Here Be People: Florida Renaissance Festival 2013

Renaissance festivals are an altered reality. Where else can you walk through a cloud of glitter/ faerie dust and then have someone try to sell you a pair of horns?

On March 10, 2013, I went to my first renaissance festival—the Florida Renaissance Festival at Quiet Waters Park in Deerfield Beach, which took place from February 9 to March 17, 2013. However, the event moves to Miami for three weekends from March 30 until April 14, 2013.

Although I’d never been to a renaissance festival before, comic books conventions and indie craft fairs have the same “entered into another universe” kind of vibe. And even if you haven’t experienced these events, you probably know that they are geek-centered. You’ve likely seen them elevated and/or ridiculed in pop culture, depending on whether geeks are cool that week.

Regardless of whether you identify as a geek, these alternative cultures offer a receptive place for intelligent, artistic, and eccentric minds. Weird is welcome.

In addition, these are places to build “real world” connections with others. Geeks may be at the forefront of every digital advance, but they are also creating these other communities where people can interact outside of text messages or status updates.

Not to say that the Florida Renaissance Festival did not have its share of people with iPads and smart phones, documenting every hawk in flight, every knight locked in joust.

And not to say that technology doesn’t have its place.

But the Florida Renaissance Festival estimates almost 100,000 attendees, showing that many of us may be looking for more connection to the world and others around us.

For fifteen years, William Rodriguez of New York, 58, has worked at the festival. Produced by his cousin’s company, Bobby Rodriguez Productions, Rodriguez shared his thoughts on why the festival’s appeal endures.

“It’s a trip back in time. You get to experience what it used to be like in Renaissance days.”

People also come for the vendors who sell the aforementioned horns and glitter dust, as well as faerie wings and elf ears. There’s also the renaissance festival requisite of kilts and gowns. For those who really want to outfit their inner knight or lady, there’s chainmail, armor, and headdresses by Frank Lieberman of Cearweddwen’s Creations. Lieberman, a resident of Long Beach, California, handcrafts these items and has travelled the renaissance festival circuit for forty years. He has even made beaded headdresses for Cher and Anne Rice.

Of course, there are more down-to-earth goods such as pottery, glassware, and drums.

But down-to-earth-ness isn’t why people attend the festival. Most are there for the fantasy realm mixed with medieval and Renaissance history.

“It’s a different world,” said Patricia Wiley of Fort Lauderdale. “The atmosphere is festive…we love the interaction with people.”

Wiley and her husband Steve were dressed as pirates in custom-made black velvet costumes with hats and capes. Under the South Florida sun, they were sweltering. But dressing up was one of the main reasons why they came out to the festival.

“It’s fun picking out the outfit…planning ahead,” she said.

Rodney of Merritt Island, 31, also took time with his costume.

Dressed as a self-described “Van Helsing style witch hunter,” Rodney donned a black skull mask, Viking helmet, silver armor, and gray fur cape. Attendees, particularly children, crowded around to take their picture with him.

“He’s a geek—he’s into all this stuff,” said Rodney’s wife Christine, 29, who wore a burgundy velvet gown. “He makes his own costume…prepares for months…only a few things are bought, the rest he makes.”

For the past three years, they have driven two and a half hours from Merritt Island, Florida to attend the Florida Renaissance Festival.

The first year had been an unplanned visit. Rodney and Christine had been in South Florida because he was participating in a jujitsu tournament. He lost. But to cheer him up, Christine brought him to the festival. It worked. He not only felt better, but came back the following year in costume.

When asked to describe the festival to anyone who hasn’t been here, Rodney reflected that, “it’s like any of those comic cons… [but] for those into medieval [times] and the Renaissance.”

Some attendees had been visiting the Florida Renaissance Festival since they were children.

Hillary of Lake Worth, 21, wore faerie wings. She was with her sister Melanie, 18, who had on horns, and her friend Jeremy of Boynton Beach, 23, who was decked out in silver armor.

“When I was younger, my parents brought me [here],” said Hillary. “It’s just a fun atmosphere…everyone is so friendly… I like how [people] get into character.”

Megan of Coral Springs, 18, and Jade of Deerfield Beach, 18, were friends whose past experiences of the festival were different.

Megan started visiting the event with her parents at the age of six. Displaying her just-purchased circlet (a thin strand of jewelry worn around the head), Megan stated that some of her favorite parts of the festival were the interactive comedy/music shows, particularly The Washing Well Wenches.

Interactive shows abound at the Florida Renaissance Festival. Another popular performance is The Mud Show (it’s exactly what it sounds like—don’t sit in the front rows). But this kind of active exchange between performers and audience permeates the festival. Vendors dressed as Vikings call out to people as they walk by. At any moment, you could be starring in your own show.

This was only Jade’s second time attending the event. However, she remarked that the renaissance festival is about “more than trying to sell you stuff.”

“People come and dress up and [do things] they don’t get to do in real life,” she said. The focus is on those who share “common interests” such as “history, sci-fi, fantasy.” Jade also noted that the festival makes a person realize “you’re not the only one looking for an escape.”

May Lewis, 23, and boyfriend, Francisco Sotomayor, 30, both from Tamarac, became interested in the Renaissance period through watching The Tudors and Game of Thrones.

“I’m a sucker for history,” said Lewis.

It was their first time at the festival, but they were dressed up—Lewis as a princess, and Sotomayor as a hooded medieval figure.

Similar to Patricia Wiley and Hillary, Lewis spoke of connecting to the atmosphere of the festival, particularly the reactions of people who saw her in costume. “This guy bowed down and said hello princess,” shared Lewis.

Lewis and Sotomayor also planned to visit the Florida Renaissance Festival in Miami.

Nadia Hurt, 29, originally from Argentina, had brought a friend to the event for the first time.

“I like to bring new people,” said Hurt. “This is where I belong. This is like being home…all people are kind. No one judges you.”

Hurt’s comments mirror what many of these attendees observed throughout the day—that the Florida Renaissance Festival was a place where they could feel comfortable about who they were, and where they could express themselves.

We need more of these places—not just special events like renaissance festivals, comic cons, and indie craft fairs, but every day events that build this welcoming come-as-you-are sense of community.

Without these interactions, we risk alienation from each other and from ourselves. Connection may become such a rarity that it turns into myth, leading to maps that say “beware, here be people.”

The Florida Renaissance Festival offers the potential of finding this connection with history, with fantasy, and with a community (albeit, temporary) that appreciates and encourages eccentricities. This is particularly important in South Florida, which is often an alienating and conservative place. Anyone who goes against the grain can experience estrangement here. An event like the Florida Renaissance Festival opens up the possibilities of a world where attendees can be knights in armor, princesses, faeries, Vikings in skull masks. Or they can be their own unique selves with or without horns—and find acceptance.