Monday, December 18, 2006

Home Again

Yes, Cirilia, you guessed it, we just returned from a week at Walt Disney World Resort in beautiful sunny Lake Buena Vista. We had a wonderful time, and neither of us really wanted to come back. In fact, I am already planning another vacation for May, and another in December of 2007. No, they won't both be to Disney World.
Was there a reason for this trip? Yes. It was our 15/9th anniversary on December 14th. (15 years total, but a mere 9 of those years legal). We were married in Kissimmee, Florida, at the Victorian Wedding Chapel (and massage parlor) - NOT to be confused with the current Victorian Wedding Chapel in Kissimmee, which is not the same place - in an El Nino nine-day downpour. I remember it well. I think the rain let up only long enough for us to drive to Kissimmee, tie the knot, and escape to our wedding dinner at Medieval Times. This is a seriously fun dinner show, by the way, involving knights, jousting, and screaming, chanting people that were enjoyed by everyone in our party. Three kids, constant rain (though being from New England, rain and 68 degrees beats snow and 28 degrees any day), seagulls pooping on my mother's head, horrible free breakfast (well, for me anyway - the kids? They loooooved it! All the Cocoa Puffs you can eat!) at the 2-bedroom suite I scored for some unbelievably low price...I remember also that a tiger escaped from Gatorland in flood-level waters, the castle at Disney World was hideously decorated to resemble a birthday cake fit only for a child under 5, and my children seemed to youth-en before my very eyes. But that was then, 1997.

This is now! 2006, no kids in sight. (since they're all old now.) By the way, we took this ourselves specifically to annoy Girl, by making it the wallpaper on the computers...
We drove to Florida from our home in beautiful Western Massachusetts. We did this for two reasons: first, I despise air travel and will get out of it by any means necessary. Second, it was cheaper to drive, even with one night spent on the road. We checked into a (name withheld to protect the innocent) in Emporia, VA, then headed out for a quick bite at Shoney's - probably not the best place for a gluten intolerant person to dine, but I picked around the buffet as carefully as I could. We headed back to our room for a nice peaceful sleep. I pulled out the Mac and logged onto the Free Wireless Internet (I love this) to check my email while Mr. Wonderful watched Free Cable (he loves that). We eased into comfort. Suddenly the fire alarm began to sound. If you've ever been a victim of a hard-wired fire alarm in a public building you may be able to relate when I say that "startled" does not begin to describe what that moment felt like. No worries, the manager said, just a malfunctioning alarm. The strobes and honking alarm ceased and we returned to our room. Settling in again, I logged back onto the Internet. I had not gotten beyond "enter user name and password" when it started again. The strobe is pretty intense. The alarm is too. The sound stopped after a few seconds, but the light kept up. For about an hour we sat and waited while the strobe ticked away endlessly. We waited out of kindness for the poor manager who really was overwhelmed with unhappy guests. We waited until my brain was beginning to singe around the perimeter and my eyeballs were bleeding slightly. Then we went out to the desk and as gently as we could asked for liberty.
We crossed the street to a Hampton Inn.Hampton Inn, I have decided, is the next best thing to Disney World. The free breakfast is lavish by comparison. Besides, there were no fire trucks, police officers, angry guests, strobe lights or loud sounds. They even had a treadmill that made it obvious that mine is at the door of death. We slept, I trotted on the treadmill for a while, and - after scraping the windshield to remove the layer of (stinking, miserable, what was it doing in southern Virginia on my vacation??) frost, we headed for Florida. Somewhere in North Carolina we stopped at a rest area and saw the most aptly named catering firm ever. "Killa Catering Services" specializing in chicken, turkey, fish (anything formerly alive...) I am not a vegetarian, don't get me wrong, I totally support the rights of omnivores to indulge. A google search shows that Killa Catering is located on Dead End Road! It's too perfect! If I am ever having a function in NC I know who I am calling!!! We spent Saturday on the road, arriving too late to do much more than eat dinner and crash. Found a nice Kobe Japanese Steakhouse, loaded with locals (always a good sign) just around the corner from our "not the Hampton Inn because it was full" hotel on Palm Parkway in Lake Buena Vista. The sushi was very good, if loosely wrapped. We chose to sit at a "regular" table rather than a high-top grill table, as we were too tired to appreciate the whole scene.

