Coming full Circuit

Gay men don't always wear red at Gay Day. In fact, sometimes they wear very little at all. Such is the story of the gay "Circuit" party: the amped-out, muscled-up counterculture characterized by extensive all-night revelry and reconstructions thereof the next day at the gym.

While Gay Day at Disney, now stretched over four days all over Orlando (May 28-June 2), paints itself as being an inclusive affair of crimson-shirted fraternity, the numerous big-budget Circuit parties remain the true playground for the physically perfect and are fast becoming the bigger draw.

Enter Mark Baker, local entrepreneur of Circuit-party promotion. In the four years since his first, Baker's annual Colosseum party has become the nighttime highlight of the extended Gay Days, pumping high production values into plenty of high-octane beats-per-minute at the cavernous Hard Rock Live. This year, the party moves from its coveted Sunday time slot up to Friday, making room for another, even larger Baker event -- the Stars Party, which will take over the Marvel area of Universal's Islands of Adventure. With five other parties under his aegis scattered throughout the weekend (two at the Groove, three at Arabian Knights), Baker's drive is notable. Especially when you consider that he just started doing this five years ago.

Circuit parties were invented in the 1980s as something of a gay party-boy's answer to raves. Tired of the run-of-the-mill lighting and predictable disco-ball atmosphere at so many gay clubs, savvy promoters and disc jockeys began staging lavish one-night-only dance "events" in major cities. The buffed and the beautiful began to follow their favored party-makers along the circuit, traveling far and wide to be seen at all the best soirees. The concept was a natural complement to Gay Days.

"When I was 35, I went to a Circuit party, and I thought, 'I can do this,'" Baker says. Years in show production at Disney and Universal had taught him the value of thematic embellishment, and offered him proximity and professional access to the venues he would need. Baker has a technical sense of how to stage an event that naturally suits the metaphorical overstatement of the theme parks -- and the glitz of Miami, where Baker is just as notorious for his yearly "White Party."

"I think if you want to succeed, then you have to be the biggest and the best," he says. "I've watched other Circuit party weekends; some succeed and some fail. The things that work just stay there and get bigger. The success we have this year `at Gay Days` is definitely based on the success we had last year."

His past accomplishments prompted Baker to head outdoors this year for the "Stars" party, which will include rides remaining open after hours (8 p.m.-11 p.m.) for the amusement of the partying masses, followed by a backlot show of music, light and fireworks unrivaled in its size. Or cost. Big parties, Baker says, hold an upfront price tag of about $200,000 -- which explains the ticket cost of $85.

Through its 12 years, Gay Days has grown from a scant rebellion into a mega-money tourist attraction. The grass-roots continue to grow into tall trees this year with 40 major events (including other Circuit parties by various producers) and "suggested visit days" at all of the major local parks.

As always, word of mouth remains the largest factor in getting the word out, along with the "official" website, But each year, promotion has become a little easier. "People in the past that weren't interested in talking to `us` and wouldn't return phone calls, they're now going out of their way to call," Baker says. The reason? "We have a good relationship with the venues, now," he says. "And the market that we attract is mostly 30-year-old professionals."

The demographic reflects a shift in what homosexuality means in the marketplace, with many major corporations having realized the power of the gay dollar. These days, even good-old-boy liquor companies now feature frisky same-sex ads in gay publications. It could be, as New York magazine recently suggested, that "out" isn't really so "out" anymore.

Baker agrees. "Circuit isn't necessarily the secret that it used to be," he says. "It started when gay people were out of the mainstream. It was like you were taking over this hotel. It was a fun thing to do. I think it's gone from being purely a sexual thing to being more about friendship and getting what you want out of a party."

It may be more about friendship now, but Baker concedes that his all-night parties aren't for everyone who comes to Gay Days. "One of the things that has made Gay Days is that a lot of people come and never set foot inside a party," he says. "There's something for everyone, no matter what your interest is. Gay people are not homogeneous."