Huzzah! In Spring, Arizona won’t turn the clocks to daylight savings time. The Phoenix area turns it back 450 years for the Renaissance Festival.
Festival time in perfect Arizona spring weather
Every February through April, it’s Arizona Renaissance Festival time. The event displaces the Sonoran Desert with an Elizabethan Village.
In 2018 it turns 30-years-old. The fair takes place at a 17th century “village” east of Gold Canyon, Arizona. The time warp into the past is about a 45 minute-drive from most major Phoenix-Scottsdale resorts. The festival runs from the second weekend in February through the second weekend in April.
Wandering down the village street, I’m awash with memories. I often attended the original Renaissance Pleasure Faire that used to take place in the “Black Forest” near Novato, California, north of San Francisco. It’s not situated outside of Gilroy, California. In the mid-1970s, trundling my toddler daughter in her stroller, I dressed in costume, including tights, of a prosperous merchant.
A daylong festival event
Anticipating the gate opening in Arizona decades later, I was pleasantly surprised. The energy, the humor and the costumes were little-changed from the memories. That put a big smile on my face. Of course, my smile, and huzzahs from the crowd encouraged G-rated bawdiness from the Washing Well Wenches. With missing-teeth grins, they roll not so subtle flirts with the men in the emboldened crowd.
The Renaissance Festival opens on at 10:00 a.m. weekends. Opening gates unleashes a flood of crowd-goers into the Elizabethan village. The festival is food, fun and arts. Throughout the event, costumed actors speak in late Elizabethan-era language, doll out risqué puns, and show off juggling, stilts, sword swallowing and courtly manners.
A festival for the ages
Well-known for its modern interpretations of what may have been Elizabethan-area fair food styles, the festival has many offerings on a stick. Other foods overflow with rampant calories. Hungry tummies find hand-crafted chocolates to the famous oversize turkey legs to the steak-on-a-stake to bread bowls, corn on the cob and shepherd’s pie. Desserts are legion from baked goods hand-crafted at the festival to ice cream, crepes and apple dumpling. There are decidedly non-Elizabethan foods ranging from pizza and Italian to gyros, Greek salad and more traditional contemporary fair foods. Drinks range from lemonade and fruit drinks to beer and wine.
Entertainment is music and laughter and the bawdy Washing Well Wenches. The festival features courtly dances, Scottish bagpipes and drums, and acrobats. New for 2017 is Cirque du Sewer, an entourage of acro-rats and a cat performing Cirque du Soleil—well not quite—acrobatics while the cat mostly ignored his trainer. Entertainment is aimed at families. Even the bawdy wenches are mostly rate GP-13, or in the festival parlance, LC for “loose cannon.” Parental guidance or hands over the kids’ ears may be necessary, but not always.
Music and entertainment for all ages
Among the most popular events are the joust tournaments with knights riding hard avoiding oppoent’s lances. The queen, royals and commoner attendees watch. Sword fights, crossbows and other weapons of the period are demonstrated. Festival visitors can also try out some of the weapons—beware the weight of the swords. They look easy to manhandle, but take significant strength to wield.
Fortune tellers in a tented kiosk offered palm-reading, Tarot card readings and views into my future. I never wandered into a psychic shop, but somehow it seemed more fun (and less threatening) at the festival. As my seer spoke of what my palms foretold, children giggled on the flying pirate ship ride across the street. There are games of skill, whirling man-powered rides and rides on elephants and camels.
Split the best entertainment award between the acrobats, Tartanic’s bagpipes and drum, and Cirque du Sewer—the acro-rats and cat. The latter event was new for 2017 and the packed audience was almost at tear-level-laughter.
13 festival stages
Across the festival grounds, 13 stages feature day-long entertainment, turning a trip to Renaissance Festival into an all-day event. Music prevails, but the music ranges from lutes and flutes to a drum quartet. All music is accompanied by entertainment. Comedy, art demonstrations and skits fill out the rest of the stages. Many of the entertainers are festival regulars and travel from one of the ubiquitous renaissance faire and festivals that are scheduled across the country. The Arizona Renaissance Festival is the first each year, taking advantage of the warm winter weather.
No Elizabethan festival would be complete without the King and Queen, and royal processions periodically meander through the grounds, with actors dropping to knees, children cheering, and the imperial couple royally tossing candies to the crowd.
Handmade crafts and art
A favorite is browsing the vast array of artisan vendors. This is not a walk past endless waterfront t-shirt shops, but curated vendors with many hand-crafted items. For me, I was charmed by a woman making mushroom houses out of clay, and ended up with one now sitting on my piano. The wow artisan made authentic hand-forged swords. Out of my price range, I saw several with dangling “sold” tags.
Paintings, handmade renaissance-style clothing, wind chimes and blown glass are among the choices. As a journalist still using paper, I was also fascinated by the handmade paper shop, but left more money than I should have done with the chocolate maker. After all, High-cacao artisan dark chocolate is a food group right up there with wine.
Doing the festival is a day trip, and it can be pricey. All entertainment and stages are included in the ticket price, so there’s no extra hit. In 2017, water bottles were allowed when we entered; in 2016, we had to empty the water and refill from the festival’s water system. There was no charge, but it’s not bottled water. Buying bottled water at the festival is overpriced.
This is Arizona, and even though it’s cool, it’s dry. Always bring water for everyone in the family.
A travel tip from someone who has been to several, plan to arrive before 11:00 a.m. After that, traffic starts backing up on highway. Coming by 11, the absolutely scrumptious fresh pastries are still hot. Give the kids a cookie, and don’t share the cinnamon bun with anyone but your cholesterol count.
Find ticket discounts
The tickets are great values for the entertainment delivered, and there are discounts available through tickets purchased at the Fry’s Market, a local grocery chain. Food is generally good quality, but expensive.
The festival closes at 6:00 p.m. and guests are ushered back to cars with strolling musicians, entertaining actors and the even more bawdy wenches. It’s quite the “huzzah!” experience. Huzzah? It’s Elizabethan for enthusiastic expression of joy and delight.
Arizona Renaissance Festival (2017): 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, Feb. 11-April 2. 12601 E. US Highway 60, Gold Canyon, about 50 miles from major Phoenix, Paradise Valley and Scottsdale resorts (free parking). Admission $24, $21 seniors 60 and over or active/retired military ($11 dependents of active/retired military), $14 children 5-12, free children under 5 (ticket discounts are available at Fry’s, the local Phoenix-area Kroger market, and online). Arizona.RenFestInfo.com.
Traveling Mom Cindy Richards reports on the 2016 Bristol Renaissance Faire
Nicole Wakelin reported on Traveling Mom about wearing Renaissance Faire costumes when attending such festivals