As an aspiring academic, I am finding that “off the clock” moments are rare, especially when it comes to entertainment. Moments of leisure quickly turn into moments for critical analysis (for example, my “Tasty Jams” project). What follows is a reflection on my recent trip to Medieval Times. What I imagined would be a kitschy weekend adventure evolved into a scholarly quest to understand why Medieval Times is so popular, which, it turns out, requires contextualization within the history of dinner theater in America. It also prompted me to evaluate my own reactions and judgments along the way!
On a crisp late January afternoon my husband Hugo and I snaked through the stanchions at Medieval Times in Buena Park, California.
“Would you like to upgrade your ticket to include a visit to the Museum of Torture, m’lady?” the customer ser(f)ice clerk asked, “No, I think we’re good” I said. We made our way into the roadside castle where costumed staff placed green paper crowns on our heads. Silently, we took in the scene around us: the bar serving themed drinks in plastic souvenir cups, the gift shop full of pewter dragon tchotchkes, and the birthday knighting ceremony, wondering what we were in for.
Why I was at Medieval Times’ dinner and tournament you ask? My Mother-in-law gifted my husband and me tickets for Christmas because she (rightfully) figured that we needed to get out more. Neither of us had ever been to Medieval Times, let alone dinner theater, but my deep love of kitsch led me to think it might be a fun experience.
Medieval Times suggests that Lords and Ladies arrive over an hour before their scheduled tournament for yet undetermined reasons. Most visitors used the time to purchase drinks, but we used it for people watching. Going into the experience, I figured that if I were to have any critiques of the show, it would be about the historical accuracy. I don’t know why I expected myself, as a historian of 20th century American foodways, to suddenly have extensive knowledge of medieval jousting tournaments. Instead, I found myself curious, and frankly judgmental of the entire experience. As we waited for our tournament to begin, our morale dipped. We pondered:
How is that we’re all Lords? Shouldn’t some of us be peasants?
Wait, our meal comes with hummus and veggies? Is that historically accurate?
There definitely aren’t stables here, how do they take care of all of the horses? Is this humane?
Where, geographically, is this narrative taking place, anyway??
Should we duck out now? If we leave now we won’t waste food!!
Despite our judgments, we managed to stick with it and made it into the auditorium. We sat on the green side of the stadium, per our crown color, and were welcomed by our server who was very gracious and patient. We took in the scene around us, bathed in the green light of our section, as our server poured us “dragon’s blood” tomato soup out of an insulated pitcher. Photographers circulated selling souvenir portraits while we dined and watched the knights practice tricks and games.
With the green light making us feel sick, and the salty food making us feel puffy, Hugo and I were still waiting to get it. We could not figure out why Medieval Times endures as such a popular destination! And then the Queen (a big first for Medieval Times ) proclaimed the celebrations taking place at the tournament that day. She proceeded to announce dozens of birthdays (ranging from ages 3 to 90!), bridal showers, anniversaries, even rewards for good grades. As the spotlight shone on the groups celebrating I was struck by the diversity of the crowd. And the announcements just. kept. coming.
And that’s when it all made sense. Lords and Ladies aren’t attending because of the food (though the banquet preparation and service is truly impressive) or immersive yet inaccurate historical reenactments, they are spending $60+ dollars each for a community experience. An experience that allows multiple generations, tastes and preferences to come together, share a meal, be treated like royalty (or at least nobility), and take in live entertainment. Where else can people still do this? As some responses to the rise of VR and mukbang teach us, people increasingly are connecting less, especially over food, yet the hunger for a shared experience remains.
While I can’t say I left the castle with a desire to return, I did leave with a deeper understanding of how out of touch I am as a part of food discourse. There are excellent articles on how food media has missed mass food culture catalysts like AllRecipes and The Magnolia Cookbook, and this feels like another blind spot. It is natural to consider experience as a part of fine dining, yet food critics seem to largely overlook the draw of experience for non-elite types of dining.
This gap in my knowledge about the history of experiential dining piqued my interest in the history of dinner theater in the United States. While credible resources on dinner theater are few, a 1973 New York Times article by John Gruen suggests that the first American dinner theater opened in 1923 in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, although it wasn’t until the postwar period that dinner theater reached nation-wide popularity.
Gruen explains that dinner theater began to boom in the 1950s, as white Americans moved to the suburbs and urban theater districts were thought to be dangerous. Suburban restaurateurs noticed a gap in the entertainment market and began offering suburbanites accessible and affordable entertainment at their doorstep. By the 1970s, dinner theater became so popular that chains like Chateau de Ville emerged.
Gruen’s 1973 article concludes by questioning the cultural value of dinner theaters. He states:
“Perhaps the most damaging aspect of dinner theaters is their indifference to the young. There are lamentably few young people to be seen in any of them. It's a middle‐aged, Middle‐class, middle America invention, run mostly by people who wouldn't know the difference between Anouilh and ennui.”
And that’s where Medieval Times comes in. According to Mental Floss, the first Medieval Times opened in Kissimmee, Florida in 1983. This new brand of dinner theater broke through to families by locating the first locations adjacent to amusement parks and making the tournaments family-friendly. The company continued to expand throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and now has a total of 10 castles in the United States and Canada.
Just as Medieval Times was expanding its empire, affluent, mostly white Americans began to move from the suburbs back to urban areas. With this shift comes the re-emergence of urban theater districts as places for the middle and upper classes to consume culture, while suburban areas struggle to maintain local ballets, art house movie theaters and symphonies, and dinner theaters (for the most part) are long gone (for example, San Jose’s struggle to keep the city’s ballet company in business).
Medieval Times is a peculiar relic of postwar suburbanization and “white flight” that reflects camp, kitsch, mid-century white middle-class entertainment, and America’s suburban/urban cultural divide. The fact that it remains popular, especially among a culturally and economically diverse segment of American society, is a testament to the universal desire for shared dining and entertainment experiences.