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Magic Kingdom: For a day or so, it's the gayest place on earth

Gay Day, which started small in 1991, has now outgrown the park's boundaries.

BY LOANN HALDEN, www.OutTraveler.com

gaydays In 1991, a small gay group donned eye-catching red shirts and gathered at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, having no idea that word of mouth would propel their ''Gay Day'' outing into an event of epic proportions. Within six years, attendance had swelled to 60,000, and a single day had morphed into nearly a week of activities.

When Gay Day unfolds this year -- it's always on the first Saturday in June -- an estimated 135,000 gays and lesbians are expected to converge in Central Florida. The state's largest gay pride festival, held in St. Petersburg, draws about half that number.

''With so many people, every year is a different experience, which keeps it exciting,'' says Brian Rush, a Wilton Manors resident who has attended Gay Day each year since the mid-'90s.

``I've gone with a date and I've gone with groups of friends, I've gone to the big parties and the local clubs, but the one thing I always do is uphold the tradition of wearing red to the Magic Kingdom on Saturday. It's the equivalent of going to a gay pride parade and showing support for our community.''

Late-night dance parties for gay men dominated post-theme park entertainment choices in the '90s, but now the Gay Days roster includes a lesbian weekend package and designated meeting places at Magic Kingdom and SeaWorld for gay families.

''When we started seven years ago, there really were no organized events for women and now there are 10 with national entertainment involved,'' says Alison Burgos, co-producer of Girls in Wonderland. ``It's a great effort from the women's community in Orlando. Local and national promoters really work together to make lesbians feel welcome.''

Although Gay Days is not Disney sponsored, the company -- which supports workplace nondiscrimination and provides health care coverage for same-sex domestic partners of employees -- embraces its presence. ''It's a great group of people,'' Disney spokeswoman Zoraya Suarez says. ``I was at the park last year for Gay Day and it was wonderful to see all the red T-shirts and multigenerations of families coming together and being at ease in the park.''

Inspired by Florida's success, Gay Days Anaheim launched in 1998 and now draws 30,000 red-shirted participants to Disneyland the first weekend of October.

''As someone who grew up in Florida and has been going to Disney World my whole life, before I came out and after I came out, it's amazing how the park transforms for Gay Day,'' Rush says.

``The workers have bigger smiles on their faces, because everyone is just so happy that day. Normally it's full of families on a mission to have fun, because dad paid a lot of money; whereas on Gay Day they've come from all over the world and they're having fun because they want to. It gives Disney a whole different flair.''

THE PARKS

The 1999 arrival of Universal's Islands of Adventure, with its adult-friendly thrill rides, stole some of the Magic Kingdom's thunder, but Walt's original Orlando theme park still attracts the largest group of Gay Day participants on the first Saturday in June. Gay guests gather in front of Cinderella's Castle at 3 p.m. for the Main Street Parade, where chants of ''gay'' and ''day'' fly across the pavement before the floats roll by.

Wearing red is encouraged, but rainbow-colored ensembles that evoke the gay pride flag and Mickey Mouse ears on women/Minnie Mouse ears on men also make frequent appearances.

On this extra-busy day, using the FastPass system to book a slot for popular ''grown-up'' rides like Space Mountain and Splash Mountain helps with wait times.

THE PARTIES

Promoter Johnny Chisholm hosts the most elaborate (and pricey) post-park dance soirees under the One Mighty Weekend banner: the Beach Ball at Typhoon Lagoon (June 6), which includes access to the park's water slides and wave pool; One Mighty Party at Disney's Hollywood Studios (June 7), featuring comedian Mo'Nique, singer Taylor Dayne and unlimited rides on Star Tours and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror; and Universe (June 8) on the Universal Studios Orlando New York back lot.

Downtown Orlando's gay nightclubs Pulse and Revolution and the sprawling gay entertainment complex Parliament House attract full houses without the $100 ticket price. Pleasure Island at Downtown Disney is the Thursday night hot spot and a favorite of gay Disney cast members. Girls in Wonderland produces the largest lesbian events; their namesake party at Downtown Disney's House of Blues draws 2,300 women.

THE HOTELS

Chances are good that any hotel near Orlando will have a gay presence, but it's guaranteed when booking one of the host hotels in Lake Buena Vista.

Party animals flock to the Buena Vista Palace Hotel and Spa, which includes passes to its weekend pool parties with room reservations. The Fairfield Inn and Suites in the Marriott Village has free shuttle service to Girls in Wonderland and access to the lesbian pool parties at the sold-out Courtyard Marriott next door.

Both properties are nearly full, but overflow rooms are available at the lakeside Disney Saratoga Springs Villa Resort, with ferry service to Downtown Disney, and the Disney All-Star Sports Resort, a convenient locale for gay athletes participating in the volleyball, softball, tennis and running events presented as part of One Mighty Weekend.

Photo by LOANN HALDEN / WWW.OUTTRAVELER.COM

Visitors in signature red shirts wait for the Main Street parade during Gay Day at the Magic Kingdom in 2002.

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HOST HOTELS

Buena Vista Palace, Walt Disney World Resort, 1900 Buena Vista Dr.; 407-827-2727 or 866-397-6516; www.buenavistapalace.com, rooms from $159.

Fairfield Inn Lake Buena Vista, in the Marriott Village, 8615 Vineland Ave.; 407-938-9001 or 888-236-2427; www.marriott.com, rooms from $109.

Disney Saratoga Springs Villa Resort, 1960 Broadway; 407-938-4868; www.disneyworld.com, rooms from $242.

Disney All-Star Sports Resort, 1701 W. Buena Vista Dr.; 407-938-4868; www.disneyworld.com, rooms from $123.

SCHEDULES AND EVENT TICKETS

http://gaydays.com or 888-942-9329

www.girlsinwonderland.com

www.onemightyweekend.com

www.gaydayfamily.com or 305-527-9760

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