KEY WEST -- Fantasy Fest’s grand marshal used to traverse the parade route waving from a convertible, at eye level with the drunken masses along Duval Street.
It wasn’t exactly a grand stage, especially in comparison to the 50-plus floats that followed. But that changed in 2004, when Red Barn Theatre set designer Gary McDonald did the float for that year’s grand marshal, Tom Oosterhoudt, a Key West commissioner who also owned the local magazine Conch Color.
“I wanted to do a parody on Lord of the Rings, so we called it ‘The Lord of the Wings,’ ” Oosterhoudt said. “I wanted to be on a large Pegasus. So Gary built me a huge white horse with wings. It was pretty spectacular, 15 feet tall, a monster.”
McDonald has been the creative force behind every grand marshal float since, except for 2010 when he was a judge for the float competition.
This week, he has been putting the finishing touches on his ninth grand marshal float, featuring a replica of the Key’s most photographed attraction: the Southernmost Point buoy.
It’s the perfect perch for this year’s grand marshal, endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, who made international headlines Sept. 2 when she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage.
The parade, sponsored by Captain Morgan and the main event during 10 days of debauchery, begins at 7 p.m. Saturday on Southard Street. It goes down Whitehead, cutting along Front, where it reaches the main masses for a nearly mile-long march down Duval. Past crowds have been estimated at 50,000, although about 30,000 is the norm.
Nyad said she’s delighted to participate as a way of giving back. “For the past four years in the summers, when I was there training and getting ready, the small, tight-knit community helped at the marinas, with boats, crews and catering services to lower the budget. They dove in to help me. I owe them.”
When Nyad was announced as grand marshal in late September, McDonald’s daughter, Amber McDonald Good, suggested the theme.
That’s why there is now a large black, red and yellow buoy — with a picture of a pink conch shell on it and the familiar lettering that states “90 Miles to Cuba” — sitting on the bed of the black pickup truck parked in McDonald’s driveway.
The real landmark is actually an old concrete sewer junction painted to look like a buoy.
McDonald, who will celebrate his 63rd birthday the day of the parade, has been building floats for Fantasy Fest since its first parade in 1979. His first had a Rocky Horror Picture Show theme. He also has designed and constructed the elaborate backgrounds for the Pretenders in Paradise costume competitions and Halloween facades for Hard Rock Café on Duval Street.
Some floats have been quite elaborate, like the one he did in 1997 for the Key West hotel and motel association when the theme was “TV Jeebies.” He created a Miami Vice scene on the bed of a tractor trailer, with a crushed Cadillac underneath a Mercedes, complete with cocaine spilling out of the trunk and a fallen telephone pole and streetlight. Fire and smoke came out of the cars for dramatic flair.
“I think he got the crushed cars from Arnold’s Towing,” recalled his son, Jack McDonald, who was about 12 at the time. “My dad would be the director on top yelling ‘Action,’ and guys would come out of the cars and have a gunfight. My job was to play a little kid on the side, hiding behind a mailbox. It was pretty cool.”