If the Arizona Renaissance Festival is anything, it's a place to just do you.
The you that likes to dress up — or down — and be free without judgement. You'll see everything there: Pirates, fairies, steampunk characters, elves, ladies, wenches, scoundrels, knights, royalty, maybe a Jedi or two and regular, everyday people.
Going to the 30th annual Arizona Renaissance Festival is like traveling to another time, but with the modern conveniences we love — huzzah for plumbing in the privies!
The 30-acre village boasts about 200 charming shops and 13 stages. You can chat with the glassblowers, weavers, blacksmiths and other makers and catch shows with acrobats, sword swallowers, dancers, musicians and — obviously — jousters.
We (#ThisIsTucson's Angela, Johanna and Samantha) took the two hour drive to the Gold Canyon / Apache Junction area this week to check it out.
It was a blustery, rainy day, but that didn't ruin our fun. In fact, it added more of a "jolly old England" vibe to the day.
Before we left, there were two things we decided we HAD to do to get the full Renaissance Festival experience: Watch a joust and eat a giant turkey leg. But when we got there we did so much more — feeding a unicorn, throwing axes, interviewing fabulous Renaissance ladies — that just made everything even more glorious.
Angela Pittenger, a 40-something mother of one and artist, had never been to the Renaissance Festival but loves the art and fashion of the period. Part wench, part maiden, Angela has often dreamed of being a sword-wielding, fire-spinning circus performer.
Johanna Willett is a 20-something who visited the festival twice in high school. Johanna grew up playing make-believe games of knights, princesses and trolls and has read her share of fairy tales. As a teen, she sometimes daydreamed about swapping those awkward adolescent years for an adventure in a magical kingdom.
Samantha Munsey is a 20-something festival newbie whose Medieval knowledge comes from watching Ever After: A Cinderella Story, staring Drew Berrymore, about a million times as a kid — I mean, the outfits! She's also a big Harry Potter fan and is really taking this opportunity to show the admission board of Hogwarts what she's made of.
Angela: The very first thing I thought was "holy crap there are a ton of people here." I was glad we didn't have to stand in that line. If you're going, I highly recommend getting your tickets in advance.
Once we walked through the gate, I was in love. Everything was so cute. And the people were amazing. They all greet you with "good day" and you're like "Yeah. It IS a good day." You just can't help but smile.
The grounds are huge. I didn't realize exactly how big this festival was. Also, it is a shopping mecca! For reals. Shops outline the entire property and they are adorable. You can find flower crowns, swords, fantasy stuff like dragons and fairies, books, wands, art, leather, clothing and more.
Johanna: When we pulled into the dirt lot (free parking!), I wondered how we would find our car again. Like Angela mentioned, the festival was already packed when we arrived around 11 a.m., about an hour after it opened. Definitely buy your tickets in advance and skip the enormous line. (Check out this story for some tips on where to get cheap(er) tickets.)
When we got there, we donned our DIY flower crowns crafted with dollar store materials and then entered the 16th century.
As you enter the village, the people in costume greet you, and suddenly you are thoroughly immersed in the 16th century. This isn't a bunch of tents in a dirt lot. The structures stay even when the festival leaves.
It's a bit overwhelming when you walk in — and I've been there twice before. Even though a lot felt familiar, it's been a while, and there is just so much to see and do that my trip with Samantha and Angela was a totally different experience from visiting with my family years ago.
I really loved that we took the time to chat with some of the shopkeepers and performers. Whether they stay in character as a lady of nobility or tell you how they got into traveling with the Renaissance Festival, hearing those stories definitely enriched my experience.
Samantha: Pulling into the parking lot I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Was I actually time traveling to the Medieval era? What's the exchange rate between U.S. currency and schillings? Is eating a turkey leg mandatory?
We headed toward the gates with a ton of other folks who abandoned their cars in search of ye old adventures. Getting closer, I could see the festival goers dressed up in their Ren-Fest best. We walked passed countless princesses, wizards, and people who just love a good flower crown and corset.
