To most people, Medieval Times is a a campy take on dinner theatre where you get to wear cardboard crowns, ogle wenches, and eat with your hands. Turns out it’s actually one of the most disciplined workplaces around.
“SUCK IT, YELLOW!” bellows the guy to my right, pounding his fists on the table. Below us, in a pit of trampled sand deep enough to engulf a grown man’s feet, a knight in leggings, boots, and an ochre caftan takes a spill, rolling over the shards of his own shattered weapon. His horse, sporting a matching outfit, gallops off at top speed. “Yeeeaaaah!” My dining companion turns to face me. “Red rules!” Oh, wait. I’m shouting, too. “RED RULES!” I’m never on the winning sports team. Yet here I am, wearing the colour of victory as a flimsy crown on my head.
Until you’ve witnessed it, it’s hard to grasp how compelling two guys in primary-coloured tunics can be, especially when they’re wielding plywood lances as they rush at each other on horseback. (And especially after you’ve downed a bottle of wine beside hordes of rowdy strangers.) But when the house lights are low and the strains of a John Williams–esque score swell and you’ve just craned your neck to watch a goddamn falcon soar in wide arcs overhead before she hears the call of her falconer and swoops in to settle on his outstretched glove, well, it’s hard not to succumb to the garish ceremony of Medieval Times.
Scoff if you’d like—I thought I knew better, too. Then, at the age of 30, I found myself eagerly tearing apart vegetables and hummus with my hands—Medieval Times may adhere to a period-appropriate anti-cutlery policy, but it has evolved enough to embrace vegans—and cheering myself hoarse. For me, and for millions of others, this campy cross between Wrestlemania, Game of Thrones, and the Royal Winter Fair taps into something primal and ecstatic. How on earth does something so fake feel so real?
Popular culture has not been particularly kind to Medieval Times. We tend to regard it as a kind of baroque punchline: a kitschy tourist trap, a place for grade four classes to visit during their Middle Ages units, or entertainment for nerds who get off on wearing cardboard hats. For twenty- and thirtysomethings, perhaps our strongest impression of the chain comes from the 1996 Jim Carrey film, The Cable Guy, in which Carrey and Matthew Broderick don armour and knightly colours and step into the ring for a battle royale.
For all its 11th-century posturing, Medieval Times is very much a millennial phenomenon, at least in North America. Although the empire was founded in Spain in 1973, the first outpost on this side of the Atlantic opened 10 years later in Kissimmee, Florida—spitting distance from Orlando and home to the Houston Astros’ spring-training camp. Since then, eight other castles have sprung up on strategically chosen sites, almost all of them in the U.S. Toronto’s Medieval Times is the only Canadian location and the only iteration that’s based in a true heritage building: the early–20th century Arts and Crafts building at Exhibition Place. (The others are housed in replica castles modelled on Spanish palaces, in keeping with the company’s “lineage.”)
As it turns out, the current director of show for all Medieval Times locations, Leigh Cordner, hails from Toronto. He’s launched many castles, he says, but ours is especially close to his heart. It was also a good fit for the Medieval Times M.O.—especially 20 years ago, when it opened. “In 1993, Toronto was a much better tourist and travel destination than it became after 9/11 and SARS,” he says over the phone from the company’s headquarters in Florida. “We were looking for cities with a wide population base. And Toronto was a big convention city. The nature of our show is that we require a lot of fresh meat—this isn’t a thing you go to once a month.”
Since it opened, our local castle has hosted over 4.5 million guests. Combined attendance for all nine North American castles is about 60 million visitors; Cordner admits that it can be harder to sell Medieval Times in Toronto. Audiences here are more “sophisticated,” he says: “I don’t want to dis any city, but it’s not like, say, Myrtle Beach. You have to work a lot harder when there are 6,000 places to go on a given night, rather than just six.”
Unsurprisingly, Medieval Times is a popular trope in Reddit’s Ask Me Anything threads; former knights, peasants, photographers, and even a Toronto-based wench have surfaced. With few exceptions, their posts allude to racy behind-the-castle-walls action that would elicit a fist-pump from Caligula. “Women LOVE horses,” wrote one ex-knight from the Buena Park, California, location. “They see you on a horse, and it doesn’t matter what else you have going on. You’re in. At the bar upstairs (the KNIGHT CLUB), after the show, it’s open season.”
When I ask Alex Willis, a 20-year-old knight at the Toronto location, whether the ladies really do like a man on horseback, he blushes. Willis is known as “Puffy,” among his knight brethren—on his first day in the castle, horse allergies made his eyes swell up, and an embarrassing nickname was born. He insists the backstage orgy rumours aren’t true. “When we take the job, we have to sign an agreement stating that we will not fraternize with people inside the castle,” he says, adding that most people stick to it.
According to head knight Sean Delaney, who joined Medieval Times nine years ago, it’s only in the past half-decade that the non-fraternization agreement has been effective. “We’ve undergone a renaissance in terms of the types of people who work here,” he says. “In the past, Medieval Times employed all kinds of characters; now, we try to hire people with a stunt or martial arts or theatre background. They tend to be more disciplined in their personal lives.”
