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Photos by James Dechert

Exploring the bump and grind across Orlando's coolest clubs 

Out of control

Orlando's club-scene history has been rattled more than shooters in a cocktail shaker. At one point, it rivaled major theme parks for its enviable draw and attracted national attention for the regular, thriving rave scene happening at places like Club Firestone and the Edge – that was before the city passed an anti-rave law in the 1990s and pulled the plug on the all-night strobe lights (see page 20 for our Orlando nightlife timeline). Despite some bumps in the road and a decline in tourist attendance, though, local hot spots still welcome an adventurous nightlife crowd at clubs strewn throughout the city. For the first time in decades, Orlando even has an after-hours club again, with the recent opening of Club Nokturnal (see page 15). You could say that things are looking up for those who like to get turnt up.

To end the year, we didn't want to look back with any sort of heady commentary on what went wrong or right in regard to the city's club scene (there was certainly plenty to talk about all year long). We just wanted to get a better feel for what it had to offer, so we hit some of Orlando's favorite clubs to see what kind of liveliness we could find in the dead of night. Consider this our way of finding your hand on the dance floor and leading you to VIP as we explore the scenes at some of Orlando's most vibrant and vibin' joints.

Fashionably late

Gilt Nightclub
740 Bennett Road, 407-504-7699,
Cover: $10
Dress code: (for guys only) No shorts, tanks, sandals/flip-flops or hats
Music: Depends on the night. Wednesday-Friday: Latin, Thursday-Sunday: techno, hip-hop, rave, dubstep
What it's like inside: A step up from its predecessor Roxy, Gilt is an opulent and spacious warehouse of a club, with two rooms and two levels. As the doors open around 10 p.m. at this seemingly misplaced temple of sin (hidden behind an unkempt and overgrown landscape, just a stone's throw from Baldwin Park), a young, college-age crowd dressed from slobbish to starlet starts lining up outside. The line moves quickly, though, as security screening is seemingly nonexistent. Once inside, your senses are assaulted by the sparkling shimmer of gaudy decor, wafting clouds of pungent hookah smoke and an eardrum-throbbing wobble from a DJ perched on a pedestal. If you get there before 11 p.m., don't expect to see anyone on the dance floor. Do expect a crowded VIP section where most of the early action takes place. Toward midnight, the upstairs area opens and the place fills up. Scantily dressed bartenders roam the dance floor offering $6 shots out of test tubes while hookahs set up at tables positioned around the dance floor can be rented by the hour or the night. Bring a date. Come late. – Justin Braun

Say cheese

Mac & Cheese at Independent Bar
70 N. Orange Ave., 407-839-0457, barorlando
Cover: free
Dress code: Casual, but nothing enforced. It's shoulder-to-shoulder in there, so dress comfortably.
Music: Pop, pop-punk, pop-rock, R&B – pretty much everything, as long as it makes you roll your eyes
What it's like: Listen, we know what you're thinking: "Where can I go on a Wednesday night to listen to the Backstreet Boys and hear 'Barbie Girl' at full blast?" Well weep no more, weary travelers, because Independent Bar's Mac & Cheese night holds a little bit of cringe-y goodness for everybody. If you've been to any other night at I-Bar, you know what to expect from the ambience: all the cleanliness of an airport restroom, and 10 times the charm. The only difference is, the night is coated in corny music and nostalgia from every generation. It's easily the best evening the establishment has to offer, if only in celebration of the massive amounts of shame you have to leave at the door before drunkenly boogying down to NSync. The drinks are cheap, the house is always packed, and there is nowhere else in Orlando offering this level of zany escapism on a weekly basis. Time to get your cheese on. – Adam McCabe

Looking for trouble

ONO Nightclub
1 S. Orange Ave., 407-701-9875,
Cover: $10
Dress code: No shorts, tanks or flip-flops
Music: Top 40, Latin, hip-hop
What it's like inside: This club has the most New York City feel out of the clubs we've visited downtown. A big, burly security guard on duty the night we visited described his job as making sure the troublemakers stay outside. He shared that he was an expert at spotting troublemakers because, as of last week, he was living on the streets with them. He went on to say that most of the security on staff is made up of formerly homeless individuals, which makes them skilled at dealing with trouble ... if that makes you feel any safer. Inside the club, men are met with a second pat-down and then ushered into the gleaming stark white walls, bars and ceiling of the one big room. The upstairs VIP section opens after midnight and features booths with privacy curtains and personal TVs. The main dance floor is surprisingly small, surrounded by tables and booths cordoned off for high rollers. The drinks are strong but expensive, and the bartenders/dancers are sexy. I felt pretty safe the whole time, but, then again, I didn't stay long enough to get into a fight. – Justin Braun

Think swank

20 E. Central Blvd., 407-222-9732,
Cover: $10
Dress code: No shorts, tanks or flip-flops, and it's $5 extra if you're wearing a hat.
Music: Friday-Saturday: Top 40, Wednesday and Sunday: hip-hop, Thursday: Latin, house
What it's like inside: Four bars line the walls of this two-level, upscale club. Psychedelic lights and sculptures delight the eyes and red metal cages for dancing girls (both staff and patrons) conflict one's conscience. Female waitresses and bartenders double as dancers wearing thongs, blurring the lines between service and performance. At one of the few clubs where you can still smoke inside, your nostrils will be greeted by the rich fragrance of Black and Milds upon entrance. The entire upstairs is VIP, which is basically a wrap-around indoor balcony with private booths and tables. Downstairs, guests only have the option of hanging at the bar, being on the dance floor or finding a spot against the wall to take it all in. No seating for general admission. Again, don't bother showing up early, as most of the action takes place after midnight. – Justin Braun

click to enlarge Escape at Southern Nights - PHOTO BY RYAN MAYES
  • Photo by Ryan Mayes
  • Escape at Southern Nights

