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The long history behind “Disneyland After Dark: Pride Nite”

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

 
Fig. 1: Magic Kingdom, Gay Day!

History has a way of, if not exactly repeating itself, then rhyming over time in ways both large and small.


When Disneyland announced that it would be holding its very first official “Disneyland After Dark: Pride Nite” to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community and their allies in 2023, Disney historians may have noted one such historical rhyme: the event comes exactly 45 years after the first, unofficial night of celebration of the gay community at Disneyland, and 25 years after the first Gay Days Anaheim.


Both the first unofficial gay celebration and the early iterations of Gay Days at Disneyland and Walt Disney World rhyme with this year’s Pride Nite in ways that illuminate the historical struggle of the gay community, their tireless advocacy through presence, and the importance of their having an official night of celebration at Disneyland.


Studies suggest that somewhere between 70 and 90% of Americans visit a Disney theme park in their lifetime. This makes it one of the few collective experiences shared by the country, an important marker of identity, and a way to engage in cultural and civic life in the United States. Being able to participate fully in any cultural ritual as oneself, in this case, while expressing ones sexual identity, is a marker of acceptance within that culture. For the LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized communities to have full, unabashed and unashamed participation in the ritual of a Disney theme park visit is symbolic of their gaining the ability to fully participate as accepted members in civic life in America as a whole.

Fig. 2: Disney Pride Image

The first official “gay night” at Disneyland holds much more meaning than just the potential for a good time. It’s a symbolic moment in the continued negotiation of who gets to be an American-but while it may be the first official “gay night” at Disneyland, it isn’t actually the first one to ever take place.


The first “pride night” at Disneyland came about surreptitiously. Scott Forbes, the owner of Studio One, a popular Los Angeles gay bar, with the help of Carol DiPietro, a Disneyland employee, booked the park for a private party on the evening of May 25, 1978. At this time, Disneyland was often rented to private groups in the evenings as a way of generating extra income, especially during slow seasons. Other nights that month were booked by groups such as Security Pacific Bank, General Dynamics Convair and the American College of Obstetrics (DiPietro 2022). What made the May 25th booking, known on the official Disneyland calendar as a private party for the L.A. Restaurant Association, different from the others is that the party was marketed almost exclusively to the gay community. Flyers promoted it as a private party for “Studio One and The Tavern Guild of Los Angeles.” The Tavern Guild of Los Angeles was an organization of gay bar owners and employees and, as noted, Studio One was a popular gay bar (Online Archive of California n.d.).


It wasn’t until shortly before the event was to take place that Disneyland management understood that the clientele that evening would be mostly gay men and women and their friends. This gave Disneyland management pause. While the park didn’t have any policies prohibiting non-heterosexuals from visiting, they did have one that banned same sex dancing. At a time when the prevailing social attitude towards those of LGBTQIA+ identity was still unfavorable at best, there was concern that a party made up of a majority of gay guests wasn’t a good look for a family-oriented park. Lawyers were consulted, and it was determined that the contract was valid; whatever Disneyland management’s reservations, the show had to go on.


Management’s first concern was that they’d be asking employees to work a party whose very nature went “against their beliefs and religions” (Bob Gurr, interview with author, October 9, 2019). Instead, when the shift was offered “they got so many volunteers to work that night!”-much to management’s surprise (Bob Gurr, interview with author, October 9, 2019).

Fears about the potential for rowdy or “chaotic” behavior were quickly allayed as well (Rinabarger 2022). In fact, Bob Gurr reported that “the next morning after the party was over, the manager was ready for extra cleanup work. And then our head of custodial came in and said, ‘Who were those people?’ ‘Why, what’s wrong?’ ‘There’s no trash! This is the cleanest we’ve ever had the park’” (Bob Gurr, interview with author, October 9, 2019).


Disneyland’s bottom line got a boost as well. Expected sales for the Emporium, Disneyland’s largest store, were around $10,000. Real sales came in at over $42,000. Across the park, budget analyst Kim Rinabarger said, “retail sales were about four times what was planned” (Rinabarger 2022).


Bob Gurr said that there was noticeable attitude change from management after the event. “The whole attitude at Disneyland, it just turned upside down. Because they found out what a large proportion of gay folks have always worked at Disneyland and management never noticed it. Because everybody sees things through their preconceived eyes” (Bob Gurr, interview with author, October 9, 2019).

DiPietro noticed, if not a wholesale change, a softening. She reported that the day after the event, a supervisor told her she needn’t come in anymore. “But then upper management called that supervisor and said no way. She’s fine, put her on the schedule” (DiPietro 2022).


