By Mikkel Hyldebrandt

For ten years, the Georgia Aquarium has set the stage for the official Pride kickoff party in Atlanta – and every year the massive event just gets bigger and better. One of the people behind the massive success of the aquarium party is John Walker, who is the Senior Sales Manager at Georgia Aquarium, and who has been at the center of the event since its inception. Peach got the exclusive about all the work and effort that is put into this massive endeavor – and there is no doubt that this year will wow us all once again.

The kickoff party at the Georgia Aquarium has cemented itself as the massive opener for the festival – what is your role in creating this party?  

My job at Georgia Aquarium is to welcome all city-wide events to the attraction, and I felt our venue could be an incredible, whimsical and climate-controlled space to be incorporated into the Atlanta Pride weekend. Will Ramsey, Vice President of Sales and the entire Executive team at Georgia Aquarium, could not be more supportive of the LGBTQ community and this event from the beginning.

Give us a few of the impressive stats for this party?

This is the 10th Anniversary of the Official Atlanta Pride Kickoff at Georgia Aquarium. Our first Kickoff event was in 2009, and since then we have welcomed over 28,000 Pride attendees. Georgia Aquarium has been an Official Sponsor of the Atlanta Pride festival for ten years. The Atlanta Pride Kickoff has also been recognized by the Atlanta Event Industry by winning several awards for Best Themed party in Atlanta as well as Best Lighting and Technology.

Give us an impression of the scope of the work you put into this party. 

The event is about an 8-month process from inception through execution. I am responsible for everything from creating the website, ticketing, marketing, budgeting, building vendor relationships, entertainment selection, as well as decor and technology brainstorming. This all comes from a labor of love for Pride.

The kickoff party seems to be only growing in scope and production each year – how do you come up with the ideas for all of this?    

My love for travel, music festivals, and concerts helps feed my inspiration for the event. Each year I travel to other Pride festivals to check out what other cities are up to with their production. I am very fortunate to have the most amazing team that can take an idea and transform it into reality! And, I couldn’t do this each year without the support, encouragement, and expertise of my boss, Will Ramsey! Our décor and design experts at Your Event Solutions as well the technology gurus at Active Production and Design are the vendors that truly take the production to the next award-winning level.

… and what do you have in store for us this year?  

 No Spoilers, but I can say that Shangela, Phoenix, DJ Ree De la Vega, DJ Mike Pope, and DJ Drew G are all going to work us out that night and deliver a Pride to remember. It will definitely be a SPECTACLE! 

Few other cities with their own Pride festival have a party of this magnitude – what do you think it does to the image of Atlanta as a gay destination?

Oh my, we are so lucky to have an iconic attraction in Atlanta that opens its doors to embrace the LGBTQ community all year long. The size of the venue being able to accommodate such a large amount of people is so amazing for the city. Moving Pride to October was the most amazing move ever. We are pulling in guests from all over the world to showcase our incredible and diverse city. 

You are personally very passionate about this, and you put your heart and soul into it. Why is this so important to you? 

This event was fueled by an incredible and pivotal moment in my journey. Back in 1999, my husband and I just relocated from Pittsburgh to Atlanta. Pittsburgh was not a gay-friendly city at that time, and it was before the internet and social media. We had no idea what “Pride” was, and there was no “Pride Festival” in Pittsburgh before 1999. One day, a few weeks after we moved to Atlanta, we set out to explore the city and see Piedmont Park, and by chance, we stumbled upon Atlanta Pride. Midtown was filled with LGBTQ attendees and their allies living their best lives. We had never seen such a mass of people being PROUD of who they were. We were taken back with emotions. PRIDE has been very important to me since that special day. 

There are critical voices that are against the party being at this venue surrounded by live animals – what measures are you taking to appease the critics? 

Georgia Aquarium is a premier site for special events, and we always make sure that guests enjoy our state-of-the-art facility, but we’re also a leader in education, conservation, exceptional animal care, and research. 

That’s why for the safety of our animals (and guests!) all events must follow strict guidelines for lighting design, sound, etc. We have a maximum limit on volume, and we constantly monitor sound levels near and around animal exhibits. Sound volume is also monitored by sound engineers at every large event at Georgia Aquarium. We are certified by American Humane and accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA) and these agencies also have regulations and guidelines which we follow. 

Once this party is over, what are your plans for the Pride weekend?  

I get to play! I get to share the Pride festival with my husband and friends that travel to Atlanta from all over to support Atlanta Pride. I love to make an appearance at all the Official Atlanta Pride events across the city and then close out the weekend walking in the Pride Parade with the most incredible team from Georgia Aquarium.

The 10th Anniversary Atlanta Pride Official Kickoff is Friday, October 11, 7 pm – 12 am. 

 Few General admission tickets remain at georgiaaquarium.org/atlantapride.