José and I were together for 12 years before another couple propositioned us. I always knew it would happen, and if it hadn’t been suggested in his presence, the answer never would have been “yes.” Instead, our friends—a handsome couple of guys several years our junior but with, it would turn out, many of the same tastes and sensibilities—asked the question with both of us present, over a romantic seafood dinner just a block or two from their home. José was so excited he didn’t even pause to gauge my reaction before blurting out that yes, yes, we would love to come with them to Gay Days (June 3—June 9) at Walt Disney World.
It was our first invitation to travel with another couple—what did you think I meant?
I work with Disney on a daily basis, so Orlando is not my first thought when a rare vacation is being discussed. I don’t dislike it, I just have been dreaming of a more exotic locale—Japan, Spain, Italy. You know, the inspiration countries for Epcot.
But José loooves Disney (and Universal) and our friends had actually never been back since they were little boys. When José and I first returned to the Magic Kingdom eight or so years ago—invited on a junket to witness the maiden voyage of the Disney Wonder cruise ship—we had thoroughly enjoyed revisiting a place so bizarre and stylized that it had been burned into our kid brains. There is, inarguably, a unique feeling that washes over you your first time back to Disney as an adult, like nostalgia on steroids. Trouble is, I was envisioning Gay Days as steroids on nostalgia, and I was also somewhat pessimistic that I could still find something new to amuse me about the venerable amusement park.
Our traveling companions, Paul and Lav, are organized to the point where unfortunate surprises would be surprising, but not to the point where fortunate surprises are any less likely to happen. Thanks in large part to this shared trait of theirs—they share a lot of traits, having been together 14 years—the trip began, unfolded and ended smoothly. I was truly impressed by the speed and efficiency of our trek from car service to plane to rental to resort to park and back, four days in a row. What was also amazing was our couple chemistry. As fun as they’ve been at dinner and at parties, there was always the possibility that they’d fight like cats and dogs or would urge us to hit all the gay parties we had no interest in attending or would clam up and be boring. None of that. Instead, it was like a gay Judd Apatow movie—we were doing shtick nonstop. Good shtick.
We had consulted Jeffrey Epstein of Us Weekly, who is also the co-author (with his partner Eddie Shapiro) of the very entertaining Queens in the Kingdom, billed as "the ultimate gay and lesbian guide to the Disney theme parks," so that was helpful. But ultimately, a book can prep you only so much—life, even gay life, just happens.
We stayed outside the parks, a majorly wise idea of theirs, at a new place called the Floridays. The drive back and forth was painless (and entertaining listening to them talk themselves through each mile...I don’t drive and José would have been screaming and saying bad stuff in Spanish if he’d driven) and the resort was brand-new and spacious. It was the suite life, and that is a purposeful Disney reference.
Our first day, we headed over to Disney-MGM Studios in the rain. The beauty of working with Disney is that I was able to get parkhopper passes and even a guide for one of the days. The paid guide is one of Disney’s best-kept, priciest secrets—it’s about $150 an hour with a six-hour minimum, but is usually only offered to celebrity VIPs. The guide will take you from fast-pass line to fast-pass line, and/or bypass even the fast-pass line, speeding up your day and granting you a celebrity status on par with Cinderfuckinella to all the envious riff-raff. We'd group-decided to save the guide until Sunday, because—and this was the trip’s only potential disaster—it was supposed to rain Friday and Saturday. A lot.
As it turned out, it did drizzle a bit at Disney-MGM—but that’s showbiz! It was fun showing them the rides I already knew well, such as the gut-punishing Tower of Terror, which is like Rod Serling’s tomb mashed-up with a dilapidated hotel elevator, and the cheesy but undeniably thrilling Aerosmith-themed Rock ’N’ Roller Coaster.
They surprised me by being way, way into the Muppets attraction and even more excited about our group lesson in how to draw Winnie the Pooh and (thanks to our persistent demand) Donald Duck. I posed with drawn-on Mouse ears...I was in that kind of mood.
