My attempts to remain positive in the face of the Trumpocalypse came under assault last week by two dispiriting departures. First, Artegon Marketplace, I-Drive's experimental "anti-mall," announced its imminent extinction as of Thursday, Jan. 26. Days later, while Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was in the midst of an Orlando appearance highlighted by the debut of their first-ever female ringmaster, Feld Entertainment announced that the 146-year-old "Greatest Show on Earth" will fold forever in a few months.
I'm attempting to look on the bright side: Artegon's superior Cinemark theater will remain open, and the Gods & Monsters collectibles shop is planning to relocate; Ringling's controversial treatment of animals will now be a moot issue, perhaps clearing the way for Feld's once-rumored acquisition by Disney. So in the spirit of "for every door that closes, a window opens," let's move forward with two artful additions to Central Florida's attractions.
Ninjago World at Legoland
Last Thursday, Jan. 12, Winter Haven's Legoland celebrated the debut of Ninjago World with a flock of Fuller House stars (including Jodie Sweetin), a flurry of high kicks from Dr. Phillips martial arts students and a blizzard of confetti. Based on the hit toy-turned-TV-series that's soon to spawn a feature film, Legoland Florida's latest expansion transformed a narrow strip behind its wooden coaster into an elegant Oriental garden crafted from plastic bricks.
Kid-sized interactive activities – such as dizzying "Spinjago" playground devices, horizontal climbing walls and a reflex-testing arcade game – set the stage for the land's centerpiece, a 3-D interactive dark ride designed by Triotech that is by far the most technologically advanced ride at the family-focused resort. Lego Ninjago the Ride builds on the legacy of shooting gallery rides like Universal's Men in Black and Disney's Toy Story Mania by dispensing with the gun, and instead turning riders' own hands into the input device. More than 100 computers are involved in tracking player movement, rendering millions of pixels in real time and projecting it onto both screens and sculpted sets.
With a theoretical capacity of 1,000 riders per hour, wait times for Ninjago were reasonable even on opening day. That's good news, because firing kung-fu spells by waving your hands around it isn't quite as intuitive as it sounds, and you'll need at least a couple of trips to get the hang of it. The different maneuvers advertised in the preshow are merely suggestions. Legoland Florida general manager Adrian Jones shared with me his preferred technique: Rest your elbow on the lap panel so that your hand sits at least 8 inches above the sensor and rapidly flick your fingers, making small adjustments to your aim.
Ninjago the Ride easily outdoes anything at Legoland Florida for sheer wow-factor, even if it isn't on the level of an Orlando E-Ticket. The 3-D projections use dated polarized glasses, and the ride itself has no intelligible dialogue or storyline to speak of. However, none of that will matter to my ninja-obsessed nephew, who I expect will have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the car.
Epcot International Festival of the Arts
On the other hand, I nearly had to be dragged away from my first-ever Walt Disney World press event, marking the debut of Epcot's new Festival of the Arts event. Perhaps it's the complimentary chocolate twist-topped Sidecars speaking, but on first impression the Festival – which runs Fridays through Mondays through Feb. 20 – has elevated my expectations for Epcot's food-centric festivals with superior presentations on both the stage and plate.
Take the $14 charcuterie palette served at the Masterpiece Kitchen kiosk near Canada. It requires 14 separate steps to assemble the cured duck breast, jelly-crowned blue cheese, and other savory tidbits atop a faux-wooden board, making it the culinary equivalent of Rowan Atkinson's gift-wrapped necklace from Love Actually. The end result looks, tastes and costs more like a fine-dining appetizer than a quick-service snack, as do many of the other offerings, from jumbo sea scallops garnished to resemble Renoir's "Woman in a Hat" to whimsical Pop Art pop tarts.
Putting the Arts into the Festival are smartly curated seminars and exhibits honoring Disney's artists both legendary (galleries of Herb Ryman and Mary Blair concept art) and living (work by Lynn Rippberger, Lon Smart and Kim Gromoll appeared over opening weekend). Live performances range from a Quebecois punk band and Grammy-winning producer/percussionist Archie Peña on outdoor stages to headlining Disney on Broadway Concerts that kicked off with Ashley Brown of Mary Poppins fame (through Sunday, Jan. 23), and will continue with New York stars Kerry Butler and Kevin Massey (Jan. 27 through Feb. 6).
Ordinarily, I'd be inclined to opine about how Disney has over-expanded Epcot's seasonal event calendar, squeezing in this new festival between the Holiday and Flower & Garden fests with mere days before and after. Instead, Epcot's Festival of the Arts has instantly shot near the top of my favorite annual attraction events. It won't be a real replacement for Downtown Disney's much-missed Festival of the Masters until it adds a folk art component, but these creative comestibles are worth an encore, even on my own dime.