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Key West’s Fantasy Fest returns to its ‘Key Weird’ roots

Fantasy Fest returns to Key West Oct. 20-29. Photo courtesy of Fantasy Fest.
Fantasy Fest returns to Key West Oct. 20-29. Photo courtesy of Fantasy Fest.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the Keys are open for business, and Key West’s annual Fantasy Fest bacchanal is on as planned from Oct. 20-29 with the theme Time Travel Unravels. For the first time in decades, the fest, which began in 1979, is being produced by a new team intent on returning the spirit of the celebration to the creative, quirky local culture for which Key West is famous.

Festival director Nadene Grossman Orr has played an integral role in the growth and success of the island’s annual Songwriters Festival in May. Her team includes Lindsey Sigafoos as assistant director and Marky Pierson as art director.

In recent years, the festival lost local sponsorship and was criticized for becoming overrun by out of town nudist and swingers groups with leering photographers roaming the streets, according to Pierson. While Fantasy Fest has always been a wild Mardi Gras-like party of scantily clad revelers in body paint with beads flying from balconies, the festival had lost its luster in the eyes of many locals.

Pierson is hoping to bring back the “Key Weird” mentality of the festival, while also breathing new life into the production and making it a more welcoming and manageable experience for visitors.

“We’re bringing it back to why it started in the first place and what it was about,” says Pierson. “We want to remake it about the people of Key West, the weird artists, the eccentric, funky people who live here.”

As an 11-year Key West resident, Pierson, known as MarkyP around town, is one of those “weird artists” who has shaped the local culture as a visual and performance artist, a graphic designer, videographer and producer with his Wonderdog Studios production company. He has also created unofficial Fantasy Fest parties that have become local favorites, including the Zombie Bike Ride, which are now on the official calendar.

“In a way, it’s the same thing we’ve always done, just on a bigger scale. We’ve always been on the outside. Now, we’re on the inside,” he says.

In the midst of Irma recovery, locals have banded together, and they’re enjoying the good vibes that come with community.

“It’s times like these when everyone steps up and helps each other out. That’s what makes this community so special. It feels more like Key West than it has in a long time,” says Chris Shultz, owner of The Porch and creator of local’s favorite TuTu Tuesday Party, which is now also an official Fantasy Fest event.

Zany fun at the Pet Masquerade. Photo courtesy of Fantasy Fest. FREAS PHOTOGRAPHY

“It’s a great time to be down here,” says Margit Bisztray, a local writer, yoga teacher and creator of the Key West Insider Guide who has started a grassroots movement to feed the people in the Lower Keys most severely impacted by Irma. “Come visit us. Sit next to us. Our restaurants and bars are filled with locals. We are better than ever, showing our true spirit, solidarity and devotion to where we live. This is going to be the best Fantasy Fest in years.”

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The new production team is taking a cue from music festivals and turning all of Old Town Key West into the festival grounds with three information hubs and a main stage for performances during the street fair on Oct. 27 and 28. The information hubs are located along Duval Street at The Custom House, the San Carlos Institute and the Southernmost House and will be staffed with a concierge for people to get information and purchase merchandise. Each hub will also have a bar and live music.

They’re also working to modernize the festival digitally on Facebook and Instagram with online interactive maps and live video feeds, and plan to produce a “Daily Show”-style news show recapping the happenings in a comedic fashion.

For first time Fantasy Festers, Pierson has some advice: “Pace yourself, check out some of the things on the fringes that locals would do. There’s way more to Fantasy Fest than getting wasted. It’s really simple, let loose, wear a pink wig, have a good time.”

Best of the Fest

Read on for our cheat sheet to the best Fantasy Fest parties and events. The full schedule of events and details are available here.

Need a place to stay? Here’s our ultimate guide to Key West hotels.

Friday & Saturday, Oct. 20-21

Goombay Festival in Bahama Village on Petronia Street

“Taking it Off to See the Wizard: A Burlesque Parody” at the Waterfront Playhouse Oct. 20-27, 8 p.m. Tickets here.

Sunday, Oct. 22

Zombie Bike Ride starting at East Martello Tower, 6 p.m.

Monday, Oct. 23

Kinky Carnival at Kelly’s Caribbean

Tuesday, Oct. 24

Florida Keys Council of the Arts Culture Crawl starting at the Oldest House

9th Annual Tutu Tuesday Party Prom at Waterfront Brewery

Toad the Wet Sprocket at Key West Theater

Green Parrot Green Party – It’s Not Easy Being Green

Wednesday, Oct. 25

Pet Masquerade at Casa Marina, 5:30 p.m.

Smokin’ Tuna Homemade Bikini Contest

Fogarty’s Red Party

Sexy Bull Riding Contest at Cowboy Bill’s

Thursday, Oct. 26

3rd Annual Smallest Parade in the Universe at Key West Theater

Dante’s 11th Annual Halos & Horns Pool Party

35th Annual Headdress Ball at Key West Amphitheater at Truman Waterfront Park

Sloppy Joe’s 34th Annual Toga Party

Friday, Oct. 27

Masquerade March Locals Parade starting at the Key West Cemetery on Frances Street, 7 p.m.

Fantasy Fest Street Fair on Duval Street

Saturday, Oct. 28

Fantasy Fest Street Fair on Duval Street

Bud Light Fantasy Fest Parade

Sunday, Oct. 29

The Fat Lady Sings Tea Dance at La-Te-Da