Thursday, February 23, 2012

Out of Touch With Reality

This winter I realized just how out of touch with reality I am, or rather the reality of the northern states. I experienced my first Chicago blizzard at the tender age of three in 1967, and I lived through the infamous Chicago Blizzard of 1979 and even had a t-shirt to prove it. Most years weren't quite that severe, but winters were a long haul of bitter cold temperatures and wet, sloppy snow.

Being sick of long winters that ran from November through February or March was one of my primary reasons for moving to Florida. Sure, the snow means fun in the form of cross country skiing or tobogganing, and there's nothing more beautiful than cantering along on horseback in a forest of sparkling, freshly powdered trees and white virgin trails. Unfortunately, that's outweighed by frozen cars that don't want to start, shoveling snow, scraping ice off windshields, bundling in a coat so heavy that you resemble Randy in "A Christmas Story," and feeling your lungs burn with every breath as they struggled to take in the icy air.

In Florida, we get a few freeze warnings every winter, but ice and snow are a thing of the past. It's gotten to the point where I've forgotten that things are different in other parts of the country. In January, I watch commercials with people making snowmen and shoveling their walkways, and I chalk the snow up to mythical status, along with unicorns and Yetis. Yes, I know people who claim to have seen it. At one point in my life, I thought I saw it myself, but now I know it's just a faulty memory. To reassure myself, I glance out the window and admire the green grass and swaying palm trees.

Sometimes I stumble on the Weather Channel while flicking through cable's overwhelming offerings. I hear about winter storm warnings and see scenes of icy roads and big, wet snowflakes falling against the backdrop of the Chicago skyline. Something stirs in my memory, but there's no sense of loss or homesickness, just a sign of relief.

Once upon a time I was an old hand at driving in snow and ice. My attitude, like that of my fellow Chicago residents, was, "There's a blizzard outside? So what? I need to get to da Jewels!" I'd chip my vehicle out of its snow mound, hop behind the wheel, and fishtail my way off to the grocery store or to work or wherever.

Now, although I'd like to think I haven't lost my winter driving skills, I suspect I'd be clueless if I were suddenly dropped on a road in the midst of a Midwest snowstorm. Still, even if I've lost that knack, I've gained the ability to drive in an almost solid sheet of water. With Florida's sudden, vicious thunderstorms that happens pretty much every afternoon. After the initial panic, you learn how to drive through the waterfall on faith, with no idea whether there's open road or a truck full of explosive fuel in front of you.

In Florida, you lose your sense of the time of year. Sure, I know intellectually that it's December, January, and February, but those month names mean nothing special to me. In Chicago, they signified a bleak, gray, seemingly endless parade of cold. In Florida, they're just three out of the 12 months, chillier and drier than the summer, but not extreme enough to make that much of a difference. Sometimes I totally forget that it's winter until I see a weather report from another part of the country and it clicks in my mind, "Yes, it's actually snowing elsewhere."

If I were still in Chicago, I wouldn't be thinking about flowers until late May. In Celebration, I'm already planning the next round of flowers for my garden. The previous round, planted in December, would still be going strong if the local deer hadn't decided that they make a good buffet.

I've gotten spoiled by my new reality. Hopefully for the rest of my life I'll put on my heavy coat when the temperature dips below 70, tend my flowers all year 'round, and forget that winter ever meant anything more than a mild chill.

If you'd like to read the early years of my blog as an ebook on Kindle or Nook. My other books include:
  • Complete eBook Guide to Legoland Florida on Kindle and Nook
  • Complete eBook Guide to SeaWorld Orlando: Kindle or Nook
  • Legoland for Adults: 12 Tips to Enjoy Your Trip: Kindle or Nook.
  • 15 Tips for Saving Money on Disney Cruise Line: Kindle or Nook
  • 25 Tips for Visiting Disney World With Babies, Toddlers & Young Kids: Kindle or Nook
  • 5 Steps to Your Own Internet Travel Agency: Kindle

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Mickey Mouse is My Neighbor

Well, I've finally done it. I've long wanted to adapt my Celebration, FL, blog into a book, and I finally released the eBook on Amazon for Kindle and Barnes & Noble for Nook. If you read my blog regularly, you'll already know the stories of stalking Davy Jones, fighting rampant Florida wildlife, visiting the nudist camp, and the like. I took my favorite blog entries for the first two years, edited them a bit, and put them together into an easy package.

