In 1979 two local businessmen, Bill Conkle and Tony Falcone, decided to organize a party to stimulate business during what was a typically quiet, but beautiful season. And their idea worked! The party filled up the city’s hotels, local restaurants and bars. The event has expanded every year since its inception and is now a ten-day celebration that includes costume competitions, balls, parades, and a plethora of other events and activities. Fantasy Fest draws thousands out-of-towners from all over the country.
Fantasy Fest’s highlight is the Fantasy Fest Parade that features lavishly decorated floats and costumed revelers. The parade winds through Duval Street from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. Every year the organizers choose a new theme for the parade. For example, the 2016 theme was “Political Voodoo & Ballot Barbarians” in honor of the United States presidential election. The parade attracts more than 100,000 attendees, which is more than three times the population of Key West Island.
One of the parade floats carries the annually elected Conch King and Queen. Conch is a slang term that locals jokingly apply to themselves and the island (the Conch Republic). Several months before the festival, King and Queen candidates participate in a fundraising competition to benefit AIDS Help. Two candidates who raise the most money become the Fantasy Fest King and Queen and are crowned during the Royal Coronation Ball.
The festival also hosts a mile-long street fair featuring food vendors, arts and crafts, liquor booths and costumed characters. Another highlight of the festival is its annual Reddy Ice Fantasy Façade Competition. Locals decorate the street-side exteriors of their houses, and the panel of judges chooses the winners.
Other attractions featured in Fantasy Fest’s program include the Masquerade March, the Poster Design Contest, Goombay (a two-day street party), the annual Headdress Ball, the Pet Masquerade, the Pretenders in Paradise costume contest, neighborhood parties, costume parties, drag queen contests, body painting and more. Even as most events occur at night, visitors often spend days as regular tourists, attending the Ernest Hemingway House and other local sights.
Photo by Abi Bell