Orlando: The City Beautiful

A local’s suggestions for visiting the dynamic Florida tourist destination.

Before I came to live here in “The City Beautiful,” Orlando played host to my dreams. First as a confused transgender kid who longed to escape my troubles through the magic of Disney World, and then as an adult lesbian trans woman looking to transition and live her authentic life. Orlando and Disney did not disappoint, and I decided to become a cast member.

It was then that I learned one of Orlando’s best-kept secrets. When they describe Disney as the “Happiest Place on Earth,” they actually mean happy as in “gay.” I’d never been around so many queer people in my life and I’ve been to the Castro in San Francisco, the Village in New York City and Soho in London. Disney is the largest single-site employer in the country, with 70,000 cast members in Orlando. That adds up to an outsized number of LGBTQ+ friendly establishments and activities to support the gay portion of that populace. However, unlike other less integrated LGBTQ+ communities in the country, Orlando has relatively few places the traveling queer woman would be made to feel unwelcome. Even though Orlando doesn’t offer many lesbian-specific spaces, there are still a lot of choices.

Orlando has always been an inclusive place, but after the Pulse tragedy, the city proved its resiliency and resolve by coming together in support of the LGBTQ and Latinx communities in a powerful way. While I do not want to encourage tragedy tourism, it would be disingenuous not to touch on the profound impact the events of last June had on life in Orlando. Its effects were far-reaching and impacted many. This year, the city will celebrate Orlando United Day on June 12th (ocfl.net/Home/OrlandoUnitedDay) with several different events “dedicated to honoring the memory of the 49 innocent Pulse victims, supporting survivors and recognizing the compassion and love that was displayed by the Central Florida community following the tragedy.” Attending these events could help the city’s citizens heal, and non-locals in town are also invited to pay their respects and join the community in solidarity.

Lake Eola. Photo by Shutterstock

THE GAYBORHOOD

Just outside of downtown, you’ll find several districts that together make up the local gayborhood in Orlando. Lake Eola Heights, Thornton Park, Hampton Park, Mills 50, Ivanhoe Village, Colonial Town North and the Milk District are full of little hip places to satisfy your more sophisticated tastes.

Lake Eola Park sits at the heart of it all. There you will find beautiful art installations placed beside its walking path. Rent a swan-shaped paddleboat, or on Sundays, peruse the wares at the farmer’s market. The neighborhood is home to the city’s Pride celebration, Orlando Come Out With Pride (comeoutwithpride.com), which boasts 150,000 attendees per year. Make sure to stay after the parade for the evening fireworks display and the sight of the park’s iconic fountain lit up in all the colors of the rainbow.

A 10-minute drive from Lake Eola is Harry P. Leu Gardens (1920 N Forest Ave, leugardens.org). A favorite location for weddings, this botanical wonderland stretches 50 acres and features both a rose and a butterfly garden surrounding the historic Leu House Museum. Open every day of the year except Christmas, there is a charge for admission except on the first Monday of every month.

FOOD & DRINK

Feast on an Thanksgiving-inspired sandwich at Pom Pom’s. Photo by Pom Pom’s

Less than a mile down the road from Leu Gardens is the hippest coffee shop in town, Stardust Video & Coffee (1842 Winter Park Rd., stardustvideoandcoffee.wordpress.com). Along with some great coffee, tea and fresh sandwiches, you can browse through the shelves for video titles available for rental. If you need some liquid courage to talk tot he girl in the corner watching “Blue is the Warmest Color” on her laptop, buy some booze from the bar and slip it into your macchiato.

Nearly as eclectic is the Drunken Monkey Coffee Bar (444 N. Bumby Ave., drunkenmonkeycoffe.com) in the Milk District. Featuring the sensibility of a college town cafe, they roast all their own beans, sell veggie and vegan foods and tea, and host comedy nights on the weekends.

