ORLANDO, Fla. — Last Friday evening, about 6,000 people — almost all of them gay men — poured into a Walt Disney World water park near Orlando, Florida. Each had spent $100 or more on tickets for a private, adults-only Pride bacchanal called Riptide. “For one night, Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park becomes entirely yours for the party of the year,” online ads had promised. “Be part of the magic!”
An actual rainbow arched over the park’s thunder-shower-soaked parking lot as the sun set, prompting several attendees to joke that Disney had outdone itself with Pride theming this year. But the party was not a Disney-orchestrated event, not by a long shot. A few ticket holders turned up in wrestling singlets, while others had outfitted themselves in bondage-scene chest harnesses. Later, a squadron of go-go boys ceded the stage to drag queen Trinity the Tuck.
I stood among the revelers wearing a black Polo shirt and khaki shorts, which led to an impromptu intervention from a stranger, Jose Rodriguez, 27. “What’s with your outfit?” he asked. “You look like an uptight soccer dad, and it’s not a good vibe. Go take off some of those clothes!”
Rodriguez was right in sizing me up as an interloper: I had not come to Typhoon Lagoon to dance (thump, thump, thump) or flaunt my muscles (hah!) or flirt with tipsy abandon in the colossal wave pool. I was there on a fact-finding mission.
The Riptide event was part of what is informally known as Gay Days, a four-day Pride extravaganza at Disney World and nearby hotels that attracts tens of thousands of LGBTQ visitors each June.
It started in 1991, when a smattering of gay adults — Disney obsessives all — used internet message boards to plan a gathering: Let’s buy tickets to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom theme park on the first Saturday in June and wear red shirts in a display of unity. The idea was to be unabashedly themselves (safety in numbers) amid the Disney masses and to send the message that they, too, belonged in the realm. And, of course, ride Space Mountain and pose for photos with Aladdin.
Gay Days soon expanded to other Disney World parks including Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and a number of adult-oriented events sprang up at non-Disney hotels in the area, including pool parties, dance nights and drag competitions. There is also a decidedly non-Disney-endorsed exposition where attendees can buy artwork depicting male Disney characters in various sexual scenarios. (Mr. Incredible in a jock strap, $17.)
Disney has never endorsed Gay Days, a version of which takes place in the fall at Disneyland in California. Nor has it tried to rein it in. There isn’t much the company could do anyway: For red shirt days, attendees buy tickets like anyone else. The planning is handled by private companies like One Magical Weekend, Gay Days Inc., and the lesbian-focused Girls in Wonderland.
I had long heard stories about Gay Days, but I was confused about what it was. The goings-on are not sanctioned by Disney but take place, in part, on Disney property? Adult attendees spend much of their time spinning in teacups and waving at Winnie the Pooh like everyone else … and then go carousing at private events that make Grindr look tame? I’m admittedly the uptight-soccer-dad variety of gay man, but the components did not seem to fit together.
This year, another question arose: Would the anti-LGBTQ vitriol that has surrounded Disney in recent months spill over to Gay Days?
In March, Disney became entangled in a heated dispute with the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. At the time he was promoting state legislation meant to prohibit classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity through the third grade, with limits on what teachers could say in front of older students. LGBTQ organizations and a torrent of companies criticized the bill, with opponents calling it “Don’t Say Gay.”
The CEO of Disney, Bob Chapek, tried not to take a side at first, at least not publicly, which prompted an employee revolt. Chapek then forcefully denounced the bill. In the political and media firestorm that followed, right-wing media figures and DeSantis began to rail against “Woke Disney.” “Mickey is crying,” Laura Ingraham said on her Fox News show, adding that Disney had “shown itself to be a haven for radicals who are hostile to anyone who has any sort of traditional conceptions of morality.” Her colleagues Tucker Carlson and Steve Doocy joined the attack.
The governor signed the bill into law March 28. In April, DeSantis revoked Disney World’s designation as a special tax district, a privilege that had effectively allowed the company to self-govern the 25,000-acre mega-resort since 1967. In May, four neo-Nazis waved swastika flags at Disney World’s entrance. “This is DeSantis Country!” they shouted.
Sounds like … a fun place to be gay?
Gay Days hasn’t always gone smoothly. In the 1990s, soon after the event was established, some religious groups and conservative Disney World visitors viewed the red-shirt-wearing LGBTQ visitors as a moral affront. Disney placed signs at the Magic Kingdom’s entrance to alert/warn guests about what was happening, according to Eddie Shapiro, co-author of “Queens in the Kingdom,” an LGBTQ guide to Disney parks. In the early years, Shapiro said, Disney even handed out white shirts to straight people who had shown up wearing red and were terrified of being mistaken for gay.
