I woke up when Scott got up with Kaitlyn, and said a little prayer of thanks for not having kids. My first priority for the day was coffee, and since we weren’t going to Disney, I had to find it elsewhere. I called 1-800-STARBUCKS, and the computer voice was pleased to tell me the nearest location, five miles up I-4. This was perhaps a little shocking to me, since if you stand on the front steps of my house and throw a rock, you are almost guaranteed to hit a barista. But the south, well, it’s the South.
It ended up being at the Marriott resort, which is apparently the place to stay if you’re a golfer. I parked illegally and got myself a couple big Americanos, and headed back towards the resort. On the way there, I managed to get lost; I took the 192 exit, but going the wrong way (the sign says ‘Celebration/Kissimmee’, which is where the hotel is located, but you’re supposed to go the other direction instead). But this ended up being a good thing, because I quickly realized what I had found: Celebration, Florida: the friendliest planned community in America.
Celebration was created by Disney. It scares me, because it’s one of those places where people go when they want to escape reality, and possibly non-white people. I admit I have an extremely perverse fascination with it. I want to go there and do bad things. I want to frighten the residents. Barring that, I wanted to wander around and absorb the freakishness of a community based on everything I think is boring. Obviously, I was more than thrilled to realize how close Celebration was to the hotel, and I intended to go back and explore as soon as possible.
Back at the resort, I sat on the patio and wrote postcards to mail from Celebration. Alex showed up from Miami, and got to meet the members of the family he hadn’t met before: Scott (the Forgotten Ripley), Ali, and Kaitie. While we sat outside and talked, I turned and saw Kaitie standing at the patio door, menacing me. She stood there for a good ten minutes, giving me the look, wearing my Mardi Gras beads. We decided to go to lunch at the same restaurant we had eaten at in Miami, and then they dropped me off back at the resort and headed to SeaWorld.
I found myself alone in the condo. Alone in the condo. On vacation. This was a big deal to me. So I chilled. Wrote more postcards. Scribbled in the travel journal. Read the AAA guide to see what I might be missing, just in case there were actually non-Disney attractions worth seeing in Orlando. And there was something: Splendid China. I had read rumors on Roadside America that it had closed, and my phonecall confirmed it: not only had it shut down, but it shut down on January 1st. I was 17 days too late.
I called Alina, and she came to pick me up. I walked into the parking lot, and saw the crime scene van parked sideways, waiting for me. I knew that it was probably going to be the best day of my life.
We had decided to check out Celebration, so we drove over and found the downtown. I couldn’t believe the place. It was all manicured lawns, curved, tree-lined streets, and perfect homes. Celebration has its own hospital, office buildings, and school. It was so very Disney, completely engineered and creepy. The office buildings were so clean and new that I thought they were unoccupied until I saw a woman standing out front. I figured she was smoking, but then realized that people in Celebration disappear in the middle of the night for infractions like that. She was talking on her cell. I’ll bet you $10 it had a Mickey faceplate.
Alina parked the crime scene van on the street in downtown, and we got out to take a closer look. She was instantly swarmed by old folks, who first wanted to know if a crime had occurred, and second, wanted to tell her how much they liked that show. She was surprisingly nice to them for someone who hears that about a hundred times a day. Oh, and I should mention that the old folks were all hanging out in rocking chairs by the edge of a fake lake. Yes, the town supplies its citizens with rocking chairs.
I was surprised at the number of cars around in Celebration. It’s one of those places where you expect everyone to ride a bike. But the streets were packed with parked vehicles, which indicates to me that the happiest homes in the country do not come with garages. There was a lot of alternate transportation as well, though. People were riding Segways all over the place. We even saw a guy with his legs cut off mid-thigh riding a modified Segway, towing another Segway behind him. Also, people drove funny electric golf carts. In place of pedestrian-crossing signs, they had vehicle-crossing signs showing a fat guy in a golf cart. In the downtown, you could pay $2 to ride the train, which Alina pointed out came complete with a big pile of fake plastic coal in the back. In case you’re there, you can catch it at the corner by Happy Face Face Painting.
