The Key West Mystique

Key West Island News


Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community

2023 Fantasy Fest Royalty by Carol Tedesco

Fantasy Fest royalty | Are we on the right charitable track?

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


I’m about to touch a third rail of the 2023 Fantasy Fest royalty campaign. Some of you are gonna go all cancel culture on me by the end; others may agree. Either way, here’s the rail: What does it say about us as a community when we can raise $587,375 for puppies and kittens while 43 percent of our neighbors can barely afford to feed and shelter their families?

Let that marinate while I add context.

Between 1989 and 2022, the Royal Campaign for King & Queen of Fantasy Fest raised $5,433,868 to benefit what was then known as AIDS Help, a nonprofit providing assistance for those living with or dying from AIDS and working to prevent HIV infection. That’s an annual fundraising average of $164,662. Keep that number in mind.

After the 2022 campaign, which raised $305,637 over eight weeks, AH Monroe bowed out as the primary beneficiary, saying it was time for another charitable organization to benefit. The royal campaign is sponsored by the Key West Tourist Development Association (not to be confused with the Monroe County Tourist Development Council). AH Monroe was not among those who chose the Florida Keys SPCA.

We’ve Got the Keys holds the three-year contract to produce Fantasy Fest. Nadene Grossman Orr is festival director.

The administrative demands of the campaign — and they are significant — are borne by the benefiting charity. Few, if any, of the island’s smaller nonprofits, like Wesley House, have the staff, time and deep pockets to bear that burden. The FKSPCA, a fund-raising juggernaut, is uniquely positioned to do so.

The public-facing candidates for king and queen raise donations through their personal events, contacts and a handful of “all candidate” events. The amounts raised individually are closely held pieces of information, though we can safely assume any individual candidate raising $80,000-$100,000 has generous friends and successful events.

Key West Island News
This is the employed men’s sleeping hut at KOTS, the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter. It is next door to the Florida Keys SPCA. Photo by John Teets 2021.
Key West Island News
In 2015, the FKSPCA raised $5 million to build its 20,000 square foot, no-kill shelter on College Road. It ensures the staff can do excellent work for the almost 2,000 animals who make their ways to the shelter.
We don’t have to choose. We can do both

This isn’t an either-or. Instead, it’s about recognizing we can do better and understanding that sometimes we might have to work harder to do the right things for people at risk.

Fantasy Fest royalty | We ought not put pets over children

I was off-island on Oct. 20, when the coronation of the royal court announced it had raised $587,375 — more than a quarter million over 2022 and more than 3.5 times the campaign’s annual average.

Yay for the kittens and puppies was my first reaction. Ranger Ed and I are longtime “bottle baby” kitten fosters and we send checks (though surely not at those levels). Our local shelter board and staff do fine work for the island’s fur babies.

I’ll admit my second thought was an undignified “who the heck just bought a crown?” There’s always been local snark about deep-pocketed donors holding off until the last moments of the campaign to write checks with lots of zeros to ensure their candidate wins. Has it happened? Of course, but few could prove it. Do I care? Not really since the money goes to a good cause. I do allow, however, it doesn’t fit the spirit (or the marketing) of the campaign. Candidates who work their backsides off for six-eight weeks only to lose at the last moment could be justified in feeling a tad disappointed to put it gently. I’d probably be stomping my feet and swearing ungraciously.

It was my third thought that brought me to a hard stop: What does it say about us as a community when we can raise $587,375 for puppies and kittens while 43 percent of our neighbors can barely afford to feed and shelter their families?

Two weeks ago my column explored the 43 percent of Monroe County residents who can barely make ends meet, whose incomes are at or below subsistence levels. While kittens and puppies are fed, bathed, loved and sheltered in a state-of-the-art, hurricane-proof facility, our island’s children are hungry, hurt and one crisis from homeless.

We are better than that. Since the primary obstacle for smaller nonprofits is the campaign administration, the TDA and We’ve Got the Keys should fund the back-shop administrative resources needed for the charities that help children and people at risk so they can benefit from the royal campaign.

If we don’t find a way to put our children over our pets, as sure as the powerboat races follow Fantasy Fest, donations to the FKSPCA will dwindle as small donors say, “You’ve had your turn” or perhaps worse, “Why should I donate? You get more than enough from Fantasy Fest.”

The already difficult task of recruiting candidates willing to devote months to their campaigns only to lose to a possible check-stuffing effort will escalate. We’ll yawn cynically when asked to contribute.

I’ve heard just enough over the past week to know I’m not the only one thinking about this. I’m probably the only one foolhardy enough to say it aloud. Let’s celebrate the kittens and puppies this year. And next year let’s put the children first.


  1. Sue Huffaker

    I totally agree! We have to take care of our human family first. No one should have to work two or three jobs just to feed their families and pay rent—assuming they can even find affordable apartments any more. (A friend was just offered an apartment for &10,000 a month!)
    People are on the edge of poverty, looking into that dark abyss. I myself recently went back to work at 77 years old because I couldn’t feed myself.
    People first! One Human Family!

    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      So, true, Sue.

  2. Stephen Hafer

    Spot on Linda! We are developing a “let them eat cake” social structure. We are loosing sight of a true sense of community diversity in a mad rush “to get mine”.

    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Thanks, Stephen!

Pin It on Pinterest