Reinvent or refurbish? Rebuild or renovate? Raze or restore? I'm currently a resident of Orlando's Milk District, which is in the midst of a massive gentrification project that's demolishing generations of single-family homes to make way for newly built duplexes. So the raging debate over urban renewal versus retaining traditional character literally hits close to home for me right now – the prototype project of investor Adam Wonus' plans for rental domination sits four doors down from my driveway.
Real estate aside, I'm not opposed to reimagining and retrofitting, at least in the arts and entertainment. Last week, I got to experience examples of overhauls done the intelligent way, thanks to invitations from Universal Orlando and Pseudonym Productions to experience some former favorites in fresh new incarnations.
Islands of Adventure's Incredible Hulk
As the sun sets on 2016's summer season in Orlando's theme parks, it's safe to say Skull Island: Reign of Kong at Islands of Adventure and Epcot's Frozen Ever After (covered in my June 27 column) snagged the lion's share of attention from attraction addicts, followed closely by SeaWorld's Mako (which I have yet to ride). But I've been most excited about the return of IOA's Incredible Hulk roller coaster, which was disassembled down to the concrete footers and meticulously rebuilt from scratch over the past 11 months. On Aug. 10, Universal Creative's Greg Hall hosted an early-morning media tour of the reborn ride, which officially reopened to park guests early this month after an unusually brief preview period of technical rehearsals.
From the monumental statue outside to the CGI preshow videos, Hulk has shed his 1990 cartoon aesthetic, coming closer to (though not duplicating) the current cinematic style. Hall filled us in on the updated storyline behind the gorgeous glowing-green queue and bragged on Hulk's brand-new trains, which boast nighttime illumination (implementing an idea conceived for the original version) and onboard speakers, plus additional seats that can accommodate plus-sized guests.
Soon it was time to strap in for a fond reunion with one of my all-time favorite coasters. Every curve – from the iconic opening launch to the final helix – was exactly as I remembered, and as smooth as my first flight in 1999. The "world's longest" plasma screen in the tunnel didn't make much impression, and I had trouble hearing the new launch dialogue, but the orchestral rock soundtrack (by Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump) succeeds in making the ride feel even faster and more intense than before. I rate this Marvelous makeover an incredible success; we can only pray to Dumbledore that the rumored renovation or replacement of Dragon Challenge in the Wizarding World turns out half as well.
My media tour also included a visit to the new Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, Universal's fifth on-site hotel, where I sat in Strongwater Tavern (rapidly becoming one of my favorite watering holes on property) sipping pre-noon rum cocktails with executive project director Russ Dagon.
After we bonded over breeze block and terrazzo (the VP behind Cabana Bay Beach Resort and I are both fans of Wildwood motels), Dagon explained how he eschewed the pastel clichés of other Caribbean-themed hotels in favor of a "found object" conceit inspired by reclaimed materials, where antique organic elements have been grafted onto starkly minimalist modern architecture. If the hotel's cool palette and water-centric landscaping don't impress you, Strongwater's fresh ceviche and rum flights will; when visiting, ask your server to validate for free self-parking or $5 valet.
Pseudonym Productions' When Shadows Fall
Mega-coasters and upscale resorts are awesome and all, but my grand opening experience at Pseudonym Productions' When Shadows Fall also shows how redevelopment can revitalize independent entertainment as well.
When I first participated in this interactive theatrical experience early in its soft opening (see my July 13 column) I recognized the show's advances over last year's incarnation as The Republic, but pointed out several areas that still needed improvement. I'm happy to report that over the past weeks, virtually all of my suggestions (along with many others') were implemented, vastly improving the cohesion and coherence of my latest excursion into the dystopian world of Penumbra.
Designer Nathanael White's already impressive sets have been fleshed out, and a new VIP preshow (which I strongly recommend) offers easier immersion into the intricate backstory. Performances were noticeably stronger (particularly from Barry Wright, Chris Brown, Joe Hall and Lauren Ashleigh Morrison) and the consequences of my interactions were more obvious, especially during the retooled climax.
In a world where reshoots and re-edits usually result in trainwrecks, I salute creator Sarah Elger and her team for that proving that the third time can be the charm.