It's hard to imagine a place less like feverishly commercial Walt Disney World than the city of Orlando, an amiable and low-keyed metropolis of both new and historic residential enclaves surrounding one of Florida's few walk able downtowns. If you're visiting the many theme parks in the area, try to set aside at least a full day to explore this charming city with a vibrant gay scene. And if you're simply seeking an economical Florida vacation - or a quiet base that's still close to but not engulfed by Disney World - Orlando fits the bill perfectly.
This city of 170,000 is artsy and intellectual compared with most of beach-loving Florida. Cinemas show foreign and independent films, cafes and clubs sponsor everything from raves to poetry readings, several theaters present experimental and fringe productions, and arts newspapers and 'zines' provide the lowdown on all these events. The queer scene thrives from November to April and then again during the Disney Gay Day celebrations in early June, but with more gay men and lesbians settling here permanently, things are starting to stay lively year-round.
Lake-dotted Orlando sprawls in every direction. The city is centered where Interstate 4 crosses the East-West Expressway, several miles north of the Orlando International Airport. Gay businesses exist throughout the city, but many are east and northeast of downtown, in Thornton Park and along Mills Avenue. Disney and its nearby mega-attractions lie 10 to 15 miles south of downtown, a neat and attractive neighborhood anchored by Church Street Station. This restored rail depot filled with amusements, souvenir shops, and a dinner theater is the only certifiable tourist attraction - but it's a little schlocky. Walk two blocks east across busy Orange Avenue to reach some funkier blocks with a random mix of grunge clothiers, coffeehouses, and night spots.
One of only a handful of downtown Orlando eateries where you'll have a chance to spend a little money, Le Provence is a wonderful French restaurant with a smart but casual ambience - it's great for a romantic dinner. The adjacent bar Boom is a lovely little slice of sophisticated socializing. The place is packed at happy hour and stays lively well into many evenings; very good bar fare is served. Club at Firestone - a high-tech warehouse disco - hosts an extremely popular gay night on Saturdays and a fabulous foam party on Thursdays. Lava Lounge is a video bar located in Orlando's hip new surroundings and Savoy just opened down the road from Lava. Pulse is the trendiest bar in Orlando with a very hot South Beach feel.
Historic Eola Heights begins a few blocks east of downtown. Stroll around the grassy oak-shaded perimeter of rippling Lake Eola, and you'll likely see queer folks jogging, strolling, and hanging out. Nearby streets are lined with some of Orlando's earliest homes, but the neighborhood fell on hard times during the second half of the 20th century. Among the first people to move in and clean it up were gays and lesbians, who later continued east into the Thornton Park neighborhood, known for its fine old wood-frame houses.
A few cafes and urbane boutiques, all of them gay-frequented, have enlivened Washington Street, Thornton Park's main drag. Try to get a seat on the plant- bedecked covered terrace with its gurgling fountains. Sassy and stylish, Dexter's is a restaurant, market, and wine shop that serves commendable, mostly Mediterranean inspired fare, such as eggplant Napoleon or spicy shrimp Provencal. A short drive east, Southern Nights is one of central Florida's most popular gay and lesbian clubs - varied theme nights keep the place interesting.
Easily one of the most attractive and well-run queer-friendly (but mainstream) inns in Florida, Thornton Park's Veranda is a small compound of historic buildings containing rooms of various sizes, all with period antiques and some with kitchenettes and claw-foot tubs. It's a favorite spot for commitment ceremonies. Nearby, the chic Eo Inn is a wonderful boutique property whose rooms have sleek furnishings, including black-wooden armoires and fine linens. Accommodations are fairly small, as are the bathrooms - about the only evidence of the building's previous incarnation as a YMCA - but the imaginative decorating makes the Eo quite comfortable. A slick full-service spa was added recently.
Mills Avenue runs north above Colonial Drive; it's lined with gay bars and businesses, including the city's excellent queer bookstore, Mojo Books. Not far away, White Wolf is a worldly yet understated bric-a-brac emporium that also has a cafe serving terrific international fare, from mango-nut- tabbouleh sandwiches to shiitake lasagna. After so enchanting a meal, you might decide to purchase some of the funky furnishings here or at one of the several antiques shops along the same street. Another nearby favorite, Little Saigon serves stellar Vietnamese fare. The traditional soup of noodles, rice, vegetables, and chicken or seafood is always a winner.
To the north Mills cuts through a dense concentration of lakes anchored by grassy Loch Haven Park, which contains modest but engaging history, art, and science museums. The star of the neighborhood is the 56-acre Harry Leu Botanical Gardens, a tranquil spot for a stroll. The exclusive town of Winter Park lies north of Loch Haven Park. Its downtown evokes the grace of Savannah and the glamour of Beverly Hills, albeit on a tiny scale. Chain clothiers, smart boutiques, and tony restaurants line both sides of Park Avenue, interrupted only by lush Central Park.
The area's leading attraction, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art maintains the largest Tiffany stained-glass collection in the country and many 19th- and 20th-century American paintings. For dining, the Winter Park branch of Houston's is notable not just for its fine steaks and seafood but for its location on Lake Kilarney and distinctive Prairie School-inspired architecture. Gay-popular Schafer's Caffeehaus is best- known for its desserts and pastries, but this intimate old-world space also serves very good Continental food and has a wine bar, too.
Off the beaten path in northwestern Orlando, Faces is a convivial lesbian bar that's been going strong since the mid-1970s. Weekly events include Sunday cookouts and free pool and darts on Monday and Wednesday. It's not terribly far from one of the better hotel values in the city, the Holiday Inn, which has medium-size rooms with functional but pleasant furnishings. Another good nightlife option a short drive from downtown, Full Moon Saloon is a country-western and leather dance club (it sounds like an unlikely combo but it works), always filled with cruisy guys.
This leads us to arguably Florida's most famous - or perhaps notorious - queer entertainment complex, Parliament House. The considerable legend surrounding this resort with several gay bars rivals that of Shangri-la - countless revelers have returned from their vacations in Orlando telling tall tales of debauchery and partying at Parliament House. First and foremost, it's a lodging option, perfect if you're okay with horny guys roaming outside your door at all hours. The rates are decent, and a much-needed renovation in 1999-2000 vastly improved room decor as well as the pool areas and landscaping. Service can be a little uneven, however. A central building houses the Rainbow Cafe restaurant (which serves three meals daily).
But what really draws them in are the six gay bars and nightclubs, which include a warehouse-style disco, a cushy video bar, the festive Footlight Theater Piano Bar, a pool hall, a swimming-pool bar, and cruisy country western-style bar. Although the crowd tends to be male, plenty of women hang out at the bars and restaurant. In fact, Parliament House manages to offer something for virtually every style and taste - more than a few guests check in and then check out a week later never having left the place.