In her recounting of planning what today is known as the first “gay night” at Disneyland, DiPietro wrote “I worked many of those ‘private parties’ at Disneyland. It was wonderful to see groups (whether corporate employees, postal workers, grad nights, etc.) enjoying themselves with the magic of Disneyland. I thought: Why shouldn’t the gay community be able to enjoy a similar experience? Being able to visit Disneyland without pretense and enjoy an evening out with friends and allies” (DiPietro 2022).

This sentiment would be echoed many times over the next 45 years when advocates used Disney Park space-and the microcosm of America that it represents-as places to make statements simply with their presence. For many in the LGBTQIA+ community, showing up to a place like Disneyland and participating fully in an activity that has become symbolic of the American experience was and is a way of staking their claim to the part of the American dream that says we all have an equal right to happiness.


Fig. 3: Mr Lincoln animatronic 2, Great Moments With Mr Lincoln, Main Street, Disneyland, Anaheim, California

While individual attitudes at Disneyland may have changed after “gay night,” policies already in place remained the same, including the one that barred same sex dancing. When Andrew Exler (now Crusader) and his male partner were removed from Disneyland for doing just that in 1980, he told reporters that he just wanted the same freedoms Disneyland promoted in their attraction “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” in which Abraham Lincoln gave snippets of some of his speeches on individual liberty.


“We see that and we think, ‘What is this?’ They promote freedom, and they turn around and say we can’t dance with each other” (Morrison 1980).

In 1984 an Orange County Superior Court found in favor of two men; in 1985 Disneyland announced it was removing the ban entirety. In 1989 Exler and a group of eight male couples returned to the Disneyland dance floor and danced freely, noting: “This really shows there has been a turnaround in Disney practice” (“Disney takes” 1989).


That turnaround seemed complete when a second iteration of “gay night” at Disneyland began in 1987 with an after-hours fundraiser held to benefit AIDS Project Los Angeles. While still a private event, this time Disneyland was much more welcoming of a party that “attracted thousands of gay men and women” than they had been almost ten years before (Voland 1987).


Disneyland spokesman Bob Roth said before the party that they hoped the fact that the park welcomed the event without issue would “dismiss finally all the nonsense that’s happened in the past,” presumably the “gay night” and same sex dancing incidents that had given Disneyland a reputation as unfriendly to the LGBTQIA+ community (Voland 1987). The event was enough of a success that it was held yearly from 1987-1998. It became known locally as the “annual gay night[] at Disneyland” (Britton 1996).


The event, run for many years by the now-closed Odyssey Tours, began losing popularity when it was discovered that the company was only making partial donations to AIDS charities. Disneyland itself cut back on the number of private rentals they closed the park for in 1998 as well. Both factors led to Gay Night’s demise.


In 1991 Doug Swallow founded what is known today as Gay Days at Walt Disney World, inviting friends from the LGBTQ+ community (spreading the word, as in 1978, in local gay bars, as well as online) to “have fun, stand up and be counted” among those enjoying the first Saturday in June at Disney World-during regular park hours (Morris 1991).


(A good short piece on the importance of gay bars in political movements can be found https://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_gay_bar/2011/06/the_gay_bar_4.html)


Fig. 4: Disney Pride Collection in Stores

Swallow echoed the idea iterated by DiPietro and Exler that simply being open about their identity and being present in the theme park had meaning to the gay community:


“’We’re going to go out and have fun like everybody else’” (Truesdell 2000).

The event was unofficial and marked only by the fact that attendees wore red to identify one another as they went about their day in the park. Though it weathered its share of controversy, Gay Days Orlando grew every year and continues today.


When the private “Gay Night” at Disneyland ended in 1998, Eddie Shapiro and Jeffrey Epstein took inspiration from Gay Days in Orlando and began Gay Days Anaheim, a similar event in which attendees planned to “hang out, wear red shirts and have fun walking through the park” (Lam 2014).


“We’ve very much wanted to have a mixing event, where we’re all there being our brand of family along with everyone else’s family…I believe we have the power to change hearts and minds; we have the power to show people that our families are just like theirs” (Lam 2014).


The evolution the Walt Disney Company and Disney guests’ attitudes towards, acceptance and now embrace of the LGBTQIA+ community as fuller members of the Disney (and American) community is a discreet example of that power through presence. Just as Disneyland management, after the first gay night in 1978, was “pleasantly surprised and relieved by the conduct of the attendees,” straight guests at Disneyland during Gay Days who “went in with a preconceived notion of what it was going to be like, thinking they were walking into Sodom and Gomorrah…found out that [gay] people are and were incredibly well-behaved and friendly” (DiPietro 2022; Lam 2014). Slowly, that tireless advocacy has born fruit (such as the rainbow Mickey Mouse candied apples that appear during June at the Disney Resorts). Simply by showing up and being themselves, the community not only changed minds but paved the way for future community members to be included in Disney’s version of America.


