Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bye Bye Bennigans...Not

Yesterday my husband informed me that Bennigan's was no more. According to his gloom and doom announcement, the Irish pub and grill chain had announced its bankruptcy and ceased to exist. That made me a bit sad, as Bennigan's features in many of our little family memories. Perhaps the fondest goes back to a time before we were married. When we first started dating, I had no intention of ever tying the knot, and I had announced as much to my eventual husband to be. I told him I was only in it for the good times, and he just smirked knowingly (and it still annoys me that he turned out to be right, but who can turn down a man who cooks, does laundry, vaccums, and cleans cat vomit?).

In those early years of our courtship, there was a Bennigan's near his home. Given its convenient location (and my addiction to their Mason jar ice cream dessert), it was the site of many dates. At the time, the park district had an indoor wave pool so we'd often go for a round of inner tube wave riding and then follow up with a Bennigan's dinner.

One day it was snowing, so he dropped me off at the front door while he parked the car. Because we were both fresh from the pool, our hair was dripping wet. There was no wait for a table, so the hostess seated me and I figured that he wouldn't have much trouble finding me. A few minutes later he showed up at the table snickering. "What?" I demanded, and he told me, "The hostess said your wife is over there." I guess the matching sodden coiffures that we both sported pegged us as a pair, and for some reason she assumed we'd been through nuptuals. Of course, it annoyed me to no end since I fiercely defended my single status...little did I know what the future held. Hubby still smugly reminds me of that day.

Ironically, Bennigan's played a big role in our eventual wedding. Being an unconventional couple, a plain old church wouldn't do for our ceremony. Instead, on Valentine's Day we headed to the top of the John Hancock Building and exchanged our vows with the Chicago skyline as our backdrop. Afterwards, where did our intrepid wedding party head for a meal? Bennigan's! I supposed it was fitting in a way.

Another Bennigan's milestone occurred a few years back, the day after our elderly cat Muse had died. At that point, we were down to only Tooncinator the crazy cat, which was pretty much like not having a pet at all. It was more like harboring a demonic creature that stayed in hiding most of the time, popping out only occasionally to savage you unexpectedly.

Even though I was still in mourning, I knew it would be good to get another cat. Even if we didn't decide on one at that day, we could fill out the paperwork at the shelter. They'd keep it on file for a month so we could always come back later to find a suitable pet.

Nothing particularly caught my eye, but hubby homed in on a scrawny black and white cat with an unhealthy yellow tinge to his fur and a sign on his cage that said "Not for adoption." Turns out that was because he was being treated for worms; they said they'd let us have him if we'd agree to continue the treatment. I wasn't too enthusiastic; I love tuxedo cats, but they have to have a white streak down their nose. This one's head was entirely black. But for some reason he bonded with hubby, so it looked like he'd earned himself a new home...almost.

We decided not to make any rash choices, so we went to lunch to discuss the potential new family member. Since Bennigan's was just down the road, that's where we ended up. We discussed the cat's fate as we noshed, and lucky for him he won out in the end. Now he's here at Duloc Manor, dubbed Stitch due to his unadoptable status, chubby, no longer yellowed, and totally incorrigible.

Now, according to hubby, no more Bennigan's memories would be made. Already I was missing my favorite drink (the Bulldog) and their tasty boneless Guiness wings. There is a Bennigan's almost right across from Celebration and another one out on 535, so we tended to bop between those two. I searched online and discovered that although all corporate stores were closing, franchises supposedly were not. I had no clue as to who owned our local stores so I figured I'd call them the next day.

Turns out that the 192 and 535 locations are just about the only ones remaining in the area! Both are franchise owned so both are still open for business, at least for now. To celebrate, I went to Bennigan's for lunch and indulged in Guiness wings and baked potato soup. Since it was only noon, I held off on the Bulldog.

Sadly, the Bennigan's where we had our wedding meal is closed, and I think that the other two we used to visit in the Chicago suburbs also met the same fate. Oh well, the memories aren't over just yet since we've still got two to chose from here in Florida.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Segway Kind of Day

The Segway was the "personal transporter" that was supposed to revolutionize the world and have entire cities designed around it. I don't know what drugs its inventors were taking to come up with that fantasy, but of course it never happened. Who wants to tool around on a two-wheeled device in the winter or in a rainy climate like Florida? If you're a city dweller in a place like Chicago or New York, do you really think anyone will get out of your way so you can crank your Segway up to its 12 mph top speed? Can you realistically carry a heck of a lot while riding one?

Just as I suspected when I first heard about it, it's been relegated to the status of a novelty item. That's not to say they're not run to ride. I rode the old style several times on Disney's cruise ships and their island, Castaway Cay, when they used to offer it. Hubby and I also tried to take the World Showcase tour at Epcot (also on the old style), but it rained out so we only got an abbreviated version.

Now Segways have been upgraded to a more intuitive, easier to turn model. Better yet, they have one with rough-terrain tires that is used on tours of Disney's Fort Wilderness. Hubby and I have been planned to go on that tour ever since it was announced last year, and we finally got around to it this morning. I think what whet our appetite and finally pushed us into doing it was doing the free "sample" ride in Innoventions at Epcot. It had been a while since we'd been on a Segway, and it left us wanting more.

There are two departures on the day it's offered, but we chose the early one (8:30 a.m.) hoping to beat any afternoon rain. That meant waking up at a bleary-eyed 7 a.m., parking at the front of the campground, and taking an internal bus back to the Mickey's Backyard Barbeque Pavillion, which also happens to be the meeting point.

We made good time and were the first arrivals. We signed releases, chose helmets and stashed out stuff into the carrying pack and our Segways. Our fellow tour guests trickled in; the tour can accommodate 10, and we happened to have eight on this fine (but humid) morning.

