About Michael Freeman

Michael W. Freeman is a veteran journalist, playwright and author. Born and raised in Fall River, Massachusetts, he has lived in Orlando since 2002. Michael has worked for some of Florida's largest newspapers, including The Orlando Sentinel. His original plays have draw strong audiences at the Orlando Fringe Festival. He is the author of the novels "Bloody Rabbit" and "Koby's New Home."

Freeline Media asks our readers to name the most important Citizens of 2011

As this weekend brings us into the New Year, we can look back at 2010 for what it was in Central Florida: tumultuous, unpredictable, continuously challenging for so many, but a year that still brought more hopeful signs than a lot of us had any reason to expect when the year began.

Freeline Media asks its readers: are we on the right road, and if so, who are the major movers and shakers steering us in that direction?

Politically, 2010 was a stunning year for the Florida Republican Party, which won all four of the state’s constitutional offices, held on to a crucial U.S. Senate seat, and picked up four congressional seats — stunning victories that mirrored the GOP’s pickup of 63 congressional seats nationwide and six U.S. Senate races. And yet …

… polls continue to show that Republicans are held in low esteem by voters, leading many analysts to conclude that the victories had more to do with a rejection of the Democratic Party’s governing in the past two years than a ringing endorsement of the GOP.  Likewise, the GOP winners appeared to be helped by the spirit and enthusiasm of the Tea Party movement and its call for a return to limited government principles. Is the GOP truly ready to make tough choices on spending priorities … or risk alienating the very voters who helped elect them?

Central Florida’s housing market remained weak, with prices still falling and the foreclosure rate remaining among the highest in the nation. And yet …

There were signs that banks were starting to move more quickly on closings for “short sale” transactions, helping to clear some of the high inventory in the region — a hopeful sign for sellers who have waited in frustration for the housing market to pick up steam.

The region’s unemployment rate remained stubbornly high — in double digits, above the national average. And yet …

Orlando showed signs of creating more new jobs than other regions of the state, an indication that this city may move out of the economic slump faster than Tampa, Miami and other major metro areas.

Looking back at 2010, Freeline Media Orlando asks its readers: who were the most powerful and influential citizens in Central Florida last year?

Who had the most important impact on this region’s political scene, on the real estate market, on the business community, on economic development, and on the cultural scene?

And will these same people remain the most influential players in 2011, with high expectations for their impact on jobs, housing, and growth in 2011?

And are there people who lost in 2010 — politically, or economically, or through a long-awaited but ultimately failed project — who may be poised for a major comeback this year?

 Email us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com with your nominations for the top players of 2010, and who could play a crucial role in the region’s future throughout this year.

Freeline Media Orlando will then place the ten nominations in an Internet poll to determine the top ten rankings in order, and we’ll announce the winning rankings on Jan. 17 of the top ten “Most Powerful Citizens of Central Florida,” along with followup articles on who they are, why they were chosen, and why we expect them to be have a major impact this year.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

Driving while intoxicated is dangerous, but how about driving while buzzed?

TAVARES – Everybody knows highway patrols will be out in force tonight to crack down on motorists who take the risk and decide to operate under the influence. That’s always an increased risk on a holiday night when people are out drinking and partying to welcome in the new year.

What some driverse may not realize is that if they hit a club, have one beer, and decide to stop drinking and then drive home … they still might be putting themselves, and other people on the highways, at risk.

Can even one drink make the highway look blurry to the driver? Law enforcement says yes, that drinking while buzzed is deadly, too.

“Even if you’re just feeling buzzed, don’t operate a motor vehicle,” said Gabriel White, a deputy with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.  “You could have one alcoholic beverage and be impaired.”

For the past two weeks, the Lake County Community Traffic Safety Team and the sheriff’s office have been trying to raise public awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving through a media campaign called “Drunk Driving – Over the Limit. Under Arrest.”  The campaign officially ends tomorrow.

Part of the campaign is a new “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” slogan, designed to caution motorists that even one or two drinks can be too many.

A safer option, said Noble Olasimbo, chairman of the Community Traffic Safety Team, would be to stay home or not consume any alcohol if you expect to be on the roads.

