Fantasy Fest in Key West: America's Best Bacchanal

  • 01 of 08

    An Introduction to Fantasy Fest

    ••• Fantasy Fest 2011: Revelers costumed as jellyfish escort the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West float carrying "King Neptune" down Duval Street. Photo © Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau

    Mardi Gras in New Orleans may be older and bigger, but Fantasy Fest in Key West is the best party in the U.S., especially if your tastes run to sun-soaked partying, gay culture, and ample displays of barely concealed bodies.

    Held each year approximately the week before Halloween, Fantasy Fest is a costume party nonpareil, although many of the ‘costumes’ consist of little more than body paint. From humble beginnings about 30 years ago (the event was created to bring people into town during a traditionally slow time of year), Fantasy Fest has grown into a hedonistic mecca drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year. The party climaxes with a no-holds-barred parade down Duval Street on Saturday, filled with outrageous floats and costumed revelers of every imaginable orientation.

    Word to the wise: If you’re thinking of attending Fantasy Fest, you really can’t line your lodging up too early. Rooms fill up fast!

    Fantasy Fest isn’t for everyone. If public nudity and drinking offend you, this...MORE is not your scene. No, you don’t have to get naked yourself, although a costume of some sort is just about mandatory. You’ll see plenty of men wearing thongs and leather, and women in pasties or body paint, and little more. Depending on your interests, you can attend a relatively tame costume party at a local bar or wilder events that, again, will showcase various bodies in their semi-nude glory or cater to various sexual fetishes. You have been warned/titillated!

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  • 02 of 08

    People Watching

    ••• Fantasy Fest body paint: The Cat Lady. © Andrea Chung

    One of the best reasons to attend Fantasy Fest in the Keys has to be for the people watching. There is just something captivating about watching a naked man or woman getting painted from head to toe in body paint. So many colors, images, and themes, ranging from a chest full of flowers to animal patterns, superheroes, and even KISS -- a portrait of the band.

    The end result is that the subject looks fully clothed to the naked eye -- unless you’re looking very carefully.

    Officially, public nudity is illegal on the streets of Key West, even during Fantasy Fest. Local law specifies that body paint isn’t considered clothing, and attendees are encouraged to wear a cover-up. This may be the most widely flouted rule at Fantasy Fest, however.

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  • 03 of 08

    Dressing Up and Costumes

    ••• These pirate costumes at Fantasy Fest don't leave much to the imagination. Photo © Dshfl via Flickr

    Make sure your bring a costume -- or costumes -- to Fantasy Fest! Everyone will want to take a picture with you. Yes, the paparazzi are everywhere, you included, and if you play it right you’ll know what it feels like to be a celebrity posing for the cameras.

    At Fantasy Fest, the hotter the costume, the more you’ll get stopped and snapped. Take advantage of the freedom to walk up to any girl or guy and ask to take your picture with them -- you will not have this chance again until Fantasy Fest time next year! Most people are extremely friendly and flattered by your attention.

    Do ask before you shoot, however. Not everyone wants to have their semi-nude images inevitably shared on the Internet!

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  • 04 of 08

    Plan Your Drinking Strategies and Pace Yourself!

    ••• Drinking on Duval Street during Fantasy Fest. Photo © Ottofocus via Flickr

    Drink vendors will be selling libations every couple of steps, so you'll never be far from refreshment even on those rare times in Key West when there's no bar immediately nearby. Feel free to walk the streets with cup in hand, Key West is one of the few places where public drinking is allowed -- at least within the “Fantasy Zone” (centered on Duval Street) during Fantasy Fest! You can save some money by bringing your own booze in a canteen; strap it to your waist and buy mixers as you walk around.

    Fantasy Fest lasts all week, but all you really need is three good days and you've probably had your fill of ogling, drinking, laying out by pool at your favorite resort, live music, and sightseeing. Just try to make sure you don’t miss the big Saturday parade!

    By day two, many attendees are hung over and scrambling for water and Tylenol. The veterans are out eating a nice breakfast and finding out where the nearest water-sports activities are. Key West offers many different kinds...MORE of activities; if you want action, action, action, you might look into Fury, which has jet skiing, para-sailing, and snorkeling combos to take up an entire afternoon.

