The Michigan Renaissance Festival opens the gates for any fairytale character imaginable in The Realm

High fantasy

click to enlarge Michigan Renaissance Festival attendees immerse themselves in another world. - K.macke Photography, Flickr Creative Commons
K.macke Photography, Flickr Creative Commons
Michigan Renaissance Festival attendees immerse themselves in another world.

A band of fairies, wenches, Vikings, and other fantastical characters have descended on the city of Holly for the Michigan Renaissance Festival.

Expect all the giant turkey legs, jousting, and Elizabethan corsets during the quirky festival, which runs until Oct. 2, with added lore to fuel even more fandom.

This year, visitors will find themselves immersed in The Realm, a fantasyland made up of four distinct regions. Each region is home to different types of characters, and guests choose which one they want to join. It’s kind of like joining a Hogwarts House in the Harry Potter world, minus the sassy sorting hat.

There’s The Northern Ranges of Eavotall, The Western Isles of Ustrann, The Southern Deserts of Askiar, and The Eastern Shires of Isamore. Each region has its own colors, greeting, and symbol.

“It’s not dissimilar from nations in Game of Thrones or Avatar: The Last Airbender, or teams in Twilight,” says Richard Smith, who designed The Realm map and region symbols. “There’s a big popularity within those worlds with having these teams that you can join up, so we’re doing something similar. In so many ways it’s still the same fair it’s always been, but we’ve invited a new angle to address what new fans are coming up with.”

Eavotall is a mountainous highland region populated by stoics. Ustrann is a gulf-filled region with several small islands — think pirates. The people of Askiar are typically scholars and philosophers, with deserts to the north and fertile coast to the south. Finally, Isamore is the cosmopolitan city where all the roads meet. It’s home to the fictional Village of Hollygrove, where the festival itself is set.

Oh, and there’s also the Solarvale and Polarvale domains, which are home to the fairies.

Smith says the regions are broad enough that anyone can see their character, heritage, or costume represented in the festival.

“Metro Detroit has a vast diversity to it and we want to find a way to invite more of that diversity into our festival,” Smith says. “People can come in with any medieval or fantasy costume character and we have a way for them to belong. We don’t want anyone to feel like they’re an outsider. Your character belongs at the festival. You belong at the festival.”

Smith is from Eavotall, whose colors are green and tan. Their animal is a stag and the regional greeting is “strength and honor to you.”

He says the idea is for visitors to have fun with it — just pick whatever region fits your character (or has colors that you like).

This year also marks the end of (the fictional) Queen Elizabeth’s reign as the festival’s monarch. She’s being replaced by a new queen and king to rule over the land.

With more than 100 local artisans vending everything from fairy wands to medieval weapons, and more than 17 stages of performances, plus a festival cast who stroll the grounds interacting with visitors, it’s hard to know what to pay attention to.

A few standout acts not to miss, according to Renaissance Festival entertainment director Maria Christian, are African drum group the Djobi Wakeup Ensemble, and Celtic fusion bands Tartanic and PICTUS.

Christian has been part of the fair since 1997.

Though she grew up in Holly, she had never attended the Renaissance Festival until about 25 years ago, and was hooked from the moment she arrived. She still remembers the very first day she stepped onto the mystical grounds that have kept her entranced all these years.

“When I walked through the gates I felt like I was walking through a storybook,” she reminisces. “I think I went back every weekend that year as an attendee and then decided to audition and created this African princess character. She was not historical, but everything about her was. Then I ended up becoming the entertainment director after that.”

Her character is Princess Isaade M’Oboko, who is based on Nigerian Yoruba culture. The fictional princess wears an Elizabethan-style dress constructed from African fabric, and Christian still plays her at the festival every year.

She says generally people are either fully committed to getting in costume, or aren’t interested in attending the medieval fair at all.

“People are either take it or leave it, but for some people, it can take you and never let go,” she says.

Beyond just a chance to play dress up, the Renaissance Festival offers a ton of additional programming including opportunities for role-playing and immersive experiences.

Take The Quest, for example, a program that Smith runs where participants are sent on an RPG-style journey to learn the greeting and magic “power move” from each region. There’s also the morning Hawk Walk, where participants get to hang out with some birds of prey before the festival grounds open to the public, followed by brunch.

And then there’s the Feast of Fantasy, an epic, six-course banquet that lasts for two hours which Christian calls, “the best seat in the house.”

“People walk away and say there was too much food, but that’s the point of the feast. We want you to feel like you couldn’t possibly finish it all,” she says. “There are two hours of entertainment and we have a great house band and characters that come in. We usually sell out, especially after Labor Day.”

She’s not lying about there being so much food you can’t possibly finish it all. Just check out this menu for the Labor Day “Vikings Invasion” feast: cheesy crab bread, seafood chowder, salad, lemon sorbet with mint, a seafood tower with lobster tail, shrimp, crab legs and calamari, red potatoes, corn on the cob, squash, and a mixed fruit layer cake with chantilly cream.

It’s like a seafood boil on steroids, but we guess they don’t call it a feast for nothing. The Feast of Fantasy is held twice a day at 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., with a different menu each weekend. Tickets are $100, which includes entrance to the festival.

Either way, there’s something magical about being whisked away into simpler times — even if you don’t indulge in a fantastic feast or create an elaborate character.

“Whether it’s being called up on the stage during a show, or sitting in a pub and listening to some phenomenal musicians live, or just walking around with a turkey drumstick in your hand and having a great time, you just get caught up in the fun of it,” Christian says. “It’s a moment where you can just let go of the things that bug you every day and play like a kid.”

The Michigan Renaissance Festival is from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (plus Labor Day Monday, Sept. 5 and Friday, Sept. 30) through Oct. 2; 12600 Dixie Hwy., Holly. Full schedule is available at michrenfest.com. Tickets start at $21.95 in advance or $25.95 at the gate.

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