Another Milk District favorite of the queer ladies is Se7en Bites Sweet & Savory Bakeshop (617 Primrose Dr., se7enbites.com) A 100 percent lesbian-owned establishment with a staff that is largely LGBTQ+, they serve mouth-watering baked goods, along with breakfast and lunch daily, cooked with a Southern flair. If you wake up craving some biscuits and gravy, this is the place to go.

The gayborhood also has another great option for those who have given up animal-based products. Dandelion Communitea Café (618 N Thornton Ave., dandelioncommunitea.com) is an “organic, eco-friendly eatery” that serves food from cruelty-free and sustainable sources. Both veggie and vegan options are available including a Fluffer Nutter club sandwich.If you doubt their crunchiness, their poetry nights and full moon circles will convince you otherwise.

If you’re looking for a little drag with your food, check out Hamburger Mary’s (110 W Church St., hamburgermarys.com/orlando) located on Church Street.The food is a bit on the heavy side with many choices in burgers and calorie-laden desserts such as the fried twinkies, but the kitschy charm of the place will win you over. The Broadway Brunch on Sundays headlines nightly shows.

If you’re out very late and hungry, Pom Pom’s Teahouse & Sandwicheria (67 N Bumby Ave., pompomsteahouse.com) is open until 5am on Thursday and 24 hours from Friday through Sunday, it is the place for late night munchies and GIRL-The Party refugees looking to buy time to sober up.There are lots of great sandwiches on the menu, but the one that will haunt your dreams is the Mama LingLing’s Thanksgiving, which combines turkey, stuffing, cranberry, gravy and mashed potatoes into sandwich form.

Serving food until 2am is The Hammered Lamb (1235 N.Orange Ave., thehammeredlamb.com). Another gay-owned establishment, this Ivanhoe Village pub is a community favorite with full bar, Sunday brunch, salads, sandwiches and my personal favorite, baked wings.If you are lucky enough to be there when a train passes on the tracks behind the pub, shots are served all around.

SPORTS AND OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES

Wekeva Springs is just one of Orlando’s natural amusement parks. Photo by Wekiva Springs

Orlando’s central location means that it’s only an hour from the Atlantic beaches and an hour and a half from the Gulf Beaches. Clearwater Beach (12 S. Osceola Ave., visitstpeteclearwater.com), on the west coast has been named the number one beach in the U.S., and it is hard to argue with that ranking. However, a particular favorite of the lesbian ladies is CocoaBeach (401 Meade Ave., co-coabeach.com) on the Space Coast. After spending the day in the surf and sun, ending it at the tiki bar overlooking the water at Coconuts (2 Minutemen Causeway, coconutsonthebeach.com) is the queer choice.

If you time it right, you might even see a nighttime rocket launch from the nearby Kennedy Space Center (SR405, kennedyspacecenter.com/events).

The beach is not the only place to get wet. Just 20 minutes north of downtown is a collection of natural springs perfect for the most particular outdoorsy lesbian. WekivaSprings (1800 Wekiwa Circle, floridastateparks.org/park/Wekiwa-Springs) and Rock SpringsRun (400 E Kelly Park Rd., floridastateparks.org/park/Rock-Springs-Run) offer hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, canoeing, camping, fishing and swimming. You can also rent an innertube and float down the Wekiva River or paddleboard your way to Wekiva Island, hop out onto the dock and visit the onsite bar.

Sometimes it’s more fun to watch other people sweat. Orlando is also home to the Orlando Pride soccer club (655 W Church St., orlandocitysc.com/pride) and their newly completed Orlando City Stadium. Playing for the club, and making queer girl hearts flutter, are 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Champions Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger and Alex Morgan.

