Operation Retreat

About 8:30 a.m. on the Saturday of the promised protest at Disney World, the three blonde elementary schoolers stand with their sneakers hanging off the curb, just inches from the stream of minivans and rental cars speeding past. Their parents -- the anti-abortion, anti-gay Operation Rescue activists who've been screaming all week about saving the children -- are out of sight, strung along a quarter-mile strip of highway where they are strategically placed to make the most of their meager numbers.

The Texas-based activist group, which today is denigrating Walt Disney World for its embrace of gays and lesbians, both in the park and in the workplace, has claimed U.S. 192 in Kissimmee for the morning of its last local stand. As the young warriors' parents scream about God's love to passing cars, a bicycle cop hovers protectively close by. Beau Denton, 11, Jonathan McGlade, 11, and Kathleen Denton, 9, fidget like eager scouts, except that instead of cookies they hope to pass out religious tracts containing detailed discussions of sodomy. Jonathan's two older brothers were arrested earlier in the week for laying in the street to block access to an abortion clinic. The three children, primed by the example they see all around them, are ready to do their part of God's work, oblivious to the racing traffic.

A gray-haired woman with a floppy hat screams as a carload of tourists, their mouths open in wonder, rolls by.

"There are going to be a 100,000 perverts at Walt Disney World today," the anti-granny shrillingly imparts. "Protect your children!"

Despite the grim, roadside prophecies of protesters, the mood of the day is evident in the "Happy" section of the Magic Kingdom's parking lot as a jovial hoard of gays, lesbians, their families and friends fill trams and head for Minnie and Mickey's place.

Two young men in matching red-striped shirts blow kisses in unison to a friend they have spotted.

"Tweety!" calls another, and waves to a short, blond-tufted, beak-nosed twentysomething.

"Watch your step, Mom!"

"Sit here, Dad!"

"Sit here, Dad!"

The heterosexual passengers do not act paranoid, and they do not gawk. In fact, they are at their politically correct best, as they slide over to make room for gay passengers and smile at some of the visual comedy inherent in T-shirt slogans: "Absolut lesbian." "Christ is coming. Look busy." "I'm not gay, but my dad is."

Indeed, the most notable characteristic of this diverse crowd and its attitude is one that will define the day: peaceful coexistence.

On Friday, Operation Rescue organizers had promised 200 to 300 people taking to the streets as the anti-abortion group widened its protest to include Disney. But even after a week in the public eye, there is no noticeable swelling of the ranks.

Nor is there much evidence of local participation. Saturday's protesters seem to be the roughly 75 or so who've spent their summer vacation marching, praying and harassing the public at local bookstores and abortion clinics. Some have traveled to Orlando from as far as New York or New Orleans. Many made it a family outing. As much as half of the crowd -- as it has been all week -- comprises children under 18, most of whom have little idea exactly how Mickey Mouse was elevated to the status of Satan.

Abortion-rights activists say taking on Disney is just an attempt by anti-abortionists to try to bolster dwindling ranks.

But the idea hasn't caught on. Even some of the most faithful among the zealous anti-abortion protesters lack the same passion for protesting against homosexuals and Disney World. Roy McMillan, of Jackson, Miss., has been arrested more times than he can recall in his 12 years of full-time activism for Operation Rescue. Today, he's leaning against a protest sign that says, "Just Say No to Disney" but reading a book about Zion.

McMillan, whose physician wife once performed abortions, says a close call brought him to the cause. Most Operation Rescue members, he says, have either had abortions or, like him, were told that they were nearly aborted. That is why they've chosen to make ending abortion their life's work.

But targeting gays and lesbians? McMillan thinks Operation Rescue should focus elsewhere. "I am not too enthused about it," he says.

About 10 a.m., a group of gay men in line to ride Splash Mountain gaze up to see a small plane hauling a banner above the Magic Kingdom. "Jesus can free you from your lifestyle," it says.

Observes one: "Isn't that nice that the gays sent that plane up for the Baptists?"

Operation Rescue leader Flip Benham, freshly released from jail, is preparing for his latest dance on the national stage -- an 11 a.m. news conference at the highway entrance to Disney World before assembled local press, plus a crew from CNN. Protesters are being bused over, but the crowd is divided evenly among police, protesters and news crews.

With the late-morning mercury beginning to rise, Benham readies a warm-up sermon for his own camera crew. He searches and finally finds just the right protest sign to include in the shot: "Choose Jesus over Mickey."

With his stage properly set, Benham launches into his private pitch for the Operation Rescue videographer. Bible in hand, he revisits some of his quips of the previous week, reiterating his sound bite that "Orlando is a microcosm of all that is pathetic" in America.

A studied professional, Benham gets it one take. His producer fills him in on other footage they've collected that day: "We got a few cars with people yelling at us. It looked good; they looked angry. There were obscene gestures," she says, smiling.

About 50 feet away, a young boy takes out his Bible and mimics Ben-ham while his giggling friends film it with a home video camera.

