from the age of 7 on, if not earlier. But not all kids enjoy being chased by chainsaw-wielding maniacs or watching a woman literally get her spine ripped out, and parents need to take that into consideration.

This year there were eight haunted houses. Over the course of the event, our favorites actually changed order. My original favorite was "Dead Exposure," in which zombies have taken over while a photographer struggles to survive. Thus it is pitch black, with only strobing "camera flashes" to guide you through. Of course, the flashes light up the day-glo paint on the zombies that are jumping out at you at every turn. I like darkness and disorientation, so this one won me over. However, over the course of the season the number of scareactors inside seemed to lessen so it got bumped down the list.

Meanwhile, "Doomsday," which started off as our least favorite house, ended up skyrocketing to the top three. I think it's based on a movie (something about viral research gone bad), but all I know is that the chainsaw-wielding maniac at the end nearly gave my husband a heart attack last night. That shows just how stealthy they are, since we've been through the house countless times and have a good idea of where the scareactors hang out. I got triple-teamed in there once too and was ready to curl up into a little ball on the floor while hubby laughed his butt off (of course, I returned the laughter when the chainsaw guy got him).

Two other great ones are "Body Collectors" and "Scary Tales." BC is pretty much full of creepy serial-killer types and the best special effects of the year. This is where you can find the spinal-extracting scene. Depending on your timing, it has some really good scares too but it's worth it for the scenes alone. SC won hubby over before it won me, but I like it quite a bit now. It's full of fairy tales gone bad, like Cinderella getting her foot chopped off by her stepmother and Alice disemboweling the White Rabbit while the Mad Hatter manically taughts guests trying to make it through the colored strobes. The Tin Man is particularly vicious in spraying water (actually, several of the houses feature the risk of getting sprayed this year).

We also really enjoy "Creatures," which puts us in the minority, since most people hate that house. I can understand their feelings, since it was a good concept that just didn't translate well to reality. It's supposed to be like one of those 1950s comics where alien creatures take over a backwoods town. In reality, creatures have little to do with this house. It's pretty much full of scary rednecks, which is a concept that could very well stand on its own. They should have just made this the Deliverance house and added some banjo music. Really, that's how I look at it...I go in imagining I'm stuck in a bar in the Deep South, and the scareactors definitely pull off the scary hillbilly routine.

"Reflections of Fear" is the icon house, with this year's icon being Bloody Mary, the bane of giggling middle school girls everywhere. I remember sleepovers where we all dared each other to say Mary's name 13 times into a darkened bathroom mirror. If you did, supposedly she would burst out and scratch up your face.

Universal's version of Mary is a demented psychologist whose phobia therapy on others turns her into a demented murdered. Since she is the icon, I was expected her house to knock my socks off. Last year's icon was Jack, the homicidal child-murdering clown, and he had an awesome 3-D house that was rather similar to "Dead Exposure." It was most definitely one of the best of 2007.

Unfortunately, instead of putting Mary's house in a tent like Jack's or on a soundstage, they put it into a queue. This means limited space so they just didn't carry off the concept like they could have. Instead of being "Wow!" it's rather mediocre. They do have one good effect, taken from Jack's house last year, where you have to push your way through two sets of inflated walls. Having cut my teeth on houses where you had to crawl through tunnels and the like back when I was a teen, I like little cluastrophobic touches. Unfortunately, they've only been turning on one side of the walls for weeks now, and only early on. As soon as it gets crowded, they turn 'em off entirely. Supposedly it's to get more people through, but they were on all the time in Jack's house last year so I don't entirely buy that excuse. Without the walls, you just have two "dead" spots.

They really under-used Mary this year in general. Last year, besides his house, Jack was out for photos and also had a show. No pics. with Mary and no show either, although she does appear on a giant screen as you enter the park.

The last two houses are "The Hallow" and "Interstellar Terror." Most people tend to love Hallow and its line shows that fact, but I'm very neutral on it. It's in a tent, so if you go in during the daylight the ambient light pretty much ruins a couple of the scenes. Even at night it doesn't wow me. Not that's all that bad, but there's nothing wildly unique about it either and I've only gotten a couple of really memorable scares in there (although one was VERY good).

"Interstellar Terror" doesn't grab me at all. It's an "alien is loose on the spaceship" theme, which can be quite good if it's executed correctly. IT doesn't quite pull it off; there is little in the way of scares, and they recycled one big effect from last year. I don't have a problem with that, except that you can't just rely on effects to pull off the house. They do have a new effect that is pretty cool, too, but I don't think I've ever had one good, memorable scare in there.

It's funny to read other reviews on line because there seems to be no consistency in people's opinions. I've found some who think "Interstellar Terror" is the ultimate and that "Dead Exposure" and "Doomsday" bite the wad. The only consistent theme I've noticed in the online community is that Universal really needed to do more with the icon house.

There are also three shows, although we haven't bothered with them much this year. Every year there is a new Bill & Ted show, and usually it's a highlight. Basically they lambast the news, entertainment, movies, and other goings on of the previous year. Last year we saw it at least once on every trip. This year it's totally and utterly flat. The only really funny bit is about the election, but that stuff pretty much writes itself.

