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Key West to tame Fantasy Festival

Published May 5, 1996|Updated Sep. 16, 2005

Besieged by conservatives, organizers of Fantasy Fest are in retreat, agreeing to a ban on public body painting in an effort to curb nudity.

Planners for South Florida's version of Mardi Gras have also agreed to stop calling Fantasy Fest an adult event and will censor lowbrow costumes.

A vote is upcoming on whether to allow a "fantasy zone" where laws on outdoor drinking are suspended.

"Fantasy Fest operates on nudity, sex and raw political power," said the Rev. William Welzein, leader of the Christian Coalition South, which is leading the charge to tame the celebration. "It sends the wrong message to our kids to enforce the laws some days and forget them on others."

Fantasy Fest is more than just mere fun for Key West. The 18-year-old party nearly triples the city's 30,000 population and rakes in an estimated $18-million each fall.

The 1995 parade had men grabbing women's unclothed behinds on balconies, dancers dressing up like super-size sexual aids and costumes featuring artificial, oversized male genitalia.

Organizers say that is a far cry from the old days when raunchiness went unchecked and drunks assaulted police officers. Beer sales have even been cut back.

Ann Dickinson, Fantasy Fest director, said the event raises thousands of dollars for charity.

"Everyone is working together to make it a safe, happy thing," Dickinson said. "It isn't meant to be a family event."

The first Fantasy Fest was in 1979 on the island known for such personalities as writers Ernest Hemingway and singer Jimmy Buffett. It was conceived as a way to bolster a weak part of tourist season.

In 1992, things got ugly with more than 20 beer sellers flooded the crowd with alcohol and several scuffles followed. Six officers were injured trying to make peace. A float in the parade even showcased a man and a woman having sex.

Since then, the city has been wrestling to find a balance. The "Fantasy Zone" was created and must be renewed each year.

Nudity, though, is another issue. Last Fantasy Fest, women walked the street with only a coat of paint covering their chests. Welzein and other members of the Christian Coalition have photographs of crude behavior from last year.

"People think they can come down here and have sex on our streets," said Pat Lopez, 56, a coalition member.

Across from Welzein's church is the Purple Porpoise Pub where denizens have a different view of this injection of morality into the annual brouhaha.

"If these people don't like a gall darn party, tell 'em not to go," said Curtis Reon, 42, a mechanic. "It is our Mardis Gras."

Cracking down won't be easy, said David Lariz, Key West assistant police chief. There are only 125 officers for 50,000 revelers on the night of the parade.

"We aren't the Gestapo, but we are there to keep the peace," Lariz said. "With this many people, I don't think you will ever totally outlaw nudity and public drinking."

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