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Disney to allow gay commitment ceremonies

Scott Powers
The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)

ORLANDO, Fla. - Gays can now exchange vows in one of the world's most popular wedding spots - then get whisked away in Cinderella's carriage.

Walt Disney Parks & Resorts said Friday it has "updated" its policies to allow gay and lesbian couples to buy wedding packages at Walt Disney World or Disneyland, and use all the same wedding spots that previously were reserved for heterosexual couples.

Ceremonies also will be allowed on Disney Cruise Line ships and other Disney facilities.

The "updated" policy stops short of declaring that gays can get married at Disney, because they can't. Same-sex marriages are not legal in either Florida or California. But "commitment ceremonies" are welcome.

"Bottom line, our business is all about hospitality," said Donn Walker, spokesman for Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. "Our commitment at Disney is to welcome all guests in an inclusive environment and to make them feel respected. We think this is consistent with that long-standing policy."

Many gay activists hailed the decision, saying it added to Disney's reputation as a progressive corporation toward rights and benefits for gay visitors and employees. Gay-market consultants said many gay couples likely will see the move as a welcome, and will take it.

"It's really significant for Disney to take this step," said David Paisley, senior projects manager, Community Marketing Inc., a San Francisco market and research company.

On Friday there was no immediate backlash from local conservatives or Christian leaders who had campaigned and preached against same-sex marriage.

Conservative state Rep. Stephen Precourt, R-Winter Garden, whose district includes Disney World, dismissed the decision as a business matter.

"Any ceremony like that here in Florida wouldn't be valid in any case," Precourt said.

The Rev. Steve Smith of First Baptist Church in Orlando and the Rev. Joel Hunter of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Fla. - both critics of gay unions - expressed disappointment, but no surprise or outrage.

"At the end of the day, they're in business to make money. This is an untapped market for them obviously," Smith said. "I'm not entirely surprised that Disney would make a fiduciary decision over a moral one."

Neither Universal Orlando nor SeaWorld Orlando has a wedding program.

Disney plans and hosts about 1,500 weddings a year, most through "Fairy Tale Wedding" packages that start at $2,950. The price climbs as couples add guests, services, upgrades and Disney features such as carriage rides and Mickey Mouse participation. Disney has an official Wedding Pavilion and four other "official" locations, or arrangements can be made for couples to get married almost anywhere, even on rides. There is almost no limit on cost. The average is about $28,000.

Most of Disney's facilities are booked many months or years in advance, so there likely won't be any immediate rush of gay ceremonies.

Still, Chris Alexander-Manley, vice president of GayDays Inc., which organizes an annual gay tourism rally in Orlando, said he expects the prospect of Disney ceremonies to be an added draw. About 140,000 visitors are expected during Gay Days this spring. The organization has included options for gay ceremonies here for years, and has four planned so far, in a hotel. He said many gay and lesbian couples likely would love a Disney ceremony.

"It will just make it more exciting for people who do want to hold a ceremony here," he said.

With the $28,000 average, just one gay ceremony a week would provide Disney nearly $1.5 million a year, noted Bob Witeck, chief executive of Witeck-Combs Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm that specializes in the gay marketplace. "It's a savvy business decision."

Disney already has a solid reputation for supporting gay rights for employees and visitors, he said. In the 1990s the company extended employees' family benefits to unmarried same-sex partners. In recent years, Disney World has become at least a passive supporter of Gay Days.

From 1997 to 2005 the Southern Baptist Convention called for a boycott of Disney because of the company's departure from its "family values" tradition, in particular, its support of gay days and its benefits to same-sex partners of employees.

Not too long ago Disney had a different approach. In 1981, two men were thrown out of Disneyland for dancing together. They sued and won, though the judge did not order Disney to change. In 1985 Disney ended its 28-year-old ban on same-sex dancing anyway, insisting the change was not spurred by the lawsuit, but was made because it was the right thing to do.

A few weeks ago an online gay-culture Web site, AfterElton.com, challenged Disney to similarly reconsider its marriage ceremony policy.

"A lot of people were saying this is really offensive, this is disappointing. I'd really like to see this change," said AfterElton.com editor Michael Jensen, who posted a March 5 article on the issue. "I was in touch with different gay groups that were reportedly trying to make some calls behind the scenes."

Disney was not responding to such a campaign, but rather to one simple inquiry, spokesman Walker said.

"A couple wanted this; that's what spurred us to reconsider our policy," he said. "This is about doing the right thing."

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