(Holy crap, I just now noticed that the train was a modified golf cart, too.)
We stopped at Barnie’s Coffee. I was excited that they had cortaditos on the menu, and asked if they could make it sugar-free. They said yeah, but it was basically just a macchiato. I told them to call it a cortadito anyway. We joked with one of their employees about how weird Celebration was, and he agreed. Then he went on to tell us that he was going to crack one day and starting taking people out sniper-style. Because he was from Virginia. Um, right. We left.
Then I found something I think you should buy me: a Hello Kitty bike.
We walked around and peered at the post-Xmas craftsy junk for sale on sidewalk tables. Celebration has a bunch of crappy galleries, a gourmet grocery, a few restaurants, a movie theatre that appeared to only be playing Disney movies, and a post office, where we stopped to drop off my postcards. Near the post office, I finally had proof of what I had up til then only suspected: Celebration does, in fact, have a bad crowd. Look at ’em, the disrespectful punks.
On the way out of Celebration, we missed a turn and ended up on a road lined with houses under construction, which then abruptly dead-ended into a swamp. I’m assuming it was the Artisan Park that the billboard along 192 advertised as ‘the last great neighborhood in Celebration’ (the other ones have apparently been overrun by the aforementioned punks). We didn’t linger.
Our next stop was the only thing that could possibly top Celebration: the crime lab. Alina had promised me a tour. On the way there, she gave me an Orange County Sheriff’s Department t-shirt, which I’m wearing every day, as it will undoubtedly get me out of speeding tickets.
The crime lab was kind of amazing. If I watched more TV, I’d probably have a better sense of how high-tech crime scene investigation is nowadays, but I was blown away. As far as I could tell, there were about 500 different ways to find and retrieve fingerprints, and you had to know exactly what you were doing. Alina said that it was one of the most technologically advanced crime labs in the country, and I believed it. I’d describe everything I saw, but I’m sure I’d get it all wrong and just sound stupid. In the garage, I saw a car that was covered in dust for fingerprints. I saw the little closets where they hang gory clothes and such to dry out, and heard probably the most horrifying maggot-infestation story ever. I saw the refrigerator where until recently they had been storing a bucketful of hands. Alina seemed a little disappointed to not be able to show them to me. I was fine with that, really. Then she opened the freezer, which was also empty, and announced, ‘Wow, it smells bad in there!’ I clamped my hand over my nose and ran.
I saw a cubicle full of skulls. Not real ones, but one of the officers there had a bit of an obsession. I saw the ballistics expert and sketch artists’ offices, and a huge photo lab. The bathroom was unexpectedly homey, with a cute shower curtain and flowers on the wall. I think the thing that stuck with me the most was knowing how morbid and depressed I’d be if I had to deal with that stuff on a daily basis, and yet everyone I met from the sheriff’s department was so nice. It’s awesome.
Alina and I stopped to get coffee and talk while we waited for Heather and Alex to drive up and meet us for dinner. It was an internet reunion of sorts, since we met both of them on Email Roulette. We ate at a burrito place, and I laughed so hard my stomach hurt the next day. After dinner, Alina gave us a tour of the crime scene van. We stood in the parking lot outside the coffeeshop, with passers-by peering suspiciously at us as they drove past. Alex put a huge thumbprint on the van and demanded that Alina dust it. We cheered and jumped up and down like a bunch of kids while she did.
We said good night to Alina, and Alex drove us back to the resort, then drove a hundred miles an hour all the way home to Miami. Good thing he didn’t get pulled over, because he didn’t have a sheriff’s department tshirt like I did.
That night, I drove over to the Marketplace store down the road to get pop (you call it ‘soda’), which used to be a crappy old Winn-Dixie decorated with pagodas and Chinese dragons. I noticed a bunch of Chinese restaurants nearby, too, and didn’t realize until I saw the sign what the deal was: I was staying less than a mile away from the now-defunct Spendid China. I drove past it a couple times, looking to see if there was a way I could possibly sneak in and avoid detection. I decided to wait and try to convince an accomplice to go with me.