Among Gays, Parliament House Rules

Now, the internationally known hotel is working on $20M expansion.

By Bob Mervine, Staff Writer

ORLANDO — Ru Paul is coming. So is Grace Jones.

And the Parliament House, an icon for Central Florida’s gay community for the last 27 years, is ready for them.

On the heels of a recently completed renovation, the North Orange Blossom Trail hotel is embarking on a $20 million expansion that will add 165 luxury time share condominium units.

Locally, Michael Wanzie, who both performs at and publicizes the Parliament House, has no doubt it will succeed.

“There’s a small community of travelers who share information about gay guest houses, who are looking for places to stay,” he says. “You can’t get the same level of comfort in a mainstream hotel.”

Success, then duct tape

In the early 1960s, the Parliament House catered to motor traffic on Orlando’s main roadway: Highway 441.

But with the development of Interstate 4, the traveler clientele began vanishing. Locals were moving anniversary dinners and civic club luncheons elsewhere. The hotel’s once-packed dining and restaurant complex, known as The Abbey, sat empty.

In 1975, gay businessmen Bill Miller and Michael Hodges bought the hotel and repositioned it exclusively for gay clientele.

It immediately took off. In an area famous for family entertainment and in one of the state’s most politically conservative communities, the hotel nevertheless became an international draw for gay men on vacation, as well as locals in search of entertainment.

In 1992, though, Hodges died and the hotel went to his estate. For the next seven years, it languished as Hodges’ family looked for a buyer. Little or no money was spent on repairs, says Bill Lape, the current general manager and a 21-year employee. “We bought a lot of duct tape in those days,” he recalls.

By 1999, when Toronto natives Don Granatstein and wife Susan Unger took a look, it was “a dirty little hole” of a hotel, says Granatstein.

Putting up a wall

However, the couple saw promise. Before working on time shares in Orlando, they had worked in Las Vegas with a Debbie Reynolds-owned time share project, and, Granatstein recalls, “Our Las Vegas property was very gay-friendly.

“We thought about doing something similar here.”

Besides, Granatstein says, informal surveys in Atlanta and Toronto reinforced the fact that the property was well-known. “When we asked, `If we fixed it up, would you come back,’ they all said, `Yes, of course.’ They had great memories of coming out there, of meeting their lover there. We knew we had something.”

After paying more than $7 million for the lakefront hotel property and two adjacent parcels containing the Carolina Moon, a seedy trailer park and even seedier motel, the couple began the arduous task of improving the property.

“We’ve spent millions fixing things up,” says Granatstein. “There were structural problems, it was filthy, we had to add all the lighting and entertainment support.”

Among the first renovations: a glass brick wall which created a separation between the hotel and the industrial, down-market neighborhood outside. “We were sometimes harassed by people driving by,” explains Granatstein.

Stiletto heels, upscale time shares

Today, at 80 percent occupancy, the public space and guest rooms are simple to the point of plain, save for the occasional leopard-skin stiletto heel-shaped chair and an abundance of mirrors.

Says Granatstein, “When we finished the renovation we got, from the customers, not the `It’s beautiful’ that we expected, but, `thank you’ for bringing it back. It’s their home.”

The complex’s six bars range from a pool bar that opens at 10 in the morning, to a darkly decorated “Western-themed” room with black walls, dark lighting and a tough-guy feel to it. “The Western Bar is the most popular,” says Unger. “They like to dress up like cowboys and play the cowboy music on the jukebox.”

The Footlight Theater stages seven different shows every weekend, from comedians and singers to female impersonator revues, sometimes hosted by Darcel Stevens, who used to play football for the University of Florida Gators.

The Gardens, the planned condo development, will function like any other time-share resort, with owners purchasing a condominium unit for a block of time. Amenities include two new pools, a health club, retail space and water recreation, as well as reduced price meals and free admission to the Parliament House.

The rooms will be housed in a cluster of buildings of varying heights, from three to five stories. An early rendering portrays a bright, upscale resort and pool area with landscaping and high quality features.

“Our architects are working on the design, and we expect to begin construction this summer with a completion in late 2004,” Granatstein says. “They’re removing the last of the trailers as we speak,” he adds, referring to Carolina Moon, the rundown trailer park which abutted the Parliament House property.

One-stop shopping

Interestingly, the multimillion-dollar expansion is not expected to have much economic impact on the surrounding community.

“It’s a bubble,” says Tom Roth, president of Community Marketing, a California travel consulting firm specializing in the gay travel market. Much as Disney works to keep guests on its properties, Granatstein is “building his own environment.”

Granatstein agrees. “Many of our guests don’t even rent a car,” he notes. “They take a cab to and from the airport and never leave.

“They find everything they want right here,” he points out.

Gay Days Inc. Vice President Nan Schultz is more plain-spoken. “When two guys check in and want a king-sized bed, they are looking for a place where that is a run-of-the-mill request.”

The Parliament House, says Wanzie, will be taking that comfort level to, “a mega-resort level. It’s bound to be successful.”

‘We all have prejudices’

The project has won fans in unexpected places. Among them is city council member Daisy Lynum, who praises Granatstein and Unger for both the renovation and the removal of the Carolina Moon trailer park, a major victory for the neighborhood. “The prostitutes have no where to go any more,” says Lynum.

Granatstein and Unger also instituted a crackdown on some of the rougher aspects of the Parliament House’s social life, such as cruising for partners from the hotel balconies. At one point, some patrons accused the new management of planning to take the place “straight.”

(Granatstein’s dry reply: “Yeah, that’s what I always wanted. To own a straight motel on the Orange Blossom Trail. Since I was a boy, I’ve wanted that.”)

But the early criticism since has died down. On a recent tour of the property, customers warmly greeted both owners. “We’re not gay, so we don’t always understand them,” says Granatstein. “But we’re adopted by our clients. Maybe because we’re Jewish — you know, we all have our prejudices.”

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