It’s all about building healthy relationships at Blissful Lotus.

Stacey Murphy shows off the products sold at Blissful Lotus that help couples discover intimacy and romance.

ORLANDO – Stacey Murphy gets a lot of people who sign up for her classes, particularly women, and “a lot of our clients, they’re professional, educated people.”

But Murphy still knows that when a few of them start the class, there’s always going to be that initial giggle factor.

“I say, ‘Ladies, this is a participatory class, you didn’t come here to look at me, you came to learn a technique,’ “ Murphy said. “And some of the women are giggling.”

On the other hand, for some of the couples who show up, her class turns out to be a major revelation.

“We have a lot of men who come in with their girlfriend, and by the end they say, ‘Girl, I’m seeing you in a whole new light,’ “ Murphy said.

That doesn’t surprise Murphy, who with her husband Sean Ramsay runs Blissful Lotus, a boutique on Orange Avenue that puts an emphasis on romance – specificially, by selling products from linqerie to oils, books to artwork, designed to help couples discover what works for them romantically, and what makes them tick.  

Husband and wife owners Sean Ramsay and Stacey Murphy opened Blissful Lotus a year ago in October.

At the same time, the boutique – which celebrated its one year anniversary in October – also hosts classes for couples and individuals that run every Tuesday through Thursday from 7-9 p.m. The educational component of the business is “huge,” Murphy said, since the classes are designed to teach couples and individuals about healthy ways of embracing their sexuality.

“What makes it positive is we try to teach men and women about authentic and empowered sensuality,” Murphy said. “It’s all about teaching people to embrace themselves and their sexuality. We have a school for loving arts.”

It’s also, Ramsay said, a way to get people to talk and think about a subject that people often are uncomfortable confronting: their sexual feelings. In a sense, he said, it becomes about strengthening relationships by teaching people how to be more open about feelings and desires.

“It’s okay to talk about this,” he said. “We’re letting the guys know it’s okay to be in touch with this stuff. It’s about relationships, and the experience of creating an intimate relationship.”

So how does a couple get into the business of teaching intimacy education through classes on “Erotic Kissing for Couples” and “Seven Days to Sex Appeal”? In some ways, it all happened rather accidentally, Murphy said.

Both of the store owners have backgrounds in other fields – Murphy has worked for years in corporate marketing, while Ramsay has a background in retail.

“My husband and I got into it initially because I wanted to take Tantra yoga lessons,” Murphy said. But she needed a way to pay for the lessons.

“I actually came across selling romance enhancement products to help pay for the Tanta lessons,” she said. “I started selling this at home.”

She quickly discovered that women calling for information about these products had a lot of questions – far more than Murphy initially expected.

“Many of the women were hungry for information, and I was able to sell the products by giving them information as well, on how to get in touch with their sensuality,” she said.  “That’s when I came across this concept.”

Romance boutiques, she said, are easy to find in big cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, but the concept was unheard of in Florida until last October, when a similar boutique opened in Miami. Murphy and Ramsay opened their shop at 1810 N. Orange Ave. at the same time, and it turned out to be the perfect location, she said. It’s a neighborhood that includes the Rock N Roll Heaven used record store, the White Wolf Cafe, Theatre Downtown, and the Savoy gay nightclub.

“This area is just very eclectic, very down to Earth, and they seem more receptive to this concept,” she said.

Did they have a difficult time opening a romance boutique in a conservative Southern state? Murphy said Orlando city officials never gave them a difficult time.

“We worked with the city for about a year to get a clear and defining line about what we can and can’t do,” she said. “We were very open about it, saying “This is what we want to do,’ so the city worked with us. Other parts of the area wouldn’t work – we wouldn’t be going to Winter Park. But we find that we’re bringing a resource here.”

It’s also important to keep in mind, Murphy noted, that her boutique is not the same thing as a store selling pornography.

“Romance boutiques are different,” she said. “None of them have offensive packaging. We don’t sell porn. Many of them have an art gallery as well, as we do.”

Rather than explicit DVDs and magazines, Blissful Lotus has an art gallery for adults.

What’s more challenging for them is dealing with the fact that sex remains one of those subjects that everyone wants to hear about, but at the same time it makes so many people very uncomfortable.

