Fabulous Fantasy Fest


Fantasy Fest is Florida’s best kept secret. 10 days of non-stop parties, pageants and parades in Key West.

We have rendevouzed at the cemetery, but we’re not here to mourn. There are nearly 500 of us. This is the Miller Lite Masquerade March. Any one can join in. All you need is fancy dress. Some marchers, however, are more inclined to fancy undress, wearing only body paint and g-strings. Why not? The weather is hot and so are the bodies.

Led by a gaggle of drag queens teetering on 12 inch stilettos, and moving to the energising beat of mobile sound systems, we set off dancing and singing our way through the streets of Key West. Kisses are blown to every passing man, woman, child and animal. In return, we are showered with cheers, applause – and booze! Every few hundred yards, guest houses en route hand out rum punch. Before we are even halfway to Mallory Square most of us are totally sozzled. The atmosphere, as well as the drink, is intoxicating. As we pass the fire station, fire crews flash their lights and sound their sirens in salute. Near-nude go-go boys and girls gyrate atop scaffolding towers in the centre of town. As Dorothy said to Toto in the Wizard of Oz: we are not in Kansas any more!

This modern-day Saturnalia is Fantasy Fest: 10 days of carnivale, which take place in Key West at the end of October. Middle America can go jump in the Atlantic (it’s at the end of the main street). A third of the town’s population is gay, and liberal values reign supreme. Although Fantasy Fest is not a gay event, the gay influence is everywhere. Queers know how to party and heterosexuals are grateful for an invitation. Families mix happily with dykes and fags. This is the world how it should be – love and let love.

The orgy of celebrations kick off with the Royal Coronation Ball, where the King and Queen of Fantasy Fest are crowned in a night-time ceremony on the terrace of Hilton hotel, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. The winners are the entrants who raise the most money for AIDS charities by selling sparkling, multicoloured bead necklaces. Every ball-goer boasts at least six strings. Over $140,000 dollars was raised last year and the winners were the Bitch Sisters, two loveable middle-aged drag queens with trademark shocking pink beehive hairdos.

The Fantasy Fest theme of ‘Circuses and Sideshows’ is plastered all over town. There are giant papier mache clowns on the façades of downtown stores, swathes of canvass transform a restaurant into a sparkling Big Top, and the roofs of guest houses are festooned with cartoon-style inflatable lions, strongmen, elephants and trapeze artists.

The circus theme is repeated in the 30 events leading up to the grand finale, the Fantasy Fest Parade. Entrance to some events is $5-$10, but most are free.

With three or four parties every night, often at different ends of town, the easiest way to get around is by bicycle. Conch Bike Express deliver to your hotel (bikes are $12 for the first day and $6 for each extra day).

So many parties, so little time. At the Bal Masque Carnivale – held in a pool-side tropical garden – animal masks are ubiquitous and the combination of anonymity and alcohol loosens everyone’s inhibitions. I am not the only person who ends up half-naked in the pool.

Contestants at the Headdress Ball vie to outdo each other with the biggest and most bizarre hats. Some are ten feet tall and almost topple over. My favourites were the medusa clown with illuminated kinetic tentacles, the feather-plumed showgirls, and the pink elephant hat with giant flapping ears.

The Circus Ole costume pageant at Diva’s nightclub had an even raunchier edge to it, with distinctly adult performances from SM Spiderman, Clowns on Crack, The Amazing Three-Breasted Woman, Pussy-Eating Tigers and The Ten-Armed Caterpillar Queen.

Altogether more wholesome is the hilarious Pet Masquerade Parade, where owners and their pets catwalk in fancy dress. It is a Noah’s Ark of costumed creatures. Dogs and cats are predictable, but iguanas, pigs, snakes, goats and bats? Best of all was the Pet & Owner Look-Alike Contest. Sadly for the entrants with poodles and bulldogs, some owners really do resemble their pets.

For a complete change of scene, check out the Goombay Street Party. This is the black community’s big day and it takes place amid the haze of a hundred sizzling, spicy barbecue stalls. Performing live on six sound stages dotted around the Bahamian Village, Jamaican ragga and reggae stars boom out the bass until well after midnight.

All this partying is exhausting. It’s a good idea to pace yourself. Every other afternoon I chilled-out by the pool, soaking up the sunshine. Bliss!

There are very few big hotels in Key West but even the smallest guest houses boast a pool. These smaller accommodations have great character. Many are converted late nineteenth century mansions. I stayed at Cypress House. Located one block from Duval Street in the heart of Old Town, this historic Bahama-style timber guest house dates from 1888. It is an oasis of tranquillity, with two elevated sun decks connected by wooden walk ways, and a pool surrounded by quiet, secluded tropical gardens. The guests are a convivial mix of gay and straight. Everyone feels totally at ease, thanks to personalised attention from the charming manager Dave Taylor. In the evening, from 6-7pm, he lays on free drinks and snacks by the pool. Not to be missed are his all-you-can-eat buffet breakfasts – great coffee with fresh-baked bagels, cornbread, banana cake and lemon sesame muffins.

