Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ellen's Birthday ~ 3/17

I really didn't want to get up too terribly early on my birthday, but I knew that Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios would be crowded with spring breakers, so to be kind of in-betweeny we ended up getting to the park at around 10am.  (This time I listened carefully to make sure Greg locked the car.)

It was an absolutely gorgeous day, bright yellow sun and blue cloudless sky, with a high in the mid-80s.  We walked straight to IOA to pick up my passes at the Guest Services counter.

The nice Guest Services lady also gave me an "It's My Birthday" pin to wear, which netted me several Happy Birthdays from employees and random strangers, one employee in WWoHP singing Happy Birthday to me, and an unauthorized discount on one purchase (I won't specify, just in case it really was as unauthorized as he (or she!) said it was).

Having done advance research on crowd levels at WWoHP (the Orlando Informer site was particularly helpful) I knew that it would be at or near capacity and that we would probably be getting a return ticket.  My hope was that we'd get a return ticket for around lunch time, so we could have fish and chips at the Three Broomsticks.  We had to go there first and hope for the best, though, because once all the tickets were handed out, that was it for WWoHP for the day.

Sure enough, WWoHP was already closed off, but we got a return ticket for 12:40.  Sweet!

We wandered around IOA, taking pics and riding rides (I love the Spiderman ride).

At one point, a woman in the crowd randomly turned to Greg and asked if we wanted two Meal Deal tickets, she said they had two extra that they couldn't use.  Greg said sure, thanks!! and we went off to find out what the heck a Meal Deal ticket was.  A lady at a customer service dining kiosk took our two tickets and gave us both Meal Deal wristbands and a map showing the three restaurants where we could eat free.  Not surprisingly, Three Broomsticks was not included in the plan.  Still, pretty sweet!

At 12:30 we headed back to WWoHP.  Even with the restrictions, it was tremendously crowded inside. 

Even the stores had long lines to get inside. Hungry and getting hot, we went straight to the Three Broomsticks, only to discover there was an hour and a half wait.  Forget it, we decided to just go eat free somewhere else.  

My two big priorities were to get a frozen Butterbeer in the cute souvenir mug I'd regretted not getting last fall, and to do the walk-through tour of Hogwarts.  We made our way through the crowd to Hogwarts and explained we just wanted to do the tour and not the ride, but somehow once inside we ended up getting in the wrong queue and suddenly we were trapped in the middle of a tightly crowded area.  We managed to get out and thought we were back on track but then once again ended up squeezed in with a group inside a small confined room, and Greg's claustrophobia kicked in.  Looking for an exit, he went out through a small metal gate outside, and whew! we were out of the crushing crowd.

But then I looked up, and realized we were not just out of Hogwarts, we had come out in a whole different part of the park.  We were no longer in the Wizarding World at all, we were not even anywhere near the entrance.  We had had to give up our ticket to the WWoHP when we went in, so we had nothing, and no way to get back in.

I panicked a little.  Should we go back and try to get another ticket for later in the day?  What if they had already given out all the tickets, and we were too late?   We wandered away, trying to decide what to do.  I'm only slightly embarrassed to admit that I got a wee bit teary.

Greg, seeing my eyes well up, went into Save Ellen's Birthday mode and grabbed my hand.  Leading me back to the place where we'd exited, he pried open the metal gate and in we went.  He walked straight up to an employee standing nearby and explained how we'd gotten lost and then accidentally ended up going out the wrong exit, and she led us back into the main area and put us in the correct queue.  The next thing I know we are in the deserted "tour only" line, standing in the Portrait Gallery.  Whew!

After a leisurely walk through Hogwarts, we bypassed the extremely long lines of people standing in the hot sun to buy Butterbeer and ducked into the Hog's Head pub.  We waited for a few minutes behind a half-dozen people, but clearly it is not general knowlege that you can buy Butterbeer there.  We had a nice wait in the cool pub, looking through at the attached Three Broomsticks restaurant (glad we didn't wait for it, it looked uncomfortably crowded), then bought my frozen Butterbeer with the adorable souvenir mug.

