Fans of the Florida Keys’ quirky creativity and whimsical spirit can celebrate both —as well as the island chain’s 200th anniversary — during Key West’s eagerly anticipated Fantasy Fest.
This year’s fabulous costuming and masking festival is scheduled Friday, Oct. 20, through Sunday, Oct. 29. The jam-packed schedule includes masquerade balls, costume competitions, glamorous galas and an over-the-top grand parade.
Grace Epperly (right), her daughter Hope and their pooch are costumed as “minions” during the 2022 Fantasy Fest Pet Masquerade. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)
The 2023 festival is themed “Uniforms and Unicorns … 200 Years of Sailing into Fantasy.” It salutes the Keys’ bicentennial and that of the U.S. Navy in Key West, in addition to the islands’ “unicorn-like” uniqueness and mystical appeal.
Imaginative costuming is a MUST throughout the 10-day festivities, and Fantasy Fest organizers encourage people to embrace the theme when they’re designing costumes and parade floats.
People might draw inspiration from the mythical beauty of unicorns, or from uniformed groups like 17th-century Navy sailors, Harry Potter’s Quidditch team, medieval knights or sci-fi space crews — or whatever they can dream up.
The revelry’s official kickoff is the two-day Goombay Festival, centered on Petronia Street in Key West’s Bahama Village. Held Oct. 20 and 21, the family-friendly Goombay pulses to a Caribbean beat with nonstop music, arts and crafts, island-style food and a wonderful camaraderie.
Scheduled performers include the 43-piece New Generation Cultural Group from Grand Bahama Island, leading a traditional Junkanoo parade of costumed marchers.
Also Oct. 20, the Fantasy Fest king and queen are to be crowned at the Royal Coronation soiree and stage show, capping a six-week fundraising effort by candidates to benefit the Florida Keys SPCA.
Costumed revelers participate in the 2022 Fantasy Fest Masquerade March, an extravagant walking parade and local tradition during the 10-day festival. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)
Among the highlight events awaiting festival attendees is the wacky Pet Masquerade, a Fantasy Fest favorite that takes place Wednesday, Oct. 25. The “critter costume competition” is designed for dogs, cats, birds and other domestic animals — accompanied by their human companions, of course — who compete for tail-wagging prizes.
Entries typically range from dressed-up pet-and-person duos to lavishly garbed groups of people and animals staging choreographed performances. Standouts in the 2022 Pet Masquerade included a large troupe spoofing the 1988 film “Beetlejuice.”
Thursday, Oct. 26, brings the Key West Business Guild’s 40th anniversary Headdress Ball, where entrants compete for “head-turning” prizes in huge and elaborate masks and cowls. Renowned as Fantasy Fest’s premier LGBTQ event, the competition also features entertainment by notable talents — this year to include nationally acclaimed female impersonator Randy Roberts.
Plans call for unicorns and uniformed revelers to strut through the streets Friday, Oct. 27, during the Captain Morgan Masquerade March. The lighthearted march attracts thousands of locals and visitors who show off their costumes as they promenade through a section of Key West’s Old Town.
Captain Finbar Gittelman, a beloved Keys mariner, is the grand marshal of the 2023 Fantasy Fest parade. (Photo by Rob O’Neal)
And costumes run the gamut from weird to flat-out spectacular. The 2022 march, for example, included a group garbed in shimmering robes and huge gauzy wings, a herd of Santa’s renegade reindeer, and characters from the “How to Train Your Dragon” animated films.
Saturday night, Oct. 28, tens of thousands of spectators will line Whitehead and Duval streets in downtown Key West for the Bud Light Fantasy Fest Parade. A dazzling procession of large-scale motorized floats, costumed walking groups and exuberant island dancers, the parade illustrates the Florida Keys’ characteristic creativity and spirit.
In keeping with the 2023 festival’s maritime-inspired theme, the parade’s grand marshal is “Admiral” Finbar Gittelman, one of the founders of the Conch Republic (a “nation” that’s widely recognized as the Keys’ alter ego). Famed as the First Sea Lord and Supreme Commander of the Conch Republic Military Forces, Admiral Finbar is a venerable mariner and beloved personality who built and skippers Key West’s flagship Schooner Wolf.
Amazing as these highlight events are, they’re not the only attractions that await Fantasy Fest crowds. The roster of revelry also includes the zany Zombie Bike Ride, “Tutu Tuesday” and pool parties, a waterfront Woodstock takeoff, music and art showcases, the lively Fantasy Market and much, much more. For an up-to-the-minute schedule of festival events and info, get the Fantasy Fest app today at the App Store or Google Play.