by Anacris Batista
As you step into the entryway you are greeted by a girl wearing a muted green peasant skirt, a white peasant top, and an apron. With a crown of flowers atop her head and her long hair braided down her back, she cheerily exclaims “Good-morrow to you m’lady” (or sir, as the case may be) as she hands you an event flyer. The festival is nestled in a fenced- in, treed area of MOSI (The Museum of Science and Industry) in Tampa. The dirt paths are strewn with hay and mulch and the tent tops in hues of mustard yellow, royal blue, forest green and crimson, invite you further in. The wooden signs throughout are adorned with archaic language–like the ones labeled “Privy”, to indicate where one can find the port-a-potties. From the main gate, a turn to the right, just past the Maypole, leads you to the call of one of the “hawkers”, whose sole purpose is to entice you to try her wares. This particular lady works at the stand selling cinnamon roasted nuts; “Come sample the king’s nuts, she calls”. Thus begins your adventure into the past at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival.
The festival, run by Mid America Festivals– a company based out of Minnesota that runs various other festivals– had its modest beginnings 35 years ago in Largo with just a handful of entertainers. It has since grown to include several hundred vendors and performers. Some are local, like Tom Miller, aka Sir Real, whose wife does psychic readings. Others, like Mike, who makes hand crafted Ear Art, travel from fair to fair. The “cast” are people from all walks of life who audition to participate in the fair. From Geoffrey Piper who travels from Louisiana, family in tow, to entertain fairgoers with his flute playing to The Marys, ranging in age from high school to college students, who play 13 orphan girls and dance around the maypole every hour on the hour, the Landsknecht encampment (which translates to Knight of the land), a troop of mercenaries who offer free medieval combat lessons and stories of past victories, and King Henry VIII, the Queen, Catherine Parr, and their courts. Each character has a storyline that is adhered to, and each actor stays in character. The actors audition to fill the roles of the cast members. However, guests are encouraged to dress up and add to the authentic feel of the event; and they do! Anna Peterson, marketing coordinator, offered that some of the guest’s costumes are “even more elaborate than our actors’ costumes! It’s a lot of fun!” But characters and costumes are not all there is to see and do at the fair.
In addition to the cast of characters, there is plenty of entertainment. Highlighted daily shows include jousting and a unique “human combat chess game” played on a giant chess board. The storyline for the chess match is that two noble families are at odds and come to the chessboard to settle their dispute, using family members as chess pieces. The audience is urged to choose a side, either white or black. Cast members play the main roles and audience members are randomly picked to fill in as pawns on the board. Each head of the family calls a chess move. The threatened opponent challenges the piece and the board clears. The two “pieces” then engage in hand-to-hand combat in a bout that resembles a pro wrestling /old world sword fighting mash-up. These bouts eventually lead to an all-out brawl, replete with tag-team-like moves, fist pumping, and a riled up and divided audience. Other shows include a bejeweled “Mermaid show”, the hilarity of the “Washing Well Wenches,” the good clean fun of “Splatter Time Player’s Mud Show,” and the sweet sounds of the “Sirena” sirens, to name a few. Ike Henthorne of Port Richey quietly awaited the show to begin when he was pulled out of the audience and onto the stage in the Splatter Time Players Mud Show. Graced with a long blonde wig, the 6’2”, goateed former mechanic played along with the burly men of the Mud Show. Through chuckles, he reported, “First I was a princess, then I was the Maid Marion and they were fighting over me, trying to win me over with flowers, candy and a little Boston terrier.” The cast members of the mud show said that most of the shows encourage audience participation.
Many of the shows are included in admission, but for an extra fee you can attend such extras as the “Queen’s Royal High Tea”. Queen Catherine Parr revealed in an interview that this year’s “Royal High Tea” has taken on a different direction from past events. This year, instead of having various acts entertain at the tea while the Queen sits at a head table, the Queen and her court choose a handful of countries and celebrate their customs revolving around tea. Every day is a different type of celebration. Queen Catherine, played by actress Caroline Jett, was instrumental in this new direction, saying, “A lot of people think of England when they think of tea. But upon doing research, I discovered that more people drink tea than water in some countries. I thought to myself, these people pay extra to have tea with me. They can see these acts for free throughout the festival. I wanted to give them something they couldn’t get anywhere else.” One fairgoer and her granddaughter, Lily, enjoyed themselves at the “Queen’s Tea”. Upon exiting the High Tea tent, Lily (4), dressed in a royal blue princess dress with a crown of flowers on her head and grinning from ear to ear, said she had fun drinking tea with the Queen. Behind her, Queen Catherine graciously posed with each guest for pictures as her favorite part is “reaching out to the little children and teaching them.”
In addition to the various shows, there are plenty of hands-on activities in which to participate. For a few dollars, you can learn how to shoot a bow and arrow at the archery range, don fencing gear, replete with a face masks that looks and feels like a giant colander on your face, and learn to fence against an expert (or your very own loved one, if you dare), ride a live pony carousel, a camel, or Lady Essex, the 37-year-old Asian elephant. Kaitlyn (13) who has been to the fair before, but had never ridden an elephant, exclaimed while climbing down the stairs after her elephant ride; “That was really fun! I didn’t expect it to be that fun! It was really scary but so much fun!” and went on to chat with Casey, Lady Essex’s trainer, who, with great patience and kindness, told young Kaitlyn everything she ever wanted to know about Lady Essex, his manner a common theme exhibited throughout the festival.
Another unique quality of the festival is its themes. Opening weekend was the “Wine, Chocolate and Romance” theme, and future weekends include themes like “Buccaneer Beerfest”, and “Wonders of the World.” Each weekend also hosts theme-specific events, like men in kilts competition, free beer tasting, and fencing championships. And if fair food is what you are after, don’t be afraid to go hungry as there is plenty to eat. The festival offers food for every palate: from a turkey drumstick, (meant to be eaten straight off the bone in the style of King Henry VIII) to shepherd’s pie or fresh roasted corn, to more modern foods, such as brick oven-fired pizza, corn dogs, and burgers. Or you can dine at the Pirate’s Den Restaurant Galley, a restaurant-style dining tent that includes heartier fare, like the “Guiness Pot Roast Sandwich,” an open-faced, roast beef sandwich with fluffy mashed potatoes and roasted corn, served by pirates and their wenches.
The festival ends this weekend, April 7, rain or shine. Entry is $18.95 for adults, and $10.95 for children; discounted tickets can be purchased online through the Bay Area Renaissance Festival website. Shows are included in the cost of admission but some of the attractions like fencing and archery require a few dollars to participate. Most of the vendors accept MasterCard and Visa, but some of the attractions only take cash so there is an ATM for guest convenience. Whether you go in costume or modern day apparel, there is something for everyone at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival.