Key West’s Fantasy Fest offers freedom to have fun for thousands of visitors

Posted November 11, 2013


KEY WEST, Fla. – I was standing half naked in the middle of the street and nobody seemed to care.

Fellow festival-goers milled around Duval Street languidly, half naked and otherwise, reveling in the company of thousands of other free-spirited visitors. And therein lies the beauty of Fantasy Fest.

Key West’s annual pre-Halloween bacchanal is not for the faint of heart. Spanning ten days and drawing crowds from all over the world, Fantasy Fest is Key West’s most revenue-producing week of the year and a prime spot for vacationers looking to let it all out Mardi Gras style.

Upon arrival in the continental U.S.A.’s most southernmost city, I was still skeptical about my initial decision to get body painted. But bumping into some formerly-painted friends at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville secured my decision.

Flipping through pictures of her and her friends as painted saloon girls, University of Miami student Elyssa Brown summed up the appeal of the festival.

“What I really loved about it was how freeing it was! The whole weekend was just so hilarious and wild. It was great! I definitely want to go back next year,” she explained.

A Key West visitor is body painted for Fantasy Fest.

A Key West visitor is body painted for Fantasy Fest.

Still uneasy about my bold bare-chested intentions, I scarfed down Margaritaville’s fiery El Diablo burger – a mouthwatering meal topped with fried onions, roasted poblano peppers, chili paste, and chipotle ketchup – for courage and headed out into the streets to catch an eyeful of my fellow party-goers.

And I certainly caught that eyeful. From old men dressed as Aladdin asking me to “rub their lamp” to women with giant eyes painted on their breasts, I saw a little bit of everything during my walk down Duval Street.

“I saw so many things I wish I hadn’t seen,” said University of Miami student Alli Gordon. “But it was so different from anything I’ve ever been to and so freeing! I want to go back for sure.”

My friend and I ambled through the streets, taking in the sights and sounds of the daytime festivities. We popped into unique shops along the way, with goods ranging from ornate sea-themed necklaces to shot glasses with kitschy slogans like “If you think I’m a bitch, you should meet my best friend!”

We eventually ended up at the Southernmost point buoy with the other tourists, stopping to taking a picture with none other than a Fidel Castro impersonator, who excited the waiting crowd with his spot-on impression of the notorious communist.

As the sun dipped towards the horizon, we headed towards Mallory Square for the Sunset Celebration. This nightly celebration is jam-packed with street performers, psychics, and food carts beckoning visitors to their turf for some sundown fun. The coastline view extends as far as the eye can see and people line the waterfront to watch the sun’s descent.

Now that nightfall has afforded me with a little bit of cover, I head to Luigi’s Secret Recipes to get painted.  Artists from all over the country set up shop in Key West’s central cafes and store fronts to paint boobs, butts, chests and guts for the festival, and my artist is a young, energetic blonde girl named Lacey currently living in Kansas.

“You don’t have to take your shirt off until the last minute,” she said as she delicately mixes gold, black, brown and white for my cheetah-print illustration, clearly reading the sheer panic on my face.

Finally, the moment of truth came. I ripped my shirt off quickly, only to breathe a sigh of relief when Lacey covered my bare skin immediately with a coat of thick gold body paint, obscuring any bits I needed covered.

A street performer at The Mallory Square Sunset Celebration (Photo by Morgan Golumbuk).

A street performer at The Mallory Square Sunset Celebration (Photo by Morgan Golumbuk).

We spent 30 minutes talking about guys and remarking at the general absurdity and the festival while she painted, and I became vastly more comfortable than I expected.

She dusted on the final flourish – a sultry red lipstick with a glitter finish – and turned me to the mirror. I was all but unrecognizable, with spots from my eyebrows to my spandex-covered waistline and Lacey’s dark, loopy signature on my hip.

Squealing with delight, I forked over $100 – standard fare for a chest painting – and headed out to the big Saturday night parade.

Duval Street was predictably packed in anticipation of the parade and I got my first taste of celebrity as fellow festival-goers ask to take pictures with me, remarking on the artistry of my paint. From Despicable Me minions to Captain Morgan look-alikes to Batman and his Gotham gang, every ornate float is bumping music and throwing beads to an eager crowd.

After the parade came the barhopping. Deciding that we’d stick to bars without covers, we wandered between Sloppy Joe’s, Rick’s, Coyote Ugly and Bull & Whistle, stopping to take pictures with other painted party-goers along the way.

At the end of the night, I was exhausted. After wandering the streets for more than 17 hours, I decided that my debaucherous night had to come to an end. I drove back to Miami with the promise to return still lingering in the air and remnants of my shimmering body paint still peeking out from under my shirt.

Hey, when in Rome….

If You Go

PARKING (rates are for festival days)

  • Old Town Garage, at the corner of Grinnell and Caroline Streets, $32 per day
  • Mallory Square, at the intersection of Duval and Front Streets, $32 per day
  • Key West Bight, at the corner of Caroline and Williams Streets, $25 per day


  • Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, 500 Duval St., 305-292-1435
  • Southernmost Beach Cafe, 1405 Duval St., 305-295-6550
  • Jack Flats, 509 Duval St., 305-294-7955
  • Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe, 1842 Patterson Ave., 386-740-0502
  • The Conch Shop, 308 Petronia St., 305-292-5005
  • Luigi’s Secret Recipes, 521 Fleming St., 305-292-4962


  • Captain Tony’s Saloon, 428 Greene St., 305-294-1838
  • Sloppy Joe’s, 201 Duval St., 305-296-2388
  • Rick’s Bar, 202 Duval St., 305-296-5513
  • Coyote Ugly, 218 Duval St., 305-294-8459
  • Fogarty’s (The Flying Monkey), 227 Duval St., 305-294-7525
  • Bull & Whistle Bar, 224 Duval St., 305-296-4565
  • Fat Tuesday, 305 Duval St., 305-296-9373

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