Outside of Pride parades and festivals, one could argue that no other LGBTQ event in the world is as recognizable as the one that occurs on the first Saturday in June every year at the happiest place on Earth.
Gay Day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom has gone through many changes and obstacles in its 28-year history. What began as one day at the park ballooned into multiple days of events from many groups who bring circuit parties, concerts, expos and pool parties every year that encircle the original event and carry the same message of visibility that Gay Day at Magic Kingdom was founded on.
In April, Chris Alexander-Manley, co-owner of GayDayS, Inc., announced that starting in 2019 the company GayDayS, Inc.—which is not affiliated with Gay Day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom—would be moving its events to a set of dates in August.
“GayDayS is a vacation event. I think a majority of those attending nowadays follow our lead of what dates we put out there,” Alexander-Manley said. “A majority of people are not coming in for that Saturday at the Magic Kingdom. There are some that do come every year for that, which is great, but Magic Kingdom will be open for the Saturday of our event. I always say it’s not a national holiday like Christmas or New Year’s Day that fall on the same day every year.”
But according to many in the community that is exactly what it is, including many of the individuals who were there on the very first Gay Day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom in 1991. For many, Gay Day is a sacred holiday required to be celebrated on its traditional day of the first Saturday in June.
JUST ONE DAY
Gay Day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom was the original idea of one man, Doug Swallow.
“Doug Swallow was just a lovable computer geek guy,” says Michael Wanzie, a Central Florida entertainer who was at the very first Gay Day. “I don’t think we had email back then, but Compu-Who had just become popular, and Doug was a regular on Compu-Who.”
Compu-Who was Orlando’s gay computer Bulletin Board System (BBS) in the early 1990s. Users, or “Whosers” as Compu-Who users were called, would log on, enter one of the “chat lines” and trade messages with each other.
Swallow used this early messaging system to suggest every “out” gay person should meet up at the Magic Kingdom to be visible and be seen, something that was dangerous for many to do in those days.
“If you were out as a gay person, you were putting your neck out there. You were putting yourself at risk,” says Joel Strack, an openly gay Central Floridian who worked at Disney for more than 30 years. “Not necessarily at physical risk when you were at Magic Kingdom, but political and social animosity would be thrown at you just for being gay, if you identified publicly as a gay person.”
Wanzie says that Swallow’s suggestion for the community to do something to be visible wasn’t meant as a form of protest.
“He was just let’s go be somewhere where we can be ourselves and let people see that we’re normal people, but let them know that we are gay and we’ll do something like wear a red shirt so we can know who each other are. That was totally Doug’s idea, to make that day what it is,” Wanzie says.
At the time Swallow was on the board of directors for The Center Orlando, and Wanzie was The Center Orlando’s executive director.
“He was just one guy. He wasn’t representing a cause or a company,” Wanzie says about Swallow. “He started promoting it on Compu-Who, and the majority of people who came I think came because they were on Compu-Who and that’s how they saw it.”
While Swallow took to Compu-Who to promote the event, others in the community assisted him the old fashion way.
“Gary Allen, who was a bartender at the time at Southern Nights I think, got all excited about it,” Wanzie says. “So he and Doug printed up flyers to pass out and Gary went to different places and got bartenders to start talking it up and whatnot.”
The first Gay Day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom was set for June 1, 1991, with a designated meet-up time that afternoon in front of Cinderella’s Castle just before the 3:00 parade.
As the day arrived Wanzie remembers asking Swallow how many people he thought would attend. “I’d be thrilled if 300 people showed up,” Wanzie recalls Swallow saying.
“I remember I went to breakfast that morning at the Grand Floridian and the whole restaurant was filled with red-shirted people eating breakfast,” Wanzie says. “We thought ‘OK so there’s at least 75 of us here.’ We went to get on the monorail and realized the entire monorail was filled with red shirts.”
When the time arrived 1,500 people in red shirts had gathered in front of Cinderella’s Castle.
“We were all just standing there crying as we watched a sea of red shirts build in front of the castle,” Wanzie says. “There was no money behind it, there was no political agenda behind it. It was just let’s go out and have a good time and be seen and just finally claim the day to say ‘We have the right to be open and who we are and be in a public place.’ And that’s really all it started out to be, a grassroots thing started by this one guy, Doug Swallow.”