“After hearing about the dangers of drinking and driving time after time, most people have gotten the message,” Olasimbo said.  “If they’re planning on drinking, they should always plan a safe way home.”

He also urged parents to “take note that young males were at particularly high risk, with nearly one-quarter admitting to riding with someone who should not have been behind the wheel in the past year.”

This isn’t just a local effort.  The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s Ad Council has started a television and Facebook blitz titled “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving,” with the tagline, “Getting behind the wheel after even just one too many drinks can lead to disaster.”

A year ago in December 2009, 753 people nationwide were killed in crashes that involved a driver or motorcycle rider with a high blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher, the Traffic Safety Team notes.

White agreed that people think a motorist needs to be intoxicated before alcohol begins to impair their judgment behind the wheel.

“You don’t have to have a lot to drink,” he said.  “You can be impaired off just one.  It all depends on the person and their height and weight.”

For some people, just one drink at the bar can be one too many.

The Traffic Safety Team is urging people to plan on a safe way of getting home before any of the festivities begin by finding a designated sober driver, calling a taxi, or using public transportation.

Anyone who hasn’t been drinking, and who is driving and spots a drunk driver on the road should call local law enforcement immediately.

 “We know that the holiday season can be one of the deadliest and most dangerous times on America’s roadways due to an increase in drunk driving,” said Sgt. Thomas McKane of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, and co-chairman of the Community Traffic Safety Team.

“Don’t let your 2010 end in an arrest or worse – death,” he added. “Remember, whether you’ve had way too many or just one too many, it’s not worth the risk.”

For more information on this campaign, log on to www.stopimpaireddriving.org.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

Will Hyperion Wharf save Pleasure Island or make it more ordinary? The debate is on.

LAKE BUENA VISTA – Walt Disney World calls it “re-imagined”: the theme park giant’s plans for the nightclub area built in 1989 to provide more fun for adults, but that’s gone through some extensive changes in the past two decades.

Last month, Disney announced that work was about to begin on a revamped Pleasure Island and Downtown Disney, in a series of projects expected to create more than 1,200 new jobs over the next three years.

Pleasure Island first opened in 1989, to give adults something to do at night on Disney property.

“We have made great progress since first announcing our vision to bring new shopping, dining and entertainment experiences to Downtown Disney, many of which can’t be found anywhere else and have already become guest favorites,” said Keith Bradford, vice president of Downtown Disney.  “We look forward to providing even more ways for our guests to enjoy Downtown Disney, while at the same time creating new jobs for Central Floridians.”

But the authors of books on Disney and Central Florida’s theme park industry wonder if the changes will end up making Pleasure Island even less distinct.

“It’s disappointing that Disney would bring in third party vendors for shopping and dining options that you could find at your own neighborhood mall,” said Seth Kubersky, the author of “Universal Orlando 2011,” and several upcoming books on the region’s theme park industry.

“It’s not the unique entertainment that you’d drive halfway across the country to see,” he added.

The changes coming to Pleasure Island include the recreation of an early 20th century port city and amusement pier, to be called Hyperion Wharf.  This port district will offer “stylish boutiques and innovative restaurants” open during the day, Disney announced in a news release, while “by night, thousands of lights will transform the area into an electric wonderland.”

This new wharf district is also going to feature a lakeside park, enhanced pedestrian walkways, and more dining options.

Bradford said Hyperion Wharf will “offer guests of all ages a vibrant atmosphere and new experiences that can be enjoyed by day or by night.  Whether looking for a great place to dine with the whole family or a place to relax and enjoy live music, Hyperion Wharf will provide the perfect setting for guests to make new memories with us.”

Others, though, are skeptical. 

Pleasure Island first opened in 1989, and as Kubersky noted, it was designed to be ambitious expansion of the smaller shopping plaza known as the old Disney Village Marketplace.

Seth Kubersky discusses his book "Universal Orlando 2011" at Barnes & Noble in downtown Orlando.

“It was originally called the Lake Buena Vista Marketplace,” Kubersky said. “It had been there since 1971. With Pleasure Island, you can see it as the reverse of what they wanted to do in Las Vegas at the time. Vegas decided they wanted to be more family friendly, and Disney added Pleasure Island to give adults things to do while the kids were in bed at night.”

