Being Transported Back to the Times

It was the first weekend in December 2021, and for the second time in a calendar year, Paris and I were walking through the parking lot of Medieval Times on our way to a matinee show.

“We were just here,” I said, but he reminded me it had been months earlier. But was “months earlier” in Medieval Times time actually that long ago?

“You think there are people who come here a lot?” I asked. “Like frequent flyers?”

“I’m sure,” he said. “The staff probably recognizes them.”

“I bet you can’t miss them,” I said. “You’d notice repeat offenders. This place is more of a once-a-year kind of deal.”

“Unless you’re us,” he said.

Medieval Times: Dinner and Tournament isn’t normally the type of place you’d go to more than once, at least not this close together. It’s a place for birthdays, field trips, company outings, and, yes, anniversaries.

We came in July for our friend’s 35th birthday. The vibe of our group that day fell somewhere between nostalgic and snarky. We came to enjoy the camp, though a bit ironically, and to revel in the nostalgia.

This second trip, my attitude had veered beyond nostalgia and fell directly into snarky disdain. I was not there to get into the show. I was there neither to hoot nor holler. Looking around that clear Sunday afternoon in December as we walked past the putrid green pond stocked full of listless orange fish, flanked on all sides by happy families snapping selfies with the castle, I realized we were in the minority. By a lot. They were all there to hoot, to holler, and to journey back to a simpler era where forks didn’t exist (except they did…)

My mom had requested the trip so she could share the experience with her only grandchild, my four-year-old niece, Sydney. Mom was firmly in the nostalgia camp, though in our family, it is impossible to experience anything without at least a pinch of snark involved.

Back in the mid-1990s when we first traveled to the castle on the interstate, our intentions were pure — much like the crowds we found ourselves surrounded by this day. Back then, we bought the schtick whole hog. We wore our crowns and scarfed our chicken by hand without comments, paying no mind to the others in the crowds around us.

Now, navigating a crowded lobby on a Sunday afternoon in our thirties, forties, and sixties, respectively, the people around us were almost all we noticed. Though there was a posted mask mandate, nobody around us wore masks.

“There’s nothing more on brand than spreading a plague,” I told Paris.

We waited for the show to begin beside an armory, a glass and wood countertop lined with red velvet where a wench was selling swords.

“Who buys a sword or full suit of armor?” my mom asked. “How do you get it home?”

“Did you see the guy in the Stetson with the crown on top of his cowboy hat?” my brother-in-law, Aaron, asked.

“Dedication,” I said.

“Shhhh,” Sydney said, commanding us to pay attention as the announcer took his spot on the balcony.

She was staring up at a man in black velvet robes accented with gold piping. He stood poised against the railing, ready to address the crowd below him. His red hair parted down the middle did little to hide the headset microphone through which he spoke. His British-ish accent boomed across the crowd and drew our attention.

“Lords and Ladies,” he began then asked if we were ready for the dinner AND tournament. The crowd gave a half-hearted “woo.” He doubled down.

“Are you ready?” he boomed, pausing for effect between each word. The crowd stood at attention and gave him a more satisfactory “woo.”

“Before we begin, I have a few announcements,” he said then began the near-impossible task of directing a crowd, in a British accent, while making sense, and also maintaining character.

The need for crowd control stemmed from our assigned seats. Customers are supposed to sit in sections separated by color. The announcer clarified that there was a red section, a yellow section, and a red AND yellow section, but that we shouldn’t confuse the three. Just like with the fork thing, I guess they only had five colors back then so they had to mix and match. We followed the arrows and signs around the arena to our place in the solid red section.

With the lights up, we could take stock of who else filled the seats that day. The Venn diagram of the type of folks that come to Medieval Times is a solid circle with those who slurp signature cocktails from the souvenir cups at a Margaritaville on vacation. Nearly every table I glanced at, it was easy to mentally replace whatever they were wearing with T-shirts that read HARD ROCK CAFE — BRANSON, MISSOURI.

Row after row was filled with rhinestone-encrusted jeans and leather cowboy boots. I even saw one man in a pair of dirty jean overalls who was a piece of straw in his mouth away from being a living cartoon character.

Don’t these people have horses at home? I thought.

Soon, fog filled the arena and our red-headed announcer was back. He galloped to the center of the sandy floor on his horse and explained that we would see a tournament the purpose of which was to find a champion to become protector of the realm. The queen emerged and addressed the crowd, flanked on one side by a “councilor” called Cedric, who we joked was a total simp for her.

