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A first-timer's guide to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire: Queen Elizabeth, turkey legs, mud and more

  • 9 min to read

If you are a lifelong resident of Pennsylvania, there are certain unwavering truths.

You know that no film could ever compare to the drama of the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies World Series run.

You know that the competition between Wawa and Sheetz is not just an opinion on corporate gas station food but a question that defines a person.

Pa. Renaissance Faire brings Queen Elizabeth I back for a new season

And if you live near this part of the Keystone State, you have most definitely attended the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire.

No? Then you're like me, visiting the Faire for the first time in my 27 years. And judging by the dilation of the pupils in folks that I've told this to over the past few weeks, being a Renaissance Faire newbie is a sin akin to sloth or wrath.

The Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire has been an institution since its opening in 1980. In the intervening 39 years, the Ren Faire has only grown in size and influence.

(To get this out of the way -- there was no one reason that I haven't been to the Ren Faire. My pop culture leanings sway more toward science fiction than fantasy, but as someone who is currently embroiled in a multi-year Dungeons & Dragons campaign, I get the appeal. In high school, I missed out simply from not being in the right classes when it came time for the all-important school trips to the fest grounds.)

Just before the 2019 opening weekend, I decided it was finally time to make my way to the Mount Hope Estate and see why an estimated 150,000 to 175,000 people descend there over the course of 13 weeks every year. In order to do it right, I'd attempt to keep up with the story that unfurls throughout the course of a day while still trying to check out at least a sizable fraction of the other events happening at the shire. Tragically, I didn't plan ahead to find a cool costume, but I hoped maybe my forest green T-shirt would be mistaken for some sort of allegiance to wood elves.

With a head full of curiosity, I began my unexpected journey.

Get there early

And right off the bat, I messed up. Seasoned Fairegoers will tell you that it's smart to show up at the gates around 10:30 a.m., to be prepared for them to open at 11 a.m., to get a good spot for the Queen's Court on the other side of the park at 11:30 a.m. I know that they would tell you that, because they told me that after I strolled in around 11:15 a.m. By the time I got to the "Endgame" area, Queen Elizabeth was already waving goodbye to her subjects.

Thankfully, the Daily Writ, the Faire's version of an informational pamphlet found at the front gate, filled me in on what I missed. If you're not in the know, 2019 marks the return of Queen Elizabeth to the Faire after a period of five years when Henry VIII was the main attraction. The gist of the storyline is that England is torn asunder by infighting, and only Elizabeth can bring the feuding sides together again. The advisers who have her ear might not have Elizabeth's best intentions in mind, as she and the audience learn throughout the day at the regularly scheduled storyline showcases.

Mud Squad at the Renaissance Faire

Make it to the Mud

With a few hours left until the next story beat, I wandered around to see what the rest of the shire held. The Renaissance Faire occupies 35 acres of land, so it is by most definitions a literal town that one can -- and will -- get lost in. I had previously been tipped off about a popular performance troupe called the "Mud Squad," so I made my way over to the new Boardshead Inn stage where they would be performing.

The Mud Squad is just one of the longstanding traditions at the Faire, which becomes obvious when you consider that the group's pun name is based off a show that premiered more than 50 years ago. The group performs a completely improvised show at each performance, and you can expect nearly every joke to be punctuated with a well-timed splat.

At the beginning of the show, the Squad warned of a "splash zone" in front of the mud pit area, so I took a few generous steps backward. For this first performance of the day, the group improvised their way through "Hamlet," complete with costume changes and more than a few direct quotes from the play. It's a testament to the actors that they could entertain children with the mud play and adults with current references and slightly bawdy humor.

The Majestic Maze at the Renaissance Faire

Can you make it through the maze? 

A few yards from the mud pit, a large maze caught my eye, so I ponied up the $3 and took a step in. Though I was just slightly taller than the fabric walls of the maze, I will confess that I was lost for much longer than I would have liked. If that wasn't enough of an indignity, the maze is structured in such a way that, when and if you ever find the exit, the path leads up to a set of stairs so that you can have an overview of the entire maze. Was the group of kids arranged at the top of the stairs laughing at my inability to make the right right turn? Probably not. Did it feel like they were laughing at my inability to make the right right turn? Absolutely.

