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Associated Press

Florida Ag commissioner: ‘No end in sight’ for wildfires

Three schools canceled classes due to smoky conditions from a nearby wildfire as Florida’s agriculture commissioner said the state is in the “midst of its worst wildfire season in years – with no end in sight.”

Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a news release that nearly 125 active wildfires were burning Monday morning.

Officials in Pasco County near Tampa, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, called off classes Monday at an elementary, a middle and a high school near fire that burned some 2,300 acres (930.8 hectares) over the weekend.

The National Weather Service said dense smoke could quickly drop visibility near the wildfires. Fire officials say the fire was 70 percent contained on Sunday night.

Some residents north of the Jacksonville area also are on fire alert due to a wildfire in south Georgia.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

A look at Disney World’s new Pandora-World of Avatar land

It’s not a movie set, but visitors to Disney World’s new Pandora-World of Avatar land are in for a cinematic experience.

The 12-acre land, inspired by the “Avatar” movie, opens in Florida in late May at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. It cost a half-billion dollars to build.

The marquee attraction is Flight of Passage, where a 3-D simulator plunges riders into a cinematic world. You feel like you’re riding on the back of a banshee, a bluish, gigantic, winged predator that resembles something out of the Jurassic era. Wearing 3-D glasses and straddling what resembles a stationary motorcycle, you’re strapped in, then the lights go out, a screen in front lights up and you’re swooped into a world of blue, gigantic aliens called Na’vi, with moon-filled skies, plunging waterfalls, jumping marine animals and towering ocean waves.

The ride provides an enchanting and intoxicating five minutes that touches all the senses. Blasts of air and spritzes of mist hit your face, and as you fly through a lush forest, a woodsy aroma wafts through your nostrils. A visitor could go on the ride 20 times and not catch half the visual details.

Disney designers are quick to say the new land is the star of the action, not the backdrop. “The character is being portrayed and played by the place itself and that’s different than a set,” said Joe Rohde, the design and production leader of Pandora -World of Avatar.

Other aspects of Pandora can’t quite compete with the excitement and immersion of Flight of Passage. Much of Pandora, at least during the daytime, is hard to distinguish from the rest of Animal Kingdom, Disney’s almost 20-year-old zoological-themed park with lush landscaping, an emphasis on conservation and a Noah’s ark range of animals.

At night, though, Pandora transforms into a sea of color with glowing lights on artificial plants and even in the pavement.

The enormous blue Na’vi aliens from the “Avatar” movie appear sparingly, really just on Flight of Passage and a second attraction called Na’vi River Journey. Before going on Flight of Passage, visitors walk through a tunnel in a faux mountain until they stumble upon a laboratory that includes a Na’vi floating in a tank.

“It’s not as simple as a guy in a costume painted blue walking around out here,” Rohde said of the aliens. “We know they are culturally present around us but we will meet them when we go on an excursion.”

The other main attraction, Na’vi River Journey, is an indoor river ride in the dark, lit up by glowing creatures and plants. The ride culminates with a Na’vi animatronic woman beating on drums as a chorus of voices reaches a crescendo. Images of the Na’vi riding horse-like creatures appear behind lush foliage, glimpsed in the distance from the river.

Disney has been building attractions themed on movies since Disneyland opened in 1955 with rides inspired by Snow White, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Often, as with Pandora, the attractions open years after the movies debut. “Avatar” came out in 2009. Director James Cameron’s sequel isn’t due out until 2020. Lands based on “Star Wars” are scheduled to open in Disney parks in California and Florida in 2019.

Pandora-World of Avatar isn’t tied to a narrative from the film but rather tells a story set in the future, after humans degraded the jungle through industrial folly and a resurgence of nature overtakes the human-built environment. That theme is a recurring architectural motif, for example with a beverage stand and cantina made to look like they were built for industry by humans but then overrun by plant life.

Throughout Pandora, real plants intermingle with artificial plants that resemble alien pods or Dale Chihuly glass sculptures. It’s difficult to distinguish what is real.

“We were trying to get as close as possible to fool the eye,” said Zsolt Hormay, a Disney creative executive.

At the entrance, visitors hear a cacophony of bird chirps and animal cries. A circle of drums connected to faux tree roots allows visitors to drum and then get a response of drumming or pulsing lights.

