In 2008, I attended my first WrestleMania in Orlando and became immersed in the festivities even beyond the big event. Witnessing the pageantry and spectacle of it in person along with fans from around the world and age demographic was intoxicating. I was hooked and have been going ever since (I missed WrestleMania 29 because I was Best Man in a wedding.)
This year WrestleMania returned to Orlando, which made me feel I had come full circle. WWE’s premiere event was already a big deal nine years ago, but it has somehow gotten even bigger. The company literally took over “The City Beautiful” with everything WrestleMania...spread all over in signage and the robust schedule of related events.
That included a series of community endeavors with superstars participating. WWE doesn’t get enough credit for its outreach and work with charities on the local, national and world level. I managed to get to town early enough to catch the WrestleMania Reading Celebration at Prairie Lake Elementary. The school logged 250,000 minutes to win the WrestleMania Reading Challenge, which is done in partnership with First Book. The organization and WWE donated 20,000 books to Orlando area schools. WWE Superstars Ember Moon, Zack Ryder, Tye Dillinger, Darren Young and Dasha Fuentes read to students there and presented awards as part of the WrestleMania Reading Challenge. You could literally see the faces of the children light up as the WWE personalities walked through the doors of their media center. The special visitors even used the time to let the children know about challenges they faced growing up, sharing inspiring words and setting a positive example. It was extra special day for Fuentes who called Orlando home for so long.
During the weekend, I also attended the Project: OM Yoga Event at Full Sail Live at Full Sail University in Winter Park, near Orlando. I felt if you are going to do yoga for the first time, why not do to when Diamond Dallas Page is hosting. The man behind DDP Yoga was basking in his WWE Hall of Fame glow from the night before. He was joined by E! News host Maria Menounos, Natalya, Titus O’Neil and WWE Ambassador Dana Warrior. Project: OM is a movement with Manduka and Susan G. Komen coming together promote health and wellness and raise money in support of Komen’s Bold Goal of reducing cancer deaths by 50 percent by 2026. It was a good time. I left motivated and uplifted thanks in large part to the Positivity of Page. That said, DDP is no joke. That is for sure.
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A highlight of WrestleMania Week is Axxess, and one of my favorite parts is the memorabilia and historical relics from WWE’s archive collection. This year the fun trip down memory lane at the Orange County Convention Center featured a display celebrating WWE Hall of Fame inductee Kurt Angle. Speaking of the Olympic gold medalist, watching him take the Hall of Fame stage was an exciting moment. I thought the milk bath he gave himself really capped off the special evening. Reflecting on all the speeches, none were any better in my book than Beth Phoenix. It was almost like she was inducting all those who helped her over the years. I admit I had a tear in my eye when Natalya referred to Phoenix as a gift from her uncle, the late Owen Hart. Also hearing Jim Cornette induct the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express. Here’s hoping it means the outspoken Kentuckian contributes on future WWE projects moving forward.
WrestleMania Week honors the past, but also the future through NXT. The energy of an NXT show at the Amway Center is truly something to behold. I often say it’s not a pro wrestling event, but an experience. That reigned true just watching the entrances of Shinsuke Nakamura and Bobby Roode. By the crowd reaction, it’s almost as if you are at a concert. The best of the night no doubt goes to the three tag teams -- the Authors of Pain with Paul Ellering, #DIY and The Revival. They told a tremendous story with the Authors of Pain really shining against the two talented duos. There is still a great talent pool in NXT, which is getting another nice addition in Drew McIntyre.
NXT set the tone for what would be a long and rollercoaster ride known as WrestleMania. WWE goes above and beyond each year for its signature event. They really raise the bar when it comes to the set and just the presentation. Entrances from performers such as Charlotte Flair, Triple H, Sasha Banks, Seth Rollins, The Undertaker and even Chris Jericho (The Giant List!) were eye-catching. The biggest reaction of the night was the return of the Hardy Boyz. Camping World Stadium with more than 75,000 fans came alive seeing Matt and Jeff electrify in the ring once more. It was truly a WrestleMania moment. I loved the story Rollins and Triple H told in the ring. I thought Bill Goldberg and Brock Lesnar gave the fans an intense battle, much better than their WrestleMania 20 collision. The show ended on a somber note with The Undertaker falling to Roman Reigns. To see the iconic figure leave his signature gloves, trenchcoat and hat in the ring left the crowd in darkness. It truly marked the end of an era.
The next night at Monday Night Raw brought a unique crowd with fans showing their disapproval to Reigns. There was about 10 minutes at the opening of the program where the audience was letting the athlete know what they thought of him defeating Undertaker. Reigns soaked it all in until saying, “This is my yard now.” The perfect response and follow-up. Beach Ball Mania was running wild in the Amway Center with balls being hit throughout the arena. There is nothing like the atmosphere of an after Mania Raw crowd. They even create chants that turn into songs such as the one they sang for Sheamus and Cesaro (DuDu-Dut-DuDuuu-SheamusAndCesaro). I still have it in my head. The event saw the debut of The Revival (Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder) on the main roster and the return of Finn Bálor. Goldberg also gave an honest and passionate goodbye for now with his son in the ring.
WrestleMania Week is a special time to be a pro wrestling fan. And WWE delivers in so many ways. There are so many moving parts and logistical planning to coordinate every single event, but the company manages to pull it all off seamlessly every time. I have so much respect for the unsung heroes behind the scenes and those in front of the camera who make it all possible. In comparisons to a Super Bowl or award show, organizers get some off time after an event ends. The WWE isn’t one to rest on their laurels and moves forward the next day and next week as the road to the next WrestleMania in New Orleans has already begun.
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