For guests at Walt Disney World during “Gay Days”, most will not even be aware about the annual gathering of Gay and Lesbian groups, their families and friends as they enjoy the Magic of Disney and show support for their community and each other. The first “official” or documented event began on the first Saturday in June, 1991. The event drew over 3,000 gays and lesbians, who decided to wear red shirts to easily identify each other. Since that first fledgling outing, the event has grown exponentially, and today is one of the biggest gatherings of Gay and Lesbian and Transgender groups in the world, bringing in over 100 million dollars into the local economy. 2015 is the 25th anniversary of the first event in Magic Kingdom.
But as you know, today in our enlightened age, gays and lesbians are part of the mainstream life and most do not give them a second thought. They are in movies, TV shows and in the workplace. Ever since the riots that began on June 29th, 1969 at Greenwich’ Villages Gay and Lesbian Bar the Stonewall Inn, when gay and lesbians patrons of this working-class gathering place decided that enough was enough and resisted a police raid (One of many), which resulted in 3 days of rioting, did the community bring awareness to people and government of their right to live their lives as they see fit, that their acceptance is now the norm.
But that was not the case in the beginning, and certainly even today there are people, organizations, religious groups and societies that still suffer from Homophobia, and make it their mission to squash the Gay and Lesbian communities. “Gay Days” is in itself an enthralling look both historically and socially. This annual convention had its start in 1978 in Disneyland. As you might know, people, organizations and groups can actually rent areas of the park, convention halls in the resorts, attractions etc. for private parties and events. This was the case in Disneyland in the ‘60’s and 70’s. But in those days, the group renting was accountable for selling the tickets to their event and meeting certain criteria for the rentals.
A group of gay and lesbians decided they wanted to rent Disneyland for a night. But they knew that Disney would never agree to rent their park to “Gays and Lesbians”. In addition, they had to be part of an organization to accomplish this. What they did was create an organization called the Greater Los Angeles Restaurant and Bar Association. This was a large gaggle of restaurants and bars in Orange counties and the Los Angeles area, owned by gays and lesbians. Once the association was cemented, they contacted Disney, arranged a date, and after meeting the minimum requirement of guests, closed the deal. Of course there was no mention of the association being a homosexual community.
It was not long after that Disney officials found out the truth about the organization and made a vain attempt to cancel the party. In Disney’s eyes, what would wholesome families think about Disney renting a family park to Gays? Remember, in 1978 it was a totally different world then. But with legal action threatened by the association, Disney knew they had no choice and acquiesced. At the event, Disney had extra security, worrying about deviant behavior, fights and the like, but it was like any other private party and things went off without a hitch. Even so, Disney actually handed out letters of apology to its Cast Members, who manned the party, citing shocking working conditions and telling them this would never happen again.
Of course the next year the organization again applied for a rental date and Disney this time gave them a resounding “NO” But to Disney’s chagrin, other major entertainment venues happily rented their parks to the organization, notably Magic Mountain and Knott’s Berry Farm. They know that this group was no different than any other and brought much revenue into their coffers. But Disney’s association with Gays and Lesbians did not end there…
In 1980 at Tomorrowland in Disneyland, security guards observed two men dancing and approached Shawn Elliot and his partner Andrew Exler. They were told this is a family park and this kind of behavior is not to be tolerated. We are a private concern and these are our rules. Even so, the men continued and were taken to the security office and were escorted out of the park. This of course led to several lawsuits Disney had to address. Andrew Exler sued, but the case dragged on for four years. It finally settled in May of 1984 when a judge ruled that the men’s civil rights were indeed violated and ordered Disney to pay attorney fees of $25,000 and eliminate the ban on same-sex dancing. Disney paid the fees, but stated that since it was not a class-action suit, it only applied to the two men. Even so, Disneyland Park rescinded the rule prohibiting partners from dancing together on August 14th, 1985. This did not include, slow dancing. A second lawsuit filed in 1987 by three more men who were told that “Touch dancing is only for heterosexuals” never made it to court. Disney re-evaluated the case and consented.
Michael Eisner became CEO of the Disney Company and hired Jeffrey Katzenberg to head Disney’s ailing motion picture division in 1984. At the time, the Disney Company did not offer full benefits to domestic partners, the only studio not to do so, and was losing many talented people because of this. Katzenberg helped to remove this policy and Disney now offered full benefit packages to its domestic partner employees on January 1st, 1986.
