Thanks in large part to Walt Disney's vision (and his secret plan to buy up great swaths of central Florida back in the late '50s), Orlando is now known around the globe as one of the country's top vacation destinations.
Orlando is no longer a Mickey Mouse organization. Today there are dozens of theme parks in the metropolitan area, focusing on everything from sea creatures to medieval knights to biblical tales. And all of them are competing to part families from their hard-earned dollars.
But what does the city offer gay travelers? Plenty. There's a lively and growing cultural community and a vibrant gay bar and club scene. And there are literally dozens of gay-friendly resorts, hotels and B&Bs located in and around the city.
Some travelers do come for the theme parks, especially in the spring. That's when red-shirted gays take over Disney World and other parks as part of Gay Days. But even if a ride on Space Mountain isn't part of your plans, there's more than enough to keep you occupied.
Downtown. Take a leisurely stroll around Lake Eola, the city's centerpiece. (Rides in horse-drawn carriages and swan-shaped pedal boats are also popular.) There is a sprinkling of gay clubs, but the rest have a reputation for being gay-friendly.
ViMi. The ViMi District, more officially known as Virginia-Mills, is one of the city's most vibrant gay neighborhoods. Just outside the boundaries of Downtown, it sits north of Colonial Drive. The Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Community Center of Central Florida sits on Mills Avenue, the neighborhood's main drag. Gays were the first to move to the once-rundown area, and gay businesses are found among the ethnic eateries and tattoo shops. The city commissioner for the area, Patty Sheehan, is one of the country's most prominent gay elected officials.
Lake Ivanhoe. Along Orange Avenue between Virginia and Princeton you'll find antique dealers with some fabulous finds. There's also a couple of laid-back neighborhood bars.
Thornton Park. Near Downtown, this fun and funky neighborhood is full of lovingly restored homes from the beginning of the last century. It's filled with hip shops and trendy restaurants.
Winter Park. The area's chicest boutiques are found in this upscale neighborhood. Also check out the Morse Museum of American Art, which has an eye-popping collection of Tiffany glass.
Two airports serve the Orlando area. Orlando International Airport, where you are most likely to land, is on the outskirts of the city. Orlando Sanford International Airport is 18 miles north of the city. Be sure to check with your hotel to find out if they offer free shuttle service from the airport.
Rental cars are probably your best bet for getting around. The good news is that they are relatively inexpensive, often around $25 a day.
Taxis abound in Orlando, but the cost can become prohibitive. Public buses can get you just about anywhere you'd want to go, but the schedules often mean long waits. Fares are $2, or $4.50 for a one-day pass. See LYNX the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority, for info.
Many hotels offer free shuttle service to local attractions, so be sure to check in advance.
Disney magic. Everyone lets it all hang out during the weeklong Gay Days celebration, held every June in Orlando.
Two decades of mouse ears
Almost 20 years ago, the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Community Center of Orlando encouraged gay people, along with their friends and families, to "wear red and be seen" for one day at the world's most popular theme park.
About 3,000 people, most of them donning red T-shirts, pushed through the turnstiles at Walt Disney World. They weren't greeted warmly by the theme park, which posted warning signs at the entrance warning of the large number of gay and lesbian visitors.
Religious groups were livid. The American Family Association urged a boycott (which quickly fizzled). Operation Rescue staged a demonstration at the front gates (less than a dozen protesters showed up). And televangelist Pat Robertson warned Orlando that it risked hurricanes, earthquakes and terrorist bombs by allowing gays.
Perhaps the most creative protest was in 2006, when the Christian Action Network threatened to launch a hot-air balloon with a message warning families not to visit the area's theme parks during Gay Days.
Today the more than 135,000 revelers are greeted by smiling employees, many of whom volunteer to work during the Gay Days celebration. Although Disney is not an official sponsor of the event (spokespeople say the park "welcomes everyone"), it does offer extended hours and hosts a fireworks display usually only seen during the park's peak summer hours.
Always scheduled around the first weekend in June, Gay Days has exploded from a daylong celebration to a week of events at many theme parks and dozens of locations around the city. There are concerts, circuit parties, poolside receptions and non-stop activities.
"We have young, old, all races and beliefs, parents, gay AA groups, and every other section of our community attending Gay Days each year," says one organizer.
The event is one of the city's biggest moneymakers, bringing in an estimated $100 million to the local economy. It's no wonder that at times there were conflicts among the organizers. Several years ago two separate groups sponsored competing events.
Gays Days will take place next year from June 1 to June 7. The hub of activities this year is the Doubletree Resort Orlando, located on International Drive. Free transportation is offered to Universal Studios, Sea World and the various Disney theme parks.
