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It’s ten past nine, and apparently Stinger Ray’s is the place to be.
Located just off of Terminal A, the bar’s neon glow is a beacon for grim-looking standby passengers, victims of inhumane layovers, and those waiting for arriving flights, like me. My Gay Day cohort doesn’t arrive for another three hours, so here I am. Stinger Ray’s pink and teal color scheme suggests that wearing a t-shirt with a sport coat is okay. Plastic palm trees flank the bar. J.A.G. plays in closed caption on the TV. Bloody Marys run $9 a pop for doubles. Drinks come umbrella’d.
So it seems fitting that it should be here, at Orlando International’s openly-gay cocktail lounge, that Gay Day is unofficially commencing two days early.
It’s commencing with the quartet of lesbians across the bar doing translucent taupe-colored shooters, and with the four augmented pectorals that just sat down near the corner and ordered two scorpions. Even Lem, the overly-tan, middle-aged bartendress in short-shorts and pineapple earrings, seems to be flirting with the suburbanite redheaded woman sitting coquettishly near the till.
Every year, thousands of queers make a pilgrimage to the Magic Kingdom for this event. Though at first glance, Disney, with all of its good, wholesome family veneer, seems an odd choice for Gay Day, it actually makes for the quintessential blend of irony and camp that gays specialize in. It’s a chance for the gay world and Disney World engage in a fairytale civil union.
It’s officially Gay Day, 9 a.m. The interior of our car is already deep fried. Items left on the dash have undergone a change in molecular structure. My pomade has turned plasmatic. The quarters for the tolls are too hot to pick up.
This is Florida sun: a post-nuclear apocalypse kind of grainy white light. It touches off the kind of heat that causes old people to die in their homes. The local news tallies up these deaths each morning and reads the number after the traffic report.
By ten we’re parked in the Goofy lot at the Magic Kingdom and applying sunscreen. A sea of red flows steadily through the parking lot toward the trams. At least half of these red shirts say “Abercrombie” across the chest in white block letters.
Trams arrive and depart with Sisyphean regularity. Climbing aboard, I get my first Disney flashback from the floating prerecorded voice that affably welcomes us to the park. It all feels vaguely dÃ©jÃ vuish, except for the giggles that roll through the tram every time the voice informs us that there will be no lap sitting unless the lap-sitter is younger than three. When you’re 23 and haven’t been to Disney World since you were small enough to be smuggled in under your father’s coat, the whole Gay Day experience becomes one long series of hazy flashbacks, flashbacks that blend the uneasy combination of gay independence and some seriously intense family vacations. It’s a little like having sex in your childhood bedroom while your mom cooks pancakes downstairs.
The tram drops us off at my absolute all-time favorite ride in the whole Magic freaking Kingdom: The Monorail! Forget about Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Screw Space Mountain. The Walt Disney World Monorail System is where it’s at. Does any other ride zip through an actual hotel lobby? Noooooo. And we disembark in this very lobby, in the extremely trapezoidal Contemporary Resort Hotel, for a buffet breakfast of wheat toast and Better’N Eggs at Mickey’s CafÃ©.
Mickey’s CafÃ© is a little bit scary for the same reason that clowns are scary. It pulses with a hyperactive childlike glee, but to a degree that borders on manic psychosis. For example, the whole restaurant erupts into a severe bout of revelry at fifteen minute intervals. A souped-up version of the Mickey Mouse Club song with jazz horns and a drum machine begins blaring from everywhere, and Mickey and Donald and several other characters appear out of nowhere and begin twirling linen napkins above their heads, the same way you might twirl your t-shirt above your head if you were at a circuit party and high on amphetamines.
The waiters and waitresses are expected to join in the merriment even if they don’t want to. Some of them seem to really enjoy it. Our waitress Ellen, however, looks half catatonic. She comes over to our table periodically, her coffee carafe poised, and asks us if we need anything. Her smile suggests early stages of mania. When we say no thanks, she fills our cups anyway.