Anti-gay protesters, such as Cynthia Hartzog, 17, say that behind the angry words, taunts of moral decay and talk of the perversion of the homosexual lifestyle, there is only love. Hartzog, who saved money from her job as a day-care worker to travel to Orlando from New Orleans, says she just wants homosexuals to see the error of their ways so they don't burn in an eternal fire.

"I don't want to see them go to hell," she says. "I don't want to see anybody go to hell."

But Rusty Thomas, one of Operation Rescue's leaders, has a different message. Like a comic before the taping of a television show, Thomas warms up the news-conference crowd. His mostly nonsensical tirade begins with the pilgrims, touches on relativity and zooms straight to the end of the world, a demise somehow fostered by The Disney Co. extending health benefits to same-sex couples.

It will be Sodom and Gomorrah all over again, says Thomas, who had said in an earlier street-side sermon that it's just a matter of time before preachers are pulled from the pulpit and arrested for proclaiming the Word of the Lord.

All week -- actually, since their weak attempt at a Disney protest last December -- Operation Rescue has promised big things. They've sworn that their army of the Lord will march through the very "gates of hell" into the Magic Kingdom, where park hours are posted on pink triangles integrated into the design of the parking-lot toll booth. Benham and others have pledged that legions of the faithful will confront the Gay Day crowd and turn their lives around with the Word of God.

Although three anonymous "warriors of God" were said to have entered the park in the morning, the public protest begins at high noon. It amounts to a middle-aged man, two teen-aged girls and a woman -- all dressed in red, white and blue T-shirts. "Jesus is the standard," the shirt says on the front, and on the back: "Pro Life. Without compromise. Without Exception. Without apology."

The woman, Sarajo Mendez, seems to share McMillan's half-hearted support for the Disney protest. "I would rather be somewhere else, doing something else," she had said earlier as she passed out a fistful of anti-Disney tracts.

Disney has vowed to keep the media out, but no one stops the four photographers snapping pictures as the quartet buys their tickets and heads for the monorail that will carry them to the park entrance. Aboard the monorail, with Cinderella's Castle coming into view, Jamie Ammerman, 17, tells a family with two young girls that they should beware. There are 100,000 homosexuals in the park, adds Bill Shanks of New Orleans. Not a minute later, Ammerman tells a couple from Mexico there are 140,000 homosexuals clogging the streets. By the time the ride stops, the number has risen to 200,000.

Entering the Magic Kingdom, the four protesters are outnumbered by twice as many reporters and photographers. Closely following are a handful of Disney security people -- men and women who stand out in their stylish, casual office wear and starched, mostly long-sleeved white shirts.

Shanks phones headquarters on a cell phone to report the group is behind enemy lines. Mendez films the slow procession through the sea of red T-shirts. Ammerman breaks out her Bible to read a passage about how no one is ever outnumbered with God on their side. The other teen, Valyrie Parks, 15, seems to grow smaller with every step.

Ammerman says the Lord will tell her when to give her testimony. She picks not the lesbians holding hands, or one of the handful of fresh-scrubbed young men wearing Minnie Mouse ears. No, the Lord tells her to first approach an overweight, middle-aged woman with a rainbow flag flying from her electric scooter, the most helpless, harmless person in sight.

The woman, who is searching for shade, simply turns her wheels, revs her engine slightly and motors along.

The Magic Kingdom is awash in rainbows and red: shirts, shorts, shoes, socks, skirts and scarves. Along Main Street U.S.A., a slow awareness moves across the face of a macho man who innocently wore a red muscle shirt for a hot day in the park. His glances into the crowd are furtive, disbelieving, as he pulls his wife close and struggles to assume a suitably unruffled expression. She giggles and pinches his nipple.

The crowd waiting for lunch service to begin at Tony's Town Square Restaurant lounges on the Old South-style porch, cooled by ceiling fans that stir hanging baskets. "I'm telling you, those are impatiens," says one half of a male couple sporting identical baseball pants and red-lettered shirts with the message: "I love South Beach."

"Flocks," says his partner.

"No, impatiens."

"No, impatiens."

"Flocks, damn it."

"Flocks, damn it."

A nearby lavender-haired grandmother listens intently, then walks to the men and softly taps her cane for their attention. She leans close. "Your boyfriend's right," she says, pointing her cane to the one. "They're impatiens."

Finally, the hostess calls, "Tony has a nice table for the Birdsong family," and a lesbian couple follow her to their table.

"Nice name," the grandmother tells them in passing.

In the dining room, two gay couples, heads bowed over gold crucifix necklaces glimmering on their chests, murmur a blessing. At an adjacent table -- but at once longitudes away -- another quartet does the same. "I am under the influence of God's anointment -- Gospel Temple Freewill Baptist," their white shirts proclaim.

The two women wear Murrayville Homeschoolers sun hats and wash their hands in a Fantasyland restroom. They are abuzz. Their unspoken tsk-tsk hangs in the air. That adorable child... . They'd seen her in her father's arms queued for "It's a Small World."