Below is the logo on the Segways and a picture of the Segways themselves:

Before you head off onto the roads and back trails of Fort Wilderness, you watch a safety video and go through some practice like veering around cones and heading up and down inclines. Our two guides, Ron and Robert, made sure that everyone felt comfortable before we headed out. They also passed out bottles of water, which were quite welcome once we got out into the heat. While much of the area you ride in is shaded, the July humidity will still sweat you into dehydration.
There were some photo stops along the way. Here are hubby and I, with Space Moutain and the Contemporary in the far background.

Below are our guides, Robert and Ron.

We also went through a camp loop and stopped at the Tri Circle D Ranch to see the horses and some equine memorabilia, as seen below:

The white ponies in the distance below pull Cinderella's Coach when they are not relaxing. We saw them at the Grand Floridian the other day, harnessed to the coach, for a wedding.

Here was another scenic point at the edge of Bay Lake:

Below is some of the forest overhang. While some of the roads were paved, we also took dirt trails between the marsh areas and did a bit of optional off-roading (I think everyone took that option!). The Segways are governed at 6 mph so you can't do anything too crazy, but those thick tires certainly handle tree roots, pine cones, dirt ruts, and sand without any problems.

We also visited the Wilderness Lodge, where it was quite amusing to see the surprised looks on guests' faces as we headed around the exterior areas of the hotel. In addition to riding and sightseeing, Ron and Robert hit us up with lots of Disney trivia questions. They had plenty of silly jokes, too, reminiscent of the Jungle Cruise. It was most definitely a Disney experience!
The tour is billed as lasting two hours, and it does indeed go the whole time. Of course, some time in the beginning is devoted to the training, but you're out on the trails by 9. There are restroom facilities at the start of the tour and also a stop near the facilities outside of Hoop De Doo, although no one needed to go at that point. Other than that, you won't hit anymore restrooms till the end of the tour, but no one seemed to be too desperate.
Both hubby and I had a blast. While you don't ride full tilt or do anything crazy, you do zip along at a good pace and have a couple of opportunities to off-road for brief periods. You see some lovely trails that most people who visit Fort Wilderness miss, and the guides will explain the various flora and fauna along the way.
No one in our group seemed to have much trouble mastering the Segways. One couple seemed a little unsteady early on, but by the time it was over they appeared to have built up their comfort level. Both hubby and I had no problems at all, since we've had previous experience. The only thing we had to get used to was turning bike-style vs. using the knob on one handle on the older models. The new Segways are a huge improvement, and the off-road tires feel very steady even on bumpy terrain.
At the end of the tour, we all received pins to commemorate our experience. I couldn't believe how quickly it had flown by! I want to do the whole World Showcase tour sans rain, but it will probably seem relatively tame compared to a Fort Wilderness jaunt.
We had made 11:30 reservations for lunch at Garden Grill in Epcot's Land Pavillion. We knew the park would be insanely busy, so we harbored no illusions about getting a Soarin' Fastpass for any decent return time. But amazingly, even tho' we arrived at a little after 11, we got a 1:15 return time! That is almost unheard of in July. Indeed, the standby line was "only" 50-60 minutes. That might sound like a lot until you compared it with the usual 120-180. I was quite surprised that Test Track's standy was longer (70 mins.).
The Garden Grill lunch is a character meal, and it's being discontinued soon. I wanted to do it one last time, since hubby and I used to do it fairly frequently when we lived in Chicago and came to WDW as tourists. It's a plated meal; you get catfish, chicken and beef, plus scalloped potatoes, green beans and rolls. You can eat as much as you want, and you also get a custard pastry with strawberries for dessert.
When we got there, the place was nearly deserted so we got some great character photos as you can see below:

After our meal, we killed time on the Living With The Land boat ride, in the single rider line of Test Track and browsing at the Epcot 25th Anniversary display. I especially enjoyed the Figment and Horizons memorabilia.

When we returned to the Land, we got new Fastpasses even tho' the return time was late and we knew we had to get home to work. I figured that we could just give them away. We had a lovely Soarin' ride, and on the way out we were discussing our Fastpasses. A man and his daughter overheard us; he had four FPs with an immediately return time and offered to swap two of his to us since he was staying late. What a lucky break! I wished I had some of my trader pins to give his daughter or something, but alas I was barehanded. Hopefully the good karma will come back around to him.

We grabbed our bonus Soarin' ride, then managed to slip in Spaceship Earth on the way out because the line had cut down to almost nil. We made it to the car just in the nick of time, as the afternoon showers started spitting on the windshield just as we pulled out of the parking lot.

All in all, it had been a great day, especially for July. We had an enjoyable Segway tour, a yummy lunch, and two bonus rides on Soarin' (we'd been expecting none), plus a few other rides just for the heck of it. I'm looking forward to doing the World Showcase tour in the near future, but it's going to have a hard time holding up.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

One Man's Dream...Literally

I've been doing morning theme park visits, and today hubby decided to join me. Since we both work from home, we can juggle our schedules around some playtime as long as we make up for it later. I've been wanting to try Toy Story Mania, the new ride at Disney Hollywood Studio, so we figured we'd rush over first thing in the morning. We could grab a Fastpass and kill some time on Tower of Terror or The Great Movie Ride till our Fastpass time rolled around. In theory, Toy Story Mania has a Singles Ride so we might be able to get a bonus ride that way too. In practice, it opens and closes based on the phases of the moon, and it doesn't move too fast even when it's open, so we weren't counting on that.

We wanted to arrive a little bit after opening time so the major crowd would be cleared out a bit. Since we have a AAA parking pass, we knew we'd be able to get a good spot without having to arrive the moment the parking plaza opens. We made it shortly after nine, and as we approached the gates we could see it was going to be an ultra-busy day. The turnstyle lines were still backed up past the ticket booths. Oh well, we had our plans: get Toy Story Mania Fastpasses, kill time (preferably at Tower of Terror) till our FPs can be used, a lunch at Sci-Fi (we'd made ressies for 11 a.m.), and then bail.

