Gatherings & Celebrations: A Birthday Party at Disney World - #107

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The first people  to make a really big deal out of the birthday were the ancient Romans. Each Roman had a favorite god.  Each god had their own temple. Every year on the anniversary of the opening day of that god’s temple, you held a birthday party.  Eventually the idea of a “favorite god” became a “patron god” -- somebody who was supposed to look after you and take care of you.  The patron god evolved into the guardian angel, and in the Christian world, the patron saint.  The Christians refused to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday as if he was a god.  And that became quite a problem.  It led to the earliest persecution of the Christians, and some of their first martyrs.  As a matter of fact, the Christians disliked the idea of celebrating birthdays in general.  They much preferred to celebrate a death.  Death was liberation, the beginning of eternity.

These days, however, it is the anniversary of someone’s birth that is celebrated and some birthdays are more important than others.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   However, as the number of older people in our society increases, the specific meaning given to a specific birthday has begun to change.  Everybody I know agrees that forty is much, much too young to be considered middle-aged.  Fewer and fewer people are retiring at 65. And many people continue working well into their seventies.  My own father worked five full days a week until he was eighty-seven.  Then he decided to cut back.  He worked three days a week for money, and two days for charity.

In Eastern societies it’s customary to note the number of years people have lived but not to bother very much about the actual day of birth for a specific person.  When the first moon of the New Year arrives, everybody in the society is considered to be one year older. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The idea of actually celebrating on the anniversary of the day on which you were born is a highly individualistic procedure.  The first thing you need to have is a society that keeps track of those days -- and that’s actually quite rare.  In the western world a church might mark down the baptism day, but very few people would come in to find out that day.  They didn’t care.  And in lots of societies it’s thought to be bad luck to actually count the years that you’ve been alive.

Modern society, however, is definitely into measuring and controlling.  It tries to strap a watch onto everyone’s wrist so they will be aware not only of their years, but to be able to note the passage of their life right down to a fraction of a second.  Governments and institutions love to control people by their age.  They’ll tell you when you can drive... when you can vote... they’ll tell you when you can take a bus at a discount rate...

they’ll even tell you when you can no longer order from the children’s menu.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Now, this business with the children’s menu is particularly significant to me.  First of all, these days I feel that the children’s portion is the only properly-sized portion.  And though I don’t have the guts to do it in a restaurant, when I’m alone in a room in a hotel I will often order from the children’s menu.  The idea of a giant, almost inedibly-sized portion of very fancy pasta with four different goat cheeses from organically-raised goats at $29.95 for the bowl just doesn’t cut it -- when I know I can get a perfectly good bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce off the children’s menu for three and a half bucks.

Birthdays are usually more important during the years of childhood than they are during adulthood.  And the location of the party takes on special significance.  One of the world’s favorite locations for a gathering or celebration is Orlando, in central Florida.  And the reason is very simple. Orlando is packed with attractions that were designed to bring people together for a special event.  And the history of how it came to be what it is, is rather interesting.

American settlers first came into this area during the middle of the 1800s.  Their primary occupation was raising cattle, and the place was very much like the frontier cowboy towns that we think of in connection with the American West. By the 1860s Orlando, like most of central Florida, had become an important location for cotton plantations. But that ended with The War Between The States.  In the 1870s, national magazines were filled with stories about the good weather and great farmland that could be found in the Orlando area.  Thousands of people immigrated here and turned the old cotton fields into citrus groves.  During The Second World War, Orlando became a major military center where thousands of U.S. servicemen did part of their hitch.  After the war, many of them returned to Orlando to make it their hometown.

Today Orlando has refurbished a number of its original attractions for tourists and they make a pleasant change from the major commercial developments.   One of the most charming is the Garden of Harry P. Leu, fifty acres of flowers that sit right in the center of a residential district.  Harry Leu was a local businessman who lived during the first half of the 1900s and spent over 25 years cultivating his love of flowering plants.  Leu and his wife, Mary Jane, traveled around the world collecting seeds and plants and bringing them back to their home here in Orlando.  There’s a rose garden with over 1,000 bushes in 75 varieties.  It’s the largest formal garden in the state.