We just stood inside the main gate for a while, looking around.  The Wizarding World still amazed me.  Not only is it so perfect in every detail, not only is it all about being an actual representation of Hogsmeade/Hogwarts (as opposed to being all about the characters, with costumed Harry Potters and Voldemorts walking around, which would be so cheesy and lame), not only is it just so realistic that it literally takes my breath away, but it is all a physical representation of a book.  I love books, and I love the fact that some people loved some books so much that they actually built them, physically.  Imagine such a thing.  It's beautiful.  :)

So we left.  We found one of the Meal Deal restaurants and had an extremely mediocre but free lunch. 

After lunch we walked to Universal Studios and spent a lovely afternoon wandering around and drinking lemonade.

Overall, I had a great birthday!  :)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ellen's Birthday Eve ~ 3/16

Bread making day!  Having purchased such foreign items as packets of dry yeast, Crisco and whole milk, I was ready to go.  I read over the recipe several times in advance to make sure I was familiar with all the steps, and gathered up all my ingredients.

I scalded the milk (after figuring out what the heck "scalded" meant), added the yeast to warm water, stirred in sugar and salt and vegetable shortening and flour until it was not sticky, and then I kneaded it for 10 minutes.  Kneading is surprisingly hard work, but it was also fun, in my nice warm sunny kitchen that smelled like yeast.  Folding and squeezing and shaping the soft dough brought back memories of making the bread in my neighbor's kitchen when I was little.
I put the dough in a big bowl, covered it with a clean dishtowel and put it on top of the referigerator to rise.
After an hour, it really HAD doubled in size.  Neat!  It was actually working!   

I punched it down, according to directions, and kneaded it again for five minutes, then back in the bowl and back up on the fridge.
After another hour, it had risen again.  I punched it down, kneaded for another five minutes, then separated it into two equal parts and put them into my loaf pans.  Back onto the fridge under the dishtowel.
After yet another hour (this deal sure is time-consuming) they had risen again.  I put them in my pre-heated oven, and 30 minutes later called Greg into the kitchen for the big reveal.
They came out of the oven looking brown and smelling wonderful, but they looked weird; kind of lumpy and not as smooth and beautiful as I remember my neighbor's loaves were.  I tipped them easily onto the cooling rack and spread a little butter on top, as directed by the recipe.
After letting them cool for what seemed like a ridiculously long time but was actually less than 30 minutes, I cut them open and...

That is not what they are supposed to look like, ideally.  They tasted wonderful and were cooked perfectly, but they were way too dense.  What went wrong?  After some internet reasearch, I realized that when the recipe instructed me to punch the dough down after rising, it should not have been kneaded again.  And then again.  Apparently, the punching itself actually needs to be GENTLE.  Gentle punching!  I overworked the poor dough, and kneaded all the fluffiness out of it.  Still, the yumminess that I remembered was there.
I am going to try again soon, possibly this weekend, and hope for fluffy and yummy perfection!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy Mardi Gras

In 1990 (I think?) I went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and I got the prized Zulu coconut.  And I did not show my boobs to get it.  (Although, I have to say, my boobs were and still are pretty cute, and would certainly have deserved a Zulu coconut.)

We were right by the parade route, way out in a suburb where the parade started (much bigger crowds later in the afternoon in actual New Orleans).  This was my first day and very first parade, and I was SHOCKED at how huge, how elaborate, and how amazing it all was.  The first few floats floated by slowly, and the music started, and then suddenly right in front of me was this huge man all decorated with beads and feathers and then the DRUM started, right behind him and it was REALLY loud, the kind you can feel pulsing in your internal organs, and he started dancing and waving his huge headdress around to the beat and it was, literally, one of those moments in my life where every aspect comes together for one dazzling second that is better and more perfect than should be possible.  Top ten magical moments in my whole life, seriously.

I was goggling, mouth hanging open, and the guy on the back of the float laughed at me. I saw him holding a coconut with ZULU painted on it in multicolored glitter.  I pointed at the coconut, and he mimed pulling up his shirt, and I made a sad face and shook my head, and he laughed again and tossed me the coconut.

He was probably less than 6 feet away from me.  I found out later that one of the reasons the coconut is rare is that they are not allowed to throw it, as it could hurt someone.

I sure wish I still had the actual coconut.  I had it for years, but apparently they are perishable...