A Wonderland of Adventure for Gay Girls in Orlando
This is almost too easy.
I’m on my way to Orlando to discover the city’s gay (or, even better, lesbian) side, and with six hours of flying time from California to contemplate my task, I have to admit, it does sound pretty crazy. Gay life in the land of Anita Bryant? Rainbows among the orange groves? Have I lost my mind?
But then I get off the plane and lo and behold, the bus that is to take me to my hotel is called — no joke — Disney’s Magical Express. How fabulous is this? I haven’t even left the airport and I’ve discovered the queerest sounding thing I’ve heard in a long time. Is it really going to be this easy?
Spoiler alert: No. The bus is fine. Unexpectedly luxurious, even, whisking me in air-conditioned comfort right to the door of my hotel. But Magical? It isn’t even sparkly. Worse, the hotel it takes me to is lovely, but resolutely heterosexual. Every time I turn around, it seems, I bump into a couple wearing his-and-hers mouse ears; his with a little black top hat; hers with a white veil streaming off the back. There’s nary a Minnie/Minnie couple to be seen — and believe me, I spend days looking.
By the time I’m done with my week in Orlando, though, I have learned a lot about Orlando’s Sapphic scene, which can be summarized as follows:
- Gay Orlando is not an oxymoron. A thriving lesbian scene does indeed exist.
- You might have to share your space with gay men — or even straight people.
- When you go can have a huge effect on how queer your vacation is.
Timing is Everything
Try to time your visit to one of the major lavender-leaning events that occur annually in the City Beautiful. First on the calendar is the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival. Fringe events actually occur year-round, but the main event is always in mid-May; in 2014 it’s May 14-27. Fringe isn’t specifically gay, but it does tend to showcase music, dance, and theater that is on the offbeat side, and in that sense, is resolutely queer in spirit.
Out, proud, and gay in every sense of the word is Gay Days Orlando, occurring the first week in June of every year (in 2014 that’s June 3-9). During this week, many of the Orlando-area theme parks roll out the rainbow carpet and welcome gay visitors. On Thursday, June 5, 2014, for example, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park turns on the disco ball, and gays and lesbians flock to the safari-themed play land. On Friday, the party moves to Disney’s Hollywood Studios; on Saturday, the Magic Kingdom gets the glitter treatment; and so on. It’s all good silly fun, but if you’ve never before had the opportunity to feel like your people have taken over a mainstream locale, it’s also strangely moving. Lesbian travelers should definitely hit one of the many Girls at Gay Days or Girls in Wonderland events that take place over the weekend.
Equally empowering will be the first of what is planned to be an annual Family Outfest from July 1-7, 2014. This week will feature a series of events celebrating families of every configuration. Organized events include outings to the major theme parks, a downtown festival, a pool party at Nickelodeon Suites Resort, and at least one party just for tired but validated parents.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
I am fortunate enough to have my own visit coincide with Orlando Pride, formally known as Come Out With Pride Orlando. Occurring every year in the mercifully cooler month of October, Come Out With Pride is to Gay Floridians what the holidays was to me as a child — more than just a day; more like a season, happily anticipated all year.
The festivities kick off for me on my first evening in town. I escape the heterosexual love nest that is my hotel and venture out to enjoy happy hour at Wildside BBQ Bar & Grille (700 E. Washington Street, 407-872-8665, WildsideBBQ.com), in the funky, student-friendly Thornton Park neighborhood. The place is bedecked with rainbow flags, but the clientele is not pinging my gaydar very strongly. Does my sixth sense not work in the Deep South? I make inquiries, and determine that Wildside is not really known as a gay hangout. It’s just that in Orlando, Pride is like St. Patrick’s Day — for this one time of year, everyone wears the colors and insists that they are, at least in spirit, a part of the tribe.
Full of fried things and generously poured drinks, it’s off to catch John Waters’ one-man show at The Abbey (100 South Eola Dr. #100, 407-704-6103, AbbeyOrlando.com), an intimate performance space with club-style tables and a full bar. (Though a live performance, the show is part of the annual Out in the Open Film Festival, which in 2014 will be partnering with the Global Peace Film Festival, September 16-21).
