Some weeks I struggle to choose between theme parks or theater when selecting column topics, so it's satisfying when the two converge, allowing me to slay two subjects with one stone. In recent weeks, the social media-driven theme park fan community has seen more drama than Orlando Shakes and Mad Cow combined, thanks largely to a haphazard series of announcements (intentional and otherwise) about Orlando attractions. Many of these items should probably be filed under "old news" or "no news," but the cumulative effect kicked up a sandstorm of online squabbling that showed off fandom's less magical side.
It started with Disney following up their recent price hike, which smashed the $100-per-day ceiling, with a minor flurry of confirmations and teases about their Florida theme parks. A bite-sized video of concepts for Animal Kingdom's Avatar expansion was released, as well as official word that Toy Story Mania and Soarin' – the most popular rides at Hollywood Studios and Epcot – will receive long-expected capacity upgrades. The attention accorded these relatively routine investments, which are all a year or more away, points up the paucity of marketable new E-Tickets on Disney's current agenda, though CEO Bob Iger let slip at a stockholder's Q&A that the park formerly known as Disney-MGM Studios will be rechristened yet again after a Star Wars and Pixar-centric overhaul is complete – my money is on Disney's Hollywood Adventure, since the "studios" have long since been dismantled.
Speaking of slips, Universal Orlando recently suffered from two of them, both involving a couple of the worst-kept secrets in the industry. First, Comcast's CEO casually mentioned in an earnings call that a King Kong attraction was coming to Orlando, finally confirming suspicions about the colossal construction project in Islands of Adventure about which they'd previously been conspicuously closemouthed. Then the International Drive Improvement District distributed a map of development updates for 2015 and beyond, including a "fall 2016" opening date for Universal's "Volcano Bay water park." The name remains officially unconfirmed, and the date only reflects the construction permit completion date – I don't expect a grand opening until spring 2016 – but that didn't stop some media outlets from reporting it as fact.
Whatever promise these prospective park projects hold, none seems to be trying to disrupt the current themed-entertainment paradigm in the way that the emerging escape-room trend has. I've covered a trio of these immersive puzzle experiences in this column, and even more (like America's Escape Game on I-Drive) are popping up every day. Universal Studios Florida, the first major local park to tap into the trend, recently partnered with Escape the Room NYC to bring a limited-time attraction based around USA Network's new series Dig to the park for a week in early March. I took the challenge, along with the crew from Orlando Attractions magazine, and solved the short but well-crafted game in record-breaking time. (Check out Attractions: The Show on YouTube to see how.) It was a welcome interactive alternative to the typically passive theme-park attraction, but the devil is in the details. The room was only able to accommodate about 100 players over an eight-hour day, which means they'd have to build 150 of them to approach the capacity of a headliner ride.
While the big players try to crack that capacity conundrum, some of their employees are working on the Republic, an interactive attraction that seems to bridge the gap between puzzle room-style live action role-playing and Sleep No More-esque immersive theater. They've enlisted a number of industry vets (including Face Off makeup artists David O'Connell and Eric Garcia) and secured a warehouse near the Fringe Festival, during which they'll be beta-testing the show.
I'm hoping to report on a Republic rehearsal soon, but if you want to understand the promise of interactive theater right now, take in the triumphant return of Joe's NYC Bar. Think of this semi-improvised show as a moody Manhattan cousin to Disney's late Adventurers Club, only populated with bickering Brooklyn boozers instead of archaic explorers. More than a decade after its last installment, this downtown favorite has been resurrected at St. Matthew's Tavern with a cast that includes several theme-park vets, including creator-director Christian Kelty as barkeep Gabriel and Michael Wanzie as an outspoken homophobic alcoholic.
The sketchy storyline involving the bar being bought by barback-turned-mobster Ivan (John Connon) is secondary to the passionate political discussions that raged between performers and patrons, blurring the line between them. This was probably the best public debate about economic inequality and race that I've heard outside of NPR, and as a bonus the arguments were bracketed by songs from Tod Kimbro and Jeff Forte instead of a pledge drive. When a heated discussion of police violence between Michael Marinaccio's cop and Simon Needham's activist turned physical mere feet from my face, I got the kind of adrenaline rush that no 3-D simulator can deliver.
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