One of the suburbs of Orlando is called Winter Park, and during the 1920s it became a favorite location for the winter homes of wealthy industrialists and socialites. In 1938 Captain Walt Meloon took a 25-passenger motorboat and started touring visitors along the waterways that faced these great homes.  And the tradition continues.

For a look at the Florida that attracted the original native tribes, you can spend a day at the Wekiwa Springs State Park -- six thousand, nine hundred acres of natural beauty.   Wekiwa is a Creek word that means “spring of water,” and that’s just about the first thing you see when you enter the area.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The first European to record his visit to Florida was a Spanish explorer by the name of Ponce de Leon.  He came wandering through in 1513 looking for the “Fountain Of Youth.”  He missed it.  He also missed the idea behind the Fountain Of Youth.  It’s not something that gonna make your body young again.  It’s a philosophy -- a way of looking at life.  And in a way, it does exist in Florida -- in a place called Walt Disney World.

WALT DISNEY FILM CLIP:  Today I want to share with you some of our ideas for Disney World...

Walt Disney wanted to give the residents of the Eastern part of the United States a chance to enjoy the entertainment ideas that had made Disneyland a major attraction in California.  In 1963 a Disney team selected central Florida as the best location.

Today Walt Disney World Resort is one of the world’s great entertainment destinations.  There are actually three major theme parks.  The first is the Magic Kingdom.

The next area to open to the public is called Epcot.

WALT DISNEY FILM CLIP:  ...spelled E-P-C-O-T.  “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.”

Half of Epcot is given over to a look at the world’s future technology. 

The other half of Epcot is the World Showcase, areas devoted to the history and culture of eleven different nations.

And their most recent addition is the Disney-MGM Studios, a look at the illusions and realities of the world of moviemaking.

Magical... and taken all together, they make a great place to celebrate a birthday.

And in keeping with the feeling of the place, there are the Walt Disney World Dolphin and Swan resorts.  They sit between Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios, and Disney’s Boardwalk.  There’s a private water launch to take you to the theme parks.  The hotels actually have a special arrangement that lets their guests enter Walt Disney World an hour before the areas open to the public.

There are three major themes that are being repeated throughout the property. Water... swans... and dolphins.  Through their ancient symbolism they tell the guests what the resort hopes to offer.  Water is one of the most important mystical elements.  Most of our planet is made up of water, and so are we.  We start our lives surrounded by water.  In many cultures water is the center of life, the symbol of the oasis.  A place to rest, to rediscover yourself.

And then there are the swans.  The ancient Greeks felt that swans had a god or king-like quality and associated them with the heavens.  In the stories of the Greek gods you often find a god or goddess descending to Earth in the form of a swan.  And they are always thought of as graceful and beautiful.

In the same way that the swan takes off from the water and goes to the world above, the dolphin moves from the surface of the water to the worlds below.  The ancients thought of them as transporters.  They were thought to have the ability to take people to other realms.  They are associated with great intelligence, and the most positive qualities of life.

Water, swans and dolphins... hard to come up with three better symbols for a resort. And you know, the really nice thing is, even if you never notice the ancient symbolism you still get to swim in the water, and have a pizza at the oasis.  And if you’d rather have something else rather than pizza... it’s your call.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The single most important aspect of a western birthday party is the focus on the person who is having the birthday, and getting that person what he or she wants.  If I were celebrating my birthday here, I would probably have a main course based on Florida seafood.

The waters off the coast of Florida have been a major source of seafood for thousands of years.  And when the Spanish arrived during the 1500s, they actually set up the first commercial fishing operations.  They supplied fish to the explorers.  These days, Florida fishermen harvest over one hundred different varieties of fin and shellfish.  Today Chef Waldo Brun of the Walt Disney World Swan Hotel is going to prepare a dish of Florida Grouper.  Low in fat.  High in quality protein.  And easy to cook.

