In the 1960s, on the small island of Mallorca, Spain, Jose Montaner had a thriving barbeque business. So did someone else. Montaner and his rival each vied for customers, locals and visitors from the island’s tourist trade.
One day, Montaner overheard some English tourists talking about medieval fairs, and an idea occurred to him: What if he could lure more barbeque patrons by seating them in front of an indoor dinner theater with dueling knights, serving wenches, and horses?
The smell of manure may not have earned him any Michelin stars, but Montaner was on to something. By the 1980s, he and a group of investors had taken his notion and expanded it into the U.S. under the Medieval Times banner, a sprawling bit of performance art that marries the spectacle of professional wrestling with a four-course meal. While it’s never been heavily franchised—there are only nine locations in North America—the marriage of simulated chivalry and free Pepsi refills has proven to be a surprisingly effective form of entertainment.
Part of what motivated Montaner’s pursuit of what would become Medieval Times was his interest in Spanish history. He was also influenced by the 1961 movie El Cid, a drama starring Charlton Heston that featured many of the tropes meant to transport his visitors to 11th-century Spain: sword duels, castles, and galloping horses.
Montaner put on a show in Spain for years before an investment panel was gathered to bring the idea to the States. Scouts visited Orlando, Florida in 1980 and came across a prime spot of real estate in Kissimmee, just 15 minutes from Walt Disney World. By 1983, the first Medieval Times on American soil was open for business.
Then as now, the concept of “dinner theater” was not held in the highest of regard. The first stage production that served meals opened in 1953 in Richmond, Virginia, and initially kept their meals separate from their plays until audiences who drove distances to get there complained about getting hungry during the shows. After experiencing a surge of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, the idea of combining a live performance with a plated meal started to collapse. The aging actors who could provide publicity for such shows started gravitating toward television spots and commercials, where they might earn as much for one day of shooting as they did doing several weeks of stage-and-steak work.
While Montaner briefly flirted with the idea of having Heston appear at the opening of his Florida location (ultimately, the actor proved too expensive to hire), Medieval Times wasn’t dependent on marquee names. The appeal came from the idea of seeing what amounted to a live stunt show, with armored knights hoisting broad swords and ramming into one another in jousts. Their stage would be a massive sand floor; attendees could enjoy Cornish hen and cheer for one of six knights depending on which section they were seated in. In keeping with their (loose) interpretation of medieval practices, no utensils would be allowed.
Whatever stigma had been attached to dinner theater for veteran actors didn’t apply to patrons. The Kissimmee location of Medieval Times saw its attendance rise steadily, from 183,000 in 1984 to 600,000 by 1993. The investment firm opened a second location in Buena Park, California in 1986, and a third in Lyndhurst, New Jersey in 1990. The last castle in their expansion opened in Atlanta in 2006.
Initially, fight choreographers at each location were left to develop their own house style, with knights dueling using titanium swords that had been dulled and edged to create a spark. In 2000, management decreed that the moves become uniform in the event knights had to substitute for one another due to illness or, more rarely, injury. (Knighthood is largely safe, though the occasional bruised finger is not unheard of.)
The duelists appearing in the show normally start out as stable hands for the horses. (Medieval Times uses so many Andalusian, or Spanish, horses that they have their own breeding farm in Sanger, Texas.) After three to 12 months of training, they’re expected to take a physical fitness test—running one mile in under 10 minutes, performing 30 push-ups and 50 sit-ups—before taking hold of the 20 pounds of weaponry.
Although the company tends to tweak the shows slightly every four years, the narrative remains largely the same: A king will read birthday notices or offer retirement congratulations to attending parties. He’s then blackmailed by the Herald of the North, who insists on compliance or the King’s daughter will be held hostage. Six knights duel; a falcon flies over the crowd. At the climax, the winning knight plucks a female patron from the crowd and anoints her the Queen.
For this experience, tickets are typically $66, or $46 for children under 12. The price includes a four-course meal of one half-chicken, tomato bisque soup, garlic bread, and various side dishes, all served by “serfs” and “wenches.”
While the nine locations still admit roughly 2.5 million peasants annually, things have not always gone swimmingly at Medieval Times. In 1997, two locations in Buena Park and Kissimmee filed for bankruptcy after being hit with $10 million in IRS tax claims. They remained open. The company was also the subject of a 2011 lawsuit after one audience member at California's Buena Park restaurant alleged that he had been struck in the eye by a sliver of titanium. The suit was settled under undisclosed terms.
One torn retina notwithstanding, Medieval Times has remained stable in a fluctuating economy and evolving entertainment landscape. In a nod to the times, the King will often remark on smartphones and make scornful references to cyberbullying. And while it might be a departure from historical accuracy, the theme restaurant will concede to modern approaches to both hygiene and diet: Moist towelettes and vegetarian dishes are provided.