Central Florida’s bona fide LGBT mega-event is just 90 days away. In this pivotal 20th anniversary year, I’m excited—and still a little surprised—that Watermark will once again play a production role.
It started as a simple, grassroots gathering of people identified by red t-shirts at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom on the first Saturday in June; kind of a gay Kumbaya at the Castle. To give you an idea of how much it’s changed since then, I can no longer string the two words ‘Gay’ and ‘Days’ together without risking legal action by a respected local LGBT entrepreneur. (See footnote.)
It’s not bad, just way bigger and more complicated, and Watermark is more than a little responsible. Back in 1997, and with Gay Day at the Magic Kingdom attracting crowds in the tens of thousands, we hit on the idea of buying out Typhoon Lagoon for a ticketed LGBT event the night before. The success of Beach Ball, and Jeffrey Sanker’s One Mighty Party the following night, illuminated the potential for growth.
Within just a few years, GD Weekend had morphed into the huge multi-faceted and multi-venue event we now know. It is the biggest annual multi-day gathering of gays and lesbians in the nation, with overall attendance surpassing six figures and an annual economic impact estimated by the Orlando Sentinel at more than $50 million.
Watermark sold Beach Ball and got out of event planning altogether in 2002. But this year we’re back, producing one of the biggest parties of GD Weekend 2010—Saturday night’s Stratosphere Party at Universal Studios. Here’s why.
The way I see it, GD Weekend has four separate but symbiotic principal components: Saturday’s still-big Gay Day at the Magic Kingdom; hotels and events booked by Chris Alexander-Manley and Tommy Manley’s GayDays, Inc.; the Girls in Wonderland hotel and parties produced by Alison Burgos; and nightly theme park super-parties and after-hours parties that draw from 2-6,000 mostly male attendees each.
Like a chair, GD Weekend needs these four sturdy legs. Last year, the super-parties got super wobbly.
New Orleans-based promoter Johnny Chisholm has been the principal producer of the super-parties—including Beach Ball—since 2007. Last year, Chisholm was denied access to Disney and other venues due to non-payment of prior fees. He shuffled venues and announced the changes just weeks before GD Weekend. Confusion reigned, attendance plummeted, and loyal ticket-buyers were left questioning whether they would ever return to Orlando.
Amidst all that, the other legs held steady. Gay Day at the Magic Kingdom, which Disney enjoys but does not embrace, drew an estimated 30-50,000 of the red t-shirt persuasion. Always professional GayDays, Inc. filled their hotel and expo to overflowing, sold out numerous site-based events and pronounced the year a big success. And women lined up for blocks to get into Girls at Wonderland parties, mostly at Disney’s Pleasure Island.
Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale promoter Michael Christ secured Typhoon Lagoon at the last minute and made a success of his “Let’s Go Play” super-party. And back in Orlando, a packed Parliament House used buses to shuttle people to necessary off-site parking throughout the weekend.
These key players are all back for year 20. They compete for turf and ticket-buyers—sometimes like extreme fighters in a no-holds-barred cage match—but they acknowledge their mutual interdependence. No one wants to see a GD Weekend with gaping holes in the super-party lineup on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday night.
Enter Mark Baker, the promoter of groundbreaking GD Weekend events like the Coliseum Party at Hard Rock Live and the Starz Party at Universal Studios. With a reputation for dependability, showmanship, and brilliant sound and light design, Baker has a devoted following. When he announced his return to GD Weekend with major events on Thursday and Sunday night, many breathed a sigh of relief.
But that left Saturday. Universal Studios reportedly wanted nothing to do with traditional party promoters after their experience with Chisholm, but were receptive to the idea of working with a community-based producer. When Baker urged me to contact them I resisted. Been there, done that.
As Chris and Tommy and Alison and Mark—and even Johnny—will tell you, planning and promoting GD Weekend events is a lot of work. There are endless meetings and discussions and decisions.
There’s substantial expense, with no guarantee of recompense or profit. It’s stressful.
But Mark talked me into visiting the gloriously festive Universal Studios Music Plaza, proposed site of what was already being called the Stratosphere Party. As I stood there watching the lighted Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit rollercoaster twist and turn above the stage, I recalled a moment from a prior Beach Ball. I was standing at the top of a hill at Typhoon Lagoon watching 5,000 partiers dance and frolic when the young man standing in front of me turned to his friend and said, “I think this is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”
Watching the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, I thought how important—how cathartic—it is to come together in celebration. The tanking economy has made the last couple years tough on everybody. For the LGBT community, there has been the added frustration of gains and then setbacks in our frustrating struggle to achieve full equality. On Saturday, June 5, I say let’s party together.
Footnote: My friends at GayDays, Inc. have given me permission to use ‘Gay Days’ journalistically—as long as I acknowledge their registered trademark each time. It doesn’t sit well with me and they know it, because the phrase has been used for years to describe much more than their substantial lineup of events. So I’ll use ‘GD Weekend’ as a substitute for now. Besides, it’s more fun to tweak them a little.