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THE WONDER OF IT ALL :: Wonderland
Orlando, Florida
by Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
June 3 - 7, 2010 Bookmark and Share
You just can’t keep a good circuit weekend down: out of the ashes, one of the circuit’s most beloved events rises anew. What has been known over the years as Gay Disney, GayDayS, Reunion, Gay Day, One Mighty Weekend, GD Weekend, Girls in Wonderland (as well as half a dozen other monikers) is poised to take flight like the phoenix again—thanks in no small part to the return of impresario Mark Baker. After a somewhat aborted take-off in 2009, the night events for Orlando’s premier circuit weekend have been re-christened Wonderland/Orlando—and given Baker’s reputation for producing spectacular events, there’s every reason to believe in Wonderland.

Five years ago, Baker sold his interest in the Orlando party after years of phenomenal success. Having fulfilled his dream of transforming Orlando into a sizzling hot LGBT party destination each year during the first weekend of June—and, in the process, making manifest the dreams of thousands of dancing queens—Baker walked away from the scene like Michael Jordan at the peak of his game. At the time, Baker was quoted as saying that he couldn’t top what he’d already accomplished, implying that it was a good time to step back and re-evaluate. And now, to the relief of much of the circuit and dance community, Baker’s back!

This year’s celebration marks the twentieth anniversary of the LGBT community convening in Orlando. What started as a relatively small group of LGBT people gathering in Disney’s Magic Kingdom in 1990 attired in red t-shirts (the better to increase visibility amongst each other), quickly snowballed in the ensuing years into a LGBT tourist juggernaut. Each year, during the first weekend of June, Orlando attracted more than 150,000 LGBT celebrants from around the globe to a weeklong, citywide series of massive pool parties, all-night spectacles, and marathon after-hours, complete with fireworks, pyrotechnics, and performances. And few would argue that much of the success of Orlando’s emergence into the international party spotlight was due to Baker’s consummately professional and awe-inspiring nighttime events.

Throughout his stint in the circuit, Baker parlayed his background in television commercial production into events that were noted for technical prowess, professional polish, and explosive fun. Baker was the man who reignited the fire in the Friday night events of Miami’s White Party weekend, co-producing with Jeffrey Sanker a pair of parties in 2001 and 2002 at Miami’s Seaquarium, complete with a massive stage, seamless performances, and a mind-numbing display of fireworks that illuminated the Miami sky. Then, for two years’ running at Miami’s Winter Party, Baker converted the formerly ramshackle Ice Palace Studios into a Hollywood movie set of a fantasy playground inspired by Pee-Wee’s Big Top. As for Orlando? Baker completely transformed the first weekend in June with his colossal parties at the Colosseum at the Hard Rock Live and his Stars parties at Universal Studios, as well as his after-hours extravaganzas at Arabian Nights. In short, Baker revolutionized the weekend—and in so doing, established Orlando as the summit of the circuit.

Given all that success, one has to wonder why Baker would wish to re-enter the Orlando circuit sweepstakes. As Baker says, “I thought that if we didn't get Orlando fixed this year, then it might be the end of the road for the weekend.” According to Baker, all the venue rentals for 2010 have been advance-paid—but perhaps equally important to the success of this year’s Wonderland has been “the unbelievable support from the community; it was inspiring to hear from all the people that really wanted Orlando to shine again.”

What with last year’s confusion and conflicting reports about the fate of the first weekend in June, the year 2009 was a turning point for Orlando’s well-loved circuit festival. Many attendees in 2009 were ready to throw in the towel, never to return to Orlando again. As Baker sees it, “We are hoping that people will get excited about our 2010 party schedule and see that we have ticket prices under control as well as a great affordable host hotel. Mostly, we're counting on the people who've been coming to Orlando for a while to give newbies the scoop.”

Regardless of what did or didn’t happen in Orlando in 2009, the first weekend of June in Orlando still remains the largest annual gathering of the LGBT community on the North American continent, and yet, there are people who have yet to make the trek. It is to those “newbies” that Baker says, “Orlando is an event unlike any other, and this year, it’s really affordable. During the day, we have great pool parties or you can visit the theme park attractions. And each night, we work very hard to create world-class events that offer totally different experiences. Let's face it, most dance parties don't have roller coasters running above the dance floor.”

When people speak of the marvels of Orlando’s circuit weekend, most often it’s in connection with those “world-class events” that traditionally have been Baker’s bailiwick. This year, according to Baker, “Our biggest goal was to create at least one new event—and that would be the brand-new Saturday night Stratosphere Party at Universal Studios.” Produced in conjunction with local LGBT publisher Watermark Media, the creators of the original Beach Ball (one of the most well-loved events of the weekend), this year’s Stratosphere Party, potentially the largest of the weekend with a capacity of 6,000, takes place on the huge Music Plaza and features four amazing rides, including the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit rollercoaster, alongside a stellar dance party. “We’ve got some surprises in store,” says Baker, with classic understatement. With tickets priced at a reasonable $75 and proceeds benefiting the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, this party has the potential to send everyone into the stratosphere.
On Sunday night, Baker’s taking back the Hard Rock Live, with DJ Abel, the maestro who put the Colosseum party on the map and stamped it forever his own. Re-christened FASScination, the Sunday might event is, according to Baker, “our new spectacle party where people will experience cutting edge technology and amazing performances.”

As anyone who’s ever been to Orlando in June knows, the weekend ain’t over until after-hours says so. The parties at Arabian Nights have become the stuff of legend, partially because of their size—the mass of people and the immensity of the space—but also because these are the events where deejays are known to blow the roof off the party and propel party boys and girls into orbit with sets that are noted for breathtaking, mind-blowing shows of expertise and aplomb. And, according to Baker, Arabian Nights is going to be even more magical and ambitious this June because “we've got an audio designer who has worked with Tiesto, and we’ve got new lighting to complete re-work the look of Arabian Nights.” Falling only a couple months after Winter Music Conference, these are the parties where deejays showcase their latest mixes, the ones that invariably keep the dance floors crowded throughout the remainder of the year. In other words, you heard it here first—at Arabian Nights.

With a new Walt Disney World host hotel, still gleaming from a $35 million renovation, and with Saturday’s pool party hosted by Atlanta’s non-profit Joining Hearts, and Edison Farrow’s SoBe Social Club hosting Sunday’s pool party, as well as new parties such as Grind at House of Blues on Thursday night, and Let’s Go Play at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park back for a second year, Wonderland/Orlando 2010 promises a return to the glory days of the circuit. As Baker says, “This year, we’ve been telling people, ‘This is the gay Orlando weekend you’ve loved: with a fresh, new kick-ass attitude. And we mean it.”

Based on Baker’s stellar reputation for delivering the goods, there’s every reason to believe. For 2010, it’s all about Wonderland/Orlando: believe in it.

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