This year they also brought back the Rocky Horror tribute from 2007, which I was quite happy about. I'm a Rocky fan from way back, although more on the fringes rather than a hard-core freak, and I love the music. Universal does a great job casting the singers, and it's always a high energy show. Usually there is lots of audience participation, which also means that there's usually a contingent of pissed off parents dragging out little Suzy and Johnny because people are shouting the f-word, among other explicit things. Uh, duh, it's Rocky Horror! One night we were walking past the theater on our way out of "Doomsday" among a group of people, and the theme song was playing (you can hear it in that area). I wonder if the clueless among the crowd wondered why a bunch of us suddenly shouted, "F--k the back row!"

Sadly, we've only seen Rocky a couple of times because the overall crowd volume has been down this year most off-peak nights. It's hard to give up quality house time to kill 45 minutes at a show.

One show I don't regret missing at all is the Brian Brushwood magic act. We saw him last year and were underwhelmed, so we haven't bothered this year. It's just as well, as I've heard that he does the same old stuff anyway. The only good thing about it is that it pulls crowds of people away from the lines. Or maybe it doesn't...almost every time we walk past, they're practically begging people to come in. I really, really wish they would have done a Bloody Mary show instead. Jack's show last year was a riot in a perverted, sadistic sort of way. I liked it, but hubby loved it so I ended up seeing it way too many times and even got sprayed with "blood" once.

Last year, being HHN virgins, it took us a while to learn the ropes. We didn't even know that we could upgrade the free tickets we got with our Premier Passes to Frequent Fear (unlimited off-peak visits) for a nominal fee...thankfully, a helpful Guest Services person told us. This year, we upgraded 'em right off the bat and made sure that we were in the park before closing every night. By doing that, you can wait in a "Stay and Scream" area where you are normally released early, with a couple of the houses already open. That gives you a jump on the crowds at the front gate. A couple nights ago this was particularly good, as "Creatures" had opened early and the scareactors were in fine form and jumping out at us from all directions. Yesterday we waited in the other S&S area by "Scary Tales," but even though it was open it didn't seem to be ready, as some of the scenes and scareactors were missing. Oh well, it was still bonus time.

If you get there early, you can get some power housing done before the crowds get really bad. There's usually an hour or two of minimal lines, depending on the night of the week. We get an Express Pass for the busy nights, then do what we can before the lines get long and we're forced to start using it. What cracks me up is the people who use their Express Passes even if there is no line. You can only use it once per house, so why waste it when the line is 5 minutes and then end up waiting with the unwashed masses later when it's an hour?

My favorite extreme example of this stupidity was a group of people who were there for Stay and Scream a few nights ago. They were bound and determined that they were going to be the first people to use their Express Passes. "Creatures" opened first, so that's where we all headed. Of course there was zero wait, but they still insisted on using the Express entrance. The big irony was, they ended up waiting longer than the rest of us because they had to stop and have the passes checked to get into the line, then stop again to have them scanned. Meanwhile, the rest of us were already in the house. Oh well, maybe it's a modified form of Darwinism...when the genetic weaklings waste their passes early on, it means they won't be cluttering the Express Lines with the rest of us smart people later.

Express lines usually aren't longer than 15 mins., and most of the time they're considerably less. However, on the busiest night we visited, even Express was running 30 mins. and up (the regular lines were two or more hours so I guess everything is relative).

Of course, HHN isn't just about haunted houses. There are lots of scare zones, too, and they aren't all on the map. These are areas that you walk through at the risk of being accosted by scareactors. My favorites this year were Streets of Blood, American Gothic, and the Zombie Drill Team. Streets of Blood is near "Body Collectors" and features the same creepy undertaker-looking dudes. Don't walk through there while eating food because they'll take full advantage of the fact that you're distracted and go in for the kill. American Gothic didn't wow me early in the season, but by the end it was awesome! Every time I went through, I was a magnet for all sorts of creepy characters. The Zombie Drill Team is (appropriately) over near "Dead Exposure," and they periodically perform dance routines. When they're not doing that, they're busily terrifying passersby. I had one chase me for so long that I thought she was never gonna stop! I finally managed to escape by taking refuge in the entrance to the Men in Black shop. The very next day I had the same zombie after me again, and this time she ran me right into the clutches of yet another one.

The other scare zones are okay, although none have grabbed me like those three. Path of the Wicked has flying monkeys that actually do fly, which is cool. It also has stilt walkers, which creep me out every since one scared the daylights out of me over by the Mummy ride a year or two back (they're out all the time over there, not just at Halloween). Asylum in Wonderland has an Alice theme, and there is also a general fairytale scare zone near "Scary Tales" that's pretty good. There are also demented little trick-or-treaters at The Skoolhouse and some weird silver-clad dudes wandering around near the park entrance. At first I thought they were spacemen, but finally I read on the internet that they're supposed to be mirror-things. If you say "Bloody Mary" to them, she appears on their faces. Of course I had to try it, and it was indeed true.

