ORLANDO — After a three-year coronavirus-induced hiatus, Gay Days returns to Orlando today as Pride Month begins nationwide and debate continues over Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” law.
The annual celebration of the LGBTQ+ community, which traditionally includes a visit to Walt Disney World, takes on a new meaning this year after Disney attracted widespread criticism for its response to legislation that banned discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in schools.
As Gay Days brings over 150,000 people to Orlando and its theme parks, some LGBTQ+ people drawn here remain critical of Disney’s initial response to the law but hopeful that the company has redoubled its efforts toward supporting their community.
Disney guests getting an early start on Gay Days on Wednesday said they did not consider changing their plans because of the law. If anything, its response encouraged them to show up in solidarity with Disney’s LGBTQ+ employees and other fans.
“More than ever, I think we need to make our presence known, and we need to let the legislators know that we are here,” said Eric Green, 52, of St. Louis.
Gay Days is “not a political event, but it is a statement,” Gay Days Inc. President Chris Manley told the Orlando Sentinel in March. The event is more than a trip to Disney, he said, and organizers believe the best way to protest the legislation is to continue vocally celebrating the LGBTQ+ community in Orlando.
“We won’t be silenced because that’s when we lose,” Manley said.
Gay Days’ official schedule shows visits planned for all four Disney theme parks along with Universal Orlando and SeaWorld.
Organizers plan to reach out to Disney after the event to “make sure we’re all on the same page of inclusivity,” Manley said Wednesday.
Disney bought an ad in Gay Days’ magazine featuring photos of a person wearing rainbow Mickey ears and gay and lesbian couples enjoying the parks. The ad begins with the line, “To all that come to this happy place, Welcome!” quoting from Walt Disney’s 1955 dedication speech for Disneyland.
“During Pride Month and throughout the year, we want everyone at Walt Disney World Resort to feel seen and celebrated not only because of the environment we create, but also because of our meaningful contributions to the community,” Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger told the Orlando Sentinel in a statement.
Disney is celebrating Pride Month by donating $100,000 to the Zebra Coalition, launching themed backdrops and photo opportunities at all four theme parks and Disney Springs and selling limited-time themed food and drinks and merchandise across the resort.
Disney starts with silence
Disney first remained silent on the Parental Rights in Education legislation in March but took steps to speak out against the bill after it passed the Legislature. It suspended its political donations in Florida, and CEO Bob Chapek issued a public apology and spoke with Gov. Ron DeSantis ahead of DeSantis signing the bill into law.
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Critics called the company’s efforts too little, too late and employees staged company-wide walkouts in protest. DeSantis slammed Disney for its actions, initiating a fight that led to the dissolution of the Reedy Creek Improvement District and some conservatives boycotting the company.
Jeff Logan of Tampa said Disney employees vocally opposing the legislation caused Disney to do “enough to get [DeSantis] angry.” His visit to the park Wednesday proved that the company has regained his trust, he said.
“It’s my way of saying, ‘It might not have been the best response, but it was enough,” said Logan, 54.
Though he said he was disappointed in Disney’s initial “non-verbal condemnation” of the bill, Manley said he was satisfied by its response afterward, including a pledge to donate $5 million to LGBTQ+ organizations. The Human Rights Campaign vowed to refuse Disney’s money until it saw the company make real progress toward its promises to advocate for LGBTQ+ communities.
At Gay Days, organizers encourage attendees to wear red shirts at the theme parks in keeping with a tradition set during the first event in 1991. Thousands will wear the color in a display of unity and recognition of LGBTQ+ history Saturday, which marks the official Red Shirt Day at the Magic Kingdom.
This year’s Red Shirt Day also takes the form of a protest. Its official sponsor, the KindRED Pride Foundation, is encouraging attendees to wear red to Disney June 4 “to remind Disney how powerful visibility is.”
An official red shirt sold by Gay Days, Inc. proclaims, “I prefer to say gay,” a variation of a rallying cry against the law.
‘A place to be free’
Gay Days and other LGBTQ+ events held at or near Disney property this week are expected to draw big crowds.
All 655 rooms at Gay Days’ host hotel, Avanti Palms Resort & Conference Center, are sold out in advance of the event, General Manager Duane Dickson said
Three host hotels have already sold out for LGBTQ+ music festival One Magical Weekend, KindRED Pride Foundation board member Tom Christ said through a spokesperson. The event, which includes a dance party at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon waterpark, will be the largest to date since it started hosting events at Disney in 2009.
A lesbian-focused music festival called Girls in Wonderland is also taking place nearby, though its schedule does not show any planned theme park outings.
Gay Days has a “huge” economic impact on the Central Florida community and helps make Orlando a welcoming international destination for LGBTQ+ travelers, said Tatiana Quiroga, executive director of Come Out With Pride. The organization is one of Gay Days’ community partners and will be a vendor at its expo at Avanti Palms this week.
Pride celebrations like Gay Days bring much-needed visibility and representation to gay and trans people, including Disney employees who may feel marginalized, after the “terrifying” legislation, she said.
“It’s so important for us to have these moments of pride, for us to be able to come together, to gather, to find strength in numbers,” Quiroga said.
For Boston resident Erin Kelley, Gay Days provides an opportunity for her 5-year-old son, Levi, to see families like his being celebrated in the wake of the “awful” law.
“It’s nice to bring him to be able to ask questions and know his family is different but accepted,” said Kelley, 35. “... It gives us a place to be free.”