I knitted half a pair of socks, and half of Malea's vest on the trip down. I did not get as much done as I'd have liked to, but I blame tolls north and the incredibly dull stretch from VA to Georgia south. Later this week we will talk more about knitting, when I am recovered from the whole vacation experience.
We spent Sunday at Sea World, being certain to catch Seamore and Clyde's always hilarious show Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island, and all of our other old favorites like Penguin Encounter, Shark Encounter, Wild Arctic, Dolphin Cove, etc. I don't think we went on a single "ride" at Sea World, although they have two good ones - Kraken which is a huge blue steel coaster and Journey to Atlantis, which is a lot of fun. We did wander peacefully along the seasonally quiet pathways, soaked in the sun and warmth, and generally recovered from the previous two days of driving. My only issue with Sea World and Animal Kingdom is the perpetually nagging feeling that, given an option, the animals would probably choose the Arctic, the Savannah, the River, Ocean, Sky or Meadow over the artificial environment of the park confines. I try to believe that it's all in the name of conservation disguised as entertainment; education packaged in a palatable and profitable way that allows ongoing programs at both parks to save and protect wild species in their natural habitat. It's sometimes hard, especially when I see paper napkins being thrown at flamingos and hear adults griping - even after being told why - about the lack of lids and straws (both cam be harmful to animals if ingested). Animal Kingdom does such a great job of habitat reconstruction that you barely remember that it's even NahTaZu, and sometimes allow yourself to believe you've traveled a continent or two from home.
We left SeaWorld and headed north to Shepler's Western Wear in Orlando. I am in search of cowboy boots. Not just any boots will do. This obsession crept into our vacation twice, and both times I failed to find the Golden Boot. I have not given up, but admit the search may be more complicated and costly than I'd prefer it to be.
Arriving at Disney World at last we checked into our most favorite hotel so far because it's only the second one we ever stayed in and the first one was only for one night so what do we really know, Port Orleans Riverside Resort. Actually I think we could have other favorites if we'd branch out, but we seem very stuck on Port Orleans. The lazy man-made Sassagoula River floating by, the water fowl everywhere, the lovely mansion houses...what's not to love? We stayed at Port Orleans for five blissful nights. Yes, I had my finger biometrically scanned two or three times a day. We wandered around The World with our park-hopping Magic Your Way tickets. We had our pictures taken by Disney Photo Pass photographers, and I even ordered some when we came home. We went on rides. We kissed in public (don't tell Girl. It offends her). We held hands (don't tell her that either). We reaffirmed that we are still, after 15 years, still in love with each other (or perhaps I should allow Mr. Wonderful to say that for himself). That man is my best friend in the entire wide world. We dined on some amazing food. Most notably, dinner at the Yachtsman Steakhouse at Disney's Yacht Club has ruined me for normal steak. We saw - and most wholeheartedly and vigorously recommend - Cirque Du Soleil La Nouba at Downtown Disney's West Side. I wish we'd been able to take the kids back in the day when we did our low-budget, just-scrape-by vacations. Just astonishing. We'll have to take Aidan and Emily some day. Unless someone has a kid they want to loan me for a week? Preferably female, with a penchant for being a princess? And we had a great deal of fun with the guy sitting a couple of seats over at Cirque, who compensated us for our having to get up and down every time he needed to run for a snack or take the baby to the bathroom by bringing us beer every time he returned. Luckily the kid did not have to pee too much, or we'd have ended up in the "too much fun" category. We went to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, and it snowed all along the parade route. We were reminded of why local fireworks seem sort of...well...dull frankly. We saw some really magical moments with four little girls at Akershus Storybook Princess Luncheon. They were adorable, all sitting at their own table while moms sat adjacent to them, all enamored when Ariel, Cinderella, Snow White and Jasmine stopped by to say hello. We saw two little girls be named "Princess of the Day". I chose my next job: recycling bin at Animal Kingdom's Conservation Station. Insanely adorable. Correcting well-meaning adults: "Joey, go say hello to the trash can..." "Why, I am a recycling bin, but thank you." They have great interactions with kids, calling them by name and getting hugged but no germs! Perfect job for me. I can make an idiot of myself with small children but maintain enough distance to not get glommed on. I was breathed on by a certain experiment (626, I think it was), and Mr. Wonderful was flirted with by June
from Little Einsteins (note deep red blush). I had some great wines; Lolonis' Ladybug Red at the Garden Grill - a selection I owe to Chip (not to be confused with Dale) who picked it for me, and Jackson-Triggs Proprietor’s Reserve Cabernet (I think or maybe Merlot and I did not write it down what an idiot) at Le Cellier. We saw things we'd never seen before - Soarin' at Epcot (way cool, had to do it more than once), and Tom Sawyer Island at the Magic Kingdom, among others. I felt very spoiled by Disney Chefs who tirelessly walked buffets with me and went out of their way to prepare things I could eat that would not make me feel not so great. As a result of their caution I only got sick once, and then briefly, and was back on my feet for my Imaginary Birthday (two months early) at San Angel complete with margarita and unfinished vest – no zipper!. Specifically, Chef Dan at Hollywood and Vine and Chef Donna at Boma made my dining experiences special, comfortable, and a delight. Chef Dan made me a waffle! WAFFLES!! And Chef Donna at Boma really knows her stuff when it comes to gluten free diets. She made me a special pan-seared prime rib and a chicken salad with a delightful dressing. She also sent me off with a wrapped GF brownie for later and the name of a great gluten free cookbook. Other chefs were great in making sure I did not eat the wrong thing by accident by letting me know where the hidden gluten was (and there's a lot of it, surprisingly). We did grown-up stuff and juvenile stuff and generally did not want any of it to end. It wasn't long enough - we did not get to do it all, and we have to go back. Right Now.
We left against our will and headed north, stopping again in Emporia at the Hampton Inn, but skipping Shoney's (which I really don't love but seems so incredibly prevalent in the south along I-95) in favor of the really good Pueblo Viejo Mexican restaurant. The place itself looks a bit worn about the edges, and an initial reaction might lead one to pass it by based on appearance. The furnishings look as if the location was previously a seafood or family style American place, and have seen better days, and a fresh coat of paint is needed in a few spots. But I was determined to have something I could eat without too much fear, and not nervously pick my way around a Shoney's buffet. Pretty darned good is what this place turned out to be. Loaded with locals on a Friday night, a second ranch-type sour cream based dip comes to the table with the obligatory salsa and very warm and fresh corn chips. My chicken tacos were very good, served with a side of refried beans at my request and sour cream (always!). Mr. W. had fajitas, a shrimp and chicken combination and I heard no complaints, although he does not share my deep love of Mexican food. I had a margarita, which was good, though nothing can compare with the one I had at the San Angel Inn (top shelf, and I swear they squeeze the juice two seconds before serving it to you!).

