Pensacola’s Memorial Day Weekend is the unofficial start of the summer circuit party season, and it’s a major event for the Florida Panhandle, with over 60,000 gay and lesbian travelers making it to the City of Five Flags to party with pride and bring in summer on a festive note. This year’s lineup is scaled down from previous years, but there will also be some new additions to the tried-and-true formula.
The weekend started in the 1970s when locals invited their friends from Atlanta and South Florida to come to town for the weekend. They were so impressed with Pensacola that word spread, and by the 1980s gay businesses were actively courting gay tourists and their dollars. In fact, for many years the gay tourists would leave markings on their currency, so the local businesses would realize just how much of an impact the long weekend and the gay tourists had on the economy.
Gay entrepreneurs were listening as well. Starting in the 1990s, local nightclub owner Johnny Chisholm partnered with New Orleans-based Ambush Magazine and began to organize large circuit parties with Chisholm’s nightclub, Emerald City, as the centerpiece. At that time, 20,000 people would come to Pensacola for the long weekend each year. Since then, the weekend has grown in attendance at a phenomenal rate, with 50,000 people attending in 2013 and 60,000 in 2014.
The event has reached a zenith in the last few years, having finally received full approval from local politicians, such as Mayor Ashton Hayward (himself a former male model, and staunch LGBT ally). A robust group of small businesses in the downtown area have also approved of the crowds who descend on Pensacola for Memorial Day Weekend. Memorial Day Weekend is one of the biggest moneymakers for the city, with tourists and locals spending over $30 million in Pensacola last year alone.
While gay and lesbian tourists from all over the country will be pitching their tents on Pensacola Beach, many of the parties this year will be in downtown. Many of them will be at the city’s largest gay nightclub, the aforementioned Emerald City (406 E. Wright St.). On Thursday, May 21, there will be a dance party called Foreplay, featuring music by DJ Jay-R. On Friday, May 22, the club is expected to be filled to capacity as DJ Roland Belmares comes to town and spins for the crowds at the “Strip Down” dance party. Memorial Day Weekend veteran DJ Joe Gauthreaux will be the lead DJ on Saturday, May 23 at the popular yearly “Sweat” party.
On Sunday, May 24, Emerald City reintroduces an underwear party at Memorial Day Weekend and combines the theme with day-glo colors, calling it the “Friction Glo” party. Music will be provided once again by DJ Jay-R. For many years the mistress of ceremonies on the Sunday before Memorial Day was Bianca Del Rio, now known worldwide through her exposure on RuPaul’s Drag Race season six. This year, her Drag Race sister Adore Delano will be carrying on the tradition, and there will also be a chance for you to kiki with Adore and get your picture taken with her. Finally, on Memorial Day, Monday, May 25, there will be a special “sink or swim”-themed dance party called “Climaxx,” with music by local DJ Orlando Ricardo.
Don’t forget about the other gay bars in Pensacola, which will be hosting their own events. The Roundup (560 E. Heinberg St.) is geared more toward the bear and leather crowd, while The Cabaret (101 S. Jefferson St.), a low-key, oak-paneled piano bar just one street off the main drag in downtown, welcomes gays, lesbians and allies of all ages (with much of their clientele in their 20s and 30s). In past years, The Cabaret has welcomed Atlanta camp drag troupe The Armorettes for Memorial Day Weekend.
A number of hotels are partners with the Pensacola community for Memorial Day Weekend, including the Hilton Pensacola Beach (4 Via de Luna), the Hampton Inn Pensacola Beach (2 Via de Luna), and the Pensacola Beach RV Resort (17 Via de Luna). For a full list of welcoming accommodations, visit memorialweekendpensacola.com.”
For more information on Memorial Day Weekend in Pensacola, visit memorialweekendpensacola.com.