    If you want to set your own pace and not be so high energy, try a nice kayak or paddleboard trip. Paddleboarding at your own pace on the water gives you that zen moment to detach from life, wind, sun, and salt. And you might see a manatee or two. You can even paddle right up to a waterfront bar for a beer -- just don't forget your sunscreen or hat. If you’re in the mood for a romantic evening, catch a champagne sunset clipper ship tour.

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  • 05 of 08

    Listening to Live Music

    ••• Hog's Breath Saloon bar, Key West. © Hog's Breath Saloon

    During Fantasy Fest most bars have live band action day and night. Some of the more popular venues are the Hogs Breath Saloon, Sloppy Joe's, Rick's Bar. You can't go a block without hearing live music coming from a venue. There’s nothing like a little live music to sooth the soul and recharge the batteries while having some local seafood and adult beverages. A favorite for cool drinks, fun tunes, and a welcoming attitude is the Green Parrot.

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  • 06 of 08

    Enjoy Some Street Food

    ••• Street food at Fantasy Fest. © Andrea Chung

    The wonderful street food is one of the highlights of attending Fantasy Fest every year. You’ll find Chinese, Greek, Italian, Latin, every kind of skewered meat, burger, arepa, corn-on-a-stick, and let’s not forget extra-long corn dogs -- yum. The popular Greek Gyro comes with onions, lettuce, tomato, and Greek yogurt, served steaming hot off the grill on pita bread. Eat a light lunch so you so can enjoy two or three items each night!

    Street food items are typically are $10 or less. If someone tries to sell you an arepa for $6 they are ripping you off -- don’t be afraid to barter down the price. Vendors are out from late afternoon till well into the early morning hours, every day of Fantasy Fest.

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  • 07 of 08

    Attend the Coolest Parties

    ••• Revelers at the 2011 Headdress Ball. © Key West Business Guild

    The Saturday parade may be the biggest attraction of Fantasy Fest, but there’s plenty of fun leading up to it, from clothing-optional dance parties to burlesque shows, fetish parties, and themed events where costumes are a must.

    Some highlights include the gay-tastic Headdress Ball, an Irish party at Finnegan’s Wake (wear green to get in free), a plaid party at Captain Tony’s, and Cowboy Bill’s “Cowboys and Indians” bash. Also check out the redneck party at the Lazy Gecko, the 60s-themed Wharfstock at the Schooner Wharf, Sloppy Joe’s famous toga party, and many more.

    Every night of the week there are clothing-optional bashes on the roof of the Garden of Eden bar. Keep an eye out for the Captain Morgan's ladies, who are dressed in hot pirate attire and can tell you where the hottest parties are.

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  • 08 of 08

    Getting Around

    ••• The Key West Old Town Trolley. Photo © Twodolla via Flickr

    During the daytime, take advantage of the people still hung over in their beds and lazing in their rooms. Make a beeline to the local bike-rental, scooter, and electric-car vendors. Warning: you cannot drink and scooter. You can, however, bike and drink (“binking”!) Bar hop, grab lunch, catch some live music, and tour Key West via bicycle -- it’s only four miles long and two miles wide.

    Bike rentals are extremely reasonable.. Cars usually give way to bicycles and pedestrians, allowing for a very safe biking environment.

    Another great way to enjoy Key West is a trolley tour: hop on, sit back, relax and enjoy learning about the culture and history of the Keys. Get on and off as many times as you like, they have one- and two-day passes.

    Most hotels offer free shuttle service, but this usually ends between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. Catching a cab can be an experience, because Fantasy Fest draws 50,000+ people to the island. It might take you up to 30 minutes to catch a cab.

    Sometimes locals with...MORE minivans offer rides to and from hotels for much cheaper prices. Be cautious, but the rates can be as low as $10 for a van full of people, or $5 a person. When it's 3 a.m., you’re tired, maybe a little tipsy and cabs are not around, this does become very appealing. If your lucky enough to catch a cab, drivers often give you their number and offer to pick you up and take you home, so ask for a business card.