That pretty much sums up HHN 2008. It's a great event if you know what you're getting into. I don't just mean the scares; you also have to realize that it's pretty much a drunkfest. They sell lots of alcohol all over the park, including red jello shots in a blood bag which was rather cool. But the free-flowing alcohol also means that a lot of patrons lose their common sense. Universal has a zero-tolerance policy on stupid actions, which means that I've lost count of the number of people I've seen getting hauled away by Security or the police, presumably for touching one of the scareactors, drinking under age, or doing something else idiotic.

The one thing there is no enforcement of is the smoking ban. In public areas, you're only supposed to smoke in designated areas. The lines themselves are supposed to be totally smoke free. Unfortunately, HHN seems to be populated by prime nicotine addicts who can't go ten minutes without lighting up. Smoke triggers respiratory issues for me, and in the close confines of a line it's particularly bad. I always have a park map handy so if the offender is close enough I can tell them to put it out and point out the rule to back me up if they're not cooperative. Most are fairly polite, but one night I did end up spending half an hour listening to the two totally smashed jerks in front of me discussing that a bitch I was after I stopped them from lighting up. I was really, really hoping they would say something directly to me or do something else stupid so I'd have the pleasure of watching their sorry asses get hauled out, but they weren't quite drunk enough to make that mistake. Every now and then I would see a worker tell the smokers to stop in the lines, but in 12 visits I can count on one hand the number of times that happened.

Other than the smoke, the general level of drunken rowdiness doesn't bother me too much. Sure, some of the people get loud and obnoxious, but it usually doesn't affect me personally. Most seem to be happy drunks rather than belligerent, and some are good for amusement like the woman who stuck a turkey leg down her pants (chronicled in an earlier blog entry). The only time it's really a pain is if you get stuck going through a house with a really obnoxious group that harrasses the scareactors and spoils all the scares but thankfully that hasn't been too much of a problem. If I get a bad vibe from the party directly in front of me or behind me, I'll usually let others pass to get some space inbetween us.

Tonight will be the last hurrah, and I'm looking forward to it with a melancholy mix of emotions. I know all good things must come to an end, and after tonight I'll have the giddy anticipation of looking forward to clues about next year's theme (Univeral usually starts updating their website with teasers around June). But heading out to HHN has been a weekend tradition for several weeks now; granted, we can just switch back to USF/IOA and Disney, but after the high-end horrifying fun the regular theme park experience always seems tame by comparison. I guess I'll have to think about HHN has a giant bag of trick or treat candy. It's so much fun to gorge on the stash, but for maximum enjoyment you have to stop before you overdo it...having too much takes away the pleasure that is enhanced by the relative rarity of the treat.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Turkey Leg Down the Pants

Now that Halloween Horror Nights is here, the mister and I have been spending a good deal of our free time at Universal Studios FL. HHN is one of our favorite yearly events. Being born so close to Halloween has imbued me with a love of the holiday and just about everything connected with it. I grew up in a more innocent time, when trick or treating was an all-evening affair and we weren't scared to take homemade popcorn balls or taffy apples for fear they were concealing a razor blade inside. We knew the houses that passed out freshly made treats and always made a bee-line for them. There were also some homes that were done up as haunted houses, with creepy music blasting and strobe lights blinding us as we crept up to the door, ready to scream in terror when a costumed monster answered. We'd stay out until 10 p.m., then head home on exhausted little feet, dragging shopping bags of candy behind us.

When I got older, I started going to haunted houses. There were always lots at the local churches and park districts, since they made a handy fund rasier. There were some professional ones too, and I quickly developed a taste for those when I was old enough to drive.

My husband was a haunted house virgin when I married him, but I soon fixed that and he came to love them as much as I do. In Chicago, we would spend every weekend evening leading up to Halloween running from one locale to another. It was slow going, since the lines were sometimes an hour or more long, so we'd only manage to fit in two or three per night.

Now that we're in Florida, the haunted houses are all consolidated into that handy package known as HHN. Universal features eight professional-grade houses, plus "scare zones" where you walk through and are chased by zombies or chainsaw wielding maniacs or have flying monkeys zoom overhead between the buildings. There are no more multi-hour waits because we arrived early and get lots of houses done before the crowds arrive; then we use the Express Pass, a sort of front of the line pass that you can purchased (it's not literal still have to wait in a line, but a much shorter one that rarely exceeds 15 minutes).

We have Frequent Fear passes, which get us in on every non-peak night. We go as often as we can because we have to gorge ourselves on enough fright factor to last us for another year. This year's icon is Bloody Mary, the terrifying spectre of teen mirror games. I remember middle grade sleepovers where we'd all cram into the bathroom and earnestly recite her name three times, waiting for her to burst through the mirror and scratch our eyes out. Alas, Bloody Mary never appeared then, but now she's all over at Universal...on billboards, TV ads, and in her own haunted house.

While the houses are the main attraction, there is an interesting sideshow. HHN is infamous for the alcohol consumption that goes on. People guzzle as much liquor as they can manage while while waiting in line or suck on "blood bag" jello shots. I can understand, as I'll admit that the signature drink, served in a light-up mug, is quite delicious. But I value my life and know that I have to brave I-4 to get home, so I limit myself to one drink early on. Apparently most of my fellow patrons know no such restraint.

