Archive for October, 2008

Maitland Art Center

October 28, 2008

Maitland Art Center

Maitland Art Center

Amber’s Montessori School asked Mrs. LanceAround and I if we could help drive the students on a field trip to the Maitland Art Center. Since Grammy is visiting us for only two more days, we thought she would really enjoy having a day with her granddaughter and her school friends.  The purpose of the trip was to see an exhibition of Puerto Rican Carnival Masks.

I love art centers. Yet, sometimes little hole-in-the-wall art centers can be tedious. A display of Puerto Rican masks did not sound very enticing. At times like these, I try to remember the words from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream—“Never anything can be amiss, when simpleness and duty tender it.” Hmmm, didn’t work. I prepare for a boring morning.

Luckily, I was able to distract myself from the impending boredom.  Grafton, one of the students I am driving, forgot to buckle his seatbelt upon our departure so I was able to spend the forty-five minute drive to the art center consumed by a hilarious, witty, yet poignant lecture to Grafton, in front of his friends, about seatbelts and safety.  (My insightful exposé is further enhanced when we exit the van and a police officer serendipitously comes by with her windows down.  I pretend that she was summoned at my beckoning and the officer gleefully plays along and gives Grafton a further lecture on the value of wearing one’s seatbelt.)

I believe I am being ingenious and erudite.  My daughter just thinks I embarass myself.

Towards the end of our trip, as we turn onto Packwood Avenue in Maitland and bob along the narrow red brick road, I notice a large, wall-enclosed area on both sides of the road dotted with the most beautiful and tranquil Spanish style cottages decorated with Aztec and Mayan sculptures and bas relief cement blocks. This is my first clue that I could be wrong about my preconceptions of this day.

It would only get better.

The education begins when the 25 students ranging in age from 8 to 14 gather in a small outdoor theatre adorned with Hispanic carvings of various catholic symbols. The speaker is Nancy Rosado, a local aspiring artist who was born in Puerto Rico and spent 25 years in the NYC police force. She gives a short history of Puerto Rican culture and influences, including the many religious festivities, leading up to the fusion of Spanish, African, and Caribbean folk art tradition of masks and costumes. Although the talk was interesting and just the right length for such a young audience, I was musing on the inscription on the threshold of the theatre entrance that said something like, “Let your thoughts focus in a tranquil moment of love.” I know that is not exactly the correct quote, but in that small outdoor theatre adorned by Hispanic symbolism and covered by a canvas of ancient oaks dripping with Spanish moss, I was too focused on “being” rather than “thinking and remembering.”

The Masks

The Masks

Yet, It would only get better.

The main gallery of the art center displayed the most fantastic masks, paintings, costumes, and educational displays of how the art was made. I was mesmerized. So were the students. Small notebooks whipped out as the students took notes. Pictures were taken and you could see young minds at the height of engagement as they quietly and eagerly whispered and pointed at the displays.

Still, it would get even better.

Our guide for the day had prepared blank miniature masks made of acorns for the students to use to create their own works of art. We left the gallery and walked through an ancient, artistic gate, to an inner courtyard. Here, old brick walkways meandered around fountains with colorful, floating sculptures, past more gated archways weaving in and out of small Spanish-style cottages with bright red tiled roofs. In two of these were tables, chairs, small masks, and art supplies. The students quickly and eagerly went to work.

Mrs LanceAround and I took a stroll through the rest of the courtyard. I wish I were a good enough writer to convey the feeling. I wish I were a good enough photographer to capture the mood. Suffice it to say, that simply being in that environment inspired an artistic side of myself that has sat dormant too long. The courtyard complex was dotted with places to sit, nooks and crannies, sculptures, water features, intricately designed gates, brick paths, beautiful landscaping, small artistically designed buildings. There were studios (both indoors and out), areas to do welding, ovens to fire works of art, occasional containers of art supplies of various kinds. Every now and again we would happen upon someone engaged in work. Was it administrative? Artistic? Contemplative? We did not know, but we knew enough to not disturb. At one end of the courtyard was a very large lake. The entire area was, in itself, a fine work of art.

Literature at the center informs us that the Maitland Art Center was founded in 1937 by Jules Andre Smith with an additional gift from Mary Curtis Bok (later Mrs. Efram Zimbalist, Sr.) Normally, I like to research and post more detailed information about the topic of my blog. However, there is something about the Maitland Art Center that is calling to me to not focus on the history or factual. I will only report that in 1982 it was entered on the National Register of Historic Places and one critic has called it one of the “important examples of Fantastic architecture in America,” whatever that means.

