Follow the Rainbow to Florida’s Most Popular LGBT Getaways

    By Jodi Mailander Farrell

    From Gay Days in Orlando theme parks to South Florida’s Gay Rodeo, there’s an inclusive spot in the sun for LGBTQ travelers throughout Florida, but these gay-friendly destinations roll out the rainbow carpet.

    WILTON MANORS/FORT LAUDERDALE


    A longtime destination for gay visitors, Fort Lauderdale and its neighboring gayborhood of Wilton Manors welcome more than 1.1 million LGBTQ travelers a year. The city has more than 100 gay-owned businesses, including bars and clubs, cafes and coffeehouses, and award-winning hotels and guest houses. One of the first gay resorts in Fort Lauderdale, the Grand Resort and Spa, at 539 N. Birch Rd., consistently wins high marks on the Travel Channel’s coveted “Best All-Inclusive Resorts.”

    Since 1977, the city has hosted the week-long Pride Fort Lauderdale every February, with hundreds of outdoor vendors, live music, dancing and parties. The famous Aids Memorial Quilt typically makes an appearance – a must-see for those who have not viewed this powerful reminder of the AIDS pandemic up close.

    In Wilton Manors – dubbed the country’s “Second Gayest City,” second only to Provincetown, Mass., as a result of the 2010 U.S. Census – check out Stonewall National Museum & Archives, known as the “LGBTQ community’s Smithsonian.” The walkable suburb with a small-town atmosphere houses the largest circulating LGBT book and film program in the United States.

    Shop along curving Wilton Drive, where stores and restaurants like The Pink Submarine, Gaysha New World Sushi Bar and Out of the Closet proudly display their rainbow flags. It’s not difficult to find high heels in size 11 here. The city is surrounded by forks in the Middle River, making it a true island. Rent a kayak or paddleboard from Atlantic Coast Kayak to cruise the seven-mile loop that wraps around Wilton Manors.

    Prime times for visits are May for BeachBear Weekend, October for the Fort Lauderdale Gay & Lesbian Film Festival or June for Stonewall Summer Pride. Every April, in nearby Davie, the Florida Gay Rodeo Association sponsors the Sunshine Stampede Gay Rodeo, a two-day rodeo that draws thousands for parties, line dancing, bull riding, barrel racing, calf roping and a “rodeo school” for beginners.
    Info: Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, sunny.org/lgbt.

    KEY WEST


    Gay transplants have been relocating and vacationing in the island paradise of Key West since the 1970s, with gay and lesbian guesthouses proliferating to meet the demand. The fun-loving southernmost city is selected repeatedly as “Best Gay Resort Town” by readers of Out Traveler magazine.

    Along with shops and boutiques, you’ll find most of the town’s gay bars along walkable Duval Street, including Aqua Nightclub and 801 Bourban Bar, with their fun drag shows, and La Te Da Hotel and Restaurant, which has a poolside lounge, piano bar and cabaret room.

    Time your visit for Pridefest in June for a week of events that include home tours, sunset sailing and a two-day street festival. WomenFest, held each September, draws lesbians of all ages for a week of beach parties, snorkeling cruises, competitive bull riding and galas. The annual FantasyFest in October is an outrageous, five-day celebration with costume competitions, street fairs and a grand parade with floats.
    Info: Gay Key West Visitor Center, www.gaykeywestfl.com.

    MIAMI BEACH


    Dubbed the “Gay Riviera,” Miami Beach has been flying the rainbow flag for decades. The city passed Florida’s first permanent ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation back in 1992. It opened the country’s first LGBT Visitors Center at the corner of 11th Street and Washington Avenue as a resource for gay travelers.

    The city’s legendary White Party Week in November is the nation’s oldest and largest HIV/AIDS fundraiser, drawing more than 10,000 gay and lesbian visitors for high-energy dance parties hosted by top DJs and performers, comedy shows, sports and recreational events.

    Along with South Beach’s eye-catching collection of welcoming Art Deco gems and boutique hotels, the beach is a huge draw, especially the “gay beach” at 12th Street and Ocean Drive. Other prime times for visits include spring for the two-day Miami Beach Gay Pride or the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

    Get your bearings on the Gay & Lesbian Walking Tour, hosted by the Miami Design Preservation League. It covers the contributions of gays and lesbians to the history of Miami Beach and introduces current hot spots of gay life. The tour starts at the Art Deco Welcome Center, 1001 Ocean Dr., at 11 a.m. on the second Saturday of each month.
    Info: Miami Beach LGBT Visitor Center’s website.