Mickey comes over to greet us. He waves, shakes our hands, basically just stands there and grins. This isn’t so bad until my friend goes to pilfer a few muffins from the buffet for later, and suddenly Mickey and I find ourselves in the awkward position of one-on-one interaction. Having a conversation with a man in a rodent costume is okay if you’ve got someone else there to laugh about it with. When it’s just you and the rat, you feel like you’re on a blind date with a mute.
“Good eggs,” I tell the mouse, who can’t speak, only gesture.
Mickey rubs his stomach. Translation: “Yes, I also enjoy the eggs.”
“Those kids really seem to like you,” I say, nodding toward the swarm of children climbing his body.
He waves this observation away with one hand and swats at the kids with the other. Translation: “Children are my reason for being. Would you mind disengaging the fat one from my throat?”
I bounce a few more topics off him but his communication abilities are pretty limited by the mute thing. Eventually he moves on, a wad of children still stuck to his legs, a huge smile still frozen to his face.
Main Street, USA is the grand entrance to the Magic Kingdom. It opens up before you like Norman Rockwell meets Barnum & Bailey, with Cinderella’s castle sparkling against the sky in the distance. The shifting mass of red on the street is so thick that it looks like one big biological function. A horse drawn carriage forges a path through the crowd, followed by a man in knickers carrying a shovel.
I was totally unprepared for how gay Gay Day would be. I figured a few lesbian couples, some scattered troops of shirtless gay men. Uh-uh. This is Bette Midler at Lilith Fair. Some of the straight people look like they might not have come had they known. They move through the park the way you’d walk though a bad neighborhood — quickly and stilted with eyes straight ahead, clutching their children by the wrists. But for the most part, there’s none of the overt homophobia that you might expect to greet this great queer migration. No red-necked fathers telling us faggots to go home. No soothsayers decreeing this a sign of the End. Not even a Christian with a hand-drawn placard. The anti-drama is both heartening and disappointing.
In fact, the Disney “cast members” seem genuinely thrilled to be entertaining us. When we approach the Mayor of the Magic Kingdom — an extremely mayoral looking man with a swollen, red face and a fat cat, cummerbunded gut — he couldn’t be more diplomatic. He shakes our hands and asks us where we’re from before launching into his wholesomely corrupt politician routine. His spiel sounds simultaneously rehearsed and off the cuff.
He’s also a big smiler. Disney employees really are the best smilers you’ve ever met. Their whole faces smile — their eyes droop a bit, their foreheads relax, shoulders broaden. It’s the sort of smile you see on the women in laundry commercials when they smell fresh towels. Their smiles kind of sigh and say, “Ahh, it really is a small world after all.”
The only plausible explanations for the astounding smiles that I can think of are that a) Disney Corp. has rewired everyone’s jaw, b) the climate of fear is that effective, or c) Disney Corp. is big and rich and can afford to hire only the very best smilers. The smiling is another dead giveaway of the myriad queers employed by the Walt Disney company. No straight man could execute a smile so perfectly proportioned between flight attendant, model and gameshow co-host.
We wander into Tomorrowland, which was reconceptualized in 1994 when Disney’s imagineers realized that tomorrow comes every day, which makes Tomorrowland awfully hard to keep from looking like last week. The redesign gives it more of a retro Buck Rogers feel, rather than an actual vision of the future. The future’s not as snazzy-looking as it used to be in the Sixties. Postmodernism ruined it. Besides, Disney’s always been better at nostalgia.
Space Mountain has been closed due to a problem that no one will give us specifics about. Four lesbians from Milwaukee with “don’cha know” accents are lounging outside the entrance, waiting for it be fixed. They’re sweating through their tank tops and passing around a bottle of water. Two red shirts in wheelchairs roll by. They wave to the lesbians and the lesbians wave back.
The feeling of togetherness is different here than it is at a club or a bar. This is Heteromerica, public space, The Happiest Place on Earth. And yet here we are, the majority, smooching and piggyback riding in broad daylight. And it goes beyond the “safety in numbers” thing. Of course the sheer number of us makes it safe, but the park today is more than safe space. It’s reclaimed space, a space we all know that we should have had access to back when we were kids. Not Disney World specifically, but childhood in general. We’re staging our own little childhood coup.
