Medieval Times, Schaumburg, IL
Rosie, Mace Vindaloo, Dancing Queen, Fluffy, HappyShinyBugBoy, Pika-So
Illustrated with photographs by Mace Vindaloo and Rosie, and from medievaltimes.com
After the excitement of the end-of-year holidays, January and February seem so ... blah. Yeah, there are some national holidays sprinkled in there and even Valentine's Day for a bit of adventure in the form of romance too, but they are so unfestive, almost too educational and functional and small compared to the revelry of the past months. And it's so cold and wintery, the daylight hours are so short, we're so tired of it all, and everyone resorts to whining and sniffling. What to do? Going somewhere warm would be nice, but there are the realities of bloated holiday bodies, shortage of funds (post-holiday trauma!), school, and no vacation time. What we need is a holiday getaway, but it should be not too far way, not too expensive and good value for money, and BIG on fun. While we're at it, how about a little romance, too?
One of us was watching television one night and came upon a program that featured dinner places "with a difference." The Huttite caught a glimpse of knights on horses riding fast and threading their lance with rings held on a pole in a Middle Ages style tournament skills competition. Now, this was interesting! We are all Lord of the Rings fans, and though the Peter Jackson films were magnificent, we were kind of disappointed when Return of the King came out. That meant no more movies on that story arc! But this seemed like a possibly fun way to fill the withdrawal from LOTR hype ... the Huttite even described it as "shortly after LOTR, at the start of the Age of Man." What an intriging way to chase out the winter blues! Bookings were made and we hopped in the car for a three-hour tour! (Well, four hours, actually, but now I'm humming the theme song from Gilligan's Island ... but I'm digressing ...)
We initially thought this could be a Wookieehut "noshery review," but it turned out to be much more than a place to merely have dinner. True, they have a "Medieval-style menu" and they feature no cutlery (when asked for a fork and spoon, the serving wench held up her two hands ... as Janeane Garofalo said in the movie Cable Guy, "There was no silverware in medieval times. Thus, there is no silverware at "Medieval Times.") and foods that one could imagine existed all those years ago. The menu includes Garlic Bread, Vegetable Soup, Roasted Chicken, Spare Rib, Herb-Basted Potato, "Pastry of the Castle" (apple strudel), Beverage (soft drinks or booze from the bar -- one of us had a banana dacquiri, another had a margarita) in a souvenir cup shaped like a horse's head! Not exactly medieval, but then again, LOTR didn't observe harsh historical reality either.
The bigger part of the experience was the entertainment and atmosphere of the place. We stayed at a nearby hotel because they had a package deal which included room and tickets to Medieval Times. The concierge there advised us to get ye to the show earlye! The crowd is heavy on a weekend; the show starts at 7pm. We got there at 5:30pm and there was already a big crowd lined up to get into the castle.
Yes, a castle! Right in the middle of suburbia! Promptly at 5:30, a court page came to the door to greet everyone and to direct the guests to the proper lines -- the crowd was sorted by color, which matched the seating area you'd be cheering from, as well as the color of the knight who was your representative and champion. There are six sections/colors in all, each representing a kingdom in Spain. Those who were early enough could opt for a "royal upgrade" which not only got us paper crowns, banners, and souvenir programs, but it also got us front-row seats in the arena.
The place is big -- 85,000 square feet, and it seats up to 1500 people. It costs $33 for kids and $48 for adults, plus $8 for the upgrades per person. You might think this is pricy, especially for a whole family, but it does include food AND the fabulous entertainment! (That makes it a little like a cruiseship.)
Horsemen arrive on Andalusians, which live in stables by the castle and are trained by experts in dressage. The knight and pages undergo an apprenticeship and learn all manner of swordsmanship, jousting, riding, etc. AND staying in character. The show starts with a demonstration of the horse and horsemen's skills.
This is not a random demonstration, it really is part of a scripted show. There is an ongoing story, which is narrated and moved along by the jester/MC. In this show, a King returns from battle. He is sad, because his son had fought and died, and now there is no longer an heir to the throne. Tradition dictates that the King must choose an heir among his courtiers; unwilling to favor any one of them, he creates a tournament so they can compete for the inheritence of the kingdom. Six knights with their own territories dare to compete, and they undergo tests in jousting, delicacy and prowess, javelin/spear hurling, all from a galloping steed, and eventually they all undergo hand-to-hand combat "to the death."
