It's time to take a look back at 2014, with some of my most memorable moments – mostly positive – from the past year in Central Florida.
Just as in 2010, this was the year of Harry Potter, and just as Hogsmeade's grand opening was, Diagon Alley's debut was the highlight of my year – nay, career – covering the theme parks. The headliner Escape From Gringotts roller coaster made a meh first impression, but after some growing pains it's grown on me, and Universal absolutely nailed every other element of their Wizarding World expansion. Added bonus: I got to test-taste hot Butterbeer back in January; the ambrosial brew was recently added to the menu for all guests.
Over at Walt Disney World, the long-awaited Seven Dwarfs Mine Train finally opened, and was better than expected for a kiddie coaster. Otherwise, Mickey's biggest news was about closures – including American Idol Experience and the Studio Backlot Tour at Hollywood Studios, and Epcot's Maelstrom – and Frozen's explosion in the parks; whether that's a peak or a valley is up to you.
The literal high point of my 2014 was taking a helicopter more than 800 feet above I-Drive to scope the site of Skyscraper, the world's tallest roller coaster, designed by Bill Kitchen's US Thrill Rides. I'll be in line to ride this insane inverted monster when it opens in 2017 – but not first in line.
With all due respect to Halloween Horror Nights, my biggest scares of 2014 both came west of Orlando. The Falcon's Fury drop tower finally opened at Busch Gardens Tampa, and I faced the facedown fall as bravely as I could (read: not very). And the Shallow Grave's spectacular sophomore maze in Winter Haven made me scream and run like no other haunt.
The biggest new attraction on I-Drive wasn't a ride, but an arts mall. Artegon marketplace reimagined the exhausted Festival Bay Mall as an industrial-chic gathering of artisans and local vendors, from Robin "RV" van Arsdol's expansive gallery to the Daily City's permanent version of their popular pop-up shops.
My favorite new attraction genre to arrive in Orlando this year was the interactive escape adventure. First the Great Escape Room brought nerve-wracking puzzle rooms to downtown, then It's a Trap in Winter Park improved on the idea with quality actors and fully themed environments, making its fantasy scenario my favorite "magical" experience of 2014 outside PotterWorld.
Finally, SeaWorld makes the bottom of this list for the second year in a row, as they shed their CEO and scrooge hundreds of laid-off employees just before Christmas in the ongoing fallout from Blackfish.
The highlight of my theatrical calendar was seeing Neil Patrick Harris step into Hedwig's high heels on Broadway (and on dirt-cheap rush tickets, to boot). But the biggest story in Orlando's arts scene was undoubtedly the opening of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which represents both the best (amazing acoustics, impressive opening shows) and worst (controversies over funding and grass-roots accessibility) of the last year.
The Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival had another banner year, from record-breaking festival attendance to Disenchanted! (which began at the Fringe) getting good reviews off-Broadway. The bummer: Like most of their Alden Road neighbors, they're being evicted from their office next year for a mixed-use development (see page 12) that will eventually replace the Venue, too.
Theatre Downtown closed its doors after 25 years at the corner of Orange and Princeton with their traditional Christmas Carol, in the worst lease-termination news of the year. The company will live on (as gypsies for now), but it will never be quite the same.
Winter Park's Red Fox Lounge, a favorite post-show hangout and longtime home to lounge singers extraordinaire Lorna Lambey and the late Mark Wayne, also exited in 2014.
Winter Garden's Plant Street continued as a cultural player in 2014, with the Garden Theatre hosting Beth Marshall's 33 Variations (a tour de force for pianist Julian Bond) and Florida Film Academy taking in Pinocchio's Marionette Theater, which left its space in the Altamonte Mall.
Mad Cow hit a low this year, with behind-the-scenes complaints about late payments to artists becoming public, but by summer they bounced back with polished productions of The History Boys (starring the ever-amazing Philip Nolen) and The Letters; the latter's battle of wits between Jennifer Christa Palmer and Brian Brightman was the tensest hour of drama I experienced all year.
FTA bade a sad farewell to Ron Legler, but still closed out the Bob Carr with a strong Broadway Across America season (Once, War Horse, Evita), and, with the help of Kenny Howard, brought big-name New York talent like Norbert Leo Butz to the Abbey.