We hustled to the Toy Story FP machines, which had lines almost as long as the ride itself. Somehow we made it through, then hustled to Tower of Terror, as hubby had sworn to me that its standby line never gets that bad. Maybe not when he comes to the park late, but at this point it was already sitting at half an hour and poised to keep an upward climb as more droves of tourists headed to that end of the park. Grudgingly I agreed to wait since I knew it would only get worse. I figured that we could get a Tower Fastpass before lunch and ride it again on our way out.

Next up, we decided to go back to Toy Story to see if the singles line had opened. They need something like the Bat Signal so you could tell from any part of the park rather than having to hike over and find out. On the way is One Man's Dream, a collection of Disney-related models and memorabilia, capped with a movie about Walt Disney's life. I'd been thinking about stopping in at some point if we needed to kill the very least it's air conditioned, and I do enjoy the memorabilia. It brings flashbacks to Sunday nights gathered around the Radiation King brand television set watching the Wonderful World of Color. I figured we'd do that later, but as we approached I noticed the greeter at the door beckoning people inside.

That might not sound like an enticement for most people, but something clicked in my mind. It's the Year of a Million Dreams giveaway, and I've heard that when the Dream Team is doing a giveaway in a less-traveled attraction, the greeters will sometimes wave people in. They won't say why, but if you're savvy you will heed their siren call. I told hubby, "I think we should see One Man's Dream now."

He looked at me as though I was nuts, but he knows there is usually a method to my madness so he tailed me inside. Sure enough, there was the Dream Team! They had on their white "we're giving away stuff" vests and were shouldering black gift bags. It turned out that they were giving away the best gift for a crowded day: Dream Fastpasses. Sometimes they give away lanyards or hats, but the Fastpasses are perfect when line times are rapidly rising and the park is a wall of sweaty humanity. With a Dream Fastpass, you get one ride via the Fastpass line on all the FP attractions. In the Studio, that includes some good stuff like Tower of Terror, Rockin' Rollercoaster, and the ever-popular Toy Story Mania, as well as assorted other stuff like Voyage of the Little Mermaid, Star Tours, and the Indiana Jones and Motorcars stunt shows.

We proudly donned our Fastpasses; our day's schedule had suddenly been rewritten. It was funny to watch other guests come in after us and look confused as the Dream Team asked them to step aside so they could get their awards. Amazingly, I think that a lot of people come to WDW totally away of the Year of a Million Dreams giveaway. I guess it shouldn't surprise me since Fastpasses have been around for years, yet I see people constantly who have no idea what those are either.

We ended up getting three rides on Toy Story Mania: singles line (in the brief period it was open...and our luck continued, as hubby and I somehow both ended up in the same car, which is virtually impossible as a single rider), regular Fastpass, and Dream Fastpass. Before lunch, hubby got Tower Fastpasses, so we got in two more rides there. We saw Little Mermaid and did Star Tours too. When I'm there in the off season, Star Tours usually has no line; with the July crowd, it was actually up to half an hour. We did Rockin' Rollercoaster too; the standby there was something like 75 minutes.

Our lunch at Sci Fi was very pleasant. Their food is nothing to write home about, but you eat in a "drive in theater" at tables shaped like cars. They show all sorts of funny trailers for bad 50s sci fi movies. My favorite was "Plan 9 From Outer Space," since I love Ed Wood. I had a burger and hubby had pastrami.

If we'd gone with our initial plan, we would probably have been out of the park shortly after noon. With our new freedom to ride everything, we ended up sticking around till nearly 3 p.m. Problem was, we could see dark clouds forming in the sky and hear the distant rumble of thunder. A Florida afternoon thunderstorm was brewing, and it looked like it would be a close call on whether or not we could make it to the parking lot before the heavens let loose.

Fortunately luck was still with us. We made it to Kitt and were out on World Drive headed back to Celebration before raindrops started spitting on the windshield. What had started out as a two-to-three-ride morning whirlwind had been drawn out into nearly six hours of park time and three rides on Toy Story, three on Tower, one on Rockin' Roller Coaster, one on Star Tours, and the Little Mermaid show. Not bad for mid-July, especially with countless tour groups lurking around.

It made me think of one Dream Team member's comment to another guest. A few more people had walked in behind us, and I heard him tell them, "Guess what you won today? You won the gift of time." A perfect description of Dream Fastpasses for sure.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Celebration or Seattle?

By the amount of rain we've been getting lately, I've been wondering whether I'm in Celebration or Seattle. I can barely remember the last rain-free day we've had. Every afternoon and evening (if not earlier), we're enveloped in the midst of the thunderstorm. I'm beginning to forget what a blue sky looks like since I'm so used to puffy gray clouds.

Really, it's not all that unusual for this time of the year, and it's much better than a dry spell and increased fire danger. I can handle the thunderstorms as long as we don't have any hurricane threats. So far, all has been quiet out in the Atlantic.

The rain is much preferable to the snow that I had to deal with in Chicago. I'd rather tote an umbrella than a shovel and drive on wet pavement instead of ice, and you don't have to scrape raindrops off the windshield. Also, our rainy season whizzes by much past than the typical Midwest winter. Summer always seems to fly, and with it go the daily thunderstorms. In contrast, a Chicago winter drags on for months and month. Then, just when you think you're safe, you get a March blizzard. I'll take the storms and the lightning light shows any day!

The only bummer about the rain is that it inhibits our theme park visits. We avoid Disney like the plague in the peak season, other than an occasionaly brief visit in the morning or evening. But we have our Universal Premier Passes, which means front-of-the-line afer 4 p.m. Unfortunately, for the last couple of weeks the rains have been here after 4 too. It's just not worth it to slog around the park in a soggy rain poncho...yuck.