There was a lady dressed up with a dog who tried to talk to me 16th century old English, but I was very confused and ended up telling her I was from Azkaban because I was wearing a striped dress, IDK, I guess the moral is be prepared for anything.
This place is really busy, but everything seemed to be humming right along. When you enter the park you're placed in what looks like a little town square. "This is cute, I love it already!" I thought assuming this was the only thing to see — so you could image how magically overjoyed I was Johanna led the way to the jousting grounds and suddenly we were walking through a long road of shops and entertainment spaces. This festival is giant!
Shows, shops and stuff to do
Angela: OK, as cheesy as it sounds, I loved the jousting tournament. We got to be loud and silly and I just had so much fun. Plus, you can't go to the Renaissance Festival and NOT watch the joust. If you can only go to one show, go to that one. That's the quintessential renaissance experience.
There's a lot to do, though. You can throw tomatoes at a guy while he insults you, climb Jacob's Ladder, ride the Swan Swing, throw knives at a wooden wall, take pictures with fairies and so much more.
Johanna: We saw fairies, fed a unicorn and explored shops that could seriously hurt your wallet if you're not careful. There is so much cool stuff, and a lot of it is made by artisans who travel with the festival.
We caught parts of several shows — we saw some fire stunts, a juggling tuba player and three singing heroines with a wicked sense of humor — but made time for the entire joust.
And yes, you have to go to a joust.
You'll get assigned a knight to cheer for based on the section you sit in and a medieval cheerleader will tell you when to applaud and when to shut it. Any time anyone in our section made the mistake of cheering for the wrong knight, our cheerleader, Lady Anastasia, let them know. Loudly.
There's lots to do for the family, with free activities like a petting zoo and hula hooping. We saw a couple of shows where the performers either engaged the kids in the audience or took note of their presence and downplayed some of the more inappropriate humor. But that's not to say there aren't shows and shops for the adults. This is the Renaissance, after all.
Samantha: Catching the jousting show is a must-do if it's your first time visiting the Renaissance Festival. We had so much fun cheering on our knight and yelling every time a joust broke.
There's also a ton of free things to do with the family as Angela and Johanna mentioned. We came across a music and dancing area where we learned how to twirl around devil sticks and watched people hula hoop.
We also caught a moment where the king of the Renaissance festival was knighting a group of kids — he all made them promise to do their homework and be nice to their parents.
There's also lots of opportunities to shop for fun one-of-a-kind items. Wands? They have them. Pet dragon puppets? You bet! Fairy cocoons? I'm not sure what that is, but I'm sure it's something I've always wanted.
Angela: We each went to a different line to get a food item to share. I had to choose between sausage or chicken on a stick, steak on a stake and corn. I picked the steak and an ear of roasted corn. The steak was tasty but overpriced at $9. I think next time I'd get the sausage. It looked good and was half the price.
My fave was the chocolate covered strawberries we got before we left, though. Perfectly sweet and decadent.
Johanna: I waited in the bread bowl line, which took FOREVER. But in all fairness, those employees were working super hard. We ended up in crazy lunch crowds partially because we opted for the first food stands we found after the joust — us and everyone else who went to the joust. Don't be a sheep. Find food elsewhere.
All bread bowl options were $6 — a pretty good value. We opted for beef stew, but other options included broccoli and cheese, spinach artichoke and chili. The bread bowl was yummy, but really, at the Renaissance Festival, I want to gnaw a turkey leg and maybe an ear of corn. Plus, it's hard to find a seat, and it's way easier to eat a turkey leg on the go than a bread bowl.
Samantha: In addition to being a Renaissance newbie I also have never eaten a turkey leg before. *Gasp* It's true! I'm more sweet than an savory person and will pick a funnel cake over a corn dog any day — but I felt in order to have the full festival experience I had to see what all the fuss was about.