Ah, Disney-MGM Studios, the only place for children to hear about the legend of Ruby Keeler. It was also an odd day in that there were several instances of employees breaking character—including one on the (allegedy) Great Movie Ride, which broke down, when one of the Indiana Jones guys waved to the crowd since we could clearly see him re-emerging too early after vaporizing a villain and "disappearing." Another worker was falling prey to the laughter of some of her friends, who were visiting her ride to pester her. It didn't bother me, but it shocked me—I've heard the Disney workers are on tight leashes.
The following day was the main, actual Gay Day at the Magic Kingdom, and already we were seeing evidence of the week-long festivities in the form of red shirts. Unbenownst to me until a day or two before we left, gay patrons are unofficially urged to wear red, apparently under the mass delusion that we can’t pick each other out of a lineup. We weren’t wearing our red yet, so we asked some passing fey folk where they’d gotten their rainbow mouse ears pins.
To my chagrin, we were told that you had to request the pins from under the counter at the stand under the giant wizard’s cap. It was Gay Days and the mouse was profiting from that by manufacturing pins, but was asking its gaytrons to buy them clandestinely? Sure enough, we went to the stand and asked and the kind man working there took them out from their hiding place and sold them to us. His comment was that the pins were being hidden because they’re more likely to be stolen than the others. I think that theory is as offensive as the idea of selling them covertly to avoid religious-right complaints. It reminds me of how pharmacies used to keep condoms behind the register because they were alleged to be more commonly stolen.
We ate late, at Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano, for my money the best eats at Disney. It's got tip-top tacky décor (see photo of object that could be seen in an Italian immigrant's yard 40 years ago) and the kind of food that’s so good it’s a pleasure to barf it back up after tangling with the Tower of Terror, just to taste it again.
The Tower of Terror—from the inside.
Overnight, Saturday’s forecast had gone from 60% chance of thunderstorms to 80% chance to weather so bad they named it—Tropical Storm Barry had come out of the oceanic closet to threaten to hose down Gay Day. We decided we had to be at the Magic Kingdom this day even if we were returning the next, so our plan was to hit Epcot in the a.m. and then check out the Kingdom later in the day, when it was supposed to pour.
Turns out that Barry must have been gay, or at least bisexual (or maybe he had a few beers in 'im?), because the weather was actually better than it had been the day before—scant drizzle in the morning that turned to overcast skies that turned to gorgeous sunshine. I was almost mad, it was so far off from the forecast conditions. Meanwhile, I was the only one of us four in true red—and I had to mitigate it by wearing a Norse Products shirt picturing Mickey Mouse's head as a skull. Paul had a lovely maroon shirt, Lav’s was orange and Mr. Disney, José, was rockin’ brown. But we all had our secret decoder gay pins on our sleeves, so that felt homosexual enough.
The first stop of the day was the most important: Waffle House. I felt like I was eating Crisco with butter on it, but in a good—if bad—way.
Next, Epcot is not as boring as I remembered it from my childhood. I had first Epcotted so long ago that I’ve always remembered it as the year it opened. All I pictured from those days was a long walk around a circular lake with lots of too-pricy foreign food and a street show in “England.” Since then, I’d been back, but only to do limited work events. Now, with the luxury of time, I enjoyed the front of the park, especially the zippy Test Track and the somewhat scary Soarin’, which is one of the parks’ many simulated-motion experiences. It was a good reminder of why I’ll never blast off into space unless it’s to get to a more habitable planet and I’m damn sure it’s not a cookbook.
The ride inside the iconic Epcot ball is as ridiculous as ever, but like It’s A Small World, you have to do it. Then we found ourselves practically sprinting around the pavilions, stopping here and there for a chocolate-dipped banana, a crepe, a pretzel or worse.
By the time we got to the Magic Kingdom, the skies were magically clear and we emerged into a festive Family Fun Day character-led parade. It was fun to see a sea of red shirts, white clouds and blue skies.
