I make it a practice not to argue with a fairy. So while watching Cinderella, in preparation for my recent visit to Walt Disney World, I took her wand-weaving fairy godmother’s advice. Admittedly, I also raised an eyebrow. “Goodness me, it’s getting late. Hurry, my dear, the ball can’t wait,” she tells the maid-turned-princess. “Have a good time, dance, be gay! Off you go; you’re on your way.”
At 30, I was keen to fulfill a lifelong dream of visiting the Orlando, Florida, theme park. From Disney movies to stage productions to frequent visits to the Disney Store, I had earned the ticket. And I often feel a gay stirring within me as I settle in to watch The Lion King on DVD or peruse the princess collection at the Disney Store.
According to Jeffrey Epstein and Eddie Shapiro, authors of Queens in the Kingdom: The Ultimate Gay and Lesbian Guide to the Disney Theme Parks, the happiest place on Earth can also be the gayest. “We look for fabulous! And you can find it at the Disney Parks, if you know where to look,” they write. “Our goal is to point out some of the parks’ attributes that may or may not resonate with breeders but definitely ring bells for us.”
Before evaluating every corner of the parks through a gay lens, Epstein and Shapiro theorize about the appeal of Disney parks to a gay audience. Their reasons include an attraction to fantasy, an appreciation for elaborate visuals, such as the manicured landscaping and choreographed performances, and a longing for the sunny childhood moments before adolescence, which for many gay people is a difficult time as they navigate through their sexuality.
My trek through Walt Disney World felt like a confirmation of my gay interest in all things Disney and included a few guffaws of “This is so bloody gay.”
Fantasy reigns supreme in Walt Disney World’s centrepiece park, Magic Kingdom, where themes include castles, princess quests and pirate battles.
Recent and ongoing expansions to Fantasyland — one of six themed areas within the Magic Kingdom — include Gaston’s Tavern, featuring Beauty and the Beast’s egotistical and muscular villain. Gaston often appears in person, making onlookers swoon as he draws attention to his physique.
The expansions also include two new princess castles in addition to the iconic Cinderella castle. My propensity for drama makes me wonder if there’s some rivalry brewing among the Disney royal family as the Little Mermaid’s and Belle’s fancy new digs steal attention from Cinderella.
From onstage musical productions to parades to Disney character appearances, Walt Disney World serves up live entertainment — some of Broadway quality — that appeals to the performer in me.
Disney Parks’ creative director, Steven B Davison, echoes this lure for gay men. “When I was a kid, it was one place that always had outrageous entertainment,” he says. “I remember there were all these singers and dancers, and it was just like ‘Oh my god, I want to do that.’ I was drawn to the spectacle of it.”
Highlights include performances of Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba, where revealingly outfitted gymnasts tell an ambiguous story — in typical Cirque fashion — to visual delight upon a trampoline and jungle-gym stage. Daily competitions of American Idol periodically incorporate a razzle-dazzle, depending on the day’s contestants.
Elaborate parades celebrating various seasonal themes wind through Walt Disney World’s parks and often include campy male troupes dressed as jesters or candy stripers. Clusters of costumed boys with chiselled good looks and manicured eyebrows swing batons, spin hula-hoops and raise the occasional high kick for bystanders.
For some, Disney is a form of design porn. From extensive manicured gardens, to charming Main Street storefronts, the detail and care taken is impressive. Themes are carried through from top to bottom across the parks, including Hollywood Studios, with restaurants, shops and attractions set in the 1930s and 1940s heydays of Hollywood.
While I found the EPCOT park’s world showcase a disingenuous American interpretation of nations, in the Animal Kingdom, African villages are recreated with great detail and whimsy.
What with slogging across miles of the theme parks, waiting for hours in ride lineups under the Florida sun, navigating through stroller logjams, and living on a diet of fat-filled, sugar-laden theme-park food, Disney can wear down even the perkiest princess — and more so the resistant partner you dragged along. To ensure the happiest place on Earth doesn’t become the crankiest, consider a Disney detox mid-trip.
First, staying at a non-Disney hotel on the Disney property is a haven. If you book at the Dolphin Hotel, you can make a quick getaway by car, bus or ferry to a full-service Starwood hotel without Mickey ears décor. Built in the 1990s, the property also serves as a campy throwback to the decade’s colour (think The Golden Girls’ dusty-rose and light turquoise) and design (think She-Ra’s Crystal Castle sea-shell fountains).
A hammock massage at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando spa is one-of-a-kind. In a private rooftop cubicle, you can be massaged by a therapist lying beneath you while you swing in your hammock. Follow up this shiatsu-meets-Swedish-treatment with more relaxation by the pool, reserved exclusively for spa guests.
Sipping Earl Grey and nibbling on finger sandwiches over Sunday afternoon tea at the Waldorf Astoria on the Disney grounds is a divine escape from the Mickey madness unfolding next door. Spiffy guests are served the three courses — savoury sandwiches, scones and dessert pastries — in the Peacock Alley, overlooking the hotel’s lavish pools and lawn.
Though Orlando is known for its blockbuster theme parks, including SeaWorld and Universal Studios, the city has a cultural streak that includes a handful of museums and galleries spread across a downtown park. The tranquility inside the Orlando Museum of Art is a dramatic departure from Disney. The recently renovated grand space showcases rotating exhibitions that draw from an extensive permanent collection, which includes pieces by Floridian sculptor William Schaaf and glass artist Dale Chihuly.
Read our travel feature on Orlando.