The Walt Disney World Resort put Orlando on the map when it opened in 1971, and subsequent theme parks—SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Studios Orlando, and LEGOLAND Florida—have made Orlando a global leader in tourism. But the sun-drenched city is a lot more than a hub for theme parks. With an increasingly vibrant downtown and a large LGBT community, Orlando deserves to be experienced, theme parks or not.
This post is just one in a series of LGBT destination guides filled with LGBT-centric places to eat, sleep, and play. In this series, we spotlight destinations that show up on our personal radars in cities all over the world. We want to say a special thanks to Marriott International for sponsoring this post and, more important, for their long-standing commitment to embracing LGBT employees and travelers around the world.
One LGBT neighborhood
Despite being home to one of the nation’s largest LGBT communities, Orlando has no largely agreed upon gay neighborhood. We asked numerous locals to point us to the “gayborhood” and were told, in every case, that there simply is not one. That is not bad news for the LGBT community; it points to a very well-integrated population with numerous neighborhoods welcoming LGBT residents and visitors.
Two LGBT fun facts
Orlando boasts one of the nation’s highest population percentage of individuals who identify as LGBT. According to a study performed by UCLA in 2006, nearly 8 percent of Orlando’s population is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. When you zoom out a bit, the LGBT community accounts for 5.7 percent of the greater metro population.
Way back in 2000, Orlando elected its first openly gay city commissioner, Patty Sheehan. In a testament to the city’s progressiveness, she has transparently continued to fight for LGBT issues, but is re-elected time and time again for her stance on other issues such as advocating for a historic preservation and urban revitalization.
Gay Days at Walt Disney World
Three LGBT-friendly activities
One Magical Weekend/Gay Days at Walt Disney World. In 1991, nearly 3,000 gays and lesbians from central Florida descended on the Magic Kingdom wearing red shirts to make their presence visible. Fast forward (or should we say FastPass forward) to 2015 and that quietly bold event has become the largest annual non-pride LGBT gathering in the world, with 150,000 attendees.
The Center. The Center is Central Florida’s oldest LGBT community center, and has played a critical role in engaging, educating, and protecting community members. In addition to providing free HIV and Hepatitis C testing, the facility serves as support hub and “sanctuary for all LGBT people.” We recommend dropping in to learn about LGBT events and thank them for the amazing work they do.
Ritzy Rags. When we asked the owner of Ritzy Rags, a wig shop and Orlando institution in the emerging Mills 50 neighborhood, about serving the trans community, we were surprised that he seemed a little put off. “We serve everyone,” was his response, which we were thrilled to hear. From drag queens to cancer patients to people looking for a great event costume, the spirit of inclusion and non-discrimination is core to Ritzy Rags’ business.
Four LGBT-friendly hotels
Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld Orlando. If you are visiting SeaWorld or the Orange County Convention Center, there is no more conveniently located hotel than this one. But the outstanding service, dreamy beds, and long-standing commitment to creating a welcoming space for LGBT travelers make this hotel a great choice, regardless of how you are planning to spend your time in Orlando.
Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando. A member of Marriott’s Luxury Autograph Collection, this Downtown Orlando hotel’s rare works of art and rich dark-wood furnishings make it a perfect respite for design conscious travelers.
Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. For travelers looking for one of the most exclusive experiences available in the Walt Disney World Resort, look no further than the over-water bungalows at the Polynesian Village. Perfectly curated South-Pacific-meets-mid-century-modern décor and the ability to watch the nightly fireworks from your personal plunge pool make this a bucket-list item. For a more cost-effective way to experience Disney’s take on the South Pacific, check out the much more affordable villas and studios.
B Hotel. The stylish hotel offers something difficult to find within the Walt Disney World Resort area: an urban boutique hotel like experience. The design-forward property is a great choice for LGBT visitors traveling with or without the kids.
Five LGBT-friendly bars and restaurants
Hillstone Restaurant. It is hard to make a salad seem really special, but it is apparently not impossible, as proven by Hillstone’s Thai Steak & Noodle Salad. A combination of items—perfectly cooked slices of steak, ripe avocado, and fresh herbs—come together to create something that is much greater than the sum of its parts. Enjoy a cocktail in lakeside Adirondack chairs after dinner, but skip dessert. Instead, head over to Peterbrook Chocolatier just a few blocks away for shot “glasses” made out of chocolate chip cookie filled with vanilla or chocolate milk.
Parliament House. A nightclub, a theater, seven bars, and an attached motel make this a massive LGBT entertainment complex. Regardless of when you visit Orlando, there is almost certainly a theme night or drag show on the schedule here.
Tako Cheena. This Mexican-Asian fusion restaurant makes the list because it is tucked right between Ritzy Rags and The Center (both mentioned above) on a Mills 50 neighborhood block that many residents told us is, “the gay street.” Tako Cheena also makes the list because its tacos achieve a crave-worthy balance of flavors that make you wonder why all tacos and burritos don’t include ingredients such as lemongrass, coconut, and peanut sauce.
Bösendorfer Lounge. Even if you’re not staying at the above-mentioned Grand Bohemian, you’ve got to stop in to the on-site bar, the Bösendorfer Lounge, for a hand-crafted cocktail and live jazz played on a very rare Imperial Grand Bösendorfer Piano.
Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar. Hidden behind a door that looks like an employee entrance is a bar that takes the tiki experience to a whole new level. Several of the imaginative cocktails have full-on theater associated with them. For instance, ordering the fruity Uh Oa cocktail summons the tiki goddess of disaster and all of the associated mayhem. You’ve been warned.
What do you feel makes a city especially LGBT-friendly?