My husband's early afternoon water park visits have been curtailed too. He waits until much of the tourist crowd has gone back to their hotel rooms to nurse their sunburns. The last couple of hours usually mean managable lines, even in the summertime. Rain isn't a problem since you're wet already, but the water parks get shut down at the first hint of lightning. Since most summertime Florida rains are accompanied by copious amounts of thunder and lightning, that means a frequent call of "Everybody out of the pool."

I feel sorry for the tourists who are pretty much locked into summer visits. Usually you can work around the rain; when hubby and I were visitors ourselves, we were very good at working our meals around the afternoon storms. They would whip up, rage fiercely, and be done by the time we had finished our meal. Unfortunately that wouldn't work with our current rain schedule, which starts in the afternoon and runs through the most of the evening lately.

Oh well, I know it's just part of the cycle and the price of living in the tropics. Whenever I get too depressed about being housebound by a deluge of rain, I'll just remind myself that it could be snow!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Courtroom Overload

One of the most disconcerting things about moving to a new state is the change in local channels. In Chicago, I knew the trio of CBS channel 2, NBC channel 5, and ABC channel 7, along with independents WGN channel 9 (which is now a Superstation), PBS channel 11, and WFLD channel 32 (now Fox). Others, like channels 44, 60, and 66, flitted in and out of existence, but I could always count on 2, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 32 from the dark, pre-cable days all the way up to the present.

We had great local programming like B. J. and his Cartoon Town, featuring such memorable characters as Town Monument Blob, Weird, Mother Plumtree, Suggestion Box, and the ever popular smoke-spewing Dirty Dragon. B. J. was a shameless shill for Maurice Lenell cookies; my husband's sister won some sort of show-affiliated contest, earning their family a year's supply.

We also had Family Classics with Frazier Thomas, a Sunday afternoon staple in the Windy City. Frazier would introduce a wholesome movie like "Lassie Come Home" or "Boys Town." He also hosted the ever-popular "Garfield Goose and Friends," which featured scary puppets interspersed with scary cartoons like "Clutch Cargo." You may have seen a clip of CC on "Pulp Fiction." If not, imagine totally static cartoon people with a freaky human mouth as the only moving part. Click here to see for yourself, but don't blame me for the nightmares.

In adulthood, I had my list of staple shows on the local networks too. Sure we had a bajillion cable channels, but I am addicted to Simpsons reruns and court shows and those are found on the networks. I got addicted to court shows back in the days when Judge Wapner was the only game in town. Nowadays the TV courtrooms are run like a Jerry Springer episode, but back then Wapner ran a tight ship, assisted by intrepid baliff Rusty.

Now the shows have proliferated into a dizzying array, and many try to have some sort of unique twist. You have Judge Judy, the bitchy female. You have Judge Mathis and Judge Joe Brown, both African-Americans. You have openly gay and flamboyant Judge David Young. There's Judge Alex and Cristina's Court, too, but neither of them seem to have any particular schtick. And of course People's Court is still alive and well, currently led by Judge Marilyn.

Upon moving to Celebration, I had to learn the new numbers of all the local channels (or, more accurately, their position on the cable dial). Since I work at home, I leave the TV on for background noise so I was anxious to find a suitable local backdrop. Thank goodness the Court Show Contingent is alive and well on Orlando television. Starting at 10 a.m., you can watch straight through till 7 p.m. with only one gap. Technically it's not a gap, since it's considered a court show: Divorce Court from 2-3 p.m. But for me, it's not a real court show if it's not full of bizarre small claims cases. I don't want to tune in to heard estranged spouses laying into each other; after all, I'm a counselor and that's too much like work!

The court shows are always reliable; you can count on at least one dog attack case per week, as well as mutiple feuding broken-up couples where one claims they made a loan while the other swears up and down that it was a gift. You can count on a cell phone related case, too, where some poor schuck let a friend or former lover put their phone in his or her name. Other common disputes involve car accidents, ruined weddings, and the like.

I do have to flip between the two Fox affiliates in order to see the whole block, but that's not much of a problem. At 7, when Judge Judge finally goes off the air, an hour of the Simpsons start so I have a suitable TV backdrop all the way to 8 p.m. At 8 I become a network orphan, wandering through the cable environs in a search for Family Guy or Cops reruns or an Animal Cops episode, depending on the day of the week.

Maybe I should try to shift myself to more mainstream tastes, like CSI (I fully expect a 24-hour all CSI channel to crop up soon). But I can't help it; I've always had a soft spot for court shows and I think I always will. We all have to have our guilty little pleasure; I'll admit that I used to love the Weekly World News until it transcended all pretense of reality and then mercifully stopped publication. Now it's all about courtroom eye candy, and happily the Orlando channels make sure I get a whopping dose every day.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Early and Late

It might sound like the name of a convenience store, but Early and Late is actually my theme park survivial strategy now that we're in the middle of the peak season. Going at any other time is asking to be caught in the midst of crowds that rival a Japanese commuter train. Fastpasses for the popular rides disappear by noon, and wait times soar higher than a loose Mickey balloon.

If you get to a park first thing in the morning, you can grab a Fastpass for one of the must-sees, like Soarin' at Epcot or Toy Story Mania at Disney Hollywood Studio. My personal mission is usually to get to Epcot for rope drop, position myself to head directly to Soarin', and to catch a quick ride before grabbing that precious Fastpass. A lot of people go for the FP first, but in the time that they are getting it the line swells from 0 to 30 minutes or more. If you ride first, you can usually still get a decent return time, meaning that you've worked in two rides instead of just one.

On a morning not too long ago, I lucked out and managed three rides. I was there right at rope drop, in a prime position right at the front. I joined the massive pack of humanity in following the phlanx of Cast Members over to the Land pavillion, down the stairs, and to the Soarin' queue. So many people bailed to the Fastpass machines that I was literally the second person in line, with a kid in front of me (not sure where his parents were...maybe sleeping back at the hotel after a night of partying at Pleasure Island?).

