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Disney's a Pretty Big World After All

Thousands of Christian music fans and church groups descended on Disney World last weekend to hear artists rock Cinderella's Castle, part of a decades-old official Disney event called Night of Joy.

But Michael W. Smith (search) fans aren't the only ones who like to visit the Mouse house. Each year, Disney World (search) and Disneyland (search) are unofficial hosts to a variety of well-organized groups, like black-clad Goths, that some say stray from Disney's squeaky-clean image.

Gay Days, held during the first weekend in June at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and Gay Day 2, held in October at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., are among the best-known and most controversial unofficial Disney days.

Both have Web sites and organized meet and greets for gay men, lesbians and gay parents with their kids.

"A lot of gays and lesbians growing up don't feel included," said Jeffrey Epstein, founder of the Disneyland event and co-author of "Queens in the Kingdom: The Ultimate Gay and Lesbian Guide to the Disney Theme Parks." "Disney treats everyone like a prince or a princess or both."

The events have become so popular, drawing thousands, that gay groups in Europe are launching a Gay Day at the Disneyland Paris theme park on Oct. 4.

The official Disney line is that these days are like any other at the parks.

"Our parks are open to everyone everyday," said Disney World spokeswoman Jacquee Polak. "Whether it is an official event or unofficial event we want to make it a magical experience for everyone."

Companies like Bud Light and Virgin Megastore have signed to sponsor the gay weekend at Orlando, but it has sparked protest from conservative religious groups.

This year, the Family Policy Network (search) wanted to fly banners reading, "JESUS CHRIST: HOPE FOR HOMOSEXUALS.COM" during the 13th annual Orlando Gay Days. The Virginia-based network sued the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies, saying a no-fly ban over the park violated its free-speech rights. A federal judge refused to lift the ban.

Another event that has gained momentum — and notoriety — is Bats Day in the Fun Park, more commonly known as Goth Day. Goths are known for their black clothes, pale faces, dark eye makeup and an affinity for gloomy music.

This year's event, held on Aug. 24 at Disneyland, drew more than 1,000 Goths to the "Happiest Place on Earth," according to organizer Noah Korda, a 32-year-old Los Angeles-based graphic artist and club promoter.

Goths posed with Pluto, rode the merry-go-round and lurked about the Haunted Mansion ride. Korda said some tourists photographed the black-clad Disney fans and even mistook them as a promotion for Disney's upcoming film, "The Haunted Mansion."

Bats Day's Web site, which stresses that the event isn't sanctioned by Disney, provides tips for a satisfactory Disneyland experience.

Under the frequently asked question, "Is there any kind of dress code?" it states: "We found out that Disney will not allow capes or fishnet stockings, on guys, to be brought into the park. You can try to wear them in, but keep in mind that you may be asked to take them off and place them back in your car."

"At first it was kind of for shock value; let's freak out the 'normals,'" Korda said of the event's origins. "But I don't know anyone who doesn't like Disneyland. I'm a fan of the style, the artwork, how the park takes you out of your element."

That's exactly why a typical Disney fan can't be defined, said Deb Wills, editor in chief of AllEarsNet, an unofficial Disney World fan Web site.

"They have created this fantasy world that allows people to be calm and relax," Wills said. "It really does appeal to the entire gamut of folks, no matter what you do, how much money you make or what you believe in."

Wills, who has been to several Gay Days events, said the group's presence is hard to spot.

"With the wide range of cultures at the parks, you'd be hard pressed to notice anything going on," she said, adding "except at the Magic Kingdom," referring to the Gay Days practice of encouraging participants to wear red T-shirts so they can recognize each other.

During Raver Days, which are less frequent than some unofficial days, club kids with their baggy pants and stuffed animals in tow, may blend in with the tourists wearing fuzzy Mickey Mouse ears and children carrying stuffed Pooh bears.

Besides Night of Joy, Disney officially attracts epicureans to its Epcot International Food and Wine Festival in the fall, athletes to its marathon in January and flower fans to Epcot's International Flower & Garden Festival in the spring.

Wills said she's noticed Disney expand its official days to attract people with a variety of interests. But she doesn't foresee Disney sponsoring events such as Gay Days in the near future.

"They walk a very fine line in terms of their audience," Wills said. "I think they have to be very careful with what they sponsor and what they don't."

When asked about the future of the unofficial events, Polak, the Disney spokeswoman, said: "Right now we have a number of special events that happen here on our property and they are the ones we focus on."