ORLANDO, Fla. — The peppy-sounding radio voice boomed, interrupting an in-depth conversation about the life, reputation and atrocities of Rafael Trujillo, the former Dominican Republic dictator.
“Orlando, a city that’s ready to welcome you just as you are,” the voice exclaims. “The possibilities are endless. And there are amazing LGBTQ events for you to experience where everyone is welcome!”
You won’t hear this 60-second advertisement if you live in Orlando. Instead, it has been broadcasted to listeners of different iHeartMedia podcasts in major cities across the United States.
The advertisement is part of a campaign by Visit Orlando to welcome visitors of all backgrounds, though this one has received extra attention as the DeSantis administration continues to crack down on the gay and transgender community.
Some have equated it to damage control.
“The whole thing was just reassuring gay people that their city is a safe place to go,” NBC News Reporter Ben Collins wrote to his 420,000 X (formerly Twitter) followers. “They’re down so bad it’s unbelievable.”
Visit Orlando’s CEO, Casandra Matej, said the campaign was not a response to any particular action by the state government or any other organization. Instead, she said it was part of an ongoing inclusivity push to bring more diverse travelers to Central Florida that began in 2021.
“We’re very proud that we’re the number one visited destination in the US,” Matej said. “But our board leadership, our team at Visit Orlando, we felt very compelled that we needed to add not only the most visited, but the most welcoming and inclusive.”
Matej said people view Central Florida as welcoming and inclusive, which led them to the tag line “Orlando for All”. The campaign so far has included the podcast ads, a USA Today ad and floats in the Dallas and Chicago PRIDE parades, which the agency’s data showed high numbers of travelers originated from.
The LGBTQ push is just part of Visit Orlando’s overall diversity brand, which has included outreach to Black, Hispanic, AAPI and other groups. Matej estimated 5% to 6% of the agency’s marketing budget was allocated for that.
One recent win was Orlando being featured in an episode of Netflix’s The Wanderer, a travel show about a Black couple exploring the highlights of particular destinations, which premiered in July.
The agency has brought in several community groups to consult on the messaging, including Come Out with Pride for its LGBTQ ads.
“They reached out to me earlier this year to really talk about how could the messaging be a little different when it comes to the travel advisory, and we collaborated with them,” Executive Director Tatiana Quiroga said. “I’m very excited to see that Visit Orlando is specifically speaking to the LGBTQ+ community. I think that it’s about time.”
Quiroga described the collaboration as genuine, even in the challenging climate.
However, that climate is why not every local advocate is on board. After listening to the podcast ad, Yasmin Flasterstein, an LGBTQ advocate and co-founder of Peer Support Space, said it struck the wrong tone with her.
“It kind of feels like it feels like they’re totally not paying attention to what is happening,” Flasterstein said. “It makes me as an LGBTQ+ person feel like I am not justified or not valid and like having these fears.”
Flasterstein said she thought it was dangerous to tell people Florida and Orlando were safe to travel to, even though she conceded Orlando was safer than the rest of the state. She pointed to protests outside of Walt Disney World and other parts of town, and mentioned receiving more hateful messages than before.
“There’s definitely a lot of people that don’t live here that don’t understand why people still live here,” she said. “People deserve to know, you know, what it’s like here and to make those decisions for themselves.”
Quiroga said Orlando’s LGBTQ community was shooting itself in the foot by not encouraging tourism, even amid the climate in Tallahassee.
“Come on down, see who we are, see why we’re fighting,” she said. “Don’t forget us in our biggest time of need… Turning your backs on us now is actually the opposite of what we need to happen.”
Visit Orlando is already looking ahead to its participation in Orlando’s PRIDE festival on October 21, as well as its messaging for other upcoming events like Magical Dining and the winter college football bowl games.
“Making sure that people around Florida and nationwide know that there’s a variety of reasons to come to Orange County,” Matej said.