It is a place designed for experience. Look at the photos, as imperfect as they are, and then close your eyes and imagine yourself here. If you want to know what the Maitland Art Center is really about, when your eyes are closed, imagine the most artistic experience you can. That is what the Maitland Art Center is all about. “But, “ you might ask, “How can I know that I got it right?” Like the wise sensei from the movie, The Karate Kid, I can only paraphrase, “If it comes from within you, it can’t be wrong.”

That is the Maitland Art Center. Definitely off-the-beaten-path and a Must See for the well informed traveler looking for More Than a Mouse™.

Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) Re-visited

October 18, 2008

The life of my Office Manager, Anne, is in a state of transition.  Several months ago, she began a new phase in her life by selling a business she owned and agreeing to take over the Office Manager responsibilities at Dream Homes.  Anne is doing so much better managing the office than I ever did.  For the first time, things are really organized, the homes are looking great, and the office is running like a well oiled machine.  We are so fortunate to have her.

I invited her to write a guest blog for me.  She enjoyed it so much, she decided to write another one.  So now she is reinventing her life again by learning a fun new skill–blogging!  Earlier, I posted a blog giving an overview of HHN, Anne now weighs in with her first blog which is her personal experience of HHN on Saturday night.

I hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoy Anne.


Halloween Horror Nights

So this was my first time! The prospect of encountering Bloody Mary [ed note:  The main theme character of this year’s HHN] was making me anxious, the knot in my stomach was driving me crazy.

I ordered tickets online and so after entering the security check point we waited in line to get to the electronic ticketing. This was to be the first of many lines!

The transformation of the park is quite incredible; dark and smokey, eerie sounds and sights. There are people flying above your head, skimming the air above you. Monsters and ghouls in the crowds are milling around you. The makeup and special effects are outstanding.

We went on Saturday, it was shoulder to shoulder busy. The first house was at least a 90 minute wait. Once inside the screams from terrified people rang out throughout the building. We walked single file one before another. The only downside to this is you can prepare for the scares ahead but there are still some that slip though and make you jump out of your skin.

The “scares zones” are themed and again very good. Some of the supposedly still creatures are real and jump you as you pass. Blood and gore are in great supply!

Our longest wait was for “Reflections of Fear” 120 minutes. By now it’s midnight and we are tired but the crowd is still upbeat.  There is the occasional moment due to too much alcohol. [ed. note:  Anne swears she was referring to “other people” when she wrote that!] It is hot and sticky but we make it through and face our fear.  The house is very good and I screamed a couple of times when I was caught unaware.

All in all a very entertaining night. Next time I would probably go on a quieter night so could see more of the houses.

Editor’s Note:  Come back later to read Anne’s blog about her experiences at the Discovery Cove attraction and Miami Dolphin’s football game.  Please post a comment to let her know your thoughts about what she has written.  LanceAround

T-Rex Cafe Restaurant at Downtown Disney

October 15, 2008
Lines on Opening Day at T-Rex Cafe

Lines on Opening Day at T-Rex Cafe

Grammy (my mom) flew down from Pennsylvania today to spend a week with us.  Our number one son, Brandon, told us he wanted to take her to the new T-Rex Cafe–A dinosaur themed restaurant in Downtown Disney holding its grand opening today.  We called them at 4:22pm to see if they were open.  They informed us that they opened at 4:00pm for the first time.  When I asked if they were taking reservations, they said no and that the line was currently wrapped all the way around the side of building.

So off we went to explore this newest feature at Disney.  True to their word, the line was wrapped around one side of the building and we were informed that the wait was 35 minutes to an hour.  Mrs. LanceAround and Amber held our place in line while Grammy, Brandon and I went exploring the front of the restaurant.

Before we even reached the inside of the restaurant, our immediate thought was that it looked just like a Rainforest Cafe.  There was a large, dinosaur-head shaped podium informing those waiting that “Your expedition is about to begin.”  [At Rainforest Cafe the line is, “Your safari is about to begin.]  To your right, there is a store that features all manner of dinosaur themed clothing, games and memorabilia.  To the left was the cafe.  Sure enough, our research uncovered that the cafe was owned by Landrys–The same company that owns Rainforest Cafe.

The restaurant is loaded with audio-animatronic dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes.  They are enhanced with creative lighting and fog effects.  There are several major room areas, each with a different theme.

