Gay Day grows as a party. But a an excuse for raising money, are the locals losing out? The crowd inside Pensacola's Bayfront Auditorium is hot, but the heat has nothing to do with it. This is the muscled-torso set, all smooth skin and sweat, T-shirts and tank tops stripped off and stuffed into back pockets, the bodies wedged together on a dance floor flecked with light and cornered by towering speakers. Tonight the DJs come from Miami and Atlanta, the singer from London, and the men from across the Southeast in a migration that makes Pensacola a Memorial Day mecca for thousands of gays and lesbians. And while this party -- $35 a ticket at the door -- is but one offshoot of the word-of-mouth gathering, it is also nominally a charity benefit, which by the time the doors swing shut at 5 a.m. will have raised thousands of dollars for the White Heat AIDS Foundation of Pensacola. The next night another promoter will throw another party at the Civic Center -- Pensacola's equal to the Orlando Arena -- but the crowd and cause will be the same. Again, thousands of gay men will dance late into the night; again, thousands of dollars will be steered toward a local nonprofit agency whose take required them to donate no more than a few volunteers -- and no cash investment. These are the types of big-ticket, high-profile, nationally promoted parties coming to Orlando as Gay Day at Disney World matures into a solid series of events wrapped around the first Saturday in June, a day picked by local grass-roots organizers who seven years ago urged other gays and lesbians to hit the Magic Kingdom and identify themselves by wearing red shirts. Now drawing an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 (an actual count is impossible), Disney is still an unofficial participant, pocketing thousands of gay dollars on an otherwise slow weekend before the start of the summer season. Attendance is so strong that this year Sea World and Universal Studios, hoping for a sliver of the crowd, offered discounted tickets in partnership with a gay service organization. Still without a single coordinator, "Gay Days" now includes events from the bars to the beaches that will run Thursday through Sunday. Expansion has occurred with missteps. Two years ago an untested local promoter secured the first national corporate sponsors -- American Airlines and Coors beer -- for a three-day weekend package that bombed. And last year Gay Day attracted Orlando's first "circuit" party -- so named because, like those in Pensacola, its primary draw is from outside the area, attracting those for whom the event itself becomes a destination on the party circuit. But that event, called the Orlando White Party after longstanding annual events of the same name in Miami and elsewhere, returned nothing to its beneficiaries. It was not rescheduled. Yet about two years ago, the spillover in the Magic Kingdom and the local bars began to turn heads, not least among promoters of gay events in other parts of the country. "That was kind of a wake-up call; everybody just kind of looked up and said 'the party crowd has arrived for this weekend,'" says Mark Baker, an Orlando resident. The numbers -- of people and dollars -- were rising. With this year's resurgent regional and national push, it is the independent party planners themselves who have raised both the stakes and the profile. On Friday, Orlando's twice-monthly gay newspaper Watermark is throwing an after-hours bash for 2,500 at Disney's Typhoon Lagoon water park; tickets are $25. That same night, Baker and Miami's South Beach club-of-the-moment, Salvation, will transform the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts for a dance party expecting more than 2,000 people, also at $25 a ticket. And one of the biggest promoters in gay circles, Los Angeles-based Jeffrey Sanker, has teamed with the New Orleans club Oz to throw an after-hours dance for 5,000 Saturday night on the Sunset Boulevard at Disney/MGM Studios. At $40, tickets for the event already have have sold out in New York, Atlanta and Miami. "We've kind of entered an era where there's finally other promoters taking advantage of the people who are going to be in town and giving them other things to do. That was part of the vision," says Doug Swallow, one of Gay Day's founders. Given each event's broader individual promotion and appeal to niche audiences, he says, "we're going to be attracting a much, much larger crowd than we would ever have hoped to get." Gay Day never aimed to be anything other than a good time. That lack of agenda still is true today. "Initially it was simply fun because it rubbed Disney the wrong way," Swallow says, "but at the same time they were making so much money off it, it was sort of fun to see how they'd react every year." Yet as the event grows, there is a legitimate question of who besides Disney benefits -- and who else among participants might. As a promotional partner this year with Universal City Travel --the one-year-old travel agency affiliated with Universal Studios -- Gay and Lesbian Community Services of Central Florida (GLCS) will bank a share of any ticket packages sold through GLCS promos. But those sales have been sluggish; even those in a celebratory mood are guided by whim and the weather when buying theme park tickets. In the end, the actual benefit to GLCS will be minor. That leaves the parties. And as fund-raisers for nonprofit agencies, primarily those that benefit HIV/AIDS care and education, circuit parties in most cases are well-established money-makers. The Dr. Phillips party promises a portion of proceeds to the South Beach AIDS Project. Sanker's "One Mighty Party" at Disney/MGM will benefit the People With AIDS Coalition of Miami -- and Sanker already has guaranteed a minimum $5,000 donation. It's debatable whether such pledges are genuine or an altruistic front. They can be both at once, and promoters -- who may promise bar proceeds to a nonprofit agency only because they need the agency's name to secure the liquor permit -- usually are honest about it. But as long as the parties are taking place, and non-profit agencies are going to benefit, where is the local cut? The answer reveals a mix of ignorance and heightened skittishness. "No one knew these events were happening. We knew about Disney, sure. But in terms of these parties, I'm not aware of any of them. No one has contacted us," says Susan Cohen, development director for AIDS Resource Alliance, one of three AIDS service organizations in Central Florida. Michael Fuchs, communications director at Hope and Help Center of Central Florida, says, "I suspect Hope and Help would consider `getting involved` if they were approached by a group of people that we felt were worthy of pulling something like this off, certainly. But we have not been approached." The agency did know, however, that the out-of-town promoters