Apart from Fantasy Fest, Key West has lots of other attractions. Situated at the end of the Florida Keys, it is the last island in a necklace of over 200 isles that arc southwards from Miami into the Caribbean. On one side of town is the Atlantic Ocean and on the other is the Gulf of Mexico.

These waters host the world’s third largest coral reef. Fantastic for snorkelling. I jumped on board Stars & Stripes for a catamaran day cruise ($75 including breakfast, lunch, drinks and equipment hire). After a two-hour sail to Western Dry Rocks, we snorkel out over the reef: a maritime zoo of fluorescent coloured fish swimming lazily over sun-bleached coral beds and wafting forests of purple and green seaweed. A Queen Angel fish befriends me, following my every move. Below, four sting-rays glide gracefully in formation over the sandy seabed. On the return trip, our boat stops off at Woman Key. For an hour or so, we get to explore this uninhabited island that is home to huge colonies of Grey Blue Herons and Vulture Hawks.

Such adventures stimulate a big appetite and Key West boasts some great eateries, where a three-course meal at a top-notch restaurant will cost around $40.

Kelly’s Caribbean Bar & Grill is owned by actress Kelly McGillis who co-starred alongside Tom Cruise in Top Gun. The little wooden white-washed buildings are the original headquarters of Pan American Airways, which flew the first scheduled air service in the USA – from Key West to Havana – in 1927. Kelly’s is renowned for its romantic garden setting, with tables arranged under soaring poinciana trees. My favourite dish was the local dessert speciality, Key Lime Pie (a cross between cheesecake, sorbet and thickset cream yoghurt).

Another must-dine restaurant is Latitudes. Located on nearby Sunset Key, you get there via a complimentary boat service from the Hilton marina. Dinner is served at torch-lit tables by the water’s edge, offering a panoramic view of the sun setting on the Gulf of Mexico. The seafood is spectacular too, served with exotic concoctions of tongue-thrilling lime juice, marinated ginger shavings and coconut milk.

But all these treats are just preliminaries to the main event: the Fantasy Fest Parade. On the last Saturday in October, nearly 60,000 people throng the streets of Key West for a night of hedonistic excess.

It is mid-afternoon. Giant speakers erected along the parade route pump out the latest chart hits. People are already spilling out of the bars and dancing in the street. The ever-helpful police (motto: ‘Policing Paradise’) aid the party spirit by closing the main roads. The music gets louder, the crowds bigger, the margaritas stronger, and the dancing wilder.

While waiting for the parade to arrive, I can’t help noticing that Key West’s police are real stunners. They seem to recruit from model agencies and the retirement age must be around 30, because almost every officer is extraordinarily young and good looking. Their beige and black skin-tight designer uniforms are unbelievably sexy. I resist the temptation to get arrested and strip-searched.

Just before 8pm the waiting is over. The first of 70 floats turns into Duval Street. The crowds cheer ecstatically, showering the parade with streamers, beads, confetti – and peanuts! Soon the whole street is shimmering with the popping of thousands of flash bulbs. I must be one of the few people still sober, but the atmosphere is so over-powering that I feel high as a kite.

The floats are mix of Disney-style family fun and X-rated naughtiness. Kids roar for the Rollerblading Flea Circus, Bacardi Bats and Abba Cadabra – A Magic Homage to Abba. Parents squeal with shock and delight at Plan A Head (a condom promotion featuring four giant talking-head penises), and Cirque de Jerks (starring Sex Line Sadie, Randy Rubber Boy and Wackin’ Willie). There are more big cheers for The Human Cannon, which shoots inflatable sex dolls, and Ding-A-Ling Brothers Circus, with its raunchy lion-tamers and cheeky catch phrase ‘Big cats are scary but a little pussy is fine’.

After two hours of glittering, cheeky spectacle, the parade is over – but the all-night party has only just begun. The bars turn up the volume and Duval Street becomes a half-mile-long alfreso nightclub, with tens of thousands of people drinking and dancing in the roadway. Normally quiet, unassuming suburban couples let rip. That’s why many of them are here. Fantasy Fest is a moment when you don’t have to be your usual self. It is OK to dress up outrageously and flirt shamelessly. Straight boys kiss queer girls who kiss queer boys who kiss straight girls. Confused? I was. But who cares? It was all such fun.

The practicals:

American Airlines fly to Key West daily via Miami. Return fares from £539.30 economy class and £3229.30 business class (08457 789 789) www.aa.com.
Rooms at Cypress House start from £69 (US$99) per night (001 305 294 6969) www.cypresshousekw.com
More Information on Key West: Cellet Travel Services (01564 794 555) www.fla-keys.com
Fantasy Fest 2001 is from 19 to 28 October, with the main parade on 27 October (www.fantasyfest.net). This year’s theme is: Secrets of the Zodiac Exposed. Get sewing!

Copyright Peter Tatchell 2001. All rights reserved.

Published as “Love and let love”, The Guardian (Travel section), 12 May 2001.