The King's master swordsman has organized the competition and seems to control it's outcomes; alas there is a twist to this tale -- he was the one who murdered the prince! He's the one who alters the "haha, I win!" sword fights into a "to the death" match between the knights. Like LOTR's Wormtongue, he is eliminating his competition. Not having his own estate to represent, he is one of the King's men, and thus is not allowed to compete.
When the final knight kills his foe and kneels to receive his prize, the master swordsman shows his hand and kills the knight. The first pair of knights to fight did so without the intent to kill; thus the loser of the first battle is still alive when this twist happens. He jumps into the arena and challenges the master swordsman ... will he win?
The audience really got into the show! There was a lot of applause, groans of disappointment when knights fell, cheering, heckling, screaming, and gasps of surprise. Some people even cried -- the performances were very good and maybe too realistic for some ... but it was all fun.
Here's another good reason to pay the premium to get in the front row! The knights give out flowers and banners and request that you champion them as their "Yellow Knight's Queen of Love and Beauty" or "Red Knight's Princess of Patience and Virtue." They tend to choose the youngest girls -- a big thrill! And it helps that all the knights are handsome in a variety of ways. It's a great way for the performers to emotionally bond with the audience -- it makes the cheering louder and longer, if such a thing was possible.
It's also pretty hard-core, in that the actors and horses really put their energy into it. To prevent injury, nets are raised during the tests and fights to protect the audience -- bit like going to a car race or hockey game, only with horses and swords. Jousting lances shatter, dust from the arena flies up and forms clouds; the hand to hand combat is loud and the metal swords even spark on contact! They use maces, axes, longswords -- it's a good thing they practice a lot.
And throughout, serving wenches and pages came by with big trenchers of food and "ale" and would drop a lump of meat or something onto your plate. As noted previously, don't ask for cutlery ... in character, they will look at you as if you were mad. Or worse.
If you misbehave, there is always the Dungeon ... it's really a museum of Medieval era torture devices. Some are funny, like the "shaming masks" usually used on gossipy or talkative women and shaped like animal heads, which were merely humiliating. Others were creepy and made you wonder how humans would 1) want to do these things to another human and 2) what kind of sickos would even think this up. Instruments of torture to draw out confessions, or to simply kill someone in a slow and painful manner were all there, complete with descriptions and diagrams. It's bad enough to want to punish someone for a crime, but these are not dinnertime entertainment for modern suburban Americans! So if you are squeamish or have young children, you might want to skip the dungeons unless you like inciting screaming nightmares ...
A surreal/weird note -- as if to dispell the really frightening aspects of the very existance of these torture devices, they are not displayed in a dank, rotting, black-walled, rat-infested subterranean tunnel/catacomb, which would have made these really authentic. But this place is not looking to be a creepy haunted house; they fancy themselves on a more educational and entertainment plane, so they display these in a climate-controlled room with proper walls and ceilings (albeit a rougher plastering job rather than jib board) that are painted PINK! (You remember those odd psychology studies where they "proved" that pink rooms would curb aggression? The "soothing power of pink" ... "think pink" ... "surrender the pink" ...)
You could also visit the stables. The horses are clearly viewable behind thick glass to prevent the noise of visitors from spooking the beasts, and to keep objects or small children from being inserted into the enclosures. The horses are highly trained and very valuable. They range from show horses to strong chargers which could carry a man and the heavy equipment for the sports performed in the arena. The Andalusians are actually bred and trained completely by the restaurant chain at a location in Texas. The foals are born there, then are trained from birth for performance, before being sent to one of seven Medieval Times locations at the age of three for advanced training. This way, the horses are familiar with humans and grow close to their trainers and locations. The group claims they are active in the preservation of this breed, which they prefer for a variety of reasons: temperament, strength, intelligence, beauty among them. Seeing these creatures perform is a real treat, and very nice compared to the garishness of your typical circus -- the only other place they might be seen in an entertainment context. (What happens when the horses let loose in the arena? Pages and apprentices run forward and clean it up immediately, of course.)
