For months leading up to Jean Franco Rivera’s one-year wedding anniversary, he had the perfect plan to celebrate: Travel to Disney World and go on all his favorite rides with his husband, Ahmed, and brother-in-law, Luis. The three men, all gay and Latino, are originally from Puerto Rico, but now live in Texas. As the trip approached, Jean Franco, 42, said they felt somewhat concerned about traveling to a state that had passed legislation targeting L.G.B.T.Q. people in recent months.
But in the end, they went.
And on a recent Saturday, they were just part of the usual throng of people at the Orlando theme park, waiting in line for Space Mountain, Guardians of the Galaxy and Jean Franco’s favorite ride, Flight of Passage. At Disney World that day, you would never have known that the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the L.G.B.T.Q. organization Equality Florida had all recently issued warnings telling people to reconsider coming to Florida because of the policies of Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican lawmakers.
I had traveled to Florida in the wake of the N.A.A.C.P.’s advisory to see whether the warnings had any effect. The Riveras and other travelers told me that while they were against many laws recently passed in Florida,they didn’t feel that canceling their vacations would help anyone — or change the policies. In fact, several travelers said that they visited Disney and certain parts of Florida to get away from politics.
“Coming to Disney, especially, is like entering a safe zone,” Stephanie Kate Jones, who was visiting the park from Wales in the United Kingdom, told me. “Coming here is a way to escape reality and the stress of everyday life.”
And while the warnings were widely covered outside the state, they have so far seemed to have little or no impact on tourism numbers.
“Travel has always transcended politics,” said Stacy Ritter, the president and chief executive of Visit Lauderdale, the Fort Lauderdale tourism organization. “People have always traveled to places where they don’t agree with the politics because they want to see something new, different. They want an experience. They want a vacation.”
DeSantis vs. Disney
Governor DeSantis, who was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2022 election, has introduced socially conservative policies, from the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” education bill limiting gender and sex education to the decision to bar the teaching of Advanced Placement African American history because it was a form of “indoctrination” to a tough crackdown on undocumented immigration.
Mr. DeSantis, who recently entered the 2024 presidential race, has also been in a dispute with Disney since last year, when the company said it would pause political donations in Florida because of the sex education bill. The two sides then began battling for control of the board that oversees Disney World’s development, with Mr. DeSantis trying to take control of it and limit Disney’s authority.
Disney sued the governor over the issue this spring and in May the company said it was scrapping a $1 billion development in Orlando.
While announcing his candidacy for presidency, Mr. DeSantis said that the N.A.A.C.P. advisory was “a total farce.” The travel warnings, he said, were a political stunt. “These left wing groups have been doing it for many, many years. And at the end of the day, what they’re doing is colluding with legacy media to try to manufacture a narrative,” he said.
But Brandon Wolf, the press secretary of Equality Florida said that the organization has received an increasing number of inquiries about whether it is safe for L.G.B.T.Q. travelers to go to Florida. “We felt it imperative that we answer the incoming inquiries honestly and completely,” he said.
In announcing L.U.L.A.C.’s advisory, the group’s president, Domingo Garcia, had warned that “DeSantis’ enforcement regulations will treat us like criminals, transporting a dangerous person who only wanted to visit family or enjoy Disney World.”
And Derrick Johnson, the president and chief executive of the N.A.A.C.P. said in an email in response to Mr. DeSantis’s comments: “As long as our contributions to this country and the powerful stories of our rich backgrounds, continued struggle and survival are denied, Black Americans need not pour our labor, time, or money into the state.”
The Sunshine State juggernaut
Florida is a tourism juggernaut. In 2022, it had 137.6 million visitors, the most in its history, according to Visit Florida, the state tourism organization, and in May the governor’s office proudly shared that Florida welcomed 37.9 million people in the first three months of this year.
Orlando remains the most-visited city in the United States — 74 million people traveled there in 2022. According to Visit Florida, in 2021, visitors to the state contributed $101.9 billion to Florida’s economy and supported more than 1.7 million Florida jobs.
While many Floridians said that travel warnings from civil rights organizations have symbolic meaning, few said they were concerned that people would stop visiting the state altogether. Some people recalled the backlash over North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill,” which kept transgender people from using bathrooms that aligned with their gender. The fallout over that bill was immediate and significant, leading to its repeal.
Nicolas Graf, associate dean at New York University’s School of Professional Studies’ Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism, said a state’s policies might keep those who are politically active from visiting a destination, but “the notion that travelers — business or leisure travelers — will really change their behavior due to politics, I think that’s a minority of people.”
And that’s true across the political spectrum: Lance Toland, a conservative Georgia-based business owner who approves of Mr. DeSantis’s attempts to rein in Disney, said a state’s policies wouldn’t keep him from visiting. Liberal laws in California, for example, don’t keep him from going there, he said. “I can’t worry about what each state’s stance is. It doesn’t affect me.”
