A Family Renaissance - at the SoCal Renaissance Pleasure Faire
Hear ye, hear ye! There's more to Ye Olde Renaissance Faire than turkey legs, men in tights, and replacing all thy "yous" with thees and thous. So if you - or thou - art wondering whether or not it's worth venturing 45 minutes inland in search of a park full of people pretending whole-heartedly that Queen Elizabeth I is still on the throne, the answer is an unmitigated - Huzzah!
While not quite as old as it pretends to be, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire has been presenting its peculiar brand of anachronistic entertainment to SoCal for 50 years. "Southern Faire" as it's also known (to distinguish it from several other Renaissance Fairs dotted around the west coast) has moved location once or twice over the years, but the people - like the jokes - have barely changed. The actress playing Queen Elizabeth this season has been working at the fair since she was a few weeks old; in fact, her mother proudly pointed us in the direction of the Faire's 50th Anniversary Museum, which houses a photograph of the queen's pre-Elizabethan bottom, slipping out of its post-Elizabethan diaper.
The Faire has undergone its own renaissance, in honor of its Golden Jubilee, with improvements made on every level, themed events each weekend, and more shows and entertainment than ever before. This, of course, is only useful information to the initiated; if you've never visited a renaissance fair before, you'll need a little more information about what the fuss is all about.
For starters, yes, most people attend the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in costume of some sort or other - which is good news for parents wishing their daughters could get more use out of those expensive Disney princess dresses. Pirate costumes and knight costumes are also de rigueur, and we highly recommend bringing along whatever toy swords you might have lying around - if only as defense against the many vendors who sell them ("You already have one" works so much better when the object is actually in your kid's hand.) Grown-ups are, of course, welcome to walk around in Bermuda shorts and college t-shirts if that's their thing - but wearing a puffy shirt really does make the day more fun. If there's no Jack Sparrow wear in your own cupboard, the costume rental stall just inside the fair's entrance is happy to suit you up for around $20.
Costume considerations aside, there is so much to do and see at the Renaissance Faire that, forsooth, a single day does not suffice. We started off wandering slowly through the Guilds near the entrance, where women walking with distaffs explained to us how medieval mothers actually used to spin thread while doing the family shopping, and a man at a giant loom showed my son how the mother-spun thread was then turned into cloth. Men at the forge showed us how they were creating swords and other weapons, and glassmakers gave a fabulous, educational demonstration in which they simultaneously created works of art, explained thousands of years' history of glass blowing, and illustrated a few principles of physics.
Something we did not find time for but plan to return to experience is the Queen's College, which offers craft and artisan workshops all day long. It's a good idea to look over the workshop schedule online in advance, so that you can plan your day around catching one of these neat (and reasonably priced - most cost around $10) classes.
Speaking of planning ahead, there are plenty of tempting items for sale, so you might want to let kids know in advance how much they have to spend. The path leading through all of these interesting wares is serpentine in shape - meaning that the journey in can be about seeing what there is, and the journey out can be reserved for purchasing that special something before heading home.
But wait - there's more! We haven't even begun to discuss the shows yet, which take place on stages throughout the fair. Entertainment ranges from magic shows to commedia del'arte, from courtly music to bawdy comedies, from Shakespeare to jousting. The jousting all takes place in a ring at the far end of the fair, with a story line that builds over the course of the day from courtly entertainment for the queen to a bloody duel to the death for the last show of the day. Shows of particular interest to kids are the Wizard of Wonder (magician) and Dr. Kaboom (mad scientist).
Like all good fairs, this one has plenty of games to play for $2-$3 a pop - though instead of whack-a-mole you can count on throw-an-axe, shoot-a-crossbow, and dunk-a-jester. Rides are man-powered, and it's really a delight to see how much fun kids can have on a dragon-shaped swing with two big men pushing them - no rollercoasters required. Kids can also explore a giant maze, climb a rock wall - or even try a real fencing lesson. Why not?
Another source of juvenile entertainment is a role-playing game called Renquest, in which a troll leads young thrill-seekers through the Faire on a mission to solve puzzles and defeat evil Orcs (which evidently have nothing to do with Robin Williams sitting face-down in a chair). Kid's Quest is a younger kids' version of the game (ages 5-10) that only takes about 20 minutes to complete and includes a gratifying round of whacking things with swords.
Organized entertainment aside, one thing I particularly love about bringing kids to the Renaissance Faire is the opportunity to talk about history in - what at least appears to be - context. A passing joke about Anne Boleyn that my son wanted explained led to a chat over lunch about Henry VIII's six wives and the birth of the Church of England. And yes - he wanted to know. Taunts by a pack of folks dressed as Puritans gave a visual to the Reformation - and to those odd religious extremists who set off to found a new society (where renaissance fairs would some day become a form of entertainment - oh, the irony!)
The Renaissance Pleasure Faire has set up its 16th century village at the Santa Fe Dam Recreaction Area in Irwindale - near where the 605 and the 210 meet. Temperatures tend to be a few degrees warmer than in town, so sunscreen and plenty of water are highly recommended.
The Renaissance Pleasure Faire continues Saturdays and Sundays through May 19, 2013.