But even as Disney began to recognize Gay and Lesbian partners in their company, they were still not comfortable with the idea of throngs of Gays and Lesbians descending on the parks, in full view of families. After the first successful event in 1991, another was planned the next year, same first Saturday in June. For that event, Disney advised its Cast Members not to acknowledge the event in any way. Disney in 1994 even posted signs at the gates informing guests of the event, and also stated that “Walt Disney World is open to everyone. We do not discriminate on any basis.” Needless to say, Disney received many complaints about the signs and they were removed the following year. However, for several years after, notices were distributed to Hotel guests informing them the Magic Kingdom would be very busy that day and you might want to plan a different park. No mention of the Gay and Lesbian event was mentioned.
But Gay Days was still not accepted totally by everyone, it even had its detractors in the Gay and Lesbian community. Even today, Disney does not sanction Gay Days; it’s an unofficial event by the Disney Company. Its Cast Members treat it like any other day. For example the Southern Baptist Convention boycotted Disney for eight years. (Abet with no lasting damage) One organization, the Florida Family Association flew banner planes one year warning families of gay events at Disney that weekend. And Janet Porter, who is president of the Christian organization “Faith 2 Action”, disapproves of the event. She encouraged families to re-think visiting Walt Disney World. But even though Gay Days on the whole are uneventful and blend in, there are of course some individuals who openly display affection in full view of the guests and there are reports of drug use. These reasons are why Pete Werner, the gay founder of the Disney fan-site WDWInfo, has called the event “disgraceful”.
Even as early as 1998, the City of Orlando flew rainbow flags downtown to welcome visitors. And in 2002, Gay Days is referred to specifically in welcome letters from the Orlando mayor and Orange County chairman. In 1997 Disney rented out Typhoon Lagoon to the event for an afterhours party, which continues to this day. Although not an “Official” Disney sanction event, Gay Days attracts well over 150, 000 guests to Orlando, and there are over 40 other venues held in the area, bringing millions into the local economy. In addition, you will see Gay and Lesbian partners with children strolling Main St. another sign that the community is becoming more mainstream and family oriented. The Website GayDayS.com is now on the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau membership roster and part of Visit Florida, the state tourism agency.
The event has become so large that many hotels in the area have run out of room for the attendees. Chris Alexander-Manley, President of Gay Days said… “We’ve just totally outgrown the Royal Plaza,” where the festivities were hosted for many years, Alexander-Manley says. “We just knew we had to grow.” The new host hotel, the Doubletree Resort, has more rooms set aside for visitors and more free parking for those who attend the expo. Doubletree resort has dubbed itself the “official” hotel for the event.
And not being a Disney function, you will not find any information on the event, even calling Disney they state that this is a private concern and have no information on it. If you do want information on activities, you can find folks on Disney message boards that would be happy to add you to their group. Gay Days organizers delegate a different Walt Disney World park to visit on each of four days. The large groups are, for the most part, non-intrusive and easy to spot as many tend to dress in a similar fashion. Therefore, even with their large numbers, it is easy to avoid any attractions that are developing longer waits due to the extra guests.
These events are a way for LGBT people, their families, friends and supporters to unite and have fun. And recently many souvenirs have been available…buttons, rainbow colored pins etc. and cookies and cupcakes. Of course, Disney has to straddle the fence on being a family oriented venue, and a Gay and Lesbian friendly company. It is very hard to please everyone. For many families that do not want to attend during Gay Days, or go to a different park, they can get more information about Gay Days on their web site at www.gaydays.com. Today, Gay Days continues to grow and will expand its weeklong format.
Here are some milestones in Gay Days history…
1-1991: First Saturday in June picked as Gay Day, to gather in the Magic Kingdom.
2-1992: Disney execs issue a memo telling cast members to disavow knowledge of the event, if asked by guest: “Remember,” it says, “every day is a gay day at Walt Disney World.”
3- 1994: Disney issues a disclaimer on the event: “The Gay and Lesbian gathering at the Magic Kingdom … is not an official Walt Disney World event.” But the statement goes on to say, “Walt Disney World is open to everyone. We do not discriminate on any basis.”
4- 1995: Gay Day’s organizers expect up to 50,000 participants. Anti-gay agitator The Rev. Fred Phelps plans a protest. Disney stops posting signs at ticket booths telling patrons it’s Gay Day.
5- 1997: The first “Beach Ball” after-hours party at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon is held. Shortly after Gay Days, the Southern Baptist Convention votes to boycott Disney, in part because of the event.
So there is the brief history of Gay Days here in Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Much has changed since those “Dark Days” in 1978. It is very satisfying that the world is becoming more tolerant of everyone who has a different view and lifestyle other than the “Mainstream” Today The Walt Disney Company is a leader in this tolerance with all its Cast Members and continues Walt’s dreams of making everyone’s “Dreams Come True”