December 11, 2005

Delayed by hurricanes, Key West fest rolls on

By Laura Myers

KEY WEST, Florida (Reuters) - Thinned ranks of tourists
watched bared-bottom Santas and other adult shenanigans at
Fantasy Fest, Key West's yearly street salute to Halloween
delayed by 2005's hurricanes.

Parade-watchers on Saturday packed downtown Key West,
located at the southernmost tip of the continental United
States, for the festival themed, "Freaks, Geeks and Goddesses."

Topless elves tossed beads and candy as people in
bottomless Santa costumes waved to throngs. Grand marshal
"Sushi," a Key West drag queen, greeted revelers from atop a
white horse.

One float posted the sign "No presents for G.W. this year,"
referring to U.S. President George W. Bush.

The event, normally held as a 10-day, adult-pegged
celebration in late October, was rescheduled when Hurricane
Wilma crashed ashore on October 24 with a four-foot seawater
surge that flooded 3,700 of Key West's 15,000 homes.

The storm forced evacuations in the Florida Keys, knocked
out power to millions of people in south Florida and played
havoc with tourism and other businesses in the region.

An estimated 35,000 to 45,000 people attended this year's
Mardi Gras-style festival, which typically attracts 60,000 to
80,000 people.

"This year, you're not just another sardine in the can,"
said taxi driver Skip Hurst, who also delivers milk. "If we
didn't have it, it would be a terrible Christmas here. A lot of
people are trying to get caught up on their rent."

Christina, a 42-year-old visitor from Florida who declined
to give her full name, had painted her bare breasts and wore a
black leather skirt over black boots. She said she had given
the Fantasy Fest trip as a Christmas present to her husband.

"We went through hurricanes, too, and thought this would be
fun," she said.

Some locals had objected to rescheduling Fantasy Fest to a
time near the Christmas and Jewish religious holiday, but
tourism promoters argued the event was needed after brushes
with Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

Rev. David Wilt of St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Duval
Street, the town's main tourist stretch, said Fantasy Fest's
timing wasn't a concern. "Our parishioners are very tolerant.
We may even get in some off the street," Wilt said.

But a handful of anti-Fantasy Fest protesters, trailing the
parade, used bullhorns to urge repentance and carried signs
with messages, such as "God Hates Sin."