The bar is located under a giant octopus whose tentacles wiggle and whose eyes roll.  There are large fish tanks around and wondrous jellyfish overhead.  Tables are spread around other areas in a cave like environment with dinosaurs that sway their head from side to side.  Fossilized bones and geodes adorn many walls, including the restrooms.  (Well, at least the “He-Rex” bathroom, I can’t speak for the “She-Rex” bathroom.)

Ice Cave at T-Rex Cafe

Ice Cave at T-Rex Cafe

One area is themed as an ice cave.  The eerie ice-like walls become even spookier every 20 minutes or so as the entire restaurant comes alive when a “meteor shower” rocks the restaurant and the ice cave walls change from milky ice-white to ice-blue, to pink, to purple.  Photos that Brandon took during this time have a very Andy Warhol feel about them.  The lights dim, the sky shimmers, meteors streak across the ceiling and crash into one another as planets explode.

While the interior was impressive, I was apprehensive about the meal.  I used to enjoy Rainforest Cafe, but in the past few years the quality of their food has gone downhill.  While waiting in line at T-Rex, I grabbed a menu and looked it over.  I was dismayed.  Vegetarian options were few and they seemed to go out of their way to promote products such as Reese’s Peanut Butter Smoothies and other well known brands of dubious quality.  The line greeter assured me that once inside, the chef (who they called either the “fire tender” or the “fire chef” and who works in the “kitchen of fire”) would come out and let us know which menu items could be prepared vegetarian.  While waiting, two different people walked past the line and informed us, without being asked, that it was worth the wait.

Again, true to their word, the wait was only about 40 minutes and the chef was at our table helping us to select some vegetarian entrees.  For appetizers, we ordered the flat bread pizza (sans chicken), onion rings, eggplant bruschetta, and waffle fries.  For entrees, we got tortellini (one with Alfredo and one with pomodoro sauce), mushroom ravioli, linguine with nothing but Parmesan (Amber’s personal favorite) oh, and a big, well done burger for our carnivorous Grammy.  We also got three smoothies and two sodas.

The waiter was very pleasant, although he did not seem to listen very attentively.  The rest of the staff was very attentive.  We had at least five different employees stop by our table to check on us.  At this point, the only noticeable annoyance was the sheer cacophony of noise stemming from the drum beat music, the din of other diners, the bustle of the wait staff and an acoustically poor design that made it impossible for me to converse with my mom sitting at the other end of the table.

The drinks came (without the water we ordered).  After getting another staff  member to attend to the water, we discussed the pending meal.  Mrs. LanceAround was warning me to not be too negative as I was getting hungry and grouchy and preparing myself for a bad experience.  I told her that the fact that the chef did not even know the ingredients for the batter on the onion rings (whether or not they were vegetarian) meant that they were not prepared fresh.  For entree items priced from $12 to $25 dollars, I argued that at those prices the wait staff should know all the ingredients.  She reminded me that the prices had much more to do with the elaborately themed interior and the restaurant was, at best, casual.

Waiting on Dinner

Mrs. LanceAround, Grammy and Amber React to the Meteor Shower

Our discussion was interrupted by the arrival of pizza, onion rings, bruschetta and fries.  One bite of the bruschetta and Mrs. LanceAround was happily munching away with an expression of “I told you so” and a reminder that I had to blog about the balsamic glaze sprinkled over the pizza and bruschetta that was out of this world.  The flatbread pizza was superb–Goat cheese and fresh basil enhanced by the drizzle of balsamic created a very pleasant flavor.  The onion rings that I had talked myself into dreading were also the best I had eaten in a long time.  Things were looking up!

By the end of the appetizers, we were all pretty full.  Had we stopped at that point, the meal would have been satisfying, delicious, and somewhat reasonably priced.  But the entrees soon arrived to relatively positive but somewhat mixed reviews.  Once again, the waiter’s inattentiveness was evident as Amber was given the wrong entree.  Brandon enjoyed his tortellini with Alfredo sauce.  Mrs. LanceAround also loved her pomodoro tortellini and I had mixed emotions about the mushroom ravioli.  Was it really just average or was I just overfull?  Grammy was clearly disappointed with her burger, saying the bun was too hard and the onion ring placed on top of the burger (dramatically presented with a knife sticking like Macbeth’s dagger through the top of the bun, past the onion ring and into the belly of the burger) was not desirable.  Amber perked up noticeably when her linguine finally arrived.  The Parmesan shavings interlaced throughout the pasta was a nice touch.

