A look back at the peaks (and a few valleys) in Orlando’s 2021 cultural landscape

‘Down the Rabbit Hole’
‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ Photo courtesy Creative City Project

After the terrifying drop-tower descent into a dumpster fire that was 2020, I was hopeful that 2021 would see Orlando's arts and attractions bounce back briskly with the help of COVID vaccines. But as this year comes to a close, it turned out to be an even more disorienting roller coaster in the dark, with brief bursts of optimism undermined by Delta- and Omicron-shaped dips. Although the impact of the coronavirus is certain to continue into 2022, the good news this holiday season is that Orlando International Airport's passenger volume is on track to nearly reach 2019's pre-pandemic peak, which portends well for the region's tourist economy, as well as the arts organizations that depend on it. With that hopeful recovery on the horizon, let's look back at the past year's peaks (plus a few valleys) in Orlando's cultural landscape.

ATTRACTIONS

Looking back over the past 12 months at Orlando's themed attractions, it's clear that 2021 was the year Universal Orlando captured the hearts and minds (or at least wallets) of many park partisans. While Mickey's new offerings were late and/or lackluster, Universal launched the year with a food-centric, socially distanced Mardi Gras celebration, then accelerated into spring with a surprisingly smooth and swift debut for Islands of Adventure's Jurassic World Velocicoaster, which easily landed atop of my list of favorite local thrill rides.

Nothing new has been officially announced for 2021 yet, but Revenge of the Mummy is receiving a much-needed refurbishment and Shrek 4-D and Fear Factor Live are finally facing the wrecking ball, with rumors of a new Minions Villain-Con walkthrough and Harry Potter virtual reality experience waiting in the wings. Best of all, after being put on pause last year, progress on the Epic Universe expansion has resumed, and every leak from Alicia Stella (orlandoparkstop.com) about the upcoming theme park's attractions — like a Kuka robot arm dark ride featuring Frankenstein and Dracula — only makes me more eager for 2025 to arrive.

Behind the scenes, Universal top executives Tom Williams and Bill Davis announced their retirements, and turnover among Universal's creative departments has resulted in new opportunities throughout the entire industry. This was best observed during Orlando's reinvigorated Halloween season; as Halloween Horror Nights celebrated its 30th anniversary, Patrick Braillard — who designed many of HHN's best mazes — moved on to helm haunted events at the Oviedo Mall and SeaWorld, giving Universal its stiffest seasonal competition in decades.

Ironically, perhaps my favorite attraction experience of 2021 wasn't a multimillion-dollar permanent addition to any theme park, but a shameless cash-grab pop-up restaurant on International Drive. As a longtime fan of cult film director Kevin Smith, I didn't think anything could ever top eating an outrageously overpriced burger from his fictional Mooby's fast-food chain, which temporarily took over Tin Roof at Icon Park back in March. That was, until I got to interview the man himself (who is way more loquacious than his Silent Bob alter ego) ahead of his hilarious May Q&A appearance at the Dr. Phillips Center's Frontyard Festival.

PERFORMING ARTS

Speaking of the Frontyard, that standard-setting socially distanced outdoor venue — which was being dismantled as I wrote this column — was just one example of local arts organizations thinking outside their usual box in order to bring live performance back to life during 2021.

Orlando Shakes built a stage in their rear courtyard and shifted shows back to the Lake Eola amphitheater where they originally got their start. Creative City Projects dazzled with immersive outdoor experiences (like "Down the Rabbit Hole" at Mead Botanical Garden) that I enjoyed even more than their expanded Immerse street festival, which is rumored to be leaving downtown Orlando next year. Look for CCP's "Dragons & Fairies" follow-up at Leu Gardens in January. And although not every effort was successful — RIP, The Office murder mystery walking tour — it was encouraging to see so much continued innovation in the face of COVID.

Of course, during the second half of 2021 we saw an increasing number of productions returning to indoor stages, with varying degrees of safety precautions as venues attempted to navigate Florida's restrictions regarding vaccination requirement. With immunization cards or negative test results in hand, and masks over faces and mouths (except while sipping drinks), live audiences returned to the Winter Park Playhouse, Timucua Arts Foundation and I-Drive dinner theaters. We even got to welcome a brand-new theater in the form of Donald Rupe's Renaissance Theatre Company, which has made a big splash inside Orlando Ballet's former rehearsal hall with original interactive shows.

Orlando's return to "normality" culminated in November's resumption of the Broadway touring series at Dr. Phillips. It's a shame that momentous occasion wasn't marked with a more entertaining musical than Tootsie, but the star-studded lineup — including Audra McDonald and London's Royal Philharmonic — that is set to inaugurate the Steinmetz acoustic hall in January should more than make up for it.

Finally, although 2021 saw several significant shakeups among the leadership of local arts organizations — including the departures of Central Florida Community Arts founder Joshua Vickery and Orlando Ballet artistic director Robert Hill — nothing quite compared to the way Mad Cow Theatre's backstage drama spilled out into the public once again.

Following many years of complaints from employees about abusive practices and absent paychecks, Central Florida Entertainment Advocacy organized artists speaking out against the prominent downtown theater, leading to the denial or restriction of Mad Cow's requested grant funding. The company responded by attacking their critics on social media and hiring Bethune-Cookman professor Julius John as their new artistic director, but city of Orlando representatives publicly discussed plans to turn Mad Cow's space over to the Orlando Fringe Festival, which would use it to host underrepresented artists on a year-round basis.

Even after an eviction notice was posted in early November demanding that Mad Cow immediately vacate their city-owned venue, the herd refused to depart and continued holding performances through the holidays. Save some of the popcorn you popped to decorate your Christmas tree and stay tuned to this soap opera, because this show is sure to be extended into the New Year whether we like it or not.

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