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

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They also did not stay at the official host hotel, a sprawling Doubletree resort whose lobby had been transformed into a frolicking gay idyll. Thousands of people roamed the lobby and convention spaces, which were filled with booths aimed at the gay consumer. There were real estate agents from Key West; representatives from Re-Bath, which claims to be the world's largest bathroom remodeler; a team of nurses under a sign offering free hepatitis A and B vaccinations and another team that would give you HIV-test results in 20 minutes; purveyors of teeth whitener and fancy vinegars.

In another part of the expo, closed to those under 18, there were huge displays for companies that sell pornography, sex toys and lubricants. A Doubletree desk clerk doing his best to be professional was given a handwritten note: "Call me, sex muffin." A phone number followed.

Even though Disney has never officially sanctioned Gay Days and has asked employees to treat the first Saturday in June just like any other day, Christian-right groups have scolded the company for doing nothing to stop the event. For eight years after Gay Days began, the Southern Baptist Convention boycotted Disney. But it's unclear what, specifically, conservatives wanted park officials to do — ban anyone in a red shirt on the first Saturday in June?

Evan, Alix and Jamie had a great time with their moms at Disney World on June 5. They loved Disney's afternoon Celebrate a Dream Come True parade, which they watched right up front, by the castle. Thousands of gays and lesbians and their families surrounded them. "That was really awesome and empowering," Couchman told me later. "The kids really felt part of the bigger picture." For the Couchman-Spencer family, the only controversy about Gay Days was how long to stay. The kids got tired. By the time Disney's big nighttime electrical parade was over, the family had been at the park for 12 hours.

Other gays pushed the boundaries of what the park might consider family friendly. One man wore a red T-shirt with three enormous letters on the front: "F-A-G." Others carried water bottles that had been filled in advance with cocktails, since the Magic Kingdom does not serve alcohol. The night before, at the Gay Days event at Disney's Typhoon Lagoon water park, a man had to be taken away by security because he was high on something and incoherent.

The drugs and overt sexuality at Gay Days are one reason some lesbians and gays are opposed to the event. "It hurts the cause to gain equal rights," says Alex Wall, 24, a test-prep teacher and lesbian activist who has been called an Uncle Tom because of anti–Gay Days comments she posted on Facebook. "I'm all for having a good time," she wrote, "but not at the expense of people's family vacation."

A former Disney employee who was at the park on June 5 told me that every year, Disney issues refunds or free next-day tickets to angry moms and dads who don't want their kids exposed to gay couples or gay-themed shirts. Some families don't get past Main Street U.S.A. before turning around and taking the monorail back to the parking lots.

But they are a vanishing minority. Gay Days may be an occasion for gays to overindulge and conservatives to squirm, but Evan, Alix and Jamie are the future: kids with their parents who want the great American vacation, no politics required.

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