We had intended to order the Chocolate Extinction dessert–An impressively presented tray of chocolate brownies, ice cream and the creme de la creme smoldering volcanic glass in the center with who-knows-what creating a mist arising from the glass.  Alas, we were too full, so I gave my credit card to the waiter and asked him to go ahead and run the bill.  Another mistake.

When the credit slip arrived the amount of $175 for the five of us seemed excessive.  I double checked the bill and noticed that we were charged $10.99 for each smoothie that was advertised at $5.99 and Amber was charged for the rigatoni dish she did not order but that they prepared for her.  I spoke to the waiter and he called over the manager.  They were nice for the most part, but when they explained that the smoothie charge was for the T-Rex smoothie glasses that we get to take home, I informed him that we did not order that.  His curt reply of, “well then you can’t take them with you” did not come from a contemporary customer service manual.  We informed him that we were happy to not have the glasses and after a prolonged wait our bill was reduced by $28.  Again, except for the initial reaction from the manager, our concerns were all responded to graciously.

LanceAround Kissing a Dinosaur

Crazy Diner Kissing a Dinosaur at T-Rex Cafe

Overall, the atmosphere was fantastic.  Kids, particularly, will love this venue.  The food was mixed–From acceptable to excellent.  The price was reasonable for the venue.  The staff was friendly and attentive.  And, most importantly, the experience was unique and enjoyable.  If you are on a budget, you don’t need to overindulge–A trip to the bar for a shared smoothie or a meal of only appetizers will leave you feeling satisfied and you get all the enjoyment of the venue.  But for a special night out, particularly with the kids, this will be a nice addition to the Orlando offerings.

—–***** 5 out of 10 stars for food

–******** 8 out of 10 stars for atmosphere

—*******  7 out of 10 stars for service

—*******  7 out of 10 stars overall

Spook Hill in Lake Wales, Florida

October 6, 2008
Spook Hill Sign

Spook Hill Sign

Several years ago, before my three teenagers were, well, teenagers, we took a trip to what was then called The Bok Tower(now called the Bok Tower Gardens or Historic Bok Sanctuary) in Lake Wales. It a wonderful place and worthy of a post all by itself. However, as I said, I had three little kids–Not teenagers–So we HAD to take a side trip just down the road to Spook Hill.

Since Halloween is just around the corner, it seems appropriate to mention this piffle anomaly.

Spook Hill is a “gravity hill” also sometimes known as a “magnetic hill,” “mystery hill,” or “gravity road.” Simply put, it is an optical illusion that can make it appear as though objects are rolling uphill. Wikipedia states that there are hundreds of such locations throughout the world and that they are caused by an obstructed horizon with a combination of factors that can make it appear as though a downward slope is an upward slope. Tour guides at these places may try to convince you that surreal or paranormal activity is at work. Not to be a killjoy–but don’t believe them. Give them a good tip only if they spin an amusing yarn.

We had seen a TV special about Spook Hill on some national TV show. It even appears on some maps of the area and was once mentioned in the Wall Street Journal. When searching for it in Lake Wales, we relied on small signs, definitely off-the-beaten-path, that pointed out where to make turns. If memory serves, we went off on several wild goose chases before finding Spook Hill. While researching this post, I found several other blogs indicating that, indeed, one of the signs for Spook Hill has gone missing. Once there, however, the large white sign left no doubt we were in the right place.

The sign gave specific instructions. You pull up to a white line in the road, place your car in neutral, and viola–Your car appears to drift backward “up” the hill. My young daughter got to sit in my lap in the driver’s seat and steer the car. What a thrill for her. My two boys found it amusing–For about a minute. As for me, I kept looking at the ordinary homes on both sides of the road and wondered how they felt about this peculiar tourist destination, literally, in their front yard. The entrepreneur in me wondered why the neighborhood kids didn’t have lemonade stands by the side of the road.

To me, however, the most fascinating aspect of this “attraction” is the significance of it within the community. The Elementary School nearby is named “Spook Hill Elementary” and they have even adopted “Casper, the Friendly Ghost” as their mascot. In addition, the sign by the attraction speaks of a legendary Indian chief, a battle with an alligator, and a belief by the early pioneers that this place was haunted.  Unfortunately, the “illusion” never quite worked for me.

After reviewing this post, my wife chided me.  She said that she remember that the kids loved Spook Hill.  For her, the illusion worked perfectly and she found it fascinating.  She was worried that this post sounded like it was belittling the experience.  She found Spook Hill to be simple, but special.  She would encourage you to go, especially if you have small kids.

