Pensacola’s Memorial Day Weekend is considered the unofficial “start” of the summer circuit party season, and with over 50,000 people converging on the northern Gulf coast each year for the fun beach parties and revelry, the weekend definitely starts the season off right!
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 the 1990s, local nightclub owner Johnny Chisholm, partnering with New Orleans-based Ambush Magazine, started organizing large circuit parties both on Pensacola Beach and at the Civic Center in downtown, across from his nightclub Emerald City. The beach parties still go on today.
Here’s a rundown of the main circuit parties going on during Memorial Day Weekend, as well as a guide of the gay bars and clubs in Pensacola.
- Splash Beach Fest – This is a Memorial Day Weekend’s bread and butter. People from all over the country bring their tents, their coolers, and their state flags and claim their territory right on the beach; it’s fun to see all the people and where they’re from! The Splash Beach Fest happens each and every year on big stages directly on Pensacola Beach’s Park East. This year the Splash Beach Fest hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend. Music from local and nationally-known DJs will be playing around the clock on all days of the party. Free admission.
- Wave Beach Party – Pensacola Beach’s signature nighttime party, the Wave Beach Party will happen this year on Saturday, May 24 from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. DJ Roland Belmares, who has played Miami’s Winter and White Parties, will be producing this event in conjunction with Johnny Chisholm, and will also be spinning all night. To buy tickets for this event, go to memorialweekendpensacola.com/tickets.html.
Pensacola Beach is well removed from the gay nightlife of Pensacola, which is a 15-minute drive away and is centered around the downtown area. If you don’t want to go to the beach every day, there are many events going on in town at the bars for you to enjoy.
The main nightclub in Pensacola is the aforementioned Emerald City (406 E. Wright St., 850-433-9491). For many years the headlining entertainer for Memorial Day Weekend at Emerald City was Bianca Del Rio, who is now well-known for her appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Definitely watch for the “Jewels of the Emerald Coast,” Emerald City’s show cast, headed by local celebrity Lauren Mitchell.
The Cabaret (101 S. Jefferson St., 850-607-2020) draws a mixed crowd and is popular for happy hour and first dates, due to its inviting polished-wood bar and opportunities for quiet conversation (DJs don’t start until 10 p.m.). The Roundup (560 E. Heinberg St., 850-433-8482) is the home bar for the country/western, bear and leather communities, although it welcomes all gay men. There is a sizable lesbian community in Pensacola as well.
Pensacola’s Memorial Day Weekend is undergoing a resurgence as the city of Pensacola is undergoing a similar resurgence. The historic downtown area, once an area reserved for office buildings, is now home to bars, restaurants, and music venues. The current mayor, the youthful Ashton Hayward, has also helped energize the city and the weekend; he is the first mayor in the city’s history to commit publicly as a gay ally and has signed proclamations welcoming gay tourists to the city in the past.
If you’re looking for accommodation for the weekend, make sure you reserve your room as soon as you can! The recommended hotels that have partnered with Johnny Chisholm are the Hilton Pensacola Beach (4 Via de Luna, 866-916-2999) and the Hampton Inn Pensacola Beach (2 Via de Luna, 850-932-6800). If you’d like to stay at a hotel with gay-friendly management, consider Sole Inn and Suites (200 N. Palafox St., 850-470-9298) near downtown. There are dozens of other hotels in Pensacola to choose from; for a list, visit memorialweekendpensacola.com/hotels.html.
For tickets and more information on the circuit party events, visit memorialweekendpensacola.com. For more information on the gay bars of Pensacola, visit emeraldcitypensacola.com, tinyurl.com/thecabaret, and theroundup.net.