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Theme parks, theater and more in Live Active Cultures’ look back at 2019 

This is the season when I like to look back over the past 12 months of Orlando's arts and attractions, highlighting some of the moments that (to steal a phrase from Marie Kondo) sparked the most joy. But to be frank, the last few weeks of listening to impeachment arguments on NPR has left me emotionally numb. So instead, I'm saying "see ya" to 2019 by name-checking 19 notable people and projects, with hopes that we'll all see a bit more clearly in 2020.


Without a doubt, the biggest news in the theme park universe was the arrival of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland and Disneyland's Hollywood Studios. Initial reviews of the anticipated expansions were sharply divided, like anything involving the sci-fi saga these days (see the polarizing reviews of Rise of Skywalker for more proof), but nearly everyone agrees that the headliner Rise of the Resistance dark ride is the best new addition to the Star Wars canon in decades – an impressive achievement in a year that also gave us Baby Yoda. Hot tip: Mandatory virtual boarding passes for the attraction are now distributed at official park opening, so you can sleep in and arrive around 6 a.m. instead of 4 a.m.

Elsewhere in Walt Disney World, wholesale demolition is underway in Epcot as the park prepares for an overdue overhaul, reducing to rubble landmarks that were both reviled (the morbid Leave a Legacy monuments) and revered (RIP, Club Cool's bitter Beverly beverage). But the debris created by those removals is nothing compared to the dust-up over the disappearance of another Epcot icon. After the animatronic Buzzy character from Cranium Command was reported AWOL, Disney urban explorer Dave "Hoot Gibson" Ensign confidently claimed in this column that Mickey's Imagineers had merely misplaced him. But police reports related to the arrest of Patrick Allen Spikes for the theft of the figure's clothes (which ended up in the possession of NBA player Robin Lopez) indicate that Buzzy's absence is still an unsolved mystery.

Across town at Universal Orlando, Islands of Adventure's exceptional new Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure proved too popular for its own good, drawing massive crowds to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with a roller coaster that has struggled to run consistently. Fortunately, the final Halloween Horror Nights event to be overseen by director Michael Aiello hit new heights with 1980s fan service. The biggest news of the decade was the confirmation of Universal's Epic Universe, a massive new park opening in 2023 on land near the Convention Center. Universal has fans salivating over proposed attractions featuring Super Nintendo properties and Classic Monsters; shame they left a bad taste in taxpayers' mouths by cajoling Orange County into forking over $125 million (a tiny fraction of Comcast's annual profits) for road expansion through their property.

Last but not least, SeaWorld remains under a storm of controversy over their animal performers, but the park took steps toward sweeping the clouds away with their sunny new Sesame Street expansion, which brings the interactivity and immersion of Batuu and Hogsmeade to the kindergarten set. Hopefully, newly appointed CEO Sergio Rivera (the company's fifth chief in five years) can continue cleaning things up as their upcoming Ice Breaker coaster thaws out.


Last January's visit from Hamilton was the hands-down highlight in a year of touring Broadway productions that also featured the moving Come From Away and the side-splitting Play That Goes Wrong. But far more important for local arts was the end of a public feud pitting the Dr. Phillips Center against Opera Orlando, the Orlando Philharmonic and the Orlando Ballet over rental rates of the soon-to-open Steinmetz Hall. The latter two groups already secured new homes elsewhere in town, but at least the agreement allows the acoustic venue to be utilized by the companies whose presence was the whole premise for public funding of the center. Hopefully, the resolution of their dispute, which included the establishment of a new discounted rate for other nonprofit performers, will lead to additional local organizations utilizing the city's crown jewel.

While those major organizations may now enjoy stable stages, smaller troupes in town have been less lucky. The closing of the Venue in Ivanhoe Village to make way for mixed-use development the Yard at Ivanhoe was a devastating loss to Orlando's performers, but owner Blue Star is still popping up around town with her VarieTease cohorts while they seek a new space. In Sanford, Derek Critzer's Theater West End is struggling financially, and at press time was still thousands short of the $30K they need to remain open. However, the venue situation wasn't all doom and gloom: James Brendlinger's Penguin Point Productions is wrapping up a successful first year inside the Oviedo Mall; Mandy Longo's Floridabilt is bringing interactive entertainment back to Church Street; and CityArts now inhabits the historic Rogers-Kiene Building. The availability of affordable rehearsal and performance space for emerging artists is a key issue in our cultural community, and one I plan to keep a close eye on in the coming year.

Finally, on a personal note, the high points of my year in Orlando's performing arts world involved watching creative people that I've admired for decades in other disciplines get up the courage to expand their talents into a theatrical setting. Founding AntiBabe costumer/choreographer–turned–Chicken Soup for the Soul author Jodi Renee Thomas transformed her Confessions of a Party Girl blog into an audience-participatory play, while pioneering indie nerd-rocker Marc "With a C" Sirdoreus celebrated his 20th anniversary with a moving one-man musical based on his Obscurity trilogy. If I have a wish for next year, it's that more artists will follow their example and step outside their comfort zone, creating a better vision for 2020.

This story appears in the Dec. 25, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.

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