Sunday, March 20, 2005

Southern Excursion

After nearly 5 years of being largely homebound, Teresa and I took a brief vacation together to Orlando at the beginning of this month. Ah, the joys of running your own business!

Following are some excerpts from my journal...

Yesterday we went to the Titanic Museum, or more properly the Titanic 'Experience', which houses a recreation of the Grand Staircase -- down to the inch -- as well as several berths, corridors, the main screw, etc. A tour took place, the first half of which was hosted by a third-class passenger, the second by John Jacob Astor himself.

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Entrance to Titanic Experience

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Teresa at the foot of the Grand Stairway

A nice feature is that one's admission ticket is a semi-reproduction of a passenger ticket from the fateful voyage itself. Included on it is biographical information about who 'you' are. In my case, it was 3rd-class passenger Ernst Ulrik Persson, aged 25, from Stockholm, Sweden. A chauffeur, he traveled with his sister Elna and niece Telma, and his wife and two children were to join him later (more can be read at the Encyclopedia Titanica).

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My ticket as Ernst Ulrik Persson

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A 1st Class stateroom

Coincidentally, during our tour -- consisting of about 35 people -- the guide asked who had Persson's ticket. When I identified myself, he pointed out some the recovered personal items of my doppleganger, which included ticket, receipt of some kind and suitcase (I mentioned to the guide that I was *sure* I'd purchased a 1st-class ticket). As I look at the brochure for the 'Experience', they also mention Captain Smith and Molly Brown as tour guides, but I guess they were vacationing themselves.

The tour took about an hour, filled with the expected facts and figures about the ship itself as well as descriptions of the events leading to, and following the collision with the iceberg.

In a semi-mockup of the bridge and helm, the description of the horrendous water and air temperature of that night were graphically -- and tactilely -- brought home by an iceberg model made of ice. We were asked to hold our palms against the model for a mere 15 seconds, which brought a modicum of understanding to us of the survivor's accounts of being frozen yet simultaneously feeling 'on fire'. How anyone survived the several hours until rescue is amazing.

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John Jacob Astor at the helm, standing before the recreated iceberg

A reconstruction of one of the typical life vests was on display, which contained a series of hand-sewn pockets, each of which held a block of hard cork for buoyancy. Passengers were advised not to jump into the ocean if the jump was more than 10 feet. Tragically, many were forced to jump from much greater heights and the reason behind the admonition became apparent -- although not to them -- as the force of impact would drive the vest up into the jaw, instantly snapping the neck. Apparently a great number of passengers perished in this manner, and all things considered, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise.

Throughout the tour, various sounds of shipboard life were played in the background, from the thrum of the engines, the blaring of the whistle, the yells and screams of the terrified passengers, and the music of the heroic musicians playing 'Nearer My God to Thee' as the ship was in its death throes.

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Teresa admires her new dress

Not unexpectedly, the final destination of the tour was to the gift shop, where my only temptation was a walking stick like that which Mr. Astor had sported. It unscrewed into three sections for easy storage, and additionally housed secret compartments containing a compass and a stoppered vial for a spirited libation after a strenuous walk.

My main interest actually was to show the proprietor (as our guides disappeared immediately upon completion of their duties) the fountain pen I'd especially chosen for the trip, and with which this journal account is written -- a Visconti Titanic! I explained to him how the clip represented the ship, locked into the immovable line of fate, inexorably headed toward the clip's jewel -- the iceberg. He seemed impressed but was perhaps only being polite.

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Barrel of the Visconti Titanic fountain pen

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Closeup of the clip showing the ship, the lines of fate, and the iceberg 'jewel'

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Arabian Nights

Monday night we drove to Kissimmee, to the Arabian Nights dinner theater. The show featured sixty horse (thirteen breeds) and about thirty human performers, with a story loosely based on Sheherazade (daughter of the Sultan in our story), who was to marry a prince -- with the help of a genii and a black stallion (allied to help keep her out of the clutches of an evil lord). The story line and display were focused on a five-year-old level, but the horsemanship was impressive.

For some reason we were seated in the 'preferred' section, right next to the 90,000 sq. ft. circular arena. The total cost, with a passable dinner (all the beer, wine coffee and soda you could drink) came to $90.00 for the two of us, and the show lasted about an hour and forty-five minutes.

It was particularly interesting for me to see after having just read The Man Who Listens to Horses by Monty Roberts, one the true 'horse whisperers', who trains horses through speaking their language -- which he dubbed Equus -- not through using fear, pain and intimidation. It was neat to be able to read some of the horses' body language (the vocabulary of Equus), such as chewing motions and ear position, which I would never have been aware of prior to reading the book. The horses were largely directed with slender poles and leads, and I saw only one instance of a spurred rider. Overall, they seemed to be well cared for and treated with respect. They seemed to want to perform and please, which is indicative of proper training.

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The Black Stallion, Sheherazade and the Prince

Mention is made in the Arabian Nights' brochure of 'Walter Farley's black stallion' -- a very impressive and talented performer during our show. Farley was the author of the famous children's book The Black Stallion, and many sequels. I'm not sure of the connection, other than perhaps use of the name in the show, although Farley lived in Florida and perhaps gave his blessing before his death in 1989.