Should you visit Spook Hill. Sure, why not. But not for the attraction. Visit it for the unique experience of how so minor a thing can garner such attention. Visit it for no more than five minutes. But, most importantly, visit it on your way to or from the Bok Tower Gardens.

Where is Central Florida and the I-4 Corridor?

October 1, 2008

Election season is upon us. A lot of attention is being paid to the “swing state” of Florida. Often, you will hear pundits refer to “the I-4 corridor” in Florida. But what do they mean?

Interstate 4 traverses the center of Florida from Daytona Beach on the East Coast to Tampa on the Gulf Coast. Along the way, it travels straight through Orlando and, in a quirk of engineering, actually heads due north and south through downtown Orlando (even though it is an East-West Interstate.) Rumor has it that Walt Disney had an impact on the exact placement of the interstate as it was built to travel right beside Disney World.

Interesting Aside: Do you know that our national interstate system has a very specific numeric system? The interstate concept was developed by the Eisenhower Administration as both an efficient means of travel as well as an important component of our national defense. Many people do not realize that all even numbered interstates run primarily East-West while odd numbered ones run primarily North-South. When an interstate has three digits, like I-295, if the first digit is even it indicates that it is a route around a populous area that Interstate 95 runs through. If the first number is odd, it indicates that it is a spur from the Interstate directly into the populous area. Forgive my rambling, but I love reading and interpreting information on maps!

Interstate 4 straddles one of the fastest growing sections of Florida–An area that has seen explosive growth, especially in the high tech industry. Also, an area that is more likely to tip in the Republicans favor during an election. This is the I-4 Corridor.

Another aside: Did you know that Disney’s town of Celebration could be directly responsible for the election of George W. Bush as president? Remember, this town did not exist in 1996. By the year 2000, it had several thousand residents–Many from outside the state of Florida. It is not unusual for 90% of Celebration to vote Republican. And since election results show that W. won the national election by getting Florida’s electoral delegates with less than a 1000 vote advantage in the state of Florida, I believe that one can safely surmise that if Disney World had not created the town of Celebration, Al Gore would have been elected president in 2000.

Celebration, FL

Celebration, FL

I am mentioning this in my blog not only because of the election, but also because I learned something interesting this past week. My business, # 1 Dream Homes, Inc., provides vacation homes to guests who are traveling to Disney World and all the other attractions of Central Florida. My office is located just a mile off Exit 64 of I-4, right beside Disney World. A large part of my advertising is focused on these attractions. This entire blog is focused on these attractions–From the big (major theme parks) to the Off-the-Beaten Path (Ever hear of Spook Hill in Lake Wales, FL?)

To me, Central Florida has always meant this attraction-packed area within a few miles of Orlando. Daytona Beach is 45 minutes away and a place where teenagers hang out during spring break. Tampa is 55 minutes away in the other direction and a place where the upper class enjoy the pristine gulf coast beaches and art milieu of Sarasota. Until this week, I would not have considered either of these areas as part of “Central Florida.” Indeed, even the Florida tourism arm–Visit Florida–Puts a circle on the map around the area of Orlando and refers to it as “Central” while Daytona is part of the Atlantic Beaches in “Central East” and Tampa part of the Gulf Beaches in “Central West.”

But during an industry meeting of Vacation Homes professionals this week, the Kissimmee Convention and Visitors Bureau revealed that when our guests think of “Central Florida” they think of the entire midsection of the state–From the Atlantic Coast to the Gulf Coast. In other words, “Where is Central Florida?” to our guests, it is the entire I-4 Corridor and surrounding attractions AND Altantic and Gulf Coast Beaches.

Daytona Beach Sunrise

Daytona Beach Sunrise

When I expressed surprise at this, arguing that the beaches were a long way from my vacation homes, the response made sense. They may seem a long way for me, but for someone from Chicago or Atlanta or Iowa, they are merely a 45 minute drive. Normally, it would take a guest from one of these places over a day of travel to get to a beach from their home!

So now I am expanding my horizons. I will not only focus on the Orlando Area of Central Florida with both my business and this blog. I will blog about the beaches. I will blog about the Tampa Theatre, the Dali Museum in St. Pete, the art scene in Sarasota. I will blog about Spring Break at Daytona Beach, Bike Week, Reunion Week, and the Crystal River. I may even blog about the Everglades, the Coral Castle, Robert is Here Fruit Stand, and other points on the Redland Trail in South Florida. Wow, we really are expanding!

Where is Central Florida? Well, it is a larger place than I realized it was!

My name is LanceAround and I approved this blog post.