Seth Kubersky has been covering Orlando theater and theme parks for Orlando Weekly for over 15 years. He has worked as an event producer, theatrical director, stage technician, and performer in Orlando, as well as writing top-selling attractions guidebooks including The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando, The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and After Disney: The Other Orlando. He lives in Orlando with his wife, Genevieve, and his cats Kipper and Sol.
If 2020 was like a drop-tower ride descending directly into a dumpster fire, 2021 has been a boomerang coaster, careening from exhilarating highs to devastating lows and back again. The good news/bad news is that Orlando's theme parks have rebounded from the eerily empty days after their initial reopenings to a summer season that has seen attendance levels approach their pre-pandemic peaks, only with the added pressure of chronic understaffing across the industry. Although the past year has seen more than its share of frustrations — first and foremost, the ongoing furlough of most Disney union performers — there were at least five moments at Orlando's attractions that made 2021 an upgrade over its predecessor:
• The CDC urged Americans to dine al fresco instead of indoors, and Orlando's resorts all capitalized on that advice with enhanced outdoor food festivals — which will, I hope, continue post-COVID. First Disney dilated its annual events to fill virtually the entire year, then SeaWorld expanded its seasonal calendar. Finally, Universal joined the fray with international Mardi Gras eats and a tribute store full of holiday treats. They all tasted like winners to me.
• First we got used to wearing a face mask at all times in the theme parks; then we learned to put them on before entering a shop or queue. And then in the spring came that brief, glorious period when face masks weren't mandatory and I could once again enjoy 3-D attractions without my glasses fogging over. Now we're stumbling back to square one, thanks to vaccine hesitancy and the Delta variant, but it was wonderful while it lasted.
• I've been on some of the biggest and baddest scream machines around the world, but nothing quite matches the quasi-religious experience of cresting the Jurassic World VelociCoaster's signature top-hat and feeling your soul float out of your body as your butt is ejected from your seat. Nothing, that is, except the head-spinning "Mosasaurus roll" that comes moments later, making for the best finale in roller coaster history.
• The long-term survival of Orlando's major players was never in doubt, but I've been pleasantly surprised how smaller attractions along I-Drive like Icon Park have persevered and even prospered. The home of the Wheel added a Museum of Illusions and an arcade, and the world's tallest slingshot and free-standing drop tower are currently rising. Best of all, cult filmmaker Kevin Smith brought Mooby's to life at Tin Roof as a fan-servicing pop-up, and I ate it up.
• Last January was a low point for our nation's democracy and Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, as the curtain fell on the Trump presidency with rumors that the venerable Hall of Presidents might close forever — or be invaded by Muppets. Fortunately for liberty's sake (and Liberty Square), the only robot inaugurated this August was President Joe Biden's audio-animatronic doppelgänger, who's now reciting the oath of office every 30 minutes for snoozing tourists.