For Gay Days, encouraging signs of vitality in 2011

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When it comes to Gay Days Weekend post-mortems, the question for the past decade or so has been the same: Is the massive event – the largest annual LGBT gathering in the nation – expanding or contracting? Now 21 and counting, it appears that  Orlando’s Big Gay Event remains is healthy and evolving.

OlderAndBetter2The 1,000-room GayDayS.com hotel and business expo were once again sold out, with reservations spilling over into neighboring properties. The Girls In Wonderland hotel and parties were also huge hits. For the first time in years, the big Friday night water park party at Typhoon Lagoon – this year dubbed “Riptide” – attracted more than 6,000 happy partiers. And with a Salt-N-Pepa concert on Saturday night, the Parliament house set an all-time attendance record.

There was promise in other key indicators as well. Mark Baker tweaked his Wonderland Weekend in ways designed to attract a younger circuit crowd. LGBT attendance at the Magic Kingdom was substantial, if not close to the park-closing numbers experienced more than a decade ago.

And new parties created fresh potential for coming years. GayDayS.com’s Taste of Gay Days attracted more than 250 to a classy Thursday night opening event. That same night, GIW and Phish Phest brought the party back to town for the Traffic Jam women’s dance party at the Beacham Theater. Come Out With Pride’s Evolve Weekend introduced Mr. Sisters to Gay Days with big crowds.

“Overall I think the weekend was a huge success,” said Phish Phest’s Sue-Bee Laginess, who made it to most every venue.”I’ve said it before and this weekend proves it: there’s plenty of gays to go around in Orlando!”

Girls
On Friday at the Girls in Wonderland hotel there were hugs and shrieks of recognition as hundreds of women from around the country checked in quickly. They were anxious to get out to a pool party that grew by the hour. The crowd was colorfully diverse, with lots of tattooed gangsta girls to contrast with bikinied beauties. A random survey revealed large numbers from New York and South Florida.

That night, the Climax party at Bongo’s at Downtown Disney got off to an awkward start when the doors opened while diners were still finishing their meals. By midnight the club was wall-to-wall, with more women lined up outside waiting to gain entrance. Upstairs, women of all shapes, sizes and colors waved from the balcony and looked down at the packed dance floor.

Saturday’s I Love Rock & Roll party drew an even bigger crowd to the House of Blues. Rachel from Real World: Road Rules Challenge was back to emcee, and Whitney, Traci and Rose from the cast of The Real L Word added more star power. The numbers grew late into the evening, energized by dancers and a sexy stage show by local favorite Blue. By the time hundreds of balloons dropped at midnight, the dance floor was a sweaty, happy mob.

Boys
Riptide at Typhoon Lagoon was the resurgent star of Orlando’s Big Gay Weekend in 2011. The event drew more than 6,000, and by midnight Disney was reportedly scrambling for additional wristbands. Organizers attributed at least part of the increased attendance to a 2011 innovation: direct bus service from the huge GayDayS.com hotel.

“We’ve worked diligently to use this beautiful venue as a backdrop for an evening of playful fun, where everyone can feel like a kid again,” said organizer Terry DeCarlo.

This year, Disney’s LGBT employee group created a flash mob tribute to military personnel set to Born This Way and I’m Coming Out. On an unusually warm summer night, happy Riptide guests had to be herded out of the park at 2:30 a.m.

In 2011 Mark Baker reclaimed the massive Buena Vista Palace complex for the Gay Days Weekend circuit. Although his scaled back Wonderland Weekend events did not attract the peak numbers of years past, they may be just right going forward. Sounding like an ecologist, Baker said the emphasis this year was on freshness and sustainability, not spectacle.

“We were able to attract a lot of young, new faces this year,” said Baker. “I think that’s important for the future.”

At Universal Studios Orlando on Saturday night, just two rides opened for Matinee: Ibiza Rising, concentrating the estimated 2,000 in attendance in front of DJ Hector Fonseca. The following night, Fasscination drew a similar number to Hard Rock Live. Baker’s decision to relocate the Tunnel after hours parties to the host hotel was well-received.

Bears
2011 saw three separate bear groups migrate to Orlando for Gay Days Weekend: Bears at GayDayS, Bear Daze, and Tidal Wave Weekend. Each had their own parties and hotel or hotel block. In a first for Gay Days Weekend, the organizers of Tidal Wave booked the Royal Plaza Hotel at Lake Buena Vista and filled most of the rooms.

The big bear event is Friday night’s Tidal Wave party at Wet n Wild. Now in its fourth year, the water park party drew it biggest crowd ever – an estimated 1,500. VIP tickets, with all the BBQ you could eat, sold out. The wave pool stayed full. And some of the friskier bears even tried to create an impromptu dance floor in front of the DJ booth.

Townies
In addition to setting attendance records on Saturday night, the Parliament House reported a 20 percent jump in attendance for the 10 days between Memorial Day and Gay Days this year. Beefed up sound and laser lights, as well as an elevated dance tent for DJ Brianna Lee, were applauded by regulars. Two shows by the Comedy Warehouse improv troupe raised $1,200 for the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. And Bitches of the Kingdom, the Patron’s Pick at the recent Orlando Fringe Festival, played to sold out houses on Friday and Saturday nights.

Evolve Weekend at Mr. Sisters rebounded from last-minute news that Kelly Rowland had canceled. Kimberley Locke and birthday girl Kristine W. filled in on Friday, and the following night Deborah Cox drew more than 2,000, helping raise funds for Come Out With Pride.

“The shows were amazing, and the quality of the stage and the technical teams we brought in was flawless,”said COWP’s Mikael Audebert. “We re-affirmed the power of Orlando’s gay community to raise money. We’ll certainly want to do this again.”

GayDayS.com
At the sold-out GayDayS.com hotel, the huge Doubletree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld, organizers said that guests arrived earlier and stayed later. The sold out Gay Days Expo was extended until Sunday.

Interviewed on Out & About Radio, GayDayS.com president Chris Alexander-Manley shared that his organization is scouting around for a bigger hotel with bigger pools and a bigger conference facility. GayDayS.com will host the first-ever Gay Days Las Vegas in September 2012.

Magic Kingdom
How many gays and lesbians were in the Magic Kingdom on Saturday? Here’s the hard data: at noon, the wait at the Haunted Mansion was 25 minutes, and about 40 percent were wearing red.

None were distracted by the homophobic banner flying above. Most were laughing, holding hands and enjoying the rides and atmosphere.

Joel Strack, who attends every year with friends from the Orlando Gay Chorus, observed that there’s a rhythm to the day – from Bears in Frontierland to the gathering in front of Cinderella’s Castle before the 3 p.m. character parade – and that Disney cast members now join in the fun. They hoisted a big rainbow parachute cloth at Cinderella’s Castle.

For Center director Randy Stephens, the highlight of Gay Day at the Magic Kingdom was meeting a 16-year-old high school junior from Ohio and his mother.

“This kid came out his mom at 14 and his classmates this year,” Stephens said. “He has dealt with bullies but he told me he can handle them. I told him he was my hero.”

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