The Minnesota Renaissance Festival's new transportation plan has made getting to and from the Shakopee event easier, dramatically reducing the long lines of vehicles that once made it nearly impossible for residents to get anywhere on late summer and fall weekends.
Scott County officials had considered revoking the Renaissance Festival's permit to operate last winter after roads leading to the fest were clogged for miles as visitors waited to park.
Two weekends into this year's season, there have been a couple of small snags — a short traffic backup and some longer waits for buses — but festival organizers, attendees and residents say the true test of the new parking and busing plans will come during the festival's final few weeks, when attendance numbers spike.
"Our purview really had to do with the use of public roads," said Scott County Commissioner Barb Weckman Brekke, whose district includes Louisville Township, where the traffic snarls occurred. "An awful lot of people worked hard to find a solution to make this better."
The festival, known as one of the country's largest and most successful Renaissance fairs, runs Saturdays and Sundays from Aug. 19 through Oct. 1, plus Labor Day and Friday, Sept. 29.
To keep their permit, festival organizers were required to make several changes, including limiting the number of on-site parking spots to 7,000, hiring a professional parking consultant, creating a transit plan with park-and-ride buses and making improvements to parking lots and roads on festival grounds, Brekke said.
Drivers that choose to park onsite can buy an online pass by 2 a.m. the night before they plan to go for $10. Without a pass, parking is $30 at the gate.
Overall, things are going "really well," said Stephanie Whipps, the festival's executive director.
Whipps said there was a 20-minute traffic backup the first Saturday, but none since. There were longer wait times for buses at the park-and-rides at the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA) on Eagle Creek Boulevard and at Canterbury Park the second Saturday.
In response, festival officials will increase the total number of buses from four to 12 this Saturday. They also decided to open the Scott County Fairgrounds park-and-ride this Saturday, two weeks earlier than planned, and operate it every Saturday and Sunday of the festival. The buses run constantly, Whipps said.
"We just want people to get right on a bus," she said, adding that after the Minnesota State Fair ends, MVTA will open two more park-and-ride locations.
It costs $5 for adults to take the bus round trip, but riders get a $5 coupon toward admission or festival merchandise.
The first weekend, 90% of cars had pre-purchased parking passes. Most of the remaining drivers weren't upset about paying $30 at the gate, Whipps said.
Renaissance Festival attendance numbers have been slightly higher than last year on three of the four days it's been open.
David Lindstrom, owner of the Minnesota Valley Garden Center, said the Renaissance Festival's last two years were "the worst" in terms of traffic impacts.
"It was a safety hazard down here," said Lindstrom, whose business is on Hwy. 169, less than half a mile south of festival grounds.
This year, things are going much better, although the weeks before Labor Day aren't typically the problem, he said.
John Weckman, a farmer who serves on the Louisville Township's Board of Supervisors, said there have been no backups this year on Hwy. 169, County Road 78 or Louisville Road.
"So far, I don't have a complaint," he said. "A lot of people are using the bus and traffic's been, I think, pretty good."
He's received three concerned phone calls this year, including one from a township resident who didn't like Louisville Road being closed to non-residents unless they're heading to a business nearby. Last year, he got 37 complaint calls in one day, he said.
Brekke said one new concern has emerged: Residents with mobility challenges are having a hard time walking the distance from the bus to the festival. The festival has golf carts for that purpose, she said, and she urged festival officials to ensure they're available.
"I think things are working," she said. "I'm hopeful and cautiously optimistic that the weekends after Labor Day will go smoothly."