As we marched down to the farthest loading area, I noticed a group of smiling Dream Team members waiting for us. Mind you, I've seen them many, many times before but it's always been when they were giving away something to the car in front of me or behind me on whatever ride I happened to be on. This time, they said, "Lucky! First ones to ride. And you're even more lucky because you win a prize."

My brain, which never fires on all its cylinders early in the morning anyway, was having a hard time comprehending this turn of events. They handed out Dream Fastpasses to everyone in our loading area. I accepted mine speechlessly...I'm not even sure I was able to mumble out a "thank you." I had seen so many guests wearing this coveted prize around their necks over the last year and a half. Now, finally, I had joined their ranks.

After my ride, I rushed over to the Fastpass machines and got one for a doable return time. Then I checked out the standby line, but it had already surpasses any semblence of reason. Oh well, no matter...I just snapped off my Dream Fastpass time and took another quick spin. Pure Heaven! Then I killed time on Test Track and a couple of the other rides till it was time for my regular Fastpass and headed home in great contentment, having had a surprise bonus ride.

Since I'm not much of an early bird, another trick I've learned is to head to Epcot at closing time, particularly on the days when the temperatures rival a furnace and the humidity requires you to dog paddle rathter than walk. All but the most hardy souls usually drop out, and most of those who remain are at World Showcase for Illuminations. Thus you might find a 30 minute line for Soarin' as opposed to an hour and a half earlier on a peak season day.

It's nice to be local because I can just pop in the car and head over at closing time. If I go a little earlier, I can fit in Spaceship Earth and a single rider spin on Test Track. Sadly, SSE has lost quite a bit of its appeal for me since they dumbed down the narration. Instead of Jeremy Irons' deep voice intoning an intelligent script, Judy Dench yammers lines like, "Wasn't it easy to learn your ABCs? Thank the Phonecians" or "Wouldn't it be nice to have a computer in your house? Problem is, they're as big as your house!" (Referring to the old models.) While I'm paraphrasing, the actual lines are just as lame.

But hey, you get a personalized Esurance-style commercial at the end, so I guess that's a bonus. I'll have to ride it at least a few more times so I can run through all the different selection options and see the different versions.

I thought that rainy days might make my end-of-day plan even more successful, but unfortunately it's just the opposite. If it's been raining for most of the day, apparently all the crowds that were holed up in their hotel rooms will flock to the parks as soon as it stops, no matter how late that might be. At Epcot, they realize they'd have to really hustle to make it to the back of the park for Illuminations so instead they flock in an endless herd of sheeple to Soarin'. After trying this strategy once, I quickly learned that it's pointless...better to stick to the hot, sunny days where the crowd is apparently thinned out by heat stroke by day's end.

Soon enough summer will be a fleeting memory, and the September lull will be here. In the meantime, I'll stick to my early and late policy; while it's not as much fun as marathon riding, at least it's enough of my "fix" to keep me from going into withdrawal symptoms.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Universal Takes Care of Their Passholders...Sort of

Ever since we got our Universal Premier Pass, we've swung over to the Darkside of the Other Orlando theme parks. It's hard to stand in long lines at Disney World or work to maximize the Fastpass system when we can just go to Universal after 4 p.m. and ride to our heart's content in the Express Lines after leaving our car in the valet lot for free.

Granted, Universal doesn't have Soarin', but I love the Mummy, Men in Black, and the Simpsons at the Studio, plus my boy Christopher Walken starts in Disaster now, and Terminator is still Orlando's best 3-D show. There is less at Islands of Adventure, but I do love Hulk and Spiderman.

How nice it would be for Disney to offer an equivalent pass with some sort of Fastpass premium. Since they don't, Universal gets a much bigger chunk of our discretionary entertainment dollars. When we go there, we almost always eat too and I drop a few bucks on the carnival games, so they're winning some dollars away from the Mouse.

Universal also has some nice passholder events. Granted, Disney usually has passholder previews of its new rides, but Universal goes beyond that. Last year they had an event for Halloween Horror Nights, and today they had a meet and greet with Brendan Fraser in conjunction with the new Mummy movie. Since my poor husband was in Chicago (well, not so "poor," since he was attending a NASCAR event), I went solo. It's a shame because I tend to hate crowded celebrity events. The excitement is lost on me; he would have enjoyed it so much more. But I went because they advertised a free t-shirt, and also because I could. At the very least, I figured it would make a good blog entry.

I dutifully signed up beforehand online and brought a printout of my reservation. I had some lunch, then headed over to Universal where sign-up was supposed to start at 3 p.m., with the event itself kicking off at 4. I figured it was going to be a major upchuck, since I was still having post-traumatic stress attacks from the HHN event. At that one, it was so disorganized that the team members sent a huge clot of passholders the wrong way to one of the haunted house entrances. That might not seem like a big deal unless you know that the correct entrance was far far far way. There was a lot of cursing and grumbling, but I also heard people saying that the previous year's event had been even more of a mess.

Still, it was worth it to get a head start on the houses, since the HHN crowds tend to be outrageous. There was a free gift, too, but that turned out to just be an advertising button.

Given the rampant disorganization at Halloween, I figured the same would hold true for Brendan. I arrived at 3 p.m. and discovered a never-ending line already snaking in an interesting pattern. I asked two team members whether it was the correct line for people who had RSVPed and was told that it was indeed. I asked the people at the end of the line, and they confirmed that they'd been told the same thing. Still, I had a hinky Universal, when you're told something at a passholders event, it only has a 50% chance of being true. I asked a third team member, who confirmed once again that I was in the right place, but my suspicions were still not tamed.

