Think ”Orlando,” and what comes to mind?

The muscle of the mighty Mouse, a sprawling Disney presence that draws millions each year? The screams of kids on the roller coasters at the Universal Orlando Resort?

Since Walt Disney World opened almost 40 years ago, theme parks have transformed this area from a city surrounded by citrus groves and small communities to a booming tourist magnet.
But the prosperity has also brought a less widely publicized boom: a thriving arts and culture scene.

Among Orlando’s cultural riches are a professional opera company, ballet and orchestra; a Shakespeare theater company that presents everything from classics to new work; the oldest, open-to-any-group fringe theater festival in the United States; art museums that house masterpieces, folk art, modern works and a dazzling collection of pieces by stained-glass master Louis Comfort Tiffany; small theaters whose eclectic productions draw adventurous audiences to works by Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett.

And on the drawing board for the fall of 2012 is another key indicator of the arts community’s growth: a $425-million, three-theater downtown performing arts center.

”The growth of the arts here has been meteoric over the past 40 years,” says Jim Helsinger, artistic director of the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, which moved into its three-theater complex in the city’s museum-and-arts-focused Loch Haven Park in 2001. “In just the past 13 years, we’ve seen a brand-new art museum, science museum and history center and a new home for the Orlando Repertory Theatre. The opera, ballet and philharmonic are all thriving and just waiting on the new performing arts center.

“The perception needs to catch up to the reality. We have excellent arts organizations to [serve] the people who live here.”

In 1989, the aggregate budgets of Orlando’s arts and culture groups were just over $10 million; almost two decades later, the figure is about $40 million. Margot Knight, president of United Arts of Central Florida — a kind of United Way for arts and culture groups — says that funding is about half that of the similarly sized Charlotte, N.C., metropolitan area. But she argues that the Orlando area, with its relatively young arts-and-culture community, has ”the quality and breadth to match” Charlotte’s companies and museums.

That budget disparity means that Orlando’s groups and institutions have to do more with less. Terry Olson, who has been involved in Orlando arts since he relocated from Minneapolis 26 years ago and serves as director of Orange County’s Arts and Cultural Affairs office, says that burnout among the area’s arts leaders is one of the biggest challenges.

”We’re highly productive,” Olson says. “Many people work 70 hours a week and then some.”

One of those multi-tasking arts leaders is Alan Bruun. Bruun works as an associate creative director for Disney and is also artistic director of the downtown-based Mad Cow Theatre Company. His motto: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

Bruun began freelancing for Disney in 1998, the year after he and three associates founded Mad Cow. He went full-time with Disney 4 ½ years ago and now spends his days on Disney work, his nights and weekends at Mad Cow, which has two performance spaces and a gallery. Bruun says that Disney, far from being concerned about his split work life and long hours, has been supportive.

“When I came to work here, I said, ‘I run a theater.’ And they said, ‘Good,’ ” Bruun recalls.

“They provide year-round employment for talented people, which is unique in a city our size. They allow actors, directors, stage managers and designers to make a living. Mad Cow becomes an outlet for those talented individuals in a much different setting. Disney could be the 800-pound gorilla if it wanted to be, but whenever possible, concessions will be made [for outside work], because Disney deems it valuable.”

Disney spokesperson Andrea Finger confirms the company’s philosophy: “At the heart of our business, we are a creative-content company with deep roots in entertainment, brought to life by our talented, artistic cast members. We’re proud to do our part — together with great community partners — to support Central Florida’s vibrant arts community.”

Rather than twitching at the mention of the Orlando area’s tourist-magnet theme parks, most arts leaders praise Disney and Universal for their flexibility in letting employees work with arts groups or serve on boards, as well as for their financial contributions to Orlando arts and culture.

Beth Marshall, producing artistic director of Orlando’s popular theatrical Fringe Festival, acknowledges that with its internationally known theme parks, Orlando is often seen as ”a city ruled by a Mouse.” But as the theme parks have expanded, so has the region’s arts-and-culture scene.

”We could create it to be whatever the heck we wanted to be,” Marshall says. “All of us are the cultural pioneers here.”

At many arts events, the audience skews younger than it typically does in South Florida. Patrick Flick, director of new play development at Orlando Shakespeare and the man in charge of the company’s annual PlayFest new works festival, points out that the median age in Orlando is just under 33 (vs. 38.7 for Miami and Fort Lauderdale) and says that the area’s colleges help account for the youthfulness of the audience.