ONE DAY MORE
Gay Day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom was a success, and it became an instant news story. The second year attendance doubled with 3,000 LGBTQ people in red shirts filling the Magic Kingdom.
“After the first year, it became newsworthy immediately because of the public relations nightmare it created for Disney,” Wanzie says. “Believe me, they were not thrilled when they realized this was going to be a thing every year. They love it now, because they know how much money it makes for them, but back then, not so much. They were handing out refunds like candy to anyone who was upset by the presence of people like us.”
Strack put a group of about eight men together, all of whom worked at Disney and had volunteered on their day off to come in and let people coming for Gay Day know where to go and at what time.
“There were buses coming up from Miami full of people for Gay Day,” Strack says. “As they got off the bus we would explain to them that at 3:00 we would all gather in front of the castle for the parade.”
Signs and sandwich boards were placed at the entrance of the Magic Kingdom that read, “WARNING: A gay and lesbian event is taking place today at the Magic Kingdom. This event is not sponsored by Walt Disney World.”
Disney would also give free Mickey Mouse shirts to anyone who came to the Magic Kingdom on Gay Day in a red shirt who was not gay and was upset about the event.
“By the third year I was moved into management and was the go-between guy with Magic Kingdom and the Gay Day people,” Strack says. “Disney execs were convinced everyone in red shirts was going to start a protest or some disturbance at 3:00. There was a lot of paranoia on the side of Disney’s executive committee because they didn’t know how to deal with gay people. They had lots of gay people working for them but all of them behaved, so to speak, and stay closeted.”
Disney ended up adding more street entertainment to keep the crowds calm and occupied.
“They added all these small musical groups and jugglers so that it wasn’t so obvious that there was a group of gay people in red shirts hanging around,” Strack says.
Eventually, after a few years of Gay Day, Disney stopped putting out the warning signs and eventually even stopped giving refunds and free t-shirts to visitors angry about the event.
While warnings from Disney went away, a Gay Day tradition was started early on by a conservative group that would rent a small plane to fly over Orlando with a banner warning tourists that gays were at Disney.
IT’S A PARTY
The first party tied to Gay Day was Thursday night at Mannequins, a nightclub at Disney’s Pleasure Island. Thursday night at Mannequins was cast member night and since many Disney cast members were LGBTQ it became an unofficial gay night.
Within a few years out-of-town producers started creating circuit parties around the Gay Day event.
“It later became known as ‘A Day of Magic, a Night of Pleasure,’” Wanzie recalls. “Jeffrey Sanker was a great big name in the circuit party business worldwide. He heard about Gay Day and how it was building here. I think he might have been the first person to bring an actual circuit party to that week. He’s a big name in the circuit party community, and so once he put his roots down and said he was doing a party, then all the other circuit party producers followed suit.”By the mid-to late-’90s the week surrounding Gay Day became a huge event bringing upwards of 90,000 people to Central Florida. During this time Watermark started the water park event Beach Ball, which would undergo several name changes throughout the years finally becoming Riptide. Along with all these parties, a group simply called “Friends” out of Tampa decided to book a block of rooms at a hotel and called it “Friends Hotel.”
“They would get a block of rooms in a hotel on U.S. 192 or somewhere, and they I think were the first to do that, to get rooms dedicated to this event,” Wanzie says. “Then the circuit boys started getting blocks of rooms in hotels, so they were doing that too.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME
It was 1998 and with all of these events building up there was no central location where someone could go to find out what was happening and more importantly where you could get tickets for everything. Enter Tommy Manley (Alexander-Manley’s husband). Manley owned a website design firm in Orlando during the ‘90s called Active Mind.
“Tommy thought, it’s crazy that this is happening and there’s no centrality to it at all,” Wanzie says. “There’s no keeper of the calendar. If you were from out of town and you decided you wanted to come to this thing you’d heard about that’s happening in Florida that’s now still called Gay Day in the Magic Kingdom but seems to be multiple days with multiple parties all over the town, there’s no place to go really as a resource to buy all your tickets in one place. It didn’t exist.”