One by one, the knights rode out on their mighty steeds. And one by one my family had comments to make. The black and white knight was deemed to look “Beetlejuice as hell.” The yellow knight looked like a soccer dad. The blue knight, with his slick ponytail, had clearly been born for this. Our red knight, my brother-in-law noticed, looked like the gigolo from the film Deuce Bigalow.

With the announcement of each knight, the audience members waved their souvenir flags and screamed for their guy. What happened down in that sand pit really seemed to matter to these people. The ponytailed stranger on a horse was not just a person but became their person, just by virtue of the color of his cloaks.

The queen, Doña Maria Isabella, was an elegant woman in her early thirties, with long, dark curls. She addressed the crowd using an English accent that sounded like it made a pit stop in Prohibition New York on its way to the castle that day. I looked at the signs above each section. The names were all of areas in Spain, not England (or the five boroughs either). None of it added up.

I snarked on the actors’ accents to Paris and commented on their stiff-sounding script and corny jokes, which hadn’t changed since July. I got pretty good at doing an impression of the queen. Soon, our serf came to bring us ye olde Pepsi and piña coladas.

“The classic drink of the era,” I said, lifting the souvenir plastic cup to my lips.

I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the pageantry and drama that began the show. Early on, during some of the horse dancing, I got up to use the restroom. When I got back in the arena and began heading down toward my seat, I heard a warning from the announcer, “Do not distract her and please stay in your seats.”

I looked down toward the sand pit and saw a woman with a falcon on her arm. She swung a treat up in the air, and the bird took flight.

“I repeat — remain seated for your own safety,” the announcer said. “This is a bird of prey.”

I had to decide whether I wanted to run down toward my seat and risk a falcon to the head, or stand where I was and risk a falcon to the head.

I hurried down the stairs, at once afraid of the bird and also aware of my movement in opposition to the clear instruction we’d all just been given. I caught eyes with Cedric the queen’s simp. I saw through his accent and corny jokes and felt the pity of a man who dresses in velvet robes for a living.

The hell are you doing? his eyes seemed to say.

I gave a small shrug and ducked down as I made it back to my seat in time for the bird to return to its trainer’s arm.

I leaned forward to look past my sister and fixed my eyes on my niece. She was sitting on the edge of her seat, her chin propped on the table, eyes glued to the bird.

Once the tournament began, she was even more entranced. The spotlights turned down low, the strobe lights in full force, she shoved rotisserie chicken into her mouth and barely blinked as the men jousted, tussled, and jumped from their galloping horses. With each event, I watched her cheer and gasp and laugh.

Watching her watch the show, I got wrapped up in it, too. I cheered and booed and waved my flag. With each passing event, it became very important to me that the red knight win.

Come on, Gigolo, I thought to myself as he sped head long into another knight. Win it for us.

Safe in the dark of the arena, I knew no one could see me cheering. No one could judge. In that moment, the arena thick with artificial fog and scored by a booming soundtrack, we were all united in a singular purpose. It was printed right there on the paper napkins: dinner AND tournament.

After the jousting, the knights engaged in hand-to-hand combat. At one point, the action stopped, and the announcer asked the crowd whether the knights should fight to the death. The crowd roared, but the queen stopped us. She spoke of honor, of valor, of bravery. She told us only she could determine whether knights could fight to the death. And then she told them to go for it. We all screamed.

Our own red knight faced off against Beetlejuice — the black and white knight. As they exchanged blows, I called out.

“Go for the throat!”

“Don’t say that,” Sydney told me, worried for both men’s safety.

Nonetheless, our knight heeded my advice. He went for the throat and emerged victorious. Our section went wild.

After the show, I waited in a mile-long line for the ladies room. A woman behind me couldn’t stop talking about the show. She was in her mid-sixties. Her voice was husky, and her thick accent placed her home somewhere far outside the city limits.

“Don’t matter who the winner was,” she said. “There wasn’t nobody better than the green knight. I bet he’ll be walking on air for days.” She was speaking to her mother, an even more shrunken woman in her eighties.

“What a job,” the mother said.

“Going to work for an ego boost,” the husky voiced woman said with a laugh. “Can you imagine?” Then she said it again, “Yep, don’t matter who they said won. The green knight — he was the best.”

She was wrong though. It did matter who they said won. That’s the point of a tournament. There was someone better than the green knight. It was the red knight. Our knight. The one who won.

I secured my red paper crown on my head and patted the red flag sticking out of my purse. I navigated past her on the way to the sink.

“Excuse me,” I said. Then finished the sentence silently, Winner coming through.

***

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Heather McKinney

Heather McKinney

writer • comedian • real life lawyer • co-host of Sinisterhood