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