were coming in. At CENTAUR, another AIDS agency, fund-raising director Russell Scott says the agency knew well of the influx and considered tapping into it with its own event. "Had I been able to secure a headliner and do it in June, I might have done it," says the promoter, whose two previous "Laughter Positive" benefits in August brought Lily Tomlin and Paula Poundstone to town. Ultimately, though, CENTAUR backed off. "Personally, I have trouble even loaning our name," he says. "People do want to use our name, because it validates them. ... A lot of people have good intentions, and a lot of people, I don't know their intentions. You really have to get to know the people. When people come in from out of town, I think their first thrust is to make money." For example, last year's White Party -- staged in a local club on the Sunday after Gay Day -- named CENTAUR as a charity, "and to be honest with you, we didn't make a dime off it." Watermark editor and publisher Tom Dyer, an Orlando attorney, calls such promises into question. "It just looks so good to say on the ad that 'a portion of proceeds goes to charity.' It could be a hundred dollars," he says. When the connection is made, the people doing it "are just trying to ride the coattails of charity so that they can seem less capitalistic. People are either generous or they're not. And regardless of how the event presents itself, if it's sponsored by generous people, the money will find its way to the appropriate causes." As for those from elsewhere who finally are beginning to move in and capitalize on Gay Day's expanding audience, "I say more power to 'em. I don't have any problem with it. It's like anything else: whoever can do it and do it best." Still, he says, "I find it somewhat distasteful that every time anyone wants to have an event targeted to the gay and lesbian community, they feel that they have to do it under the umbrella of an AIDS benefit. What's wrong with a bunch of gays and lesbians getting together to celebrate their commonality? Which is not to diminish the importance of AIDS fund-raising." Baker, a producer of the Dr. Phillips event, concedes, "As an organization, your reputation means a lot, and that's part of why we go to these organizations -- because people `who buy tickets` know that their money is going to be spent in a manner that they want it to be spent. We're taking advantage of that." And although Baker wanted to work with non-profits in Orlando, he says he found no takers. His co-promoter already had worked with the South Beach AIDS project, he says, so that became the main charity; when Baker went looking for others who might benefit, he finally turned toward AID Atlanta. "A single phone call and they were like 'great, we'll be down there.'" Volunteers from the latter will sell fluorescent glow sticks to the dancers, a promotion that netted $2,000 at a previous party. But Baker remained determined to drop some money locally. He found his excuse in a successful search for parking; a nearby garage will collect $2 per vehicle the night of his party, with all the money going to the Orlando Opera Company and Southern Ballet Theatre, two tenants of the Dr. Phillips Center. "I certainly know that when you have multi-million-dollar budgets, that is not going to alleviate any financial crisis," he says. "But $1,500 bucks is $1,500 bucks. ... Hopefully next year I'll be able to do more." Sanker, too, says he looked for a local charity. "I don't like to take money out of a community," he says. The problem was the planning required for parties of his scale; 18 months ago, when he began scouting for a Gay Day event site, CENTAUR already was committed to the White Party, and was reluctant to end that partnership, now evaporated. Sanker promises to start knocking on doors again for next year, when he hopes to take over even more of the Disney park for his late-night event. "I hope to not just take what's there," he says of the Gay Day crowd, "but I want to feed into it." Indeed, in promotional circles, Sanker's is a name to know. Formerly the in-house promoter of gay nights at New York clubs such as Studio 54 and The Palladium, he started the Palm Springs White Party eight years ago; this spring, a round of five related parties drew 20,000 and gave $25,000 to charity, which also benefited from merchandising and bar revenues. This November, he'll fill part of the Miami Beach Convention Center for the third annual Snow Ball, which drew 5,000 last year. In addition to his "Beach Maneuvers IV" party in Pensacola over Memorial Day weekend, his website listed a party that weekend in Chicago and others this month in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The largest will run up to $200,000 to stage. "That's why there's a lot of them," he says. "There isn't as much of a profit as everyone thinks there is. If you make 20 percent on an event, that's really a great turnout." His hopes for his Disney debut? "Testing the waters, I think, is what everybody's doing here," he says. "The Gay Day crowd is not the circuit party-boy crowd. It's a real be-with-your-family, be-with-your-friends kind of crowd." Still, at day's end, having to wait for hours to get into a Pleasure Island dance hall as happened last year, he states, is "unsatisfactory." And ideally, what he'd personally like to see is Gay Day shifted completely to a private after-hours event benefiting a local agency. "Right now, Disney gets everything. And it's not exclusively gay and lesbian," he says. Proceeds aside, counters Swallow, a nighttime event is "certainly something that doesn't appeal to everyone," though he once pursued it himself before cost -- Disney requires a 50 percent deposit based on estimated attendance -- shut him down. "If it were a private event it would be very different. I think it helps a great deal if families and straight people out in the park get to see that gay people are not these weird, stereotypical monsters that they're painted to be by these right-wing groups. That's an extraordinary benefit to this event." Indeed, says Watermark's Dyer, the Gay Day audience remains "as democratic as Disney itself. ... There's nothing really newsworthy about the event as it stands, other than just the numbers." He notes that the event unfolds just days after Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles signed into law a measure banning gay marriages in the state, and "you won't hear word one about it. There will be no protests, no fund-raising, no anything. It's not a political event. It's political only to the extent that it exists. The truth is, we have made no effort to capitalize on this at all. It's a reflection of Central Florida. ... To this day, nobody's in charge. It's kind of neat." If it is also for some a missed opportunity, for now at least, no one's complaining.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.