While I had a great time at Medieval Times celebrating my 13th birthday more than 20 years ago, and again celebrating my son's 10th last weekend, I now understand why my parents took me there exactly once as a child. There was a specific moment that drove home the realization that this was not going to become an annual birthday tradition. My wife asked some wench or squire if the "Lord Chancellor," a sort of olde-time royal hype man, could announce Lyle's birthday.
"Sure. That'll be $10.83."
That's not the price during the show, mind you, but afterward, while guests are filing out of the castle or milling about looking at $250 replica swords. She passed. Yeah, the place is a fun place to have a party, but it extracts money from customers with all the grim efficiency of a breast ripper or head crusher coercing information or confession from victims. Those two implements of agony, along with dozens of others, are on display for your pre-meal enjoyment in the Torture Museum, a walk through which costs an extra $2.
The Torture Museum proved to be a surprisingly educational part of the Medieval Times experience. The dinner-and-show itself was roughly as informative about life during the Middle Ages as a trip to Six Flags over Texas is about state history. Hopefully the "educational matinees" offered on Fridays offer more guided learning than the weekend shows. Otherwise, the most vivid (and arguably the most important) thing your average school kid will remember about the trip will be that human beings can do some really wicked, sick things to each other. The Pear is the stuff of nightmares. And the second you start to wonder why the hell a restaurant would have on display such stomach-turning devices and descriptions for customers about to tear apart chicken and beef ribs with their bare hands, just remind yourself that you're the one who not only stood in line to tour a chamber clearly marked "Torture Museum" but paid $2 to do so.
The upgrades and add-ons start the moment you buy the tickets and don't end until you're traversing the faux drawbridge back to the parking lot. Want to ensure better seats? Ten bucks more per person. Here for a special occasion? Get the Celebration Package, which ensures better seats and includes a cheering banner, group photo, behind-the-scenes DVD and a slice of cake for just $16. No, that's $16 per person. Better be some outstanding cake if it adds $64 to the bill of a party of four. Or maybe there's some dressing-room footage of Princess Catalina in the DVD. Even after signing up for a membership to some coupon site and getting about 40 percent off admission, the baseline experience before booze and tips was nearly $160 for the four of us.
But the shameless upselling is mostly forgotten when the show begins. The premise is that King Don Carlos and the fetching Princess Catalina have invited the guests to enjoy a feast with his knights competing in a tournament as the evening's entertainment. Before the competition, a horse trainer leads four white horses in a display of choreographed prancing and a falcolner swings around a stuffed rodent on a cord, as his bird of prey swoops through the arena until it finally catches the toy. This, we are told, is the "sport of kings." The falcolner had uncomfortably mingled with diners before the show, woodenly cautioning against anthropomorphizing the bird. "It would just be looking for prey if I took the hood off," he said. "It doesn't want to be around people. It's antisocial. It doesn't have human emotions." The subtext was clear: "And neither do I."
Next, the knights were grandiosely introduced, with the chancellor tossing out lines like "From which well is bravery drawn? None can say." They warmed up with some horseback games -- racing to grab flags, throwing lances at a target, jousting at a hanging ring and a relay race -- before getting to what everyone really wanted to see: combat.
Guests are seated in six different colored sections and are to root for their respective knight, with the three sections on each side of the arena allied as a team. The one-on-one fights begin as jousting matches, and once one of the knights takes a dive off his horse, they battle with maces, swords, bolas (those spiked-balls-on-chains) and axes. The choreography was pretty impressive, with all the drama and realism of a pro-wrestling match. A knight would be on his back, surely doomed, when he'd have one last burst of strength, kick off his opponent and strike back with a winning blow! Another would have his weapon knocked out of his hand, facing a certain loss when his squire would rush in with a replacement sword just in the nick of time! No blood or gore, but I'll be damned if we weren't all holding our breath to see if our knight would get back onto his feet and roaring our approval when he did.
Between bouts, the knight actors -- most of them handsome in a sort of harlequin romance cover-model way -- would kiss carnations and then throw them up to the females in the audience, including my 14-year-old daughter, who laughed at the cocky display of gallantry but nonetheless got out of her seat and walked over to retrieve the flower when she flubbed the catch. Later she said that was her favorite moment of the night.
There was something of a plot involving Catalina being engaged and a visitor from the Northern Realm making some ominously vague threats, and a final showdown that could be unexpected to anyone who has never read or watched a work of fiction, so I won't spoil the show with too many details. Evidently, the plot doesn't change very frequently, as recent billboards promoting an all-new show seem to indicate that a change in the storyline is a monumental event.
Lyle, the birthday boy, loved it. Needless to say, he liked the jousting and subsequent hand-to-hand combat the best part of the show, and found the Torture Museum equally fascinating and disturbing. On a scale from 1 to 10, he gave it a 9.99, faulting the horse show as the only boring part.
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"The horse show, I didn't really like that much, but the falcon was pretty cool," he said.
Naturally, they loved eating with their hands, as well. Both enjoyed the "falcon" (roast chicken), "dragon blood" (tomato bisque) and "dragon claws" (potato wedges). Iris, who days later still keeps her carnation in a souvenir plastic knight's-helmet-shaped Pepsi cup as a vase, gave it a more modest 9.5 out of 10.
The whole experience takes place in a fantasy world, a world where 10th-century Spanish royalty speak in modern English accents, where warriors clash beneath supernatural lightning and shrouded in mystic fog, where there are not only good guys and bad guys but clear delineations between them, and the Princess is truly the fairest in the land. It's an appealing fantasy, and pure escapism is seldom cheap. That's a storyline that will never change.