The line continued to grow like the giant snake firework on "South Park." Hoochie Mama and her troop tried to cut the line in front of the people in front of me. They just did under-the-breath mumbling, but my South Side Chicago brass cojones know no such restraint. I point out the end in no uncertain terms, and after protesting that she was just "looking for someone to ask a question," she removed her entourage and disappeared off in the crowd.

Other than that, the line was relatively peaceful, probably because everyone was ready to collapse from the heat. The people behind me kept complaining about how much they needed some water, but when a team member selling ice cold bottles came by they didn't take advantage. They just went on and on with the complaints...I think they enjoyed having something to yammer about. I had come prepared with my own supply of H20 because I knew it was going to be a vicious 90+ degree afternoon.

The line appeared to be moving sporadically towards the sound stage, but suddenly my worst fears were realized. A team member came through, telling us we were all in the wrong line because we should already have been checked in and gotten our hand stamps. Huh? Me and all the people around me started up with a "No freakin' way!" rumble. Another person came through and said the same thing, but we all stayed in the line as it continued to inch forward towards the Promised Land of Air Conditioning inside the sound stage.

There was a flurry of major confusion at the entrance; I'm still not sure what it was all about, but I thrust my email at someone, got my mark, and hustled inside. The free t-shirts were given out as you entered, and apparently there were also free drinks too, but I skipped the refreshments in favor of trying to get a spot close enough to the stage to snap a few photos. It was already a madhouse, but I managed to get a clean sightline. All around me, people packed in like cattle in a slaughter pen. I pitied anyone who might be claustrophobic, as once you had staked out your spot you were pretty much pinned in by a wall of humanity.

There were stilt walkers for pre-entertainment, as you can see in the photo below:

I'm not a big stiltwalker fan ever since once snuck up on me at the entrance to the Mummy ride and nearly made me wet my pants. Hubby still busts a gut about that one.

I briefly toyed with the idea of bailing out. Would it really be worth standing around for another half hour just to catch a glimpse of Brendan? If it were Johnny Depp, there would be no question! But I'd already braved the worst of it, so I decided to stick around.

There were big screens showing clips about the ride and movie to make the time go a little faster. At the very least, the air conditioning felt soooo good! Finally 4 p.m. rolled around, and was Brendan was introduced (see below):

We saw a clip of the new Mummy movie while he provided a hilarious commentary from the stage. Meanwhile, I snapped a slew of photos in the hopes that at least a few would come out. As you can see by the one below, some are pretty decent:

Others were in hyper photo mode, too. I'm surprised the poor man wasn't blinded by all the flashes. According to the pre-material, there was supposed to be a question and answer session and trivia contest. Neither of those things materialized, but they did award a trip to the movie premiere in California to one lucky attendee whose free t-shirt had a red tag.

Afterwards, Brendan went to pose by a car for more photos. I worked my way over, but it just didn't seem worth another crowd scene so I bailed out before I got close enough for a shot.

On the way out, I answered a brief survey about my experience, then hustled to get to the parking lot before the storm that was brewing had a chance to drench me. I watched the gray clouds and lightning move in, but I made it into Kitt and onto I-4 before the Heavens let loose.

All in all, it was a balls-up but I figured it would be so what the heck. It was kind of fun in a madhouse sort of way. I guess it would be better if I were a star-struck sort, but the celebrity worship gene is pretty much missing in me (Johnny Depp and Harrison Ford excepted). I would be way more excited to meet Ray Bradbury than most famous actors.

But it was fun to see Brendan and hear his humorous commentary, and I got a free shirt to boot...that's a lot better than the HHN button. Now, whenever I ride the Mummy and see him in that scene at the end, I can say, "Hey, I saw that guy!"

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Gay Days 2008

This post is a bit of a journey back in time, since Gay Days takes place early in June. Unfortunately, that very night was the evening I descended into Sinus Infection Hell, so I didn't get the entry finished and posted in a timely fashion. Here it is, a month late but finally done.

On the first Saturday in June, an abundance of red shirted guests descend upon the Magic Kingdom. It's a sure sign that Gay Days has rolled around yet again. Gay Days started as a one day event, but now it has expanded into a whirlwind week for gay/lesbian visitors and their families and friends to vacation openly in Orlando. But of all the goings-on, the event at the Magic Kingdom remains one of the most visible. Scarlet shirts blaze in all their glory on the vast majority of guests, and you'll see all manner of gay and lesbian couples and often their children too.

My husband and I attended last year for the first time ever. My curiosity had been piqued by the wild (often bordering on hysterical) descriptions posted online by religious fanatics. They described terrifying goings-on from “group urination” (I'm still not quite sure what that means) to blatant recruitment of youngsters into the ominous sounding “deviant homosexual lifestyle” behind Cinderella's castle. Since I am a therapist and work with many gay and lesbian clients, and since every one has known since early on that they were gay, I'm not sure how someone could be “recruited” into something that is an inborn trait. They also decried the blatant public displays of affection (PDAs) that would burn out the eyes of any God-fearing homophobe.

I'm not sure which Magic Kingdom the paranoid naysayers visited, but apparently it wasn't the one here in Orlando. Last year's Gay Days event was quite low key, with an added bonus of low crowd density due to iffy weather, so we spend a great day enjoying the park. Thus I was quite eager to make a return trip this year as my last blast before the peak season crowds arrived.

Last year, we got there not long after the park opened. This year that wasn't happening because hubby's Friday flight from Chicago was delayed by two hours. It comes in late to begin with, so with the delay we didn't return to Celebration till the wee hours. Neither of us was particularly eager to stir out of bed any too early the next morning.

We finally managed to get up and functional and reach the Magic Kingdom a little before noon. The moment we hit the gate area, I realized that the crowd density was waaaay worse than 2007. It was a sunny (and hot!) day, and the sunshine had drawn out a high number of “regular” tourists in addition to the Gay Days participants. Oh well, we figured it will still be fun to walk around and soak up the ambiance until our 5:30 dinner reservation at Artist Point. Even though I'm straight, I like to go and show my support. Hubby wore a red shirt, and I donned my typical Gay Days wear: a white t-shirt with a rainbow that declares, “Straight But Not Narrow.”

