Every year, tens of thousands of people get a chance to transport themselves into the past and escape from the real world at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival.
Now entering its 39th season, the annual festival attracts about 80,000 people a year, according to the festival’s website.
Set in 1524 in the fictional English town of Fittleworth, the seven-week long Tampa festival creates a captivating medieval adventure, with no shortage of sights and spectacles.
From re-enactments of King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine Parr, there’s a litany of characters — peasants, gypsies and fairies — all of which never stray from using English accents.
At every turn, the festival offers amusement for children and adults, alike.
Besides an eclectic blend of renaissance-style mimes and madrigals, there’s archery contests, live-armored jousting and elephant rides.
With modest beginnings in Largo, the jubilee relocated to Tampa in 2004, adjacent to the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), at 11315 North 46th St.
To accommodate its cult following and ever-growing demand, the festival expanded to seven weekends long.
Each weekend has a distinctive motif.
The weekend of March 18, for instance, was titled Shamrocks & Shenanigans, an ode to St. Patrick’s Day.
Festival Friday kicks off the final weekend, starting March 31.
That is followed by the pirate-themed High Seas Adventures, on April 1 and April 2.
Its attractions include a pirate costume contest, tattoo competition and pirate peg leg relay race.
For thousands of festivalgoers each year, dressing up in diverse medieval garb is a significant aspect of the event’s charm.
So, too, is meeting like-minded people with similar interests in renaissance culture.
“It’s fun. You get to know the people — the repeats,” said Niko Alissandratos, of Tarpon Springs, who was sporting Vulcan ears and a vintage drinking horn during the March 18 weekend.
Another patron, Alicia Askey, makes it a point to drive down from Ocala each year to attend the festival with her husband, Stephen.
Besides the varied food and entertainment offerings, she enjoys the ability to express herself, this year portraying an Anglo-Saxon from the 12th century.
“I like being able to dress up,” Askey said, “and no one looks at you funny.”
The same mindset can be applied to Lutz resident Scott Dorman, and his 8-year old son, Nathan.
Both portrayed members of a Scottish clan, wearing a MacLeod kilt and toting hardwood walking sticks.
Matching outfits aside, the festival’s choreographed human combat chess match is one reason the father and son have attended the show three years running.
Dorman, who grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons as a youth, said he enjoys “everything” about Bay Area Renaissance Festival.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” Dorman said. “Each year we come a little more often and get more into it.”
The Renaissance Festival appears to be a hit among vendors, too.
Amanda Stevens is the owner and operator of Krakens Chest, which produces on-site pirate rings and other jewelry.
Part of the festival’s appeal, Stevens said, is its leniency in portrayals from the entirety of renaissance period, which spans from the 14th century to the 17th century.
Unlike some other medieval-themed festivals, she values the ability to roam as any character, may it be a knight, a pirate, or a Greek warrior.
“I think a lot of people like this festival,” Stevens said, “because it’s not strict.”
“It’s more like a giant convention,” she added, “because you see people dressed up as everything here.”
A regular since the event’s Largo days, Stevens noted the renaissance festival does have a “different feel” since it moved to Tampa.
Nearby traffic on Fowler Avenue and other urban noises, she explained, can sometimes disrupt the festival’s ambiance, contrary to the wide-open, rural setting in Largo.
“You felt like you were transported back in time,” said Stevens, referring to the festival venue in Largo. “It was in the backwoods and you had to walk like half a mile to get to the (entrance) gate, so you really felt like you were in the Renaissance period.”
The proximity to the bustling Fowler roads, however, doesn’t disrupt the experience for Cat Desharnais, one of Stevens’ co-workers.
To her, it’s still a “getaway” from everyday life.
“I love it. It’s a fun time to be artistic and creative,” said Desharnais, of Tampa. “I meet a lot of crafty people and mobile artists; it’s very nice.”
For pop culture junkies, the festival incorporates some elements from Game of Thrones, the hit HBO television series.
Desharnais noted several attendees in recent years have dressed up as various characters from the show: “You’ll find a dozen Khaleesis just walking around.”
One of the best moments during the festival’s March 18 offerings came during opening ceremonies, when re-enactors presented a Shakespearean-style purple velvet dress to Marina Khimko, a 14-year-old who lives from a wheelchair because of a rare birth defect.
As the teenager from Brooksville, smiled ear-to-ear, her mother, Rebecca Smith, said described the gesture as being “spectacular.”
The Bay Area Renaissance Festival kicks off its final weekend on March 31 and concludes on April 2. For information, visit BayAreaRenFest.com. The popular seven-weekend long event is at MOSI, 11315 North 46th St., near the University of South Florida.
Published March 29, 2017