At the core of the Orlando visitor experience is theme parks — and Disney World In A Walt Disney World Resort Outing: The Only Vacation Planning Guide Exclusively for Gay and Lesbian Travelers, authors Dann Hazel and Josh Fippen assert that many attractions “resonate with gay and lesbian travellers, whether in terms of shared values, high camp, specific plots, humour and innuendo, or just plain fun.”
Disney World continues to serve up the big hits with Pandora, an area of the Disney Animal Kingdom dedicated to Avatar that makes visitors feel like they are stepping into James Cameron’s ethereal world. Over at Magic Kingdom Park, a new fireworks and light display named Happily Ever After illuminates the sky featuring snippets of fan-favourite Disney movies.
Not to be surpassed by Disney, last month, Universal Studios Orlando opened the Volcano Bay water park. A series of winding waterslides snake from platforms and the grand volcano landmark (from which waterfalls descend and smoky lava smoulders at night) impresses swimsuit-clad guests. A lazy river occupies the less adventurous.
Later this month, SeaWorld opens its enhanced Kraken roller coaster. Kraken Unleashed will incorporate virtual reality to crank up the stimulation of guests already thrilled by the coaster’s twists and turns.
But today’s Orlando is more than what some regard as the kitsch and camp of the theme parks. The local cultural scene has begun to flourish. It blossomed in 2014 upon the opening of the grand theatre the Dr Phillips Center for The Performing Arts. The impressive facility has hosted concerts, musical theatre productions and dance exhibitions. Upcoming acts include Riverdance, The King & I and a performance by Diana Ross.
Meanwhile at Disney Springs — a cluster of restaurants and shopping at the park — Cirque du Soleil entertains audiences with performances of La Nouba. The show includes a bevy of acts featuring clowns, gymnasts and dancers that is both funny and thought-provoking. Earlier this year, Disney announced that La Nouba will close at the end of 2017, likely to be replaced by another Cirque production.
Known more for fast food and theme park grub, Orlando’s culinary scene is also shifting. In April, local chefs Julie and James Petrakis took their Ravenous Pig modern barbecue dining concept straight to the masses, opening a sister restaurant, The Polite Pig, in Disney Springs. Peel-and-eat shrimp, burgers and tender ribs highlight the menu.
A handy rule of thumb for finding delicious dining is to make a reservation at one of the city’s many hotel restaurants. With the stiff competition between properties, many hoteliers are upping their game on the culinary front for market advantage. The passion is obvious in chef Chastity Harvey of Hamilton’s Kitchen at the Alfond Inn. “When I’m cooking, my palms become sweaty,” she says. “I feel like I’m on my first date.”
The cultured-yet-comfortable restaurant features a menu replete with generous-sized dishes that use locally-sourced ingredients and demonstrate Harvey’s care. Popular items include the slow-cooked octopus, spiced beef and pork meatballs and Chilean sea bass served on a creamy risotto.
Sifting through the options and selecting accommodation with the peace of mind of a strong rainbow welcome is a priority for many Orlando-bound LGBT vacationers.
As the long-standing host hotel of GayDays, the DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld, is a natural choice for LGBT travelers. The full-service, Polynesian-style hotel features a tower and several low-rise buildings that span the lush, garden-filled property. The property has also hosted Bear Bash and the Celebration of Friends.
The South Beach feel of the B Resort and Spa draws a sophisticated crowd who enjoy the hotel’s bright, colourful design. Mary Hutchcraft, director of sales and marketing, says that the property’s hosting of One Magical Weekend has helped increase its profile within the LGBT market and LGBT consumers have continued to book year-round, drawn by the hospitality, minimalist design and conveniences of a Disney-property resort.
In March, The Grove Resort and Spa opened its impressive doors to guests seeking a suite-style accommodation with luxury resort amenities. Nestled in an oasis of conservation lands, the Grove is a tranquil escape from Orlando’s theme park scene. Multiple pools, children’s programming and recreation activities including fishing excursions on Lake Austin, are available to guests. They can catch sight of the various Disney firework displays from the comfort of their balcony.
Just last year, the Fairfield Inn and Suites joined Celebration’s handful of hotels, offering an affordable and pleasant accommodation option with free breakfast and a good-sized pool. The property is just minutes from Celebration, a charming Disney-designed neighbourhood with picket fences and a Stepford wives edge. The hotel’s public space features cheery splashes of colour while the neutrally-decorated rooms are calming.
With amusement parks, luxury resorts and endless LGBT-friendly events, Orlando has everything you need to get the most out of this summer.