As I round a bend that flows from Disneyland's Tomorrowland to Fantasyland, I watch a mustachioed park-goer minding a baby stroller. His eyes follow a gaggle of men strutting beneath Monorail tracks. Most of this gaggle don red t-shirts bearing Peter Pan sailing across the words Gay Days. However, one maverick wears a ketchupy tank top with this announcement lettered in iconic Disney font: "I love the D."
The mustachioed man angrily clutches the stroller's handles. His knuckles whiten, his chest puffs. He glares at the backs of the red-shirted men as they trail towards the Matterhorn. This mustachioed park-goer does not seem like a staunch LGBTQ ally. Instead, he likely counts among myriad park-goers who unwittingly decided to vacation at the happiest place on earth as it simultaneously morphed into one of the queerest. He is vacationing in the midst of Gay Days Anaheim.
This year marks the 18th anniversary of the annual but unofficial extravagaynza. Between October 2 and October 4, approximately 30,000 visitors attended Gay Days. In every direction that my eyes dart --Toon Town, Frontierland, Main Street-- bears, dykes, and genderqueers, brighten every line and throng with red, the official color of Gay Days.
Gay Days Anaheim was inspired by Gay Days Orlando which attracts over 100,000 LGBTQ folks to the Florida resort every June. The first Gay Days Anaheim brought about 2,500 LGBTQ folks to the park, and it has since matured into a three-day celebration that includes dance parties, drag performances, scavenger hunts, ice cream socials, and film and TV screenings. During Gay Days, Disneyland becomes even more magical than usual. For those attending, nostalgia fuses with the desire to rewrite the past and present. This queer hunger allows Disney to do what it perhaps does best, capitalize upon yearning.
However, while not an official supporter of Gay Days, the corporation does cater to the purchasing power of the growing consumer bloc that floods the resort every year. It would be imprudent for Disney to ignore their rainbow wallets. The Human Rights Commission projects the total buying power of the adult U.S. LGBTQ population at $830 billion, and products marketed towards the LGBTQ population rank as the weekend's hottest selling items.
Samples of these items rest on a display table at Gay Days' welcome center, the Trillium Room at the Grand Californian Hotel and Spa. Leena, a Disney employee charged with introducing park-goers to queer merchandise holds up a nearly-neon slice of rainbow layer cake. "Last year, the most tagged thing on social media was this cake!" she proudly announced. Her hand gestured at other rainbow sundries on the table. She explained, "A mug is our newest product. Our first product was this pin. The cake sells out quickly."
According to a 2013 Witeck Communications market study, about two-thirds of LGBTQ adults say they would likely remain loyal to a brand they believed to be friendly to and supportive of queers. Those surveyed also stressed that their loyalty would not be swayed even if less friendly companies offered lower prices or more convenient access to queer merchandise. In light of such data, Disney is making shrewd choices. The corporation is grooming a unique customer base by appealing to a bloc that has historically been ignored or shunned. Any revenue Disney might lose from consumers turned off by queer branding will likely be made up for by LGBTQ folk. This bloc's loyalty, combined with its robust purchasing power, is capable of picking up the financial slack.
Wendy Ho, a drag queen who weaves Disney characters into her stage persona, is due to renew her annual park pass to Disneyland. Ho sees her love of the park as meta-problematic. She says, "Disneyland is all about fun and creativity, and ultimately, it's a great distraction from humdrum, everyday priorities. Disney also represents a huge corporate conglomerate that distracts us from the fact we're paying for a distraction--[from everyday life] but I'm aware of this, and I'm willing to pay for it." It seems, then, that some LGBTQ Disney lovers allow the corporation to place them under a spell. These bewitched are willing to look past Disney's historical and current misdeeds , such as using sweatshop labor, in order to enjoy the fantasy that the corporation so masterfully commodifies.
Few corporations rival Disney in terms of their ability to peddle fantasy. Kate Durbin, a writer and performance artist whose work frequently appropriates Disney princess iconography, says, "I love that Disneyland is total immersion, that you can't see the outside world at all once you enter it. I love that there is no present, only past and future...Disney reminds me...that with enough care and imagination, you can actually construct the world."
