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Wilma A Drag For Gay Popular Key West Festival


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Wilma A Drag For Gay Popular Key West Festival

by David Royse, Associated Press

Posted: October 20, 2005 9:00 pm ET

(Key West, Florida) Fantasy, met an unpleasant reality on Thursday.

The annual Fantasy Fest is billed as this nonconformist island town's most nonconformist week - a bacchanal celebrating frivolity. It's also the Florida Keys' biggest moneymaker.

But most festival events were postponed because of Hurricane Wilma, which was forecast to strike Florida by Sunday after moving out of the Caribbean Sea. Local businesses may lose millions as some of the 60,000 visitors who typically turn out may stay away.

"People who have been poor for months wait for this week," said Barbara Anderson, a real-estate broker who planned to spend part of the day securing properties she would normally be renting out during one of the biggest months on a tourist-dependent island.

As Wilma forced the evacuation of nonresidents, leaving the normally crowded historic district here eerily quiet, Kirk Schnabel summed up the fears of many who were looking forward to the throngs expected to visit Fantasy Fest, which was supposed to begin Friday but now will start Tuesday.

"This would be 30 to 50 percent of our business," Schnabel said Thursday, surveying a mostly empty Duval Street outside The Jewelry Station, where he is the manager.

With some events postponed, business people here fear the crowd may be smaller, particularly if the island sustains major damage. Monroe County tourism officials were holding out hope that the crowded second weekend of the festival could go off as planned if damage is not severe.

"The second weekend is more critical," tourism spokesman Andy Newman said.

Officials here were trying to make clear that Fantasy Fest, which brings in about $30 million in sales annually, and another weekend street fair, the Caribbean-themed Goombay Festival, were being postponed - not canceled.

Fantasy Fest, which began in 1979 as a small food fair and parade, is a huge event in the nation's gay community (not that there aren't plenty of straights who also come for the debauchery). There are AIDS fundraisers, drag queen beauty contests, costume parties, lots of drinking and women wearing nothing but paint from the waist up. It culminates with a large costume parade celebrating the year's theme, which this year is "Freaks, Geeks and Goddesses."

"The 27th Fantasy Fest ... offers another nut cake romp through the realms of the ridiculous and will not back down in the face of a hurricane," the festival's Web site said Thursday. "Well, maybe we'll have to push it back a few days, but fear not! Fantasy Fest events will still rock the island, just packed into six days instead of 10."

With tourists gone, some residents here were boarding up and being urged to evacuate starting Friday. With Wilma slowing down Thursday, some didn't seem to be too hurried.

Mark Brann was relaxing outside Andy's Scooter Shop where he works, with nothing much to do without tourists. Normally, he'd be gearing up for a busy week. "Everybody sells out for Fantasy Fest," Brann said.

But on Thursday there were only a few people around: only one couple was at the marker for the Southernmost point in the country, taking a last-minute photo. No one was touring the house where Ernest Hemingway lived in the 1930s, where workers were putting boards on the windows.

But residents appeared to be largely nonchalant in a town where car bumper stickers sum up life with the warning: "Slow Down! This ain't the mainland."

Brann, like many here, had no plans to evacuate.

"Where are you going to go? They don't know where the storm's going," he said, saying he doesn't want to evacuate into a hurricane and that he thinks he'll be safe in his 7th floor condominium.

Noah Ackerman just moved to Key West from Peoria, Ill. last week, just in time for his first hurricane. The bartender at the Magnolia Cafe had no plans to evacuate either.

"The reason I don't want to leave is that afterward I want to hustle to get the place open again," Ackerman said. "The faster we can get open, the faster we can start making money."

Schnabel was planning to leave for the first time in the face of a storm - because he has a new baby.

"You got to grow up sometime," said Schnabel, 30. "I'm usually double-fisting it and surfing," when hurricanes come.

Key Westers - known here as Conchs after the mollusk that used to be plentiful in nearby waters - have about had it with hurricane evacuations, following evacuations earlier this year for Hurricanes Katrina and Dennis.

"We love our city, and most of us won't leave," said Anderson. "We're not afraid. We're just fed up."

©365Gay.com 2005


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