The Story of the Dunes Resort
TRAVEL THE DUNES RESORT: A GAY MIDWEST MECCA
(original article by Ross Forman, 2011 Windy City Times)
They ate pizza and drank margaritas that September day in 1998, brainstorming their future. Partners Mike Jones, Danny Esterline and Greg Trzybinski had just finished moving furniture out of a cottage in Douglas, Mich., when they came up with the idea to buy a gay bar.
The next day, they called a realtor friend of theirs.
And so changed the rest of their lives—and the gay scene in the Midwest.
On May 26, 1999, the trio took over ownership of The Douglas Dunes, which has since been renamed The Dunes Resort.
“Well, I guess you shouldn’t eat pizza, drink margaritas and try to plan your life. … You just never know what’s going to happen,” Jones said, laughing.
“Seriously, we were at points in our lives where it just seemed right.”
Located two and a half hours by car from Chicago, The Dunes Resort is the largest gay resort and entertainment complex in the Midwest, and no doubt one of the five biggest in the United States. The Dunes is heralded as western Michigan’s premier gay and lesbian vacation destination and a pinnacle of the gay Saugatuck/Douglas community.
The Dunes Resort sits on 22 acres, with 81 hotel rooms and six bars, including western Michigan’s largest gay dance bar and a cabaret with live entertainment and a game room.
” The Dunes can be a lot of different things for a lot of different people. To me, it’s a little slice of heaven in the middle of western Michigan where it’s traditionally pretty conservative,” said Jones, an Indiana native who graduated from Purdue University with a degree in hospitality and lived in Chicago working at a design magazine before the fatal pizza feast.
Esterline has a political background and serves as a handyman. Trzybinski comes from a banking background.
And, yes, the three are partners—personally and professionally.
“It all works,”Jones said, laughing again.
The Dunes Resort truly is a special gay getaway, where people of all walks [ of life ] can find themselves, lose themselves and, most importantly, be themselves,” Jones said. The crowd is mixed, to put it mildly. There are circuit kids, couples, retirees, twinks, bears, lesbians and, well, just about every flavor under the rainbow. “You can be gay, straight, old or young, and feel comfortable here,” he added.
But, about 80 percent of their clientele is gay men, except during the two annual women’s weekends, when The Dunes Resort becomes about 90 percent women.
Jones said the normal mix is 50 percent singles, 50 percent couples.
Most annual visitors come from Chicago, followed by Indianapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee and St. Louis, Jones said.
“We have a lot of stories of people who have met their partners here and now plan their vacations here on an annual basis,” Jones said. “The Dunes is, as far as the local gay community [ is concerned ] , Ground Zero; it’s home. And it’s home for people [ ranging in age ] from 21 to 85; anyone can come here and have a good time.
“If you like strippers, we have strippers. If you like live entertainment and cabaret, we have live entertainment and cabaret. We also have great DJs. If you want a quiet, romantic weekend, we can provide that, too. It’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and I think that’s the reason people come here year after year after year.”
And, yes, that includes straight, gay-friendly customers—especially since The Dunes regularly hosts events for various communities, ranging from leather to lesbian.
The Dunes Resort kicked off its 2016 season—its 35th year—in early May with the Anniversary Weekend featuring Celebrity Impersonator Michael Walters as Dame Edna. Memorial Day weekend involves another major on-site fiesta with DJ Drew G and Phil B. The annual Red White on Blue Star event, held over Independence Day weekend, features appearances by DJ Tony Moran , GRIND, Seth Cooper, Eddie Martinez and Tristan Jaxx at the pool with hot bods Billy Santoro and Wesley Woods. And the Summer’s Going To Come Again party over Labor Day weekend will incorporate DJ Joe Gauthreaux, Theresa and Hector Fonseca.
“I think everyone who comes here feels good and feels comfortable. You can be sitting at the bar with lesbians on one side, a cross-dresser on the other side and everyone is just having fun. There’s not pretense,” Jones said. “This is a very welcoming place, regardless of what you like, what you don’t like, how much money you make, how much money you don’t make, what you’re wearing, etc.”
Carl Jennings and Larry Gammons were the original owners, striking gold at the old drive-in Amity Motel. The Douglas Dunes started with 22 hotel rooms, a restaurant, lobby bar and summer-only outside dancing. “Carl and Larry loved the area and really wanted to get more people to come here, so they created The Dunes for a reason for people to explore this beautiful little community,” Jones said.
Over the years, under the guidance of Jennings and Gammons, entertainers in fields spanning everything from pop and porn have appeared.
“At the end of the first summer [ as owners, 1999 ] , I got emotional. I was looking around, everyone was having fun and then I thought, ‘Wow, this is ours.’ That was a little overwhelming,” Jones said.
The Dunes Resort nightlife is also eclectic, with the dance floor featuring progressive to hard-rock music, and everything in between.
“Things are a lot easier now than they were in year one,” Jones said. “It was a stressful first summer, because everything was new. It was hard, a lot of long hours. At the end of the first summer, it was very emotional. The next year was easier. And it’s been easier every year since.
“Our business has grown every year, and I think that our product gets better every year. Sure, it can still be stressful at times, but it’s still so much fun. I wake up every morning and just think that I’m so blessed.
” The Dunes Resort is kind of a gay institution in the Midwest, and you feel a lot of pride.” And the resort is a family affair. Jones’ mom, Sharon, is the head housekeeper.