A Winter Wonderland

Thousands attended a pool party for during Winter Party at the Shelborne Hotel in Miami Beach. (Micaela Hood / March 11, 2013)

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.


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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.