Gay Orlando Steps Out

By Charles Passy

ORLANDO, Fla. – A little past midnight at the Parliament House, the parking lot is full. That’s not surprising: the club, actually several bars and a hotel rolled into one sprawling complex, has become a definitive destination in Orlando, though not quite in the mold of Walt Disney World, just a 30-minute drive away.

At one of the Parliament House’s bars, male dancers perform in little more than their skivvies. At another, a more rough-and-tumble Western-minded crowd holds sway. And at the complex’s small Footlight Theater, drag queens take the stage, including one seemingly pregnant female impersonator who gives “birth” to the musical strains of “I’m Every Woman.”

In other words, this is Orlando gone gay.

“Our slogan is ‘Orlando has more than one magical kingdom,’ ” said Don Granatstein, an owner of Parliament House, referring to the Disney theme park. Indeed, as improbable as it may seem in a town dominated by mouse ears and miniature golf, Orlando has emerged in the last few years as a major destination for gay tourists. In addition to a $2 million makeover in recent years, Parliament House is just breaking ground on the Gardens, an adjoining 164-unit time-share resort that is being heralded as the first gay-friendly project of its kind in the world. And closer to Disney – on the often ticky-tacky tourist strip of Highway 192 in Kissimmee – the Freedom Resort & Spa, a gay-oriented membership resort, has just opened on the site of a former Travelodge hotel; the price of membership begins at $3,000.

While Orlando lacks a defined gay center like the Castro district of San Francisco, gay-friendly bars, clubs and stores like Pulse, Lava Lounge and Mojo Books are loosely scattered throughout the city, and Orlando has the oldest gay community center in Florida. At Ritzy Rags Wigs & More, an emporium that specializes in gay-pride items and gowns and accessories for drag queens, sales have tripled in the last three years. The owner, Leigh Shannon, himself a well-known female impersonator, pulls out a size-15 pair of red pumps for a curious customer. “You can go waterskiing with these!” he laughed.

That’s all in addition to the annual event that put Orlando on the gay map in the first place: Gay Days, a series of parties, performances and gatherings throughout the city around the first week of June, highlighted by trips en masse to the local theme parks – the Magic Kingdom included – where participants typically sport red T-shirts to stand out from other visitors. In spite of protests from groups, particularly Christian activists, Gay Days has soared in popularity. This year’s events, which begin on May 31, are expected to draw more than 125,000 people.

“It’s a gay buffet,” said Fiely Matias, an Orlando gay entertainer, searching for the best way to describe the event. Mr. Matias himself will appear in “Lounge-zilla!”, billed as a show featuring “original tunes about fetishes, threesomes, stalking, bizarre sibling rivalries, vengeance and sex-change operations.”

The two new gay-oriented resorts are an attempt to extend that buffet year-round, creating places where gay travelers can feel at ease in the shadow of the Mouse House. At the Parliament House’s $25 million-plus time-share, for example, the amenities in each unit will range from granite countertops to risqué artwork with gay appeal, plus a whirlpool bath that will light up with the colors of the rainbow. The units, spread among five buildings, are being sold for $9,400 to $20,000 a week, depending on size and season.

There will also be what the project director, Charles Schmidt, describes as an up-to-date health club that’s far larger than those at most time-share resorts. “Straight people don’t work out. Gay people are in the gym every day,” said Mr. Schmidt, a time-share sales veteran who is gay.

It’s an approach that appealed to Darren Langford and Victor Rodriguez, a couple who split their time in different cities – Mr. Langford lives in Las Vegas, Mr. Rodriguez in New York; both are Parliament House regulars who come to Orlando as a midway vacation destination. They put down around $14,000 a week for a two-bedroom unit at the Gardens, saying they preferred the idea of visiting the resort, with its gay-themed amenities and ambience, rather than trying to fit in at a nongay establishment. “It’s a comfort factor,” Mr. Langford said. “People are not judging you.”

The influx of gay visitors has come as something of a shock to locals in this often conservative metropolis – a sleepy Southern community until Disney established itself in Central Florida in the 1970’s. While Orlando did pass a gay-rights ordinance in 2002 and elected Patty Sheehan, who is openly lesbian, to the City Council in 2000, the surrounding area of Orange County has not fully accepted gays and lesbians, some gay activists say.

