About This Festival
Started by two Key West businessmen who wanted to accelerate the start of the traditional peak winter season, Fantasy Fest probably rivals Mardi Gras as America’s most free-for-all hedonistic party for those 20, 40, 60, or 80. While the roots of the event match Key West’s gay mecca demographic, over time, the audience has grown more mainstream but, beware, there’s a “try-sexual” flavor that still adds a spicy twist to the affair. Fantasy Fest isn’t for everyone, but for those who love it, they swear by it and make the trek every year attracted by the combination of balls, costume competitions, body painting, homemade bikini contests, and the infamous camp parade where people just let it all hang out, literally.
The festivities begin at the two-day Goombay Street Party Celebration in Bahama Village, but the kickoff highlight is the first Friday night Royal Coronation Ball for the Fantasy Fest King and Queen, known as the Conch King and Queen (Key West considers itself the Conch Republic, sort of its own banana republic) who’ve raised the most money for a Key West AIDS organization. Some of the other annual events include the Tuesday Headdress Ball, the Wednesday Pet Masquerade and Parade, the outrageous Thursday Pretenders in Paradise costume contest, the Masquerade March, and Sloppy Joe’s Bar’s toga party with bed sheets and laurel wreaths being required attire. If you’re an extrovert who enjoys a good party, you will be in your element.
Fantasy Fest - One of the Wildest Parades in North America
The finale parade starts on Saturday night and the revelry goes all night into Sunday. It’s an oddly surreal event as it’s one part small-time America, one part David Lynch film, and one part gay pride parade. Duval Street is the main drag and “drag” is the operative word as you’ll rarely see more cross-dressers in a procession in your life. Some of the highlights are the flamboyant floats and merry-raising marching bands. There’s a little flavor of Carnival with the slinky costumes full of feathers and Caribbean drums. You’ll get that Mardi Gras flavor by watching people throw beads at their favorite processions. Colorful body painting is rampant. And, there’s a pretty plentiful supply of alcohol flowing throughout the finale evening. It’s not necessarily an event made for most families. On the other hand, you’re likely to see quite a range of generations on parade as there are lots of older drag queens who live in Key West year-round having retired from Soho or South Beach years ago.
Relax and Enjoy Key West
Given how long Fantasy Fest is and the number of nights of parties, some of the best advice is to take time enjoy the adventure and beauty of this part of the world. There are many snorkeling and diving shops that can take you out to enjoy the underwater fantasies (although be careful doing that if you’ve had anything to drink the night before). Ernest Hemingway’s Home and Museum is an essential tourist stop which is open daily from 9-5 along Whitehead Street. Renting a bike, and using it, is also a great way to burn off some of last night’s alcohol and see what Key West has to offer. Remember to capture the city, landmarks and events with tons of photos and videos to make your trip even more memorable. All in all, Fantasy Fest is almost like an oddball family reunion given how many people make the journey each year. Just know that it’s a very welcoming and friendly environment for people of all sizes, ages, colors, and genders.