Over Memorial Day weekend, Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods will become a playground for people with overactive imaginations. As you explore the forest, you’ll come upon all kinds of fantastical creatures — fairies and unicorns, of course, but also a crew of stranded space aliens and a giant sock monster who wants you to tell him a joke.
It’s all part of the first FantasyWood Festival, which is being produced by a trio of organizations: the Inner Arbor Trust, which manages Merriweather Park; the Circus Siren Pod mermaid performance group; and ManneqArt, a Laurel, Md.-based arts nonprofit run by fashion designer Lee Andersen.
“Our mission is to inspire creativity,” Andersen says. “And the Symphony Woods is such a beautiful environment to grow a fantasy festival, which is something that’s unusual for this area.”
Fantasy festivals — which are like Renaissance fairs minus the historical elements — have been popping up around the country, and the 51-acre Merriweather Park, in Columbia, Md., seemed like a perfect place for one, Andersen says. It was, after all, where the famous Maryland Renaissance Festival debuted in 1977 and lived for eight years before moving to its current home in Crownsville, Md. The Maryland Ren Fest is now the second-largest event of its kind in the country — proving that folks in the greater D.C. area have vivid imaginations and love dressing up, Andersen says. She hopes the FantasyWood Festival provides just such an opportunity.
“We are really encouraging people to come in costume and as characters of their own invention,” she says.
At the heart of the festival will be The Quest, a competition in which teams of two will journey around the woods looking for opportunities to complete up to 26 missions. One such mission is to join a werewolf pack and learn the beasts’ special howls. Another involves writing a secret message in invisible ink and, later, making it appear by warming the paper in the steamy snores of a 40-foot (mechanical) dragon.
There will also be missions involving fairies and unicorns, but The Quest isn’t all sweetness and light. At a witches’ cottage, you’ll need to find a key to free a little girl (actually a grown man in a tutu) being held captive. You can also climb into witches’ cauldrons and choose the other ingredients you’d like in your “you stew.” Entry in The Quest costs $10 per team, and the duo that completes 20 missions in the least amount of time wins a gift basket.
“Participation is a huge part of this festival. That’s why we came up with The Quest — so you’re not just looking at unicorns, you’re petting the unicorns; you’re not just getting pictures with the giant sock monster, you’re telling him jokes,” Andersen says. But feel free to spectate, she adds. “Part of the entertainment is watching other people go through The Quest, watching them sing a love song to a mermaid, or learning how to do a pirate dance.”
There’s plenty for non-questers to do, especially at the park’s Chrysalis stage, which will play host to a variety of performances, including highlights from the fantasy rock musical “Magic Under Glass” by the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts. You can also hang out at whimsically themed bars with drinks for the 21-and-over crowd, get a snack at the Sand-Witches’ Kitchen and explore the many structures that Andersen and her merry crew of volunteers have made, including a Hobbit house and the totaled spaceship that left those poor aliens stranded.
“We’ve had so much fun building all these things, but we think they will be even more fun to play in,” Andersen says.
Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, 10431 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Md.; Sat. & Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m., $14 per day ($12 for kids 3-12), Mon., 10 a.m.-3 p.m., $12 ($8 for kids 3-12), $19-$24 for weekend pass.