But even within the city, there are still attacks against gays, including one on a man in January. And some of the city’s proudest gay residents describe the local scene as fragmented – without a truly identifiable gay neighborhood – and say they can’t always relax their guard. “I wouldn’t feel safe walking around my neighborhood holding my partner’s hand,” said Keith Theriot, an artist and social worker who came to Orlando after living in New York and New Orleans. “I can’t do what I did in Chelsea.”

And though Gay Days has become an international draw, the event receives little or no support from the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We don’t have the funds to go into niche marketing,” said Danielle Courtenay, a spokeswoman for the bureau. Disney also distances itself somewhat from the celebration. “We’re not the host of the event per se, but we’re open to everyone every day,” said Kim Prunty, a Disney spokeswoman.

Despite that, Disney’s presence in Orlando is “a major force” in Orlando’s gay identity, said Doug Swallow, a software developer who is widely credited with founding Gay Days in 1991. (He now runs GayDay.com, which promotes and markets the event.) Indeed, Disney was one of the first big businesses nationwide to offer benefits to same-sex couples, a policy it started in 1996. Add the fact that the many gays who work in the entertainment field are naturally drawn to Disney, and you have a solid base upon which to build a gay presence and gay tourism.

It’s an increasingly lucrative market in the era of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” According to a study by Community Marketing, a company based in San Francisco that tracks gay tourism, American gay travelers spend $54 billion annually. That has cities from Atlanta to Bloomington, Ind., looking to cash in. In Orlando, Universal Studios, which has two theme parks in town, signed on as an official partner this year with GayDay.com, marking the first time a theme-park company has joined the event. “We saw it as a good business opportunity,” said Tom Schroder, a Universal spokesman.

Back at the Parliament House, the time-share project, whose first phase is already nearly sold out before construction, is only the beginning of extensive plans to attract gay travelers – a gay-oriented retirement home on site has been discussed. Plus, the resort, which attracts 10,000 visitors weekly, is continuing to improve its lineup of attractions, from tea dances to a drag play, “Ladies of Eola Heights.”

Never mind that the gay complex’s owners – Mr. Granatstein and Susan Unger – are straight. The husband-and-wife developers, who have made much of their money in the time-share business, say their clientele is loyal in the extreme. When last year’s hurricanes destroyed the complex’s towering yellow-and-red neon sign, patrons were openly weeping. Mr. Granatstein is now spending $60,000 to replace it.

It’s worth every penny, the owners say. As Orlando’s gay tourist market continues to grow, Parliament House wants to be at the fore of this unlikely boom in America’s theme-park capital. Mr. Granatstein takes particular pride in the way out-of-towners from more established gay-friendly cities view the club. “People come from New York and say they’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.

Cities Discover a New Kind of Tourism

Many cities are trying to get a piece of the gay travel market. Here is what some are doing to attract gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender visitors:

CHICAGO. With the city scheduled to hold the Gay Games in July 2006, Illinois tourism officials are gearing up with a marketing push that will begin this summer, when they will be host to members of the gay news media. Among the city’s most popular gay events are Pride Fest (June) and International Mr. Leather (late May) – billed by the Chicago Area Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce as “the nation’s premier leather event.” The city also has an officially designated gay business district, Boystown, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. The Gay Games are expected to attract 12,000 participants.

PHILADELPHIA. The city has poured $1 million into an extensive marketing campaign built on the theme “Philadelphia: Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay,” promoting the city’s traditional and gay-oriented attractions and events. The efforts have ranged from television spots (on the air in New York) to a “Navigaytor” travel guide for Philadelphia. Three large-scale gay and lesbian events take place in the city – a PrideDay Parade and Festival (June), OutFest in honor of National Coming Out Day (October) and an Equality Forum (held earlier this spring). Tourism officials also point out the Gayborhood, a downtown area with gay nightspots and other establishments.

SAN DIEGO. On its Web site, the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau welcomes gay and lesbian visitors with its “San Diego From Gay to Z” guide (www.seeyouinsandiego.com/gaytoz), which notes events like the Pride Celebration (July) and the Nightmare on Normal Street Halloween celebration. The city also claims one of the oldest gay and lesbian drama companies in the country, the Diversionary Theater. And there is a well-established gay neighborhood, Hillcrest, which in the bureau’s words “celebrates San Diego’s hip and wild side.”

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