The focal points are a 135-foot (41-meter) mountaintop where Flight of Passage is located as well as “floating mountains” that appear to be suspended in air but are actually made of concrete. Engineers use tricks to make the park appear bigger than it is. The artificial foliage gets smaller as it goes higher on the mountain to give it the illusion of distance.

Disney also is testing out a new way to order food at Pandora. Before going to the park, visitors can pull up a menu on the My Disney Experience mobile app, order lunch and go about visiting the park. When it’s time to eat hours later, they can go to the canteen, tap on an app a button that notifies the cooks they are present. Several minutes later their food will be ready in a special line.

Jon Landau, the executive producer of the original movie, says he hopes Pandora does for visitors what the film did for movie-goers.

“I hope when people come to Pandora and their eyes will be open and they will look at the world a little differently when they go back across the bridge,” Landau said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Tim Tebow’s week includes 4 hits, wrong side of no-hitter

Tim Tebow scored on a walk-off walk and watched his Columbia Fireflies get no-hit a few days later. After his first month in pro baseball, the New York Mets prospect and former Heisman Trophy winner seems to be getting more comfortable on the baseball field.

The outfielder and designated hitter for the Single-A South Atlantic League club had four hits last week during Columbia’s homestand last week. The Fireflies went 1-4, splitting two games with the Delmarva (Maryland) Shorebirds and losing three straight to the Lakewood (New Jersey) BlueClaws.

A look at how Tebow fared overall in the week:

HIGHLIGHT: Tebow began a ninth-inning rally with a walk, then came around to score the winning run on Gene Cone’s bases-loaded walk in the Fireflies’ 2-1 victory over Delmarva.

LOWLIGHT: Tebow and the Fireflies were no-hit by Lakewood pitchers by Nick Fanti (8 2-3 innings) and Trevor Bettencourt (1-3 innings).

AT THE PLATE: Tebow went 4 for 15 at the plate for the week. He’s 22 of 91 overall this season, hitting .242 in 25 games.

GROWING COMFORTABLE: Tebow says he feels like he’s adjusting well and continues to improve his swing and technique each day. To those who paint his minor league efforts as a publicity stunt, Tebow says, “I’m doing something I love. And I’m not going to look back with regret. When we are doing that, we are never looking at the present and missing the right now. And you won’t be as good you can in the future.”

LACK OF PRODUCTION: Tebow had nine RBIs in his first nine games with Columbia. He has not driven in a run in his last 17 games. He has managed to score runs for the Fireflies, crossing the plate 11 times in those 17 contests without an RBI.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Fireflies play the last of a four-game home series with Lakewood on Monday. After a day off Tuesday, Columbia hits the road for three games at Delmarva and four games at Lakewood, which is the closest point the New York Mets prospect will get to the Big Apple while in the South Atlantic League.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Independent liquor stores fight ‘Whiskey and Wheaties Bill’

Owners of small, independent liquor stores in central Florida are asking customers to support their efforts urging the governor to veto a bill allowing the sale of spirits in grocery stores.

A proposal nicknamed the “Whiskey and Wheaties Bill” (SB 106) would allow grocery stores, big box retailers and other stores to sell liquor alongside wine, beer and other products. Gov. Rick Scott could sign the bill into law, after it passed the Florida Legislature last month with a one-vote margin in the House.

Since Prohibition ended, Florida law has required retailers to sell liquor apart from other products in side stores separated by a wall.

Independent liquor store owners opposed the bill, saying supermarkets and big box stores could drive them out of business as they gradually add liquor to their shelves, starting in 2018.

“Not only do they have a price and convenience advantage, but grocery stores will have the power to kick us out when our lease is up,” Bully’s Liquor owner Steve Park told the Orlando Sentinel. “If our landlord had to choose between us and the grocery store next door, we would be gone.”

At Park’s stores last week, employees asked every customer to sign the petition asking Scott to veto the bill.

“If we lose 20 percent of our business, we don’t have the money to turn the lights on,” Park said.

Jason Unger, a lobbyist for Target who testified in a Florida Senate hearing in January, said the bill allows supermarkets and big box retailers to meet their customers’ demands.

The bill is the latest legislative proposal to change how beer, liquor and wine can be made, distributed and sold in Florida. For example, brewers and distillers now can sell their products directly to consumers in pubs and in takeout jugs called growlers.