Disneyphiles and Foodees:

Yachtsman Steakhouse- simply amazing steaks, aged and then prepared to perfection. Without hesitation or reservation I can recommend the Tomato Salad, Farmer's Salad (though mine had a feta substitute for the gorgonzola which contains gluten? Who knew!!), Oak-Fired Oh My God I Can't Believe It's So Good Rib Eye, and New York Strip Steak.
Artist Point - excellent as always, with a great server, Pok, who scratched Mr Wonderful's back when he could not reach his own itch, and made great fun out of the gluten free thing. Smoky Portobello Soup, Fresh Field Greens Salad, fantastic Cedar Planked Salad adapted perfectly for my dietary needs and cooked to perfection, Grilled Beef Tenderloin. That soup amazes me. I can't have it, but Mr Wonderful loves it so much that he remembers it the next day. This means it's really good!
Boma - Not-to-be-missed Carrot and Ginger soup, Chicken Salad with Cilantro Lime Vinagrette, Durban Spiced Roasted Chicken, and prime rib. One of two places that I had any dessert, I loved the flourless chocolate cake here, and Chef Donna was a repository of knowledge on things gluten free!
San Angel Inn - Margarita San Angel Inn, (top shelf, just because) is fantastic and fresh and fruity. Salsa is wonderful, the Sopa Azteca is great, Combinacion Cozumel and Mole Poblano are excellent as well.
Rose and Crown - not horrible but not anything to veer off course for. Fish and Chips were ok, the gluten-free baked fish and chips was nice and sided with fresh peas. Salads were very good. This was the one place where I felt like there was a lot of limitations in the Gluten Free department, and also the only place I got sick.
Le Cellier- If you can get a reservation, go for it! We've eaten here on every vacation but one, and loved it every time. Mixed field greens salads, one adapted to remove the bleu cheese, were both very good. 7 oz. Filet Mignon with maple barbeque glaze was very good, and I never touched a steak knife once during the meal, much like Yachtsman. Mr Wonderful had the Sauteed Shrimp as a change from the constant flow of beef. He enjoyed it in spite of his not being a pasta eater.
Akershus - A princess lunch with - on that occasion anyway - Aurora, Cinderella, Jasmine, Ariel and Snow White. Jasmine, Aurora, Snow White, and Ariel were very sweet and polite. Loved listening to and watching young princesses hug their heros. Loved the potato salad, smoked salmon, shrimp deviled eggs, and peppered mackeral. Had a gluten-free Pesto pasta with chicken that was very good, if a little scary (pasta? Are you sure....?), and the pan-seared trout was very good as well.
Garden Grill- a nice family style plattered meal with very fresh ingrediants. Some of the food comes from Living With The Land greenhouses which makes me happy, and the selection of organic wines made me feel good, too. Binged a bit on the really good snap peas (me) and flank steak (Mr. Wonderful), so much so that we disappointed our server by leaving no room for dessert. Chip, Dale, Mickey and Pluto, all huggy and lovable as always, Chip assisting with the wine selection and Mickey chastizing us for not saving room for dessert when informed by the server that we'd failed him. Great fun!
Hollywood and Vine Breakfast Buffet - We'd been here before, twice, when it was Goofy and pals at lunch and dinner. This was the only breakfast we had, and in the end replaced a planned lunch at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater. I almost married Chef Dan when he said I could have a waffle. It was good. So were my private hash browns. It was a good breakfast, filling, well-prepared. I loved the sausage and the ham - but then I am a bit of a meat freak - and the availability of fresh fruit always gets me joyful. The fritatta was excellent with fresh veggies and cheese, moist and not dry as some pre-cooked egg dishes can be. We saw Jo-Jo, Goliath and June, who flirted shamelessly with Mr. Wonderful, and made him turn all sorts of red.

You'll note that desserts are absent. With the portions being what they are, there's no question of dessert unless we split dinner.

And finally, for my husband, who will never let me live it down:
Yes, there IS a boat at MGM. I admit it. Boat. MGM Studios. Boat. MGM Studios. There.

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