Media and Resources
Watermark, the city's top gay publication, covers news and cultural events. What's Happening and Mark's List cover the region and events from coast to coast. Orlando Weekly is the gay-friendly alternative newspaper.
For locations and website links to businesses listed below, and more, see our Orlando gay map & listings pages.
Eo Inn & Spa (227 N Eola Dr;407-481-8485) small boutique hotel in downtown a block from Thornton Park shops and restaurants, with full spa and Panera Bread at street level.
A gay motel and entertainment resort since 1975, Parliament House Hotel (400 N Orange Blossom Trail; 407-425-7571) packs a lot into one destination with 130 rooms, an expansive pool area with bar, a lakefront beach, six bars including disco and show bar, stores and a restaurant. Going until 3am, they have drag and cabaret shows from the Footlight Players, Orlando's hottest male dancers, headliner guest stars, Latin nights, pool parties and happy-hour buffets. Sundays no-cover T-dances includes free 8pm buffets, and three showtimes.
Rick's Bed & Breakfast (unpublished address -click for website) is an upscale clothing-optional gay retreat for men only, near Disney World.
Veranda B&B (115 N Summerlin Ave;407-849-0321) European-style B&B in four historic building around central courtyard in Thornton Park. Near shops, restaurants, Waterhouse Center, opera, and ballet.
Bars and restaurants
903 Mills Market (903 S Mills), great take-out food, outdoor seating, breakfasts and sandwiches, wine tasting club.
Bar Codes (4453 Edgewater Dr) is Orlando's only bear and leather bar, serving beer and wine, with a back yard bar.
Funky Monkey Wine Company (912 N Mills Ave) is a downtown restaurant and wine bar for lunch, brunch and dinner, owned and operated by Tasters Guild Orlando.
Hamburger Mary's (110 W Church) has a menu that's familiar to most, game nights on Wednesdays and Thursdays and Saturday/Sunday brunch 11am-3pm.
Hank's (5026 Edgewater Dr) men's cruise beer and wine bar with famous back yard, pool tables and a juke box.
Lucky Tuesdays, at Rain (4732 S Kirkman Blvd), -- CLOSED -- weekly 18+ gay dance mix, no cover before 11pm, DJs, two rooms of sound.
New Phoenix (7124 Aloma Ave, Winter Park), the Orlando area's oldest bar with drag shows, cheap drinks, and karaoke.
Pom Pom's Teahouse and Sandwicheria (67 Bumby Ave) is a "teahouse and sandwicheria" of note, with a gallery showcasing local gay artists.
Pulse (1912 S Orange Ave, downtown) sleek, state-of-the-art, with great sound and lights, where young 18-up mixed-sex, multi-preferenced clubbers flock. Nearly-nude young guys, perform on-stage and atop the bar (Tue, Thu, Sat, Sun) with more than usual enthusiasm and imaginative flair for exuberant crowds. Drag and other performers also grace the stage.
Revolution Club/Hydrate Video Bar (375 S Bumby Ave) and Majestic Theater and Lounge nightclub complex pulls a young 18+ and mostly gay crowd. Every night events include Monday Noche Latina, Wednesday all-male strip contests, and Friday drag. On Saturdays there are burlesque shows and dancing for men and women both.
Savoy Orlando (1913 N Orange Ave) has two bars (Tattoo is their non-smoking lounge) and patio garden, many kinds of beer, and full liquor service. Hot dancers, the Men of Savoy appear seven nights a week from 6pm. Thursdays are 18+, and on Saturdays their hot, shirtless bartenders are joined by bare-chested customers who get dollar drinks all night.
Stonewall (741 W Church St) neighborhood bar open nightly from 5pm with food, karaoke, underwear Thursdays, and Sunday T-Dance.
Wylde's (3557 S Orange Ave) regular guy's bar is popular for their karaoke and the shirtless and underwear nights (every Tuesday), with discounts for participants.
Club Orlando (450 E Compton St), part of the national chain of private men's clubs, one of the nicest anywhere, has an outdoor Olympic-size pool, wrap-around deck and jacuzzi, steam room, dry sauna, tropical garden patio, satellite-TV lounge, and 43 cubicles for pleasure and relaxation. At their full-range gym a hunky certified instructor can assist, and staff are helpful, but never intrusive, so do your thing! Free Sunday cookouts and pool parties start at 1pm. Free Thursday feature movies and popcorn begin at 7pm.
Just outside Hanks Bar, the Back Room Store (5026 Edgewater Dr) carries thongs and undies, plus accessories such as lubes, toys, aromas and c-rings.
Ritzy Rags (928 N Mills Ave) features baubles, wigs, boas, masks and many other cross-dressing and theatrical staples.
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