Often drenched in ’90s nostalgia, there is no place on earth quite like Medieval Times. I had been to Medieval Times — essentially Middle Ages dinner theater with horses, sword fights, and a simple meal that you eat with your hands — a few times in the ’90s, at least once on a school field trip and another time with my family. I had fond memories of the novelty of tearing apart a roasted chicken with my hands, sipping nonalcoholic daiquiris out of a fluted souvenir glass, and perhaps most importantly, wearing a crown with flowers and ribbons that streamed down my back. Medieval Times is, of course, intended to inspire this kind of awe and joy in children who actually believe that the knights are real. But as I realized a few weeks ago, going to Medieval Times as an adult fucking rules.
A few weeks ago, after hearing that a friend had never been, I rounded up a group to make the journey to the castle. The first Medieval Times location opened in Spain in 1973, and the budding chain expanded to the States a decade later with its first U.S. location in Florida. Now, there are 10 castles scattered across the United States and Canada, which have, according to the chain, hosted more than 72 million lords and ladies (read: guests) across the decades. As the show’s story — which is the same at every location — goes, guests are attending a feast at the castle of Queen Maria Isabella and are divided into color-coded cheering sections for knights that compete in the tournament, jousting their way to becoming the Queen’s champion.
As bonafide adults unleashed into the castle, our group’s first stop was, of course, the bar. In addition to flagons (okay, pint glasses) of ale (Shiner Bock, but whatever) and glasses of wine, there were also a slew of cocktails, including boozy frozen daiquiris and fruity rum punch, all of which I could now legally purchase. I only barely winced at the price of my punch and commemorative cup, which after tip was somewhere in the neighborhood of $30. Exorbitant, yes, but sometimes joy is expensive. And I could course-correct the memories of my mom slapping my hands away from crowns and swords in the merch store, because I am now a person with her own bank account and can buy as many damn flower crowns as I want.
The food, though, was somehow exactly as I remembered it as a kid: surprisingly good. Our waiter, whose countenance was more “bored stoner” than “devoted serf,” brought plastic, pewter-colored mugs filled with Pepsi or lemonade to our table, followed by bowls of tomato bisque for sipping and bread for dipping, and the main course of half of a roast chicken, half of a roasted potato, and a massive hunk of boneless pork rib. I tore into all of it with my hands, as intended. The chicken was juicy, the potato was adequately spiced, and I probably could’ve drunk another two bowls of that creamy tomato soup.
As we ate, the show began in earnest. We were introduced to Queen Maria Isabella, the first queen in Medieval Times history who began her reign in 2018 after decades of male-only leadership in the castle. A falcon swooped across the arena, squires dutifully rounded up shards of splintered lances and shoveled up horse shit as the knights battled their way to victory. Things were going well for our guy, the red and yellow knight, until it was revealed that — twist! — he was actually the bad guy who was dead-set on ending Queen Isabella’s reign. There was even a little hint of era-appropriate misogyny when our knight asked the Queen’s royal advisor if he was really going to take orders from a woman.
Fueled by watered-down booze and roasted chicken, we cheered and screamed and booed and clapped our way through the show. For anyone who ever spent any of their childhood as a Horse Girl, the Andalusian horses — guests get to tour the stables before the show — are a major part of the draw. At one point during the show, as the stallions made their majestic romps around the arena, performing intricate dressage routines, I noticed that my friend a few seats down was crying because they were so beautiful. I laughed, but I understood. At one point, it’s possible that I got carried away and called the green knight a goofy-looking loser, which wasn’t particularly sporting of me. But it was proof that even despite all my cynicism and natural ability to find misery in things that should be joyful, Medieval Times had still retained its irresistible charms. For just a couple hours on a random Tuesday, I had experienced joy by acting like a complete dork in public.
To be sure, Medieval Times is not a perfect institution. Workers at two locations — one in New Jersey, and one in California — recently filed for union elections, citing issues like unsafe working conditions and inadequate protections for harassment by guests. The squire system, in which workers can train to eventually become knights, is still only open to men in an effort to keep the show “accurate,” which seems pretty ridiculous considering that Medieval Times happily serves Pepsi and sells photos taken with newfangled digital cameras, among countless other anachronisms.
As I was leaving the castle, I watched kids run up to the knights for autographs, their faces absolutely drenched in wonder. Even though I wasn’t quite that besotted — I do, after all, know that the knights are merely actors who will hop into their Honda Civics at the end of the night — there’s no denying that this trip to Medieval Times brought a little bit of magic back into my own cold, black heart.