Gay Tourism, Gay Beaches, and the Marlin Beach


Marlin Beach Hotel brochure, c. 1975. All images courtesy of the Stonewall National Museum & Archives, Fort Lauderdale, FL.


Selected Item: Marlin Beach Hotel brochure, c. 1975


Marlin Beach Hotel brochure, c. 1975


Marlin Beach Resort brochure, c. 1975


Marlin Beach Resort brochure, c. 1975


Marlin Beach Resort brochure, c. 1975


Marlin Beach Hotel brochure, c. 1975


Marlin Beach Hotel brochure, c. 1975

               In the midst of multiple social, cultural, and political changes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the phenomenon of gay tourism gained visibility. It first emerged at the beginning of the 20th century with major metropolitan centers (including London, Berlin, and New York) and specific areas (such as the Mediterranean) as favored destinations. In the post-World War Two years, aided by the publication of national and international gay travel guides like Bob Damron’s Address Book and The International Guild Guide and national publications like the Advocate, interest in gay tourism grew. For many gay men living closeted lives in cities and towns across America, going on vacation to a “gay” destination gave one the opportunity to be open about their sexuality and meet others like them. While Fire Island in New York and Provincetown in Massachusetts were preferred summer time destinations, beach-side places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale were becoming popular the rest of the year.[15]

               In December 1974 the first “all-gay” cruise left Fort Lauderdale for a week-long voyage in the Caribbean. Organized by a French specialty cruise company, the ship, according to the New York Times, had 300 “homosexual passengers” aboard. Most of them were men, “well-heeled and under 35 from New York, California and Florida” and “roughly half of them were ’in the closet,’ among them doctors, lawyers, designers, businessmen.” Notably absent were “’queens,’ those dyed and cosmetized symbols of homosexuality.” Signs of intergenerational tensions were evident, as “the gay world’s old guard was politely excluded." As the Times noted, "Effeminacy, seen by the younger gays as a symptom of needless guilt feelings, is considered embarrassing and old-fashioned.”[16]

               In addition to the developing cruise ship business, a key attraction of the South Florida destinations were its beaches. Both Miami and Fort Lauderdale had “gay beaches,” designated spaces on the beach were gay men could come, lay in the sun, swim, see, and meet each other. In contrast to “the gay bar,” there was lots of light and the opportunity to more completely exhibit one’s physical attributes and assess those of others. The 22nd Street beach in Miami Beach, for example, had a gay history going back to the 1940s and the restrooms there were popular places of assignation. [17]

               Although Fort Lauderdale had a number of gay bars, the “gay beach” was in Dania, a small town across the New River just south of Fort Lauderdale. The beach was actually an undeveloped barrier island with dunes and limited access via a road through Dania. In the 1950s and early 1960s, it was the “colored beach” where Broward County African Americans, prohibited from using the beach in Fort Lauderdale, were allowed to swim. In 1961, however, civil rights protests and “wade-in’s” desegregated the city beach.[18] Dania’s beach, with its isolated character, soon began to attract gay men. Aside from the sandy beach, the bushes and trees allowed ample opportunity for sexual cruising. The Broward Sheriff’s office began conducting periodic raids on the beach, arresting men there on charges of public indecency. In spite of such raids, the beach remained a popular gathering place for Fort Lauderdale’s gay community.[19]

               It was the 1972 re-opening of the Marlin Beach Hotel as America’s first explicitly gay beach resort hotel that established Fort Lauderdale as a gay tourist destination and its gay community as a visible part of the landscape. Completed in 1952, the Marlin Beach was the jewel of the Fort Lauderdale beach’s hotels. Just across Highway AIA from the beach, it had over 105 rooms, a stage and dance area, two restaurants and bars, and an enclosed courtyard with a large pool. There was an underground tunnel that connected the hotel to the beach. The restaurant-bar downstairs had a large aquarium type window onto the pool, allowing diners to enjoy their meals while watching the water activities in the pool. Both the hotel and the dining room pool window were featured in the 1960 movie Where the Boys Are, which established Fort Lauderdale as the place to lay in the sun in the day and party at night.