There are 209 active liquor stores in Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Lake counties, according to data from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations. Most are run by large chains, such as Publix or ABC Fine Wine and Spirits.

In recent years, large retailers such as Publix and Wal-Mart have expanded the number of liquor stores attached to their existing grocery stores.

Orlando-based ABC Fine Wine and Spirits is not worried about competition, said CEO Charles Bailes, but he opposed the “Whiskey and Wheaties Bill” because he said it would increase access to alcohol for minors. Publix officials also opposed the bill because of similar concerns.

George Knightly, a founder of the Florida Independent Spirits Association, said he wasn’t sure how his five Knightly Spirits in the Orlando would compete with larger retailers.

“Big-box stores have an enormous amount of leverage and clout. If you go into most grocery store plazas, you don’t see any butchers or florists because there is a no-compete clause,” he said.

Bully’s Liquor customer Leona Hutchinson of Orlando said she didn’t mind making a stop in a separate store just to buy liquor.

“It seems like the grocery should stay with the groceries and the liquor with the liquor,” she said. “I don’t understand the big deal.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Anxiety over GOP health plan for those with severe illnesses

Unease and uncertainty are settling over Americans with serious illnesses as Republicans move closer to dismantling Democratic former President Barack Obama‘s health care system.

A New Orleans attorney with multiple sclerosis fears he’ll be forced to close his practice if he loses coverage, while a Philadelphia woman with asthma is looking at stockpiling inhalers.

The Republican health care bill pushed through the House on Thursday leaves those with pre-existing conditions fearful of higher premiums and losing coverage altogether if the Affordable Care Act is replaced.

The bill sets aside billions of dollars more to help people afford coverage, but experts say that money is unlikely to guarantee an affordable alternative for people now covered under a popular provision of the existing law that prevents insurers from rejecting them or charging higher rates based on their health.

What happens to those with pre-existing conditions under the Republican plan remains unknown.

Several people unsettled by the prospects expressed these concerns.

___

FORMER UTAH CHEF

Jake Martinez said he’s worried about getting health insurance in the future because he has epilepsy, considered a pre-existing condition by insurers.

For the last several years, he, his wife and their three children have settled into a comfortable place using health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. But now the Murray, Utah, residents are worried about what may happen with this new health care bill.

“Today, it really kind of sunk in that not only are we not going to potentially have health care coverage but that it was done as a political win rather than a well-thought-out plan,” said Martinez, a 32-year-old former chef who’s studying social work. “That’s what stings about it.”

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KENTUCKY ATTORNEY

Shortly after being diagnosed with type I diabetes, Amanda Perkins learned about the perils of pre-existing conditions when she starting trying to buy health insurance.

Now she worries that protections under the Affordable Care Act that made sure certain essential health benefits, like insulin prescriptions, could be eliminated.

The new Republican plan would let some states allow insurers to charge higher premiums for people with pre-existing conditions, but only if those people had a lapse in insurance coverage. Supporters say those states would need to have programs in place to help people pay for expensive medical treatments, including high-risk pools.

But Perkins said Kentucky’s previous high-risk pool had a 12-month waiting period and was too expensive for her.

“I bought a house just a couple of months ago. Will it come down to me paying my mortgage payment or paying my health insurance so I don’t have a lapse in coverage?” said Perkins, an attorney for a small firm in Lexington, Kentucky.

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KANSAS GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Janella Williams has a rare neurological disorder that forces her to receive expensive IV drugs every seven weeks. Without it, she would not be able to walk.

Williams, who owns her own graphic design company in Lawrence, Kansas, pays $480 under an Obamacare plan. It keeps her out-of-pocket maximum at $3,500 a year and provides her coverage despite her pre-existing condition.

“I’m terrified of becoming disabled. If I’m being completely honest, I’ve thought of ending my life if it comes to that,” she said.

High-risk pools run by the state are not the answer, she says. The Republican plan would also bring back lifetime caps on coverage, which Williams says she would meet after only her first IV treatment. She and her husband both work full time, but wouldn’t be able to afford the roughly $600,000 a year her treatments cost once the cap is met.

“I have really lost my faith in humanity,” she said. “It’s terrible how little we care for the sick.”

