I’ve been attending the Texas Renaissance Festival every year since high school, but have rarely bothered with any of the other Texas fairs because, well, why would I? Ren Fest is widely regarded as one of the largest, most elaborate fairs in the country. Making it your Renaissance destination of choice just seemed logical.
Last weekend I trucked the family out to Sherwood Forest Faire, about 44 miles outside of Austin, and I’ve got to tell you that while it may be smaller and farther away, it has its advantages over Ren Fest. For one, although the Texas Renaissance Festival covers 55 acres, in most places the combination of crowds and shop-lined streets makes it feel very packed and dense, You’re always ducking around people, or in my case accidentally tripping them with the kid’s wagon as you attempt to maneuver.
Sherwood is a much more open-concept sort of park. You climb hills and weave in and out of wide areas of wood. Even though there were plenty of people attending with us, it was rare to get jostled or bunched up. My thighs didn’t appreciate the hilly terrain while hauling a six-year-old in a Radio Flyer, but the hills do break up the scenery nicely.
Sherwood is definitely more kid-centric than Ren Fest. The highlight of our trip was the fairy tea party held in the center of the park every day at 3 p.m. The event is kid-only (parents watch from a waist-high fence around the area) and completely free. They serve actual tea in actual teacups along with miniature cupcakes while fairy actors sing songs and tell stories. It is in every way adorable.
I can’t stress enough how much more welcoming Sherwood is for kids, both in content and in price. Scattered all over the place are free things for them to do. Castles to play on, a Round Table to sit at and pretend to be knights, and an assortment of interesting gardens to frolic in all dot the landscape. It’s these little touches that make Sherwood fun.
For instance, the fairy actors go around every day and drop shiny rocks all over the grounds, as well as buttons that let kids redeem them for more little baubles at a stand. My daughter was enthralled every time she discovered a treasure, and my pocket was bulging with them by the time we left.
Then there’s the Quest Givers. The actors, indicated by the yellow exclamation point over their heads in a way that reminded me fondly of playing Xenoblade Chronicles, will hand over small scrolls with instructions. Complete these actions and you can win prizes, just like a video game.
I also enjoyed the fact that it didn’t feel like Sherwood was trying to relieve me of my money every five seconds. At Ren Fest, you are rarely farther than a few feet from shops. At Sherwood, they are more spaced out and the calling barkers are thankfully rarer. There isn’t this constant auditory demand on your attention and your cash from hawkers with vastly overinflated opinions of their humor.
“TRF is the Walmart of fairs,” said Britton, an Electronic Arts employee I struck up a conversation with in a drink line. “Everything there is just so corporate. All the employees look bored and are looking at their phones.”
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Speaking of the vittles, the tables at Sherwood are both good and disappointing. Our family and the friends with us lunched at an Italian stand that provided some pretty nice-quality pasta dishes for just $5. The enormous slices of pizza that my daughter and her friend consumed were also cheap and quite delicious. I went for a brat from a nearby stand, and that’s one of the places Texas Renaissance Festival succeeds over Sherwood. Ren Fest has less variety in food, but greater consistent quality. It was a pretty weak brat, and after driving up through Chappell Hill, I was really disappointed not to get a better sausage.
Sherwood has many of the same exact sort of shows you’ll see at Ren Fest, but they are definitely set up better for the most part. We caught Sky Kings’ Birds of Prey exhibition as we always do at Ren Fest, but even though we stumbled upon it by accident just as it was starting there was still a good view of the stage. Sherwood stacks its wooden benches higher as they move back to help people see, but they're not so high that a standing person at the very back can’t also see. Normally, if you come across a show at Texas Renaissance Festival just as it's starting, you’re going to have a pretty crappy time seeing it. At Sherwood, not only could we see and enjoy, I actually ended up standing directly under one of the landing posts for the birds, putting me closer to an owl than I have ever been.
But Ren Fest wins on some other fronts. The road into Sherwood is a freakin’ rock polisher that is no fun at all. Also, Sherwood is a really grody place to pee, especially if you’re a guy who doesn’t think we should still be peeing urinating against a wall together no matter how authentic that experience might be. And I had way too many merchants at Sherwood give my daughter items, then tell her to ask me for money. That’s not cute. It means I either pay $2 for a flower she’ll forget she owns in 15 minutes, or I make a child cry when I tell her no.
Emotional extortion aside, the cast at Sherwood tends to be warm and willing to engage in positive ways. There are a wealth of little games and activities that are either free or very cheap, and it turns what is usually a penny-pinching trip on a tight budget into a relaxing day at the fair. I’ll still be heading out to the Texas Renaissance Festival later this year, as I always do, but I’ve never had more fun there than I had at Sherwood.