Fantasy Fest (1)
Key West, Florida, USA
From the penultimate Friday to the last Sunday in October
At the end of October, Key West, the last in the string of islands that stretches south from Florida, plays host to one of the wildest fancy- dress free-for-alls on earth. Fantasy Fest is a music- and rum-fuelled party marathon that reaches its zenith with a massive themed costumed parade – something along the lines of “Fright Night on Bone Island” and “Delirious Dreams and Hilarious Screams” if past years are anything to go by. It’s a camp affair all right, but is by no means limited to gays and lesbians – organizers estimate that half of the attendees are straight, and as Key West grows more and more wealthy, its once predominantly gay atmosphere is becoming more inclusive by the year. Still, the open, let-it-all-hang-out vibes are endlessly cruisey for everyone, whatever your sexual orientation, and the mood so exuberant, so candid, that it’s hard not to get drawn in.
Key West was a rather run-down and cheap backwater in the 1970s that was quick to welcome the influx of hippies and gays that hit the town at the start of the decade – outcast groups who swiftly established themselves in this traditionally live-and-let-live haven. The hippie flavour faded for the most part, but the hedonism didn’t, and gays and lesbians stayed on and soon made Key West their own. In 1979, a group of imaginative islanders came up with the idea of an autumn celebration, mostly as a ploy to drum up business during the rather dead season between late subtropical summer and Christmas. Halloween was a natural excuse for what started as a two-day bash but soon grew to ten days of all-out bacchanal. The climate is an essential part of the mix, and the Fest takes place after the hurricane season has (just about) ended, when the temperatures reach about 80°F and there are balmy gulf breezes and clear skies. Only in 2005 have storms disrupted the schedules somewhat, when Hurricane Wilma roared through town, but usually the weather is about as perfect as you could wish for. Key West is a tiny, rather remote place, and most things happen in the Old Town, in the well-named Fantasy Zone, which stretches along Duval Street from Front to South streets and across the intersecting roads to Simonton and Whitehead. There’s a well-publicized official programme of events, these days heavily sponsored and fairly slickly organized, but there are also plenty of impromptu goings- on all the time, and whenever Halloween falls just after the grand finale weekend, the festivities continue on beyond the allotted ten days.