February 14, 2022
THESE RESTAURANTS, NIGHTLIFE VENUES, AND SHOPS ARE TRANSFORMING ORLANDO’S THEME PARK REPUTATION.
Most travelers view Orlando, the home of Disney World and Universal Studios, as an amusement park wonderland and not necessarily a destination for queer culture. But they might not know that in 2020 the city scored 100 in Human Rights Campaign’s National Municipal Equality Index—which rates LGBTQ+ inclusivity of municipal laws, policies, and services—for the seventh consecutive year. The Orlando LGBTQ+ community has grown within the last several decades to become one of the most inclusive in the country, and since the Pulse nightclub tragedy of 2016 the city has further strengthened as a diverse queer community.
Orlando’s LGBTQ+ history goes back much further than many realize. Queer establishments Parliament House and the now-closed Palace Club and Cactus Room opened in the 1960s to become some of the first queer establishments, giving locals and travelers alike a safe space to be their authentic selves. Today, Orlando has many incredible nightclubs, eateries, and retail shops, and members of the LGBTQ+ community operate a large portion of them; take entertainment and nightlife aficionado Blue Star, who has been a staple in the cabaret scene and operated several queer venues over the last 20 years. And since the horrific Pulse nightclub shooting that claimed 49 lives, the LGBTQ+ and Central Florida communities have come together, with partnerships between different businesses and organizations and new LGBTQ+ restaurants, discos, and theater spaces opening up all around Orlando.
Best things to do
Any visit that supports Orlando’s queer community should start with The Pulse Interim Memorial. Created to honor the 49 victims of the 2016 shooting, travelers can visit the temporary memorial to learn more about its history until the permanent National Pulse Memorial and Museum on the site is completed in 2022. The museum was designated a National Memorial by Congress in 2021.
Make your way to Lake Eola Park to familiarize yourself with Orlando and all its different neighborhoods. The lake, which spans 23 acres, is a scenic destination with views of downtown Orlando. It’s also a well-known LGBTQ+ meeting point since it sits directly in the city’s center.
The Orlando City Soccer Club’s Exploria Stadium has also partnered with various LGBTQ+ organizations like the National Pulse Memorial and Museum to raise money through different matches, with a portion of the proceeds given to the Pulse memorial. Grab tickets to a game to spot the 49 permanently rainbow-colored seats in section 12.
Best places to eat
Queer-owned spaces in Orlando include some of the best restaurants in the city. Opened in downtown Orlando in 2020, Häos was created by restaurateur and event-space developer Blue Star as an innovative entertainment and dining experience where visitors can feast on Mediterranean-inspired food while watching some of the best cabaret in town, like the Ladies & Ladyboys of the Peek-a-Boo Lounge. After her sleeve gastrectomy in 2007, chef Trina Gregory-Propst was inspired by her intake meal plan of seven bites to create The Milk District’s Se7enbites, an excellent place for soul food breakfast and brunch.
Orlando’s best brunch spots include the Lake Ivanhoe area’s queer-owned Hammered Lamb; it’s known for having the best Bloody Mary in all of Orlando. Not far from Häos, in downtown, Orlando’s own Hamburger Mary’s is a quirky Sunday drag-show spot that hosts events like the famous Broadway Brunch. A local and visitor favorite that opened in 2019, Island Time is an outdoor restaurant where performers interact with the nearest passersby: “The drag shows on Sunday are not advertised as anything gay; it’s just a show with a drag queen,” says Luis Santi Jr, an Island Time patron and the cofounder of the local Eola Pets. “Usually, the interplays are positive and hilarious. It makes you feel that we’re not just silos of the community; it feels like a place to be at home and not worry.” For dessert nearby, try The Glass Knife or the Frozen Cow, and for good tea head to Pom Moongauklang’s Pom Pom’s Teahouse & Sandwicheria.
Best places to spend a night out
Queer nightlife in Orlando is a bit spread out across the city, but it’s worth seeking out. Fun places to grab a drink or see a drag show include the go-go bar Savoy, dance hall Southern Nights, billiards at District Dive, craft cocktail lounge Southern Craft, multi-floor Stonewall, and the burlesque bar Stardust.
Safe spaces, now more than ever, are essential. “With what happened at Pulse, we need to stay strong and continue to remind ourselves that we are here and we’re not going anywhere; the Southern Nights nightclub is a safe space where you don’t feel judged for being gay,” says small business owner and Orlando resident Andrés Pinzon. “It’s inclusive and for everyone. When you go to these spaces, you get to be who you want to be.” Other queer-safe options include the minimalist rooftop Skybar, Japanese pub Tori Tori, and The Guesthouse cocktail bar. If you’re looking for a fabulous day party, stop by early at Ember on Sundays.
Where else to spend your money
If you’re wondering where to shop, take a stroll by the Discover Downtown Visitor Center. Swan City, created in 2017, focuses on harnessing Pride for Orlando shoppers with apparel and lifestyle pieces. At MojoMan Swimwear & Clothing, you’ll also find over 200 different styles of swimsuits and other related items. Accessorize with a stop at Ritzy Rags Wigs & More.
“The perspectives of the LGBTQ+ shop owners tend to be more creative, bringing a diverse and unique experience to be had here in Orlando,” says Virtue Wilmot, a Disney World cast member, interior designer, and member of the LGBTQ+ community. “The roots that the local LGBTQ+ shop owners have put down in Orlando have made it what it is today.”