An End to Fantasy Fest?


Old City Hall, Key West

The Bethel Commission

Harry Bethel as commissionerGathered in the Commissioners’ Chamber of the Old City Hall, on November 17, 2014, former City Commissioner Harry Bethel brought together State Attorney Catherine Vogel, Police Chief Donie Lee, and approximately 50 concerned citizens of Key West to discuss the future of Fantasy Fest at a meeting labeled “Key West, Our Island Life”. Sitting behind the polished wood banister alongside S.A. Vogel, beneath a neon 3 minute speaker’s timer that was occasionally enforced, Bethel promptly began the meeting at 6 PM with a short speech that left no doubt as to his agenda.

He began by describing his impetus for this round of discussions on the subject being a massive influx of emails and personal comments objecting to Fantasy Fest becoming increasing lewd. He read into the record four suggestions offered to, not by, him (paraphrased here for brevity):

1.  Outlaw genital painting

2.  Clearly define and publish nudity laws

3.  New marketing ideas

  • Change name
  • Focus on creativity of costumes with prizes, etc.

4.  We are all taxpayers; families should not lose access to their own city due to obscenity.

Bethel then went on to clearly state his own opinion and purpose, for the record, “…We can do this [reform Fantasy Fest] without hiatus or referendum by working together. Titties and genitals do not bring money they only fulfill people’s fetishes doing things they would never do in their own home town.”

Bethel then challenged a Facebook critic to speak publicly, absent response, he introduced State Attorney Catherine Vogel.

Catherine Vogel, Attorney for the State of Florida

catherine vogel 2014Vogel began by clearly defining her position as objective, merely there to inform on the legal statues and options. She had no opinion as to how the community should proceed but promised the state would enforce whatever decisions were made within the legal limits. Vogel stated there were essentially three applicable legal statues.

1.  Public Nudity- this is a local ordinance and she recommended speaking with City Attorney, Shawn Smith, for more information.

2.  Lewd/Indecent Exposure- a 1st degree misdemeanor carrying up to 365 days incarceration, should a jail sentence be imposed. While explaining this statute, she cautioned that mere nudity was not enough for a conviction; it required “exposure of the private parts in a vulgar or indecent manner.”

3.  Disorderly Conduct- a 2nd degree misdemeanor carrying up to 60 days in jail, should jail time be imposed. This would require corruption of public morals or outrage public sense of decency, if it constitutes shocking the conscience of the community.

Vogel did state that she believed it would be possible to make a Disorderly Conduct case based solely on exposure of the genitals but suggested the Indecent Exposure charge, which would require evidence of vulgar behavior, may be more difficult.

Sloan Bushinsky asked how much it would cost to try such a case. She estimated it would cost her office about $ 1000. He wanted to know about the full cost for jail, defense, and appeals, potentially up to the Supreme Court. She seemed to find such a notion humorous, but did concede that incarceration would bring the highest taxpayer costs, though she did not appear to believe most cases would deliver verdicts that severe.

The Citizens of Key West

At this point the floor was opened to questions and comments. Roughly 15 people stood to express themselves. These fell into 5 umbrella categories:

1.  Get rid of Fantasy Fest, it has become an immoral blight on the community.

2.  People with naked genitalia should be arrested no matter where they are or when it is.

3.  The Fantasy Fest Zone needs to be better contained by police/ private security.

4.  The Fantasy Fest Zone rules need to be posted by vendors and strictly enforced by police.

5.  The marketing company’s contract should be reviewed, as they currently focus on promoting nudity  over costumes.

No one stood up to argue that the status quo is fine, don’t change a thing. Perhaps this is the reason Bethel stated at one point that he believed there was a silent majority in favor of reform. Though, when I followed up to ask if he had any kind of polling or numbers to support that hypothesis, he replied that he had lived in the community for years. This, the community’s will, was one of the two pillars he offered in support of his argument for reform. The other being his belief that the Fantasy Fest tourists relied on anonymity to do in Key West what they would never do at home. Therefore making a realistic threat of public humiliation by arrest record would, he believes, domino into calming behavior; even suggesting at one point that those arrested be exposed on social media.

During the meeting, I asked Police Chief Lee if he agreed with the assessment made by several speakers that the police were overwhelmed/ undermanned and Fantasy Fest was growing larger and more extravagant each year. He stood and replied, “I agree with everything that has been said.”

