How it began
Gay Days Disney started as an informal event in 1991, when 3,000 gays and lesbians from central Florida decided to gather in Disney World on one day, wearing red shirts to make their presence more visible. By 1995, the event had grown to 10,000 participants and as of 2010 approximately 150,000 LGBTs, their families, friends and supporters attended the six-day gathering (including various pool parties, conventions, festivals, a business expo, activities for kids, etc.) with 20,000 to 30,000 going to Disney on the final day. Now, the event annually pumps an estimated USD 100 million into the Orlando economy.
The popularity of the event is seen by some attendees as a way of "reclaiming" normal joys of childhood lost to homophobia in their earlier years. Growth in attendance also reflects the growing number of LGBT families with children.
The huge success of this event pretty soon attracted the attention of companies, interested in sharing in the - financial - success. After years of discrete participation, Orlando's attractions industry took a more visible and active role in the annual gathering.
In 2009, the 2-year-old Blue Man Group show in Universal Orlando's CityWalk entertainment district became a “bronze-level sponsor” - the first top-line attraction to become such. Calling Gay Days a "significant annual event" in Central Florida, Blue Man Group said it wanted to extend a special offer to thank those attending for their patronage in the past.
The same year, SeaWorld Orlando's Discovery Cove theme park purchased a modest USD 5,000 marketing package and was listed as a Gay Days “partner”.
One reason for the late support (18 years after kick-off) is the fear of repercussions from the conservatives - which to a certain extent was justified. Christian groups accused Disney of not doing anything to stop the event. The Southern Baptist Convention boycotted Disney for eight years. Another organization flew banner planes one year "warning" families of gay events at Disney that weekend (picture left).
Marketing discount tickets and vacation packages to a designated group doesn't constitute an endorsement or sponsorship, said Nick Gollattscheck, director of marketing and communications for SeaWorld and Discovery Cove. "We feel the experiences we have are available for everybody."
Walt Disney World echoed a similar welcome-to-all philosophy, but does not sanction Gay Days (and officially tells employees to treat it as any other summer day).
The note on the right was used by an anti-gay group to demonstrate that Disney did support the Gay Days, and thereby "the gay agenda".
"I think that the way we view it now is we strive to create marketing messages that appeal to a broad range of audiences, including the LGBT community," said Andrea Finger, a Disney spokeswoman. As a hospitality business, she said, the giant resort and its theme parks are "committed to fostering a welcoming environment" for all guests.
At some point a local Doubletree resort dubbed itself the "official" hotel for the event, with convention space rented to various businesses (bathroom remodelers, gourmet cooking suppliers, sex toys, etc.) and organizations (free health tests, vaccinations, etc.) pitching to attendees, creating a sort of Gay Expo.
As a host hotel, the 394-room Royal Plaza was sold out in 2009 and didn't expect a dip in guest spending during that year's event.
And the 626-room Regal Sun Resort, which hosts the women of Gay Days, was expecting a near-sellout for the weekend. Bookings were flat compared with the year before, but General Manager Jay Leonard said that's "pretty remarkable" when compared with how other annual conventions have fared so far this year. "For our 626 rooms, it has a great impact," he said. "It's a piece of business that we love hosting, and we enjoy having their business in our portion of the community."
The event's economic clout cannot be ignored: if organizers' estimates are correct, Gay Days draws more people than Orlando's biggest trade convention, the International Builders' Show, which draws about 100,000 participants when it's in town.
Although the Gay Days were - of course - condemned by the Religious Right, they did not announce a boycott in this case. However, when Disney announced that it would sell its theme-wedding package to same-sex couples in 2007, the opponents reacted predictably. “America continues to slide toward the abyss. God help us!” cried Vision America.
"We are in the hospitality business and our parks and resorts are open to everyone,” said a Disney spokesman. The AFA insinuated it would revive the boycott they had churned up against Disney from 1996-2005, from the moment the company began giving benefits to same-sex employees in domestic partnerships until the time the “culprit” CEO Michael Eisner left the company. This revival did not happen.
The Walt Disney Company doesn’t seem to be shy when it comes to making bold statements supporting equal rights for the LGBT community. The company signed amicus briefs for the DOMA and Prop 8 cases back in 2013. They also signed a friend-of-the-court brief in 2015 urging the Supreme Court to rule in favor of marriage equality, and after the court did just that, Disney World lit up Cinderella’s castle in rainbow colors.
In 2015, Disney made another bold statement, but hardly anyone noticed. One of the stores in Disneyland set up a new window display featuring a boy mannequin with traditionally feminine attire: a Minnie Mouse shirt and hat, carrying a Minnie Mouse purse. The "gender non-conforming mannequin" was standing amongst a range of toys including dolls and a Snow White storybook.
While it’s true that the Walt Disney Company has been vocal about supporting LGBT rights, they still have a long way to go when it comes to depicting LGBT characters in their movies and television shows. In 2014, the Disney Channel made history when it finally featured its first same-sex couple on an episode of Good Luck Charlie, one of the network’s most popular original comedies. That’s practically it though. In fact, Walt Disney Studios received a failing grade from GLAAD on the 2015 Studio Responsibility Index, an annual study that maps the quantity, quality and diversity of LGBT people in films by major motion picture studios.
Similar events are or were: Gay Days Anaheim, Gay Days & Nights Las Vegas, Fantasypride (Phantasialand, Germany), Gay Sunday at the London Zoo, Gaydar Days at Thorpe Park and Alton Towers (both UK), GayDay@Efteling, Pink Monday at the Tilburg annual fair (NL) and Pink Wednesday in the Four Days Marches Nijmegen (NL).