Is Key West's Fantasy Fest Too Raunchy?

Oct 22, 2014

Michael Blades and his wife Kathy Kilroy used to work on elaborate floats for Fantasy Fest's big parade. Now they're putting their efforts into newer events that are not part of the official festival roster, like the Zombie Bike Ride.
Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN

Fantasy Fest started 35 years ago as a way to bring visitors to Key West during what had been the slowest time of the year. But locals have always been a big part of it -- the 10 days of street fairs and costume parties, and the culminating parade, for which 60,000 crowd the island's downtown.

"I was on a float for, like, 19 straight years," says Key Wester Michael Blades. He and his friends built elaborate parade entries and won the grand prize three times. But they're not entering this year.

"We just stopped. It was not something we wanted to take part in anymore," Blades says. "I had seen some things on the street in public during broad daylight that were very disturbing. They were basically sex acts taking place on the street with a lot of people gathered around with cameras filming it and shooting pictures of it."

Blades said sights like that made him realize that Fantasy Fest was losing its creativity and turning from risque to raunchy. He points to the official roster of Fantasy Fest events, like a "pimps and hos" party hosted by porn star Ron Jeremy.

Blades said he misses the days when the rum company Captain Morgan sponsored the big parade.

"Now there's a lingerie company that's a sponsor," he says. "And the swinger cruise ship is a sponsor. We can't do better than that?"

Organizers of the annual event say it has always been forthright about its provocative nature.

"There are some elements of Fantasy Fest that are a bit more risque than others," says Joseph Hendrick, an account executive with Market Share, the company that produces Fantasy Fest.

"But from the get-go, this was never a festival for children," Hendrick says. "This has always been an adult festival."

And in terms of its reason for being -- to make money -- it's definitely a success.

"Not only are all the hotels -- and this isn't just Key West, this is county-wide -- [at] 100-percent occupancy, they're also the highest rates of the year," Hendrick says.

Now many locals are putting their time and energy into events that happen at the same time as Fantasy Fest, but are not part of the official festival. The biggest is the Zombie Bike Ride, which took place last Sunday.

It started five years ago with perhaps a hundred bikes. Now thousands of the undead take to the streets on bikes. Kids are welcome and costumes are creative -- and gory -- but generally not lewd.

Marky Pierson is one of the organizers of the Zombie Bike Ride. Fantasy Fest is one of the main reasons he moved to Key West from rural Michigan nine years ago.

"I was attracted to the openness and sort of wildness of Fantasy Fest," he says.

But when he started the Zombie Bike Ride, he didn't try to make it an official part of the festival.

"We didn't even consider doing it that way," he says. "We were doing our thing. A lot that's is important is art for art's sake, or celebration for art's sake."

Locals still turn out in big numbers for one official Fantasy Fest event -- with no prizes and no entry fee, unlike a lot of other official Fantasy Fest parties. It's called the Masquerade March -- but a lot of people just call it the locals' parade. They dress up and walk through Old Town and converge on Duval Street, a main thoroughfare.

Costumes range from the political and comical to outright lewd. And unlike Saturday night -- but like the Zombie Bike Ride -- it's a parade that draws more participants than spectators.

Fantasy Fest runs through Sunday, Oct. 26, in Key West. Organizers suggest watching the festival's social media sites on Facebook and Twitter and checking the Monroe County Tourist Development Council site for updated information on any weather-related cancelations.