A Renaissance fair, Renaissance faire, or Renaissance festival is an outdoor weekend gathering, usually held in the United States, open to the public and typically commercial in nature, which emulates a historic period for the amusement of its guests. Some are permanent theme parks, others are short-term events in fairgrounds or other large public or private spaces. Renaissance fairs generally include an abundance of costumed entertainers, musical and theatrical acts, art and handicrafts for sale, and festival food. Some even offer camping, for those who wish to stay more than one day. Most Renaissance fairs are set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Some are set earlier, during the reign of Henry VIII, or in other countries, such as France, and some include broader definitions of the Renaissance which include earlier periods, such as the Vikings, or later, such as 18th Century pirates, and some engage in deliberate "time travel" by encouraging participants to wear costumes representing several eras in a broad time period. Renaissance fairs encourage visitors to enter into the spirit of things with costumes and audience participation. Most tolerate, and many welcome, fantasy elements such as wizards and elves.
Chicago journalist Neil Steinberg said (of the Bristol Renaissance Faire), "If theme parks, with their pasteboard main streets, reek of a bland, safe, homogenized, whitebread America, the Renaissance Faire is at the other end of the social spectrum, a whiff of the occult, a flash of danger and a hint of the erotic. Here, they let you throw axes. Here are more beer and bosoms than you'll find in all of Disney World."
Most Renaissance fairs are arranged to represent an imagined village in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, as this period has been generally considered to correspond to the flowering of the English Renaissance.
In a modern Renaissance festival there are stages or performance areas set up for scheduled shows, such as plays in Shakespearean or commedia dell'arte tradition, as well as anachronistic audience participation comedy routines. Other performances include dancers, magicians, musicians, jugglers, and singers. Between the stages the streets ('lanes') are lined with stores ('shoppes') and stalls where independent vendors sell medieval and Renaissance themed handcrafts, clothing, books, and artworks. There are food and beverage vendors, as well as game and ride areas. Games include basic skills events such as archery or axe-throwing as well as Drench-a-Wench and Soak-a-Bloke, which allow a player with a good aim to hit a target and get a fair employee wet. Rides are typically unpowered—various animal rides and human-powered swings are common. Live animal displays and falconry exhibitions are also commonplace. Larger Renaissance fairs will often include a joust as a main attraction.
In addition to the staged performances, a major attraction of Renaissance fairs is the crowds of actors - both professional and amateur - who play all sorts of historical figures and roam the fair, interacting with visitors. Visitors are encouraged to wear costumes, once any weapons are suitably peace-bonded, contributing to the illusion of an actual Renaissance environment. Many of the fair vendors sell or rent costumes for all ages and types. The Renaissance fair subculture's word for these costumed guests is "playtrons", a portmanteau of the words "patron" and "player", and they add a second level of enjoyment to their experience by "getting into the act" as Renaissance Lords and ladies, peasants, pirates, belly dancers, or fantasy characters. However, many renaissance fairs discourage interaction between the official cast and so-called "playtrons."
Most fairs have an end-of-the-day ritual, a parade or concert where all employees gather and bid farewell to the patrons.
Renaissance fairs are staged around the United States at different times of the year. Fair vendors, participants and crew often work the "faire circuit", going from event to event as one fair ends and another begins.
Although historical reenactments are by no means exclusive to the United States (for example, the Earl of Eglinton in Scotland sponsored a large tournament in 1839), the Renaissance fair is, arguably, a uniquely American variation on the theme, having as much the flavor of an amusement park combined with a shopping mall as of a historical reenactment. European historical fairs, on the other hand, operate more on the living history museum model, in which an actual historic site is peopled by reenactors whose job it is to explain historical life to modern visitors. American Renaissance fair patrons may be as interested in drinking, eating, shopping, and watching farce as they are in an educational experience.
In recent years, American-style Renaissance fairs have made inroads in other countries. Germany has seen a very similar phenomenon since the 1980s (see de:Mittelaltermarkt), and beginning in the mid-1990s, Renaissance fairs have spread into Canada.
Spinoffs of Renaissance fairs also include fairs set in other time periods, such as Christmas fairs set in Charles Dickens' London. The American approach has apparently been exported back to England; a warehouse-based theme park, "Dickens World", opened in Kent, England, in May 2007.