    TAMPA

    The GaYBOR District – a coalition of gay and gay-friendly businesses that began on the west end of Tampa’s historic Ybor City neighborhood – is now a 10-year-old presence in this former cigar-rolling, Latin immigrant enclave. Dubbed the “LGBTA Main Street for The West Coast of Florida,” the 12-block area offers a fun mix of shops, bars and restaurants. The coalition has a large presence, with its own float and krewe, in Tampa’s parade season, which includes the Krewe of San’t Yago Knight Parade in February, the Rough Riders St. Patrick’s Day Parade in March, St. Pete Pride Parade in June and the Tampa Pride Parade in March.

    Visiting in December? Check out the Santa Speedo and Mrs. Claus in Bras Run, a light-hearted, Christmas-themed, one-mile fun run and AIDS benefit through Ybor City’s holiday decorations.

    Like the rest of Ybor City, GaYbor has a thriving night life, pumped up by dance music at Seventh Avenue hot spots, such as Honeypot. Among the district’s many restaurants, Hamburger Mary’s is loudest and proudest, with dinner-time drag shows, drag queen bingo and cabarets.

    Fortunately for film buffs, the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival – one of the country’s largest and longest-running independent gay film festivals – hosts events and films year-round, but the height of activity happens in October, when more than 8,000 people attend films, parties and awards ceremonies.
    Info: Visit Tampa Bay’s Conquer With Pride website.

    GULFPORT/ST. PETE

    Considered Tampa Bay’s Margaritaville, the ’burb of Gulfport is a bohemian village of pastel bungalows, artists, eclectic shops and outdoor cafes on the Boca Ciega Bay. The best way to experience it is on foot on the first Friday or third Saturday evening of the month, when Art Walk fills downtown with artisans selling jewelry, wood carvings, tie-dyed clothing, and homemade soaps and candles, with resident musicians sometimes staging live concerts in their front yards.

    GeckoFest, a Pink Flamingo Tour of Homes and a weekly Farmers Market keep the place walkable and authentic year-round. Years ago, the town’s open-minded residents passed a comprehensive anti-bias ordinance that bans all forms of discrimination, including sex, gender and family status. The town’s public library even has a LGBTQ Resource Center, which hosts a monthly LGBTQ film series on the second Thursday of every month.

    Only five miles away, St. Petersburg waves its rainbow flag with its own LGBT Welcome Center and Pride Guide featuring events and the region’s LGBT-friendly businesses. The heart of GLBT St. Pete is the historic Grand Central District and its adjacent gayborhood of Kenwood, with its streets lined with Craftsmen-style cottages from the 1920s. Grand Center’s commercial district features more than 70 GLBT-friendly businesses, including antique stores, home décor galleries, salons, boutiques, bars and restaurants.

    St. Pete’s Pride Weekend is one of Florida’s largest gay pride events, drawing more than 100,000 marchers to a downtown night-time parade in the Grand Central District, as well as a street fest and concert, every June. St. Pete also is home to one of the west coast’s premiere gay beaches, bohemian Sunset Beach. Located on the southern tip of St. Pete’s Treasure Island, among the string of barrier islands that extends along the Gulf of Mexico to the west of St. Petersburg, Sunset Beach is famous for its strip with beachfront bars and its Sunday beach parties.
    Info: Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater LGBT Travel Connections.

    ORLANDO

    What started as a small group of gays and lesbians dressing in red and spending the day at Walt Disney World in 1991 has grown into one of the largest gay pride events in the world, attracting over 150,000 gay and lesbian travelers to Orlando on the first Saturday of every June. Gay Days at Orlando Area Theme Parks is now a week-long fete that floods all of Orlando’s theme parks with a sea of red-shirt attendees. Area hotels and nightclubs join in with satellite pool parties, dances and concerts. Not officially sanctioned by Disney, the annual event has attracted a growing number of LGBT families with children.

    Later in the year, every October, Come Out With Pride in downtown Orlando is one of Florida’s largest pride festivals, with a street festival, fireworks, kid zone and concerts.
    Info: Visit Orlando’s LGBT Guide to Orlando.

    SARASOTA

    Sophisticated and artsy, Sarasota has developed a loyal gay following, thanks to its cultural diversions, which range from the Sarasota Ballet to Drag Queen Bingo Bonanza at McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre in historic downtown Sarasota’s East End. At the Asolo Rep Theatre, the OUT@AsoloRep series pairs theatre with community outreach in monthly events that highlight LGBT organizations in Sarasota county.

    Take in the posh shops and restaurants of St. Armand’s Circle or hit Sarasota’s quiet, white-sand North Lido Beach. It’s secluded – think dunes and sea oats – and 22-acre north Lido Park looms like a forest above. Sarasota’s Pride Fest in October is held downtown on Sarasota Bay in J.D. Hamel Park. The day-long celebration features food trucks, a beer garden and tiki bar, live music and a DJ, a family fun zone, and vendor expos. 
    Info: Visit Sarasota’s LGBT Travel Guide.

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