2022 turned out to be a tumultuous year full of tragedy and triumph, whether you're talking about world events or Orlando's theaters and theme parks. Here's a brief look back at a few of my most memorable moments exploring attractions and arts over the past 12 months.
As the buzzing show floor during November's International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions demonstrated, Central Florida's tourism industry has bounced back above pre-pandemic highs. Those resurgent crowds were especially obvious across Walt Disney World, where Epcot's Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind coaster finally opened after eons of construction, and turned out to be worth the wait. (The ride's temporary Christmas song was a lump of coal, however.) I was even more excited to see more Disney actors back at work as large-scale shows like the Finding Nemo musical, Festival of the Lion King and especially Fantasmic! returned looking as good or better than before.
At the same time, the rapid increase in prices and standby wait times (largely tied to the extra-cost Genie+/Lightning Lane line-skipping service) resulted in even the most pixie-dusted passholders turning against former CEO Bob Chapek. Those same fans who are now applauding Bob Iger's short-term return might want to temper their anticipation by rereading my interview with director Abigail Disney, whose documentary The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales premiered at the Enzian (with a memorable Q&A, hosted by yours truly). One thing Iger definitely won't do is cancel the conversion of Splash Mountain into Tiana's Bayou Adventure, so get your last licks on the Magic Kingdom's problematic log ride before it closes on Jan. 23.
For the first time in about a decade, Universal Orlando finished the year without opening a major E-Ticket attraction, unless you count Revenge of the Mummy, which still hasn't fully reopened from its extended refurbishment. And the recent early retirement of key Universal Creative executives — including chief creative officer Thierry Coup, who endearingly apologized for the Fast & Furious simulator — throws the park's long-term future into flux. But plans are already fixed and underway for additions over the next few years, from the Villain-Con Minion Blast interactive moving walkway replacing Shrek 4-D to the rapidly rising Epic Universe expansion. Once again, I spent 2022 refreshing orlandoparkstop.com for Alicia Stella's latest updates on these projects and more.
Ironically, perhaps the two best new attractions at Universal aren't inside its theme parks, but at CityWalk. Universal's Great Movie Escape Room (which I hope to review early next year) has received raves for its realistic re-creations of sets from Back to the Future and Jurassic World. And the repurposed Red Coconut Club became my favorite retro watering hole during Halloween and the holidays, thanks to vintage decor and character appearances. My wish to Santa is that it stays open nightly year-round.
SeaWorld finally opened Ice Breaker, a tween-friendly launched coaster that failed to live up to the hype for me. Hopefully Pipeline, their upcoming stand-up "surfing coaster" will deliver, or at least not destroy delicate organs. On the other hand, sister park Busch Gardens Tampa exceeded my expectations with Iron Gwazi by transforming the park's worst woodie into its best hybrid steel coaster. But frankly, my taste for extreme thrills has been dulled since the tragic death of Tyre Sampson, who fell from the Orlando FreeFall Tower at Icon Park a few weeks after I rode it. The Peppa Pig Theme Park, which opened in February at Legoland Resort, might be more my speed for right now, but it's awkward attending a preschoolers' park as a childless adult.
Beyond the landlocked attractions, I spent most of my vacation time earning my sea legs, since (at least until restrictions were recently lifted) cruises offered the most coronavirus precautions of any travel method. I learned to love MSC's pristine private island on Ocean Cay and the pampered luxury of their reasonably-priced Yacht Club, as well as to avoid their chaotic standard customer service. And I barely had time to learn the layout during my recent two-night press voyage on Royal Caribbean's Wonder of the Seas, currently the world's largest passenger cruise ship, which features seven "neighborhoods" stuffed with giant slides, a surfing simulator, a carousel and a zip line — not to mention scores of restaurants and bars, including one tended by robots and another that lifts into the air.
What impressed me most was the Wonder's entertainment — the athletic ice-skating show 365, the corny comic-book musical Effectors II and most of all the stunning diving spectacular inTENse — which all employ world-class performers and bleeding-edge effects that equal or exceed anything on Broadway or the Vegas Strip. The home porting of this record-breaking vessel in Canaveral (instead of Miami or another major port) is another strong sign of confidence in Central Florida tourism's comeback from COVID.
Any look back at the year in Orlando's performing arts community has to begin with acknowledging the beloved members who left us in 2022, including actor and radio personality Doug Ba'aser; Universal show director Adrian LePeltier; and Steve Singhaus, the final member of the fabulous family that included his late wife, Marcy, and his brother Sam, aka "Miss Sammy." Another loss that almost felt like a death was the departure of Blue Star and her founding staff from HAOS, the Church Street venue that provided an oasis for LGBTQ-friendly entertainment during the pandemic.
The theater news wasn't all negative, as the Dr. Phillips Center started 2022 with the long-awaited opening of its Steinmetz Hall, celebrating with all-star shows featuring Michael Feinstein, Jennifer Hudson and more. Unfortunately, the sound and sightlines in the "acoustically ideal" venue haven't always lived up to their billing, but CFCArts' massive orchestra finally showed it off to its full potential with last month's Classic(al) Rock concert of Julian Bond's arrangements. Next door at the Walt Disney Theater, 2022's Broadway touring offerings included several — like Cats and Six — that were far better than I anticipated, and ended the year on a high note with the extraordinary Hadestown.
Better yet, I was heartened by the resilience of our hometown thespians, as former favorites returned in fine form (such as Theater on the Edge with Say Goodnight, Gracie) and emerging companies expanded their ambition. Aaron Safer's rebranded New Generation Theatrical slayed with Michael Knight's satirical Gothic Manor; Little Radical Theatrics raised the bar for community theater with the help of director Travis Eaton; and Donald Rupe's Renaissance Theatre proved with Nosferatu and the Office Holiday Party that independent immersive adult entertainment can be a huge hit here.
Finally, I can't end a review of 2022 without addressing the elephants in the room: the implosions of multiple Orlando arts institutions. The FBI's investigation into the Orlando Museum of Art's exhibit of purported Basquiat paintings (and the subsequent sacking of its newest director) made headlines around the globe, but the meltdowns at two major theaters hit closer to home for me. After apparently making strides toward diversity and equity under artistic director Joseph Walsh — including acclaimed productions of The Mountaintop and Beauty and the Beast with directors Felichia Chivaughn and Roberta Emerson — he abruptly exited, and was soon followed by most of the staff. Singer Fernando Varela's Victory Productions (best known for presenting vocalists at the Villages) has been subcontracted to restart the Garden's aborted season in 2023. Meanwhile, the board is consulting with the Edyth Bush Institute about reforms, but questions remain about any long-term changes.
Chivaughn and Emerson, as leaders of the Central Florida Entertainment Advocacy group, were also involved in the ongoing campaign to hold Mad Cow Theatre accountable after years of financially abusing artists. In this case, the effort bore fruit as Mad Cow was eventually evicted from its city-owned pasture over unpaid fees. The silver lining is that the Orlando Fringe [full disclosure: my wife's employer] was handed control of the downtown venue, where it will present year-round programming beginning Jan. 12 with the return of Winter Mini-Fest. After successfully hosting the 2022 World Conference during last May's two-week festival, I'm excited to see what Orlando Fringe can do with the other 50 weeks each year.