Swallow maintained his website, GayDay.com, and advertised everything he knew of that was happening in conjunction with the event, but he didn’t offer tickets on the site and never tried to make any money off of it.
“Tommy very wisely said ‘Hey, there’s something to be made out of this. What if we could become like the central ticketing agent for it.’ So he got it in his mind that he was going to start a website and capitalize on this for profit, nothing wrong with that,” Wanzie says.
Manley purchased the domain GayDayS.com which was originally owned by The Center, according to Alexander-Manley.
“The domain GayDayS.com was bought by The Center and they didn’t do much with it so Tommy approached The Center and bought it from them,” he says.
Manley asked Wanzie to come on board and help him get GayDayS.com started. Wanzie had worked for British tour operators and had lots of ins with hotels and attractions. Only one problem: Wanzie didn’t know how to work a website.
“I had never touched a website, didn’t know how to use it at first. I had to learn everything from scratch,” he says. “Tommy just said, ‘This is my vision, do you think you can help me?’ and I said ‘Yes’ and within a few months I had become the vice president in charge of partnership developments and I just got in there and I lived, ate and breathed GayDayS.com 24 hours a day.”
GayDayS.com was now a thing and Wanzie got it going with a very well known Orlando institution.
“I remember after Don [Granatstein] and Susan [Unger] bought the Parliament House I sold them our first high-level sponsorship for $30,000,” Wanzie says. “While [Tommy] was earning the money to keep his business going designing websites, I was doing all the stuff to start the new business GayDayS.com, which they trademarked. Unfortunately, I—when I was there—had trademarked it, I filed the paperwork for the company and trademarked the name GayDayS.com. I hate to mention that now because I think people may come and kill me, but at the time I thought it was for good reason.”
Wanzie thought it would be a good idea, instead of renting out blocks of rooms at a hotel like the party promoters had been doing, to find a “host hotel” and do a 100 percent buyout.
“I was told at every turn that it’s not done, the industry doesn’t do it, not even with the biggest conventions. Nobody gives up 100 percent of their room inventory to one group. It’s too risky,” Wanzie says. “I got it in my head that that had to be something we could overcome. We had to be able to get our own hotel. The problem was that at the time, Tommy didn’t have the type of credit to be able to get a contract for that kind of money, but the British tour companies already have these contracts with hotels where they own a block … they got the credit with the hotel … so I went back to one of the British tour companies that I worked for and said ‘Hey, do you want to partner on this? I need a hotel.’”
Wanzie, with the packing of a British tour company, went to the Royal Plaza (now called the B Resort) and negotiated the first ever 100 percent buyout of a hotel’s room inventory in Central Florida. The first year of having a host hotel, GayDayS.com sold out the entire hotel of more than 300 rooms. Within two years they were able to book the hotel without the backing of Wanzie’s British tour company friends.
The first few years of the GayDayS.com’s host hotel didn’t have organized paid pool parties like they do today.
“There was a DJ and beach balls and flotations and what not,” Wanzie says. “It was just an amenity. But we did a Gay Days Expo, which I organized and it just took off. I positioned the company as the keeper of the calendar and the mission statement was that this would be a one-stop resource for Gay Days. After that first year people started to see us as not only keepers of the calendar but wrongly saw us as producers of the overall Gay Days event.”
Wanzie left GayDayS.com after three years and Alexander-Manley came on board in 2002. According to Wanzie, Alexander-Manley didn’t understand why GayDayS.com would list events for groups who were not buying advertising from them.
“After I left, they still hired me intermittently as a consultant and hired me to still come back after I didn’t work there. I came back the next year to manage the expo for them,” Wanzie says.”Chris [Alexander-Manley] came in and decided that they were in this to profit and were going to run it like anybody else runs a company. They weren’t going to mention any event that wasn’t their event.”
Alexander-Manley says that other group’s event were, and still are, able to be mentioned on GayDayS.com, but they do require the organization to have some type of relationship with GayDayS, Inc.
“If they want to piggyback onto the website that we put together every year they need to be involved with us either as a sponsor or vendor or advertiser, something like that,” he says.
