Orlando's Gay Days draws LGBTQ crowds to Disney World amid DeSantis anti-LGBTQ push

Gay Days at Walt Disney World in 2023
(Image credit: Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Gay Days, an annual celebration at Walt Disney World in the first weekend of June, went on as planned this year despite — or in defiance of — a raft of anti-LGBTQ legislation signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Organizers urged LGBTQ visitors to come out in force, and despite a slow start to bookings and the cancelation of a few events, they did.

"Rainbow-hued merchandise designed by Disney — including a plush Mickey Mouse waving a Pride flag — flew off the shelves almost as quickly as it could be restocked," The Washington Post reported Sunday. "Drag queen bingo was held. In the end, all 1,001 rooms at the host hotel were booked." Gay Days, which began as a one-day event at Disney World in 1991, has faced opposition from conservative groups before and persevered. "The birth of Gay Days was really about being visible at a time when it was dangerous to be visible," especially in the 1990s, Equality Florida's Brandon Wolf told the Post. "The same is true now."

Turnout was affected by recent travel warnings from Equality Florida and the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ+ rights group in the U.S., among other rights groups, said Gay Days CEO Joseph Clark. "For some it's the safety aspect, for others, they don't want to spend money in a state that doesn't support them," he told the Post. "My message has been, 'We need your help here in Florida.'"

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DeSantis has used his power to retaliate against Disney for its opposition to his "Don't Say Gay" education bill, which the Legislature expanded this year to ban all discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in K-12 schools; their fight is now in court. DeSantis has also recently signed legislation prohibiting the use of preferred pronouns for students and teachers, targeting drag shows, and making it a felony to provide gender-affirming health care to transgender minors — and barring such care for many adults too.

Disney has never officially sponsored Gay Days, but over the years Disney World and other nearby theme parks "have thrown down the welcome mats as Gay Days has become a profitable bounce between the spring break and out-of-school summer crowds," The Associated Press reported. It is now one of America's largest Pride Month events. And Disney is hosting a major LGBTQ+ event, the annual Out & Equal Workplace Summit, in September.

"It says something that Disney has been unwilling to kowtow to DeSantis and his brand of authoritarianism," Wolf told the Post. "I think that Disney's refusal to be bullied into submission is a good reminder to others that in this moment, there is no negotiating with people like Ron DeSantis."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.