Fun with the Festies at the Renaissance Festival

By Matthew seidholz

At most carnivals I’ve been to, I never really interacted with the workers because they’re supposed to be sort of invisible. They get paid to make the rides run safe and to sell turkey-legs and stuff, but other than that, they stay in the background and leave the festival-goers alone. Normally, the workers ignore me, I ignore them and everything goes just fine. But the Minnesota Renaissance Festival is not most carnivals. Oh no. It’s the biggest Renaissance festival in the country, it takes 1,500 workers to run it, and last weekend I found out that it’s impossible to ignore any of them.

I drove to the Festival in Shakopee with three friends of mine named Margaret, Becky and Hector, and it wasn’t until we got to parking that I understood the scale of the whole operation. It was surreal.

Several hundred cars sat on a big field in front of the spires of some immense castle, and out from the cars poured out the legions of Festival fans. My friends and I marched alongside these folk to the Festival Gates, where the ticket stand stood between an ATM tent and a showcase of ye olde Polaris snowmobiles. A big wooden sign proclaimed the price of entry, and it almost made me reconsider the whole day. “Twenty dollars?” I thought. “For what?”

At first glance, the place just looked like a field with some castles on it. But I did buy the ticket and I did spend my day there, and I found out that it’s not the facilities that make the Festival-it’s the Festies.

“Festies”, I learned, is an industry term for anybody who works at the festival, and almost always these people come in costume. Most of the men looked ready for battle, bedecked in tights and with rapiers dangling from their belts, bounding all over the place like Robin Hood. It was their job, as far as I could tell, to walk around and yell at people.

A lot of the women, though, were doing very different work. Dressed like Gypsy dancers, they slunk slowly and carefully around the fair because it looked like the slightest vertical movement would send their breasts spilling out the tops of their sparkly bras. They wore flowery skirts and had heavy layers of make-up over their faces, and their undulating midriffs got plenty of attention from the guys working the festival. More than once I saw a Robin Hood lookalike give one of the Gypsy girls a squeeze on the rump, and strangely enough, no one looked offended. That kind of weird sexual playfulness is just part of the Festival’s atmosphere.

My friend Becky found that out first-hand. The four of us met a juggler named Geoffrey who offered to teach us his art, and he gave Becky a lot more attention than she needed. He tried to use dumb jokes to start some flirty banter, and when that failed he used juggling as an avenue for some inappropriate touching.

For example, to explain where Becky should look as she juggled, he gently held her chin in his hand and pointed her head in the right direction; to encourage her when she had trouble, he would wrap his arm around her waist and assure her that she was doing fine; to help Becky get the timing down, he would scoot up behind her and manipulate her arms.

Becky understandably grew uncomfortable and said something about urgently needing a smoothie, but when she tried to walk away, Geoffrey grabbed her by the wrist and said “I think I’ll just keep you riiiiight here!”

Creepy, right? But Becky escaped his clutches, leaving me to stay and talk with him. I asked him a few questions about the fair, and during our conversation he suddenly got wide-eyed with excitement about something going on behind me.

“Hey hey!” he said to me. “You can meet my girlfriend!” Then he waved over a red-headed Gypsy girl who was walking by. “C’mere, Jiggles!” he yelled, and she coyly slunk over to his side. He gave her a hug around the waist and a few playful pokes on her right breast. “This is Darlene!” he said to me.

I asked Darlene how she felt about all this sexual attention.

“Oh you know,” she said in a strong Minnesota accent, “It’s all just fun. I don’t mind. It’s part of what this whole Festival’s about!”

Then she grabbed Geoffrey’s head and mashed the side of his face against her chest. From that position, Geoffrey explained that he’s a financial analyst when he’s not at work at the festival. “I love it here, man! People aren’t so uptight!”

Taking a look around, I saw that he was right. There were heaving bosoms everywhere, crotch-hugging tights, men’s hands resting on their girlfriend’s butts as they strolled around the fairgrounds. I guess that kind of sexual freedom is part of the draw, part of what makes 275,000 people come back every single year.

But it’s also what makes people like Becky swear that they’ll never, ever try to learn juggling again.