For queers with pasts fraught by rejection, an idealized past, especially one in which villains are always punished, can prove irresistible. So does the allure of being able to re-experience childhood free from homophobia. Writer and humorist Ali Liebegott says that going to the park stokes nostalgia. She adds, "I think gay people of a certain generation, and by that phrase I only mean myself, we didn't get to really enjoy our childhoods to the fullest because whether they knew it or not [adults] were always covering something that they perceived was bad. Gayness. So to be at a place that is so fully about being a child is amazing. Plus, there are caramel apples and caramel, as we know, have been historically linked to homosexuality."
Furthermore, Disney's promise of an idealized future suggests a horizon free from social prejudice, one where, to quote queer columnist Dan Savage, "It gets better." And the caramel apples are plentiful.
On my way out of Tomorrowland, I see park-goers waiting in line along the Matterhorn. At the front of the line, Snow White's stepmother scowls. She barks, "Back up!" at her fans. Instead of balking at her abuse, they grin. They should. They are paying for it. A smiling woman with a feminist neck tattoo snaps a picture of the stepmother frowning alongside a girl with a half-shorn head. I peddle past Mary Poppins and Fred singing and dancing in front of Sleeping Beauty's Castle, and turn left onto Main Street. I duck into the Carnation Ice Cream Parlor and saunter up to two women wearing Gay Days shirts. They tell me their names are Wendy and Kate. They lick ice cream cones as we talk.
"It's our one year anniversary," says Wendy. "Kate and I came here on our first date."
Kate adds, "We come to Gay Days for the rides and camaraderie. Everybody here is happy. You enter your own little fantasy world for a day." Wendy and Kate are not the only queers for whom Disneyland has served as romantic glue. In California Adventure, I meet up with a den of Latino bears who share a similar love story. One of them, Julian, an annual pass holder, says, "We're here to celebrate what we are, and we're wearing red shirts in solidarity. This is the happiest place on earth." Julian emphasizes that he has been coming to Gay Days for years and that he always buys the queer souvenirs sold at the park. "We all share a love of Disney," he continues. "I regress back to a three-year-old. I'm skipping around as happy as can be. Five years ago, I met my partner here. I proposed to him in front of the castle last year."
Magic and the possibility of radical personal metamorphosis repeatedly emerge as reasons why Gay Days patrons love the resort. Kate says, "Little boys and little girls can dress up how they want to. There is this extended fantasy that we can be what we want to be here." The implication floating in the air throughout the park is that if children of all ages may gleefully embody mice, princesses, or chipmunks here, then why not embody our unique genders and sexualities with the same childlike glee?
Durbin speaks to this lack of essentialism at Disneyland when she says, "the park itself does not purport to be 'natural'...but rather, [it] is the beautiful result of a dream come quite virtually to life." For many LGBTQ folk, this is an exquisite reflection of social reality, one in which many are often forced to cobble together lives and families. In order to survive, many queers have had to imagine new families into existence.
Before leaving, I return to the Trillium Room to chat up painter Allison Lefcort. She sits in a corner, among her works, which stand propped against easels of varying heights. Pop art renderings of Miss Piggy and Minnie Mouse grin while Lefcort discusses the fine art that she's been doing for Disney for over twenty years. Pointing at a painting bearing the phrase LOVE IS LOVE, she explains, "I came up with this for Gay Days." A Florida resident, it is Lefcort's first time attending Gay Days, and she says, "I love [the] community visibility. I love that they came up with the idea to wear red shirts. You can come here and feel like you belong. Disney is also such a great place for people-watching." The feminists posing with the wicked stepmother, the bears at California Adventure, and the surprised expressions of park-goers who did not know what they were getting themselves into come to mind. Lefcort adds, "Gay Days is the perfect place to bring someone who has newly come out. I don't know how you could come here and not feel great about yourself." Succumbing to the strong sense of love and magic in the air, combined with the lure of ridiculously bright rainbow cake, I believe she's right.