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A look at what's in store for Orlando's theme parks and attractions in 2017



Throughout 2016, I've felt menaced and attacked by forces that left me aching for revenge. But in the closing hours of this annus horribilis, I found – dare I say it? – a new hope that these past 12 months may soon be seen as a sucky prequel to a terrific trilogy (or two) to come. OK, it may simply be sci-fantasy to hope that a plucky band of rebels will strike back against encroaching fascism and return freedom to our corner of the galaxy, or even that we'll all someday look like Kenner action figures of our long, long-ago selves. It may just be my apres-Rogue One buzz talking, but I'm ready to finally turn a page on Episode MMXVI and start getting excited for the new arts and attractions rapidly approaching us in the new year.

While we're speaking of Star Wars, let's start at Disney's Hollywood Studios, whose new Star Wars land won't open for several more years. As a stopgap, elements from the newest film were recently added to the Launch Bay exhibit and nightly Galactic Spectacular fireworks, which is currently my favorite nighttime show at Walt Disney World. Animal Kingdom will debut Pandora, their new Avatar-inspired expansion, and (hopefully) Rivers of Light, which was on my "most anticipated" list for 2016 before its indefinite delay. And the Magic Kingdom ended 2016 by introducing beer and wine to more sit-down restaurants in the park, which should help dull the pain of the park not getting a new E-Ticket next year.

But it's Epcot that's kicking off 2017 with my most eagerly awaited Disney addition, the new International Festival of the Arts running Jan. 13-Feb. 20. Along with food kiosks and art displays, the event will include concerts starring Broadway performers from Aladdin, Newsies and other Disney shows. Epcot's World Showcase now hosts "seasonal" festivals virtually year-round. That may help distract guests from the sorry state of Future World, which will soon see major revamping; you should probably take your farewell rides on Ellen's Energy Adventure ASAP.

A few miles up I-4, Universal Orlando has its hands full with not only additional attractions and hotel rooms on tap for 2017, but an entire new park. Universal ended 2016 strong with an improved Macy's Holiday Parade (boasting better choreography and a beautiful new Virginia Davis balloon) in the Studios, which makes me optimistic for the new Secret Life of Pets segment just added to the park's aging afternoon parade. What intrigues me most are the crowd-management concepts Universal is introducing with their new Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon simulator and Volcano Bay water park, which will leverage smartphone apps and electronic bracelets to eliminate standby lines, replacing queues with reserved entry times.

Across the under-construction Caravan Court cut-through to International Drive, Fun Spot delivered their own glimpse of the future as an early Christmas gift, making the dynamite VR Coaster I demoed during IAAPA available to regular guests riding their Freedom Flyer without additional charge. If an independent outfit like Fun Spot can make VR functional, I have faith that SeaWorld can figure it out for themselves by next summer, when Kraken will sprout virtual reality headsets.

Over on the performing arts side, I'm beside myself with excitement over next weekend's Orlando Fringe Winter Mini-Fest, which revives 19 of the best productions from last May's festival, including several Critics' Choice winners that I helped select. Local favorites like 5 Lesbians Eating Quiche, Jefferson & Jupiter, Space and Slut Like Me will return to Orlando Shakes Jan. 5-8, alongside national and international acts including Jimmy Hogg, Jon Bennett, Stewart Huff, Inescapable and Edgar Allan. Speaking of Orlando Shakes, they recently announced my inner nerd's No. 1 pick for next spring, a staging of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra starring Michael Dorn, aka Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

As I mentioned last week, Mad Cow's troubles have prompted concern about the state of Orlando's theater community, but from where I stand it looks strong. Director Kenny Howard capped 2016 at the Orlando Repertory Theatre with the Orlando premiere of Out of the Apple Orchard, a rare Jewish-themed holiday play. Winter Park Playhouse launches their 2017 Spotlight series Jan. 11-12 with Natalie Cordone's Oh, the Places You'll Go!, the latest cabaret from the operatic veteran of Vegas and NYC. And Greater Orlando Actors Theatre is following up 2016's Jekyll & Hyde with another horror musical Jan. 13-22, The Toxic Avenger. So no matter what becomes of the pasture, 2017 seems to be poised for a stellar start.

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