Renaissance festivals bring history, tourists to Texas towns
Once upon a time, gallant knights donned armor and jousted on horseback for the amusement of lords and ladies, who dined on roasted turkey legs. Jugglers entertained royalty and peasants hawked their wares in the village. But not in 16th century Britain--it happens eight weekends each spring at Scarborough Renaissance Festival in Waxahachie, 30 miles south of Dallas.
"It's a fantasy world," said Orvis Melvin, director of marketing for Scarborough. "It's the chance to escape your everyday humdrum life and come out and have a good time."
Everything's bigger in Texas, and Renaissance festivals are no exception. Texas hosts two of the 10 largest fairs in the nation: Scarborough in spring and the nation's largest such event, the Texas Renaissance Festival (TRF). TRF runs for eight weekends every fall in Plantersville, 45 minutes northwest of Houston.
In 2005, about 272,000 visitors stepped back in time at TRF's 53-acre fairgrounds, said Melba Tucker, TRF's director of marketing. About 200,000 visitors flock to Scarborough's 35-acre site annually. A smaller Texas festival, Excalibur Fantasy Faire, started in 1999 in Smithville but moves to a new site in Lockhart in 2006. Its attendance averages 8,000 annually, and the festival will run during weekends from March 11 through April 2, according to Hans Hardin, Excalibur's promotions director.
Lavish to frugal
Renaissance festivals are big business, plunging millions of dollars into their host communities. Both Scarborough and TRF are privately owned, and festival representatives declined to give revenue or economic impact figures. But the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Irwindale, Calif., which is about the same size as Texas' Scarborough festival, attracts 200,000 visitors and pumps an estimated $8.2 million into the area's economy each year. A Renaissance festival that debuted in Wisconsin in 2005 is expected to generate $15 million within five years, according to the Chippewa County Economic Development Corp.
TRF fills area hotels every fall, said Mary Cunningham, executive director of the Grimes County Chamber of Commerce.
"Some hotels have reservations a year in advance," said Cunningham. "All our hotels and stores across the county are positively impacted."
TRF has a year-round staff of five but employs 5,000 people to work about three to four months out of the year, said Tucker. Many of the seasonal workers live in Grimes County, she said.
Waxahachie's chamber has no exact estimates on the Scarborough festival's economic impact, but Laurie McPike Mosley, director of the Waxahachie Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it's significant.
"You can't put [more than] 200,000 people into a city over that many weekends and not feel the impact," she said. "Even if they don't spend the night, they're definitely going to buy gas; they're definitely going to eat. We definitely can tell when it's Scarborough season."
Waxahachie's historic Rogers Hotel, built in 1912, has 27 rooms that often sell out in advance of Scarborough's festival, said Victoria Jackson, the hotel's general manager.
"The fair is one of the biggest incomes for our town," Jackson said.
At the gate, TRF tickets cost $21 for adults and $10 for children aged 5 to 12. Tickets purchased for opening weekend are cheaper--$11 for adults and $6 for children. Special presale discount tickets for any weekend can be purchased for $16 by phone or mail before September 15. Festival sponsors like Woodforest National Bank and Star Tickets offer discount tickets as well.
Once in the TRF grounds, guests pay for food and drink, which ranges in price from $3 to $5 per item, Tucker said. All shows are free. Some rides and games, from archery and knife throwing to camel and elephant rides, range in price from $2 to $5 per ride.
"You can come to the festival and be as lavish or as frugal as you would like," said Tucker.
Swords to shirts
A cottage industry of Renaissance-themed vendors has sprouted up nationwide to cater to festival patrons. Festival visitors can buy everything from arts and crafts to period clothing, jewelry, accessories and swords.
California-based Pendragon Costumes makes renaissance clothing, including doublets and cloaks for men and bodices and chemises for women. The company sells at TRF, Scarborough and five other festivals across the country, said co-owner Rex Rogers.
"They're certainly good shows for us," Rogers said of Texas' shows. "We're entirely a Renaissance fair-based company. Any given state can only support so many fairs, and we tend to do the larger shows."
Texas swordsmith Daniel Watson operates Angel Sword in Driftwood, where he hand-forges swords priced from $1,000 to $10,000. He sells at TRF, Scarborough and the New York Renaissance Festival each year; festivals account for 80 to 90 percent of his business, Watson said.
"We also sell online, but most of that is based on people who met us at the festivals," Watson said. "We establish the personal contact there, and they continue with additional purchases online."
Texas renaissance festivals offer a variety of period foods, like meat pies and Scottish eggs, along with modern favorites like fajitas, pizza and pastries.
Scarborough's roasted turkey legs were featured on the Food Network's "Unwrapped" series in 2004, said Melvin. Patrons devour more than 20 tons of turkey legs at Scarborough each year. The festival offers 60 menu items at five eateries, and seven pubs feature a variety of ales, wines, meads and frozen specialty drinks, as well as soft drinks, iced tea and water. More than 20 food vendors at TRF offer turkey legs, steak-on-a-stake, empanadas, fajita tacos and pastries. TRF boasts 14 different pubs. Sodas and other beverages are available throughout the park.
TRF holds "theme weekends" during its eight-week run, including an Octoberfest weekend and a Highland Fling weekend in November that features Scottish games, dancing and singing. In response to popular demand, Scarborough will hold its first "Pirate Invasion" weekend on May 20 and 21, 2006, said Melvin. The festival may bring in special pirate-themed acts and offer contests with co-sponsor Long John Silver's restaurants.
"We have a significant number of guests who want to come to the festival dressed as pirates," Melvin said. "Pirates are a big deal here."
Texas is unique in that both TRF and Scarborough own, rather than lease, the land on which they operate, Melvin said. Southwest Festivals Inc. runs the Scarborough festival, which held its first fair in 1981. George Coulam, formerly of Utah, created TRF in 1975 and now lives across the road from the festival grounds, Tucker said.
When it started in 1975, TRF had three stages on 15 acres, but has since grown to its present 53-acre village. Patrons stroll down shaded cobblestone paths and encounter jugglers, minstrels, jesters and belly dancers. The festival offers entertainment at 21 stages, including a Greco-Roman Amphitheatre that seats 500 people. Three times a day the fair hosts live jousting shows at an outdoor arena.
Saying "I do"
The pageantry and romance of these fairs inspires dozens of couples each year to tie the knot. TRF and Scarborough offer extensive wedding packages to accommodate parties from a dozen to 100. Melvin said he expects 25 to 30 weddings at Scarborough's festival in 2006. TRF holds 30 to 35 weddings a year at one of five locations, including a rose garden and a vine-covered chapel. TRF wedding packages range from $1,000 to $5,000 for 10 to 50 guests, not including alcoholic beverages. The most popular wedding package is the "King and Queen celebration," which costs $5,000 and entitles the couple to 50 guests, Tucker said. Additional guests are $40 a person.
Robert and Julianna Blann of Austin celebrated their wedding at TRF in November 2005. A horse-drawn carriage escorted Julianna and her bridal party to the wedding chapel, which they entered under an arch of swords held by costumed attendants. The 75-person reception featured turkey legs, sausage, beef and chicken, along with wedding cake and champagne.
"We've always loved the romance of Renaissance festivals and getting married at the Texas Renaissance Festival was like a dream come true," said Julianna.