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Scarborough Renaissance Festival, mermaid, photo courtesy of Pongo

How to Experience Scarborough Ren Fest as a First-Timer

Scarborough Renaissance Festival returns April 8–May 29, 2023

The story of the Renaissance lives not only in the history books but in the real-life fantasy lands that are Renaissance fairs. While many repeat fairgoers consider them to be their own Utopia, it’s true that the whole experience can look a bit, well, mystifying for first-timers who’ve not yet stepped foot in a festival village. 

With these novices in mind, we’ve laid out a few pointers to help them better understand and appreciate the escapism and kid-friendly nature of North Texas’ own Scarborough Renaissance Festival. The fully immersive attraction returns in 2023 on weekends April 8 through May 29 (Memorial Day) in Waxahachie, located 30 miles south of Dallas. Here’s what to keep in mind on your visit with the family.

Dress in Costume—Or Don’t

If “What should I wear?” is one of your first thoughts, do not fret about expectations. Typically, only about 30% of Scarborough visitors come in costume. Between visitors and the festival’s official performing company (who are trained never to break character), you’re guaranteed to see a wide mix of costumes ranging from nobility and peasants to Steampunk and “Star Trek” space suits, depending on each weekend’s theme

If you’re set on joining the fun in costume but don’t have anything in your closet, you can rent a costume from one of the many market shops to wear for the day, or if you’re looking to slowly build a costume over time, can purchase one special piece each year. Whatever you do, be sure to wear comfortable shoes. There’s no shame in wearing lace-up athletic shoes under your fancy dress.

Wander Into a Kid-Friendly Show 

“Ren fest” is less about strict historical accuracy and more about enjoying the highly interactive theater performances and vaudeville-style stage shows, of which there are a dozen G-rated for kids. 

Cirque du Sewer, for example, is an animal circus in which trained rats and cats jump through fiery hoops and perform more feats. You’ll also see sword-swallowing clown in the Pinwheel Sideshow and whip master Adam Crack, who holds a Guinness World Record for the most whip cracks in one minute. All of these shows are highly interactive with the audience and encourage participation in the crowd and on stage.

You’ll find much more talent and entertainment off stage too, with live demonstrations of handicrafts like glassblowing, stone carving and blacksmithing in a real forge, and with the roaming entertainers, like Sir Real, the Puppet Man, and many more costumed members of the performing company.

Scarborough Renaissance Festival, photo courtesy of Pongo
Sir Real, the Puppet Man

Embrace the Fantasy

Of all the performers in costume, your aspiring princesses will probably be most excited about the assortment of mythical creatures and characters that have been part of folklore for centuries: mermaids, fairies and unicorns.

Inside the tropical Mermaid Lagoon, which opens during select hours, you can meet and interact with actresses dripping with shells and pearls and wearing iridescent mermaid tails as they lounge in a touch tank of sorts, welcoming children to touch her tail and ask what life is like under the sea. You’re likely to see many more guests dresses up as mermaids, too, during Legends of the Sea weekend May 20–21 when the festival hosts an all-ages costume contest for aspiring mermaids, pirates and sea creatures.

The same is true during Live the Fantasy weekend April 29–30 when fairies come out of the woodwork for the Children’s Fairy Initiation. And on any weekend, you can meet real-life unicorns (or rather ponies adorned with glittering horns) available for meet and greets at the Unicorn Experience. Be on the lookout too as you walk around for one particular costumed dragon named Fireflicker.

Scarborough Renaissance Festival, unicorn experience , photo courtesy of Pongo

Ascend to Royalty

The historical setting for the Scarborough festival is in the days of King Henry the VIII, but it’s his sister, Margaret, Queen of Scotland who reigned from 1503 until 1513, who will oversee the festival this year—or rather the actress who’s filled the role for 24 years and knows any and all things about the real Margaret.

It’s with this authority that she conducts the Scottish Knighting Ceremony. One at a time, boys and girls of all ages may approach to kneel before the queen as she first leads them through a solemn oath, asking, “Are you going to be chivalrous? Are you going to mind your parents and use your manners?” Upon their answer, dubs them a “Member of the Realm” with a light tap on the shoulder with a real, but blunted, sword and gifts them each a commemorative pendant. 

Scarborough Renaissance Festival, children's knighting ceremony, photo courtesy of Scott Fisher

Laugh in the Face of Danger

For those really taking the knighting ceremony to heart, don’t miss the real chivalry lessons led by the festival’s Knights of the Noble Cause, and more fun, on Celebrating Chivalry Weekend May 13–14.

But for your littles who simply can’t wait to pull the sword from the stone and crown themselves king, you might indulge them one souvenir from the two shops that sell wooden swords and shields (they can décor these, too) and another shop called Safer Swords that are made from soft, Nerf-type material—because not accidentally losing an eye would be fabulous. These Styrofoam toys come out to play, too, in the form of foam axes and cabers during the Kids Highland Games during Celtic Weekend on May 6–7.

Games of strength and skill are a big part of the games, but in no way more so than the jousting. There, on horseback in the jousting arena, you’ll witness the real power of knights. Check the event schedule to see those competitions in the arena, and in between them, you can let your littles take part in a jousting ride of their own.

Scarborough Renaissance Festival, renaissance kiddie jousting ride, photo courtesy of Pongo

That’s just one of dozens of wooden, “human-powered” rides (in keeping as close to true Renaissance live with the all wooden, no electrical), including wooden barrels, swings that look like a hippogryph (half eagle, half horse), and more games of skill with bows and arrows, like Robin Hood. None are over $3 per ride but they’re all cash-only so bring your dollars.

Save Your Shillings

Come on opening weekend for the best admission deal for families: For every paid adult admission, three kids ages 12 and younger get in free. Kids 4 and younger are always free. Guests are welcome to bring empty water bottles for free and unlimited fill-ups at water fountains so you can stay hydrated. 

Prep for the Journey

Be sure to check the weather beforehand and pack a hat, sunscreen, or extra layers accordingly. The outdoor festival requires near constant walking, so bringing that utility wagon you typically use for your kids’ soccer tournaments will save you from carrying a backpack all day. Wooden wagons are available to rent but they’re first-come, first-served.

It’s best to get there early in the morning anyway, between 9:30am and 10am to get the best parking spot and to catch the milder weather. And for parents with children in diapers, there are changing stations in all the restrooms, which are substantially built so there’s no worry about port-a-potties.  

Don’t Eat like a Peasant

With all that walking around, you’ll surely work up an appetite, and when hungry strikes, you won’t have to travel far. Scarborough offers not one but five food court areas, spaced throughout the historic village, with options that all ages and palates can appreciate, as well as gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian options. You’ll find a few of the traditional fair foods like pizza, corn dogs and funnel cakes, but now is a time for adventure, is it not?

For your littles, take a look at the food-on-a-stick options: chicken on a stick, steak on a stick (aka meat popsicle), fresh fruit on a stick. They’ve even got Mac and cheese on a stick, which is breaded and deep-fried, and grilled corn on a stick, for which you peel back the husks yourself.

When your sweet tooth needs satiating, take a look at the bakeries for goodies handmade from scratch daily, and many more sweets (or presentation of those sweets) you and the kids may never have tried before, like Italian ice served in half an orange peel. Either way, kids will get a kick out of eating with their hands.

This article was originally published in April 2022.

Photos courtesy of Scott Fisher; Pongo