He starts by trimming, cleaning and slicing a couple of fresh baby artichokes.  If artichokes are not in season, a jar of baby artichokes will do just as well.  A little salt and white pepper go on a filet of Florida grouper, followed by a light dusting of flour.  A little oil gets heated in a frying pan, and then the grouper goes in.

BURT WOLF:   It’s always a good idea to put a fish in skin side up, even if the skin has been taken off.  That will keep the fish from curling up when it hits the heat.

The fish cooks for two minutes on each side.  While that’s happening, the sauce gets started.  A quarter cup of chopped shallots go into a frying pan... followed by a clove of minced garlic... a tablespoon of fresh thyme... a half cup of sliced button mushrooms are added in... some pitted and sliced Mediterranean olives... a chopped tomato... and the artichoke slices.  A little salt and pepper goes in... followed by a couple of ounces of dry white wine.  A minute of cooking, and the sauce is ready.  The fish goes onto the serving plate... the sauce on top... and finally a garnish of sliced lemon.  And there you have it -- a super-duper Florida grouper.  

And to go along with that, Chef Brian Tossell at the Dolphin Hotel is making a Florida Tomato and Shittake Mushroom Salad.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Florida is a major producer of tomatoes, which are technically a fruit.  And like a number of other fruits, they are harvested at a point where they need a little additional time to ripen.  Pears, avocados and bananas are other examples of that type of fruit.  When you get a tomato home from the market, you do not want to put it in the refrigerator.

The best way to store a tomato is at room temperature, and keep the stem end up. The shoulders of the tomato are the most delicate part and they bruise easily.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  You also want to keep them out of the sun; sun can dry out the moisture in a tomato.  Over the next three to five days, they will continue to ripen, and the red, deep color will come up.

Back to the business at hand:  Brian begins his Florida tomato salad by preparing a parmesan cheese crisp.

BRIAN TOSSELL:  To make the parmesan crisp, all you do is you lightly grease the bottom of a baking sheet, and then you sprinkle the parmesan cheese.  You want to do it fairly loosely, so that some light shows through between the parmesan, so that when it melts, it causes a nice lattice effect.  After you’ve placed it on the sheet-pan like this, we’re going to take it over to a 425-degree oven.  That’ll take about two minutes in the oven, and you do need to peek once in a while because oven temperatures vary and, depending on the moisture in the cheese, it may melt a little faster and brown.  You want to catch it just as it starts to turn a little bit in color but not so that it’s starting to brown too much, because it’ll be too crisp and you won’t be able to take it off.  One of the things that frustrates people when they make these crisps is that they will start to break up on you as you lift if off the sheet-pan.  You’ll notice the middle will be soft, and as you start to bring in the edges, the edges will lift off fine, but the center will start to concertina together.  As long as you move along fairly quickly, then it’s not a big problem because you’re going to drape it over an object to create a cup shape.  So it will help with the presentation of the salad.

So while we’re waiting for the parmesan crisp to sit up, we’ll take a tomato that we’ve already peeled, and we’re going to cut into this Florida tomato.  We’re going to take out, actually about a third of the tomato.  And then just hollow out the inside.  I’m using a melon baller here; this works very well.  Also I’ll take this remaining piece of tomato, and I’m just going to dice it up like I did the other half of a tomato that we see in the dish here.  Then I just take two of the shittake mushroom caps, and we add that to the bowl also.  Okay.  Next we’re gonna add tarragon leaves; you only need about a teaspoon.

Now it’s time to make the dressing.  We simply add a teaspoon of dijon mustard, about one and a half teaspoons of freshly-squeezed lemon juice... a teaspoon of sugar... a dash of sesame oil, about a third of a teaspoon.

BURT WOLF:   Mmmmm -- nice idea!

