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.