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!


KIRK HARTLAGE, Watermark contributor

I’ve covered Gay Day – and all its iterations, copyrighted or not – for Watermark for more years than I can remember. I remain in awe at the lengths protestors have gone to get their message across. Just what is the return on investment when spending $16,400 for a chartered plane to fly a banner promoting gay conversion therapy? And as technology expands, can we expect to see a mega-force of drones descend on us with far more personalized messages of anti-gay vitriol?

In the fall of 2009 word quietly got out that the Holy Land theme park was required to offer free admission one day a year in order to qualify under Florida state law for property-tax exemptions as a religious entity. That break saved Trinity Broadcast Network, Holy Land’s parent company, about $300,000 a year in taxes Holy Land never advertised their state-mandated free day; the information was buried several pages in to their Web site.

I thought I should help get the word out, especially since that year their free day fell in the week before Come Out With Pride. Inspired by my experiences at Disney World I decided that a Gay Day at the Bible-themed park would be an interesting kickoff to Orlando’s Pride celebration, so I began a grassroots effort to spread the word, encouraging everyone I knew to visit the park that day wearing red shirts. I could only hope that our visions of equality would be embraced in a place where tolerance and acceptance of all was preached, or that’s at least how I was quoted in the newspaper as Gay Day at Holy Land’s organizer.

So many people showed up for free admission that day that the park was full to capacity just a few minutes after it opened at 10 a.m. Park employees stood outside the gates and offered people free passes for a different day. Despite the early shutdown, the area was plagued by crowds, parking problems and traffic for several hours, eventually causing police to completely shut down the I-4 Conroy Road exit.

My group made it inside; I knew it would be an interesting day when one of the first people I saw was a security guard I had previously worked with, and I knew he was gay. Other people in my group recognized several Holy Land cast members from local theatre.

I couldn’t help but buy a magnet there, because my fridge is filled with similar mementos of other special occasions. I’m pretty sure I had to pay sales tax on it though.

TOM DYER, Founder of Watermark and Original Producer of Beach Ball (now Riptide)

When someone mentions Gay Days I can’t help but think of the amazing, groundbreaking nighttime parties thrown by Watermark, Jeffrey Sanker, Mark Baker and Johnny Chisholm during the 1990s.

My standout memories are all of Beach Ball. That first year we were nervous that the ticket price – $25 – was too high and no one would show up, so it was a relief and a thrill when more than 2,000 did and had the time of their lives. It was more crowded the next year, and as I was standing at the top of the hill overlooking the wave pool I overheard one young partier say, “This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my whole life.” And I’ll never forget the third year, when the event sold out and Disney agreed to release an additional 500 tickets so that everyone in line could get into Typhoon Lagoon.

Gay Days Weekend has maintained longevity for several reasons. First, the venues are remarkable and unique to Central Florida, and the theme parks already have a distinctly gay vibe. Second, the primary organizers are good at what they do and have adapted over the years. You won’t find a more professional outfit than And third, Gay Days Weekend became popular at a time when the LGBT community began claiming and realizing unprecedented acceptance. It created a remarkable opportunity for people from all over the nation to flex those political and economic muscles.

RICK CLAGGETT, Publisher Watermark

The weekend has had a profound effect on Orlando and the LGBT rights movement here. Gay Day made us visible. Now with over 100,000 people flocking to the weekend, that has been more than achieved. The more visible we become and the more we show our economic impact, the more support we will get. Gay Days Weekend is proof of that.

SCOTT SMITH, Former Editor Watermark

As one who has always felt incredibly uncomfortable in a large crowd, I must say I was never a huge fan of Gay Days. Whenever I think of it, I have memories of being overwhelmed. My participation – whether at the Magic Kingdom or any of the peripheral parties and events – was much more due to a sense of obligation than enjoyment.

I also have distinct memories of being somewhat disappointed with the gay community. Gay Days should have been an amazing opportunity to bind together to show strength in numbers. As it was, and perhaps still is, it became an opportunity for various groups to make money-grabbing efforts to “own” the weekend, which lead to a lot of infighting and contention. It was unclear who owned what and who had rights to claim parts of the weekend as their own. There were some years things got ugly and lawsuits were threatened. It all seemed so petty. I think even those who had no involvement with the organization of events became leery when promoters from markets outside of Orlando were coming in. People wanted to know what events were charitable and which ones were simply money-makers.

I realize as a former employee of Watermark – which produced its share of for-profit events – it may sound as if I’m being unfair to other event promoters. But without such events, Watermark may not have been able to sustain being a free community newsmagazine. That said, though, upon leaving Watermark, I recall being so relieved to know I never needed to participate in Gay Days again. And I haven’t.

The gay community has always responded positively to the magic of Disney. Fantasyland?Tomorrowland? The very names evoke a future world that’s free of prejudice. Plus, Disney has never shied away from camp, which I think speaks directly to most members of the LGBT community. Gay Day is an experience, too. You’re not likely to forget the sense of solidarity that comes with being surrounded by a sea of red shirts at the Magic Kingdom. There is something wonderful about it. And visitors to Orlando are likely to talk about it for years to come, inspiring younger generations to want to make the hajj to Central Florida to witness the wonder of community-belonging first hand.

I do remember, years ago, that often times parents were sort of uppity when they realized what was happening at the Magic Kingdom. Their kids, it seemed, couldn’t care less. The kids were there to enjoy what Disney had to offer and were not concerned about the crowd. Now I can’t help but think that those kids were affected in positive ways by the experience without perhaps even knowing it. Certainly some are now well-adjusted GLBT adults. And certainly many now have children of their own. Hopefully they have or will return to Gay Day with their kids, and all will be right with the world.

BILLY MANES, Watermark Editor to be

I’ve only done the Gay Day red shirt ramble once, and I vaguely remember feeling awkward on “It’s a Small World,” mostly because animatronics are always awkward, but also because back then, probably 2000, the world was maybe too small in our guided boat-like thing. There were children staring, myself and my company were misbehaving, it was really hot. When I hear “GayDays” mentioned, I’m generally thinking about guys with one-month gym plans and bartenders with bills to pay and their sighs of relief at the coming gold rush.

The organizers were smart to plant their roots and organically grow their business through both Disney and the City of Orlando. Also, the presence of the divas at the Parliament House all weekend, Cyndi Lauper once included, makes for an engaging party. It should be interesting to see the evolution of these events in the light of recent milestones (and coming ones) in LGBT acceptance.

From the hate banners flying in the sky to the “we’re causing hurricanes” and all the way to gay marriage, I think Gay Day has served Orlando well. We’re the first Southern state to have gay marriage, and that’s more than a Wilton Manors phenomenon.

SCOTTY CAMPBELL, Watermark Contributor, Senior Manager of Guest Services and Member Relations Orlando Science Center

It was either ’98 or ’99 when my friend Josh and I asked our moms to go to the Magic Kingdom for Gay Day and they agreed. Moms throwing on red shirts and accompanying their gay sons to this day was a big deal at the time — to us and the other gays attending. My mom wouldn’t participate in the rides, so she would sit and smoke and meet gay people from all over the country.

I’ve always felt there was power in the economic factor of this event. From the beginning, it couldn’t be denied that a person in a red shirt was handing you that cold hard cash. Then the event grew every year and has become a tourism force to be reckoned with. That economic power has helped us in the fight for equality.





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