When I asked if he had suggestions, from a strategic perspective, as to what would be involved with some of these proposals, he seemed reticent to initiate anything, publicly. “I don’t have all the answers, it’s our job to listen and see how we can help be a partner…we are kind of a paramilitary organization, so that’s what we are going to do.” Following up after the meeting, I asked more specifically what it would take to completely contain the Fantasy Fest Zone in order to prevent naked people from leaving; he offered a rough estimate of 50 officers per shift, in order to block every intersection. This, of course, would be in addition to the normal duties of the department during this period. I asked him if he thought that was practical. His response was succinct, “No.”

Asked if he thought the idea of making a few arrests would successfully domino into improvements, he gave a short guffaw, “We do arrest people…. Last year we arrested 2 people for Disorderly Conduct, for exposed genitals, and we arrested a couple for having sex in public. That was on Dupont Lane.”

According to a Miami Herald article about Fantasy Fest from October, 2014, there have been numerous arrests over the years for charges ranging from indecency to murder. In 2000, during a particularly severe crackdown on indecency, there were 60 arrests related to public nudity. The following years saw no change in the trend of Festival behavior. This history would suggest that Bethel’s concept of more arrests leading serving as a cautionary tale may not be accurate. Arresting individuals for specific behaviors in specific areas can also be problematic, as the city discovered in 2001. As covered by Dennis Cooper for Key West the Newspaper, the city arrested several women for exposed, painted breasts in public but not the artists or other women similarly dressed. These cases ended up being dropped by the DA due to selective enforcement. An example which suggests that arresting people for indecency, and then publicizing those crimes more than other violations could create issues for the city rather than the offenders.

Kathy Watkins, KWFFKathryn Watkins, of the Key West Fest Friends, gave a short, erudite speech that received the most applause of the evening. Watkins suggested that significant responsibility for the increased focus on nudity in recent years belonged to the marketing company and their chosen vendors whose online advertising promote the “adult” aspects of the event, leaving aside the “costumes”.  She called for revisiting the contract when it comes up in June to prioritize focus on the creative costuming of Fantasy Fest. Watkins also recommended increasing the onus on vendors by requiring they post the event rules, strongly encourage customers to follow the rules when leaving, and possibly contribute to supplementing the police with private security and/or neighborhood watch. Significant focus of the Fest Friends concept was placed on re-prioritizing the Fest through events, contests and promotions towards the floats and costumes. The KWFF will be holding an open meeting on December 8, 7pm at Viva Zapata’s to further discuss their ideas.

There were also individuals representing religious and conservative/family oriented cultures within the community who felt that Fantasy Fest was simply a source of immoral behavior best eliminated all together. Citing anecdotes of particularly inappropriate, possibly illegal, behavior they had witnessed as an indictment of the entire festival, they saw it as particularly poisonous to those children growing up within Key West.  The idea that they, as members of the community, should have to alter their own behavior for everyone else seemed particularly unfair to them. Though the irony of their demand that everyone else change so they would not have to change for everyone else appeared to escape them.

The Future?

After the meeting, Bethel forwarded me the email he had sent to the tourist board, city council members, and several other citizens inviting them to come that evening. Included were 20 Fantasy Fest photos of people in various states of undress and costuming, culled from Facebook,  and the message,

“Well everyone this is only part of what we expose our City and our Residents too. This what is destroying the Image of our Island City. WE CAN CHANGE THE GROSS AND DIGUSTING WAY THESE SCUMS ABUSE OUR CITY. Now is the time. Hope to see you ALL at the “Key West our Island Life” committee meeting at Old City Hall, 6:00 PM. Feel free to forward to anyone else. The silent majority are upset. Take care.”

Aside from the various spelling and grammar errors, or questions as to why he spends time organizing naked Facebook images, clearly Bethel is passionate about his distaste for people who enjoy the Bacchanal aspect of Fantasy Fest and is confident that the majority of the population agrees with him.

In fact, it is against both event rules and the law to expose genitals in public, and women’s breasts may not be visible outside the Fantasy Zone. Yet these practices obviously do occur. The police, supplemented by forces from Orange County and other areas, do make arrests for Disorderly Conduct every year. Yet this has produced no change to the general behavior. The event was originally created because Key West had little tourist activity during October. Apparently, the very first parade had a woman wearing only body paint as a hood ornament on the very first float.  The “attracting tourists” issue has clearly been resolved, yet there are members of the community who are offended by the omnipresence of the naked human body for an entire week in October. The question now confronting Key West leadership: How to maintain the economic benefits of Fantasy Fest while finding a way to satisfy both the Hedonistic and Puritanical elements of its citizenry?


JD Adler

JD Adler

Visit our Contributor Page to learn about JD Adler, the newest member of The Blue Paper team.