I've never seen anyone get too overly obnoxious or violent (well, maybe just a bit...I've seen plenty hauled off by security for doing goodness knows what to the scareactors in the houses). But I've seen some entertaining antics, and early on in the season I saw one that I doubt I'll ever be able to top: Turkey Leg in the Crotch Lady.

I should probably start from the beginning. Hubby and I were waiting in line for a house. It was a relatively short line, and there was a couple in front of us who were quite jovial but also quite drunk. We were chatting with them a bit when the guy decided to run out of the line to buy a turkey leg. We warned him that the line was so short that they probably wouldn't have time to finish it before we got to the entrance. He pooh poohed our theory and ran off to buy it, returning a few minutes later.

They put forth a valiant effort to consume the massive limb of fowl before we got to the door. But if you've ever seen an amusement park turkey leg, you know they come from massive mutant birds roughly the size of baby elephants. They look like something Fred Flintstone would nosh on while verbally abusing Wilma. Now we were almost at the entrance, and there was no way that they were going to be even close to done.

Not being ones to waste food, even in their inebriated state, they struggled for a solution. Finally the woman took the big, hot, greasy chunk of meat and shoved it down the front of her pants!! I nearly fainted in shock. Immediately she started yelping, "Owwww! Hot!" while dancing in pain until finally she realized that she should probably remove the offending leg from its hiding place. She gave it to her boyfriend, who managed to stash it in his cargo shorts.

Going through the house with them was quite entertaining. The woman kept running backwards and screaming in terror while trampling me, but the risk of bodily injury was worth the show she was putting on. Hubby had his own entertainment, provided by the people behind him who were intent on running him over in their fright. We managed to make it out unscathed, although I think Turkey Leg Lady probably had some grease burns in interesting places. I wonder if she would be looking at them in puzzlement the following morning.

Halloween Horror Nights still has a couple of weeks to go, so hopefully we'll make it four or five more times. But no matter what wild antics we see, I don't think we'll ever be able to top the turkey leg in the crotch.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Quest for Guiness Ice Cream

I love ice cream. As long as I can remember, it's always been my favorite dessert. When I was very young, my dad would take me to a place called Miner-Dunn where I'd get a "kiddie" cheeseburger and top it off with the best hot fudge sundae this side of Heaven. That love stuck with me and expanded far beyond the plain vanilla that served as a delivery medium for the thick, gooey hot fudge.

I developed a love for Baskin-Robbins Pralines and Cream ice cream, and I also waited eagerly for my two favorite seasonals, Oregon Blackberry and Pumpkin Pie. Alas, my all-time favorite doesn't exist anymore. It was called Cold Duck Ice, named after the cheap libation of the same name and sold in the 1970s. It should probably have been served in a brown paper bag rather than a cup, but it was oh so good. Alas, as the wine of the same name fell out of favor, so too did the ice cream.

I contented myself with mainstream concoctions like Rocky Road and Jamoca Almond Fudge, but I retained a taste for the unusual too. As I grew older, my cold culinary indulgences ranged to flavors like Green Tea, Red Bean, Lavender, and Sour Cream, but perhaps the most unusual was the taste treat I discovered at an Irish restaurant back when we lived in Chicago: Guinness Ice Cream.

Yes, the ice cream is named after the stout, and that's indeed what it tastes like. I know that good Irishmen cringe when it's referred to as beer, but that's the predominant taste of the ice cream. Although I'm not much of a beer drinker myself, I do carry German genes that have to be appeased every now and then. The Guinness ice cream was the perfect way to do that while indulged my dessert needs at the same time.

Sadly, I must have been one of the only people who liked it as the restaurant did away with it after a few months. Or maybe there just wasn't a big demand for Irish food in general; even though I haven't been there since before we moved to Celebration, I recently looked up their menu online and it was Irish in name only. They still had a handful of Irish dishes, but their offerings were dominated by generic bar food like wings, potato skins, nachos, and the like.

Whatever the case, I had resigned Guinness ice cream to the same melancholy memory bank where I'd stored Cold Duck Ice and other long lost taste treats I'd never be able to indulge in again (Beechies pepsin gum and real Fannie May candy are also on the list). Imagine my surprise when we were at Halloween Horror Nights over at Universal Studio the other day and I discovered Guiness ice cream in their gelato shop!

We've been visiting Universal for years, but I never even realized that they sold gelato, let alone one of my favorite obscure favors. Then I read about the gelato online, stopped in, and there it was. On that first day, I was in the mood for something sweet rather than the sharp and bitter stout taste so I ordered a scoop of Pumpkin Pie ice cream and resolved that I'd have my Guinness next time. However, I did get a taste spoon and I was pleased to discover that it was still just as good as I imagined in my memories of the old Irish restaurant.

We have Frequent Fear passes, which means we attend HHN on almost every off peak night. We always arrive at park closing, have dinner at Finnegan's (Irish name and food, but no Guinness ice cream to be had), and get an early start on the Halloween festivities. I figured we'd just arrive a little early on our next visit and I'd indulge in a nice, big serving of ice cream as a kick-off to a night of haunted housing. Unfortunately, my smug complacency was quite misplaced.