As I worked on the book, I was amazed at how much has changed since I started this blog back in 2004. I lamented about how the proposed condos would worsen the parking problems downtown and how, at the time, there was no viable solution on the table. Guess what? Parking is even more of a nightmare, particularly during special events, and no solution ever materialized. Worse yet, the housing bubble burst just in time to burn pretty much everyone who bought those condos.

I also lamented about Water Tower Place. Little did I know that the failure of Goodings and the initial store closures were just the start of a dizzying revolving door of businesses that opened and closed shortly thereafter, sometimes literally overnight. Hopefully the coming of Publix will give that story a happy ending.

Celebration is a much different town now. Many of the old special events are gone, but the fake leaves and snow still fall on Market Street and we still have some pretty cool happenings. Our town isn't nearly as pristine as it once was. Just about every street, including mine, has at least one obvious foreclosure. We also had our first official murder and a horribly tragic incident involving police barricades and a suicide. Both of those incidents made national news because, of course, we're the "Disney Town," and things like that shouldn't happen here. In reality, I'm amazed that it took for long for major tragedy to touch us.

Our little town, nestled just outside of Disney World, is all grown up now, with the attendant woes of adolescence and adulthood. There's still no place I'd rather be, and I'm already wondering what I'll think when I look back on this period in my blog a few years down the road. I hope I'm still as happy here then as I still am now.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Why Pay Full Price?

Living in Tourist Land has its disadvantages, like traffic and crowds during peak seasons, but the advantages far outweigh them. The most obvious upside is living next door to Disney World and within spitting distance of the other big attractions. A lesser known, but very handy, advantage is rarely paying full price for things like attractions and food.

Sure, we have all the usual coupons, like the postal bombardment of handy-dandy Bed Bath & Beyond discounts that come in handy for stocking up on K-Cups and restaurant deals from joining various e-clubs, but being in a touristy area means that things are kicked up a notch. Many of the local souvenir shops, restaurants, and hotels have racks full of brochures and books. Inside the pages of those innocent-seeming glossy publications is a treasure trove of ways to save money.

Going to one of the attractions on I-Drive or a Kissimmee dinner show? Don't do it without looking for a coupon first. Ditto for offbeat activities. Everything from horseback riding stables to hot air balloon companies to air boat rides can be had at a discount because they need a hook to attract you away from Disney's dominance and the lure of Harry Potter. You won't find deals from the major parks, mainly because they don't have to give you a deal, but if you want to expand your horizons to other experiences, like zip lining, helicopter jaunts, or indoor surfing, you should never pay full price to do so.

There are lots of coupons for local restaurants, too. You'll find everything from a straightforward percent off your bill to a free drink or appetizer or kids' meal. I love the Ahi tuna salad at Houlihan's, so I have a stash of 10 percent off coupons for when I get that raw fish urge.

There's only one slight hazard in taking advantage of the discounts. Some of the book racks are located in peaceful places, while others are near "ticket sales booths" that are really thinly disguised timeshare baiting spots. Joe Tourist has just arrived in town, and he's not sure what the family wants to do other than visit the Mouse. He's lured over to the colorful brochure rack, and as he stands there with his head spinning from the sheer volume of offerings, the salesman smells his confusion and goes in for the kill.

"Interested in _____?" (Fill in the blank with an appropriate theme park/dinner show/attraction.) "I can get you really cheap tickets, or how about free?"

"Free?" Joe Tourist likes that word, and the logical part of his brain is still shorting from trying to compute the attraction overload.

"Well, all you have to do is take a little tour. Just a short one. Give me one hour of your time and these free tickets are yours."

If Joe doesn't regain his common sense really fast, he's going to be off for a four-hour ordeal and be several thousand dollars poorer due to his new timeshare ownership by the end of the day.

That sort of thing poses no problems for jaded locals. As soon as the slickster starts his lure-her-in spiel, I give him the evil eye and say, "Don't bother. I'm a local," as I load up on my coupon book bounty.

I belong to a vast array of eclubs, too, since we've got virtually every chain you can name in the Celebration area. The only chain missing from Florida that I'd really love to see spring up is Culver's. Their burgers put McDonald's cardboard food to shame, and they have the most blissfully decadent and calorie laden custard you can imagine.

