Highlights and lowlights at theater and theme parks in 2013 

Live Active Cultures

Today is Boxing Day, as I write my final Live Active Cultures column of 2013 (or first one of 2014?), which means it’s time to carefully consider the occurrences of the past year before crating them up in my mental attic. Here’s one last look at some memorable moments – both
positive and negative – from the last 12 months:

THEATER

Highlights
Sir Patrick Stewart provided the first and last best moments of my year in theater, starting with his insightful Inside the Actors Studio-style appearance at Orlando’s Lowndes Shakespeare Center in March and ending with his masterful performance alongside Sir Ian McKellen in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot on Broadway (my best Thanksgiving Eve ever).

Ron Legler’s Florida Theatrical Association and Fairwinds Broadway Across America had a banner year, bringing Joey (the puppet hero of War Horse) to the Abbey for a surprise season announcement, securing an agreement with the new DPAC and breaking Bob Carr box-office records (hopefully for the final time) with The Book of Mormon.

Director Tim Williams delivered with Mad Cow’s Death of a Salesman, the best revival of an American classic I’ve seen in a decade, while Theatre Downtown’s remounting of Michael Wanzie’s Lizzie Borden musical deserved to launch that Orlando classic to wider fame.

The highlight of 2013’s Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, aside from the fest’s ambitious expansion overall, was clearly Wonderheads’ Loon, physical theater as heartbreakingly perfect as any Oscar-winning Pixar flick; happily, the Portland pair returns with a new show for Fringe 2014.

The year’s most hyper-local, hyper-personal piece of performance art was Jessica Earley’s HYPER-Bolic, an aesthetically uneven but enthrallingly original exercise in emotional exposure.

Finally, Better Days, SAK’s scripted sitcom by John Valines and Tod Kimbro, was equally as personal and experimental, but had more Amish jokes.

Lowlights

Putting aside some of the not-so-stellar shows I saw, the saddest moments of 2013 for members of the theater community were the passings of diehard Fringe supporter Myron Blattner, stage manager Carla Young and performer Garrison “Gary” Doles.

Close behind comes the closings of Thornton Park’s Urban ReThink, which hosted a number of quality cultural events, Orlando Ballet’s mold-infested Dr. Phillips home, and GOAT’s short-lived performance space; I fear more venues may follow them in the new year.

Lastly, the revived Crack Rock Opera avoided the dubious honor of again being dubbed my “worst anything ever,” as it was in 2011, but the continuing abusive comments I’ve received on my less-than-glowing review from its pseudonymous supporters deserve some sort of Phil Robertson Civility Award.

THEME PARKS

Highlights
Long-anticipated rides opened around the world in 2013, from Mystic Manor in Hong Kong Disneyland to Knoebels’ Flying Turns, but here at home it was a transitional year at the big theme parks. With the one-two punch of Springfield U.S.A. and Transformers, it would be easy to just hand this category over to Universal Orlando. But since they are likely to be lauded in 2014 after Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley expansion opens, I want to look instead to the “little guys.”

The only haunt to make me scream this October was Winter Haven’s family-run Shallow Grave, while the only attraction to make me tear up was Kennedy Space Center’s awe-inspiring exhibit spotlighting Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Fun Spot’s White Lightning reignited my love of classic wooden roller coasters, while their 200-foot-tall SkyCoaster provided enough pants-filling freefall to last me the decade.

As for the best new attraction outside the attractions, Player 1 Bar is a wonderland of craft beers and vintage arcade games that demolishes the decrepit DisneyQuest around the corner.

Lowlights
SeaWorld easily had the worst year in the attractions industry, between the tepid response to their expensive new Antarctica attractions and the bad publicity from Blackfish-inspired band cancellations.

Disney’s Imagineers teased us at the D23 convention with potential Star Wars Land plans, but haven’t actually delivered an original Orlando E-ticket since 2005’s Expedition Everest (unless you count the wild ride of trying to get MagicBands to work). Instead, they delivered the most disappointing expensive meal I ate all year, as the refurbished Contemporary Resort’s California Grill reopened with raised prices and reduced consistency.

Outside Orlando, the worst new attraction I experienced was Hershey Chocolate World’s “interactive” 4-D show, an ugly, unimaginative CGI movie with jarring Jim Henson Creature Shop-designed characters that have less charm than MuppetVision’s obnoxious Waldo; the only redeeming value was the free candy sample upon exit.

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