One of our first rides was the bumper cars—of course we had to rear-end each other in public on Gay Day. We also hit the Teacups, the Swiss Family Robinson’s breezy treetop abode (they don’t even re-release that movie anymore, when are they going to knock that down in favor of a Narnia hike?) and some other rides we felt would not be as hard to get into the following day, when the guide would be taking us to and fro. We managed to fast-pass Space Mountain, which was a ride that awed me when I rode it in its infancy. Back then, it had seemed pitch-black and the drops made me think the car was jumping from level to level. Nowadays, it’s still a great thrill, but its mysteries are less mysterious and more a simple matter of jolting my 38-year-old ass from its usual position in front of a desk.
Gay Day was not what I expected. It was a Gay Pride crowd, meaning a mixture of races, genders and economic backgrounds united by the invisible pair of lesbigay ears we were wearing, and not the circuit zombies I’d feared. I would say it was a light day for Disney—my uneducated guess is that some of the gay crowd avoided the park for fear of bumping into Barry, while a significant number of the non-gay crowd avoided the park for fear of bumping into a faggot. I knew not everyone was aware of Gay Day because right away a woman asked me, “What’s with the red shirts?” I said, “It’s Gay Day.” She replied, “Oh. Cool.” She went on to gab with us that she was meeting her brother and his new girlfriend in the parks and that she’d have to double-check to see if he might be gay after all. Less humorously, there was at least one bona fide occasion where a parent put his son on his right instead of on his left to avoid any incidental contact with a red shirt.
But in general, even though a visiting lesbian Universal employee observed that the park staff was more “snobbish” that day than on Not Necessarily Gay Day, I didn’t feel any overwhelming negativity. It was exciting and fun, and I’m about as likely to dig a day at Disney as the Evil Queen. I even ate a turkey leg. All of it. I almost sucked the marrow.
You’ve got to give credit to a children-oriented theme park that goes out of its way to host a Gay Day. It goes against intuition and is not necessary. Yet it works, and it is—and/or should be—appreciated. It’s a nice continuation of Walt’s Carousel of Progress. (Speaking of which, that yawn-inducing old stand-by has some outrageously, unintentionally funny narration, including, “If you’re gonna get married, marry a girl with a sense of humor,” and other anachronistic, Honeymooners-esque chatter.)
Toward the end, after riding my all-time fave Magic Kingdom ride—Thunder Mountain Railroad (I’m an old-fashioned coaster enthuasist)—we rode Splash Mountain and our log was in exactly the right place to get absolutely drenched when another log plummeted down the steep drop. It was bizarre—I’ve ridden that ride a hundred times, it seems like, and have never gotten doused.
Even weirder, it happened again when we rode it the next day. Wait—where did the Tar Baby go? Wasn’t he a part of that Brer Rabbit/Brer Bear/Brer Bear-themed ride? Oh. Anyway, my three compadres were such pansies they wore their rain ponchos on the ride. I know it was Gay Day, but it wasn't Really, Really Gay Day.
We closed the joint at the SpectroMagic Parade, which was pretty cool. I always spend too much time imagining what it’s like to wear a costume and march around to help little kids and disbelief-suspending adults get their kicks, but the sheer beauty of the lights helped assuage those killjoy fantasies until I was so tired the only thing I could question was how I’d get back to the car. We had tickets to a Bananarama concert—don’t laugh, their Drama CD is superb—and had discussed ditching them for the much-ballyhooed Kathy Griffin/Donna Summer extravaganze at Disney-MGM, but in the end, we bagged both. It was a bad case of old-ass.
Electric light orchestra.
Half-dead on Sunday, I nonethless managed to have a blast again. Our guide was very nice and didn’t disrupt our group dynamic as he whisked us through the park, at times almost at a jog, to hit all the attractions we’d saved or had missed the day before.
Bright and early, we were escorted directly to the most desirable characters for photos, which I found mortifying. I mean, there you are, surrounded by tiny girls dressed up like Snow White or Belle, and you’re cutting the line to pose for pictures with Mickey (who I spontaneously hugged for no reason at all—the costume is hypnotic), Minnie, Pluto, Goofy and, of course, Chip ’n’ Dale. The controversial theory that gay people are trapped in a never-ending childhood really picks up steam when you’re receiving jealous glares from toddlers.
