by JD Adler
Since 1979, Key West has hosted an annual bacchanal called Fantasy Fest. Initiated as an attempt to draw tourists, it has by that measure been wildly successful. Tourists and locals alike revel in the opportunity for open celebration every year. Vendors and the marketers rake in significant stacks of cash. It also has its detractors, and every few years the calls for reform rise to a crescendo. Another tide of reform appears to be rising this year. This last successfully occurred in 1992, resulting in the establishment of the “Fantasy Zone” one block to either side of Duval Street set aside for the hedonistic behavior.
The Good, the Bad and the Naked
It was Harry Bethel, then City Commissioner, who led the move for reform in 92 and again this year though he proudly declares he has never attended the festival. Having organized his own public meeting in November, the city followed up with a commission meeting dedicated to this subject on January 8th which drew 24 people, not including city employees and commission members. Though he is not the only voice for reform, the Key West Fest Friends led by Kathy Watkins have initiated a project of their own. Bethel is demanding a hard line, wherein law enforcement would engage in mass arrests to intimidate future tourists who “come here to do what they wouldn’t do in their own home town.” The Fest Friends, on the other hand are targeting the marketing and promotions for reform. Watkins sees messaging like “leave your inhibitions at home,” as the reason the festival has become less about costuming and more about nudity and sex.
Its my understanding that you can’t have you’re pichullino painted in public.
– Commissioner Yaniz on public nudity laws
The commission, for its part, listened to both parties and then spent a great deal of time discussing the current status of the event. Which provided far less clarity than one would expect. It was generally agreed that it is illegal, even during Fantasy Fest, to be naked in public. The commissioners also agreed that the KWPD, and the 4 other law enforcement organizations which support it during the festival, do an excellent job. The public was assured that the police arrest any violators of nudity laws that they see. Which Chief Lee said was 2 or 3 individuals in 2014.
However the reason for the meeting in the first place was that large numbers of the public disagree with that assessment. Almost every citizen has multiple anecdotes of witnessing public nudity and/or sex during the festival. Chief Lee himself told me that he feels his orders from civilian authority are “murky”, though he also stated they have never been told to ignore legal statuettes for the festival. But he is being asked to patrol a city sponsored event which actively promotes violations of the laws he is being asked to enforce.
Don’t Shoot the Messenger?
The company in charge of promotions, Market Share, does post information about the legal limits of behavior. However they also utilize slogans which tell people “fun lovers from around the globe leave their children and inhibitions behind as they descend upon Key West each year…” It also promotes a ten day festival, while being contracted for two. According to Commissioner Weekley, this apparently developed organically as a result of the inn keepers establishing a 5 day minimum on their guests. So there appears to be mixed messages originating from those responsible for communications.
The overall tone of the meeting was one of mild reform. The majority of the commissioners appeared to favor the Key West Fest Friends’ suggestion of altering the message in order to target a different audience and have scheduled a meeting among the principal stakeholders. However, as Commissioner Lopez said, “I don’t think anyone is expecting any promises, we just want to see some work being done.”
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