The hair and now 

Everything you hear you've heard already -- and it's true. It doesn't take too many licks to get to the center of this Orlando leisure pop, where you wait in line to witness the same controlled escapism -- usually dressed up in fiberglass and involving a cartoon mascot -- only to realize that threadbare repetition usually produces the distinct feeling of nothing. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you get tired.

"Would you like to meet my sloth?" grins the boy-band-bodied Busch Gardens pawn greeting visitors to the dubious proposition of a Rhino Rally Cocktail Party. Hyping its new safari ride, the Tampa theme park has sent its PR machine on an outreach mission, with its I-can't-believe-you're-a-publicist persons venturing into Orlando by way of its boring sister park, Sea World.

Said sloth's name is Harry -- er, hairy, geddit? -- and before I can muster a "Would you like to meet MY sloth?" introduction of my adjacent beau, I'm shamelessly running my fingers through Harry's hair and trading conditioning secrets with the trainer. Oh dear.

"Did you name him?" I flirt.

"No, I'm younger than him," he dismissively twenty-twos.

Which, of course, is my cue to hit the fountain-of-youth bar and cabernet my humility away. We're across from Sea World at the Renaissance Orlando, where the ornate chandeliers can only sway in hopes of blinding out the gross insignificance of tourist-industry overweights. Smiles-too-big are traveling from table to table passing out info cards about, well, sloths, and making sure that you pay for your cabernet with feigned interest.

"This is a picture of Harry's girlfriend," perks the PR smile peddling slothdom. "She's twice Harry's size and " ... (pregnant nudging pause) " ... eats all his food!"

Myself and my date are determined to eat all of her food, so we hardly hazard a notice, opting instead for free catered gluttony and nervous smiles. The head of publicity, sensing my own slothdom (or my sloth's), brushes over with that distant look of official scrutiny usually elicited by my hair.

"I'm with the Weekly!" I burp, prior to giving him permission to take Harry to the Weekly office, an unappreciated slice of practical jokery that had the publisher grimacing, "Thanks for the sloth," the next day. Oh, you're welcome.

With crusty cabernet lips, I begin to detail my big Busch Gardens story to the PR poop, wherein myself and my seventh-grade chorus class were once drenched on the flume in 30-degree mis-amusement. It's a rueful incident that's come to define me, really. We were taken to the giant laundry room, dressed in janitors' outfits and forced to sing for our supper. Negro spirituals, even. I'm still singing.

So are the Backstreet Boys, tragically, packing the T.D. Waterhouse Centre for another post-prime homecoming last Friday night. The big-hipped gyno-rally positively reeks of not being fun anymore, and the boys have predictably deconstructed themselves into their own experimental bush gardens, with cornrows and facial hair concealing an otherwise unchanged routine.

As is typical when the boys are back in town, the gay gossip machine has its requisite flushes of sexual accusations (someone likes tossing salad) and drug-abuse sniffs (no, really?), but here at the Waterhouse it's all girls who are caught in the age-old conundrum of what to do after Bop! and before Seventeen. So few big girls know much about salad, anyway.

To my right, a ringer for Adam Ant's "Goody Two Shoes" librarian sports horned-rims between her ironic pigtails and scribbles nervously about opener Shaggy into her notebook.

"Who are you writing for?" I lean.

"Bop!" she New Yorks.

Then it's back to unsolicited seventh-grade memory lane, this time by way of a Kirk Cameron crush and too much Rob Lowe pinup information. Somebody really should stop me. She's looking a little scared.

Eventually, the screams of tampon-industry overweights force temporary reprieve. By midshow, though, the middle-age balladry has fermented into a toxic sleeping syrup as at least five of the kids in my section fall into slumber on their moms' laps.

Periodically the Boys descend into an understage area for costume changes televised overhead, y'know, just to keep you guessing. Vain attempts to show that these later 20s are just like their 12-year-old fans -- cuddly, concerned, cute -- unintentionally reveal a flaccid chemistry akin to the mid-'80s revival of The New Monkees. Only, they had mullets.

By show's end, Bop! Girl is wearing that look of over-it disgust (characteristic of life between Cosmo and Mademoiselle), but not so much that she won't indulge me in a knowing glance or two.

"Can I call you?" she asks, motioning for my business card. "I'm gonna be back down in two weeks, and I'm doing an article on where to find hot guys in Orlando."

Realizing that I've probably used that line myself, I gladly oblige. If she's lucky, she'll get tired, too.

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