1. UCF Builds Athletics Department
The University of Central Florida’s athletics department has seen a lot of changes this year. Four new sports staffers joined the team in 2016. At just 35 years old, Danny White was the second-youngest college athletics director ever when he was hired to lead UCF’s sports programs. Scott Frost came onboard as the new head football coach. The season opener on Sept. 3 gave the Knights their first win in a year. After last year’s 0-12 season, the turn-around for the football team has been a much-needed shot in the arm for Knights fans. Rounding out the team leaders are Greg Lovelady, the new baseball coach, and Johnny Dawkins, the new men’s basketball coach.
2. Love Wins
The early-morning mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub on June 12 had all eyes on Orlando. As the heartbreaking news came to light, we saw how the whole community — straight, gay, Latino, black, white, men, and women — joined together to heal, to help and to let the world know that Orlando is united. An estimated 50,000 packed Lake Eola to honor the 49 victims of the attack for a candlelight vigil. Shrines were erected at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and Pulse Nightclub. The Orlando History Center preserved many of these mementoes to be part of a future permanent historical exhibit. And an estimated $29.5 million was donated to OneOrlando Fund to help those affected by the shootings.
3. Candidates Come a Calling
Florida was a swing state this presidential election, but more importantly the I-4 Corridor (the area from Daytona to Tampa) became a battleground. That led the candidates to stop here often. What’s so great about that? Central Floridians had the ear of the presidential candidates, and even the nation, allowing us to shine a spotlight on topics that matter to us the most, such as solar power, gun legislation, immigration and updating infrastructure. Now that the election is over, political pundits suggest that Central Florida may have contributed in some small way to helping set the agenda for the new president.
4. Matthew Misses Orlando
Central Florida collectively held its breath on Oct. 6 when Hurricane Matthew looked as if it was going to hit the area. The Walt Disney World Resort even played it safe and closed its doors, only the fourth time in over 40 years that it ever has done so. The good news is not only that there was a lot less damage than expected, but most of us got a day off from school and work.
5. Fans Roar for Women’s Soccer
Professional women’s soccer is alive and well in Orlando. In April, Orlando Pride, the city’s National Women’s Soccer League team set the NWSL single-game attendance record at its home opener at Camping World Stadium with 23,403 fans. Also showcasing the great talent of the team, Orlando Pride players Kristen Edmonds, Ashlyn Harris and Alex Morgan were called up to the United States Women’s National Team to play against the best teams in the world. As of press-time, the USWNT was undefeated.
6. We’ve Got the Games
Orlando hosted some of the biggest sporting events in the world in 2016. In May, the Invictus Games took over the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex to showcase the athletic achievements of wounded, injured or sick armed service personnel and also to bring awareness to invisible war wounds. Created by Britain’s Prince Harry, this was only the second time the games were ever held. Honorary Chairman President George W. Bush, Prince Harry and First Lady Michelle Obama opened the games.
In June, Copa America, a 100-year-old soccer tournament that is second only to the World Cup in the western hemisphere, was hosted for the first time in the United States. More than 30 games were played in 10 cities around the country, with three played at Camping World Stadium: Brazil vs. Haiti, Panama vs. Bolivia, and Costa Rica vs. Paraguay.
Rounding out the list is the Pro Bowl. Held at Aloha Stadium on the island of Oahu for the better part of the last 30 years, the National Football League’s “all-star game” will be played at Camping World Stadium on Jan. 29.
7. SeaWorld in the Spotlight
In March, SeaWorld announced it would end all orca breeding at each of its three parks. Currently, SeaWorld Orlando has seven orcas, including one that is pregnant, in its care. The news of SeaWorld’s end to captive breeding was applauded by the Humane Society of the United States. SeaWorld will also begin featuring killer whales in natural encounters rather than theatrical shows in Orlando beginning in 2019. It is speculated that this last generation of orcas at SeaWorld Orlando, including the baby that has yet to be born, could last up to 50 years.
Mako opened at SeaWorld in June. It’s the first new rollercoaster at the theme park in seven years and is Orlando’s tallest and fastest ride. In fact, it’s the fastest ride in the whole state, clocking in at 73 miles per hour. Mako features a 200-foot drop and is known as a hypercoaster, which gives riders a negative-G force experience and a feeling of weightlessness.
8. The Springs Have Sprung
The change from Downtown Disney to Disney Springs, made back in 2015, brought with it a few new stores and lots of construction. But it wasn’t until May of this year that the largest part of the expansion finally opened along with the official name change. The newest neighborhood, called Town Center, features vistas of the man-made springs and 25,000 square feet of retail, entertainment and dining space. Also included in the refurbishment this year were a high-tech 2,000-car parking lot and the one-of-a-kind Planet Hollywood Observatory, which is scheduled to open this month. A portion of the new menu will feature burgers and sandwiches by celebrity chef Guy Fieri.
9. The Magic Make a Great Coach Appear
Frank Vogel was a National Basketball Association playoffs-making head coach for the Indiana Pacers when Orlando Magic waved its wand and, poof, he was at the Amway Center taking over head coaching duties for Scott Skiles. Fans were shocked with Skiles’ quick departure after coaching the Magic for only one year. Skiles was considered a great choice when he was selected to be the Magic’s coach in 2015 since he had played the bulk of his NBA career as backup point guard for the Magic from 1989-94.
10. Riding the Rails
If you lived in Longwood and wanted to enjoy some drinks with friends on Church Street or take in an event at Amway Center, you didn’t have a lot of transportation choices. Now, Central Florida residents have another option: SunRail. While it was originally planned to operate only on the weekdays as a solution for commuters, Sunrail began offering weekend service in November on a week-by-week basis to gauge interest. Earlier in the year, a similar test was done when SunRail offered service during the Winter Park Art Festival. A record 26,000 people used the train in just those two days, compared to 17,500 that use it during the weekdays.