South Florida's gay social calendar is getting a lot busier.
PrideFest. Parades. An art gallery opening. Circuit parties.
Within South Florida’s tourism boom, the LGBT community has carved a new season. It’s all part of a giant rainbow welcome mat, with high-profile activities extending well into the spring and summer months, when many snowbirds have packed up for home.
"There is definitely an unofficial gay season in South Florida," said Mark Haines, founder and CEO of the popular gay events listing website, jumponmarkslist.com.
Haines, who has been running "Mark's List" for 10 years, said he's noticed the difference this year: He's been swamped trying to accommodate requests for event listings happening in the next few months, particularly March through June.
"It's all the organizations trying to pile up fundraisers to take advantage of all the people in town," he said. "It seems like quite a few of the organizations are getting to be more organized."
Some events are held in the spring to tap into the wave of visitors.
"We do it in the springtime because we want to have events when snowbirds come down, to really convey that we have a diverse and welcoming community here,'' said Tony Plakas, CEO of the Compass Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Palm Beach County, which organizes the area's PrideFest. "We really saw there was an opportunity to do outreach to a larger number of people."
While Ian Smith, organizer of Miami Beach Bruthaz, a gay black party weekend, said he plans his event for July to avoid the springtime gridlock.
"There were so many other events going on, part of the issue was picking a time of the year that wasn't so close to the other events,'' Smith said.
What began in 2006 as a group gathering of 50 friends to raise awareness about coming out and HIV in the black community has grown into an annual event that draws about 600 gays and lesbians for club parties, movie and museum nights.
"Although it's very hot, it still is Miami Beach,'' said Smith, explaining what draws the mix of locals and vacationers to his event.
The region has become known as a must-visit destination for gays and lesbians, community leaders say.
Last year, Wilton Manors was named "top gayborhood" in the country by ManAboutWorld, a gay digital magazine. And 2012 Census numbers, released in October 2013, showed that greater Fort Lauderdale led the United States with the highest concentration of same-sex households.
South Florida has done a good job of self-promotion. Strong marketing campaigns aimed at gay vacationers can be traced back to 1996, when the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau took out an ad in The Advocate magazine touting the city's hotels, restaurants and beaches for gay travelers.
The marketing has since evolved. The bureau has a "Beach-on-Wheels'' display — with sand and models tossing beach balls — that stops at major U.S. cities promoting greater Fort Lauderdale. The tourism bureau has also folded its LGBT message into its more mainstream "Hello Sunny" marketing in other cities.
Though Broward doesn't track how many LGBT travelers visit during the spring and summer months. But overall in 2013, the county welcomed about 1.3 million LGBT travelers who spent about $1.5 billion in area restaurants, hotels, attractions and shops, according to the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"We are growing internally, and the community is growing,'' said Richard Gray, managing director of the LGBT market for the tourism bureau. "Each year, we keep seeing more and more LGBT travelers coming. There are very few resort destinations that boast hundreds and hundreds of LGBT-owned businesses, and the community here is a very big draw."
About four years ago, Miami Beach opened its LGBT Visitor Center to provide information on local events and art exhibits. And Discover Palm Beach County, that area's tourism agency, has also been working to court LGBT visitors with big events. The agency is co-sponsoring the fifth annual Gay Polo Week, this April in Wellington.
The season kicks off March 1-2, with Pride Fort Lauderdale at Holiday Park, an outdoor festival and concert featuring '80s pop stars including Sheena Easton, Lisa Lisa and Tiffany. Among the most popular (and oldest) of the events, it is expected to draw about 15,000 people, organizers say.
Next up in March: the Winter Party in Miami Beach, a weeklong series of beach parties and galas that benefit the LGBT community, and PrideFest of the Palm Beaches, with a parade, 150 vendors and live musical performances in Lake Worth.
The Miami Beach Gay Pride parade and street festival arrives in April. And May will include Fort Lauderdale's BeachBear Weekend, with restaurant and bar crawls led by large, hairy gay men; and the lesbian circuit party Aqua Girl in Miami Beach.
In addition to the slate of events, the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale plans to unveil a new 2,000-square-foot gallery space in Wilton Manors on March 21 to draw tourists and residents alike. The opening is also good promotion for the Stonewall Summer Pride Street Festival in June.
"We are opening that week to really show the community what our plans are for that space," Stonewall museum executive director David Jobin said. "The fact that we have Stonewall Pride in the dead of summer and fill the streets, I think that tells you something."
Even local businesses not usually associated with gay festivals are looking to get in on the action.
For the first time, Sawgrass Mills is offering coupon booklets for attendees of Pride Fort Lauderdale, which attracts gays and lesbians ages 30 to 60. Festivalgoers can take their ticket stubs to the Sunrise mall and receive a coupon book with $500 in savings at retailers such as Nautica Factory Store, Burberry and Canali.
Sawgrass, Stonewall and other groups are trying to court visitors like New York City resident John Zisel.
He's planning a Memorial Day weekend trip to Fort Lauderdale this year for Sizzle Miami, an annual circuit party centered around the LGBT black community.
"What a great way to start the summer off right,'' said Zisel, 34, a visual director who works for Italian home decor brand Frette.
Couple Jose Ivan Burgos, 44, and Angel Arroyo, 45, will be visiting South Florida from their native Puerto Rico for next month's Winter Party. They like to check out the deejays and beach festivities and to socialize with locals and fellow out-of-town friends.
"We have friends in Los Angeles who we plan to meet in Miami since it's a happy medium," Burgos said. "There's also a lot of local people from Florida who go to that party, other than the tourists."
Editor’s note: Tony Plakas, CEO of the Compass Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Palm Beach County, is a contributing columnist on the Sun Sentinel’s editorial pages.
Staff writers Melvin Felix and Rod Stafford Hagwood contributed to this report.
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If you go
Pride Fort Lauderdale: March 1-2 at Holiday Park, War Memorial Auditorium, 800 NE 8th St., Fort Lauderdale. $15-25. pridesouthflorida.org
Winter Party Festival: March 5-10 throughout South Beach. $12-$600. winterparty.com
PrideFest of the Palm Beaches: March 29-30 at Bryant Park, Lake Avenue and Golfview Drive, Lake Worth. $8. compassglcc.com/pf.html
International Gay Polo Week: April 4-6 at Grand Champions Polo Club, 13444 Southfields Road, Wellington. General admission starts at $25. Gaypolo.com
Miami Beach Gay Pride: April 11-13 along Ocean Drive, Miami Beach. Cost depends on event; April 13 parade free. miamibeachgaypride.com
BeachBear Weekend: May 7-12 in Fort Lauderdale beach. Host hotel: Courtyard Marriott, 440 Seabreeze Blvd. Passes cost $59. beachbearweekend.com
Aqua Girl: May 14-18 in Miami Beach. Host hotel: National Hotel, 1677 Collins Ave. $10-$65. aquagirl.org
Sizzle Miami: May 22-27 at InterContinental Hotel, 100 Chopin Plaza, Miami. Passes start at $157. sizzlemiami.com
Stonewall Summer Pride Street Festival: June 21 along Wilton Drive in Wilton Manors. Free. pridesouthflorida.org
Miami Beach Bruthaz: July 17-20 in Miami Beach. Host hotel: Congress Hotel South Beach, 1052 Ocean Drive. Cost hasn't been announced. miamibeachbruthaz.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun