Thanks in large part to Walt Disney's vision (and his secret plan to buy up great swaths of central Florida back in the late '50s), Orlando is now known around the globe as one of the country's top vacation destinations.
But Orlando is no longer a Mickey Mouse organization. Today there are dozens of theme parks in the metropolitan area, focusing on everything from sea creatures to medieval knights to biblical tales, all competing to provide fun in the sun to the millions who arrive here.
There are literally dozens of gay-friendly resorts, hotels and B&Bs located in and around the city. This lively and growing cultural community and vibrant gay bar and club scene was shaken badly by the June 2016 shootings at Pulse, but people pulled together, providing support and raising millions of dollars for survivors and victims' families.
Some gay travelers come for the theme parks too, especially in the spring. That's when red-shirted gays take over Disney World and other parks as part of Gay Days. But even if a ride on Space Mountain isn't part of your plans, there's more than enough to keep you occupied. Pride takes place in October.
Downtown. Take a leisurely stroll around Lake Eola, the city's centerpiece. (Rides in horse-drawn carriages and swan-shaped pedal boats are also popular.) There is a sprinkling of gay clubs, but the rest have a reputation for being gay-friendly.
ViMi. The ViMi District, more officially known as Virginia-Mills, is one of the city's most vibrant gay neighborhoods. Just outside the boundaries of Downtown, it sits north of Colonial Drive. The Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Community Center of Central Florida sits on Mills Avenue, the neighborhood's main drag. Gays were the first to move to the once-rundown area, and gay businesses are found among the ethnic eateries and tattoo shops. The city commissioner for the area, Patty Sheehan, is one of the country's most prominent gay elected officials.
Lake Ivanhoe. Along Orange Avenue between Virginia and Princeton you'll find antique dealers with some fabulous finds. There's also a couple of laid-back neighborhood bars.
Thornton Park. Near Downtown, this fun and funky neighborhood is full of lovingly restored homes from the beginning of the last century. It's filled with hip shops and trendy restaurants.
Winter Park. The area's chicest boutiques are found in this upscale neighborhood. Also check out the Morse Museum of American Art, which has an eye-popping collection of Tiffany glass.
Two airports serve the Orlando area. Orlando International Airport, where you are most likely to land, is on the outskirts of the city. Orlando Sanford International Airport is 18 miles north of the city. Be sure to check with your hotel to find out if they offer free shuttle service from the airport.
Rental cars are probably your best bet for getting around. The good news is that they are relatively inexpensive, often around $25 a day.
Taxis abound in Orlando, but the cost can become prohibitive. Public buses can get you just about anywhere you'd want to go, but the schedules often mean long waits. Fares are $2, or $4.50 for a one-day pass. See LYNX the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority, for info.
Many hotels offer free shuttle service to local attractions, so be sure to check in advance.
Disney magic. Everyone lets it all hang out during the weeklong Gay Days celebration, held every June in Orlando.
Two decades of mouse ears
Almost 20 years ago, the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Community Center of Orlando encouraged gay people, along with their friends and families, to "wear red and be seen" for one day at the world's most popular theme park.
About 3,000 people, most of them donning red T-shirts, pushed through the turnstiles at Walt Disney World. They weren't greeted warmly by the theme park, which posted warning signs at the entrance warning of the large number of gay and lesbian visitors.
Religious groups were livid. The American Family Association urged a boycott (which quickly fizzled). Operation Rescue staged a demonstration at the front gates (less than a dozen protesters showed up). And televangelist Pat Robertson warned Orlando that it risked hurricanes, earthquakes and terrorist bombs by allowing gays.
Perhaps the most creative protest was in 2006, when the Christian Action Network threatened to launch a hot-air balloon with a message warning families not to visit the area's theme parks during Gay Days.
Today the more than 135,000 revelers are greeted by smiling employees, many of whom volunteer to work during the Gay Days celebration. Although Disney is not an official sponsor of the event (spokespeople say the park "welcomes everyone"), it does offer extended hours and hosts a fireworks display usually only seen during the park's peak summer hours.
Always scheduled around the first weekend in June, Gay Days has exploded from a daylong celebration to a week of events at many theme parks and dozens of locations around the city. There are concerts, circuit parties, poolside receptions and non-stop activities.
"We have young, old, all races and beliefs, parents, gay AA groups, and every other section of our community attending Gay Days each year," says one organizer.
The event is one of the city's biggest moneymakers, bringing in an estimated $100 million to the local economy. It's no wonder that at times there were conflicts among the organizers. Several years ago two separate groups sponsored competing events.