The next time we arrived at the park I husted over to Louies, the pizza parlor with the gelato counter inside. There were two workers bustling around with pans of yummy frozen taste treats, but they didn't even acknowledge us. Finally, after a couple of minutes I asked, "Uh, are you open?" One responded, "We're not supposed to be, but we can take of you." Seemed a little odd, but what the heck, as long as I'd be getting my ice cream.

"I'll have a scoop of Guinness," I said, drooling with anticipation. It had been a long, hot walk from the parking lot through the CityWalk area and all the way to the back of the park. I was hot and sweaty and fully ready to savor the bitter icy goodness.

"Oh, I can't sell that flavor until tonight."


The woman repeated, "We only sell that at night," which really didn't compute for me since it's Guiness flavored, not some sort of alcohol-laden libation that will get you drunk with one bite. I don't think you could get drunk with a whole gallon! And second, right outside and a few steps away a cart was hawking glasses of cold beer.

Oh well, whatever. I could see that the Keeper of the Guinness wasn't budging, so I resolved to come back later. After running through the haunted houses, we returned around the same time that I'd had my gelato on the previous visit. Now it was well after dark, and the average blood alcohol level of park patrons most definitely exceeded the legal driving limit so stout-flavored ice cream seemed tame in comparison to blood-bag jello shots and the other wicked potions that were running freely. But this time around, the ice cream pans were all empty and the workers were scrubbing the counter. It was over two hours till park closing, but apparently I was out of luck...the Fates had conspired to deny me.

Still I clung to my bull-headed optimism. We were planning to return in a couple of days, and next time I would be prepared. I would wait until HHN had started...but not too long. I would arrive early on in the event and indulge in my just reward...a big, creamy scoop of tan and frosty Guinness paradise. I still recalled that little teaser taste spoon I'd had a few days before, and I could just imagine having a whole serving all to myself.

The days passed, and once again we were on our way to HHN. We went through several of the haunted houses, then hustled over to Louie's where the gelato counter sang its siren call from the front corner. I was almost afraid to peek through the glass at the flavors...with my luck, they'd be fresh out of Guinness.

But no, there it was in all its frosty glory. The stand was open, the pan was full, and I was full of confidence as I proclaimed, "I'll take a scoop of Guinness, please."

"We only serve it in shot glasses."


She repeated, "We only serve it in shot glasses," indicating a thin little plastic HHN receptacle that would hold a portion of ice cream roughly the size of my little finger. Then she added helpfully, "It's $7.50."

Once hubby had revived me from my faint, I tried to decide what to do. $7.50 was an insane price, even though the shot glass did light up with flashing orange lights in its tiny base. Heck, the large-sized alcoholic drinks in big light-up tumbers were only a buck or two more. But it wasn't a drink I was the freakin' Guinness ice cream that had teased me over the past week until obtaining it had become a vendetta. Grudgingly I counted out the money from my pocket, handed it over, and got my Lilliputian-sized portion, along with a tiny spoon so I could coax out every precious scrap.

And believe me, that's just what I did. I made sure I consumed every precious bit because I knew I wouldn't be having any more $7.50 drabs of Guinness ice cream in the future. I shook my head in wonderment, trying to figure out what made it such a closely-guarded commodity. Was there some obscure trade agreement with Ireland that forbade selling it in normal quantities? Was it laden with gold flecks? Was it subject to some sort of secret rationing?

I guess I'll never know, but I do know that in the future I'll stick with chocolate or pumpkin pie or something less precious in the future. And in the meantime, I figure that every time I buy a conventional flavor I'll ask for a free taste spoon of the Guinness. After all, one of those spoonfuls is very nearly equivalent to the $7.50 portion, plus I don't get stuck carrying a flashing shot glass around for the rest of the night.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Soarin' and Soarin' and Soarin' Some More

As the off-season continues, hubby and I continue to take advantage of it. After all, what's the good of living in Celebration if you can't make good use of your Disney World proximity?

We achieved the pinnacle yesterday when, through a judicious combination of Fastpasses and the standby line, we managed to ride Soarin' an amazing 13 times. We slipped in Spaceship Earth, Nemo, Turtle Talk, and two or three rounds on Test Track, but Soarin' was our main focus. The others were simply filler between Fastpass times when standby got too long.

We hadn't actually planned a marathon. Our original idea was to head out to Epcot just after rope drop, grab a few Soarin's till the line got too long and the Fastpasses got to far apart, then have a nice lunch and head home. What we didn't realize was that the line wasn't going to get unreasonable until the evening and that the Fastpass times would move slowly enough for us to use and abuse them for most of the day.

When we got there, the Soarin' line was an unheard of 15-20 minutes. I generally won't do it if it's any longer than that. It's not just the wait; I hate hate hate the interactive games on the wall screens. The line is already wide enough for an entire football team to pass through side-by-side, which is a major enabler for line jumpers. Add in the games and the jumping gets worse as people slip ahead under the guise of "playing" or "moving in front of the screen." Sprinkle a generous helping of people flailing madly (that's how you play...for example, one of the games is to pop ballons or blobs of some sort, and you have to act out the motions), and you've got a recipe for disaster. I don't like being bumped into by inattentive strangers who can't stand for more than 5 minutes without some sort of stimulation. Thankfully the screens are absent from the Fastpass line.

