How Gay Days Made a Home at Disney World

How Orlando's theme parks became home to one of the biggest pride events in the world

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Shaul Schwarz for TIME

Since 1991, gays have worn red shirts to Disney World the first Saturday in June

Like pretty much every child who walks up Main Street U.S.A. at Disney World for the first time, Alix, 10, and her brother Evan, 11, can barely contain their anticipation. Evan wants to ride Space Mountain. Alix is so excited, she can't even say what she wants to do. She is jumping up and down. It's a typical Disney scene, except that Evan, Alix and their sister Jamie, a desultory 4-year-old shielded from the sun in a stroller, have come to the Magic Kingdom with their two moms. It is the 20th anniversary of Gay Days at Disney, and the whole family has traveled from Hickory Corners, Mich., to celebrate.

Gay Days is now one of the largest gay-pride events in the world. According to Watermark, a Florida-based gay newspaper that has been covering Gay Days since it started, about 150,000 people attended this June's six-day gathering, which included 17 pool parties, a business expo, a comic-book convention, a film festival, an after-hours trip to a Disney water park (think dance music and guys in very small swimsuits), bobble-head painting and tie-dyeing for the kids, rivers of alcohol (and some other substances) for the adults and, on June 5, the great culmination: 20,000 to 30,000 lesbians, gays and their families and friends descending on Disney World, everyone clad in red shirts to signify their presence.

Gay Days started modestly in 1991 as a way for some 3,000 lesbians and gays from central Florida to become more visible — on one day, the first Saturday in June — in the theme parks that dominate the region's economy. Few nongays noticed. But the event sparked something in the gay imagination. For many gays and lesbians who grew up in the latter half of the 20th century, childhood was a time of anxiety and secrets, faggot jokes and spitballs. There was, literally and figuratively, no Glee. Going on the teacup ride or getting wet on Splash Mountain was a way to reclaim an unfinished adolescence. By 1995, at least 10,000 gays and lesbians were traveling to Orlando for the gay day at Disney.

There was also an element of political theater in a mass Disney visit — a flash mob before the term existed. "Twenty years ago, there were hardly any visible portrayals of our community other than the pride parades," says Chris Alexander-Manley, 52, president of Gay Days Inc. and one of the volunteers who helped organize the first event in 1991. The media tended to show "the drag queens and the extremes, the leather people," he says. "But that's only a small part of the overall community." A gay day at the Magic Kingdom was a way to emphasize that many gays just want to ride a roller coaster with their partner like any other couple.

How did the event come to rival the pride parades in New York City and San Francisco in terms of attendance? One answer, the answer you would hear from any gay political organization, is that many gay couples now have children. The kids I met on Main Street U.S.A. — Evan, Alix and Jamie — were with their moms Richelle Spencer, 30, and Janice Couchman, 46. Spencer is a deputy sheriff who runs the K-9 unit in Michigan's Barry County; Couchman, who is originally from the U.K., works in retail. The Couchman-Spencer family avoided the expo and the other adult activities.

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