Key West recovers from impact of Irma with iconic Fantasy Fest celebration

Posted Dec. 3, 2018


KEY WEST, Fla. — Roughly two months ago, the Florida Keys were battered by Hurricane Irma. Weeks after cleanup and construction, the island chain is less than back to normal. Every year the southernmost city in the United States hosts a huge Halloween attraction known as Fantasy Fest. Now that places are back up and running, how has Key West’s iconic Fantasy Fest been affected?

A turnpike sign points the way to Key West (Photo by Annalise Iraola).

Once you cross from Florida’s mainland into the Keys, there’s a sense of genuine island life and it feels more like a tropical getaway than an extension of Florida.

Driving south from Miami through Key Largo’s Upper Keys and into the Middle Keys, it was easy to see the destruction and debris left behind from the hurricane.

The people in Key West are friendly and welcoming. For example, three other college-aged girls and I were unsure about where to dine in downtown Key West, our Uber driver suggested several other restaurants and drove us past all of them until we decided on one.

“You don’t want to go there, the best places are those that don’t advertise to tourists,” our Uber driver, Jeff Dubois, originally from New Orleans and a resident of Key West for the past 20 years. He had lots to say about the island and differences he had noticed since Irma.

When I spoke with Dubois about the differences in size compared to last year and any changes he had noticed.

“Last year the parade had around 50 floats, this year because so many were destroyed they only had around 20 floats,” Dubois said,

However for visitors around like myself, who were attending Fantasy Fest for the first time, the crowds and atmosphere did not disappoint.

It seems that almost everything here is legal, despite the official Fantasy Fest website stating clearly that nudity is illegal and only female breasts are allowed to be painted in the, “Fantasy Zone,” which is a designated area for the festival where the City of Key West Police Department enforces a code of conduct for guests. This includes open alcohol containers made out of paper or plastic, but no glass.

Within my first two hours in Key West, I had already seen several fully naked women with paint as the only form of clothing. It was common to also see men in scantily clad costumes, however, the complete nudity was not as popular among male festival visitors.

During brunch at a quiet place called Firefly on Saturday morning, I spoke with our waiter Derek about how business had been affected since Irma.

“Well we’re almost ready to go back to our full menu,” he said. “Since the hurricane, we have only been able to find limited items so the menu is adjusted.”

He later went on to discuss how business had been much slower this year than in other years, “with the weather before and how it looks out now, there’s no wonder that not many people are out” said Derek as he gestured to the looming, grey, clouds drifting above the second story wooden deck. I didn’t catch his last name before we left, it was one of those dining environments where every time you asked your server for anything they seemed greatly inconvenienced.

The streets of Key West looked normal to a first timer, but to the seasoned veterans of Fantasy Fest, the showing was less people than in years before.

Ron Wellings, a dad from Nashville, who has come to Fantasy Fest at least three times in the past, said the festival was different last fall.

“You should have seen it here last year,” Wellings said as he pointed to what looked like a full street to me “this was all jam packed with people so tight it got hard to walk.”

It’s 10:30 on Saturday night and the streets are full of people. I have difficulty seeing where the turnout is any less people than in year previous but each person I speak to in passing seems to have the same response that Irma affected the amount of people who came. One reason for this may be the highly publicized Hurricane Irma that shook the Keys not long ago. Even though Key West had significant damage, according to The Miami Herald, less people showed up this year likely due to the belief that the area was more damaged than it actually is.

The remainder of the evening was spent visiting Key West bars that both locals and tourists visit like Sloppy Joe’s, Fat Tuesday’s, and Rick’s. Things there ended much earlier than in Miami, with bars turning on lights and closing their doors much sooner than expected. My friends and I were off the streets around midnight or one-ish and it seemed like everyone else was too.

As a guest of the fest, it was hard not to be overwhelmed in a good way. Everywhere you look there’s something going on or something to see. To call Duval Street (the main area where everything happens) a freak show, would be an understatement. It seems like anything goes there. People were dressed in the most elaborate costumes, some were naked, and some people were wearing plain jeans and t-shirts, but what makes it Key West during Fantasy Fest is that no one looked out of place.


If You Go

Key West

  • City of Key West, Fla.
  • 1300 White St., Key West Fla. 33040
  • Phone: 305-809-3700

Duval Street

  • Duval Street, Old Town. Key West, Fla. 33040

Sloppy Joe’s

  • 201 Duval St, Key West, FL 33040
  • Open everyday, hours vary
  • Phone: 305-296-2388

Fat Tuesday’s

  • 305 Duval St., Key West, Fla. 33040
  • Open everyday, hours vary
  • Phone: 305-296-9373

Rick’s Bar

  • 202 Duval St, Key West, FL 33040
  • Open everyday- hours vary
  • Phone: 305-296-5513

Firefly Key West

  • 223 Petronia St., Key West, Fla. 33040
  • Open everyday, hours vary