“We have a very schizophrenic view of sex,” Murphy said. “We use it to sell everything, but we don’t want to talk about it.”

Sex is so popular, though, that the subject matter saturates the media, she noted. Murphy said she got a laugh recently when she saw a television commercial about pest control.

“They were using sex to sell it – ‘The roaches are doing it,’ “ she laughed. “We try to give this subject a different face – something very educated.”

The key to making it work, she added, is to help people walking through the door feel comfortable talking about their feelings and desires.

“The biggest feedback I get is because we’re very relaxed, it makes people comfortable with us,” she said. “You’ll have a woman that says, ‘You know what I’m talking about, his … his …’ And we say, ‘We know what you’re talking about – his Love Wand.’ And they say ‘Yeah,’ and that helps make people feel comfortable.”

Murphy said Blissful Lotus shouldn’t be confused with a medical office that deals with physical issues requiring medication or surgery, and it isn’t a sex club, either.

“In our society, we’re either too clinical or too crass,” she said. “We try to bridge it in the middle.”

To learn more, call Blissful Lotus at 407-704-3357, email blissfullotus@gmail.com or log on to www.TheBlissfulLotus.blogspot.com.

Parliament House gears up for an ambitious 2011

ORLANDO – Don Granatstein remembers the day 11 years ago when he first toured the property called the Parliament House. Known for being a rarity – a hotel that catered to gay men in the conservative Deep South – Granatstein wasn’t the least bit impressed. 

The Parliament House just kicked off its Winter Party on Dec. 4.

“I came and saw it and said, ‘This thing is a bloody mess,’ “ he recalled. “It was a dirty, filthy whorehouse.”

Something else stands out in his mind from that day: standing in front of the hotel on Orange Blossom Trail and listening to truck drivers speed by, yelling out the window and calling Granatsetin a “faggot.” It’s a memory he’s never forgotten.

“I’m from Toronto, the most liberal city in the world,” he said. “You had to be tolerant or you didn’t fit in with Toronto. So there I was, and I’m getting called faggot, and I’m totally insulted.”

The sorry condition of the hotel, combined with the vocal prejudice Granatstein experienced, could have been enough to send plenty of investors packing. But Granatstein – who is married to his business partner, Susan Unger – didn’t walk away. Even amid the insults and the property’s disrepair, they still saw potential. And in part, it had to do with the remarkable amount of name recognition that this little hotel had, well beyond the Orlando city limits.

“Everywhere we’d go, everyone knew the Parliament House,” he said. “I said, ‘Would you stay there,’ and they’d say, ‘Of course not, it’s a dirty, filthy whorehouse.’ “But it had a name.” 

Don Granatsetin initially thought the Parliament House was a dump. But he also knew it had a name.

Today, Granatstein and Unger make up Parliament Partners Inc., owners of the resort at 410 N. Orange Blossom Trail that has not only survived, but thrived. While still a popular spot with the gay community, Granatstein and Unger have worked hard to build up other aspects of the resort’s appeal, including a restaurant, several nightclubs, and a theater that’s proven to have wide crossover appeal to straight audiences as well with hit shows like “Ladies of Eola Heights” and performances by well known celebrities. Back then, Parliament House was a place gay men could go if they wanted to find sex with other men in a conservative city. Today, the resort is a destination, regardless of sexual orientation.

“Our line,” Granatstein said, “is expect to be entertained when you come to the Parliament House.”

The Parliament House is getting into the holiday season with plenty of bright, cheerful lights.

Their biggest success to date may have been “Ladies of Eola Heights,” written by the resort’s theatrical director, Michael Wanzie, and featuring three men playing three sisters in Orlando who reunite for their father’s funeral. The play was such a big hit that it had an extended run for months, and continued drawing in huge crowds every Saturday night – and not just from gay men. Elderly women seemed particularly drawn to the seriocomic story.

“One afternoon they brought in a busload from the Villages,” Granatstein said of the development in Lake County that appeals to retirees.

It’s a journey that Granatstein and Unger almost didn’t take.

The Canadian Granatstein, who is an accountant by trade, cut his teeth in the field of gay hospitality when he helped open one of the first gay-friendly time shares in Las Vegas, through a resort that had never been able to attract families with children.

