Live Active Cultures 

There you were, basking in the glow of your post-New Year's hangover, reading last week's paper when my best and worst of 2009 column appeared before your bloodshot eyes. Surely, you scoffed, a selection of slams and salutations to the stage can't be the sum total of our city? To which I reply, of course not, and don't call me Shirley. There's more than just theater to Orlando's live active culture, so here's part two, spotlighting art and attractions that invited applause or approbation in '09.

The year brought inspiring art installations, from the fascinating RS 21 group show in May at Maitland Art Center to Doug Rhodehamel's fluorescent undersea fantasy, Deep Blue, in July at Bold Hype to Therman Statom's studio-glass masterpiece, Stories of the New World, which opened in January at Orlando Museum of Art. The resurrected Will's Pub emerged as an art-friendly venue, hosting Arte Faires and Speakeasies and the inexplicable art-rockers Thunder Hag. The Orange County Regional History Center hosted the phenomenal Jim Henson's Fantastic World; the only thing more moving than seeing childhood artifacts (Sesame Street counting cartoons and Kermit, too!) in person was interviewing Jane Henson, Jim's wife and collaborator during the Muppets' origin. And my Thanksgiving tour of McRae Art Studios (and meeting John and Lynn Whipple) was a holiday wish come true.

But my favorite things about Orlando's art world in 2009 were two people who expanded my definition of what it means to be an advocate for the arts. Thomas Thorspecken documented 365 days of Orlando's artistic life in watercolor sketches on his Analog Artist Digital World Blog and encouraged others' expressions by helping to organize SketchCrawl group painting events. Mark Baratelli, even while often living out of town, broadened his indispensable blog, The Daily City, to encompass Meeting of the Minds (MOOM) meet-ups, Taco Truck Taste Tests and the vehicular-venued Mobile Art Show. If everyone in Orlando who claims to care about the arts had 1 percent of Baratelli's or Thorspecken's energy and commitment, this city would be a world culture capital.

While I always hesitate to label any art "bad," a few experiences in '09 stick out as exceptionally unpleasant. The Festival of Trees before Thanksgiving at Orlando Museum of Art is an annual orgy of extravagant poor taste, but its green-and-red artistic abominations were balanced out by good intentions and top-flight food. Nude Nite, on the other hand, had no such excuse: This annual profit-driven Valentine's Day perversion yet again made me feel sorry for the artists caught in its smarmy snare, as it managed to give a bad name to both boobs and sushi. But the worst thing I saw this year was the end of the Office Gallery, an experimental space organized by Frankie Messina, of Apartment E. Messina, a longtime supporter of downtown's art scene, led Third Thursday art strolls that were among the highlights of my year; I hope he finds a home base soon.

On the flip side of the arts/commerce coin, 2009 could charitably be called a transitional year at the major theme parks. The big news business-wise was a series of major mergers and acquisitions. Disney purchased Marvel Entertainment, home of superhero characters currently found in Universal's employ; the former Anheuser-Busch parks finally ended up in the hands of Blackstone (co-owners of Universal Orlando Resort); and Universal itself was sold from General Electric to Comcast. Between the corporate bed- hopping and declining discretionary spending, there wasn't much hope for blockbuster new attractions. Disney debuted a half-dozen half-baked attempts: Space Mountain and the Hall of Presidents received long overdue but less than life-changing renovations; the minor-league Kim Possible and American Idol attractions earned modest thumbs-up; and the deterioration of post-Pleasure Island Downtown Disney into a downmarket strip mall continued. Universal's marquee music-themed roller coaster, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, was delayed by construction complications from spring to fall and still isn't operating consistently enough yet to recommend, while official details on the under-construction Wizarding World of Harry Potter remained elusive. Only SeaWorld hit a home run with its new stingray-styled suspended "flying" coaster, Manta, a marvelous merger of white-knuckle thrill ride and wonder-inducing environmental aquarium. This new addition is almost good enough to make me forgive the extinction of beer samples and Budweiser Clydesdales. Almost.

It fell to smaller attractions to push forward in spite of thinning tourism. My 2009 started off with a scream as I slid down Forever Florida's new Zipline Safari in St. Cloud. For Halloween, Gatorland's deviously dumb-ass haunted swamp tour was a hillbilly highlight. But hands down, the little guy who made the biggest noise was the Holy Land Experience. Their annual "free admission" day in October (a fig leaf for their sweetheart tax exemption) attracted thousands more than the tiny park could handle. The flood of freebie-seeking faithful effed up I-4, resulting in national news coverage and a sizable spike in Holy Land's souvenir sales. Whether that's the best or worst news of the year, I leave up to you.


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