Discover Gay Florida :: Orlando
The city of Orlando was founded in 1857, after three centuries of European influence on Central Florida. The city was slow to grow, but grow it did, especially during the last decades of the 19th century, when it was the de facto hub of Florida's citrus industry, and during the first decades of the 20th century, when the Florida Land Boom turned the city into a winter home paradise for rich Northerners. The population of Orlando grew from 3,800 in 1910 to 27,300 in 1930. It would double again in the next 20 years as the Air Force and Navy would set up bases in the area.
By 1970, Orlando was a prosperous, booming city of just under 100,000 residents. The opening of Walt Disney World in 1971 would change the area forever, as it brought millions of tourists from around the world to this unassuming, simple, mid-sized American city. Other theme parks would open in quick succession, Orlando's metro area would fan out miles upon miles away from Orange County, and the area would have an indelible footprint of international prestige.
Today, a quarter of a million people live in the city proper and 2.1 million people live in the metro area. People from over 170 countries live in Orlando and its suburbs. Orlando is also well-known for its sizable Puerto Rican community, the largest in the country, and the city's Latin flair is immediate and evident to any visitor.
There are so many things to do here; indeed, we could fill up ten magazines' worth of information on this city alone. But we will have to make it brief and just run down our favorite things about Orlando.
Doubletree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld
This hotel is very gay-friendly, and they prove it by being the host hotel for various Orlando gay-related events such as Gay Days, Orlando Bear Bash and Come Out with Pride. A thorough remodeling has left the hotel with a "Balinese oasis" look and feel. Located right on International Drive in the theme park district, this hotel combines sumptuous luxury with affordable pricing. (10100 International Dr., (407) 352-1100, doubletree3.hilton.com/en/hotels/florida/doubletree-by-hilton-hotel-orlando-at-seaworld-MCOSRDT/index.html)
EO Inn & Spa
This relaxing boutique hotel sits at the northeast end of Lake Eola. Known for its spa getaways, the renovated Art Deco hotel is unostentatious, making it a downtown gem. Want a fancy birthday party? Set up a spa party: the hotel takes reservations up to 25 people in a party. Considering you'll also be close to many gay bars and clubs, this may be the staycation you've been looking for! (227 N. Eola Dr., (888) 481-8488, eoinn.com)
The Courtyard at Lake Lucerne
Want a bed and breakfast adjacent to downtown but far enough away where you can take a walk and not feel like you're a part of the city's hustle and bustle? These establishments are for you. The different accommodation options on the property range from a cheerful Victorian house to Art Deco apartment suites. None skimp on the luxury, and serve wonderfully as romantic getaways. (211 Lucerne Cir. NE, (407) 648-5188, orlandohistoricinn.com)
Parliament House Resort
dgf phSometimes you want to be right where all the action is. Those are the times you want to stay at the Parliament House Resort. Where else can you sleep in, lounge around the pool in the afternoon, grab something to eat in the cafe, and party at various nightclubs throughout the night, all without having to go away from the property? The value and experience cannot be beat. (410 N. Orange Blossom Trl., (407) 425-7571, parliamenthouse.com)
White Wolf Café
dgf wolfThe White Wolf Café comes recommended by locals and experienced chefs alike, such as Rachael Ray on her $40 a Day program. This eatery prides itself on the freshness of its ingredients, only using organic vegetables and baking their bread fresh each day. Recommended is their roasted suckling free-range chicken with red potatoes ($19). (1829 N. Orange Ave., (407) 895-9911, whitewolfcafe.com)
Dexter's of Thornton Park
This Central Florida favorite also has locations in Lake Mary and Winter Park. If you're a lover of lovingly hand-crafted food, then Dexter's is your place. Dine in or out on the street in a lovely cafe setting. The Dexter's Traditional menu item that comes with raves is the eggplant Napoleon, sliced and fried, then covered with spinach, ricotta, provolone and parmesan with marinara sauce. ($10.95) (808 E. Washington St., (407) 648-2777, thorntonpark.dexwine.com)
The downtown location won a Diner's Choice award this year from the website OpenTable.com. They are known for "Sushi Mondays," with all sushi on sale 50% off. The date package comes highly recommended and is called "Relationship Monkey for Two." (two glasses of sparkling wine paired with five different sushi rolls, $49.) (912 N. Mills Ave., (407) 427-1447, funkymonkeywine.com)
Who doesn't love Hamburger Mary's? The chain restaurant has locations from coast to coast, including four in Florida alone. The Orlando location is well-known for its cabaret dinner show on Saturdays with local legend Leigh Shannon, as well as for its Broadway Brunches on Sundays with Ginger Minj and The Minx. (Church Street Station, 110 W. Church St., (321) 319-0600, hamburgermarys.com/orlando)
In addition to the upcoming Come Out with Pride celebrations (first week in October, comeoutwithpride.com), the following events are very popular in the Orlando area.