“Because there was no children, it was a natural to become gay friendly,” he said.

It also made Granatstein realize that gay consumers have money to spend and appreciate resorts that reach out to them and make them feel welcome. It’s one of the reasons why he initially entertained the idea of buying the Parliament House in the late 1990s, since it already had a solid reputation with the gay community.

But the property was in such disrepair that Granatstein wondered if it was even salvageable.
”I said, ‘This is a real stretch,’ “ he noted. “I told Susan, ‘I’ve never been afraid of a deal, and I’m afraid of this deal. I can’t make this thing make sense.’ We went, ‘How the hell do you run a place like this?’ ”

It was Unger who changed his mind, by suggesting that they buy the property and then build a central courtyard with a pool and a lounge area. Suddenly, it all made sense.

“Her idea for the courtyard changed my view,” he said.

It wasn’t easy transforming the property. Granatstein recalls having a hard time lining up financial backing from southern financial institutions, since the money was going to a gay resort.

“There’s still tons of prejudice in the world,” he said. “They would say to me, ‘I have nothing against you, but I’m a staunch Christian.’ That was the kind of thing I was running to.”
Parliament Partners Inc. cleaned up the property, created the courtyard, and kept adding on new things. Granatstein recognized that a resort with live entertainment could appeal to anyone in a city already known worldwide as a popular tourist destination, and Wanzie began expanding the shows being done at the Footlight Theatre, from original plays to off-Broadway imports to cabaret and female impersonators. Their restaurant expanded its menu and will host a big New Year’s Eve bash in a few weeks.

“We have been trying to do more modern entertainment,” Granatstein said. “We’ve definitely gone mainstream in the entertainment.”

But at the same time, Granatstein stressed that the Parliament House remains what it was in 1999.

“It will never stop being a gay resort, no matter what,” he said.

Wanzie emphasized that fact on Dec. 4, when the Parliament House hosted two special events: the Parliament House Winter Party, which the official kickoff of their courtyard lighting program, and then the debut of Wanzie’s holiday production, “A Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol.”

Just before the show started, Wanzie asked the full house audience to exit the theater in the direction of the nightclubs, leading right out to the pool bar.

“If you’ve never been to our pool bar,” Wanzie said, “it’s just past the half naked guys on the deck.”

One of those half naked guys is bartender Eddie “Funhouse” Guzman, who said working at the resort is a “phenomenal” job.

“What we do here as bartenders is we entertain,” he said, adding that Parliament House has built up a loyal following that it’s helped them cope through a recession that hasn’t spared the local hospitality industry.

Bartenders like Eddie Guzman are one reason why the Parliament House remains a popular destination with the gay community.

“There are no slow times for us,” Guzman said. “There’s always constant traffic here.”

He agreed with Granatstein that the Parliament House has a name across the country.

“I’m from New York, and I told people ‘I’m going to Orlando,’ and they said ‘Oh, you’ve got to go to the Parliament House,’ ” Guzman said.

Granatstein said their entertainment standards have gotten higher, which is one reason why they have so much crossover appeal today.

“I think to be a drag queen here, you have to work harder than in the rest of the country,” he said. “It’s entertainment-plus.”

Still, 2010 was a tough year for the resort, starting in August with media reports that the Parliament House was facing the possibility of bankruptcy. But Granatstein dismissed any notion that the resort was about to close its door.

“We’ve gone through a terrible period in that our mortgage lender went into bankruptcy,” Granatstein said. “That’s almost over now.”

A judge eventually placed the property into receivership, giving Granatstein hope that the worst of their financial troubles are behind them now, and the resort and its employees can look forward to a stronger 2011. Their plans include a renovation of the property – “Let’s call it a tune up,” Granatstein said. “The bars will get redone, and then the rooms next.”

Parliament Partners Inc. will also launch the Parliament Club in 2011, a neighboring timeshare property that allows guests to use the Parliament House facilities, plus added features like a health club and boating program.

“You don’t have to buy a timeshare, you can just join the club,” he said, adding that this was all part of his and Unger’s plans to make the Parliament House a world class destination – for gays and straights alike.

“We’re never going to be anything but what we already are, but we’re going to get better,” he said.

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