Robert Kerstein is professor of government at the University of Tampa and the author of Key West on the Edge: Inventing the Conch Republic.
Here Kerstein offers insight into the history of a vibrant event that brings people flocking to Key West every October.
This year’s Fantasy Fest culminated on Saturday, October 27, with “A-Conch-Alypse,” a themed parade. The Conch Republic’s first Fantasy Fest was held in 1979 and was designed to put Key West on the map for tourists in search of an experience comparable to New Orleans’s Mardi Gras. Its origin also signified the importance of gay businessmen to the stimulation of tourism, several of whom originated the idea of Fantasy Fest.
At the inaugural Fantasy Fest of 1979, activities began on Friday evening, October 26, with the arrival of the “Mistress of Madness” at Mallory Square, who invoked “the spirit world to terrorize the fantasy festivities.” Later that evening, the Casa Marina hosted the Masked Fantasy Ball. The Grand Parade on Saturday evening included about seventeen floats. The parade also featured a woman known as “Sister,” wearing only gold body paint, who posed as a hood ornament on the front of a Lincoln Continental. In future years, many other participants in Fantasy Fest activities have worn similar “dress.”
From the outset, there were naysayers. The most vocal being those associated with a Christian group that criticized what they considered to be the open display of raucous behavior. This parade would not be the last Fantasy Fest activity about which they expressed their concerns. Others were critical not of Fantasy Fest per se, but of the fact that it represented increased efforts to attract tourists to the island, a direction not all Key Westers welcomed. For example, one city officials worried that Key West would become a “Disneyland South” and proclaimed that the city should “bulldoze all the new stuff off the island and start over again using rainwater and cisterns.”
In spite of the criticism, Fantasy Fest expanded over the years. The celebration was an important component of the community’s early reinvention towards a tourism town, and it became an instant tradition on the island. Later themes included “Fantasy in Space” in 1986 and “Call of the Wild” in 1996. The number of tourists who visited Key West during Fantasy Fest increased and the parade grew dramatically. The parade also attracted national corporate sponsors, which was compatible with the increased presence of corporate-owned luxury hotels and chain retail stores on the island. By 1995, the official name of the Saturday night parade had become the “Coors Light Fantasy Fest Parade.” By 2001, Captain Morgan, rather than Coors, had become its sponsor.
In spite of its corporate sponsorship, Fantasy Fest remains closely tied to the community. The continuing importance of Key West’s gay population was signified by the practice, beginning in 1989, of choosing the King and Queen of Fantasy Fest based upon which contestants had raised the most funds, all of which were donated to AIDS Help. And Key Westers remain actively involved in organizing and participating in many of the festival’s activities, including the Masquerade March held on Friday evening. Fantasy Fest both represents the island’s reinvention as a tourist destination and its success in remaining a town that is different from most other tourist sites.