“People would be at the entrance with Bibles and signs saying we were going to hell,” said Robert Mathison, 59, who began attending Gay Days with the man who would become his husband and their son in the early 1990s. “For a few years the protesters flew planes overhead trailing banners.”
The anti-LGBTQ protests culminated in 1997, when the Southern Baptist Convention announced a formal boycott, spurred, in part, by Disney’s refusal to block Gay Days. (The church lifted the boycott in 2005.) Would Gay Days 2022 mark a return to that divisive time?
“There is definitely an added significance this year,” Tom Christ, who helped found One Magical Weekend in 2009, said shortly before the event. “One way to fight back is to show our numbers.” He ended our call with an admonishment about my impending visit: “If you see any hanky-panky,” he said, “I don’t want to read about it.” (I did not witness such behavior. Unless you count a few hairy, heavyset men — bears, in gay slang — rubbing bellies at the Riptide party in a pool area deemed “bear lagoon” while wearing bootleg “Little Mermaid” trunks.)
On Saturday morning, as “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from “Mary Poppins” played on the loudspeakers, Gay Days participants streamed into Disney World. Many of them wore red shirts with the words “SAY GAY” on the back, a reference to the recent controversy. Veronica Starr, 28, and her wife, Samantha Starr, 32, rolled up with plans to ride Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. “It means a lot, to be seen,” Veronica Starr said. “When we all wear red, we can’t be ignored.”
Both women said a favorite part of Gay Days involved running into allies, including volunteers from Free Mom Hugs, an LGBTQ support organization. Just then, Kerri McCoy arrived with her husband and eight teenagers in red shirts, members of a group that supports LGBTQ youth. “All the Disney cast members have been waving and telling us to have a happy Pride,” she said, using Disney’s term for company employees.
Although Disney does not sponsor or promote Gay Days, its Parks & Resorts division celebrates Pride month with a barrage of rainbow merchandise in its shops, including a button featuring Mickey Mouse and a rainbow along with the slogan “Belong, Believe, Be Proud.” There were also rainbow-themed desserts.
Disney World offered multiple social-media-ready, Pride-themed photo backdrops; and Disney Springs, a shopping area, has been festooned with dozens of “Share Your Pride” banners. This year, for the first time, Disney is donating all profits from sales of Pride merchandise to organizations that support LGBTQ youth.
And yet homophobia has not disappeared. A reminder from nearby Tampa arrived later Saturday, when a group of Rays baseball players undercut the organization’s Pride Night by refusing to go along with the team’s plan of wearing a rainbow patch on their uniforms.
But the longer I hung out at the Magic Kingdom among the revelers, the more I was struck by the routine nature of the day. There were no protesters. There were no cautionary signs. The only tension I saw came from a gay man who was cranky that a Disney manager had told him that his shirt could be viewed as inappropriate. It featured Pluto in leather gear and the phrase “I like it wruff.”
There were loads of people in red shirts who were not at Disney World for Gay Days — and none seemed to care when they learned of the color’s significance on this day. “Maybe my daughter will think I’m cool now,” one guy said with a grin, declining to give his name and heading toward the Pirates of the Caribbean boat ride.
For Mathison and his husband, Frank McKeown, 47, the blasé attitude represents a significant change from how things used to be.
“About 10 years ago at Gay Days, we were all in line in our red shirts at Big Thunder Mountain,” Mathison said, referring to Disney’s Frontierland roller coaster. “It was a sea of red. And this little girl came running up to her dad in a panic. ‘Dad! Dad! Take off your shirt. If you’re wearing red, it means you’re gay!’”
McKeown picked up the story. “This guy was very, very good looking,” he said. “And so we all started chanting, ‘Take it off! Take it off!’”
They broke into laughter. “Ahh, those were the days,” McKeown said.
Several longtime Gay Days attendees shared a similar wistfulness for Gay Days gone by, adding that the us-against-the-world esprit de corps that was such an important part of the event has waned. Society has become more accepting, and some younger Gay Days attendees don’t even bother to show up in red shirts at the Magic Kingdom, preferring to party poolside.
“There is less of a stigma, which is positive,” Richard Holley-Byrd, 45, told me as we exited the Country Bear Jamboree, a corny musical review that takes on a double meaning during Gay Days. “But I miss the overwhelming sense of community. There was a time when putting on a red shirt at Disney and declaring yourself felt a little scary, like you were really taking a chance.”
I asked McKeown, who lives in Quincy, Florida, to help me make sense of something: If conservatives were so upset about Disney’s supposed “gay agenda,” why was none of that nastiness visible during Gay Days?
“It’s political theater,” he said.
So the partisan screaming on social media and right-wing news outlets takes place in a kind of parallel universe?
“To some degree,” McKeown said. “Don’t get me wrong: The fight for equality is not over by any means. But as you can see from the park today, it really is possible for everyone to get along.”