But on this day we were only subjected to the game two or three times out of all our standby rounds. We never waited longer than 35 minutes in standby, and of course Fastpass went much faster. What had started out as a few rides on Soarin' turned into a vendetta to beat our previous record of eight rides. Once we had reached that, with the line still reasonable and Fastpasses still in good supply, the object became cramming in as many rides as we could.

The other lines were minimal too. We didn't wait at all for Spaceship Earth and maybe only five minutes for Nemo. We did the single riders line at Test Track, which is usually short to non-existent anyway except for the busiest times. We had to wait 10 minutes for Turtle Talk, but that was because we got there just after a show had begun. I love Turtle Talk because you actually get to talk to Crush, and he answers and makes comments about the audience. It's a wonderful blend of on-the-fly animation and improv.

The kids sit on the floor in front, and Crush calls on them to ask him questions. Last time we were at Epcot, it was apparently field trip day from the School for Kids With Paralyzed Vocal Cords because every time a child was chosen, they immediately froze up. Mind you, they are supposed to raise their "flipper" if they have a question, but apparently they were mini sheeple in kid would raise theirs and the rest would spontaneously follow for no good reason.

On that day, we went to another show figuring it would have to be better...surely we'd just hit on a dud. But no, it was the same story the next time. I'd never seen it fall so flat. Poor Crush does the best he can, but he had to have something to work with. By the third or fourth kid going, "Uh.....uh...." it gets old to say, "Having a Dory moment?"

Fortunately this time both Crush and the kids were in good form. My favorite line came when a kid mentioned Nemo. Crush said, "Yeah, he got lost one time. It took an hour and 33 minutes to find him!"

Before we knew it, it was dinnertime. The Soarin' line had finally shot up to an hour, and although we hoped it might drop we weren't holding our breath. I think everyone who wasn't staying for Illuminations was grabbing a last hang glider trip. We hoped to get one more Fastpass, although we knew that was rather greedy. Since we wouldn't be able to get one till 6:40, we decided to see if Garden Grill could take us as a walk-up.

I thought I was probably crazy to hope, since GG is a character meal and I think the free dining promotion is going on. Lo and behold, they were able to take us! I think we should have bought a lottery ticket on the way home because it was definitely our lucky day. Actually, I think we lucked out because we were a party of two, and GG mostly gets bigger family groups. We were seated in the two chairs on the end of what appeared to be a long booth to accommodate large parties...there was a big family at one end and us at the other.

Even though we were just two adults, the characters spent plenty of good interaction time with us. I was wearing my monorail hat, and Pluto thought it was a riot. He stole it and donned it himself! We didn't have a camera so hubby snapped a quick photo with his cell phone. Here it's not too good, but it was one of those times when we just had to make do:

Sadly, by the time we were eligible for another Fastpass they had all run out. The line was an hour, and it was already 7:30, so we reluctantly decided to call it a night. I would have liked to reach 15, especially since it's almost the end of the dead season but oh well...lucky 13 sure isn't bad. Maybe it's even a good thing because that will give me something to aim for when dead season rolls around again next year.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Wonderful Time, The Sequel

Given the lack of lines at Animal Kingdom on Saturday, I had a nagging feeling that I might be missing out on some quality Soarin' time. For a ride that is essentially nothing more than an Imax/motion simulator with piped in scents, it's amazing that Soarin's wait times soar to two hours or more in the peak season. At those times, the Fastpasses disappear by 11 a.m. Thus I pretty much have to get my rides in large doses in the off-season, sort of like a squirrel gathering a supply of nuts for the winter. I fill my "Soarin' tank" when waits are minimal so I won't go through withdrawal from June through August.

Hubby had to work on Sunday, but when he was done we headed to Chevy's for a late lunch, followed by an evening at Epcot. We didn't get there till after 3 p.m., but we figured we might be lucky enough to cram in lots of quality ride time before the park closed at 9.

We could see that the crowd was fairly light as soon as we entered the gates. We hustled over to the Tip Board to get a handle on the current ride times. Soarin' was posted at 15 minutes! No way! I truly wanted to believe, but I noticed that everything else was walk-on except for Test Track, which was posted at 40. I suspected that the two had somehow been mixed up, since 40 mins. in the dead season isn't the norm for the giant slot car ride.

Still, we had to see for ourselves so we headed off for the Land Pavillion. There were still plenty of Fastpasses left for Soarin', so we grabbed one and checked out the standby line, which was posted at 25 minutes. Okay, a little more realistic, but I still thought it was a trick when I saw how far back the line density extended. Still, ever the optimists, hubby and I joined it. We waited...and waited...and waited...sure enough, it was a good 45 minutes before we boarded. Oh well, by the time we got off, it was time to get another Fastpass.