  7 Responses to “An End to Fantasy Fest?”

  1. Chief Donnie Lee says “it’s our job to listen and be a partner…we are a paramilitary organization.”

    Ill chosen words methinks, or perhaps we should look for black ops , death squads and psy- ops too. I am not too fond of the photo on the City’s web page showing half a dozen AR 15 holding cops standing as though ready for action, but maybe that’s what we have become- militarized.

    Paramilitaries do not “protect and serve ” – they have a political agenda as do terrorists, and they do not belong in Key West.
    So just WHO are the partners he mentions? The City Commission, Chamber of Commerce? Are THEY then the partners of the people they claim to represent?

  2. Wow ZOBOP…you really took that one out of context. All police forces in the US are considered paramilitary…and it is because of their organizational structure, not because they have heavy weaponry. They have ranks and decorum like the military, that’s all. The heavy weaponry is a response to the trends of the bad guys, not because of any third world regime semblance. We expect and demand that our police force protect and serve…so they must adapt their tools to do so.

  3. this is the Chief’s full quote:

    “I don’t have all the answers. Its a community effort, its going to take all of the community to come together and come up with viable long term solutions, if that’s what we’re going to do. The police don’t have all the answers. I’m here to listen and see how we can help be a partner, and do whatever the majority of the committee wants us to do. You know, we’re kind of a paramilitary organization. [garbled word] So that’s what we’re going to do.”

  4. Mr. Adler, welcome to Key West and to I like your style and look forward to more stories from you.

    Regarding Mr. Bethel’s crusade, attending FantasyFest is much like any other adult oriented event (not that ALL FantasyFest events are “adult oriented”), if you are offended, don’t go. Don’t support it. Whenever an event that attracts 10s of thousands of people happens, there will be some that push the boundaries, sometimes to the point of breaking the law. So 4 people were arrested this year for “offensive” behavior. The fact is some of those in attendance are there for some of the “adult oriented” events. There are more than a few grandmas and grandpas wearing less clothes than many of us wish they would. And it’s true, most of these people would never think about doing that in their hometowns. But that’s part of the Key West charm (reputation?). For how many years has Key West been so gay (LBGT) friendly, that many that are part of that community have come to Key West so that they can express their choice, when they couldn’t in their hometown? Should we not allow same sex couples to hold hands or hug and kiss in public? I’m sorry but I respectfully disagree with Mr. Bethel in that respect. What I could get behind is a new, more family friendly, creative event that would become as popular in a short amount of time. I realize there aren’t a lot of available weeks/weekends for a new event so maybe tying it in with another event would be a possibility. Maybe expand on the sidewalk chalk show. Just a thought.

    Again welcome to, and Key West too. We’re a strange little town.

  5. Exactly. The cops in this town, in the county and all over the country have somehow gotten the idea that they’re paramilitary organizations, as evidenced by their purchase of military gear, weapons and equipment. They’re immature, illiterate little boys with big toys, and because of their own inadequacies and imagined slights in their lives, they will take out their aggression on innocent citizens.

  6. Ah, the grumpy old Conch just can’t keep himself out of the limelight, can he? Fantasy Fest is his new ‘pet’ project to protect the city, but he distances himself from his dangerous son’s arson and assault?

    Back to the subject at hand: I have long ago grown tired of Fantasy Fest and it is not my style. It’s not creative any longer. However, it is my choice not to go. Mr. Bethel has never once gone to a Fantasy Fest event and yet he rants.

    In my 20 years here, though, I’ve seen many local parents dragging their kids and toddlers down to Fantasy Fest for the street fair and for the parade. These unfit parents (1) don’t need to have kids out at midnight (2) are obviously too selfish to stay home and be parents (3) are too cheap to get babysitters and (4) are too immature to realize they have responsibilities. Yet, Bethel feels that the entire town has to accommodate the unfit parents. That’s what this amounts to.

    I have always laughed about the kvetching that we hear on Sunday morning from the unfit, sanctimonious parents who dragged their kids to adult events.

    It’s a non-subject. Go away, Mr. Bethel.

  7. Anything that is illegal at Key West’s Fantasy Fest is illegal in the entire United States of America, straight from Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. To start outright arresting everyone for nudity, you really may as well just have the FBI patrolling Key West during Fantasy Fest and making sure that everyone knows that public nudity is a Federal crime, not a municipal crime. Heck, we may as well make it a federal crime to operate a nude beach and make it even a federal crime to be topless/nude at Haulover Beach, Apollo Beach, and every single beach, whether nude operated or not, within the United States of America. Heck, we may as well even have the FBI patrolling Haulover Beach, Apollo Beach, all of California’s beaches, even every single beach nationwide, arresting every single nude person nationwide and locking them up in federal facilities, and even have the FBI patrolling Mardi Gras in New Orleans, too.