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NORTH CAROLINA FINANCIAL ADVISER

John Thompson credits his survival in large part because he bought a family insurance policy through the Affordable Care Act marketplace.

Thompson, of Greensboro, North Carolina, was laid off in 2013, lost his employer-backed insurance and diagnosed with cancer during the year he was unemployed.

If the House proposal allowing insurers to make coverage for pre-existing conditions unaffordable takes hold, he fears his cancer history will make him uninsurable if he would lose his current job as a retirement financial adviser.

“Like many of us here, whether you have asthma or a heart condition or diabetes or like me, cancer, any type of pre-existing condition, you go back to the way it was before, you give insurance companies carte blanche to do their underwriting and to exclude you,” Thompson said.

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FLORIDA MOM

Shelby Jehlen, of New Port Richey, Florida, was diagnosed six years ago with leukemia and says she wouldn’t be able to afford insurance if she lost her roughly $400 a month subsidy.

Jehlen saves about $1,000 every three months to see her cancer doctor under her Obamacare plan, but still pays about $1,500 for the check-ups.

She was forced to quit work because of all the X-rays and other chemicals she was exposed to daily as a veterinary assistant and now cuts corners, sacrificing phones and school activities for her two teen daughters, to afford the monthly premiums. The stress has caused her to struggle with depression and anxiety.

“Absolutely, I’m scared. I’m worried I’m going to have to figure out what I’m going to do with all my side effects with my leukemia if they take this away from me,” she said.

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PHILADELPHIA BUSINESSWOMAN

Adrienne Standley has been preparing for the possibility of losing her insurance since President Donald Trump took office.

Three days after the inauguration, she set up an appointment for a birth control implant so she would be covered for four years, no matter what happens.

The 29-year-old operations director at a start-up apparel business in Philadelphia also has asthma and attention deficit disorder.

“I’m looking at stockpiling, making sure I have an inhaler,” she said. “I’m pretty scared to lose coverage.”

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NEW ORLEANS ATTORNEY

John S. Williams says he’ll be forced to close his practice and find a job with a group insurance plan if he’s longer covered under the government’s health care plan

The New Orleans attorney has multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease for which medication alone costs $70,000 a year. He buys insurance for himself on the individual marketplace, and the Affordable Care Act has made that possible, he said.

“We always hear about job growth and business creation — being able to have affordable health care drives that,” Williams said. “Because of the ACA, I am able to employ people and help the economy grow.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

5 Blue Jays pitchers hold Rays to 3 hits in 2-1 win

Joe Biagini and four relievers combined on a three-hitter, Darwin Barney hit a tiebreaking homer in the eighth inning and the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Tampa Bay Rays 2-1 on Sunday.

The Blue Jays took two of three from the Rays to win a road series for the first time this season (1-4-1). It also was just the fifth time in 31 tries since 2007 that Toronto won a series at Tropicana Field (5-23-3).

Biagini allowed an unearned run, two hits and struck out four over four innings in his first major league start. The right-hander was inserted into the Toronto rotation after 74 career relief appearances due to injuries to Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ, and Mat Latos being designated for assignment.

Aaron Loup, Ryan Tepera (2-1), Joe Smith and Roberto Osuna combined to hold Tampa Bay to one hit over five innings.

Osuna walked Steven Souza Jr. and gave up a single to Colby Rasmus with two outs in the ninth before striking out Daniel Robertson to get his fourth save.

Barney put the Blue Jays up 2-1 with his first homer of the year. He connected off Alex Cobb (2-3), who gave up two runs and four hits in eight innings.

The lone run off Biagini came in the third when Kevin Kiermaier reached on second baseman Devon Travis‘ fielding error and scored on Corey Dickerson‘s two-out single.

The Blue Jays tied it in the sixth when Kevin Pillar doubled for his second hit of the game and came home on Russell Martin‘s single with two outs.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Rays: SS Matt Duffy (Achilles tendon surgery) continues running the bases and could be nearing a minor league rehab assignment.

UP NEXT

Rays: LHP Blake Snell (0-2) will face Kansas City RHP Nate Karns (1-2) on Monday night. Snell has gone five innings or fewer in five straight starts, and nine of his last 10.

Republished with permission from the Associated Press.