Our first stop was to get Fast Passes at Space Mountain, which had something like an hour standby wait. Then we did Wedway, Carousel of Progress, Buzz Lightyear, and the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. By that time, it was time to use our Fastpasses, but Space Mountain had broken down. We killed some time waiting for the Astro Orbiter, one of the slowest loading rides known to mankind, then returned to Space. Apparently it was functioning again, and we made it almost all the way to the loading platform before the stinkin' thing went 101 again. Sigh! At that point, we had waited longer than a typical Fastpass wait for nothing, so I decided to go to Guest Services to see if they'd swap out our Fastpasses and let us ride Big Thunder Mountain instead.

By now, it was almost time for the 3 p.m. parade, which is a HUGE highlight of Gay Days. I had no desire to get trapped on the parade route, which would prevent us from getting to the rides. Granted, it's pretty cool to watch the parade and the enthusiasm of the red-shirted audience, but we'd seen it last year and this year I was more interested in rides. Thus we hightailed it to City Hall and managed to do the swap before we got penned in. Next it was off to Adventureland, which would give us unblocked access to Frontierland and Big Thunder Mountain. First we stopped at Sunshine Tree Terrace or whatever it's called. All I know is that is has the tastiest treat to be found anywhere in the Magic Kingdom: a vanilla ice cream and frozen orange juice swirl cone. Mmmmmmmm! I was halfway to heat stroke from a combination of the sun and a raging sinus infection that was slowly tightening its grasp on me, so the ice cream tasted like heaven and soothed my scratchy throat.

While we were waiting in line, a very enthusiastic red shirted guy came bounding over to ask if he could take my picture while holding his Ru Paul doll. He was an absolute riot; if you've ever seen “Revenge of the Nerds,” he would have totally reminded you of Lamar. Apparently he liked my shirt, so I posed dutifully with Ru Paul in hand. Then he bounded off, happily looking for other photo ops.

He wasn't the only one who liked my shirt. It turned out to be a great conversation starter, and even those who didn't say anything to me directly often made comments among themselves about how much they liked the slogan. I think it's important for straight supporters of gay rights to be visible with their support, especially in a state where the ominous Amendment Two looms on the ballot. It is known quite misleadingly as the “Florida Marriage Protection Act” but it might as well be called the “Let's Discriminate Against An Entire Class of People Act...And While We're At It, Let's Screw Senior Citizens Who Live Together Too.” Personally I'm just not all that concerned about who wants to marry who. If loving gay couples want to tie the knot, why should I care or stand in the way? And I hate it when it's framed as a “Christian” issue because I'm a Christian myself, but as far as I can see, a) Jesus did not promote discrimination; and b) religious views have no place being used as the basis for law in the United States.

I did get one glare from a guy carrying his kid who appeared to be rather offended by my slogan, but he didn't say anything directly to me. Really, what COULD he say? How do you defend prejudice without sounding like an idiot?

We had fun chatting with quite a few groups of gay and lesbian park-goers. Once again I never saw any outrageous PDAs. Well, actually I take that back. Both hubby and I saw separate graphic displays, but both times they were being committed by hetro couples who apparently were doing dental exams with their tongues. Any parent, hetro or gay, would have no doubt covered their kiddies' eyes if they were in the vicinity.

We were going to ride Pirates of the Caribbean on the way to Big Thunder, but it was closed. “Oh, look!” cried hubby! “The Jungle Cruise is walk-on!” Foolishly I believed him and followed him into what turned out to be the Neverending Queue Line from Hell. I'm not quite sure how he missed the herd of humanity, but he swore that it had LOOKED like it was walk-on.

Oh well, our wait was rewarded by a riotously funny skipper. Interestingly enough, there was even one child on our boat. I think this is the first time I've ever ridden the Jungle Cruise on an all-adult vessel. I imagine that on Gay Days the crowd has less kids than usual, although I did notice a much higher percentage overall of gay and lesbian couples with their children. Far from being the raucous, obscene party that some insist on portraying it as, it's becoming more of a family event. Sure, there are plenty of childless couples too but I imagine a part of that is due to the archaic laws preventing gay and lesbian couples from adopting in so many areas. If that ever changes, I suspect that the number of families at Gay Days will multiply accordingly.

Next up it was Big Thunder Mountain, which was running in fine form. That is to say, it whipped me around like piece of china in an uncushioned wooden crate. By the time that was done, we were hoping to get in a last ride on the Haunted Mansion before going to dinner, but the line was 45 minutes and stretched out all the way to the main walkway. Reluctantly, we hiked to Toontown and hopped on the train for a final ride that would take us to the Main Street Station. I was amazed at how quickly the time had passed and sad that we didn't get any more rides, but that was tempered by the knowledge that a delicious meal lay just ahead.

Since I was feeling rather peaked, and my stuffed up sinuses were inhibiting my taste buds, I skipped the Copper River Salmon in favor of appetizers (venison spring rolls, a cheese plate, and the most godly mushroom soup ever to grace the earth). Hubby had mussels and salmon; I had a taste of his fish, and even my impaired sense of taste could tell that it was as delicious as ever. I topped my meal off with a selection of ice cream (not on the menu, but they'll do it if you ask), and then we headed home to conclude our second annual Gay Days visit. That's two years now that I've been unable to find the horror so graphically portrayed by homophobic paranoiacs. No sex in the streets, no recruitment at the castle, just groups of red shirted revelers having fun like everyone else. Oh well, maybe I was just lucky. Guess I'll have to try again next year.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Theme Park Schandenfreude

First off, to all those who have sent messages to see if I am still alive, breathing and blogging, I am indeed! In early June I was felled by the sinus infection from Hell, and now I'm frantically playing catch-up with all my work. But I am finally back to my blog.

