25 Magical Weekends: Gay Days has spanned more than two decades and brought countless memories to locals and visitors alike

By : Kirk Hartlage
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We’re not even halfway through 2015 and we have already seen several milestones for Florida’s LGBT community. The most dramatic shift came in January when Floridians gained the right to marry our same-sex partners, potentially foreshadowing nationwide marriage equality with a U.S. Supreme Court decision expected within the next few weeks.

Equally significant: the 25th anniversary of Gay Day at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. One day each year the happiest place on earth also becomes the gayest, thanks to a mass migration of gays and lesbians to the Central Florida theme park. What started as a single-day outing has grown to a multi-day destination event, complete with parties, concerts, vendor fairs and host hotels—several of which are dedicated to specific populations within the LGBT community.

The past two-and-a-half decades of Orlando’s largest gay gathering hasn’t been without controversy. Though the occasional chartered plane carrying banners of anti-gay rhetoric still has been known to make its way through the Disney resort sky, the once-active voices of protest have, for the most part, died down. (They’ve apparently moved on to a variety of national and state government offices, where, sadly, it seems their message is being heard.)

Despite being accused of having political motivations at the core of its inception, the birth of Gay Day is far more humble.

“This whole thing started as just a way to collectively go to the theme parks and have fun,” said Doug Swallow, the man most often credited with originating the idea for the very first Gay Day in 1991. “And in the end, that’s what keeps people coming back.”

Swallow, a computer software designer and member of Compu-Who?, an Orlando computer bulletin board service, suggested a group outing to Disney’s Magic Kingdom. By utilizing this early form of online social media, Gay Day became, in essence, one of the first flash mobs ever.

Swallow has said the event was created as a fun alternative to what he saw was an overwhelming majority of Pride month activities solely linked to activism and fundraising.

Nonetheless, that first Gay Day was created with financial matters in mind: an event on the first Saturday of June would coincide with the then-traditional off-season discounting of tickets for local residents.

With some assistance from the area’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center, members of the online group got the word out—primarily through word of mouth, but also by distributing fliers to local bars. Red was chosen as the color of the day so attendees would not only stand out in the crowd but also to each other.

The “First Annual Official Unofficial Gay & Lesbian Day at the Magic Kingdom” drew several hundred people. Four years later, gay and lesbian attendance had swelled to an estimated 30,000-plus.

In 1995, Disney announced it would offer domestic partner benefits starting the following year. Anti-gay groups protested. They called on the company to not only reverse its decision on extending benefits, but to put an end to Gay Day, claiming Disney’s lack of action in discouraging the mass gathering of homosexuals from happening was akin to the company condoning it.

Leading the fight, the American Family Association called Gay Day “a mission to pervert America’s children,” claiming the event deprived thousands of children of a normal, fun-filled day at the Magic Kingdom. An AFA newsletter described the day, in part: “Many homosexuals were kissing, embracing, holding hands and playing weird games in the walkways.”

Remember when?

PLEASURE ISLAND

Back then, Cast Member Thursdays at Downtown Disney’s Pleasure Island were the nightclub collective’s unofficial gay night, a natural cause-and-effect progression considering Thursday is Disney employees’ pay day and an above average percentage of them are gay. Mannequins—the Island’s high-energy contemporary dance club that came complete with a rotating dance floor (think The Mad Hatter’s Teacup Ride without the teacups)—drew the strongest concentration of gays each week.

As Gay Day expanded into a multi-day event, the Thursday before the first Saturday of June quickly became Mannequin’s busiest night of the year. Extended queue lines to enter became commonplace as the club hit capacity earlier and earlier each year. Also hitting capacity earlier and earlier each year were the motors that made the dance floor spin—an unfortunate occurrence that halted the “wheel of meat” from turning but never diminished the energy level throughout the club.

Showing some unofficial support for the weekend in 2000, Pleasure Island hosted “Disco Weekend” the first weekend of June, featuring concerts by Evelyn “Champagne” King, Shannon and Taylor Dayne.