After the show, I have a late dinner at Tako Cheena (932 North Mills Avenue, 321-558-1374, TakoCheena.com), a small Asian/Latin fusion restaurant owned by the delightful Pom Moongauklang. Pom is not a lesbian, but seems constitutionally drawn to the outsiders’ table when it comes to hiring for her funky-art filled space. We chat, and she tells me that about 85 percent of her staff of 25 (Pom also owns the excellent Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, 67 North Bumby Avenue, 407-894-0865, PomPomsTeahouse.com) are either artists or musicians. Later in the conversation, she also happens to mention that probably 85 percent of her staff are part of the LGBTQ community. The same 85 percent, I ask? She thinks for a moment and laughs, “Yes, probably.”
I get to bed late that night in a bed that seems to be gently swaying from a combination of cocktails and the head-spinning experience of having just seen John Waters’ outrageously funny show and then having been served tasty tacos and condensed milk-soaked tortilla chips by a pierced and tattooed wait staff at Tako Cheena.
Not bad for a Tuesday night in Central Florida.
Over the course of the next few days, Orlando shows me more of its queer side. I dance with a surprisingly large crowd at Pulse (912 South Orange Avenue, 407-649-3888, PulseOrlando.net), a 7-days-a-week gay club featuring three enormous dance floors, go-go dancers of both sexes, and a charming if unexpected outdoor space that doubles as a hookah lounge. I eat at gay-owned Don Jefe’s Tequila Parlor (41 West Church Street, 407-203-0873, DonJefesOrlando.com), and see a production of Mamma Mia!, which has a straight wedding driving the plot, but could not be campier if Divine played the bride.
I also change hotels, to the DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld (10100 International Drive, 407-352-1100, DoubleTreeOrlandoiDrive.com). This hotel turns out to be a very comfortable place for a lesbian traveler, with no mouse-eared wedding parties to be seen. When I ask for an extra key for my wife at check-in, the clerk acts like she hears this every day. And maybe she does; this property is the official hotel for Gay Days, and word gets out.
I’m already pleasantly surprised at how much of a gay scene there is in Orlando, and I haven’t even experienced Pride weekend yet. The weekend kicks off for me on Friday evening with drinks at a special Pride edition of Phish Phest, a roving lesbian party normally held on the first Friday of every month. Phish Phest events typically have a community fundraising aspect to them, and are always a lot of fun.
The night I’m there, I feel like I could spend hours taking in the laid-back vibe and enjoying the largest concentration of lesbians I’ve seen yet in Orlando, but this is just my first stop. Next I’m headed downtown, to Church Street, where a huge open-air block party is taking place to celebrate Pride. It’s a gorgeous October night, balmy but not too tropical, perfect for dancing in the street, and that’s exactly what a lot of us do.
The night winds up at Brink Nightclub (47 West Amelia Street, 407-388-4384, BrinkOrlando.com). The crowd, mostly men, is huge and there’s barely room to move. The music is deafening, and I’m starting to think I’ve made a mistake, when suddenly I realize that hours have passed and I’ve been dancing the whole time — unusual behavior for a homebody lesbian like me. Maybe it’s a Pride miracle, or maybe it’s just the doing of an excellent DJ who knows how to get a crowd moving. Either way, I have to bow to the power of a place that can keep me out until the wee hours. If you have a choice, though, try to plan better than I did and go on a Saturday, which is officially lesbian night at the club.
I Love a Parade
The next morning dawns a bit late for me, but I only have one solid plan, and that’s to make it to the centerpiece of the Pride celebration, the parade and festival at Lake Eola (195 North Rosalind Avenue, 407-246-2827, DowntownOrlando.com/locations/lake-eola#.U35P_CjLMm0).
One part of me is still surprised that a city in conservative Florida has a Pride Parade at all, and another part of me, of which I am not proud, is having snarky thoughts about how it probably won’t hold a candle to the all-day queerfest that is San Francisco Pride.