Thankfully for my self-esteem, I overheard a frustrated employee attempt to lead a grandmother and her young grandson to the end of the maze, only to realize that the maze is changed around often to thwart those who enter it frequently.

Circus Stella at Renaissance Faire

Roving acts and finding food

If you're there to experience the story in full, you'll never be wanting for things to do in between chapters. There's archery and glassblowing demos, the husband-and-wife performing arts duo Circus Stella and at least six different roving musical performers. Of course, there's also the food, which could probably fill up its own separate rundown.

In the informational pamphlet, food stands are marked on the map with letters A to Z, because there are actually 26 different options, not including traveling carts and the sit-down restaurant Anchor & Mermaid. Food at the Renaissance Faire isn't just turkey legs anymore - just a sample of the offerings include pickles on a stick, Greek nachos and pho. For lunch, I opted for something I considered outside the realm of this particular realm - al pastor tacos from Cafe Cortez. 

The joust is a must-see battle

It's an obvious observation to say that a big draw of the Faire is the jousting, and yet, I was still surprised at the crowd arriving early to find seats.

As it was a hot day, I took a seat on the ground under a tree. One of the knights approaching Bosworth Field remarked, "Thou art smart for sitting in the shade." I tipped my non-existent hat in response and instantly claimed him as my hopeful champion in the coming battle.

Little did I know that I had just accepted a compliment from the dastardly heel of the joust.

As it began, an announcer of sorts began hyping the competitors, as another person motioned which people to boo and cheer. The "good" knight spoke of valiance and all that is true, and my pal the "bad" knight shouted about all the blood and violence that was about to occur. Can you guess who got more applause, story notwithstanding?

It was hard in that moment to not draw a parallel to pro wrestling. You have a crowd cheering the standard hero and villain archetypes, all the while knowing that the match-up is pre-determined and eventually, good will prevail. Perhaps because the heel knight had all the juicy lines, the poor babyface knight couldn't really catch a break from the crowd, even when he was winning.

Knowing there was an "Ultimate Joust" to come later, I headed for the Swashbuckler, a pub in the shape of a pirate ship. Mount Hope Estates has its own brewery, Swashbuckler Brewing, so beer can easily be found throughout the grounds. As I sipped a pale ale, a musician played a sort of parody version of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," changing the lyrics to be about being a drunk pirate.

"And that last beer took me down..."

Don Juan & Miguel at the Renaissance Faire

Getting 'Weird'

On the Globe stage, one of my favorite performances of the day came in the form of "Don Juan & Miguel: The Weird Show." With a mixture of comedy, impressive feats and, as promised, a hefty amount of weirdness, the duo was a delight. At one point, they informed the crowd that this is their 20th year at the Faire, which must be some kind of record.

Turkey leg at the Renaissance Faire

Gnawing on a turkey leg

Finally, it was time for one of the things I was most looking forward to from the day -- an enormous turkey leg. Hilariously, there is not one but two separate food stands dedicated just to turkey legs, appropriately named "Just Legges" and "Just Legges 2."

It lived up to expectations, though I did feel the need to find a quiet corner in which to gnaw on this over-sized hunk of meat.

Once I started to see bone, it was already time to make my way back to Bosworth Field for the finale. For those who enjoy surprises, I won't spoil much. The day's events come to a head in an explosive way, in that there are actual explosions that go off at points during the battle. The training that goes into not just acting and improvising, but also believably looking as though you're about to either stab or chop an opponent's head clean off is mighty impressive.

Grand Finale at the Renaissance Faire

Something new around every corner

The day's events officially end with a "finale in song" at the Globe theater featuring the entire cast. For those like me who might have missed a story element or two, the cast helpfully gives a quick rundown of all the major beats before singing a song with the crowd.

Just like that, eight hours in this intricately constructed wonderland had come and gone like a sort of magic. 

Even in that large span of time, there were tons of things I didn't get a chance to experience. Add in the fact that there are different performers for different weekends, and that each weekend itself has a slightly different theme, and you're left with the feeling that you could return to the Renaissance Faire once a year and still feel like it might take a lifetime to do it all.

There's a reason that it will notch 40 years in 2020 -- the level of craft and care that goes into everything, from the large-scale battles all the way down to the street magicians performing tricks for families. It's impossible not to respect that, even if fantasy and make believe isn't your thing.

I don't know when I'll return to the Mount Hope shire next, but when I do, I'll be in costume.