Travel
5 min

Orlando

Gay life beyond the grand shadow cast by Walt Disney World

Waterslide at SeaWorld

Fair or not, the grand shadow cast by Walt Disney World’s palaces, pixies and princesses poses an obstacle for Orlando’s other theme parks and gay businesses jockeying for the pink dollar. The intrepid gay traveller, however, will be rewarded for a foray into this lesser-known destination beyond Mickey’s ears.

The city does not jump off the map as a gay must-see. “Gays and lesbians understand the allure of the attractions and theme parks, but they look at it through the way they’ve been brainwashed through mass advertising,” says Paul Queen, of Orlando’s LGBT Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s painted as a family destination and mainly desirable to kids. They have to unlearn that, and then they’re sure to be surprised.”

Gayer than you think
Expect to cover a lot of ground in pursuit of the gay scene. “Orlando is a gay-friendly scene but one of the few in the US without a gay ghetto,” says Mikael Audebert, executive director of Come Out with Pride Orlando. “Our LGBT community is mixed all throughout the city, and this has, in fact, helped spread our message and become a means of building a community with our straight neighbours and allies.”

The numbers indicate why Orlandians roll out the rainbow carpet. According to a 2011 study done by the Williams Institute of UCLA, approximately eight percent of Orlando’s population is queer, a jump from the national average of 3.5 percent. Queen has a few explanations for the discrepancy. “This is an entertainment mecca, and the creative class appears in a significant way which is more likely to be gay and lesbian”; Disney World alone reportedly employs 58,000. “Also, campuses tend to be a higher proportionate gay, or at least gay-and-lesbian accepting, and we have three major schools in the city.”

Orlando nightlife
With bars and clubs scattered across Orlando, cab fare or a designated driver are essential to a night on the town. An ideal start includes a call to Parliament. Equal parts bar, pool party, dance club, pool hall, playhouse and hotel, Parliament House has entertained from numerous angles since 1975. Patrons who look beyond the resort’s signs of aging can merrily party into the wee hours.

But if a change of scenery is in store, nearby Pulse Night Club & Ultra Lounge cranks the party up a notch with chic blue interiors, sultry mood lighting, buff bartenders, guest DJs and the Jewel Box: an intimate dancefloor pulsating with young partiers. Those looking for a slightly older crowd on the dancefloor should travel east of downtown to Revolution Nightclub.

There is a smattering of gay bars to stop at on the way. The downtown Savoy is a chic, upbeat bar with go-go dancers and elaborate theme nights. Barcodes, formerly a bar for bears, remains a cosy escape for the alternative to the central-Floridian muscle buff. The neighbourhood, Winter Park, merits exploration, with its parks and museums for those needing a shady or air-conditioned escape from the sun. As an alternative to Orlando’s many outlet malls, Park Avenue is a charming downtown strip of fine shops and restaurants lined with hulking oak trees draped in Spanish moss.

Get it in ya
Fuelling up before indulging in Orlando’s nightlife extends beyond the uniformity of Applebee’s, The Cheesecake Factory and the other chain restaurants that typify the city. “Central Florida is also home to a diverse and vibrant culinary scene filled with talented chefs and independently owned restaurants,” says Scott Joseph, a local gay restaurant critic.

Among Joseph’s picks for a side of camp is Bananas diner, known for its chicken and waffles, eggs Benedict variations and Sunday gospel brunch, featuring drag-queen performances. “It’s over the top and always packed,” he says.

For fine dining, Joseph recommends the gay-friendly K Restaurant, where diners can relax in a comfortably elegant ambiance. A menu that changes daily features dishes crafted by executive chef Kevin Fonzo using locally sourced ingredients.

“In Central Florida, we’ve finally figured out that we’re surrounded by ocean and that the fish is pretty good,” Joseph says. “More restaurants are featuring local fish from Cape Canaveral or the Gulf. And you’re finding local Zellwood sweet corn and Plant City strawberries on more menus.”

The other theme parks
Orlando’s gay bars and restaurants become a hive of activity during the annual Gay Days (Jun 3–14, 2014), in the spring, and Orlando's Come Out with Gay Pride, in the autumn (Oct 1–6, 2013). During the weeklong Gay Days, thousands dressed in red T-shirts descend upon the four theme parks of Walt Disney World between pool parties and pub crawls. But Queen urges gay visitors to venture further afield.

For those tired of Disney World’s child-centred theming, SeaWorld offers heart-pumping roller coasters and up-close-and-personal animal encounters to learn about their habitat and the park’s animal rescue program. Newly opened this year is a penguin exhibit named Antarctica. And for spectators who look beyond the taming of killer whales, the park’s shows feature elaborate choreography and plenty of eye-candy in the sexy wet-suit-clad trainers. SeaWorld’s adjoining attractions — the Aquatica water park and Discovery Cove — let visitors plunge into the H2O themselves.

Universal Orlando’s main theme park appeals to the movie buff, with rides and exhibits celebrating Harry Potter and Marvel super heroes. Hard Rock Live, in CityWalk, a strip of bars and restaurants located on the property, entertains up to 3,000 patrons with acts such as Diana Ross, Lisa Lampanelli and Scissor Sisters. Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights in October draw gay visitors with the campy appeal of costumes and the thrill of girlish squeals in a ghoulish setting. “Halloween appeals to an LGBT audience for whatever reason,” Audebert says. “It’s an iconic event that the community loves to attend.”

Last year, Audebert added the event to the Pride events calendar, which mainly includes a parade tracing the shore of downtown’s Lake Eola and a festival in the park. Organizers hope to build on the 2012 event that drew 300 people in purple T-shirts. “I’d like to see a sea of purple,” Audebert says. “It’s about identity.”

Pride Orlando organizers are keen to leverage Orlando’s attractions to also appeal to a gay family audience. “LGBT families worry about being accepted, so it’s time to create an event for gay parents, and even straight parents and gay children, to come down and have fun,” Audebert says. While plans are still underway, he anticipates a weeklong event in the summer of 2014.

Where to stay
Orlando’s theme parks and nightlife are energy depleters, so a comfortable place to crash is key. For the party-minded, the cheap and cheerful digs at Parliament House are a quick stagger from the resort’s bars and pool.

For SeaWorld ticket holders, the DoubleTree next door features a tower hotel as well as smaller residences that overlook the property’s three pools. It’s also the Gay Days host hotel.

If a location near Universal Studios is key, the Gaylord Palms is a sprawling resort with amenities and entertainment beneath a massive atrium at the hotel’s centre. Must-dos include a treatment at Relâche Spa, a plunge into Cypress Springs water park and a taste of the divine island nachos on the deck at Sunset Sam’s sailboat restaurant.

For the most up-to-date travel information on Gay Orlando, see our City Guide, Listings Guide, Events Guide and Activities Guide.