Other than that, I'm pretty well set for dining options. My favorite chain is Sweet Tomatoes, which is basically a salad bar on steroids. Throw in lots of soup and bread options and soft service ice cream (and usually a cobbler or something similar) for dessert, and that's pretty much what it is. They send weekly coupons, and they're got a really convenient restaurant on West 192, near the 429 tollway, so those advantages all combine into a perfect storm of attraction for me.

Sometimes I think businesses are sorry they offered a deal. I love Logan's steakhouse, which is right across 192 from Celebration, as well as in other nearby locations. They recently sent out a coupon for a buy-one-get-one-free meal on Super Bowl Sunday, no doubt hoping it would lure in football fans on what would otherwise be a deserted night.

Unfortunately for the restaurant, people decided to take advantage of the coupon in droves, but early in the day. We needed to go shopping, so we went to a different Logan's around lunchtime and were stunned by the sheer mass of people overrunning the parking lot and spilling out the door, freshly printed-out coupons in their grubby little hands.

We actually got seated fairly quickly, and then I proceeded to watch the circus show. People would come in big parties, then insist on a bunch of separate checks so they could use as many coupons as possible. I pitied the poor servers who were trying to make sense of the mayhem. I'm sure they were glad that hubby and I were only a party of two so we couldn't pull the "I know there's 20 of us, and we didn't tell you before hand, but we want to pair off into 10 checks with two people each now, and here's our 10 coupons" routine.

Fortunately things are usually much more calm and straightforward. You bring your coupon, present it, get your discount, and have a little extra money in your pocket as a result of living in Tourist Land. And then you'll burn up the savings by sitting in endless streams of traffic as your engine combusts all that extra gas.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Secret is Finally Out and Publix is Finally In

Not too long ago, I blogged about the worst kept secret in Osceola County: that Publix is coming to the Water Tower shopping center that sits on the edge of Celebration, right at the interaction of Celebration Avenue and 192. It's languished ever since it was built, going through stores like Snooki goes through nooki partners.

Below, in its entirety, is the press release that finally confirms the coming of Publix:

NEW YORK – Clarion Partners, a leading real estate investment manager, has
acquired the Water Tower Shoppes, a 120,000 square foot neighborhood
shopping center in Celebration, Florida for $18.3 million, it was announced today.
The acquisition was made on behalf of a commingled fund advised by Clarion.
Celebration is an award-winning planned community located in central
Florida, approximately 20 miles southwest of downtown Orlando and within easy
driving distance of Walt Disney World and other major Florida attractions. As
envisioned by the Disney Development Company, it features a small town
aesthetic and buildings designed by world-class architects, including Michael
Graves, Philip Johnson, and Robert M. Stern.
The Water Tower Shoppes is a “village” configuration, located at the
entrance to the town at the intersection of Celebration Avenue and US 192.
Current tenants include SunTrust, Exxon, and Chick-fil-A. Following the
acquisition, Clarion, together with development manager and leasing agent
Crossman & Company, plans to begin redevelopment of the center, including the
introduction of Publix, a dominant grocery chain, to anchor the center.
Celebration benefits from the area’s moderate living costs and from its
proximity to one of the country’s major vacation destinations, where a recovery in
the tourism industry is driving renewed growth. Median household income in the
town is approximately 42 percent above that of the greater metropolitan area.
Demand for retail space is expected to strengthen in 2012, while limited new
construction is likely to help reduce vacancy rates over the next several years.
“Celebration is a unique place in a great location with very attractive
demographics,” said Marc DeLuca, Director at Clarion. “We are pleased to have
New York, February 1, 2012
the opportunity to acquire the Water Tower Shoppes center, and look forward to
further enhancing the shopping experience there for residents of the town.”

Not only am I glad that eventually I won't have to leave The Bubble to buy groceries, but I'm also hoping that new ownership brings some stability to the revolving door of tenants who have come and gone at Water Tower over the years. The names include chains like Planet Smoothie and a short-lived Ace Hardware, along with independent stores like coffee shops, restaurants, vitamin shops, and even an indoor kids' playground. The latest casualty was Magic Nails, a manicure and pedicure salon that disappeared pretty much literally overnight.

Does Publix have what it takes to wrestle Water Tower out of its death throes and give it new life? It's certainly a well-known brand name here in Florida, and the Publix just down the road does a healthy business. Presumably that one will close when ours opens, but will its customers follow it down the road?

Only time will tell, but I'm glad Captain Obvious has finally spoken and the store is confirmed once and for all.

If you're planning to visit Legoland Florida, I just released a comprehensive ebook guide available for both Kindle and Nook.