Gay Days at Walt Disney World
For a week at the beginning of June, over 150,000 people travel to Walt Disney World just southwestdgf gaydays of Orlando to participate in one of the largest gay events in the world. Various events and parties with world-class entertainment lead up to the weekend, where LGBT people take on the Magic Kingdom all while wearing red. (First week in June, gaydays.com, www.facebook.com/gaydays)
Florida Film Festival
One of the largest film festivals in Florida, the Orlando mainstay will celebrate its 23rd annual celebration in April. Over 150 films are shown and nearly 100 famous actors come to judge this year's selections or to promote their new films. Last year, Tippi Hedren and Cary Elwes were welcomed as special guests. (First and second weeks in April, floridafilmfestival.com)
Orlando International Fringe Festival
What is "fringe" exactly? Fringe is not the norm, and the performances bend over backwards to show off their creativity. The oldest fringe festival in the country, It has been named Orlando's "most unique cultural experience," and with a schedule filled with everything from Shakespeare to modern-day productions to avant-garde premieres, everyone will find something that will amuse them and make them think. (Third and fourth weeks of May, orlandofringe.org)
EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival
Currently in its 18th year, the Food and Wine Festival showcases the best in culinary delights from thedgf wine United States and from all over the world. Appetizer-sized portions of food, celebrating various cultural heritages, sell from $4 to $8, with drinks going for $3 to $6. Where else can you enjoy a Canadian seared rainbow trout with bacon, then a Floridian Key Lime wine, then French garlic and parsley escargots in brioche, finished off with an Irish chocolate pudding with Bailey's custard? (September 27-November 11, disneyworld.disney.go.com/events-tours/epcot/epcot-international-food-and-wine-festival)
Orlando has quite a few nightlife options for the gay traveler.
For the traditional club atmosphere, a couple of the popular options in town are Pulse (1912 S. dgf revolOrange Ave.) and Revolution (375 S. Bumby Ave.). Pulse in particular hosts many drag queens, singers, and other gay-friendly entertainers from all across the country. Parliament House (410 N. Orange Blossom Trl.) boasts special themed events every week, in addition to hosting big entertainment events, from national drag pageants to well-known international recording artists. SAVOY (1913 N. Orange Ave.) is known for its sexy bartenders and plentiful drink specials. The Brink (47 W. Amelia St.) sets itself apart with ultra lounge decor and lighting, as well as being the home bar for Orlando performer and RuPaul's Drag Race Season 2 winner Tyra Sanchez.
Stonewall Bar Orlando (741 W. Church St.) is a neighborhood bar that is unassuming and welcomes all groups and types. A similar alternative, geared toward the bear and leather crowd, is dgf stonewallBarCodes (4453 Edgewater Dr.). Blink and you'll miss Hanks (5026 Edgewater Dr.), whose crowd is very regular; you won't find many tourists here. Hammerheads (8526 Palm Pkwy.) combines fun entertainment like dirty bingo with an impressive selection of nearly 100 beers.
Establishments that are gay-friendly and have been known to host gay nights are The Monkey Bar (26 Wall St.) and Ember (42 W. Central Blvd.).
Things to See and Do
The Theme Parks
Let's address the elephant in the room right away. You can't say "Orlando" without people thinking of theme parks. The three well-known park complexes are the Walt Disney World Resort (which includes the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom, and the waterparks Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach), Universal Orlando (which is made up of the parks Wet 'n Wild, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure), and SeaWorld Orlando Resort (comprising SeaWorld Orlando, Discovery Cove and Aquatica). Orlando is also home to Gatorland (the granddaddy of theme parks, which opened back in 1949!), and even the Christian-themed Holy Land Experience.
Mennello Museum of American Art
Once the home of Howard Phillips, son of Dr. Philip Phillips, the museum is home to the lifelong collection of the late Earl Cunningham, a noted folk artist. Many of his 400 landscape paintings are on display. There is also an extra wing dedicated to traditional and contemporary American art, like the sculptures of Donald De Lue, best known for his monuments (such as the American gift to France at the shores of Normandy). (900 E. Princeton St., (407) 246-4278, mennellomuseum.com, https://www.facebook.com/MennelloMuseum)
The state-of-the-art Amway Center was opened in 2010, replacing the older Amway Arena. It is the dgf amwayhome of the NBA's Orlando Magic and hosts large-scale concerts and entertainment events. As noted in last week's fall concert guide, Sarah Brightman will be at the Amway Center this month, and Cher has announced a stop at the Amway Center on her new world tour for May 2014. (400 W. Church St., #200, (407) 440-7000, amwaycenter.com, www.facebook.com/amwaycenter)
Sleuths Mystery Dinner Shows
It's hard to avoid touristy places when visiting Orlando, but with that said, sometimes you want to do something fun "as a tourist" without being thrown into crowds of people at a theme park. In that case, Sleuths is for you. Over the span of 2 1/2 hours, your dinner will turn into a whodunnit, and it's up to you to help solve the crime. (8267 International Dr., (800) 393-1985, sleuths.com, www.facebook.com/sleuths)