Lockheed Martin is moving ballistic missile jobs to Florida

Lockheed Martin Corp. plans to move about 300 ballistic missile program jobs from California to Florida’s Space Coast over the next two years.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. spokesman Matt Kramer told Florida Today that the employees moving to Brevard County will work on testing and maintenance for the Navy’s Trident II D-5 Fleet Ballistic Missile.

The Trident II D5 is the latest generation of the Navy’s submarine-launched fleet ballistic missiles. Kramer said Lockheed Martin also will move additional missile program employees from Sunnyvale, California, to Colorado over the next several years.

Lockheed Martin currently has nearly 1,000 employees in Florida. In January, the company completed renovations to a Cape Canaveral Air Force Station facility that had been built in 1961 for NASA’s first manned spaceflight program.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Evacuations no longer needed near fire in nature preserve

Officials say voluntary evacuations are no longer needed in subdivisions near a wildfire burning in a Tampa Bay-area nature preserve.

Pasco County Government spokesman Doug Tobin said Sunday that the cause of the fire in Starkey Wilderness Park has not been determined.

The preserve remained closed Sunday, but the sheriff’s office and Florida Highway Patrol planned to reopen a nearby stretch of the Suncoast Parkway.

Tobin said residents who evacuated from subdivisions east of the preserve near Land O’ Lakes and Lutz could return home, though smoke could remain in the area.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Always Dreaming wins Kentucky Derby in slop

Always Dreaming has won the 143rd Kentucky Derby, pulling away from Lookin at Lee in the slop.

Race officials confirmed the win for Always Dreaming minutes after he crossed the finish line first at Churchill Downs. The win gives trainer Todd Pletcher his second Derby win.

Battle of Midway finished third in the 20-horse field.

Always Dreaming covered the 1 1/4-mile track in 2:03.59.

Always Dreaming overtook early favorite Classic Empire as the betting choice on Saturday morning, briefly sharing that status with Irish War Cry before holding on entering the gate.

Starting from the No. 5 post position, the 9-2 favorite made his push on the backstretch into the lead by the far turn.

Always Dreaming began stretching it out from there to win by 2 3/4 lengths over long shot Lookin At Lee, with Battle of Midway five lengths back.

Always Dreaming paid $11.40, $7.20 and $5.80. Lookin At Lee returned $26.60 and $15.20, while Battle of Midway paid $20.80.

Republished with permission from the Associated Press.

Rays breeze by Blue Jays 6-1

Logan Morrison and Colby Rasmus hit two-run homers and Jake Odorizzi pitched seven strong innings for the Tampa Bay Rays in a 6-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday.

Odorizzi (2-1) gave up one run in seven innings, the seventh straight time the right-hander has given up two runs or fewer in starts against Toronto.

Morrison put the Rays up 2-1 in the third inning with his seventh home run. It came off Toronto starter Marco Estrada after a single by Evan Longoria.

The home run for Rasmus, who spent the first month of the season on the disabled list while recovering from October surgeries, came on his first hit with the Rays.

Morrison and Rasmus drove in three runs each while Longoria had two hits and scored three runs.

Estrada (1-2) gave up five earned runs in six innings after giving up just three in his four previous starts. All five of the home runs Estrada has given up this season came in his two starts at Tropicana Field. Both were losses to Odorizzi.

After giving up two hits or fewer in each of his three previous starts, Odorizzi gave up three hits and no walks while striking out six. He retired 18 of 19 after giving up a home run to Ezequiel Carrera in the first inning.

Carrera extended his career-long hitting streak to 12 games with his second home run of the season.

Kendrys Morales had two hits for the Blue Jays, who became the first major league team to lose 20 games.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Rays: CF Kevin Kiermaier was back in the lineup a day after leaving a game early because he was struck on the right hand by a pitch from Francisco Liriano.

Blue Jays: RHP Aaron Sanchez (split finger nail) is scheduled for a bullpen session Sunday and could rejoin the rotation next weekend.

UP NEXT

Toronto RHP Joe Biagini (0-1) makes his first major league start in Sunday’s series finale against Rays RHP Alex Cobb (2-2). Biagini was inserted into the Blue Jays’ injury-filled rotation following RHP Mat Latos being designated for assignment Friday.

Republished with permission from the Associated Press.

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