Next, we rode the Walt Disney World Railroad for a taste of Adventureland, including the required Pirates of the Caribbean ride. I noted the presence of Johnny Depp for the first time and managed to snap a shot of the classic dog holding the keys to the prison. It could have used a likeness of Paris Hilton among the scalawags, crying, “Mommy!”
We scored a nice lunch at Tony’s Town Square, inspired by the restaurant in Lady and the Tramp, then made sure to hit Peter Pan’s Flight and It’s a Small World while dodging the occasional icky flies, which seemed to enjoy mating on our flesh.
It was fun seeing the Haunted Mansion again. I’d forgotten the grisly story associated with it, which involves a woman who commits suicide when she thinks her rich fiancé has left her (thanks to a malicious forged note left by his old flame).
James Earl Jones will sound like this even when he's dead.
Talk about punk’d—she hit the pavement so hard her engagement ring was said to be lodged in the concrete. The concrete of the happiest place on earth. I love the Haunted Mansion! It’s unchanged from 30 years ago and just as creepy. I love the whirling ghosts, the spirts who ride in your car with you and especially, especially the projection of a woman speaking in a crystal ball. I wonder who that actress was, if she’s still alive, if she got paid? I was looking for the ghost of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, an attraction I recalled from my childhood that was later razed because it broke down too often and was themed to a film that nobody cares about.
Our VIP treatment wasn’t over—we got to sit with about 10 other people in a special alcove to watch the mid-day parade. One of the little girls near us was obsessed with—above all other Disney characters—Captain Hook! What with her and with the gay contingent inappropriately cheering The Little Mermaid’s Ursula and surreptitiously photographing the tight-pantsed male dancers, it made for quite a pleasingly perverse display.
Tomorrowland offered the fun Astro Orbiter and competitive Buzz Lightyear’s Spin, both indulged after our guide took leave around 3:30. He was absoluttely fab and it was a total treat, but I wonder if I’d spend the money for the kind of access guides provide unless I had it to burn or was, you know, Christina Aguilera or something and didn’t want to stand around and get mauled by cotton-candy hands.
It was another fun day of gay male gay bonding, which is like verbal hazing with laughter and taboo sexual innuendo.
By that evening, I felt like that dead bitch’s engagement ring that was embedded in the stone in front of the Haunted Mansion, but I gamely went along with the group to Downtown Disney, where I lumbered through souvenir stores and wolfed down food at Bongo’s, the terrific Cuban restaurant owned by the Estefans. We checked, but the men’s room had no Gloria holes.
Our final day was devoted to three rides at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I’d been to this park before and hated it, not seeing its point, but I liked it more this time. Interestingly, it was packed—PACKED—with people, bodies swarming like water buffalo in the 90-degree blazing heat, and the crowd seemed a lot younger, for whatever reason. We got a fast-pass for the hot ride Expedition Everest and then got into a promised 50-minute wait for the safari. Look, you’re at Animal Kingdom—how do you not do the safari? Don’t. We waited 80 minutes, not 50, and the uncomfortable ride was fast and short. Sure, we saw some exotic animals, but not nearly enough. I spent more time examining the specimens in line with me.
But Expedition Everest was...amazing. I really loved this high-concept coaster. I filmed it pretty well, too. It was fast, surprising, had great visuals and made the whole jaunt to the park worthwhile. We tried hard to hit it a second time but had a plane to catch.
One of the trip's peaks.
We did, however, make it to Primeval Whirl, a smaller coaster that was also genuinely fun. You’re in a circular car, spinning around and around while going up and down traditional (if jerky) coaster hills. My footage of this ride is probably the gayest I shot, accompanied as it is by our rising and falling shrieks, gasps and exclamations.
Giving it a whirl.
As we left the park, we saw a guy and girl prepping what appeared to be a month-old infant for a long day in the heat. I was glad I wasn’t him, her or it.
I think Paul summed up the hard-to-describe feeling I was having about the Disney experience, something to the effect that it’s touching, unexpectedly, to see people wandering around in the sun, all seeking to get fed and get thrilled, and to realize you’re one of them. Gay Day was just an arbitrary way to bring you that much closer to a slightly smaller group, but either way, there is something—you should pardon the expression—universal about Disney.
"You know...any wish is possible!"