Orlando’s arts groups sometimes collaborate or simply help support each other’s programming. Orlando Shakespeare and the family-oriented Orlando Repertory Theatre host the Fringe Festival, which this year will present 436 performances by 67 groups May 15-May 26 at the two theaters and outdoors in Loch Haven Park.

That 45-acre park, ringed by a trio of lakes, is Orlando’s cultural haven. It is home to two theater companies, two art museums and the city’s science center. Frank Holt, executive director of the Mennello Museum of American Art there, says that the park “gives us all a focus, instead of being scattered.”

”It’s definitely a symbiotic relationship that we are fortunate to have,” says Marena Grant Morrisey, executive director of the Orlando Museum of Art, which was founded in 1924 and currently houses an exhibition of Norman Rockwell paintings. “We do a lot of joint ticketing and cross-promotion.”

The Orlando Ballet, the Orlando Opera and the Orlando Philharmonic, which currently juggle their seasons (along with touring Broadway productions) at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre (a facility that United Arts’ Knight calls “acoustically and experientially poor and too in-demand”), will necessarily grow when they become anchors for the new Dr. P. Phillips Orlando Performing Arts Center.

With a 2,800-seat theater, a 1,800-seat multiform theater and a 300-seat theater, the facility designed by architect Barton Myers and theater designer Richard Pilbrow will boost art and audiences, the groups’ leaders say.

Davis Gaines, whose many Broadway credits include the title role in The Phantom of the Opera, agrees. Gaines is an Orlando native who is giving back to his hometown by serving on the DPAC board; next season, he’ll also sing the title role in a concert version of Sweeney Todd with the Orlando Philharmonic. He calls the Bob Carr, where he has performed many times, ”outdated and obsolete,” and says the new performing arts center represents a “huge opportunity for children here to grow up with the arts, dance, music, ballet and theater.”

Orlando Opera president James Ireland says his company has been hampered in its choices and its ability to hire artists, directors and designers by the Carr’s limitations. The performing arts center, he’s certain, will make a critical difference.

”We load in on a Monday, and our first rehearsal is Monday night,” Ireland says. “It’s like instant mashed potatoes. We don’t have enough time onstage to light it, rehearse with the actors. The [orchestra] pit isn’t big enough. We can’t do certain operas.”

David Schillhammer, executive director of the Orlando Philharmonic, calls the new performing arts center a ”decades-long dream” that has already raised awareness of the orchestra and the fact that Orlando has ”a vibrant arts community” — at least, it upped awareness among Orlando-area residents.

Bruce Marks, once a star dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and formerly artistic director of Ballet West and the Boston Ballet, became the Orlando Ballet’s artistic director after the death of Fernando Bujones. He knows that grand performing arts palaces bring, with their greater artistic possibilities, greater costs. But arts-enthused Orlando — ”the only city in Florida with a professional symphony, ballet and opera,” Marks says — seems poised to keep the growth going.

Information courtesy of Miami Herald

Orlando offers more than just resorts and theme parks! Every May since 1991 the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival has provided cutting-edge, genuine theatre and entertainment that is guaranteed to be everything from the unimaginable to the unforgettable.
100% unjuried, 100% uncensored, 100% accessible for artists and audiences alike, 100% of ticket sales given back to the artists. This year’s festival runs starts May 15, 2008 and continues for 12 days until May 26th.

Looking for some free entertainment for the kids? This year the Orlando Fringe Festival has included a new feature – Kids Fringe. This free, kid friendly event will be held on the festival weekends from 10 am to 4 pm.

The Mission of the Orlando Fringe is to provide an accessible, affordable outlet that draws diverse elements of the community together and inspires creative experiences through the arts.
Not to be confused with frilly decorative borders or extremist political parties, Fringe is a festival or, rather, a celebration of the theatrical and performing arts.

The Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival takes place in and around Loch Haven Park over the course of the twelve days leading up to Memorial Day. Frequently referred to as “the premier springtime cultural event in Central Florida”, The Orlando Fringe Festival encompasses more than 500 uncensored and non-juried performances each year.

After you’re done visiting the Orlando Fringe Festival, you’ll need a nice place to rest and relax. Orlando Hotels provide the perfect combination of convenience and comfort, creating a great place to stay while you play.

