As Mikael Audebert assessed Orlando’s lively gay scene against a backdrop of theme parks, the thought of a queer family event occurred to him. Something to balance the city’s well-known gay parties like One Magical Weekend, Gay Days and Pride. Family Outfest was born.
“It’s the other side of Orlando’s circuit party scene,” says the handsome and articulate president of Converge Orlando, the city’s LGBT tourism marketing organization. “It’s an event for the modern family; various types of families with a child or children.”
Family Outfest will run July 1 to 7, 2014, and Audebert’s dynamic team has shoehorned all things fun into the itinerary, which includes daily “parks du jour,” where you’ll be sure to be surrounded by other guests of Family Outfest.
What’s new at the theme parks
The centrepiece of Orlando’s theme park scene, Walt Disney World is not resting on Cinderella’s laurels. A massive expansion project to Magic Kingdom, one of four parks under the Disney umbrella, has introduced the world of Fantasyland, sprinkled with castles, princesses and fairies. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train opened this month, and this marquee ride completes Fantasyland. Equal parts thrilling and storytelling, the ride takes passengers through the typical day of Snow White’s atypical pals.
In 2010, Universal Studios opened a themed area that is like catnip for children: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Since then, mobs of people have come, butter beers in hand, to take in the cluster of rides that personify JK Rowling’s creation. This summer, Universal will extend the journey to Harry Potter world from the Islands of Adventure park into the original Universal Studios park. The new area, named Diagon Alley, a cobbled shopping village featured in the books and movies, will be highlighted by an action-packed roller-coaster-meets-3D show named Escape from Gringotts.
SeaWorld celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with celebrations spanning all the Orlando parks. Highlights include a new nighttime show featuring Shamu, with original music and new choreography, as well as large sea-life sculptures throughout the parks made from garbage that litters the ocean. And for thrills, SeaWorld’s waterpark, Aquatica, just opened the southern USA’s tallest, steepest and only multi-drop waterslide: Ihu’s Breakaway Falls. The 24-metre slide features a 12-metre vertical freefall and four different high-speed slide paths for a choose-your-own-adventure-style ride each time.
For those who suffer theme-park fatigue, SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove is a relaxing antidote. This limited-capacity, all-inclusive day resort includes snorkelling among colourful fish and rays, swimming with dolphins, and lazy rivers that flow alongside tropical birds, otters and monkeys. Pristine beaches line all the waterways for sunning.
Other thrills in Orlando
If you’re not on a high already, iFly Orlando offers a thrilling simulated skydiving experience. Guided by an instructor, riders hover Superman-style above a wind turbine. The suspended sensation of the flight simulation makes it impossible not to smile mid-flight.
For those looking for unadulterated roller coasters that dispense with the storytelling of the big three, Fun Spot USA is a straight-up park on a budget with carnival-inspired rides.
Beyond the theme parks: Orlando’s food scene
Family Outfest is not all rollercoasters and rowdiness. Parents get a break, too, and the city’s restaurants are ready to play host. Known more for theme parks and located on the Bible belt, it may surprise visitors that Orlando’s improving food scene is partly the result of its queer kitchens.
Pom Moongauklang recalls the turmoil her menu caused when she opened Pom Pom’s Tea Room in 2005. “No one was using watercress or brie in their sandwiches around here,” says the NYC Nobu-trained chef. “I had fights with people who wanted American cheese.”
Today, Pom estimates that 75 percent of her staff is queer, and a mixed crowd congregates at Pom Pom’s for her gourmet-pressed sandwiches and fusion iced teas. “I see DJs sitting next to commissioners and construction workers sitting next to entertainers,” she says. They come at traditional mealtimes or whenever the craving hits: Pom Pom’s doesn’t close from Friday through Sunday. “On a Saturday night, this place is rocking,” says the feisty restaurateur, looking around her 860-square-foot eatery.
“Picking a favourite tea or sandwich is like picking a favourite child,” she says, but she admits her bestsellers are the blueberry-lavender tea and the Thanksgiving sandwich: layered turkey-breast slices, stuffing, cream cheese and cranberry sauce pressed between slices of pumpernickel and served with a side of gravy for dipping.
Chef Kevin Fonzo, of K Restaurant, attributes the surge of Central Florida’s food scene to locally sourced ingredients that were previously only an export commodity. “We’ve begun to hold back some of our beef, fruits and seafood,” he says. “And I’m much more mindful of what’s in season.”
Fonzo’s vast backyard garden lets his team use that seasonal produce, from herbs to vegetables to edible flowers. Locally sourced and garden-fresh ingredients are combined to create the two dozen items on K’s dinner menu, which favours simplicity and flavour and changes daily.
“I think it’s important to appeal to people, both local and international, as a neighbourhood restaurant and not get carried away with too many unnecessary distractions or an inauthentic menu,” he says.
Fonzo came out seven years ago pass-the-potatoes-style over family Thanksgiving when his mother spotted his male guest throwing a football limp-wristed in the backyard. In that moment, she connected the dots and realized her son was gay. “Coming out was a huge relief,” says Fonzo, now 50. “Although I did learn to be a great actor and was a master at publicly flirting with girls, I am now the happiest I have ever been.”
He says his confidence and authenticity extends into the kitchen: “I am finally myself.”
Where to stay
The city’s hysterics, heat and hyperactivity leave Orlando visitors dog tired. For the sake of the kids, Family Outfest’s host hotel, the Nickelodeon Suites Resort, is the place to be. A kid’s spa, 4D theatre, cinema and water park that dispenses green slime are all on-site.