click to enlarge Na’vi River Boat Ride

Image courtesy of Disney

Na’vi River Boat Ride

Looking back at 2017's theme parks and performing arts in Orlando 

Traditionally, I devote my last Live Active Cultures column of each year to highlights and lowlights from Orlando's theaters and theme parks over the preceding 12 months. But 2017 turned out to be the year when good became bad, right became wrong, and collusion became kosher. Rather than lament the fact that we all now live in the Stranger Things' Upside Down, I'm embracing the bitter with the sweet, and combining all my picks and pans in a fond farewell to the Best Worst Year Ever.

ATTRACTIONS

It may not get as much marketing attention as the major parks, but in recent years Fun Spot has added some of my favorite new area attractions, like 2016's Freedom Flyer VR coasters at their Orlando location. Mine Blower, which opened in June at their Kissimmee park, was expected to be another hit, and I was among its eager opening-day riders. But the inverting wooden coaster from Gravity Group turned out to be uncomfortably rough, a surprise considering the designer's reputation for smooth rides. I can't recommend repeated re-rides without a chiropractor on retainer, but thrill junkies will want to experience its intensity at least once.

While I'll admit being among the skeptics before Disney opened Pandora at Animal Kingdom (insert "sex tails" joke here), the Avatar-inspired expansion has quickly grown on me. The Na'vi River boat ride isn't worth more than 20 minutes in line, but straddling a synthetic Banshee would be my new happy place if the Flight of Passage simulator didn't always have a multi-hour wait. Advance Fastpasses are still frustratingly scarce, so check for same-day Fastpasses at 11 a.m., or go standby around 2 p.m. (not at opening). And bring along an empty water bottle; there are plenty of water fountains in the queue, but no restrooms ...

After the annus horribilis of 2016, SeaWorld fans had hoped the park would recover from its post-Blackfish PR nightmare, but between leaked executive emails, heavy layoffs, and the death of captive orca Tilikum, public perception has gone from bad to worse.

It didn't help that the park's major 2017 debut, a virtual reality version of the Kraken coaster, turned out to be a glitchy, queue-slowing dud. Sadly, SeaWorld's superb seasonal events – summer's Electric Daisy Carnival-esque Electric Ocean, the inaugural Seven Seas Food Festival, a Christmas Celebration with Rankin-Bass characters – get overlooked, despite putting to shame the overcrowded, overpriced festivals that have overrun Epcot's operating calendar.

For me, the year's most bittersweet bow was the closing of Universal Orlando's Terminator 2/3-D, where I was employed as a stage technician two decades ago. I attended the final performance on Oct. 8 with a full house of cheering fans and former crewmates. Also seated near me was the show's co-creator, Gary Goddard; I introduced myself, mentioning that I'd worked on the attraction early in my career. His reply – "We devirginized a lot of people here" – seemed even creepier a few weeks later, after child molestation accusations against him became public.

PERFORMING ARTS

The annual Creative City Project has been growing exponentially since its 2012 inception, and this year's event – rebranded as IMMERSE – was simply overwhelming. It was thrilling to find artists and musicians up and down Orange Avenue, but the abundance of options instilled in me a severe case of FOMO. In my rush to cram in as much as possible, I know I missed out on at least two quality performances for every one I caught. I'm hoping that next year either IMMERSE is spread out over a second evening, or I save up enough quarters to finally clone myself.

The good news is that they finally broke ground this year on the long-delayed acoustic Steinmetz Hall at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts; the bad news is that construction has turned the venue's sidewalk-less entrance into a pedestrian obstacle course. The good news is that the Dr. Phil brought Orlando a number of big-name touring Broadway shows this year, including Finding Neverland, On Your Feet and Love Never Dies; the bad news is that most of them stunk. The good news is that we're getting Hamilton in 2019; the bad news is we have to survive 2018 first.

In 2017 there were numerous worthy productions at established venues like Winter Park Playhouse and Orlando Shakes, but I saw practically none of them. Instead, I focused on emerging companies in unconventional locations, and (mostly) found myself richly rewarded for the effort. Producer Jeremy Seghers lured me to a downtown apartment, a college campus, and even outdoors with edgy shows like This Is Our Youth, Saint Joan and Red Black and Ignorant. Theater on the Edge transported me from their south Orlando storefront to a Michigan motel, a Chicago doughnut shop and a Philly rowhouse, thanks largely to Samantha DiGeorge's set designs. And I drove more than once up to Sanford, where Winnie Wenglewick's Dangerous Theatre is offering community theater opportunities similar to what Theatre Downtown once provided. Not every show I saw was exceptional, but overall my explorations off the beaten path were well worth the mileage.

It's inevitable that Orlando's creative community will mourn the deaths of some members every year, but some of this year's losses – writer-activist Billy Manes, radio producer Katie Ball – cut especially deep. The most recent to pass away was local actor Tyler Cravens, who performed at Garden Theatre and Mad Cow when not filming the Netflix series Bloodline or running Winter Garden's Thai Blossom restaurant. Personally, I'm trying to preserve some of their passion and positivity as we put 2017 in the rear view mirror, because, as Tyler would say: "Onward and upward!"

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