Live Active Cultures

Tell people you write a newspaper column, and they feign interest or express sympathy for your impending unemployment from a soon-to-be-extinct medium. Tell them that you write about arts and culture, and they inch away, lest you start spouting Proust. But tell them that you cover the attractions, and they're liable to run screaming for the exit. Nothing seems to annoy the appropriateness police like a serious adult talking about critical appreciation for an art form that they've assigned to the kid-stuff ghetto.

That's always struck me as an asinine attitude, especially in a city whose tax base is built on pixie dust. But nothing pisses certain people off like associating artistry with, say, a theme park. Just ask Brian Feldman; his Jan. 15 marathon ride of the Magic Kingdom's classic Carousel of Progress (I sat in on shows No. 13 and 15, during which we got stuck in the 1920s scene) aroused the kind of bloodthirsty ire from posters on the Sentinel's Daily Disney blog that you'd typically associate with molesters and politicians.

Well, to hell with that: I'm man enough to say that I refuse to put away "childish" things. My adult appreciation for Shakespeare, jazz and brie is in no way undermined by my eternal admiration for puppetry, animation and Dole Whip. Case in point, I love a good circus. My family's annual outings are a fixture of my childhood memories, and while they became uncool by high school, I never lost my taste for the big top. When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus came to town last year, I enjoyed the elephant parade, but was underwhelmed by the actual show. This year, the circus train is back and running on all cylinders.

To my animal-activist readers, including the guy protesting outside Amway Arena on opening night, let me say I'm not unsympathetic to your concerns, and this paper has covered PETA's circus protests many times in the past. But personally, having grown up during the heyday of legendary lion tamer Gunther Gebel-Williams, I have to credit the circus (along with other "exploitative" experiences like zoos and petting farms) with spurring my fascination with — and concern for — wildlife. And I know I'd rather be the performing pachyderm than the human shoveling his shit.

The latest edition of "The Greatest Show on Earth" is inspired by namesake showman P.T. Barnum's 200th birthday and is a refreshing return to the show's roots, with the art direction cleverly derived from late-19th-century circus history. Sequences are subtly themed around period pop-culture crazes like "Orientalism" and Wild West romanticism, famed freak-show personas like the Siamese Twins and Wild Man of Borneo are repurposed for pratfalls, and sideshow standbys like the strongman and fire walker are given center stage. Gone are the infantile clown-driven storyline and awkward illusions that were shoehorned into last year's "Zing Zang Zoom" production. The new show is pure spectacle with no pretense of plot; white tigers to high wires, all paraded with breathless pacing and seamless transitions.

I could wax philosophical about our psychological need to master nature and confront oddities. I could get political about how we've shielded kids from authentic ugliness in favor of artificial atrocities. I could kvetch about the overpriced concessions (ask for the unadvertised kid portions) and low-hanging LED video screens that ruined sightlines in the arena's upper levels. But when seven motorcycles spun simultaneously inside the steel suicide sphere, I sat breathless on the proverbial edge of my seat. And when they brought out baby Barack, an infant elephant born last inauguration eve, I got a little teary.

Another way I embrace aesthetic infantilism: I'm an unapologetic gamer. I got my first PC — a TI-99/4A — in 1982 and haven't put down my joystick since (wait, I didn't mean that like it sounds). So the annual Otronicon, held last weekend at Orlando Science Center, is like my geek Rosh Hashanah. Good thing I visited during the Cocktails & Cosmos preview, so I could sip a drink and look grown-up as I played Space Invaders (on a vintage cabinet, no less). I missed some of the live performances but did catch the tail end of AltaModa and the Body Shop's fashion show, featuring looks best described as Ziggy Stardust meets Final Fantasy.

Downstairs, screaming teens packed the Rock Band stage, butchering Journey joyfully. The Lockheed Martin "Military Tech" simulator exhibit was conveniently adjacent to the Florida Hospital­—sponsored "Medical Sim City," so you could get your digital head blown off and then have the da Vinci surgical robot stitch you back together. Requisite zombies and aliens were present aplenty, but I was most pleased to see kids engrossed in lo-fi activities like marbles and chess — I'd hate to see tradition crowded out entirely by technology. Now excuse me, I've got to get back to New Super Mario Bros. Wii .…

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