EVENTS, SHOWS AND ATTRACTIONS

Feast on some culture at the Orlando Museum of Art. Photo by Orlando Museum of Art

The four-day never-ending party in early June known as Girls in Wonderland (girlsinwonderland.com) is the East Coast’s answer to Dinah for the 20-something crowd. It has grown from 800 women 17 years ago to 9,000 from all over the country taking over the Sheraton Lake Buena Vista (12205 S Apopka Vineland Rd., sheratonlakebuenavistaresort.com). Sleep is in short supply as the ladies start the party poolside, continue on at venues like House of Blues, then head to after-parties until 5am, only to repeat it again the next day and the next. To entertain them are go-go dancers, DJs Citizen Jane, Pat Pat and Whitney Day, as well as celesbians like Madison Paige and Hunter Valentine.

Orlando is also home to the second largest convention center in the U.S., the Orange County Convention Center (9800 International Dr., occc.net). Each year OCC is the site of both MegaCon
(megaconorlando.com) and Spooky Empire (spookyempire.com). So if you’re a geek girl into sci-fi or horror and the thought of meeting Stan Lee, Jeffrey Dean Morgan or Lloyd Kaufman makes you
breathe heavy, then you want to be in Orlando in late April or May. If you have no idea who these people are, move along—these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

There are also more cultured options for those who would rather take in a show or tour a museum. Created by local lesbian notable Blue Star, The Venue (511 Virginia Dr., thevenueorlando.com) is a showcase of local dance, burlesque and singing talent. The Orlando Fringe (orlandofringe.org) is the longest running version in the US and has been bringing uncensored theatrical and performing arts productions to the community since 1992. The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts (445 S Magnolia Ave., drphillipscenter.org) has the Orlando Ballet and Philharmonic, Bernadette Peters, Sheryl Crow, along with Broadway hits “Finding Neverland” and “Hamilton” on its upcoming schedule.

Art lovers will find an oasis at the Orlando Museum of Art (2416 N Mills Ave., omart.org) with a collection of African, Contemporary, Graphic and American art.

No queer guide to Orlando can be complete without at least mentioning the theme parks. The Walt Disney World Resort (disneyworld.disney.go.com) is 40 square miles containing hotels, a shopping district, two water parks, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot and the Magic Kingdom. The Universal Orlando Resort (2416 N Mills Ave., universalorlando.com) is made up of Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and the soon to open Universal’s Volcano Bay Water Park.

PLACES TO PARTY

The ladies of Southern Nights. Photo by Melody Maia Monet

Orlando doesn’t have a lesbian bar, but does boast one of the longest-running weekly lesbian parties anywhere. For over 30 years, the building occupied by the Southern Nights Orlando nightclub (375 S Bumby Ave., facebook.com/SouthernNightsOrlando) has hosted THE place where the lady lovin’ ladies come to play. GIRL-The Party (girltheparty.com) runs every Saturday night and features the Les Vixens burlesque show (facebook.com/LVBurlesque) at midnight, hosted by and featuring the incomparable Ivy Les Vixens. There is a complete lack of pretentiousness to alienate out of town visitors, and the place is filled with 700 happy lesbians dancing, boozing and babe watching. Don’t miss it.

Now if you get along better with the gay boys, then you will want to check out the Parliament House Resort (410 N Orange Blossom Trail, parliamenthouse.com). The grand old girl of the Orlando gay scene, P-House has been around since 1975 and features not just bars, drag shows and dance floors, but a full theater, restaurant, pool and an attached 112 room no-tell motel. The yearly Halloween costume contest, with its jaw-dropping display of creativity, will have you wondering how any glitter is left in the city.

If you’re still not ready to call it quits on Sunday, you’re going to want to head to Sunday Surrender at Ember (42 W Central Blvd, emberorlando.com). This is where everyone who went out to PHouse and Southern the night before turns out to cure hangovers with bottomless mimosas and tasty empanadas. There is something here for everyone as all facets of the community turn out to mix and mingle with other pretty women, men and those in between.

See you soon in “The City Beautiful.”

Melody Maia Monet creates videos on transgender and lesbian topics on her YouTube channel at youtube.com/melodymaia.