Come Out With Pride, however, manages to bitch-slap my inner mean girl into submission. A surprisingly long stream of contingents streams past me, and the parade, which I envisioned lasting about 10 minutes, goes on for well over an hour. It doesn’t attract the hundreds of thousands of spectators that you might find in New York or California, but the throng is several deep where I’m standing, and if they lack in numbers, they excel in enthusiasm. Unlike San Francisco, where parade-goers can be a little jaded by decades of history, Orlando crowds whole-heartedly appreciate their parade, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2014.
The floats going by offer a fascinating glimpse into Orlando’s gay world. There are some groups that you see in every parade in every city, like PFLAG, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Some are more unique to Florida, like the Kennedy Space Center contingent, and the gay Disney cast members’ float. And some groups hint at activities I could have partaken in with a little more planning, and I feel a twinge of regret that I won’t be able to work a softball game or a roller derby bout into my stay.
After the parade, there is a huge outdoor party that stretches along almost one whole side of the large lake. There are food vendors, entertainers, and craftspeople, and it seems like every business in Florida has set up a booth, vying for the patronage of the city’s gay community.
After the festival, there is a performance by newly-out country star Steve Grand, followed by spectacular fireworks over the lake. It occurs to me that I’ve never actually seen fireworks at Pride before. As seriously as we take Pride in the San Francisco Bay Area, we never actually have 4th-of-July style celebratory fireworks. This suddenly strikes me as our loss and makes me wonder if southerners aren’t just a little bit more proud than Californians.
The Morning After
Sunday morning again starts a little slow, and I do not recover and rehydrate until late morning, when I head to the legendary drag brunch at Hamburger Mary’s (110 West Church Street, 321-319-0600, HamburgerMarys.com/orlando). The huge restaurant is another one of those places that shows that in Orlando, it doesn’t pay to ghettoize yourself. Everyone, it seems, comes to Hamburger Mary’s to enjoy the Sunday brunch ritual. On this particular day, tables are populated by everyone from beautiful young men in tank tops and shades sipping Ab Fab Cosmos to an entire Red Hat Society chapter, boasting but one lesbian among them. (I know this because one of the performers interrupted her own act to ask the group if they had any true lavender ladies as members and one gamely raised her hand — if you’re not comfortable with the possibility of a little good-natured but outrageous banter, Hamburger Mary’s may not be for you.)
By now it is well past noon and I have not yet begun drinking. So the group I am with decides it is high time to head to a bar. We find ourselves in Ivanhoe Village, at the laid-back Hammered Lamb (1235 North Orange Avenue, 407-704-3200, TheHammeredLamb.com). This place, like Wildside, isn’t officially gay, but it’s very gay-friendly, and after a few train shots (berry-infused vodka given out free every time a train goes by), everyone in the place is an old friend.
I should know when I’ve it my limit, but it’s my last full day in town and in the interest of research (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it), I make one more stop, at Sunday Surrender, a weekly gay event at the Mediterranean-flavored Ember Restaurant and Bar (42 West Central Boulevard, 407-849-5200, EmberOrlando.com). The crowd, which spills out of the tiled, nearly Moorish interior and into an open courtyard, is very comfortably mixed. Even with a drizzle threatening, the place feels like a great place to wind up Pride. ($10 bottomless mimosas help.)
After an hour or so, though, the mist turns to real rain, and “surrender” starts to sound like just about the right word. I have other plans, but I can see that they just aren’t going to happen. It’s time to give up. I give up my ambition to do everything queer in Orlando, because it can’t be done, even in a week. I give up my plan to keep Pride going as long as possible, because the pros who will keep drinking and dancing until late Sunday night are probably younger than I am and definitely don’t have a plane to catch tomorrow.
And most of all, I give up on the idea I arrived in Orlando with, the conviction that a medium-sized city in Florida couldn’t have much to offer a lesbian traveler. And that is one surrender that actually feels quite sweet.
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