Each of Medieval Times‘ nine castles is capable of turning out a thousand rotisserie half-chickens in 20 minutes (schedules and seating capacity may vary regionally; check your local castle for details, or call 1-800-WE-JOUST). Medieval Times is also the largest breeder of Andalusian horses in America. All horses destined for the processional and dressage portions of a Medieval Times show are born at the Chapel Creek Ranch in Texas. In a 2013 Texas Monthly profile, general manager Jon Speier said of the Andalusians, “They go from artificial insemination to being born to enjoying the pastures and the oats and having fun here to suddenly performing before thousands of people,” which is the loveliest-possible summation of the life cycle of the dressage horse I can imagine.
At Medieval Times, science and nature conspire to produce consistent, uniform, replicable spectacle, five nights a week. There are nine Medieval Times: Dinner & Tournament castles in the world: Atlanta, GA, Chicago, IL; Baltimore, MD; Buena Park, CA; Dallas, TX; Lyndhurst, NJ; Myrtle Beach, SC; Orlando, FL; Scottsdale, AZ. Within the continental U.S., no one is ever more than four states away from a Medieval Times dinner and tournament. The ninth castle is in Toronto. All eight of the American castles are freestanding and look like bad Mario 64 renders, but the Toronto castle is tucked away inside the Exhibition Palace, the same site as the Provincial Agricultural Fair of Canada West in 1846.
There’s something outsized about Medieval Times’ longevity (the first castle opened outside Orlando in 1983) and cultural saturation (that scene from the Cable Guy, cameos in Garden State, Friends, Cake Boss, and Hell’s Kitchen). Dinner theater devolved into theme restaurants in the 1980s, sprouting like weeds – 12 Planet Hollywoods here, a dozen Hard Rock Cafes there – and often disappearing just as quickly. The Rainforest Café has closed more locations than Medieval Times has ever opened. But slowly, steadily, one half-chicken at a time, Medieval Times has endured.
I was full only of rotisserie chicken and envy.
I myself have eaten there three times: at the Schaumburg Castle in second grade for my birthday and back there again in fourth grade on a class trip, and once to the Lyndhurst, New Jersey Castle earlier this month. On my first visit, I hoped desperately to be chosen as the Queen of Love and Beauty by the winning knight. It was my eighth birthday, and my birthright. He – the Black and White Knight, if I recall correctly – chose a younger child to wear the plastic tiara, and I would have cheerfully murdered her on the spot if I could. I had no chivalry in my spirit then, few eight-year-olds do. I was full only of rotisserie chicken and envy.
Though two decades and a distance of many miles separated my visits, the menu and the flatware remained unchanged. There is no satisfaction more simple, more human, or more innate than to eat a rotisserie chicken with your hands, openly and in front of your fellows. Medieval Times understands this, and it is likely for this reason that Medieval Times remains when so many other theme restaurants and dinner theaters have passed out of this world. That and they never over-leveraged the franchise. Nine is enough.
Besides the chicken, Medieval Times offers a blunted potato wedge, a half-nubbin of corn on the cob, and garlic bread, all eaten out of hand. They had run out of corn on my latest visit, and offered half a kielbasa or an extra piece of potato as a substitute. There is also tomato bisque, which one drinks from a large metal bowl with a long handle. I remember being served “dragon soup” as a child, with a consistency more like cream of vegetable, but it was tomato bisque on my most recent visit, and tomato bisque is listed on the downloadable PDF of ingredients on the Medieval Times website. The volume of food alone is impressive enough, but have you any idea how technically difficult it is to serve rotisserie chicken at a temperature high enough to pass health and safety inspections, yet cool enough not to burn the fingers of a thousand middle-schoolers? It’s a remarkable high-wire balancing act, and Medieval Times does it five nights a week, sometimes three times a day. (Forks are available on request.)
The copy on the Medieval Times website, by the way, is note-perfect. “Under Royal Decree, we provide robust nutritional information, so those with food allergies are privy to our ingredients.” “Always a generous host, the Queen has commanded her royal chefs to cook her favorite meal just for you.” “We offer an array of meal options for those who are vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free, as commanded by the Queen.”
