The Importance of Being Inverted: Gay Days at Amusement Parks, Part 1

by Tony Phillips
Wednesday May 22, 2013

This article is from the May 2013 issue of the EDGE Digital Magazine.
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Princess for a day...

The tableau downshifts from a rosy cheek-to-cheek portrait to trial by combat as crowned heads rotate until eyes are locked in a Mexican standoff. The crowd quiets and the camera shutter recording it all becomes audible. Atop the head of one princess balances a standard issue Walt Disney Company crown, atop the other sits its inferior gift shop answer: a ribbon-wrapped tiara headband retailing for $10.50.

"Work, ’Rella!" screams a reveler in an outsized red T-shirt leaning against the castle wall and the whole mess threatens to break out into a battle royal. Finally, Fake Crown breaks the gaze and drops into a squat, hopping forward on bent knees, arms flying around the head as hands pop various Madonna-like vogue positions about the face.

Cinderella has just been shablammed...and in her own courtyard no less. Welcome to Gay Days at Walt Disney World, that special time of year on the first Saturday of June when "The Most Magical Place On Earth" moves that much closer to Siegfried & Roy.

Red T-Shirts As Far as the Eye Can See

According to Time Magazine, the first Gay Day in 1991 drew 3,000 red-shirted locals to Orlando-area theme parks. By 1995, that number swelled to 10,000, while 2010 saw 150,000 LGBT visitors along with friends, family and allies descend for the six-day gathering.

In 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention, whose 16 million members make it the Avis of U.S. Christian groups, even signed on to become the in-house boycott before throwing up their folded hands and dropping the matter in 2005.

But is the personal political? And was there an inciting incident a la Stonewall that kicked off the first Gay Days? "The original idea for Gay Days at Disney World was not politically oriented," Eddie Shapiro explains. "They were not thinking it would get big like it has. They just reached out to a bunch of their friends and thought it would be fun if a few hundred people showed up in red shirts."

Shapiro not only runs the three-day West Coast equivalent called Gay Days Anaheim (October 4-6) but has literally written the book on Disney and gays called Queens in the Kingdom. He explains that Orlando’s original Gay Days organizer, improbably named Doug Swallow, chose the red shirt. "Red stands out and you’re able to spot people from afar."

Land Versus World

There are some differences between the Gay Days Shapiro operates out of Anaheim and the six-day affair that takes place at Disney World. First off, the Disney World promoters are very hands-off once participants are inside the parks while Shapiro loads up his day with in-park meet-ups like a lesbian ice cream social or bear’s ride on Splash Mountain.

With attendance below 50,000, it could be that Shapiro has an imperative whereas the big show doesn’t need to corral park guests to achieve critical mass.

"You feel it even before you get into the park," says Sal Cantor, a New Yorker who travels to Orlando for Gay Days every year. "Just waiting for the monorail to get to the front gate, all you see are red shirts. The last time I felt that feeling of city doubling as gay Utopia was waiting for the Metro during the March on Washington in 1993."

Next page for Universal Orlando

Potter & Company

It’s a pretty safe bet neighboring theme parks will muscle in on this queer Arcadia. In the past three years, Universal Orlando has poured $265 million into its Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction.

The multimedia extravaganza approximates being strapped to the side of a baby grand piano while a cantilevered arm drops you down into different compartments of what resembles as a giant egg carton. 3D projections illustrate a chase that takes you and a fresh-faced Potter to hell and back. Sounds like a circuit weekend waiting to happen.

In the summer of 2010, when Universal flung open the doors on its new Potter-themed land, Disney’s Fantasyland resembled something far less typical than castles and tea cups: visible construction. And though the Disney expansion is rumored to cost more than three times the price of the Potter attraction, its roll-out has been slow-going, doing what Disney dubbed a "soft launch" earlier this year.

While the Potter attraction rocketed to the top of theme park enthusiasts must-see lists, the Disney expansion, which will eventually double the size of Fantasyland, buried the real gems of the remodel -- a Little Mermaid-themed dark ride and Seven Dwarves Mine Train rollercoaster -- at the far end of the projected timeline with Ariel not slated to open until the end of this year and the Mine Train pegged at a nebulous 2014.

The Cost of a Good Time

Last year, Universal also raised its single one-day, one-park ticket price to $88, briefly making it the most expensive theme park in the country before Disney jacked its ticket price to $89 the following week.

The price wars represented a real reversal of fortune in that Disney usually sets the admission bar with other area parks following their lead. Could a Universal Gay Day be far behind?

"They tried," Shapiro says, "about five years ago, they attempted to get in on the act by hosting one of the big dance parties. By falling on the official schedule, they made Sunday the official Universal or EPCOT day, as you choose it. And it was okay, but it wasn’t big enough or exciting enough to draw people and that has everything to do with whether other theme parks are going to get in on the act successfully."

"There are plenty of big parks across the country," Shapiro continues, "and they say, ’Oh yeah, that’s a good marketing tool. Let’s bring in a bunch of gay people and it will help that day’s business.’ But Disney offers something unique that just works that doesn’t work the same way in any other place because it’s not just about gathering gay people. There’s something about the Disney product that has specific appeal to gay people and therefore makes a gay day there more organic."

Tony Phillips covers the arts for The Village Voice, Frontiers and The Advocate. He’s also the proud parent of a new website:


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