Travel

The Importance of Being Inverted: Gay Days at Amusement Parks, Part 2

by Tony Phillips
Contributor
Thursday May 23, 2013

This article is from the May 2013 issue of the EDGE Digital Magazine.
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In his first installment, Tony Phillips explored Gay Days at Disney World and Disneyland and also brought EDGE readers up to date with the latest happenings at Universal Orlando.
Click Here to read Part 1.

Things take a turn for the slightly bizarre as Tony heads to Orlando’s Holy Land Experience: The Scriptorium, and sizes up other LGBT offerings throughout the country.


Who Doesn’t Love a Bargain?

Its gold and red classical architecture reads less Byzantine library and more high-end Southern California spa retreat. Only the topiary on the shore of the reflecting pond spelling out "HE IS RISEN" tips a hand that we’re not queued up for a sea salt scrub, but rather the big-ticket attraction at Orlando’s Holy Land Experience: The Scriptorium.

We stand at the main archway, watching the "next journey countdown" clock wind down, anticipating this walkthrough, 55-minute tour of the history of the Bible. Soon we’re escorted into the first room, a salmon and turquoise affair with a domed, faux open-air ceiling.

We sit on cool, curved benches that line the periphery as the lights dim and a voice-over narration begins. With the words "Let there be light," the recessed ceiling blazes to life. It’s soon washed over in electric lavender reminiscent of The Saint, the New York City’s ’80s disco that featured a planetarium-topped dance floor.

"Do we spend the entire 55 minutes in this room?" my panicked, Holy Land partner asks. The pot cookie we split in the parking lot has her very close to hallucinating, but The Scriptorium is all in the timing with strategically-opening doors leading to the next room until one feels like a Scooby-Doo gang exploring a haunted manse with Bibles tucked under their arms.


A Religious Experience

After the first couple of rooms (Mesopotamia and a blue and orange ancient Egypt) we skip ahead to the next tour. We spend most of our time in each experience scouring the walls to see where the next portal will appear, but we slow down once we arrived in Syria. The group in Syria seems cool and we’re not exactly capable of running at that point.

As we make our way into the Gutenberg room, a voiceover warns that Europe has "descended into madness" and shadow puppets reinforce this idea as the silhouette of a monk illustrating a manuscript is projected onto a wall.

We move ahead to John "morning star of the Reformation" Wycliffe, who sports a Rembrandt beard and raspberry beret and sits at a writing desk. He begins speaking with animatronics on par with Disney. Old Wycliffe would not be out of place as an exhibit on line for Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, whose line was twice as long as this attraction.

At the close of our half-day at the 15-acre theme park featured in Blill Maher’s documentary "Religulous," we’ve taken in not only The Scriptorium, but "Celebrate Jesus" karaoke in which visitors put their Whitney finger in the air to punctuate "praise songs."

We have also managed to duck into the cool, white Qumran Caves for a tête-à-tête with Jesus sporting a Madonna-style "put me on their fucking frequency" headset and witnessed pageantry ranging from chiffon festooned angels giving it their theme park best on the marble steps of the majestic white and gold, six-story temple to the grisly execution of Jesus that pops off daily with German precision at 6 p.m. -- expertly timed to coincide with dancing waters on the reflecting pond.

And we managed to do it all at the bargain basement price of $25 with the park’s half-day discount that begins daily at 2:40 p.m., no doubt a reference to biblical chapter and verse, along with free parking, unheard of at Orlando area theme parks.


Other Amusing Bargains

Granted, The Holy Land Experience will not be launching their own Gay Days anytime soon, but we saw lots of gay men and women in the park’s employ yucking it up in biblical drag and this $25 ticket is not the only deal to be had during June’s Gay Days.

Other Orlando bargains like Wet ’n Wild’s $27.50 half-day ticket to its water park beginning at 3 p.m. or LEGOLAND’s $64 web special for admission into its nearby Winter Haven flagship abound.

Not to be missed, LEGOLAND is practically a pop culture literacy steal as it preserves the old Cypress Gardens dating back to the 1930s (which most gays will recognize as the setting of The Go-Go’s 1982 music video "Vacation," in tact.)


Exclusively Gay or Mix In? The Debate Continues

The big-ticket Gay Days necessitates some price shopping since as a vacation, it’s not cheap. A six-day park hopper ticket is currently more than $350, and that’s before you calculate the cost of daily pool parties: Chi Chi La Rue’s Saturday night extravaganza is $30 at the door and the cheapest room that’s left at the Doubletree host hotel is $145 per night, provided you don’t mind sleeping in the "Bear’s Wing."

That’s not to say every Gay Days attendee can or will want to do everything on the official schedule. "When you’re talking about that many people and a resort that that’s big, there’s enough to support everybody’s agenda," says Eddie Shapiro, organizer of Gay Days Anaheim.

"You see tons of people in the parks and you can tell just by looking at them, they have no intention of going to any of the parties. And then you go to the parties and see people who haven’t set foot in any of the parks," says Shapiro. "They spend their time at the pool parties all day. Then you see hybrids who do a little bit of both."

Shapiro is adamant that his events and events like Gay Days Orlando always were and will remain what he calls "mix-ins." Before he launched Gay Days Anaheim, a company called Odyssey Adventures used to rent the Anaheim location after dark for a private party they called Gay Nights.

"I went with a friend and we hated it," Shapiro remembers, "because while it was fun to be there with all of the gays, not all the rides were opened, the restaurants were closed, the stores were closed, there was no parade, no fireworks, no characters. It was a half-assed Disney experience, like, yeah, after our normal guests go home, we’ll let you people in. When we founded Gay Days, we wanted it to be very much a mix-in with other people and we wanted it to be the full Disney experience."


The Debate Continues

Not everyone agrees. Mark Nelson, a self-described "entertainment architect," has been running, a private, queer-only night called Fairgrounds at New Jersey’s Great Adventure that’s coming up on its tenth anniversary this September 7. "I’ve had some nasty emails about discrimination," Nelson says, rolling his eyes, "but I’m not discriminating. We’re trying to go for bigger numbers."

"If people want to bring their kids," Nelson continues, "we have the kiddie rides open. How often can you go and celebrate? You really can’t go to the Pier Dance with your kids. It’s like a door policy. I want people to feel comfortable. If they want to flame out, I don’t want them to get a dirty look from some homophobe that’s just not comfortable with it because it’s the middle of New Jersey. It’s a wedding, okay? And not everyone is invited."

This is probably the only point upon which Shapiro and Nelson agree. "I love watching marriage proposals," Shapiro enthuses. "It used to happen every couple of years, but now it’s happening every year. People let us know that there’s going to be a marriage proposal in front of the castle and those are always amazing to see." But does Shapiro ever envision a time when the betrothed can make good on that proposal and actually get married in the park?

"Sure," Shapiro answers, "you can do that now! That happened in 2007, Disney has something called Fairy Tale Weddings where they do marriages in and around the resort and in 2007 they opened it up to same sex couples." Two lesbians recently became the first same-sex couple to tie the knot last March in the park’s Tokyo outpost even though gay marriage hasn’t gained a legal foothold in Japan. "So yeah," Shapiro concludes, "you could do it, now. You’d just have to sell them your kidney, but you could do it."


Tony Phillips covers the arts for The Village Voice, Frontiers and The Advocate. He’s also the proud parent of a new website: spookyelectricproductions.com.

This article is part of our "Summer 2013" series. Want to read more? Here's the full list»

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