               The 1960s, however, were not kind to the Fort Lauderdale beach and the Marlin. With jet flight becoming popular, tourists began to discover newer fresher places like Las Vegas, the Caribbean, and Hawaii. The opening of Disney World in Orlando in 1971, followed soon by other theme parks, stole the family trade. As a result, South Florida tourism began to decline. Fort Lauderdale’s beach area, particularly after the release of Where the Boys Are, became the destination of spring break students, numbering over 200,000 in the 1960s. With them came a large population of panhandlers, “street people,” hustlers, drifters, and druggies. Marlin Beach quickly became run down and lost its glamour.[20]

               In 1972, however, the hotel was bought by a group of out of town investors with hopes of turning it around. One of the investors knew John Castelli, a young gay Chicagoan advertiser who sold his business and moved to Fort Lauderdale. He was looking for something to keep himself busy. He was asked if he was interested in using his creative skills to upgrade the hotel. Castelli did not know anything about the hotel and restaurant-bar business, but as a young gay man he knew the gay scene and he knew that Fort Lauderdale had a large gay population and was also becoming a popular tourist destination.[21]

               Castelli, familiar with the summer gay resort scene in Fire Island, realized that the Marlin Beach could be a year-round gay resort. He remodeled the restaurant and pool area, putting in a stand-up bar. He turned the bottom restaurant/bar into a disco and put in a DJ booth. To further emphasize the hotel’s new identity, he painted the building pink (four years later it was repainted more neutral colors). He then started advertising to prospective gay tourists, putting ads in the New York magazines After Dark and Michael’s Thing, which had a large readership among the city’s gay population. He also placed ads in the national gay magazine The Advocate.

               He also realized the enclosed courtyard pool and the beach in front of the Marlin offered security from the law and prying eyes and could replace the gay beach scene in Dania. He went to the beach in Dania and posted leaflets on the trees reading “They Damn You in Dania but Love You in Lauderdale”; the leaflets provided information on the Sunday afternoons tea dances around the pool at the Marlin Beach. The hotel rooms quickly filled up with guests from the North and the pool and bar were packed with both tourists and people from the local community. Drags queens, local bands, and comedians entertained the crowd at poolside. As one local newspaper account described:


Forty five men have spread towels on redwood chaise lounges with only one caring to venture into the chlorinated blue pool water. It was the tan they needed to keep up.


It looked as if they were produced by the same doll maker, with bronze beautiful bodies, every one being very trim. A few had decorated themselves with small earrings and frail gold shark tooth necklaces.


They were “Where the Boys Are” at the Marlin Beach hotel, and they had to remain attractive -or run the risk of not finding a boy friend at this unique Fort Lauderdale resort.[22]


The beach in front of the Marlin became the “gay” beach and the underground tunnel from the Marlin provided both a convenient place for pick-ups and quick sex. As the hotel manager noted, “Pick ups are a big part of the hotel and gay life…. Everybody is on the make.” [23]

               Ironically Castelli did not remain as the manager at the Marlin Beach. He knew what the formula for success was and he went on to open a series of his own bars and restaurants, including the very large and popular gay disco The Copa, which remained a very important part of Fort Lauderdale gay night life for the next twenty-five years.

[15] Stephen Clift et al, “Introduction: Gay Tourism Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,”  in Clift et al., eds., Gay Tourism: Culture, Identity, and Sex (London: Continuum, 2002), 1-8. But it was not only people from the Northeast and Midwest who came to Florida. Florida’s northern Gulf Coast increasingly attracted gay tourists from Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. See Jerry T. Watkins, The Redneck Riviera: Sexuality and the Rise of Florida Tourism (Tallahassee, University Press of Florida, 2018).

[16] Cliff Jahr, “The All-Gay Cruise: Prejudice and Pride,” New York Times, April 6, 1974, 10A:1.

[17] Fejes, “Murder, Perversion, and Moral Panic.”

[18] Deborah Work, My Soul is a Witness: A History of Black Fort Lauderdale,” (Virginia Beach, VA: Donning, 2001), 138-149.

[19] John Castelli, interview with author, June 7, 2016, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

[20] Gillis, Fort Lauderdale: The Venice of America, 129-131.

[21] Castelli, interview.

[22] “Marlin Beach: Gay Hotel Thrives in Fort Lauderdale,” Atlantic Sun, September 27, 1977.

[23] "Marlin Beach: Gay Hotel"; Michael Murphy, interview with author, January 14, 2020, Fort Lauderdale, FL.