Strange love

Escape at Southern Nights
375 S. Bumby Ave., 407-412-5039,
Cover: $5 with costume or fetish wear, $10 without
Dress code: Anything and everything
Music: Usually industrial, and any of its many (many) subgenres.
What it's like: Escape fetish parties are Orlando's "Island of Misfit Toys." It's the anti-club night for the weirdos of our city, and those looking to ... wait for it ... "escape" into the realm of the strange. But at its heart, it's a playful mishmash of almost every goth scene crammed into one fucked-up Crock-Pot. Creator Mike Stone is the ringleader of the operation, and you can usually see him walking around and greeting every new batch of scenesters that steps through the door with his big inviting smile – and why wouldn't he be grinning? Most fetish nights in this town die a quick death right out of the gate, but he's found the formula that works: One night a month is all you need to get the blood flowing, though I can't help but wish it were at least bi-weekly. For now, though, what we have here is the least douchey and most fascinating evening in Orlando, and everyone is invited to let their freak flag fly as Escape takes over Southern Nights. The evening itself is peppered with burlesque performances, whips, chains, crazy skits and everything in between. So step out of your comfort zone, take a few open-minded friends and get ready for a wild night. You won't leave the same. – Adam McCabe

Tropical options

Tropical Sundays at the Beacham and the Social
46 N. Orange Ave., 407-648-8363,
Cover: $15 for guys, $13 for ladies 21 and up, $5 for ages 18-20
Dress code: No baggy pants or jerseys
Music: Latin, salsa, merengue, bachata, reggaetón
What it's like inside: Transport yourself to Little Havana at this club night that takes over two downtown bars with pumping Latin beats. The doorman says to guys as they enter that this is a good night for picking up chicks, but I'm pretty sure they say that every night. What's advertised online as all-you-can-drink open premium bars are actually just open well drinks when it comes to liquor. For an extra $2.50, you can upgrade to premium. Without the upgrade, expect to be gripping the porcelain throne for most of the evening. Come early if you don't want to stand in line to get in, but you'll end up just standing around waiting for people to show up. In the Social, DJ Frankie plays salsa, merengue and bachata, while the Beacham blasts reggaetón all night. Guys can be seen in chinos and nice button-downs or jeans and polos, while the ladies show up wearing everything from dresses to shorts. If you're not into popular Latin music, you probably won't have much fun. But if you're an alcoholic, this is your place to spend Sunday night. – Justin Braun

Back that ass up

Shake 'n Bass at Backbooth
37 W. Pine St., 407-999-2570,
Cover: Free for ladies 18 and up, $4 for guys
Dress code: Come casual and ready to shake it off
Music: Tropical bass and vibes by resident DJ Big Makk
What it's like: When the weekend winds down, some folks like to put their feet up, but the only excuse for that at Backbooth on Sundays is if you're twerking while doing a handstand. Every Sunday, devoted dance hounds swarm to Backbooth for Big Makk's huge local hit, Shake 'n Bass, where the internationally acclaimed DJ experiments with new mixes and the party dependably erupts right from the start at 10 p.m. It's a brash and wild scene, and Big Makk's whims hold down the house while eager party people do their part to shake it up from all angles. Cuties abound, sweaty hands speckled with Xs are thrust in the air, and there's basically no purer way to party on a Sunday in this town. – Ashley Belanger

Sharper image

Vintage Lounge on the V Block
114 S. Orange Ave., 877-386-7346,
Cover: $10-$20, depending on the night
Dress code: Anything from jeans and a T-shirt to smart casual
Music: Urban, hip-hop
What it's like inside: Part of downtown's "V Block," Vintage Lounge is described by promoters as a place to dance and drink and have a good time, but the club was quiet during a recent visit. The decor is nice, with red-lit brick walls surrounded by lush upholstered leather booths. A good time to arrive would be late, between 12:30 and 1 a.m.. but, on a Saturday night, the crowd never materialized. Next door, connected through an archway by the bar, is Vyce, a brightly lit club also owned by V Group Concepts, where there seemed to be more happening. A diverse crowd of sharply dressed yuppies sipped expensive cocktails at a neon blue-lined bar. But only on Saturdays can you pay one cover and hop between these two watering holes, both of which offer hookah service for a fee. – Justin Braun

Party palace

Parliament House
410 N. Orange Blossom Trail, 407-425-7571,
Cover: $8
Dress code: "Be your sexy self, just make sure your goods are covered."
Music: Varies by room; Thursday night is Latin night
What it's like inside: This historic gay resort remains a top destination for those who are out and love to go out. There are rooms and bars for every persuasion. The Princess pumps hip-hop jams old and new. The Video Room pairs Top 40 tunes with music videos in a curated playlist by Joe, veteran bartender. The main room is the Disco, complete with a stage and large bar where EDM mixes with Top 40 all night and well into the morning. Outside, the pool becomes a venue during warm days and nights, also complete with stage and bar. Out back, the Bear Den is a testosterone-driven sports cave where harnesses and trucker hats are the predominant attire, and sports and porn play on wall-mounted TVs. A large stuffed bear sitting atop the classic jukebox is the bar's mascot – otters beware. Come on Saturday nights for the biggest crowds, who show up especially for the cabaret-style and themed drags shows. If you're lucky, you might run into one of the winners of RuPaul's Drag Race. – Justin Braun

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