Since all the other rides were walk-on, we spent the evening bopping between Soarin' to use our Fastpases and get new ones and other rides to kill time between the Fastpasses. By 9 p.m. we had ridden Soarin' a whopping eight times, plus three spins on Test Track, one on the Land boat ride, one on Nemo, and two showings of Turtle Talk With Crush.

Normally Turtle Talk is one of my favorite Disney attractions. You literally talk to Crush, and he answers in context and also calls directly on various audience members. The kids all sit in the front of the theater and ask him questions...or in theory, that's what's supposed to happen. Unfortunately, at that showing all of the children must have been bussed in from the Cat's Got Your Tongue Group Home, as every one of them froze when Crush called on them. Mind you, there were told to raise their hands if they had a question, but each child froze like a deer in headlights when the Cast Member brought his microphone over.

Crush is quite the master of improv, but the poor turtle can't show his wit when he has no lines to work with. "Are you having a Dory moment?" only works the first time, but this entire group of kidlets was non-verbal in the Great Green One's presence.

Since there was no line, we decided to see it again. Surely the next group would give Crush something to work with. Nope! Once again, all the tots were dumbstruck. I've seen that happen before occasionally, but usually at least a couple of them will actually stutter out a question. Oh well, it must have been something in the air so we gave up and headed off to the Nemo ride.

I was amazed at how quickly the time rushed by as we carried out our marathon. Surprisingly the Soarin' standby line stayed at 40 to 45 minutes up until the very end, when the park was about to close. By then we had used up our Fastpasses, so we were very grateful for the drop as we hopped in for the last ride of the day.

By the time we were done, most of the Illuminations crowd had already disappeared out the gates. I couldn't believe that it had been less than six hours and we'd gotten eight rides on my favorite, plus a generous helping of other rides and shows as well. I know this won't last too much longer...the later September gets, the more the crowds grow. But heck, I'm sure gonna enjoy it while it lasts.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

In the carols, the most wonderful time of the year is Christmas but all good Disney fanatics know that it's actually early September. Right after Labor Day it's the best time to visit the theme parks because the lines will be virtually non-existent.

Several factors go into creating this welcome lull from the crowds. First, Mom and Dad don't want to pull Junior out of school so soon after the start. He's just getting settled in; he can always get yanked for a visit to the Mouse a few months down the road. Second, the Brazilian tour groups have all but disappeared since their holiday time is over. Third, this is prime time for a hurricane and tropical disturbances in the news tend to scare off some of the tourists.

Today hubby and I enjoyed this wonderful time of year with a jaunt to the Animal Kingdom. Hubby was lobbying to go to Universal, but I couldn't see the point. With our Premier Passes, we get to use the Express Lines no matter what time of year it is. Who wants to use 'em when the standby line is only 5 minutes anyway? At Disney, we're relegated to the regular Fastpass system with the rest of the hoi polloi, so we have to make the best of those few precious weeks when Fastpasses aren't even needed.

We made dinner reservations at Jiko and headed off to AK a couple of hours before closing. We figured we could to the safari, Dinosaur, and maybe one or two on Expedition Everest before park closing. Little did we know that we were vastly underestimating what we would be able to accomplish.

On the way into the park, I stopped at the little coffee kiosk to get a frozen mocha. I had skipped breakfast and lunch in anticipatipon of our Jiko meal, so I knew I had to get some concentrated sugar into my bloodstream. Otherwise I'd end up with a whanging headache from the backwards part of Expedition Everest. Usually I'm immune to any ill effects from roller coasters, but going in reverse in the dark seems to give me vertigo if I'm not all sugared up.

I felt a bit like an ad for Disney; the sight of my yummy, whipped cream-crested drink attracted another family to the stand, and as I was walking away, yet another person asked me where I had bought it. They should hire someone to stand in front of the kiosk brandished a cold and yummy looking beverage...I'll bet sales would triple.

We trooped into the park to decide on our ride strategy. Last time we did the safari right before closing and saw almost no animals. I'm sure they were off by the doors or gates of their enclosures, clamoring to escape the tourists and to go in for the night. Thus hubby suggested that we right the safari first, and it turned out to be an excellent idea.

There was no line, so we were on within minutes. I was utterly amazed, as we saw every animal from the hippos and elephants to the rhinos and warthog to the lion and even the elusive cheetah. There were crocs and cattle, giraffes and gazelles, and even an ostrich that appeared to want to climb into the truck with us.

Next up we headed to Dinoland, where I had to waste a few bucks on one of the games before riding Dinosaur. Of course I lost and hubby cleaned up, so I was stuck carrying around a couple of stuffed toys for the rest of the day. We did Tricerotops spin before heading to Dinosaur, and both of those were walk on just like the safari.

We hustled off the Asia, where Expedition Everest was also amazingly line-free. We did a couple of regular rides, then realized that the wait for the front seat was minimal. We ended up riding in the front repetitively until the park finally closed. I still couldn't believe the absence of people as memories of the July peak season were still firmly entrenched in my mind. I made a mental note to get to Epcot soon so I could rack up some quality Soarin' time.