I apparently got the infection on the plane returning home from Chicago; I reported on that whirlwind trip a few entries back, but its main purpose was to see the play "Avenue Q." Out of all the wonderful songs, like "The Internet Is For Porn," "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist," and "You Can Be Loud As The Hell You Want When You're Making Love," my favorite is a little ditty called "Schandenfreude." You might wonder, "Just what the heck does that mean?" I'll let two of the characters from the play describe it in their own words:

(Note: "Gary" is Gary Coleman, who has fallen so far down in the world that he is now the Avenue Q builder super. He's not played by the real Gary Coleman but rather by a woman. Nicky is a character who was kicked out by his roommate and who is now homeless):

Right now you are down and out
And feelin' really crappy.

I’ll say.

And when I see how sad you are,
It sorta makes me happy.


Sorry Nicky
Human nature-
Nothing I can do.
It’s Schadenfreude
Making me feel glad that I’m not you.

Now that’s not very nice Gary.

I didn’t say it was nice,
But everybody does it.
‘Dya ever clap when a waitress falls
And drops a tray of glasses?


And ain’t it fun to watch figure skaters
Fallin’ on their asses?


Don’t you feel all warm and cozy
Watching people out in the rain?

You bet.



People taking pleasure in your pain.

Oh. Schadenfreude, huh? What’s that? Some kind of Nazi word?

Yup. It’s German for ‘happiness at the misfortune of others’.

‘Happiness at the misfortune of others’
That is German!

Now, mind you, I happen to be a quarter German myself, although I must confess that many of the German people I've met scare me to death. But I guess there's a little part of me that's true to my blood, since I do indeed indulge in a bit of selective Schandenfreude. I don't like to see people walk into a lightpole or fall down the stairs, but I do revel in the pain they cause themselves through personal stupidity, and this usually occurs at theme parks. For example, I can't help but smirk when a kid zipping blindly through a crowd on, Heelies...takes a header or when some moron who stops in the middle of a walkway to gape at his map to figure out why he can't find the Simpsons Ride at the Magic Kingdom gets mowed down by a rampaging Brazilian tour group. I guess you could call it Darwinian Schandenfreude.

I was at a major theme park deficit, so on Sunday hubby and I headed off to Universal Studios to get a few rides on our trio of favorites: The Simpsons, Mummy, and Men In Black. The Theme Park Schandenfreude was out in full force, particularly in the Express Lines. We have Premier Passes, which give us unlimited access to Express after 4 p.m. Universal hotel guests get it all day, and you can also buy a pass that gives you one-time Express access to each ride. That's one time, but apparently that concept is too hard to grasp for the many Sesame Street rejects we see arguing it on each visit.

Sure enough, there were five of them in front of us at Mummy. They must have berated the poor guy working the entrance for a good five minutes about how it was all his fault, how he had ruined their day, and how they were reporting him to Guest Services, all because he wouldn't let them use their purchased Express Pass which had already been used for that ride. Duh! I indulged in a smug, self-satisfied dose of Schandenfreude as they finally gave up and stormed past hubby and I. I suspect they were probably trying that routine at every ride, trying to see if there were workers they could bully.

Inside Mummy, there was a double dose of Schandenfreude. The Express line was a little more crowded than usual, probably because it was the holiday weekend. There were a couple of girls in front of us and a handful of people in front of them. Behind us was a couple and then a line of various assorted other parties.

All of a sudden I hear, "Excuse me, excuse me, we have to get to our friends," and two girls push their way up to the two girls in front of me. Although I have no tolerance for line cutters, I'll allow a catch-up if it's just a couple of people. At Universal, I always figure that someone might have stopped to put the group's bags in a locker or have stopped for an emergency potty break.

A few seconds go by, then I hear another chorus of "Excuse me, excuse me," punctuated by various people mumbling, "How many are there?" Another two girls were barging their way through. At this point, hubby and I blocked them as though we were of two minds and I said, "Nope!"

One of the girls in front of me said, "But there are 14 more of us that are going to catch up!" Sad thing was, she was totally serious! She actually thought I was going to stand aside and let 16 of her closest friends cut in front of me. I was surprised that such a feminine-looking little thing would have such a large set of testicles.

I said, "Ain't gonna happen, honey. You can just go back there and join them at the end of the line." She looked all pouty but her self preservation instinct apparently warned her not to mess any further with a product of Chicago's South Side. She huffed, "Well, okay, you can go in front of us."

Hubby and I stepped forward, but I was amazed that the people behind us all let the whole troop cut through. The people directly behind us must have finally grown some nads because a few minutes later they appeared behind us again, but I don't know what happened with the others. I guess it was a double case of Schandenfreude...misfortune for Miss Balls and Troupe because they didn't get to cut all the way to the front and for the gutless wonders who didn't dare challenge them, which cost them an extra two-train wait.

Still, I believe in karma, so I try to offset the Darwinian Schandenfreude with random acts of kindness when I can. I like to play the carnival games, but I don't like carrying around the spoils of victory. Thus I ditch whatever stuffed animals I win onto various random children. Actually, by doing that I might inadvertently be inflicting them with Schandenfreude once they discover that they can't carry a toy on the rides, so they have to go through the special hell of putting it in a locker. In theory, the lockers are free while you ride. In practice, the automated system works roughly as well as the business model of the early Internet Bubble firms. Oops!

I'll sign off with another little snippet from my favorite song (if you'd like to hear the whole thing, click here, but beware that it contains the F word, among other lyrics that aren't exactly for the sensitive).

Being on an elevator when somebody
Shouts ‘Hold the door!’

Oh yea!


F--- you lady!
That’s what stairs are for!