The tradition ended when Pleasure Island shut down in September 2008 to make way for a redesigned Downtown Disney, effectively eliminating the area’s nightclubs for restaurants and shopping. That project continues to this day.

EVENING PARTIES

As Beach Ball (now known as Riptide) morphed into a men’s circuit event, one group of guys attempted an evening water park party at Wet ‘N’ Wild for the bear crowd. Another year a women’s group attempted a Saturday evening buyout of Typhoon Lagoon for a ladies’ event. Each were met with poor weather and poor attendance and lasted only one year.

One of the earliest add-ons was a Saturday evening buyout party at the then-Disney/MGM Studios, now Disney Hollywood Studios. The park’s Tower of Terror and Rock-n-Roller Coaster attractions were open while a massive lighting truss turned the park’s main street into an outdoor dance floor, complete with club music played by a big-name DJ. Occasionally a well-known singer would perform a mini-concert of their hits; Chaka Khan and Donna Summer were among the performers who appeared over the years.

In 2007, Kathy Griffin kicked off the party with a show of her scathing stand-up comedy in the park’s Extreme Stunt Show theater.

The evening typically ended with an impressive fireworks display choreographed to a hit dance club remix; one year the show even included a crane-hoisted drag queen, channeling super divas as perfectly timed pyrotechnics exploded behind her in the sky.

THE PROTESTS

The earliest years of Gay Day saw only mild opposition. When picketers were repeatedly chased away from the entrance to the Magic Kingdom by park security, they quickly relocated to various high-profile locations, each just a few steps off Disney property. Among them: the tiny traffic island between the North/South lanes of Apopka Vineland Road at Hotel Plaza Blvd., and a grassy area just past the welcoming signs on Epcot Center Drive at the exit ramp from Westbound I-4. However, protestors turned up the heat in 1995 when Disney announced it would soon extend healthcare benefits to the same-sex partners of its gay and lesbian employees. Calling Gay Day “a mission to pervert America’s children,” members of the American Family Association also said Gay Day ruins a child’s trip to the Magic Kingdom “because gays and lesbians take most of the best positions on Main Street for the 3 p.m. parade.”

When the AFA called on Disney to stop allowing Gay Day from happening, a company spokesman told the media, “People come to the park, they buy tickets, they go in. If the AFA wants to designate a day when all of their members visit Disney World, that’d be fabulous too.”

But it wasn’t just religious groups complaining. A letter to Disney from 15 Florida State lawmakers marked their concerns, saying, “We strongly disapprove of your inclusion and endorsement of a lifestyle that is unhealthy, unnatural and unworthy of special treatment.” Southern Baptists called for a Disney boycott in 1997, targeting the company’s so-called “Christian-bashing, family-bashing, pro-homosexual agenda.” Disney’s response: “We find it curious that a group that claims to espouse family values would vote to boycott the world’s largest producer of wholesome family entertainment”

Televangelist Pat Robertson joined the anti-Disney crusade in 1998, saying God would strike Orlando with hurricanes and other maladies thanks, in part, to Disney “allowing” gays to take over the Magic Kingdom for Gay Day. (The other party at fault: City of Orlando officials who permitted rainbow pride flags to fly from streetlamps during Pride weekend.) Apparently unconcerned that Robertson’s predictions would come true on Gay Day specifically, one religious group hired a plane to circle the Magic Kingdom towing a banner stating, “Jesus Can Save You From Your Lifestyle.” Meanwhile, Operation Rescue, a militant anti-gay group that had threatened to disrupt Gay Day, went unnoticed. Tellingly, one of the group’s members told a local reporter that park infiltrators were under strict orders not to be arrested, because the organization didn’t have the funds to cover bail.

That year also saw Gay Day get the most prominent national press it had ever received, thanks to a 60 Minutes interview with then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Of Gay Day he said: “The homosexual organizations arrange that day themselves. We do not put up signs that say, ‘No Blacks Allowed,’ ‘No Jews Allowed,’ ‘No Homosexuals Allowed.’ As long as they are discreet and handle themselves properly, are dressed properly, they’re welcome in our doors, and I think it would be a travesty in this country to exclude anybody.”

