Eric and Jenny Berube moved to Key West this year, and they couldn’t be more thrilled to be in the middle of their first Fantasy Fest.
“The exciting part is the freedom to do whatever you want and not be ridiculed for it,” said Eric, hidden behind a mask and face paint for Sunday’s annual Zombie Bike Ride. That’s when throngs of bicyclists and some skateboarders suited up as the undead for an evening trek from the seashore to Duval Street.
“This is right up our alley,” he said.
Key West’s Fantasy Fest, a 10-day almost-everything-goes party, is filled with adults being adults. There’s the body paint, of course. And the near nudity. The costumed revelers. And about 100 events, some of them with make-them-blush names.
Think Mardi Gras meets Carnival, with an only-in-the-Keys twist.
It’s also a long-awaited financial boost for the local tourism industry, which took a punch after Hurricane Irma last year even though Key West escaped the Category 5 hurricane.
Crowd estimates for the end of the week are as high as 70,000 visitors to the tiny island, which has a year-round population of about 25,000. Fantasy Fest was started in 1979 by a group of locals hoping to draw tourists during the off-season.
But it’s not all tourists in the streets. Plenty of locals get into it. Most focus on getting dressed up for the various parades.
The party kicked off last Friday with the coronation of the King and Queen of Fantasy Fest — Larry Blackburn and Bernadette Restivo — who each raised the most money in their perspective races to benefit A.H. of Monroe County and win the crowns.
The weekend brought out thousands of zombies, including families in group costumes. The rest of this week will see costumes set to the theme of “Oh ... The Games We Play.”
“We’re going as the Twister game,” said Karen Taporowski, of her husband, Vince, as she enjoyed a cocktail at a zombie-themed brunch. “You need to be careful where you put your circles.”
“It’s a zany, quirky, creative costume celebration,” said festival director Nadene Grossman Orr, whose company We’ve Got the Keys is the event’s producer.
The celebration is packed with events. Among them:
▪ A tutu-required dance party on Tuesday.
▪ A pet costume contest at the Truman Waterfront Amphitheater on Wednesday.
▪ The spectacular Headdress Ball, also at the amphitheater, on Thursday.
▪ The “locals” parade, which starts at the city cemetery and goes down to Duval, on Friday. The locals come out in droves to costume and party. Also, a street fair will run from noon to midnight on Friday and Saturday along Duval.
▪ The main parade along Duval Street on Saturday, with floats and walking groups that compete for prizes.
For a complete list of events visit the event’s official website.
“Fantasy Fest is Burning Man with electricity and running water,” said Jennifer Lloyd, of Key West. “It’s all about creativity and getting out of your shell. I love being in costume when no one knows who I am.”
The event also has a racier side.
Cowboy Bill’s hosts a wet T-shirt contest and a “sexy bull riding” contest this year.
There’s the “Kinky Carnival” at First Flight restaurant and the 801 Bar’s “Dungeon of Dark Secrets” party, along with Sloppy Joe’s 39th annual Toga Party on Thursday night.
Then there’s the ABC party — “Anything But Clothes” — at the Sandbar, a pool/hot tub/foam party called Exposed at Bourbon Pub, and Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy featuring porn stars at the Sandbar.
But it’s not like anything goes. The police will be watching to make sure of that.
“Sex acts in public are absolutely prohibited,” the Key West Police Department said in its annual list of reminders to Fantasy Fest participants that includes street closures and discourages bringing coolers to Duval.
Nudity is also outlawed in Key West, except for body-painted women’s breasts within the “Fantasy Zone,” which is from lower Duval Street to United Street. Outside of the zone, body paint doesn’t count as clothing.
But wait kids, there’s something for you, too.
Sunday ends with the G-rated “Children’s Day,” which fills a local park with rides and games designed for families.