Way back in 1978, an intrepid member of the Tourist Development Association in Key West had an idea as he walked Duval Street on Halloween Day.
The weather was gorgeous, the sky blue, but the town’s hotels but restaurants were in a moribund “off season’ mode. Key West has always been known for its laid back vibe.
Why not throw a carnival or some kind of festival that will draw fun-loving people like a magnet and energize every business in town. 1979 - Key West advertised its first masking and costuming celebration, called it Fantasy Fest, and made sure it lived up to its name and fit right in with the little islands slightly off kilter and eccentric sensibilities.
People came in droves. As of 2016, it draws tens of thousands of revelers and is the biggest week in Key West’s season. Everybody wins.
Note: costumes may be outrageously funny and outrageously skimpy. There are rules that govern the event, everyone follows them. The sense of fun, naughty and/or wacky, is pervasive. CNN and Fox News takes a back seat while you’re in Fantasy Fest’s orbit. It’s the most sustained period of light-hearted, all ages revelry I’ve ever experienced.
Fantasy Fest 2016
Key West, FL aka “The Conch Republic”
Thursday, October 27, 2016
“On Friday, October 28 and Saturday, October 29, 2016, portions of Duval Street and adjoining side streets will be designated as a Fantasy Zone.” And that, dear readers, is where Key West becomes an alternate universe.
Fantasy Fest in Key West is a Disneyland for fun-loving people with an exhibitionist streak. And boy oh boy do they ever take advantage of it. And so do visitors who want to witness the fun and walk among the celebrants.
The organizers of Fantasy Fest call the annual 10 day party in Paradise for adults “Florida's premier masking and costuming celebration.” If understatement is possible here in the southernmost point in the continental USA, this qualifies.
Every year’s fest has a theme. This year’s is “Political Voodoo & Ballot Box Barbarians.” After walking down Duval Street, it’s clear that some have been planning their appearance since the theme was announced. Elaborate, creative costumes are show-stoppers.
Then there’s body painting. If you’ve never seen a woman decked out in body paint and a tiny something-or-other covering her lower bits, you’ll be forgiven for doing a double take. It’s sort of counter intuitive but the atmosphere is as far from walking around an R-rated movie as "Toy Story" is from "Keeping Up With The Kardashians." You won’t confuse this with college vacation week in Fort Lauderdale. Everybody behaves.
Maybe it’s the tropical weather, or the turquoise waters surrounding the small island, or the fact that this is the home of “Margaritaville” and a former playground for Ernest Hemingway, but the vibe envelopes you with a wink as soon as you walk off the plane and see the sign “Welcome to the Conch Republic” painted across the roof of the tiny Key West airport terminal.
Since its founding in 1978, there’s a clearly stated Code of Conduct for Fantasy Fest. Total nudity is illegal, men have to cover their privates. Painted female breasts are allowed. A tide of liberated breasts of every imaginable shape and size with painted with exotic designs is on display in the Fantasy Zone.
Every time I see a group of people who’ve congregated on Duval Street (which is closed to traffic Friday and Saturday), I know there’s a man, woman, couple, or group with spectacular costumes or lack thereof posing for photos in the middle of it. Spectators, clothed or costumed, hand their cameras or phones to friends or total strangers so they can pose with the glamorati. If pixels could be translated into miles, Fantasy Fest would easily reach Pluto.
If everyone else in America thought like these revelers, glamour magazines would go out of business. For every lean and toned participant whose body fat numbers are minuscule, there are a dozen who haven’t seen the inside of a gym in years…or ever. Nobody gives a damn. This is as egalitarian a celebration of body image as exists on earth.
Six-pack abs and buff smooth butts are seriously outnumbered by people whose bodies might remind you of ones belonging to your mailman or local librarian. Aside from a beach in the south of France where people are comfortable in their own skins, there’s no place like this on earth. If I were a psychiatrist who had a patient with a body issue, I’d write them a two-day prescription to Fantasy Fest.
College kids and people who are their grandparents’ age mingle with ease. The Conch Republic is a pretty laid back place to begin with. If you’re here this week, you’re in an alternate universe that pretty much puts up a deflector shield worthy of an Imperial class Star Destroyer to ward off lewd behavior and allow frolicking.
The Masquerade March from the Key West cemetery to Duval Street tomorrow afternoon will draw thousands of marchers. What ensues will be the wildest collection of wacky, skimpy to elaborate costumes worn by individuals, couples, and groups. I will be in the midst of it… as spirited a party in motion as you’ll find north of the equator.
Thursday: Duval Street is open to vehicular traffic. The sidewalk? Free range costumerie and fantasy.
Let the people watching begin... dinner at Caroline's on Duval Street at a street side table...celebrants are more than happy to smile for the camera...
the fun has barely begun...the woman in pink is a breast cancer survivor...
and early evening strolling is beginning to roll...
and everyone is more than happy to pose for the camera.
Spectators and participants side by side... The Conch Republic and The Rest of the World!
Coming next - a post dinner Thursday night walkabout, then...The Masquerade March on Friday.
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.