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Events

Fantasy in the Desert: The Arizona Renaissance Festival

By Monica Friedman May 30, 2014
dragons
The kids proudly display their bendable plastic dragon companions

A Day at the Faire

Of all the potential delights at the Arizona Renaissance Festival, my stepkids are most enchanted by a little cart that sells bendable plastic dragons, just the right size for wrapping around the forearm or affixing to the shoulder. They’re available in a rainbow of colors, some of which glow in the dark, and for a few dollars extra, you can adorn your pet dragon with leather plate mail. Although they each owned at least one, and possibly more, of these toys from previous years, they decided before we even left home that it was dragons for them. Never mind the wooden weapons, the fancy costumes, or even the games and rides. Their hearts were set on bendable plastic dragons.

I wear a bodice and meet an Ent
I wear a bodice and meet an Ent

To each their own. Me, I attend the faire for a chance to don a laced up bodice and a laurel of silk flowers. My mother-in-law was interested in wholesome family fun, while my husband, an aficionado of fried food, carried the wallet and distributed cash.

Welcome to the Faire

Gandalf approves of your beard, wants you to rock and roll
Gandalf approves of your beard, wants you to rock and roll

“Good day! Welcome to the faire!” called out the costumed performers as we entered. We had already purchased discount event tickets at the grocery store, and didn’t have to stand in line. A man dressed as Gandalf the Gray appraised the faces of the men, encouraging them to grow their beards as long as his, while a life-sized Ent (the Green Man, a stilt-walking performer inside a fifteen-foot high tree costume) drew a crowd of apprehensive children. We walked the dusty lanes, past facades summoning the atmosphere of Merry Old England. Lizzie, my eight-year-old stepdaughter, tiptoed into Mother Goose’s pavilion to cuddle a docile goose and a fuzzy gosling.

Lizzie cuddles a gosling with Mother Goose
Lizzie cuddles a gosling with Mother Goose

Soon, we came upon the bendable plastic dragon cart. The kids scampered into the fray, examining hundreds of nearly identical figures. Blue? Green? Rainbow? The adults took turns watching them and popping into the nearby shops to look at sumptuous period clothing, fantasy-themed jewelry, and leather-bound journals with wrinkled faces molded into the covers. After twenty minutes of indecision, we informed the kids that they’d have to make a choice or come back later. We moved on.

Mom meets up with her old friend, Ozzy Osborne
Mom meets up with her old friend, Ozzy Osborne

My mother-in-law, homesick for Kansas, was happy to greet an old neighbor: “Ozzy” Osborne, of Osborne Leather, is the consummate Renaissance Festival vendor. Draped in rough fabric and sporting an impressive head of hair, he and his son, Chris, homestead down the road from the old family farm, but spend most of the year traveling from faire to faire, selling exquisite hand-tooled belts and barrettes. Mom spent a while catching up while we examined the leather-working tools.

All Creatures Great and Small

We peeked into the bird show, where raptors exhibited natural behaviors, and then stepped into the petting zoo for a chance to get up close and personal with tiny baby lambs, giant baby oxen, and other adorable creatures: pigs, horses, dogs. (Hand sanitizer is available.)

The kids weren’t interested in watching any of the shows this year. In other years, we’ve enjoyed the living fountain, stunt fighting, acrobatics, bawdy song and dance, and extreme drumming. I’ve had strolling performers tell me fairy tales, show me magic tricks, and flatter me with compliments, all in various fake accents. Today, Lizzie made friends with a canine performer, a border collie carrying a tip basket and a sign that read, “Will Work for Sheep.”

The Arizona Renaissance Festival also hosts two pavilions for greyhound rescue, where my eleven-year-old stepson Josh enjoys the acquaintance of the languid dogs. These sleek animals with their small heads and silky fur spend most of their time stretched out on the ground, inviting cuddles. They only need a couple fast sprints a day to keep them calm, so it’s the perfect spot to relax with furry friends.

There were several animals to ride as well: elephants, camels, and a llama. Lizzie had already ridden an elephant, so she picked the camel and asked me to accompany her. I found the camel ride bumpy and uncertain, a truly unpleasant way to cross the desert, I would imagine. We had enough time and money to assure ourselves that an elephant ride is much more enjoyable.

A Little History, a Little Fantasy

A common criticism of the faire is that it propagates anachronisms and presents a world that never was. It’s not an unfair accusation—people in medieval Europe did not eat turkey legs (turkey being a New World bird) or allow women dressed as witches, pirates, belly dancers, or fairies to walk through the market. The streets were not so clean, back then, and there was no notion of equality.

But history is preserved in many of the crafts. We spent a great deal of time watching burly blacksmiths pump the bellows to heat the forge and hammer the iron against the anvil. We enjoyed a long discussion about textiles and the domestic arts with a woman working a spinning wheel. We observed weavers working at various types of looms, and knitters “stick weaving.”

From there, we wandered on to a hot glass booth, where men and women with small torches created delicate sculptures (which I reminded the kids not to touch). If genealogy is your thing, you can research your family’s coat of arms or the meaning of your last name. History buffs can make a rubbing of a metal plaque or purchase patterns for period costumes. There are even a few bookshops and stalls selling authentic musical instruments, along with sheet music.

A glass phoenix
A glass phoenix

For those who don’t enjoy reality, there’s always the fantasy moments. Women dressed in fairy outfits played their parts, flitting through the crowd and generating an atmosphere of magic. Dragons in pewter, ceramic, wax, glass, and wood hung everywhere, and crystal balls, magic wands, and star-spangled wizard hats were all available for purchase.

Entertaining!

A number of hand-powered rides are primarily for the littlest kids. Lizzie tried the kids’ joust, a wooden animal that she rode down a wire while trying (and failing) to spear a ring with a wooden lance. The skychair merry-go-round, powered by an unflagging performer who did not seem to get dizzy running in circles, looked like a lot more fun. We skipped most of the games—archery and the like—including the “insult” game, where you pay money to throw tomatoes at a costumed performer who rudely showers you with particularly keen verbal jabs, handcrafted to your physical appearance, and ducks his head away if you have good aim.

Later in the afternoon, we filed into the arena to witness the joust, where costumed performers ride horses and whack each other with sticks while other costumed performers loudly commented in questionable accents. Huzzah! Girls in low-cut tops egged the crowd on to cheering and booing while boys in baggy pants sold colored flags. The mistress of arms galloped gallantly about the ring, directing the jousters, who charged at each other with gusto, if not accuracy, and then stood around signing autographs afterward.

As the day wound down and my husband’s wallet grew light, the kids found their way back to the bendable plastic dragon booth and eventually, with a great deal of prodding, made their final selections.

A leather journal with a face
A leather journal with a face

By then, we were all flagging a little, but we still managed to eat a little more, and play a little more, and spend a little more money until my mother-in-law couldn’t walk and my husband and I couldn’t tolerate the chorus of “I want I want.” Our faire day had come to an end, so we marched back into the real world, accompanied by the mocking farewells of the costumed performers, and I gratefully cut myself loose from the bodice and breathed deeply once more.