Seating in the arena is for thirteen-hundred and it was near capacity on the night we attended. The gift shop, which I visited after the performance, was a madhouse. I perservered though, and purchased a commemorative mug with painted scenes from the show and Teresa emblazoned upon it, as a little extra for Teresa's birthday.

After the performance, the horses were released into the arena to frolic, roll around and generally cavort (much as I do after a strenuous display of talent). A number of audience members approached the rail to pet and feed the animals, at which point I noticed that there were little paper sticks on our table filled with sugar. How many hundreds of movies have depicted someone feeding sugar cubes to a horse as a treat or reward?

It seemed like a capital idea to empty a packet into my hand and do likewise. I bonded with several equine brethren in this manner and even persuaded Teresa to have her palm licked. It was only a bit later, as I was awaiting the chance to share the Monty Roberts story with one of the mounted riders -- a particularly attractive female one, naturally -- that I overheard another rider admonish someone not to give sugar to any of the horses, as their diets were closely monitored and some them were on medication!

As I was far from the only person to have the same bright idea -- and who naturally thought that this was why sugar was presented in such a convenient, measured manner -- the caretakers would have been well-advised to make a general announcement at the show's conclusion of this restriction, prior to allowing interaction between horse and human.

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The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum

Tuesday brought a trip to Winter Park and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. The museum is world-renowned for its collection of Tiffany, most impressively the Tiffany Chapel. The chapel was personally designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany for the World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893. Small in size (only 1,082 sq. ft., including the bapistry), it's a gorgeous, non-denominational creation of carved plaster, leaded glass, marble and glass mosaics. The 1000 lb. Electrolier, or electrified chandelier in the shape of a cross, is breathtaking.

After the World's Fair the chapel was first removed back to the Tiffany Glass and Decorating company in New York, but rested there for only about two years. It was purchased by a wealthy Chicago widow for installation in the still-under-construction Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York. It was to have been given a place of honor in the main church, but was actually installed in the basement crypt, where it languished for ten years, abandoned and deteriorating until 1916.

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Museum catalogs and the enameled red hat I purchased there

Tiffany saved it from destruction and had it reassembled at his Long Island estate -- Laurelton Hall. Extensive restoration was required for broken and missing pieces, but apparently Tiffany considered it one of his greatest achievements.

After his death in 1933, Laurelton Hall itself had many of its great treasures dispersed and suffered a tragic fire in 1957. Although housed in its own separate building, the chapel once again fell to neglect.

The founders of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum, Jeannette McKean and her husband Hugh, were able to again rescue the chapel from oblivion and have it transported to Winter Park. Finally, in 1996, the Museum's trustees installed the restored chapel in a new wing of the museum for preservation in perpetuity.

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The sign says it all!
After leaving the Morse Museum we drove around a bit through Winter Park to see some of the magnificent multimillion dollar homes, situated on winding, cobblestoned streets. Perhaps the highlight of the trip for me was the hour spent touring three of the lakes there...Lake Osceola and Lake Virginia are the two that come to mind, on the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour. It was one of the few opportunities to take a break from built-up and manmade Orlando and experience some wonders in the their natural state.

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Pontoon boat

Although the lakes are surrounded by homes, they're beautiful mansions which make an attempt in most cases to blend in to the environment. We were on an 18-person pontoon boat and due to the day of the week, time of day and slight chill to the air, the only watercraft. We really had the lakes to ourselves. These three are part of a seven-lake chain, joined together by winding canals -- originally manmade -- but now the most natural part of the system, having had 100 years or so for nature to reclaim the banks.

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a winding canal

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A lakeshore estate

We saw three-week-old egrets perched upon a lonely little tree a couple of hundred yards from shore, as well as a horned owl carefully marking our progress as we proceeded through one of the canals. Being a bit windy, one of the passengers lost his favorite baseball cap to the breeze, but we were able to turn about and retrieve it prior to its sinking.

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Three week old egrets nesting aloft

The guide filled us in on many of the surrounding mansions and schools, but I only half-listened as I enjoyed taking in the scenery. I never anticipated being attracted to Florida as a place to live but I could visualize suffering through the winters at one of these lakeside estates.

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One of the myriad boathouses on the lakes

Even though it was only an hour tour, it was nice to sit back and let someone else do the 'driving'. As I'm the designated chauffeur in the family, it's a rare treat to actually have a chance to look at something without having to simultaneously operate the conveyance!

Our final day -- Thursday -- was largely devoted to packing, checking out and waiting at the airport in Atlanta, as our original return flight had been cancelled and we needed to fly out of Orlando a bit after 4:00 P.M. instead of the originally scheduled 6:00 P.M. and change.

We did manage to fit in a rousing game of mini-golf while still on International Drive, punctuated periodically by an erupting volcano. The eruptions scared Teresa enough to allow me to squeak through with a victory.

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I also wanted to stop in a touristy gift store, as I had fond memories of doing so as a kid, when my parents took me on a trip to visit relatives in Jacksonville. I was thrilled to find that they had the save stuffed baby alligators and keychains I remembered from forty years before. I opted for the latter this time, having no doubt become more P.C. in my dotage.

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The giftstore haul, which included a 'fine' pen for Teresa, and a cheesy keychain for me

All-in-all a nice, short getaway, which already seems a distant memory.


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