Conservative groups found success in the air once again in 1999; that year’s message read “Freedom from Homosexuality—Jesus Christ.” Those same groups found less success in the airwaves when they attempted to buy air time on local television stations to promote their ex-gay ministries. But by year’s end, a Christian group released a video of two male Disney entertainers dancing sexually onstage at Mannequins, saying it could be damaging to children, failing to note that the club had a strict 21-and-over policy that excluded minors.

And while it’s hard to imagine something good coming out of 9/11, thanks to a federally imposed no-fly zone implemented as a safety concern, the “planes of hate” tradition has been all but grounded. The zone extends to 3,000 feet in a 3-nautical-mile radius centered from the Main Spire of Cinderella’s Castle. It, too, hasn’t been without controversy.

In 2003, the conservative Christian Family Policy Network sued Disney over the no-fly zone, claiming the ruling infringed on their First Amendment right to fly banners during Gay Days Weekend. The judge denied their request.

THE SIGNS

One of the earliest traditions of Gay Day came from Walt Disney World itself. Though the company has adopted a “we don’t sponsor Gay Day, but anyone and everyone is welcomed in our parks” mantra, Disney stumbled during the earliest years of Gay Day in deciding how they would recognize the overwhelming number of gays and lesbians in their signature theme park.

Starting with the third Gay Day in 1993, Disney marked the occasion by placing sandwich board signs outside the entrance gates of the Magic Kingdom. Though the signs’ verbiage changed over time, the message remained consistent; that a large number of gays and lesbians were inside. While some saw the signs as a welcoming acknowledgement of the annual gathering, others viewed them as a warning.

By 1994, the signs stated that “members of the gay community have chosen to visit the Magic Kingdom today in their recognition of Gay and Lesbian Pride Month” and that Disney “does not discriminate against anyone’s right to visit the Magic Kingdom.” The signs were again displayed the following year, but removed by mid-morning, never to be seen again.

OUTSIDE ACCEPTANCE

The Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas frequently wrote about Gay Day during his tenure at the paper. He’d take his young children to the Magic Kingdom each first Saturday of June to see how that day differed from any other day at the park. He noted how in early years of the gathering the Guest Relations department would offer tickets—and sometimes transportation—to one of their other theme parks in response to complaints about the quantities of gays and lesbians in the Magic Kingdom. Sometimes, an unknowing family all decked out in red, upset that their shirts would signify some type of support, would be given replacement t-shirts when they complained.

But those courtesies were only extended during the earliest years of the event. In following years, Thomas noted how complaints were often met with the same response the company’s PR department had been giving for years: the gathering was not sponsored by Disney and anyone willing to pay the price of admission was welcomed in their parks. Families upset that they had chosen red as their color du jour were merely given directions to the closest gift shop where they could purchase replacements at their own cost.

Thomas also took on several of Gay Day’s biggest opponents. When, in 2001, American Family Association President Donald Wildmon puts his spin on Gay Day by saying, “Disney rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars through this celebration of homosexuality. That’s as reprehensible as if Disney had hosted Prostitute Day or Pedophilia Days at the Magic Kingdom,” Thomas corrected him.

“First of all, Disney rakes in millions of dollars from Gay Days, not hundreds of thousands,” Thomas wrote. “But for the most part, folks, we’re talking about a very tame thing. There were a lot of Gay Days T-shirts, the occasional couple holding hands, some hugging and that’s about it.”

In 2005, when Universal officials made a pitch to relocate Gay Day from the Magic Kingdom to Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Thomas made note.

“I called up Disney and pretending to be just an average Joe asked, ‘Hey, are you guys having some kind of gay event over there this weekend?’ And the representative hemmed and hawed and avoided answering. Then I called up Universal with the same question, and the very eager receptionist said something along the lines of, ‘Yes, it’s Gay Days weekend!’.”

However, Gay Day has remained at Disney’s Magic Kingdom since its inception and continues to entertain LGBT participants from all around the world.

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