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The first Fantasy Fest was held in 1979 when two local businessmen, Tony Falcone and the late Bill Conkle, organized a party to stimulate business. The event has escalated to a ten day celebration that includes balls, a parade, costume competitions, AIDS fundraisers, body painting, drag queen contests, costume parties, alcohol, and pet and neighborhood parades for the whole family. Fantasy Fest has grown to rival New Orleans' Mardi Gras as an event drawing out-of-towners.
The highlight of Fantasy Fest is its parade featuring humorous floats, including one carrying the annually elected Conch King and Queen. In recent years, attendance at Fantasy Fest has surpassed 100,000 people, or more than three times the population of the island itself.
In October 2005, the event was postponed because of devastation wrought on the island by Hurricane Wilma; instead of being held at its usual time close to Halloween, it was moved to December and celebrated just before Christmas.
The Conch King and Conch Queen are symbolic titles bestowed upon two residents of Key West, Florida selected annually during the course of Fantasy Fest. The tradition stems from the longstanding practice of locals to refer to themselves as Conchs, and ironically to the island as though it were a separate country called the Conch Republic. The title is also a play on the name of the Queen Conch, once very common in the waters around Key West. Candidates become the Fantasy Fest King and Queen in a fundraising competition to benefit AIDS Help, an organization devoted to assisting individuals afflicted with HIV. The King and Queen candidates who raise the most money during the competition period, which can last for several months, are crowned the King and Queen of Fantasy Fest in a gala ceremony.
In 2007, candidates for Fantasy Fest King and Queen raised over $200,000 USD for AIDS Help, and since 1989, coronation contests have collected almost $2.6 million.
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