Looking back at Orlando's theater and theme park attractions of 2016

“An American in Paris”
“An American in Paris” Photo courtesy of Dr. Phillips Center

Traditionally, this week is the time of year when I write a heartwarming column looking back on all the wonderful things that happened over the past year in Orlando's arts and attractions scene. Sadly, I have to fill this page, and my positive thoughts about 2016 would barely cover a subordinate clause. So instead, I'm embracing the suck with my short list of terrible, horrible, not so good, very bad things that didn't make worldwide news in 2016.

The year started off with a shocking preview of the senseless destruction in store when caricature artist Glenn Ferguson was severely stabbed by a disgruntled former co-worker at Universal's Islands of Adventure on New Year's Day. According to a recent WESH report, Ferguson is still slowly recovering from his traumatic brain injury and PTSD, while his assailant's trial has been repeatedly delayed. Here's hoping for swifter progress on both fronts in 2017.

Last January also saw a long-running local holiday tradition extinguished, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney's Holiday Studios. For me, the megawatt display was never quite as marvelous once it moved from the park's long-demolished residential facades to the more recently demolished urban sets. But over 20 years, Osborne's bulbs burned themselves a warm hole in my heart that none of Disney's newer Christmas offerings can quite fill.

Earlier this year, I penned a Best of Orlando award applauding the Wallack family for triumphing in their toe-to-toe battle with Universal Orlando and winning commission approval for their 500-plus-foot-tall Skyplex tower on International Drive. In the year since that victory, we've heard many plans for additional attractions, like a ledge walk and a free-fall ride, but vertical construction has yet to commence, and the projected opening has slipped to 2019. I'll happily eat my words – and/or lose my lunch – riding the world's tallest roller-coaster if and when it finally opens. But the fact that the complex's official website hasn't been updated in more than a year doesn't inspire confidence.

Obviously, nothing can compete in magnitude with the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in June. Still, Orlando's arts family lost a number of other members before and after that awful night whose memories also linger. Three that I'm especially missing this holiday season are scenic artist Tommy Mangieri, painter of countless local theater sets; Matt McGrath, loyal friend of the Orlando Fringe festival; and Frank Holt, former Mennello Museum director and my wife's mentor. I'm raising a glass to all of you, and grateful you weren't around for 2016's shitty second half.

Along with losing living cornerstones of our community, several of our architectural citizens were also swept away. Most notably, the Alden Road warehouses where the Orlando Fringe, Thirsty Topher and many local artisans did their work have been flattened for the Yard at Ivanhoe development. In nearby Winter Park, the artist-members of McRae Arts Studio exited their longtime location (they've since partnered with ArtReach Orlando for a new space in 2017), and closer to home, my old Milk District neighborhood was overrun with Adam Wonus' duplexes. Here's irony for you: One building that's still standing is Theatre Downtown's former home, which sits untouched nearly two years after TD was forced out of it.

This fall, a long-simmering scandal over Mad Cow Theatre's failure to pay numerous actors in a timely manner once again boiled over into the public square, with scalding words being shared among the local arts community via social media. The last time this issue came to light, in 2014, it was swiftly pushed to the back burner, but this time the controversy caused United Arts to withhold significant funding, despite the Cow's claims to have resolved their debts. Like so many situations this year, this one is a no-win: I no longer trust this once-great company to responsibly handle the public subsidies they receive, but if their stages go dark, everybody loses.

After 2015's decidedly mixed bag of Broadway offerings at the Dr. Phillips Center, I had my fingers crossed for Fairwinds' 2016 slate, which boasted a number of heavy hitters. But while a handful (The Sound of Music, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) met or exceeded my expectations, many of the productions I'd longed to see in New York turned out to be dispiriting disappointments on the road, from the spectacular but superficial Kinky Boots to the shrilly overacted Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Happily, last week's exceptional An American in Paris, a fabulously frothy confection of classical jazz and flawless ballet, inspired me with its story of a city using art to recover from fascism. Hopefully, that's a positive portent of better things in store for Orlando in 2017.

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