When you think of Gay Days at Disney, several trademark images come to mind — be they of loose-fitting red T-shirts over latter-year bellies or the T-shirt-less bodies of the gym-ed up, G-d out circuit boys in purchased revelry. Cynicism and bitchiness prevail. For authors Jeffrey Epstein and Eddie Shapiro, both of Out Magazine editorial fame, the touchstones are significantly more literal and innocent.
"It all started when I was four," says Shapiro. "That was many, many, many, many years ago. Not as many as Jeffrey, though."
The often bitchy, typically funny twosome just recently published a Disney travel guide, Queens in the Kingdom, designed to be "The Ultimate Gay and Lesbian Guide to the Disney Theme Parks." Having been key catalysts in the origination of Disneyland California's own gay extravaganza a few years ago, the two found an easily exploitable subject matter worthy of pink-tinged exploration. Initially, it was to be a 500-word article for gay lifestyle mag Instinct. But with two theme-park meccas and endless resorts under the Disney umbrella, a book seemed a natural extension.
"There was sooo much to be said on this particular topic," laughs Shapiro.
But what Disney would like to be said could have been an issue. You would think that the attraction, which tacitly accepts the yearly event but is understatedly careful in publicizing it, might stand in the way of two gadabouts in it for a laugh.
"It was actually surprisingly positive," says Epstein. "They hooked us up with publicists at Disney World and Disneyland who were great." (It should be said, however, that attempts to enter the park for research on the book were denied this reporter.)
"You don't think that they would be the most gay-lovin' people in the world," says Epstein. "They sent us back our manuscript with about 1,000 corrections, but every single one of them had nothing to do with our tone or with our opinion. It was things like, 'Never Land is two words.' When we said Innovention should be called 'infomercial' because it's the biggest waste of time in your life, they didn't care. Who knows, maybe they agree with us."
The links between Disney's animated imagery and fairy-tale endings are clearly not lost on the gay community. Nor are explosions of sharp-toothed gay banter. The guide seems to be the perfect companion to any queer endeavor through the fiberglass fantasyland.
"I definitely think that there is an element of fantasy that is so attractive to gay people, an escapism in being able to go somewhere where everything is perfect and everybody treats you really well," says Epstein.
"Particularly Jeffrey," jokes Shapiro. "Nobody treats him really well."
"Eddie has his own reasons."
"I think it's a very large topiary. And gays love a topiary."
Sure, it may be an easy study in stereotypes, coloring cartoon characters into defense mechanisms but underlying is a genuine study in American culture.
"The Disney films have always resonated for gay people, being about the outsider overcoming flaws and finding his place in the world," reminds Epstein. Beauty and the Beast, and the lyrics of the late Howard Ashman, with the villagers singing, 'We don't like what we don't understand.' I think that's a very common experience. People who are afraid of gay people have never met a gay person, and they don't understand."
"And feeling like Cinderella," adds Shapiro. "You're kicked on, beat on, and you still end up with the prince."
Do you think Disney knows what they're doing in all of that?
"Well, they're not making $150 Cinderella figurines for straight people."
Composed of exhaustive accounts of nearly every Disney establishment, Queens in the Kingdom keeps things light and readable with a series of "Fairy Facts" about each. A huge undertaking, really, but seeing as both Epstein and Shapiro frequent the parks, not that difficult.
"The book is designed to be a complete resource," says Shapiro. "If there wasn't necessarily a gay fact about a certain attraction, then we could just be bitchy about it, because we do that very well."
Rather than cattily outing Peter Pan for the Peter Pan's Flight attraction, the duo opt for a little bit of spirited nitpicking.
"While we always love, love, love flying over London, we have to note that there is an awful lot of vehicular traffic down there, considering that the story takes place before cars. But we're willing to forgive that lapse of accuracy since the London scene is actually built on an enlarged city map."
And for the Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride, it's not a discourse on weight and pink bows, but rather a sun-weary tip.
"They're not kidding when they say hold on to your hats and glasses, people. An average of 100 pairs of sunglasses are sent over to the Lost and Found at the Magic Kingdom every day. More than 1.5 million have turned up since 1971. Don't let this be you."
While shamelessly cheeky, the book does go some way in debunking the knee-jerk cynicism attached to Disney queens and the June holiday they assume yearly. It's just a fun read. But the pair's involvement in the newer Gay Days in California is attempting to go even further: to make a more populist affair out of the celebration.
"The thing about the Gay Days at Disneyland, I do agree that there's a certain cynicism, because some people think it's just a big circuit party. And one of the things we try to do at the Disneyland event is to make sure that everyone feels included," says Epstein. "While we do have nighttime dance parties, we make sure they are 18 and over so that younger people don't feel neglected, and we strongly go after the lesbian community. We really do try to outreach all the groups."
Such mild lifestyle activism bodes well for an event that, locally, has been characterized by money-grubbing opportunism from independent circuit promoters and theme parks alike. Epstein and Shapiro are simply saying make the most of it.
"Some people are surprised that it wasn't more mean," says Epstein. "But you know Eddie and I, we loved Disneyland. We go to the parks because we enjoy it. While we can be bitchy and catty about things, and certainly bitchy and catty about each other, there's an overall love for the parks."
"We're realistic human beings who realize that Disney is a monolithic company making money on everyone," says Epstein. "But we genuinely love the Disney experience."