She is adorable -- less than two, with enormous blue eyes, her black hair festooned with an enormous red bow. Her little red shirt bears the legend, "My Daddies," with an arrow over her heart pointing to the people beside her.

A question put to the women goes unanswered: If you became pregnant and there were a test that could -- and did -- determine that your child was going to be homosexual, would you have an abortion? They leave hurriedly, with a withering look and a headshake.

Over at the "Partners" statue of Walt Disney and Mickey, some sprite has stuck a rainbow flag in Walt's hand. Until park security comes along and, with good nature and apologies, removes the flag, this is a popular photo site.

Bemused by the statue, a couple of men from Georgia watch and talk. "Did you read the ‘Gays and God' series in the Atlanta Journal Constitution? It was about coping with gayness and religion."

Asked how their day is going, one answers, "It's been marvelous. We feel safer since we became aware of all the plainclothes security."

By 1 p.m. the tone for the long-awaited assault on the Tragic Kingdom is set. It is a great nonevent. The procession of protesters, followed by press, followed by security, really proves only one thing: Disney World isn't much fun if you can't ride the rides or go into any of the shops. The four hapless warriors of God trudged solemnly into the lion's den without evoking so much as a roar.

Ginger Ale is stunning, both for her full-length dark purple evening gown and for the place she is spotted wearing it: in Fantasyland, under the polite escort of two Disney security people who presumably are not accustomed to encountering men with such full makeup, high hair and heels on a hot day in the theme park.

The standards may not be posted, but Disney has them and on this day Ginger has prompted their selective enforcement. She is accompanied to Main Street U.S.A., where she is ushered into the Disney Clothes store. There, one of the security officers indicates to the cashier at the register that they are there to pick out some apparel -- presumably at Disney's expense.

Ginger Ale is last seen thumbing through a rack of polo shirts.

The day's highlight happens at 3 p.m. -- a "Remember-the-Magic" parade. The waiting throng is stoked, playful. Back and forth across the street in front of the castle come chants and echoes: "We got pride, yes we do. We got pride, how 'bout you?"

Suddenly, hundreds crane their necks to check out the sky, as a banner-dragging plane circles: "It's hot; it's erotic, it's Firestone tonight!" reads the message.

"Thank God, it's not the Baptists again," mutters a 60-something man to his mate.

The red-and-white suited marching band eventually comes down the street with a lively rendition of "We Are Family," and the shoulder-to-shoulder assemblage breaks out in jubilation. There is impromptu dancing, applause, laughter, a red wave. And as the parade rolls into view, the phallic aspects of the elephant-head hats worn by "Lion King" dancers is not lost on the crowd -- homo or hetero. In fact, suddenly everything seems phallic, from the enormous, round, pink cupcakes topped by a cherry, to pairs of huge candlesticks.

It is Mickey, though -- in his red robe -- that brings down the house. Beyond animated, beyond energetic, today the mouse is downright manic -- seemingly liberated, somehow.

Gay Day is notable in its ordinariness. Inside the park, only a smattering of people protest, giving silent witness via words on T-shirts. There are no confrontations. No rudeness from any quarter. Children do not appear reined in or warned. In lines waiting for rides, gay men seem to sense a need -- accurate or not -- to respect the personal space of nongays. Cruella shows up, and one drag queen, but by far the rule is conservative wardrobe and behavior that would be acceptable for any public venue, no matter how critical the observer.

At the late-night tram stop, a veritable litter of children all dressed in rainbow shirts sing and clap and do a little stomp to "We are Family." An African-American mother hip-sways a sleeping baby and smiles when a gay man touches its cheek. A dozen lesbians huddle in discussion. Two dozen black teen-agers from Heritage Community Choir hum "Amazing Grace" among themselves. The shirt on a middle-aged woman standing quietly with her husband seems to define the nongay attitude of the day: "Straight But Not Narrow."

Officers had been placed on alert, vacations canceled, days of training carried out but Jeff Goltz, spokesman for the Orlando Police Department, says that, like the Disney protest, Operation Rescue's visit to Orlando didn't live up to its considerable hype. Although eight people during the week were arrested, including two children, Goltz says there were far fewer protesters than expected. Even compared to abortion protests in Orlando in the late 1980s, he says, "this was nothing."

"We prepared for everything and nothing materialized."

About 1 a.m., Lauren Foster climbs into the DJ booth overlooking Hollywood Boulevard and the dance below that sold out 4,100 $45 tickets for One Mighty Party II, L.A.-based impresario Jeffrey Sanker's Gay Day bash at the rented-out Disney-MGM Studios. "It's a great feeling of camaraderie, a great feeling of being gay," says Foster, Sanker's troubleshooter, who saw "not one sign, not one protester" all day. But even if she did, it wouldn't deter them from coming back. "We love Orlando, honey," she says. "Just put that in there."

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