The Minnesota Renaissance Festival is the perfect place to spark kids’ imaginations and bring their fairy tales to life.
They’ll feel as if they’re stepping into an enchanted European village — think Belle’s opening song in Beauty and the Beast — with sunlight streaming through towering oaks, pennant flags and cottage-like storefronts.
They can see mermaids, fairies, princesses and a unicorn. As they wander, they’ll encounter a range of less-classifiable mystical creatures — some with horns, body paint and accents — scattered throughout the sprawling, sun-speckled village, popping out behind trees, singing and dancing at random and greeting children with great enthusiasm. The entire scene bursts with wonder.
But there are some things parents need to know to navigate this local tradition now in its 49th year in Shakopee, running weekends Aug. 17–Sept. 29. (In 2021, the festival will move — due to a lease expiration — possibly to a site in nearby Jordan.)
Here are our top tips for bringing young children to the largest Renaissance festival in the U.S. (with an annual attendance of 300,000!):
Buy tickets in advance.
At the gate, adult tickets are $24.95 and admission for kids (considered ages 5–12) is $15.95. Purchased online in advance, they’re about $3 off ($21.95/$13.50). Ages 4 and younger can attend for free. Having your tickets in hand will also help you avoid the lines that can form at the ticket booths.
Prepare for a slow entrance.
There’s usually a long line to enter the grounds. Pack books, toys or games to occupy the kids. This is the hardest part for us, as our drive itself is long enough and the long line extends our outing time. Getting there right when it opens can help, especially if you have tickets in hand.
Wear sturdy shoes.
The grounds are clean, but dusty. The parking lot is an unpaved, ungraded field with tall grasses. Stable shoes — that you don’t mind getting dirty — are a must for parents and kids.
Choose a theme weekend.
PetFest is Sept. 14–15 this year. We’ve attended this weekend before, and our kids loved seeing all the dogs. This year the theme for the opening weekend (Aug. 17–18) is the Bold North Vikings Invasion, which includes a longbow competition, a hot-dish-eating contest, a tug-of-war and a tattoo competition.
Anything goes. Repurpose old Halloween costumes, whip together a pirate outfit, dig out a princess dress or fairy wings and/or cobble together a makeshift flower crown, so you can avoid buying one there. Grab a crown or cape or toy sword. Over the years, we’ve dressed three different kids in a Peter Pan costume, which doubles as Robin Hood when riding around the village on Dad’s shoulders. I’ve also tried my hand at face painting to add to the fun.
Ditch the stroller.
The grounds are bumpy and crowded. If you can swing it, it’ll be much easier to put the baby in a carrier. Some areas, such as the Fairy Wing Forest, don’t allow strollers anyway.
Make parking easier.
There are buses throughout the parking area. Instead of walking all the way to the entrance, you can wait at a bus flag and get a ride. (Just don’t forget where you parked!) If you’re arriving in the afternoon, you can try driving up to the entrance to see if a few spots opened after early visitors left.
Sign up for hair braiding.
If this would be fun for your little one (and you don’t mind paying the fee), get on the list right away; it fills up fast. There are two vendors on site who braid hair.
Head to the Mermaid Cove.
Located by the Queen’s Pub, this is always our first stop. It’s a must for any mermaid-believing child. The line can be long, but it moves relatively quickly. It’s free, and each young visitor gets a gemstone from the mermaid near the exit.
Learn to juggle!
Right outside the Mermaid Cove is a juggling-school booth where kids can try their hand and get some pointers.
Explore the Fairy Wing Forest.
Attentive kids will spot clues that show fairies are present throughout this vast, understated grove near the Mermaid Cove. There are games, a yarn art project and complimentary apples. Toward the end, you’ll encounter a few fairies.
Meet the Princess Court.
They’re based in the newly redesigned Palace Gardens. Admire their gowns and jewels and stay for story time at the new Fairytale Story Corner.
Watch the jousting.
This is performed throughout the day at the jousting track near Shepherd’s Green, with full-armored jousting at 1 and 3 p.m. Cheer on your favorite knight!
Find the french fries.
Ren Fest may be famous for turkey legs, but you can also find chicken fingers and fries at multiple locations. If you don’t want to buy food there, pack a cooler and leave it in your car for a midday break. (Just remember to get hand stamps on your way out.) Bringing sippy cups or small snacks in a diaper bag won’t be an issue. (When we’ve gone with very young kids, we’ve avoided food altogether, keeping our visit on the shorter side. The entire scene can be tiring. Short and sweet works best for toddlers!)
Visit the petting zoo.
Near Shepherd’s Green, you can hug a kangaroo, hand-feed a grape to a ringtail lemur or pet a porcupine. There are also reptiles nearby, including snakes, turtles and alligators. Also, you can ride an elephant (for a fee). Toddlers must ride with a paying adult.
See a show.
Take in a kid-friendly act such as The Danger Committee (performing all day on Bakery Stage), Tuey the Juggler (on the Tree Top Stage) or the Wacky Chickens, who perform throughout the grounds.
Do a little project.
Head across the grounds to the Children’s Realm to hang out for a while. Skip the animal-balloon booth (which costs $2–$4) and take advantage of the free Kid Craft Corner to make your own fairy wand or pirate hat. There’s also a play space with a rope swing and slide —
a good spot to change a diaper.
Meet Magic the Unicorn!
Located right by the Children’s Realm, you can touch this mellow pony (shown above) and take your picture.
The grounds, open 9 a.m.–7 p.m., get rowdier as the day goes on. There’s also a longer traffic jam at night when many people leave at once. In fact, if you hear the official day-end cannon boom, you’re in for a long wait to extract yourself from the grounds; so use the bathroom, change the diapers and dig out the emergency snacks.
Christina Ries is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and four children age 6 and younger in Inver Grove Heights. Read her blog.