There are many gift shops and bars within the waiting area where the crowd milled about before entering the arena. You can buy reproductions of the swords you see in battle, or other fantasy costumes and gear. They sell a large selection of LOTR-licensed products, including "Sting," "Glamdring," "Anduril," a chess set, goblets, as well as suits of armor from other story arcs, etc. They are pricy, so try to keep your head when you are in there -- it's easy to get carried away and pay the $300+ for a sword sans scabbard. (What would you do with such an object anyway?)
After the show, the knights, ladies, and all the characters assemble in the waiting area to greet all the guests, and will sign autographs and pose for photos upon request. They will also answer questions about their training, and they will stay totally in character. (They must've had digital cameras in those days, even if they ate with their hands. They never asked what we were pointing at them ...)
There is also a nightclub complete with modern dancefloor and discoball for afterwards. After being immersed in "medievalana," it was oddly jolting to come across a discoball! One could imagine knights and ladies boogying down, John Travolta-style, but we hope they didn't.
The performers were very nice; it was obvious they thought they had the greatest jobs in the world. The show was professionally and well produced. The food was pretty good also, even though they meant it when they said, "spare rib" -- it really was just one single rib. And the soup was tepid because all the heat from it transferred into the pewter two-handled bowl -- you couldn't not pick up the bowl to drink the soup and your lips would be seared onto the metal if you tried (one of us did try ... it was painful but rather funny). And as noted before, the food itself was not authentic -- it was more the fantasy interpretation of what food back them might have been. But let's face it, if the food was really authentic, it would suck. This food didn't suck at all (other than the careful slurping needed of the soup -- no spoons, after all).
All in all, it was a wonderful two hours, including show and dinner. The 1½ hours waiting beforehand was well-spent checking out the dungeon, the horses, and the many gift shops. We saw people buying a lot, so the restaurant chain was obviously doing something right. In addition, we overheard people telling each other of "the last time I came here," -- repeat visitors are a good indication of a good place.
The only negative aspect was the very heavy emphasis on buying stuff. Not only were there multiple gift shops and a bar (counting the "sword shop"!), but shutterbugs would show up and take your group's photo in front of a depiction of a map mural. Then during dinner, they'd show you these and allow you to purchase them. Then they'd take another photo during dinner, and let you buy that, too. You don't have to buy any, but like cruise ships and casinos, they do a good job of pursuading you to do so. So if you're on a budget, just remember that you are totally free to say, "No, thank you," and enjoy the show.
On the plus side, Medieval Times also offers group discounts mid-week as educational or group packages, and will also travel to your venue -- for a fee! -- to perform their show or a custom show for your event. We found out that they even do weddings, like the Star Wars stormtrooper units in some cities. Combining those two sets of soldiers might be an amusing time. Who would you bet on in a stormtroopers vs. knights rumble? (Hey, you do remember that stormtroopers can't hit anything! And their speederbikes are incapacitated easily by Ewoks. We bet the knights would do some serious smiting in that situation. However, if Uruk-Hai are involved, all bets are off!)
Medieval Times creates new shows every few months (new shows are announced on the website), so it's worth going more than once if you have family or friends who are really into those re-enactments. The nice thing about this place is that you can choose the level of your involvement. It's not high "manditory involvement," like many "renaissance fairs" can be, and those tend to be filled with amateurs and wannabes. You can choose to simply sit back and watch the show, or you can get right into the thick of the performers after the show. And like a football game, you can choose to cheer and jeer as the story unfolds, or just concentrate on your food and bevvies. These people do it right and as authentically as is practical. Go see a show or two, and be sure to check out hotel, Chamber of Commerce, and promotional booklets, newspapers, and magazines for coupons, packages, discounts and special deals. The website occasionally has special deals, too (that's how we found the hotel and show deal).
Our winter blues were indeed dispelled. Not only did we travel in distance, but also in time! Our knight didn't win the tournament, but we did have a great time, and we have crowns and banners to wave. Hey, that's an idea -- let's do a Medieval Times dinner party! We can give out crowns and organize spectator chess and checkers games as a tournament competition! We can make roasts and plop the meat directly on the table and eat with our hands! Or we can dress up and strike poses with artful lighting. Or we can go to Medieval Times again!
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