Why you should go to Ren Fest this weekend!

This year, I went to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival for the first time.

Everyone I knew (across all age groups and walks of life) had raved about it. Arguments for the awesomeness of this so-called “Ren Fest” included:

* Turkey legs!

* Mead!

* Jousting!

* Unlike some festivals that throw up and tear down tents and exhibits in parking lots and open fields, Ren Fest takes place out in the country (south of Shakopee) in a permanent village. It’s got character: Really!

Well, the arguments were all spot-on!

Indeed. I LOVED Ren Fest.

Here’s why you should take the kids this weekend: 

This weekend — which should be gorgeous for festival-going — is the last one this year for Ren Fest, going on from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 27 and 28. (I recommend you go Sunday. Saturday, come to Minnesota Parent magazine’s FREE annual Education Fair at the Como Park Zoo & Conservatory from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. We have some super-cool FREE attractions!)

It’s quiet. If you go in the morning before the crowds swell to epic proportions, you’re in luck. Having just attended the Minnesota State Fair, which we also loved, I was really struck by how much more mellow the environment of Ren Fest really is.

Predicated on the idea that the festivities are taking place well before the invention of the combustion engine, it’s decidedly unplugged. There are no automated rides whizzing around, no TV or radio stations blasting music, no generators or blowers running (at least that I saw or heard). It felt like we were really stepping back in time. And, it’s true: The village is so cute and quaint: See? 

Upon our arrival at 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday, we were greeted by a giant rocking horse ride (operated by humans who propelled it from side to side), plus many other rides powered by cheerful people or, in the case of the trampoline, the riders themselves.

My son and I rode a double-headed bird swing, which went quite high, despite being very low-tech.

I liked the people, too. Though we were a bit taken aback by the many festival workers commenting on our son’s superhero hoodie — “Spider Man was much bigger in the movie! It must have been the camera angle!” — every person around seemed to be cheerful and happy to be there, including the guy who pushed us for a long time in the swing. Pure charm. Wonderfully weird and kind of nerdy.

It’s festive. Everyone who works Ren Fest is dressed up in fantastic costumes. And many attendees dress up, too, so that it quickly becomes hard to tell who’s who. There were men sporting furry tails (for sale on site) and leather beer mugs tied to their belts. There were women with goat ears, girls dressed as fairies and boys decked out like squires. And you’ll find jesters, knights and saucy wenches EVERYWHERE.

It begins to feel — thanks to countless stages featuring live entertainment such as juggling, knife-throwing and dancing — like you’re walking through a living theatrical production. Musicians, comedians, thespians and jesters on stilts rove the grounds and perform seemingly spontaneously. People-watching heaven! (By the porta-potties, I was serenaded for a long time by a fiddle player and a handkerchief dance troupe: Best porta-potty experience ever!)

Adding to the excitement, of course, are the vendors selling all kinds of food, drink, art and trinkets. (Our 6-year-old son’s favorite part of the festival was, of course, a wooden sword with a leather scabbard.) His least favorite part was losing at chess (even with dad’s help), but it was a good lesson in win-some-lose-some. What other event allows you to relax and play chess in public with a humble pro?

It’s easier to do it on the cheap! We dropped a LOT of money at the Stair Fair this year. It was worth it, I suppose, but, wow, money seemed to be flying out of my purse as we ate, went on rides and become sucked into impossible games of “skill.” 

I admit the rides at Ren Fest aren’t much cheaper (and neither is the food). But because of all the live entertainment, we didn’t spend as much money. It was easier to just be a spectator. We watched jousting for almost an hour, for example, and it was free, of course. Note: Shards of wooden lances do go flying into the crowds, so either wear safety goggles if you sit in the center (where the knights and lances collide) or simply sit off to the sides.

This is just one of those really special Minnesota events you’ve got to love. And we explored only a small fraction of the event. Check out the huge array of family-friendly activities, including a Fairy Wing Forest, Sheep Herding, Mermaid Cove and Dr. Thora Pandora’s Chemistry Experience. (Yeah, we have it pretty good here.)

One final note: If you do decide to go to Ren Fest this weekend, go early, early, early. I mean: Be there before they open (or close to it). You’ll save yourself miles of walking or shuttling through a field to get to the festival (never great to do with little kids) and possibly hours not sitting in in-bound traffic. Inside, you’ll find smaller crowds, too.

And be sure to buy your tickets in advance online or at the many local stores (such as Menards, Walgreens and Whole Foods Market) that sell them to avoid ticket lines.

Sarah Dorison lives in Golden Valley with her husband and their 6-year-old son.