For two months every fall, Houston gets a taste of the medieval when the Texas Renaissance Festival transforms several acres of land outside the city into a 16th-century village.
Texas' festival is the largest — and arguably the best — of its kind in the U.S. Thousands of people flock every year to the park, where actors take on the roles of kings and knights, and visitors don costumes and immerse themselves in fantasy.
With so much to do and so many activities to choose from, it can be a little daunting. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your trip.
When to Go
The festival takes place on the weekends from October through Thanksgiving weekend, including the Friday after Thanksgiving. The gates open at 9 a.m., and it's a good idea to be there when they do. The later you arrive, the further away you'll have to park and the bigger the crowds. An earlier start time also means you can pace yourself and get in everything you want to before the evening fireworks display.
If you're a sucker for a good theme, there are several special weekends throughout the season. Oktoberfest, for example, happens at the end of September/early October and is a celebration of German life where bratwurst and beers take center stage. Halloween weekend features costume competitions and trick-or-treating, and Celtic Christmas weekend — always the last weekend of the season — ushers in the holidays with elves and Christmas decorations.
For those who love adventure, be sure to come during the Barbarian Invasion weekend when you can compete in obstacle courses and feats of strength, or the Pirate Adventure where treasure hunts rule the day.
Tip: Tickets bought in advance for opening weekend are offered at a discount. Visit the festival's website to buy them online before you go as tickets purchased at the door that weekend will still be full price.
Where to Eat
So many delicious things exist at the festival that it can be hard to choose. The park is laid out as a series of villages where shops and eateries center around a given theme, like the Italian Village or La Fiest Hispanic Food. Anywhere you go, however, you'll be able to find beloved Ren Fest staples like turkey legs and ice cream.
Turkey legs, in particular, are a favorite among festival-goers. They're filling and savory, and when you bite into them you feel a little closer to the 16th Century. Pair a leg with a potato tornado — a spiralized potato on a stick that's been deep-fried and covered in seasoned salt — and a lemonade or ale.
For the full experience, reserve a spot at the King's Feast. The ticket is about $120 and gets you admission to the park; a six-course meal complete with wine, mead and ale; and a two-hour show filled with fun and frivolity.
What to Do
In between bites of turkey and sips of mead, take part in any number of fun activities or shows. Stop and listen to musicians play, take in a comedy act, or watch performers do tricks with throwing knives or whips. Palm readers are set up in various spots throughout the grounds to tell you your future — for a fee, of course — and don't forget to make way for the king and queen as they traipse through the crowds as part of the daily parade.
Kids will also love the medieval-themed carnival games and pony rides. Let them be a part of the adventure by participating in a sword fight or getting their face painted.
Where to Stay
The park grounds are about an hour northwest of Houston near the town of Plantersville. While there isn't any lodging available on-site, non-local visitors have a few nearby options to choose from.
The official hotel of the festival is La Torretta Lake Resort & Spa, located right off of scenic Lake Conroe about 15 miles from the park. In addition to the laundry list of amenities, the resort offers discounted rates and shuttle service for those attending the festival.
The Fields of New Market Campground has spots for tents and RVs available on a first come, first served basis for just $25. The spots are pretty primitive — no electrical or water hookups are available — but if you don't mind roughing it a little, it's by the far the closest option at about two miles from the park entrance.
If you prefer to have more of the creature comforts but are still on a budget, several hotels are available in the nearby town of Magnolia for less than $100/night.
What to Bring
Though not necessary, costumes are absolutely encouraged. Despite a focus on 16th Century England, you'll see getups from periods all over history — both fictional and non. It's not uncommon for Doctor Who or Batman to make an appearance, making it often seem like you stepped into Comic-Con with mead.
Regardless of whether you choose to don a corset or khakis, plan to be comfortable. The park is almost exclusively outdoor with very little cover. Be sure to bring hats for sunny days and umbrellas when it looks like rain. Shoes should be comfortable and sturdy — heels don't work well in mud — and it's Texas, y'all, so don't forget the sunscreen.
Outside food and drinks aren't allowed inside the park unless they're for a baby or toddler, so you'll want to budget to purchase food or plan to exit the park to eat at your car and re-enter. Water fountains are available near the restrooms, but you should expect to pay for any other provisions. While credit cards are accepted at many of the vendors, it's still a good idea to bring some cash along. But if you forget, don't worry; ATMs are located throughout the park.
If you plan on bringing kids along, it also is helpful to have a stroller — or better yet, a wagon — along with you, as the park is massive.