About This Festival
A Texan Renaissance?
A defunct 55-acre strip-mining site in Texas may seem odd stomping grounds for noble lords and corseted ladies, fortune-tellers and wenches—or Queen Elizabeth for that matter. But each year that is exactly the scene when the largest Renaissance festival in the United States enlivens the “New Market Village” for eight autumn weekends in the town of Todd Mission. Over a half-million attendees—many of them costumed—create an alternate world with theatrics, jousting, archery, juggling, libations, and games like Drench-a-Wench.
Looking at the festival grounds, its previous incarnation as a strip mine is hard to believe. Long gone are tailing piles and bulldozers; now its Renaissance-style buildings complete with turrets and steep roofs, magical gardens, and hundreds of native trees.
A Big Space for a Big Vision
“We chose Texas for a couple of reasons,” marketing director Cory Brock says, “The first being the land. The owner found some good, clean land for cheap that he could buy in a mass amount.” George Coulam’s sense that the festival might eventually need the extra space turned out to be a good premonition. The festival went from a handful of vendors on blankets in 1974 to an event so popular it outdraws local sports teams such as the Houston Texans and Houston Rockets.
Wait. An Elizabethan era dalliance eclipsing America’s love affair with sporting events? Despite it’s Euro-sensibilities, in many ways a Renaissance festival is pure Americana. Yanks love a good theme park, and although Europeans were on to living history museums ages ago, Americans gave the concept an indulgent-spin. Much more than an educational venue, a Renaissance festival offers shopping, snacks, and wild entertainment. There are dozens of them throughout the U.S., and this pepped-up version has caught on in other counties as well, including Australia, Canada, and Germany. This American-style of Renaissance festival has even found its way back to England.
The Texas Renaissance Festival is the largest in the U.S., and growing. Why? “What sets us apart is our ability to generate ideas that will be interactive with the public, especially in this day and age of cell phones and text messages,” says Brock.
Dress-up and Indulge
The festival is not a veg-out and watch sort of event. The culture of a Renaissance festival is one of participation, and many attendees get not only in costume, but in character, too. Although over 400 hired actors are planted throughout the festival, it can be hard to tell the difference between them and the attendees. A general rule is that the more you engage with the festival, the better it is. If you don’t happen to have lacy corsets on hand in your boudoir, never fear: you can rent costumes outside of the festival gates. Just choose your threads carefully. You’ll be putting some mileage on those damsel heels as you walk between the petting zoo, comedy acts, Falconer’s Stage and Globe Theater.
The festival has more than one than one trick up its sleeve, and so will surprise you every weekend. Recent themes have included Oktoberfest, All Hallows Eve, and a Celtic Christmas. Whatever the weekend, an ambience of Bacchanalian hedonism is the constant. The vibe is epitomized at the "The Kings Feast," which is held every weekend and is one of the festival’s most popular events. This orgiastic dinner theater features a two-hour procession of wine and cheese, several courses, dessert and all-you-can-drink wine and beer served from bottomless chalice. Attention gourmands: this event costs extra and must be booked in advance!
While the Renaissance festival is generally kid-friendly, parents should take note that the costumes can be skimpy, the shows can be bawdy, the opportunities to imbibe are many—be it wine, mead, or beer. That said, kids will love the festival. Just steer them away from the "Christophe the Insulter" show and toward the birds-of-prey show.
So, forget ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots. It seems that Texas will long remain one of the premier places to don a bustier, throw tomatoes at jesters, and eat, drink, shop and celebrate the Renaissance American-style.