The teacups are perfect evidence of this. Disney World doesn’t really have many thrill rides. What it mostly has is rides like the teacups, rides designed by people who were artists first and engineers second. Revolutionary for their time, most of them probably feel pretty Commodore 64 to today’s kids. Disney has repainted the teacups to a funkier pattern of purple and green, but the attempt to make them square up to today’s spine-collapsingly fast, hydraulic-powered superrides only accents their antiquity. And on Gay Day, this is a good thing.
On Gay Day, we crave antiquity. As long as it’s kitsch antiquity. We want rides that are roughly the equivalent of chintzy upholstery on our aunts’ loveseats and the 35-millimeter home movies of our childhoods. There’s a reason Gay Day is at the Magic Kingdom and not at Busch Gardens or Universal Studios.
People cram into the teacups in groups — more people to turn the center crank makes the whole cup spin faster. A ride that gives the rider partial control over its operation probably wouldn’t get built today for liability reasons. Some of the muscle boys have their cups spinning so fast that they’re just one big blur of triceps and deltoids. Exiting riders, wobbling with dizziness, collide on their way out like overcharged electrons.
We purchase overpriced bottles of water and get in line for the Haunted Mansion, where we meet Scott. Scott is from Raleigh and works in a video store, but he hopes to someday work for a theme park. He’s really, really into the Haunted Mansion.
“Looks like he’s not going anywhere for a while,” Scott laughs, pointing to a cage that contains a cobweb-covered skeleton. At first I think he’s just being campy and snide, but no, Scott is genuinely engrossed. When we cruise by a statue of an emaciated, half-dead man, he says, “Someone better get him a meal, and quick!”
“Freak” is my knee-jerk urban snob reaction to Scott, and we split from him upon exiting the ride. But it’s the Scotts that make Gay Day different than other point-of-convergence gay events. It’s unlikely that you would find that sort of unfiltered semi-dorkiness at the White Party. But Gay Day is completely conducive to uncool behavior, which, I suppose, is why people are trotting around unapologetically in hot pants and Goofy ears. If you’ve traveled hundreds of miles as a fully-grown adult to romp around Frontierland, you’ve conceded that you’re not as New York cool as you’d like to think you are.
As 2 p.m. rolls around, the street in front of Cinderella’s castle becomes practically impassable. Gay men and women rush for curb space, benches, raised platforms, any spot that provides a view of the daily three o’clock parade.
The daily parade is like Disney uncut. It’s Walt in his purest form. It’s when Disney World gets to stand up, throw out its hip and say, “Look how fabulous we are!” Understandably, the parade’s pretty big with the gays.
Off to the side, an elderly straight couple looks on in that blank way that old people do, their eyes rendered opaque by glasses with triple-thick lenses. I decide to fill them in on what all the red shirts are about. I guess it’s obvious, but it’s easy to assume that people from that generation might need a little nudge.
“What am I, stupid?” the woman responds to my innocuous query of whether she knew it was Gay Day. “They’re all wearing them,” she says.
Indeed, she’s right. They are all wearing them. Her husband is pretending he doesn’t know I’m there, or maybe he genuinely doesn’t. I press on with my attempt to open her mind.
“What do you think about all this?” I ask vaguely.
“Well, it’s their problem. They’ll have to deal with it,” she says.
I want more information — how will they have to deal with it? Are we talking about Hell now? Eternal damnation? Or are we simply touching on the discrimination and persecution that they’ll have to face because of people like herself? I’m about to ask her when she whispers, “Are you one of them?”
Like, literally whispers, as if it’s 1954 and I’ve just been caught cruising J. Edgar at a black tie State Department function.
I tell her I am indeed one of them, and she repeats that it’s my problem and that eventually I’ll have to deal with it. I’m sensing that I’m not going to get any more specifics out of her, so I thank her for her time and return to the parade.
As it approaches, Disney employees clear the street as though herding cattle. One employee looks embarrassed as he tries to coax a large drag queen out of the way. A beefcake in a red tank top is unwittingly wandering through the street, and someone with a squirt gun and begins dampening his face, crotch and butt. The crowds on each side of the street begin chanting at each other, each trying to be the most ridiculous. “Peanut butter, jam and jelly, we are butch and you are nelly!” seems to win.
By ten past three, the parade begins to round the corner. Someone tells me that its official name is the “Share a Dream Come True” parade. Disney songs blare from every nook, including the Mickey Mouse song once again, this time a deep house remix. The parade boils down to a procession of floats, each with a different Disney character under a glass covering, the kind of coverings a waiter might remove with a voila! from a serving of Baked Alaska. Mickey comes first, and a recording of his voice plays different sound bites while the Mickey in the bubble acts like he’s speaking them. He points and nods at the crowd. Everyone loves it. The crowd goes nuts.
Next is Pinocchio, who, before our very eyes, becomes a real boy on his little serving tray. “I’m a real boy!” he cries, uncurling from the fetal position and blossoming out with his arms above his head. “You’re a real boy! And you’re a real girl!” he exclaims as he points to members of the crowd. The double entendre is almost too much to take. The audience totally eats it up.
And then come the idealized hetero couples, literally on pedestals. Cinderella and her Prince, Snow White and her Prince, Beauty and her Beast, all surrounded by fleur-de-lis. They, too, are under glass, but their coverings seem intended to imply precious valuables, like jewels in a jewel box. Snow White hams it up. Prince Charming fields a barrage of loud hoots and catcalls.
The camp factor is off the charts. Alice from Wonderland has pulled a man in a red baby-tee into a session of ring-around-the-rosie, and they’re skipping in circles with Tigger, Pooh and that little guy who plays Captain Hook’s sidekick. Cruella DeVil, Disney’s drag queeniest bitch, sneers as she draws on her cigarette holder. Gay Day is clearly this actress’s day in the sun — the crowd practically rushes her float.
There are the chimney sweeps from Mary Poppins, three barrel-chested men in overalls, faces smeared with grime and winning smiles. The pointedly femme Christopher Robin. The Fairy Godmother tossing fairy dust, bippity boppity boo. It’s like Gay Day is the one day that Disney World is truly as Walt envisioned it, God rest his cryogenically frozen soul.
Because for all its wholesome family values, its childlike innocence and cartoon shellac, Disney is still more gay than straight. It’s like a drag show and circuit party rolled into one. Attention to personal appearance is a big Disney flashpoint. Smiling and prancing is encouraged. Even most of their employees are gay, according to one such employee that I met on the plane to Orlando.
The parade marks the beginning of the end of the day. People begin filtering toward the exits, making their way back to their hotel rooms to get ready for tonight’s volley of parties. We end up seeking refuge from the heat in the shops along Main Street, which are actually just two long shops with several shopfront facades placed side by side. Mouse ears, plush toys and more snow globes than one could shake in a lifetime cram the shelves. The cash registers are low and inconspicuous, one of the park’s few reminders that this magical place still exists for profit.
In fact, Disney’s whole shtick is to envelop you in a world where there are no profits, net gains, overheads, mergers, corporate takeovers or anything of that icky nature. Nor are there failed marriages, broken homes, unwanted kids or interfamily dysfunctions in general. And that’s where Gay Day comes in. Aside from the few people who actually come here in a desperate attempt to be children again, to literally make up for a sucky upbringing by spending the day at Disney in all seriousness, a lot of us are here as adults to revel in the irony of Gay Day at Disney. Conservatives may lambaste the fucked-upness of having a day for homosexuals at a fantasyland for children, but it’s not like, as gay people, we don’t see its inappropriateness either. That’s exactly why a lot of us are here.
When designing Disney’s parks, Walt said he wanted to create a space where people could leave the real world behind. Problem is, we queers are part of that real world Walt was providing escape from. Gay Day is our chance to see that world in reverse, and to make a few others see it that way too. To have Pinocchio point to us and tell us we’re real boys and girls, and to say it with an honest smile.