There was another motive, Kubersky said.  At the time, the region’s top night spot was Church Street in downtown Orlando.  The popular Church Street Station brought in adults looking for nightclubs and alcohol.  Then Pleasure Island offered an alternative.

“The feeling was Disney likes to keep money on Disney property,” said Jim Korkis, a former Disney cast member and recognized Disney and Pleasure Island historian, and author of the book “The Vault of Walt.”

“Since guests found there was nothing to do on Disney property at night, people were leaving and going to Church Street Station, which at the time was the fourth most popular tourist destination in Florida after Disney, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens,” Korkis said.

“The original intention was to put Church Street Station out of business,” Kubersky said.

It worked.  Wholesome, family-oriented Disney introduced night clubs with disco dancing and plenty of alcohol – risqué for a theme park that primarily emphasized its appeal to children and families, Kubersky noted.

“Compared to everything else on Disney property, it was,” he said.  “It was never R-rated, but sometimes it was a strong PG-13.  Their discos for a while were quite happening, and Pleasure Island was very successful for the first decade.  Within 10 years, Church Street Station was out of business.  It was very effective.”

“A lot of people thought Pleasure Island was meant to represent the theme park in the movie ‘Pinocchio,’ where people go and drink too much and make asses of themselves,” Korkis added.

Kubersky said changes started after that. With the demise of Church Street Station and Downtown Orlando as competitiors, he said Disney appeared to lose interest, while at the same time Universal Studio’s City Walk began drawing away more of the nightlife crowd.

At the same time, Disney did away with Pleasure Island’s admission fee, opening the gates to the general public.

“The real change happened when it went from being a gated attraction to letting anyone through,” Kubersky said.  “Then they just had to pay to get into some of the clubs.  At that point, the demographics started to shift.  Once they got rid of the gates, nothing ever quite worked.  It changed being from a special place where they could control the clientele into a shopping mall. It just became a mall to hang out at.  Disney also got rid of the fireworks show at night.”

“That’s where people to start to track the fall of Pleasure Island,” Korkis added.  “It just became, here’s a bunch of clubs and you can go party.  With the admission price, you sort of controlled who got in.  At the same time, City Walk had the aura of being fresher and cooler and with it.” 

Pleasure Island still has night clubs for the nightlife crowd.

In addition to bringing the new wharf district to Pleasure Island, Disney also announced several other projects underway at Downtown Disney.  They include a renovation at Lego Imagination Center, with a 3,500 square-feet expansion and the addition of some new Lego exterior models that recreate scenes from classic Disney movies.  While Disney is working on this project, Merlin Entertainments is building Legoland Florida – modeled after the popular theme parks in Europe and California – at the site of the former Cypress Gardens theme park in Winter Haven.

Disney also announced plans to enhance the AMC movie theater with new digital technology, a paradigm-shifting Concession Stand of the Future, and Florida’s first Fork & Screen Theater, plus several new or renovated retail shops throughout Downtown Disney — a series of projects expected to create an estimated 600 construction jobs, 500 restaurant, retail and entertainment jobs, and 100 vendor and supplier jobs. 

Kubersky, though, said Disney appears to be inviting outside vendors to come in as the highest bidder.

“It’s all third party vendors,” he said.  “Disney doesn’t seem interested any more in developing their own concepts.”

Korkis agreed, saying “The realization is Disney is a business and it has to be held accountable to its stockholders.  Will Hyperion Wharf be good business? Disney thinks so, because it will not be making any personal investment.  Basically Disney is supplying the location and other people are supplying the money.”

Korkis said he hopes the new wharf shopping district is a success, but he thinks Disney may be making Pleasure Island less unique and more pedestrian – shops and dining options available at plenty of other shopping plazas, lacking the distinct Disney touch.

“It will be interesting to see how that develops,” he said.  “I’m a huge Disney supporter.  I want Disney to be around for the rest of my lifetime and continue to do good things. But the vision they have now is a more narrow vision – ‘Let’s have more restaurants and shops.’  With this new plan, there is nothing that people can’t find elsewhere.”

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

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