Gays Days takes place in early June, where the hub of activities is the Doubletree Resort Orlando, located at SeaWorld on International Drive, with free transportation to Universal Studios, Sea World and the various Disney theme parks.
Media & Resources
Watermark, the city's top gay publication, covers news and cultural events. What's Happening, HotSpots Central, and Mark's List cover the region and events from coast to coast. Orlando Weekly is the gay-friendly alternative newspaper.
For a city map with business locations and website links, see our gay Orlando listings pages.
Eo Inn & Spa (227 N Eola Dr; 407-481-8485) small boutique hotel in downtown a block from Thornton Park shops and restaurants, with full spa and Panera Bread at street level.
Parliament House Hotel (400 N Orange Blossom Trail; 407-425-7571), the gay motel and entertainment resort since 1975 packs a lot into one destination with 130 rooms, an expansive pool area with bar, a lakefront beach, six bars including disco and show bar, stores and restaurant. Open until 3am, they have drag and cabaret shows from the Footlight Players, Orlando's hottest male dancers, headliner guest stars, Latin nights, pool parties and happy-hour buffets. Sunday no-cover T-dances includes free 8pm buffets, and three showtimes.
CLOSED: Rick's Bed & Breakfast clothing-optional, men-only gay retreat near Disney World.
For a dozen local hotels and guesthouses see our map & listings pages.
Bars and restaurants
903 Mills Market (903 S Mills), great take-out food, outdoor seating, breakfasts and deli sandwiches; meats, cheeses and vegetarian options, wine tasting club.
Bar Codes (4453 Edgewater Dr) is Orlando's only bear and leather bar, serving beer and wine, with a back yard bar.
Hamburger Mary's (110 W Church), gay restaurant burgers and sandwiches chain, cocktails, happy hours, drag cabaret shows, bingo and trivia game nights, Sunday Broadway Brunch 11am-3pm.
Hank's (5026 Edgewater Dr), men's cruise beer and wine bar, famous back yard, jukebox, WiFi, pool tables and tournaments.
Parliament House (400 N Orange Blossom Trail), gay hotel/resort, pool bar, lakefront beach, six bars including disco, Footlight Theatre plays, and show bar; stores, restaurant. Drag and cabaret shows, male dancers, guest performers, Latin nights, bear events, pool parties and happy-hour buffets. Sunday T-dances, free buffets, and shows.
Pom Pom's Teahouse and Sandwicheria (67 Bumby Ave), teas and gourmet sandwiches, sweets; gallery showcasing local gay artists.
Savoy Orlando (1913 N Orange Ave),Tattoo Lounge and patio garden, many kinds of beer, full liquor service. Hot nightly male Men of Savoy dancers, Texas Hold 'Em games, 18+ Tuesday College Nights; $2 Hot Shots all night.
Southern Nights (375 S Bumby Ave), Thursday-Saturday 18+ gay nightclub dancing, drag and burlesque shows, karaoke, theme parties; leather/bears events, men/women mix, go-go boys and girls, lesbian nights. Was Revolution, then RBarr.
Stonewall (741 W Church St), nightly neighborhood bar, food, karaoke, bear nights, underwear events, Camp Drag comedy, Men Of Stonewall Male Go-Go Dancers, RuPaul Viewing Parties, Open Mic nights.
ZoneAmsterdam Saturdaze and Freak Spot urban parties, formerly at Woodstock, now moves around, here and also in Atlanta - see their site for dates and venues.
CLOSED: New Phoenix (7124 Aloma Ave, Winter Park), drag and burlesque shows, karaoke, games; Funky Monkey Wine Company (912 N Mills Ave), restaurant/ wine bar; Pulse (1912 S Orange Ave), gay club, exuberant young 18+ crowd, strippers, drag, karaoke - tragic scene of shootings; Revere at M Hotel (6603 International Dr), gay dance club/ lounge, drag/strippers. Woodstock (500 N Orange Blossom Trail), LGBT dancing go-gos, strip contests, karaoke, hip-hop/reggaeton to country music, poker, entertainent, bar grub, Full Moon Lounge nights.
Club Orlando (450 E Compton St), one of men's clubs national chain, amonge nicest anywhere. Outdoor Olympic-size pool, clothing-optional wrap-around sundeck, steam room, dry sauna, tropical garden patio with Jacuzzi, satellite-TV lounge, deluxe video room, cubicles for pleasure and relaxation, free WiFi. Full-range gym with certified instructor. Sunday 2pm poolside lunch. Free STD/ HIV testing every Tuesday 5:30-10pm, and 4th Fridays each month from 10pm.
Ritzy Rags (928 N Mills Ave) features baubles, wigs, boas, masks and many other cross-dressing and theatrical staples.