In many popular tourist spots, life was going on without interruption when I visited. In Winter Park, just north of Orlando, lines for restaurants like Prato, a casual Italian spot with a large outdoor patio, were lengthy. When I stopped several shoppers exiting upscale boutiques along Park Avenue, they said that while they had heard of the dispute between Disney and Mr. DeSantis, they hadn’t heard about the travel advisories.
Ashley Smith, 32, was visiting a friend in Winter Park for the weekend and was heading out for a boat tour of Winter Park’s lakes. Asked what she thought about the advisories, she said that she didn’t understand how limiting her travels could possibly be connected to the state’s political dramas.
A more welcoming stance
The advisories come after years of work by tourism officials across the state to expand its visitor base. In 2021, for example, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau announced that it had changed its name to Visit Lauderdale and it had a new flashy tagline: “Everyone Under the Sun.”
Visit Lauderdale was just one of several tourism boards in the state that, in the past decade, have recognized that international, Black, Latino and L.G.B.T.Q. travelers have the discretionary income to spend on vacations and real estate and that it would be smart to appeal to them.
But these days, tourism boards, destination marketing organizations and travel businesses around the state are trying to figure out how to keep appealing to a diverse range of travelers.
Many of them prefer not to address the controversy directly. Florida’s tourism marketing organizations are funded through a bed tax — when a traveler checks into a hotel or resort, a percentage of what they pay for their stay goes to fund the work done by visitors’ and tourism organizations. That tax is controlled by state statute. Leaders of three destination marketing organizations, all asking to speak anonymously, said that while they do not support the recently enacted laws they are worried that criticizing Mr. DeSantis publicly could lead to retaliation by the Legislature, which could cut back or eliminate funding for their organizations.
Jen Cousins, the co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project and a mother of four who is part of a federal suit challenging the sex education bill, said she believes that players in the travel industry, including cruises, airlines, destination marketing organizations and others, should speak up against the recent legislation. She also noted that in meetings with the education secretary, Miguel Cardona; the assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Adm. Rachel Levine; and the secretary of health and human services, Xavier Becerra, she and other activists were told they had the support in Washington, but, she said, “no one has stepped in.” The Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to requests for comment.
Ms. Ritter, the president and chief executive of Visit Lauderdale, was willing to go on the record. “Do I think the impact will be felt immediately? No, I don’t,” she said.
But, she said, she’s already seeing business and corporate travelers, who make up a significant part of the travel industry, look elsewhere. In the week after the civil rights organizations issued their warnings, seven large conferences and conventions walked back their plans to be in Fort Lauderdale, she said. Many event organizers, Ms. Ritter said, are looking ahead to events happening three to five years from now and far fewer are considering Florida. Her organization isn’t even bidding for certain events because they feel like a lost cause.
“And that’s directly related to state policies,” she said.
Not really Florida
Part of Jean Franco Rivera’s reason for going ahead with his anniversary trip was that he felt his travel dollars were actually being spent in opposition to Mr. DeSantis’s policies, because they were going to Disney. “Disney is standing up for our rights and being here feels like supporting their decision to stand up to DeSantis,” he said. “Many people who work at Disney are part of our community, the L.G.B.T.Q. community, and being here is our way of supporting them.”
Many travelers I met at Disney World and along the Jacksonville Beach Pier suggested that the parts of the state that they were most likely to visit were, in some way, not really Florida. Key West, Miami, Wilton Manors, St. Petersburg and Sarasota traditionally vote Democratic and have swaths of L.G.B.T.Q. and immigrant residents who, in many cases, disagree with the legislation being put forth. Visitors said that by supporting the economies of these places they could defy the state’s Republican lawmakers.
They also said they felt conflicted about the advisories, saying the warnings felt like an escalation of politics that could potentially harm local business owners, low-earning residents and liberal enclaves more than Mr. DeSantis or Republican lawmakers.
Some Florida residents felt the same way. “As a resident of Orlando, our tourist mecca, I don’t tend to advocate for a travel ban because a lot of our friends work in these low-paying travel jobs,” said Ms. Cousins. “They’re the ones being affected, not the top-paid C.E.O.s.”
For the moment, those involved in tourism in the state feel like they are walking a line. Rachel Covello, of Outcoast, a digital magazine that focuses on L.G.B.T.Q. community, said that the publication used to promote the state overall as an inclusive destination. Now, while not telling people to say away, she said, it is highlighting specific destinations that are known to welcome L.G.B.T.Q. travelers.
“We pivoted our focus,” she said. “We don’t want to look like we’re blind to what’s happening in our own state as we’re promoting tourism.”
Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2023.