A PLACE FOR EVERYONE
Throughout the first decade of the 2000s, with GayDayS.com now only promoting its host hotel and events, most of which focused on the circuit boys, other groups started organizing events focused on other members of the LGBTQ community.
Parliament House was already starting to bring in entertainment to coincide with the weekend.
In 2001, Allison Burgos started Girls in Wonderland, a series of events designed for lesbians and bisexual women.
“That first year we had 800 women show up,” says Burgos. “After three years in, the women were asking for their own space and their own hotel. We created a relationship with the Marriott Courtyard at the Marriott Village, soon after that first year we sold out that hotel and then started overflowing into the other two properties, and eventually had to move because the pool party was just too big. We were turning people away from being able to enter the pool parties on Saturday, so we moved again to the Sheraton Lake Buena Vista.”
The following year Orlando Black Pride was started by a club promoter named Trish and her business partner which was not tied into any Gay Day events and catered to the African-American LGBTQ population.
Trish, who asked that her last name not be used in the story, says that she started Orlando Black Pride because African-American LGBTQ people didn’t see themselves in the people attending the other events and that attempts to join in with GayDayS.com events went ignored.
“When the seat at the table is not offered, does it mean that you must go hungry? You create your own table, make your own event,” Trish says. “The other groups were like ‘yeah you can come over and give us your money but we aren’t going to do anything for you or help you along with your events. It was a struggle for the first few years trying to get venues and hotels because we weren’t only gay but we were black. In the beginning we had a lot of doors slammed in our face.”
In 2006, Danny Gallegos and his partner started Tidal Wave which caters to the bear community.
“We always took pride in stating the fact that whether you were big or small, smooth or hairy, it was your weekend too,” Gallegos says. “If they wanted to wear a speedo and if they were big guys, then nobody should say anything derogatory. If girls wanted to come, then no problem. We always said that no matter what anyone was welcome. And I think that’s why it’s lasted so long.”
In 2009, Tom Christ and Billy Looper started One Magical Weekend. That first year, under the name Let’s Go Play, they only produced Riptide at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon. Within the next few years they added on more events including large-scale events at Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and House of Blues. One Magical Weekend also launched a host hotel at the B Resort complete with pool parties, an LGBTQ expo and after parties.
After GayDayS, Inc. announced it would be moving the dates of its events in 2019 social media began to explode.
In a statement, One Magical Weekend said they—along with Girls in Wonderland, Tidal Wave, Orlando Black Pride and Parliament House—were committed to keeping their events on the first weekend of June.
“What started as a small but powerful idea grew into a huge, annual LGBT+ event that received worldwide attention from the press and protesters alike,” Christ says. “It is easy to become complacent, but this event, started by a group of friends, is a milestone in our community for celebrating Pride and Equality everywhere, even the Magic Kingdom. Identified by visitors and protestors alike as ‘a place for families,’ they forgot that we come from and are families as well. The Red Shirt showed the world that we belong as well. We need the next generation to celebrate the accomplishments of those who led the way.”
Alexander-Manley says he thinks it’s great the other groups are staying on the first weekend in June as that will give locals and tourists three great LGBTQ events throughout the year.
“There will be something the first weekend in June, then something in August and then something in October with Come Out With Pride,” he says. “I think it’s a benefit for local because they will have more events to go to, and definitely better for the Central Florida economy because that will be three big events that will bring in a lot of money.”
While none of the organizations have announced any of the events for 2019, One Magical Weekend has called for the community to rename the weekend that centers around Gay Day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom since GayDayS, Inc. is moving, something Wanzie does not agree with.
“I think fucking GayDayS.com should rename their company,” Wanzie says. “If you’re not going to have anything to do with the event, because they’re simply not. They’re simply going to be this party producer that is unrelated to this historically rooted event.”
Alexander-Manley says he respects Wanzie’s opinion and he has the right to make suggestions but that Gay Days is now more than the event at Disney, it is now a citywide event.
“Our company is Gay Days, Inc. and our website is GayDayS.com,” Alexander-Manley says. “And I know that a lot of locals probably do have an issue with that, but history changes.”