Enjoy the Festival!

While a fun-filled holiday at Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort or SeaWorld Orlando might top many a child’s wish list, a full slate of action-packed and entertaining rides, shows and experiences mean that grown-ups will have an unforgettable time in Orlando – with or without the kids.

At the Walt Disney World Resort, your choices are limitless. Brave the triple threat of the Disney mountain range at the Magic Kingdom – Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain. You’ll be glued to your seat at Disney-MGM Studios as cars come dangerously close to disaster in Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show. Take a high-speed thrill ride on Rock ‘n Roller Coaster featuring Aerosmith or an ill-fated lift ride on The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. For a peaceful experience in the outdoors, take in the Maharajah Jungle Trek or the Pangani Forest Expedition Trail at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park. To add a little spice to your day, look for exotic animals on the Kilimanjaro Safaris, twist and turn on the Kali River Rapids, travel back in time to go face-to-face with a dinosaur or scale the heights of Expedition Everest to encounter the mythical yeti during a thrilling roller coaster ride. And, Disney film favorites come to life in stage presentations featuring the stars of “Finding Nemo” and “The Lion King.”

A day spent at Epcot is all about discovery. Discover the how, what and why of the world we live in through explorations of the oceans, space, earth and even the human mind in Future World. Out-of this world experiences include Soarin’ over the redwood forests of California on a hang glider or heading for Mars on Mission: Space. Immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and tastes of the eleven nations represented in the World Showcase. Time your visit accordingly and you could be in for an extra treat. The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, held in May, and the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, held each autumn, are visitor favorites with plenty of fun for everyone.

Universal Orlando Resort offers two distinct theme park experiences, of particular appeal to adults. You are invited to live the movies at Universal Studios Florida where you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into scenes from your favorite films and television shows. From Hollywood classics like “Jaws” and “I Love Lucy” to today’s blockbusters like “The Mummy” and “Shrek,” you couldn’t find a better place to be part of the action.

The Trainer-for-the-Day program at Gatorland allows visitors the opportunity to get as close as they want to huge alligators or crocodiles. This fun-for-the-whole-family (kids 12 years or older) and older) experience is not for the weak at heart. It will be your job to work along side the Gatorland staff as they feed, train and interact with rare and amazing gators and crocs. Plan on getting a little dirty, and by all means, make sure and bring your camera.

At Universal’s Islands of Adventure, you are invited to explore five themed islands – each one filled with unique thrills. Roam with the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, laugh along with the cartoon characters that inhabit Toon Lagoon or explore the whimsical world of Dr. Seuss, the creator of “The Cat in the Hat,” at Seuss Island. Thrill seekers will feel right at home as they battle evil villains alongside Spider-Man and spiral out of control on The Incredible Hulk Coaster on Marvel Super Hero Island. Before you can catch your breath, you will be engaged in a battle between two fierce dragons – Fire and Ice – as you twist, turn and come within inches of making contact with the other coaster on the Dueling Dragons roller coaster in The Lost Continent.

In recent years, SeaWorld Orlando has introduced two new shows that spark the imagination of guests of all ages. Introduced this spring, “Believe” showcases the park’s killer whales in a beautifully choreographed story of a child’s belief in his dreams that will have you revisiting your childhood hopes and aspirations. Not to be outdone, the park’s dolphins and false killer whales are the stars of “Blue Horizons.” A breakthrough theatrical spectacular featuring aerialists and world-class divers, it tells the story of a young girl’s adventure in a place where the sea meets the sky. Get your adrenalin flowing with a water-coaster ride to the lost city of Atlantis or a heart-racing encounter with Kraken, the roller coaster named for a mythological sea monster.
As night falls, the excitement builds at Orlando’s theme parks with special nighttime shows, fireworks spectaculars and themed parades. It’s a show you won’t want to miss.

You may also want to treat yourself to some unique theme park experiences that hold special appeal for adult visitors. Take a break from quick-service meals and enjoy a fine dining experience inside the theme parks. Or learn how the parks make the magic that you experience every day as a guest on a special VIP or Behind-The-Scenes tour. And, an amazing animal encounter is sure to create holiday memories you will be talking about for years to come.

Information courtesy of Orlando Visitors Bureau