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Bay Area Renaissance Festival in Tampa, Florida
Stepping Back in Time
While the rest of the country is still blanketed in snow and wintry weather, Florida folks with a knack for anachronism are gearing up for Ren Faire season. One of the largest and longest running renaissance faires in Florida is the Bay Area Renaissance Festival held in the Tampa Bay area on the west coast of the state.
In existence for more than 35 years, the Bay Area Ren Fest runs for approximately seven weekends each year, usually beginning mid-February and ending in early April. The weekends are themed and offer special entertainments, foods and beverages to coincide with the theme. These are in addition to the standard fare that is available for the duration of the festival run. Tickets are available for daily admission or for seasonal passes to attend as many weekend days as you like during the festival run.
Highland Weekend Pipe and Drums
For example, the Wine, Chocolate and Romance weekend usually includes the option to attend a free wine tasting or participate in a sweet stroll through a special section of vendors offering samples and selling their chocolates, pastries and other sweet treats. Add in the romance with wedding vow renewals, offered daily, and a wooing contest for the as yet unattached. It should come as no surprise that this is usually one of the earliest weekend themes so at to coincide as closely as possible to Valentine’s Day each year.
For the Highland Fling weekend, all things Scottish and a little bit of Irish are celebrated, with highland games, free beer sampling, a men in kilts competition, and performances by highland dancers and a local pipe and drum corps. The beer is cold, the pipes are hot, and I am told the kilts are worn regimental-style, although I can honestly say that I’ve never been brave enough to verify that firsthand.
Other themes include the Shamrocks and Shenanigans weekend, conveniently scheduled in mid-March to come as close as possible to St. Patty’s Day, the Buccaneer Beer Fest and Highland Seas Adventure weekends, in which you are invited to celebrate all things pirate-related, and the Wonders of the World and Fiesta Festival weekends, celebrating the more exotic cultures of the middle ages. In addition to weekends, each year includes one Festival Friday day when the festival offers discounted rates for school groups seeking to arrange a field trip to expose students to a bit of educational fun. This is usually scheduled during the latter half of the festival run.
The Washing Well Wenches and Human Chessboard
You could easily spend your entire day at the festival taking in the various stage shows scheduled throughout the faire and the day. From the Washing Well Wenches to Johnny Phoenix Danger Comedy to Magic & Mayhem, comedy and audience participation is the norm rather than the exception. If dancing or music is more your style, take in a show by the Demzarrah Gypsies performing traditional bellydance moves or Cu Dubh’s celtic music selections. You can find juggling, acrobatics and circus antics and comedy as well, both on stage and wandering throughout the village, all doing their best to keep to historical accuracy at all times.
If you are a fan of bawdy comedy, I recommend taking in the Washing Well Wenches show, although you could get a little wet if you sit too close for this one. Audience participation is a must or the audience is threatened with a dousing by the intrepid wenches. If you want to avoid the water, stay in the back and try not to call attention to yourself, but enjoy the show nonetheless.
For other comedy shows, Magic & Mayhem is a must. The magic tricks may not go as planned, but that’s part of the fun and comedy. Since the real purpose of this show is the mayhem anyway, no one in the audience really expects too much from the magic.
Music and dance fans, consider Cu Dubh’s traditional Celtic music selections and/or the Demzarrah Gypsies belly dancing. Wandering minstrels, resident royalty, and other quirky characters round out the entertainment factor at the festival. Make sure to catch the battles at the human chess board twice a day, as the various festival characters take sides and compete in medieval combat for control of the board, and then perhaps round out your day by attending one of two jousting tournaments offered each day.
Wares for Sale
Shop ‘til You Drop
From Jewelry to period clothing replicas to artwork and toys, the avenues of the festival village are lined with vendors providing their unique and almost exclusively handmade wares. For the serious collector of armor or weapons, Medieval Metal and Legacy Forge are long-standing vendors of the faire and are usually joined by several others offering both authentic and replica items in metal, wood, and leather.
For the children, there is the option to purchase toy weapons and shields in wood and foam padding, as well as other unique playthings reminiscent of the historical period. And for the lover of unusual and unique jewelry and hair accessories, the choice of vendors is numerous and varied. Art lovers can find both print and tapestries in various fantasy themes, as well as pottery and clay items for whimsical outdoor and garden adornments.
Food Tents and Hawkers in Kilts
Eat, Drink and Be Merry!
Vendors of victuals can be found in clusters throughout the festival grounds, interspersed with several pubs offering refreshment of the alcoholic varieties. Beer, wine and cider are standard fare at the pubs, while the food tents offer standard Celtic fare such as fish and chips, scotch eggs, and turkey drumsticks, along with more modern and standard fair offerings of hamburgers and fries, hot dogs, Italian sausage sandwiches, and soft pretzels.
Other ethnic food groups can be found as well, with shepherd’s pie offered next to Greek gyros and salads. From corndogs to spring rolls, you can find something to suit just about any palate. And, when you need something to wash all of that food down, you can meander over to one of the soda tents offering Pepsi products, Gatorade, and water, or opt for a pint of ale or cider from one of the pubs.
For the more refined tastes at the festival, an additional $15 per person gains you access to either the Queen’s Royal High Tea offered at 4:00 p.m. daily in the tent erected just for this occasion or the Renaissance Smoker offered at 4:30 daily, usually at the Flagship Tavern. During the Queen’s Tea, participate in tea customs from around the world and enjoy traditional British tea items such as scones, finger sandwiches and various desserts with your tea, all while also enjoying the experience of being the honored guests of Queen Katherine and her court.
For those more tempted by cigars and beer, the Smoker ticket provides for two high quality cigars, two premium beers and a snack buffet, all while being entertained by the musical comedy group The Bawdy Boys. Added recently is also the option of sit down restaurant dining in the Pirate’s Galley Restaurant, with a made to order menu and all order items priced at $12. Since the festival is open regardless of the weather, this makes a good option to escape from the wind or rain for a little while should the need arise.
Hippogriff Ride and Archery
Rides, Games, Activities and the Children’s Realm
Unlike traditional fair rides and games, you will find nothing mechanical here. Rather, the rides that are offered are powered by either animals or human strength. You can ride an elephant, a camel, or a war horse, this last one only when not otherwise engaged in the jousting tournament. Take a turn at the hippogriff swing or try your hand at archery, axe throwing, or maze navigating. Join in for medieval combat training offered several times daily at the Landsknecht Encampment, and when you feel the need for a rest break, take the kids to the Children’s Realm where they can enjoy supervised play in an enclosed area and maybe even make a magic wand of their own while you have a seat outside the area and catch your second wind.
The Bay Area Renaissance Festival is a must for any true fan of the renaissance faire venue. Winter and early spring in Florida provide perfect weather for enjoying all the faire has to offer without either freezing or overheating. Running several weekends each year, a little planning can go a long way toward enjoying this event.