As we joined the herd of sheeple and headed out of the park, I reminded myself that this was one of the reasons we moved to Florida. Every year we would come down for a week in December, but then we had to reluctantly return home. Now, we can come every day of the off-season that we want to, slacking off only when the crowds start to rise again. In the meantime, we can take full advantage of the most wonderful time of the year.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Ads That Upset Me

As much as I love living in Celebration, there are times when I cringe at the prospect of being known as a Central Floridian. It isn't bad enough that the Casey/Caylee Anthony fiasco has put us in a negative and neverending national spotlight, making the rest of America just as sick of the whole mess as we are. Now we've got a group going by the name of "Metro Orlando Mommies" that's protesting Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights billboard ads.

First, how the hell can I take a group seriously when it has such an eye-roll-inducing name? It conjures up visions of bored, overprotective soccer mommies whizzing around in their SUVs and trying to figure out what to get offended about next.

Second, it's Halloween Horror Nights, people. Yes, horror, as in blood, guts and gore. The ads in question show this year's icon, Bloody Mary of urban legend fame, with freaky white eyes and dripping blood and of course a broken mirror. Not much worse than what you can find at any given moment if you have cable TV.

Supposedly this horrific imagine is terrorizing little Britt and Kyle and Dillon as they whiz down I-4. Come on, how many Soccer Mom Spawn to you know that even pay attention to billboards? They're all too busy keeping their precious little noses stuck in the SUV's built in entertainment system. After all, God forbid they be expected to amuse themselves for more than a minute or two without artificial help.

I'm glad I grew up in tougher times. My mother didn't believe in babysitters, so she dragged me to horror movies from toddlerhood on. I saw "Night of the Living Dead" at the age of three and virtually every other blood-and-gore movie you can imagine. Dracula, Blackula and Count Yorga...yep, saw every single version of a blood sucker that Hollywood ever put out. Infamous grade B romps like "The Corpse Grinders"...yep, saw those too. Eco-disasters like "Frogs?" Oh yeah, we were front and center for those. Nearly from the time I cleared the womb entrance, I was exposed to every kind of cinematic gore possible.

Did this turn me into a cringing blob of jelly? Hello, no, I love Halloween and haunted houses. If someone's kiddo is terrified by a billboard, it's time for a little toughening. Of course, these are the same Mommies who insist that everyone get a trophy and that the whole class be put on the honor roll so that Buffy's delicate feelings won't be hurt. Then their kids grow up with absolutely no coping skills, and they bob their bubbly heads and try to figure out what went wrong...duh!

I'm shocked that the newspaper and TV stations are even giving this ridiculous story any attention. I suppose there are two reasons: one, the hurricane is a spectacular un-event; and two, it gives them something else to focus on other than Caylee ad naseum.

If they really want to focus on a scary and disturbing ad, I suggest that they turn to the latest offering from Charmin toilet paper. I stopped using Charmin several years ago, when they decided to illustrate the principle of "does a bear shit in the woods?" with frolicking, butt-wiping cartoon bears relieving their bowels and wiping their butts in disturbing family-gathering situations. I'll take Bloody Mary over happy, poop-wiping bruins dancing as they polish their posteriors any day.

Now Charmin has really crossed the line. Their cartoon bears have developed dingleberries! I kid you not...they now have a bear running amock with a crop of nasty white klingons while Mother Bear (probably a member of the Central Forest Mommies) chases him with a dustpan and broom. Ugh! That's just so wrong.

Are dingleberries really such a issue that we have to be subjected to such a graphic demonstration? Should watching a sticky-butted bear really make me want to turn to Charmin to protect me from the problem?

Bloody Mary may be scary to Orlando's overprotected junior set and their air-headed, offense-seeking Mommies, but I'll take her any day over Charmin's "Attack of the Klingons." Yes, bears do shit in the woods, but some things are meant to be done in privacy rather than be splashed all over my TV screen.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

You Know You're Back in Orlando When...

...the Fox Orlando television programming is continually interrupted with non-news about Caylee and Casey Anthony. My blog has been idle for a while as I was on a 15-day Disney Cruise through the Panama Canal. Even in Mexico and Columbia I was subjected to pointless blathering about the Anthony case on CNN, but at least they didn't continually interrupt programming.

We arrived home on Monday, but I didn't feel like I was really home until today, when my court shows were interrupted for the world's most boring press conference. Seriously, if they gave out Emmy awards for Most Dull and Pointless Press Conference and Worst Public Speaker, today's travesty would win hands down. Some dude from the search group that has been fruitlessly combing the area for poor little Caylee's body is currently reveling Fox Orlando viewers with such exciting phrases as, "An airplane is going over. Let's wait until it goes over. I wish I were on that plane," and "If we have more people, we can cover more ground." Oooo, really? Wow, that's so insightful!

On the lefthand side of the screen, Fox is running a loop of Caylee photos and video that I've seen so often that I'm surprised I don't have nightmares about them. Unfortunately, the press conference itself is so dull that the seen-'em-a-million-times photos are actually scintillating by comparison.

Even though it's been three days since I stepped off the Disney Magic, I didn't really feel like I was back in the real world yet. With the resumption of the who-the-hell-cares Caylee coverage, I know for sure that I am home.