Ahhh…Key West, Florida in October. You can’t ask for anything better. Boy, how that held true when some of the Cycle Connections crew set out for something a little different than your normal motorcycle ride and headed south to cover this year’s Fantasy Fest. Let’s take note here; I have been to a lot of motorcycle events, as big as Sturgis and as small as less than 100 people locally. I have been to a lot of festivals for different things, most with unusual names for unusual reasons, like the Testicle Festival in Missouri a few years ago. But nothing, nothing at all, compared to the fun we had in Key West for Fantasy Fest.
Started as an idea by two locals in 1978, Frank Romano and Joe Liszka wanted to help boost tourism to the local economy on one of the slowest but nicest weather days in the Keys and turned it into a multi-day ceremony that has brought literally thousands of people to Key West for the Halloween-style celebration. The weather is typically wonderful this time of the year, and although it rained almost every day for just a little bit, sometimes very heavily, it was still warm and wonderful for the festival. The temps were just right, and the rain didn’t seem to bother anyone at all, because it was so warm. The tropical setting is a fantastic backdrop for this festival, and every year it has a new theme. This year’s theme was Pirates, Pundits, and Political Party Animals. Major sponsors of this year’s festival included Captain Morgan (the largest of the bunch, the parade is in their honor), Bud Light, floridakeys.com, Big Pecker Wines, Sex Drive Energy Drink, and many others.
The actual festival began on Friday, Oct 17 at Goombay, with the street party beginning there. The Royal Coronation Ball took place at La Te Da on Duval Street. Duval Street is where most of the festivities are centered, and picture this event as like New Orleans Mardi Gras on steroids. There were lots of costume parties throughout the city at places such as the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, the Dungeons and Dragons party at 801 Bourbon Bar, The Headdress ball at the Southernmost Hotel, the Party in Plaid at Capt. Tony’s Saloon, and many more. For you bikers, there was an awesome homemade bikini contest at the Hog’s Breath Saloon on Duval Street. There are all kinds of themes throughout the week to cater to everyone’s fantasy, such as pajama parties, wet T-shirt contests, a monster ball, and plenty of costume parties for all kinds of different tastes.
This festival is not for the intolerant though. It is open to all people, and that is what makes it so successful. I never noticed any bad attitudes, rudeness, or otherwise callous behavior that mars such events in other places throughout the country. The Keys are home to a variety of cultures and people, and here they all come together to celebrate Halloween in their own way. Leave your prejudices at home and you will be OK, because at this event, anything goes. And as a note of caution, this is an adult party. Nudity abounds, and although most of the women and men are painted, there are some things that that are not appropriate for the little ones or young teens.
The Friday night and Saturday night events seem to cap the whole festival. We partied down on Duval Street both nights in full costume, and the abundant music, food, and entertainment were ample to keep everyone’s spirits well up in the clouds. The local stores stay open throughout a good period of the night, so when you need a break or see something special in the storefront, you could generally get to it that night. The restaurants along Duval and the surrounding streets provide everything from that simple cheeseburger meal to a full-on gourmet delight. Fresh seafood places abound, and regional places that serve such fare as Cuban food are common. The prices were comparable to other festivals and places I have been to, so it was in the ballpark whereas money goes. Parking prices were very high though, some places charging up to $40 to park for the night. We found a place that let our three bikes park in one spot for $40, and if we had tried, we could have probably moved farther out to some of the $20 lots. There is parking on the street at the meters, but be cautioned, they will ticket you if you don’t pay.
The local police make their presence known but leave everyone alone to do their thing. I never once saw a po-po hassle anyone on the street. The streets are blocked off, and due to the attitudes being generally good, there seemed to be no trouble whatsoever. Our crew went to this festival with an open mind about what it could be like, and to be honest, that is the way to do it. People aren’t pushy, everyone is doing their own thing, and in general everyone got along.
There are plenty of places to stay in Key West, but if you are remotely thinking about attending this festival, you need to book ahead. Rooms fill up fast. We stayed in Marathon and traveled to the festival every day. It is about an hour trip to Key West, and as long as you obey the speed limit signs, everything will be cool. Watch for animals though, there are all kinds of wildlife (other than the painted girls and guys running around on Duval Street) that could get you if you aren’t watching.
The Grand Finale of this whole shindig is the Captain Morgan parade on Saturday night. Get a chair, find you a place early on Duval and watch the festivities as they go by. We saw some seriously rocking floats, with the people in the mood, in the spirit, (and in the buff on a lot of them) and having a great time celebrating the festival. There were over 50-odd floats in the parade, and a lot of thought went into most of them. We even saw one large float that stood out to us, a bar-type setting where the people that were up to the bar having a drink were pedaling it to make it move under its own power. Like I said earlier in the story, this is like Mardi Gras on steroids. These peeps know how to have a great time. The beads are flying, the people dancing in the streets, and everyone is laid back and enjoying themselves—cool of Captain Morgan to put this gig on.
A couple of places to take note of here when you go. Now keep in mind, these are not for everyone, so take a look at what you might be getting into before you go so you will have heads up. Try Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville for a great time. The headline band the night we went was the Nikki Bar Band, and this place is known for good tunes. Check out the Hog’s Breath Saloon on Duval also. It is geared towards you gear-heads and is an open air bar with some great food. Sloppy Joe’s was a great place to hang also, with some great bands playing there. Another place to check out was the Garden of Eden, a clothing optional bar on top of the Bull and Whistle at the corner of Caroline and Duval. Just down the street from that on Caroline is Kelly’s, where Kelly McGillis of the Top Gun movie fame has her award winning restaurant. Check out the daily specials. There are a lot of other places, too numerous to mention. A lot of the tourist spots are located in Mallory square, where there are lots of street entertainers as the cruise lines stop and moor there. And if you want great Key Lime pie, Key West style, stop at Kermit’s.
We could go on and on about this festival, but there is no other way to check it out than to go yourself. We give this gig an A+++++ rating for fun, great food, and fantastic atmosphere. But then again, what else would you expect from a tropical paradise in October? Ride safe, and look for us there again next year.
Story by Jim Austin
Photos by Jim Austin, Karey Austin, Mike Schweder, Lourdes Spencer, & Swede Johnson