BRIAN TOSSELL:  And then finally, there’s about a tablespoon of chives there.  Just blend this together, and now we’re ready to combine the ingredients.  We’re going to lift off the parmesan crisp -- it’s very delicate, so you have to be very careful.  Now we’re going to spoon the mixture into the tomato, and lastly we put on the borrage flowers.

BURT WOLF:   “Borrage?”

BRIAN TOSSELL:  These are borrage flowers, and they’re tiny little purple flowers; they have a slight anise flavor to them, but they’re very delicate and they compliment the dish very nicely and they add a nice splash of color, as you can see.

PARTY GUEST:  I’d like to propose a toast to Rebecca on her twenty-ninth birthday, wishing her happiness today and all the days to come. 

GUESTS:  Happy birthday (etc.)

There are two ideas being celebrated at a birthday party.  The first is the notion of measuring.  How old are you now?  How far have you come?  The second is the concept of initiation into something new.  Make a wish for your future.  Move on into the next stage of your life.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   I remember when I used to take my own children to the birthday parties of their friends, and I must say I remember those events with less than a total sense of joy.  Nevertheless, a birthday party is a celebration, a celebration of an initiation into a new stage of life.  And whenever you have an initiation, you have to have witnesses, people who watch you make that passage.  And who those witnesses are is very important.   It shows the power of the person making the passage, the power of the person having the birthday.  Or in the case of the children’s birthday, the power of the family.  Don’t you agree?

Everyone coming to an official birthday party must bring a gift; it’s an essential part of honoring the birthday person.  At children’s parties, the other guests will often receive little gifts, too.  Something about one child getting all the gifts appears to be more than many children can accept.  The unfairness of it all is just too much for them.  A little gift for everyone reduces the anxiety level.  It’s also a way of saying “thanks for coming.” 

There’s often a great deal of effort put into these parties.  These are in part payment for the presence of the all-important guests. The games that are played try to express the togetherness of the group.  They often involve numbers.  In some cultures, the child is playfully whacked for the number of years lived.  Whackings are a common part of initiation rites.

WAITER:  And, last but not least, we’ll be having the birthday cake.

The most important aspect of a western birthday party is the  birthday person.  And what goes on at the party should reflect that individual.  The birthday cake is a centerpiece of the ritual.  Traditionally there is one candle on the birthday cake for each year of a person’s life.  The flame on the candle is a symbol of life, but the candle, like life itself, only lasts for a limited time. 

PARTY GUEST:  Make a wish!

The person blowing out the candles is saying, “The years of my life represented by the candles are over and gone.  But!!!  I still have the breath of life in me.  I am in control. I can blow them away and start anew.”

Everybody joins in the appreciation of the birthday person. And there is a traditional song.  Very simple.  Very predictable.  And very easy for everyone to sing.  The person’s name or nickname is inserted into the lyrics and it works every time.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The music for “Happy Birthday To You” was written in 1893 by two sisters who lived in Louisville, Kentucky -- Mildred and Patty Hill.  And they held the first copyright.  The words were written in 1924 and added to the song, but nobody knows who wrote them.  “Happy Birthday To You” is the single most often sung song in the Anglo-Saxon world.

And then there are the birthday cards.  Each year Americans spend over one-point-five billion dollars on birthday cards.  Industry statistics say that women send an average of seventeen birthday cards each year,  while men send only ten... which is in keeping with the fact that most women are much more involved with keeping up social connections.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  One of the most unusual bits of information that I came across while researching birthdays had to do with a little-known service offered by the United States Federal Government.  If you are a citizen, you can contact your congressman or congresswoman and ask their office to have a flag flown on top of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. to honor someone’s birthday.  You shoulr give them about sixty days’ notice and there will be a charge of about fifteen dollars.  After the flag is flown, it will be sent to the honoree with a little note saying the day it was flown and the name of the person honored.  Not bad!   And speaking of honor, I hope you will honor us with your company during our next program as we travel around the world looking at the gatherings and celebrations that mark the passages of our lives.  I’m Burt Wolf.