For the nearly three decades since opening the gates to the village of Fairhaven, the Arizona Renaissance Festival has entertained millions of people from around the state. Running from February 11th to April 2nd , the festival has something for everyone to enjoy. If you’ve never been, and want to experience the excitement of Ye Olden Days, then now is the time to go!
Located south of Gold Canyon, the Renaissance Fair boasts 13 stages, 200 artisan shops, over 2,000 costumed actors, and games and rides galore. From musical comedy performances to acrobatics, and bellydancing to armored knights jousting in the arena, read on to find out if it lives up to the hype.
I arrived at 9:30am, so the traffic wasn’t too congested and there were still plenty of parking spots near the festival entrance. Also, I bought my ticket at Fry’s ahead of time, so I was able to get in line for the gate immediately instead of waiting through the ticket line first. I picked up a map from the info kiosk as well – it’s an invaluable tool considering how large the fairgrounds are.
About 10 minutes before opening, the Fairhaven royalty appeared on the rampart above the gate, and gave a rousing speech to welcome the new season. When the clock struck 10am, a cannon-blast boomed to signal the festivities to begin. As the crowd passed under the rampart, the prince and princess tossed small tokens and flowers to the children and younger kids, who coveted them with glee.
Once I was inside the fairgrounds, I strolled along the main walkway, taking in the experiences: Knights in clanking armor strode alongside flamboyant swashbucklers and pirates; Twig, the resident fairy, played her flute and posed for pictures with children; orators shouted above the crowd to advertise their wares and shows; the earthy-sweet scent of candied roasted almonds wafted in between the clouds of marching-dust; men tried to prove their mettle by hurling axes at targets on a wall.
Dozens upon dozens of shops line the walkways throughout the fair. Jewelry, historical clothing, chocolate and candied fruit, wooden swords, real swords, musical instruments, fortune tellers, tobacco pipes, candles, tea, even a custom hammock maker! I’ve known people who completely ignore all the shows and spend the entire day browsing and shopping, and vice versa. There’s enough depth and variety to the fair that everyone who comes to it creates their own traditions.
Looking at my map, I decided to check out “Barely Balanced – Comedic Daredevils” at the Fairhaven Theatre. The troupe was energetic and charming, and although the humor was very much family-friendly, the acrobatic acts were impressive for a small stage. Especially the finale, which had a performer balancing on four separate cylinders stacked on top of each other.
Once the half-hour show was over, I next headed to The Falconer’s Heath to watch Adam Crack display his extreme whip skills. After a brief hiccup during the set-up, Adam came out with whips blazing – quite literally, as one of his acts involved soaking a whip in kerosene and lighting it on fire! His show is one of the more exciting ones of the schedule, so I would highly recommend checking it out.
After Adam had packed up his whips, a group of bird-trainers came out with various predatory birds such as a falcon, horned owl, and vulture, to have them display tricks they’ve been taught. It’s not every day you get to see an African vulture rip apart a roasted turkey leg, or a falcon come swooping down right next to you.
There are many, many more shows worth seeing, but I decided to watch the Royal Joust in the King’s Arena at 2:30pm. A hundreds-strong crowd was funneling into the entrance, so seating became scarce within a few minutes. The show began with the Arena Mistress addressing the crowd and the royal family, and the official rabble-rousers riling up the masses.
Once the initial ceremony was done, the four jousting knights came charging out on horseback, clad in shining steel, with a brass orchestra blasting in their entrances. Once their introductions and pledges of loyalty and victory were through, the jousting began in earnest.
Each knight faced off against the other, charging their horses and aiming their lances to their target. With a sudden crash, a lance broke in two while the other found its mark. Cheers erupted from one half of the crowd, while the other half booed and taunted the victor at the guidance of the rabble-rousers.
The knights had, mounted on their left shoulders, a small wooden shield affixed a couple inches in front of a steel backing plate. The goal is to either penetrate or mark the wooden shield with a lance, with extra points being given for knocking the shield off its mount, breaking a lance off and having it stay in the shield, and removing the shield skewered on an intact lance; each increasing outcome resulted in a wilder response from the crowd.
From Balthazaar the Horsemaster, I discovered that in decades past, the joust was a choreographed display with predetermined winners. But recently within the last few years, it’s become a genuine competition, with each knight seeking to win at the expense of the others. It’s easy to see that this is the case, since each joust is completely different from the last one, with the Arena Mistress frantically tallying and announcing the score as it happens. After the final exchange, the final scores were tallied and the audience was left with a cliff hanger — the winner would be decided after the 5pm joust, to the death!
Nearby the arena, I dropped into the Dancing Pig Pub for a beer, and to see the dancers of the Jamila Lotus Dance Carnival. Combining bellydance with aerial curtain techniques, the three lovely ladies gave an exciting performance, backed by eclectic tunes from their band. They’ve been a staple of the fair for many years, so I spoke with Colette, the director and lead dancer, about what she enjoys most about working here:
“It’s a very well-produced fair, it’s very clean and efficiently-run with dozens of wonderful acts. The performers here are very high-quality; some of the best road-performers are here, with veterans who have been doing it for decades and decades. It’s really worth coming to!”
Between the second and final jousts is a great time to check out the sideshows and games, as the initial lines and crowds have dispersed throughout the fairgrounds. One of my favorites is the Cast in Bronze show, where a masked musician plays a 4-ton carillon with 35 bronze bells; a truly unique sound to experience! Other acts around this time are Don Juan & Miguel’s “The Weird Show,” The Ded Bob Sho, and the Washing Well Wenches. There’s also an arcade midway of sorts in the east end, where the highest concentration of games is found, like an archery range, a maze, and a joust for kids mounted on wooden horses pulled by a string.
Once 5pm rolls around, it’s back to the arena for the final performance. This one is similar to the previous ones but with higher intensity and, now that the audience has been drinking for most of the day, an even more enthusiastic and wild crowd. Lances shattered on impact, shields splintered, and screams and yells erupted from the grandstands as the knights competed neck-and-neck for points. After a long battle, Sir Edgeron the Blue Knight emerged victorious, but as he approached the Arena Mistress to receive a golden wreath, Sir Maximilian tackled him to the ground and stole it. A swordfight broke out between the knights and their squires, with each of them being killed, accompanied by a suitable spray of “blood” as they fell. But Edgeron reclaimed his prize and slew Maximilian, to the roar of the crowd. I approached Edgeron and asked him about the outcome of the battle.
“[Slaying my foes] is a feeling I can’t quite explain because I didn’t truly want to kill them, and I kind of feel bad about it, but after a little bit of ale I’ll forget all about it! You should all come see Edergon the Blue Knight win many more victories.”
Once the final tournament has ended, there is usually about 30 minutes left before the fair closes for the day, which is about how long the walk from the arena to the parking lot takes. Leaving the Renaissance Fair, you have two options to avoid the traffic gridlock: Either leave immediately after the final joust, or mosey around and kill time inside and outside the fairgrounds until about 6:20, when the majority of cars have left the lot. The last thing you want after spending all day in the sun, is to spend all evening driving home.
Whether it’s seeing shows, listening to music, eating roasted turkey legs, or searching for the perfect trinket, the Renaissance Fair has something for everyone at every age.