A single turkey leg was $9, which seemed pretty fair to me considering it could feed two to three people no problem. I do agree with Johanna that it's easier to walk and nosh than it is to find a table around lunchtime, foods like turkey legs or roasted corn makes it easier for you to do that.
I felt like a royal in my flower crown waving around a big ol' drumstick. The turkey leg was nice and flavorful and we all took turns eating some as we passed it around among the other festival foods we got.
I would totally suggest buying and sharing foods with pals while you're here, that way you can try a bit of everything and feast like the true queen you really are.
Angela: Throwing axes! I swear I'm not a crazy person, but man, it felt good. I got one to stick in the wall so I felt like a badass. I felt powerful and I could see that being a good form of stress release.
I also really liked the folk village, where you kinda got a glimpse of Renaissance life. There were women knitting, weaving and preparing meals and a man who I think was a blacksmith working on something. It was like looking through a window.
Honestly, though, the whole experience was great. From the drive there and back with the girls to the jousting tournament and hiding from the rain to the dude fishing in a puddle, it was all just a great adventure.
Johanna: Feeding the unicorn! Seriously. This cost $1. It only lasted for a minute, but come on. A unicorn. Also, we found out she was pregnant. Baby unicorn on the way! I think I loved this part so much because it came later in the afternoon after we had spent about half an hour hiding out from the rain. I was feeling soggy and cold and this got me back into the spirit of the Renaissance Festival.
Pro tip: Be the people who pack ponchos if rain is forecasted. That wasn't us, but we were a bit jealous of the prepared festival-goers who could venture into the rain without a care. Because if it does rain, you won't want to take a break. There is SO MUCH to see and do for the whole family.
As much as I enjoyed wandering the shops and people watching, I think the Renaissance Festival is so much better when you participate. Wear a bit of a costume, cheer like crazy for your knight and don't be afraid to talk to the villagers. We learned how to use these cool juggling sticks because a lady wouldn't let us just stand there and take pictures.
Samantha: Call me a fashion fiend, but best part for me was looking at all the Renaissance outfits. From workers to patrons, everyone who dressed up had their own take on what the festival meant to them.
No need to be historically accurate here — put on some pointy ears and call yourself an elf, slap on some wings and be a fairy, wear some goggles and gears and declare yourself a steampunk captain! And everyone was so happy because we all know, when you look good, you feel good.
My favorite outfit had be Countess Cordelia's at the jousting tournament — the armor, striped pants, crown AND a horse? I'm a fan. 🙌
Angela: Have a plan. I have to say I was a little worried when Johanna, a super planner, said "Disneyland Johanna" was gonna come out. It sounded ominous. I pictured strict plans and a coach whistle.
I am not a planner. I like to just go, wander and have fun. That being said, we were on a mission, so I was thankful for Johanna and her ability to plan and conquer. If you want to see the shows AND have time to shop and do activities, you definitely need a "Disneyland Johanna" in your group.
Johanna: Thank you, Angela, for acknowledging the pros of "Disneyland Johanna." I will say, it's worth it to take a few minutes at the beginning of your day to figure out which shows are a priority and when you can see them. We saw the joust at noon — before the downpour — because that was the big thing we all wanted to see, so we went there first.
BUT also take detours and explore. That's how we found the pregnant unicorn and real fairies and juggling sticks. If we hadn't poked around in nooks and crannies, we would have missed a lot.
Samantha: Bring cash! Not every place you go to accepts credit, so be on the safe and take a few dollar bills with you.
There's also not a lot of room in your day to trek back to anything, so if you see an activity you want to do, do it then. Don't miss out on feeding a unicorn, taking a ride on a swan swing or throwing an axe. This is you day after all at the Renaissance Festival, huzzah!
If you go
What: Arizona Renaissance Festival
Where: 1206 US-60, Gold Canyon
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through April 1 (rain or shine)
Cost: $26 adults; $16 children 5-12; free for kids under 5
More info: Click here.