Key West Fantasy Fest Marchers

They may be beauty school dropouts, but these Martian lovelies wowed crowds at the 2015 Fantasy Fest Masquerade March. (Photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Last October in Key West, I spotted a character wearing a feathered bikini and six-foot-tall peacock headdress. A gaggle of silver-garbed, self-described “Beauty School Dropouts From Mars” with curlers on their coneheads. A quartet in dreadlocks impersonating the legendary Jamaican bobsled team. And so much more that it defies description.

Yes, it was all part of Fantasy Fest.

I have a deep affection for Fantasy Fest. It’s an extravagant display of Key West’s creativity, individuality and flamboyant spirit — where people of all ages, shapes and levels of attractiveness can “play dress up” and feel great doing it.

The 10-day festival is internationally recognized for its elaborate costume competitions (including one for pets), street fairs, masquerade balls and outrageously wonderful grand parade.

Each year, a different theme provides inspiration for costumes and floats. Fantasy Fest 2016 runs through Oct. 30, themed “Political Voodoo & Ballot Box Barbarians” in an offbeat salute to the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

Fantasy Fest Key West parade

A float rolls down Key West’s Duval Street during a previous Fantasy Fest Parade, the highlight of the island city’s outrageous annual costuming and masking celebration.

The festival highlight is the parade through Key West’s historic downtown, this year set for Saturday, Oct. 29. Glitzy, glamorous and unabashedly excessive, the parade features brilliant floats whose riders toss beads to the near-hysterical crowds.

Floats are interspersed with Caribbean-style bands, dancing groups in vivid robes and headdresses, and assorted eccentrics whose costumes elicit gasps of awe from spectators lining the streets.

Both spectators and event participants are likely to benefit from a few tips for maximizing their Fantasy Fest fun. For example …

Pace yourself. Fantasy Fest includes several dozen exotic escapades, and it’s physically impossible to indulge in all of them. So figure out which events look most appealing (Late-night pool party? Tea dance in the street?), map out a strategy and stick to it. (And take naps. Lots of naps.)

Wear comfortable shoes. Okay, you’re planning on dressing as a devilish diva in a lavish gown and shimmering mask. But you’ll be doing a lot of walking and dancing, so leave the four-inch heels and platform boots at home. Instead, get some comfortable flats and decorate them with sequins and bling.

Design costume(s) to be easy-access. Eventually, everybody has to answer a call of nature. And that’s not easy for someone wearing, say, a glittering skin-tight mermaid tail that takes 10 minutes to shimmy into. For a long night of carousing, let practicality rule!

Fantasy Fest Masquerade March

Like these men garbed in flamingo costumes, people “flock” to the Masquerade March each year.

Make it memorable. Fantasy Fest should be a fabulous, unforgettable experience — savored while it’s happening and recalled fondly for years afterward. But that can’t happen if you overindulge. To avoid having to rely on unnerving selfies and friends’ tales to recall the fun, make some libations non-alcoholic.

Don’t miss Fantasy Fest’s Masquerade March. This exuberant walking parade, which begins at the strangely appealing Key West Cemetery, is the locals’ favorite event. Marchers in over-the-top masks and costumes meander through the island’s Old Town, stopping at designated B&Bs for nibbles and cocktails. Past years’ standout marchers included four guys in matching Wonder Woman costumes, two polka-dotted octopuses, the aforementioned Jamaican Bobsled Team and a group of “crab people” who wore little more than oversized orange “claws.”

Whether the costume you choose is claw-based or clawless, don’t be clueless at Key West’s wildest party. Get a complete Fantasy Fest schedule here — and enjoy!

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