It’s this very blend of old-timey vagueness and corporate adspeak that makes Medieval Times fun in a way that, say, Disneyland and Renaissance fairs aren’t. Purchasable silliness is such a delicate thing, so easily ruined. Going to Disneyland is an emotionally bankrupting, all-day affair, and Renaissance fairs carry the constant threat of audience interaction. If you so much as try to look at the time, someone’s going to grab your phone and bellow, “By the rood! What strange scrying device be this?”
But Medieval Times is going to get you in and out in a tight two hours and fifteen minutes, with the same relentless efficiency of a Midwestern church service. You get to stay seated the whole time, and you never have to say anything demoralizing like, “How many ducats for yon turkey leg?” You’re allowed to cheer for the knight whose section you’re sitting in, but no one’s going to prod you if you don’t. It is the closest one can get to the experience of eating at a Spirit Halloween, I think, by which I mean everything is chaotic and perfunctory in the most charming, human ways possible.
I grew up just outside of Disneyland, the proud home of novelty architecture and backyard Disneyland knockoffs like Pirates’ Dinner Adventure and John’s Incredible Pizza Company and Salvation Mountain, and have retained my old affinity for whimsical, slightly off-brand midway experiences. I’m not sure if it’s strictly possible to describe the taste of Medieval Times’ food. It tasted like dinner, and plenty of it. Industrial food speaks of aluminum trays, ten-gallon drums of vegetable oil, salt-seasoning canisters, and sufficiency. It tasted Costco-solid and Costco-consistent, which is not nothing. Industrial food is not my favorite type of food to eat, but when it’s good, it’s wonderfully satisfying.
My first post-college roommate worked the early shift at Starbucks, and every week for a year our crisper was filled with free, not-quite-expired, fully-defrosted sausage-and-egg breakfast sandwiches. I imprinted on those little sandwiches as wholly and permanently as a baby duck imprints on its mother. If I could eat a Starbucks sausage sandwich for breakfast every day for the rest of my life, I would be perfectly happy. If Medieval Times has been ordering the same menu wholesale for the last three decades, their prime cost percentage has got to be immaculate. Fifty, maybe even forty-five percent.
The Chicago Tribune covered the opening of the Schaumburg Castle back in 1991, and then-senior vice-president Tripp Bellows captured the slightly anemic, slightly defensive appeal of the place: “Where else can you go with the family, see a show, eat a meal, get a free parking space, and learn a little about history too? It’s not Othello. But there is a bit of football, basketball and theater rolled into it.”
It’s got a little bit of everything. You could find a better show somewhere else, better food somewhere else, learn more about history somewhere else, but if you want all those things in a single package, and to park for free? Then friend, you need a ticket to Medieval Times, where you can watch a falcon fly around the arena for a tight five minutes, with exactly the same energy as a pigeon that’s accidentally flown into an airport. No matter how jaded a traveler you might have become, no matter how long the layover, odds are good that you’re going to say to your traveling companion, “Look at that. There’s a bird in the airport,” just as surely as you will say “Look, horses.” if you drive past horses on a rural stretch of the freeway. Some things are certain. Medieval Times is one of them.
One of my best coworkers was a horse. One of my worst coworkers was a different horse.
Shortly after my visit I was able to speak with a former knight, Gerald Dudley, who rose to the rank of Chancellor Don Geraldo de Zaragoza during his ten-month stint at the Dallas Castle in 2005:
“Imagine the second or third worst restaurant you’ve ever worked in. [This was easy: Mike’s Cafe in Ladera, where I got yelled at for eating leftover fries in 2006.] Now combine that with a rodeo and a store that upsells swords and you’ve got the general idea. One of my best coworkers was a horse. One of my worst coworkers was a different horse.”
As Chancellor and emcee he made $12.50 an hour, without benefits, although servers could pull in more in tips, if they were lucky. Incidentally, the New Jersey Castle employees joined the American Guild of Variety Artists this summer, after an unsuccessful attempt to unionize in 2006. Fifty workers at the Buena Park Castle also filed for a union election last month. Huzzah.