By : Kirk Hartlage
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More than any other large-scale Pride-type event, Gay Days Weekend attracts every shade of the LGBT rainbow. It also brings an equally vast range of scenic views, not just from taking part in the numerous events associated with the weekend, but also from behind-the-scenes if you’re making it all happen. We asked a variety of folks, with a variety of backgrounds with the Weekend, to share their favorite mental snapshots. We also asked: What does Gay Days Weekend mean to you, why has it lasted so long, and what impact do you think it’s had in all that time?

While you’re here we’d like to hear from you – tell us how Gay Day is Your Day!


PATTY SHEHAN, Orlando City Commissioner

One of the first times I went was in the early years; our pride parade was still pretty small, people were afraid to come out. But, for some reason, at Disney, everyone felt safe to wear red and be seen. I remember walking down MainStreet and being in awe of the sea of red shirts. It made me feel not so alone as a young gay person.Everyone was so happy to celebrate who they are. Doug Swallow started it as a way to bring local people together, now it is one of the major LGBT travel destinations.

The most important thing I have seen the organizers of Gay Days do – and I have to applaud Chris Alexander Manley and Tommy Manley for this – is that they never shied away from talking about HIV/AIDS, and were always open to allowing organizations to encourage safe sex and testing at their events. We lost a lot of friends, and they honor those memories by encouraging young people to know their status.

SCOTT MAXWELL, “Taking Names” columnist, The Orlando Sentinel

I remember two touchstone events. One came in 2007, when Disney used Gay Days to announce that it was finally going to publicly welcome “commitment ceremonies” – long before Florida allowed same-sex marriages. The other was in 2003 when a couple of authors used Gay Days to release their gay theme-park guide: “Queens in the Kingdom.” Both events had the same underlying message: Gay business is big business. And I learned a simple reality: open wallets can help force open minds.

As for what I think of:Red shirts, big parties, Cyndi Lauper and sweaty bears that dance better than the ones at the Country Bear Jamboree.

DON GRANETSTEIN, Owner Parliament House Resort

When someone mentions Gay Days to me, I immediately think “How can we outdo last year?” It seems impossible because every year, I think, is our best year. We’ve transitioned from a nightclub and hotel to a state-of-the-art venue with big name concerts. We realize the importance of the event not just to our community, but worldwide. It gives us a chance to really up our game for the weekend and put on an amazing event. Our employees accept the challenge every year and I really enjoy watching them shine.

Some of my favorite memories include the first year we held P.I. @ P.H. after the closing of Mannequins at Pleasure Island. I remember watching the people stream into our courtyard, eyes fixed on our outdoor stage where their favorite Pleasure Island performers were dancing to the songs they were so familiar with. We really brought back a bit of nostalgia to the Thursday night kick-off party. Five years later, that party is still one of my favorites.

Last year having Lee Ann Rimes was a great moment for us. She approached us, wanting to perform for a gay audience. It was the first time she performed her songs in a dance/club style. It was really interesting to see how nervous she was backstage before the concert. This was something brand new to her. And she definitely rocked it for our crowd.

We tend to draw a fairly decent percentage of a straight audience to our concerts, which shows that the straight crowd is becoming more and more accepting of the gay community. We’re here to entertain the masses. If we can create a little bit of equality in the process, I think that’s a very good thing.

JOHN PAONESSA, Owner Hamburger Mary’s Orlando

I remember attending Gay Days events back in the mid-1990s. There was such a backlash from the religious right. It was such a different time than today. The Walt Disney Company, though not promoting the event, stood behind the gay community to hold their event at Disney. Dancing outside at MGM Studios was so liberating, and I recall feeling like that was possibly the beginning of a change in our society and acceptance of people like me.

I’ve had the pleasure of attending many circuit parties and events across the country over the last 25 years, and have had a great time at almost all of them. Gay Days is different because it was the first event I saw where major companies partnered with our community and supported our people and our lifestyle. Growing up in New York, I never would have thought we would be where we are today. Companies like Disney, Universal and Hard Rock supported us when others did not, and the community appreciates that.

The young adults of today have such a bright future. They don’t realize what many of us dealt with growing up in a society where we were not accepted. I want young LGBTs to feel safe and happy in their own skin and never have to feel less than, slighted or different.

People should know that Disney has had such a profound impact on the acceptance of the LGBT community. I will always have a special place in my heart for The Walt Disney Company.

MICHAEL WANZIE, Writer/Director/Producer Wanzie Presents

I was present at the very first Gay Day in the Magic Kingdom. I will never forget the absolute thrill of seeing the sea of red shirt-wearing people gathered in front of Cinderella’s Castle. Doug Swallow and his friends who did the bulk of the promoting were hoping at attract a couple of hundred people. We were all misty eyed and literally choked up when 1500 out and proud GLBT people gathered together just before the 3 p.m. parade.