Fig. 5: Disney at 2022 San Francisco Pride Parade

The negotiation via Disney Park space about what acceptance and full participation in American society and by extension, Disney fan society, continues. Eddie Shapiro recently pointed out that even though Pride Nite is important, it could be read as indicating that “Disney is ready not to have an unofficial thing but an official thing,” since it remains an exclusive, late-night event (Martinez 2023). It’s unknown exactly where that negotiation will take us next with regard to Disney and Pride.


But one thing that history has shown is that as long as the American identity continues to evolve and change, the Disney Parks will continue to be a primary location where both the negotiation and reflection of what that identity looks like take place.


In The Cure at Troy, Seamus Heaney wrote that “once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up/And hope and history rhyme.” For the advocates who showed up with hope at Disneyland and Walt Disney World over the last sixty-odd years, Disneyland’s first official Gay Pride Nite is surely one such time.


(For more Gay Days history see: Bethanee Bemis, Bethanee 2022. “’Our Cartoon City Upon a Hill’: the Disney Theme Parks, the Public, the National Narrative and American Identity.” In Priscilla Hobbs, ed. Mediating the Mouse: Disney and the Fan Experience, edited by Priscilla Hobbs. Intellect Books.)

 

References


1989. “Disney takes same-sex dancing in stride.” Journal Gazette (Mattoon Illinois), September 20, 1989. Newspapers.com.


DiPietro, Carol. 2022. “The First Gay Private Party-How It Came About.” Disneyland Alumni Club, July 1, 2022. https://www.disneylandalumni.org/the-first-gay-private-party-how-it-came-about/


Griffin, Sean. 2000. Tinker Belles and Evil Queens. New York: New York University Press.


Lam, Charles. 2014. “Disneyland: The Gayest Place on Earth.” OCWeekly (Orange County, California), October 1, 2014. https://www.ocweekly.com/disneyland-the-gayest-place-on-earth-6454702/


Martinez, Christian. 2023. “’Pride Nite’ officially added at Disneyland.” Los Angeles Times, April 15, 2023. Newspapers.com


Morrison, Patt. 1980. “Boy, Male Date Barred From Disneyland.” Los Angeles Times, September 15, 1980. Newspapers.com.


Online Archive of California. n.d. “Guide to the Tavern Guild of San Francisco Records, 1961-1993.” Accessed May 30, 2023. https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt509nb9d7/


Rinabarger, Kim. 2022. ”Another View of the First (And Only) Gay Private Party.” Disneyland Alumni Club, July 20th, 2022. https://www.disneylandalumni.org/another-view-of-the-first-and-only-gay-private-party/


Truesdell, Jeff. 2000. “How Gay Day pushed Disney out of the closet.” Orlando Weekly, May 31, 2000. https://www.orlandoweekly.com/news/how-gay-day-pushed-disney-out-of-the-closet-2262655


Voland, John. 1987. “Disneyland Makes Up to Gays With AIDS Fundraiser.” The Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1987. Newspapers.com.


Britton, Jeff. 1996. “Weekend turns valley into one partying place.” The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, California), March 28, 1996. Newspapers.com.


Images


Fig. 1: Cat, Jericl. Magic Kingdom, Gay Day! Flickr. September 20 2007. https://flickr.com/photos/79761301@N00/1411290992


Fig. 2: Disney Pride Image iHeart Radio. iHeart Radio. https://www.iheart.com/playlist/disney-pride-312064750-AFSuZsuGvQgSnAUh3kybDP/


Fig. 3: Doctorow, Cory. Mr Lincoln animatronic 2, Great Moments With Mr Lincoln, Main Street, Disneyland, Anaheim, California. Flickr. June 17 2019. https://www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/48076264997/


Fig. 4: Michaelsen, Shannen. Disney Pride Collection in Stores. "Disney Pride 2023 Collection Including Spirit Jersey, Ears, Pins, and More Available at Walt Disney World." WDW News Today. May 15 2023. https://wdwnt.com/2023/05/disney-pride-2023-collection-including-spirit-jersey-ears-pins-and-more-available-at-walt-disney-world/


Fig. 5: Classon, Gabe. Disney at the 2022 San Francisco Pride Parade. Flickr. June 27 2022. https://www.flickr.com/photos/192649360@N02/52177414058/


 

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