Key West’s Fantasy Fest offers students quick weekend getaway from school

Posted December 9, 2014


KEY WEST, Fla.— Bright strobe lights, blasting music and outrageous costumes, or no costumes at all. Anything goes on Duval Street. Once a year, travelers of all ages, professions, income levels and walks of life flock to the southernmost point in the contiguous United States for Fantasy Fest.


A beach at Key West (Photo by Lauren Zimmerman).

For University of Miami students, it’s a quick, yet pricey, weekend getaway to forget school for a while and just let loose.

If you don’t know what that is, the definition is in the name. Fantasy Fest is a street party that would make even the wildest dreamer’s dreams come true.

Originating in 1979 as a way to generate business for Key West, the now 10-day event has entered the ranks of Mardi Gras in regard to the crowd it draws.

Annual events include costume contests, themed parties, arts and crafts shows and culminate with the Fantasy Fest parade on the final Saturday night, which includes lively music, outrageous floats and jaw-dropping costumes.

As much whimsy as the attraction suggests, visitors cannot simply decide to trek down to Key West mere days before. When it comes to lodging, rooms are sold out weeks—even months— prior to the event.

One of the most popular lodging accommodations for college students traveling in larger groups is Key West’s Parrot Key Hotel & Resort. This is because in addition to guest rooms and suites, this hotel offers villas. These villas really bring in good business during Fantasy Fest due to the sheer amount of people a group of college kids can cram into every available space, if they can do it without the hotel staff catching on.

Three stories high, the villas have three bedrooms with four beds in total. Accounting for these, couches and floor spaces, more than 10 people could easily sleep in each Parrot Key Villas. Not only does it help keep a group of friends together, but staying with so many people helps lower the cost each person has to shell out for lodging.

Though Parrot Key offers water- or garden-front accommodations, college students at Fantasy Fest are hardly concerned with having a room with a view.

Less aesthetically pleasing, but a bit more convenient is the Southwinds Motel, a bed and breakfast located a couple blocks away from the action on Duval Street. Featuring two queen beds, a small kitchenette and standard bathroom, Southwinds does not exceed expectations, but its proximity to both Duval Street and the beach is incomparable.

Regardless of hotel, visitors should expect to pay up to three times the regular rate. The high demand of rooms allows hotels to up their prices to the highest of the year, and people are still willing to pay.

“I couldn’t believe the price of this place,” said Patricia Martinez, a guest at Southwinds, which, during normal weekend nights, costs around $250 and during Fantasy Fest was $750 per night. “I really was not expecting to pay so much for one night, but I wasn’t going to not come.”

Because of the high prices, as well as the carefree attitude that comes with the weekend, many revelers opt to simply find a safe place to park and sleep a few hours in their cars. In fact, many University of Miami students decided at the last minute that their “fear of missing out” syndrome (FOMO) was too strong to cope with, and— lack of funds be darned— drove the three hours to Key West without any lodging arrangements. During this time— in allotted spaces— overnight street parkers will not be penalized by the police department.

Whether in a car or comfy hotel room, visitors will be spending very little time in their lodgings, as the events of Fantasy Fest last all day and well into the wee hours of the morning.

During the sunlit hours, many visitors flock to the Bahama Village Goombay Festival for a day of island music, food and crafts in the heart of Key West’s historic village. The event is labeled family-friendly, so college students looking to get their day drink on may want to find another place to do so.

Luckily, Dante’s Pool Bar and Restaurant is the perfect alternative. With wet t-shirt contests and generous happy hour specials, it’s the college reveler’s dream.

“It was basically a ton of UM students and old naked people with saggy body parts,” laughed UM senior Taylor Frankel. “But it was a lot of fun. I got a bucket of Long Island Iced Teas and people were playing beer pong in the pool.”


Higgs Beach in Key West is on the south side or Atlantic Ocean side, of the island (Photo by Lauren Zimmerman).

For those saving up their energy for evening activities (or nursing a hangover from the night before), the Clarence S. Higgs Memorial Beach is the perfect place to relax and enjoy a beautiful Key West day. Because of all the events occurring during the day, the beach is actually not very crowded, ideal for those who want a few hours of quiet before starting their evenings.

To save money, most college students bring their own food such as sandwiches and other easy-to-make food that can be prepared right in their hotel rooms. However, for a meal that won’t break the bank, most of the bars on Duval Street offer normal lunch and dinner menus before transforming into party spots once the sun goes down.

Despite their very distinct atmospheres during the rest of the year, these bars are all quite similar during Fantasy Fest. Instead of drawing a specific crowd, these bars see people of all types (straight, gay, bikers, younger people and so forth) come and go freely.

Still, there are some favorites among the college crowd. Fat Tuesday, a familiar sight to those who frequent Miami’s Coconut Grove on Tuesday and Thursday nights, is packed with UM students looking for $1 jello shots.

Sloppy Joe’s, located a little further down Duval Street, is known for its music selection that mixes new and old favorites. Many bars held specific theme parties (like “Pink Bras and Claws” and the “Tighty Whitey Party”) and charged a cover at the door. Students typically stayed away from these, as they often attracted an older crowd.

Regardless of which bar is the favorite, everyone can find somewhere to have fun— even if it’s just in the street! Performers walked up and down Duval Street blasting music and entertaining partiers. One man charged $5 to let people hold and take photos with a large yellow python.

Believe it or not, the snake was one of the more tame sights. With police standing outside the barricades blocking Duval Street from the outside world, the party inside was quite unrestricted. Men and women alike dressed in drag, wore Halloween costumes or stripped down and got their bodies painted simply because they could.

Fantasy Fest truly is a time to slip out of reality and take on a whole new persona. In those few days, visitors should not have to worry at all about grades, professors, extracurriculars or anything related to real life; their only job is to live out their fantasy, whatever that means to them.

If You Go

Parrot Key Hotel & Resort
2801 N. Roosevelt Blvd., Key West, Fla. 33040

Southwinds Motel
1321 Simonton St., Key West, Fla. 33040

Do (Day)
Bahama Village Goombay Festival
Located in Old Town, southwest of downtown
Free admission

951 Caroline St., Key West, Fla. 33040

Clarence S. Higgs Memorial Beach
Free admission
Limited parking

Do (Night)
Fat Tuesday
305 Duval St., Key West, Fla. 33040
No cover charge

Sloppy Joe’s Bar
201 Duval St., Key West, Fla. 33040
No cover charge

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