My favorite memory was attending One Mighty Party at Disney MGM Studios, around 2000. I was rolling my ass off! I was wearing hospital scrubs because they are lightweight and breathe and dry out quickly from sweat; it’s what I typically wear if I know I’m going to be dancing all night long.

Earlier in the day I had developed some chaffing on my inner thighs due to wearing a wet swimsuit all day and now it was painful to dance. So I went to the Med-Event triage center they had set up in the Brown Derby restaurant. While I was waiting for the doctor to bring me some ointment and gauze two Latino boys burst in. They were quite worked up and came to me with a look of desperation and angst in their eyes, chattering away in Spanish.

Next thing I know the two of them grab me, and practically drag me up the sidewalk to the main dance area on Hollywood Blvd. The whole time they are chattering away in Spanish with an air of tremendous urgency. I’m tripping and the whole thing is just so surreal, so I just go with it. They elbow their way through a group of people encircled around a guy who is lying on the pavement. They push me down beside this man in a fetal position who is having some sort of seizure and foaming at the mouth. I glance up to see all eyes are on me with an obvious expectation that I am going to do something to assist this poor bastard, and that’s when it finally hits me, “Oh no. They think I’m a doctor!”

Gay Days Weekend has had such longevity, because no one entity actually runs Gay Day. Some may claim to do so, but it is just not so. What makes this event unique is that it is a conglomeration of independent producers, who for the most part do not communicate with one another, presenting vastly different events. What results is a menu of Gay Day related offerings that serve up something to appeal to absolutely every demographic and interest within our community.

To some, Gay Day is just that: a single day-visit to Disney’s Magic Kingdom on the first Saturday in June; to others it’s a complete week of theme park visits on designated days. Some never set foot inside a theme park, but come instead specifically for the circuit party-type dance events. Others may never leave their host hotel, opting for a resort-style vacation with like-minded individuals. And still for others Gay Days is a time to continue to frequent their favorite local watering hole that is offering up expanded and exciting entertainment for the occasion, along with visitors from around the globe.

With no steering committee to muck it up or piss people off, Gay Days continues to be – almost as it was that very first Magic Kingdom visit day – a somewhat spontaneous and ever-morphing event. It’s determined not by any one group or organization, but by the general public who by their patronage or lack of interest hold sway over what will or will not be on offered in successive years.

New producers with fresh ideas need not get a thumbs-up from any organizing entity in order to participate. Anyone can and does become a Gay Day event producer without need for consensus or approval from anyone. This is precisely why the offerings are so vastly different and so numerous. The end result has every stripe of gay person in town at the same time with very different agendas, but all benefiting from the communal experience that comes with being around a hundred thousand other GLBT persons who have not traveled here to protest or march or to work for a cause, but simply to have fun!

When I worked at in 1999 I applied to have the company become a member of the Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau. I was told they would be happy to accept the hefty muliti-hundred dollar membership fee I had sent in with the application, and that I would be welcome to attend the networking events. But they regretted they would not be able to list in the Membership Directory or in their Visitor Directory because the word “gay” might be deemed offensive to potential convention groups.

I was able to convince them, under threat of law suit, to list in their directories and the networking began. Within a year we had hoteliers and attraction reps, previously uninterested and adversarial, now clamoring to become involved in Gay Days, anxious to reap the financial gains that those who were playing ball with us were already enjoying.

TERRY DeCARLO, Executive Director The Center

My husband Bill and I have been to every Gay Days for the past twenty years. We go back far with this event, when there were sandwich boards in front of the Magic Kingdom warning of gays in the park, the protesters at the main gates and the planes flying warning banners overhead; sometimes it was really ugly. We have had the ability to speak with many people who had no idea what was going, but took the time to learn, hang out, and just have fun with the attendees. Red shirt day inside the Magic Kingdom, I feel, has truly changed the mindset of some people for the better.

Gay Days Weekend has been around so long because it transcends all ages; whether you are 20 or 60 there is something for everyone. You can do as much, or as little, as you like but you know you are still part of something bigger. People come back to see people they haven’t seen since the prior year and this is one of the reasons it has outlived so many other events.

For five years I worked with the One Magical Weekend promoters; we really brought the Typhoon Lagoon party to another level. I left last year so I could actually enjoy a few of the events, because when you are working them, you are forever running – there was one year we got about five hours sleep in three days – and don’t get to be part of the festivities

SUE-BEE LAGINESS, Promoter Phish Phest

Orlando is such a gay friendly city, and we are so supported by our city officials, it makes it more welcome to visitors. They see that the first time they come, then they keep coming back year after year. They share their experiences with their friends and we just multiply like gay rabbits! Tourism is important, but the LGBT awareness is even more important. The amount of protestors that we used to get, versus the few we get now, has been a huge decrease. Now it’s just a few idiots with banners behind planes that usually help us more than it hurts us!





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