Cordner, who’s been with the organization for 26 years—he’s just one of many castle lifers; his creative partner, stunt choreographer Tim Baker, came to Medieval Times three decades ago—says the company as a whole has grown up. “When I started, there was just the one place in Florida and another in California. Those two locations were open 365 days a year, and we’d do 600 shows. We’d be at the castle seven days a week and wouldn’t leave till after 11 at night. You’d get off the horse and be keyed up and ready to go while the rest of the world was asleep—and so were the other hundred people you worked with. Now, the core people in the company are older and focused on the show’s success, rather than their own.”
Today, he’s the guy who writes and directs the entire spectacle—the king’s speech, the princess’s pleas, the knights’ quests, the ensuing melée in the centre of the arena—which is the same whether you’re in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, or Schaumburg, Illinois. Though he talks about the show with artistic reverence, describing the elaborate score (“recorded by orchestras in Prague or Kiev”), the outfits (“made by our costume shop in Dallas”), and the custom armour, Cordner’s really in the business of creating an entertainment commodity.
To that end, he and his team keep putting more and more into a production that’s essentially a live-action, Arthurian version of Super Mario, spending millions to upgrade the lighting and technology in all their locations. “We know we’re not going to move to Cirque du Soleil level,” he says, “but we can look like it.” And judging from their training regimen, they can act like it, too.
“Our goal is interchangeability,” Cordner says, rather proudly. “If they’re short in Toronto, we can fly a guy in from Dallas or Jersey, and when he gets in, he can do the job that night. Our horses are trained in exactly the same way, all the music cues, the sword fights, the light shows are the same. If we didn’t have that, it’d be frustrating all of the times you’re down a knight—you can’t make one overnight.”
Here, then, is how you make a knight.
On a sunny Wednesday morning in mid-September, a group of twentysomething guys go through their paces in the sand. Nearly all of them have longish hair, neatly pulled back in ponytails or man-buns, and every one wears tall black boots, tight black pants, and a black t-shirt with “GET MEDIEVAL” in a pop-Gothic typeface on the front and a surname (Willis, Melowsky, MacPhee) on the back. They’d resemble a metalhead roadie football team, if not for the fact that each one is carrying a riding crop and leading a majestic Andalusian horse through a series of choreographed steps.
“Nice and quiet! Nice and quiet!” calls Christian Garcia, a wiry man, who looks and sounds like a cross between Cesar Millan and Antonio Banderas. He approaches one of the guys, whose noble steed has reared up on its hind legs. “Don’t show him the whip! He don’t wanna fight. He just try to be a good boy and anticipate on the cue.” Clucking and whistling, Garcia, who trains all of the show’s stallions—Medieval Times is the largest breeder of Andalusians in North America—calms the horse as he leads it away.
This all happens in the same arena that serves as the stage for the grand show. Without the soundtrack and the ceremony, the huge, windowless space seems dank and shabby. You can see the faded black curtains at the top of every section, the chips and gouges in the wood-grain Formica of the tables that ring the room, the trompe l’oeil weapons. The odour of spilled, sour beer, yeasty and fetid, overpowers even the pungent smell of horses. This is where, day after day, the crew of 12 knights and eight squires (a.k.a. knights-in-training) go through hours of intensive training—not just pony tricks with the Andalusians, but riding in procession, jousting and duels on horseback, and hand-to-hand combat.
Many aspiring knights, it seems, find the castle through Kijiji. “Puffy” Willis, who started his tenure in February 2012, was working in construction when he happened upon an ad. He’s sweet and courteous, and, despite his horse allergy, has persevered (with the help of Benadryl) in his quest for knighthood. During the first week, he tells me, a squire is stuck in the stables; after that, he starts training in earnest, absorbing many things osmotically, by observing older and more experienced knights.
After he tacks up his horse, Willis checks in with head knight Delaney, who gives him leave to take his break later than expected. There’s a palpable air of order and formality here: no goofing around, no meandering, no “can you handle my broadsword” jokes, which seems unusual for a space dominated by young men doing such physical work in such close proximity. To be fair, I’m an outside observer inside the castle, which doesn’t get a ton of visitors when the show’s not on. Still, there’s a militaristic tautness to the structure of their days and the tenor of their activities, and Delaney takes his job seriously.
“It’s my responsibility to set the tone,” he says. Delaney assumed his current role six years ago, after his two predecessors were let go for behaviour that didn’t conform to the Medieval Times code of conduct. His background is in theatre, and he’s studied martial arts his whole life. Delaney’s training means he sometimes does freelance stunt fighting for film and TV, and he’d like to do more of that, but his long-term goals still fall within the Medieval Times empire. He wouldn’t mind taking on more managerial duties (as it stands, he manages all the knights and oversees the care of the horses), or becoming the Master of Horse, were Garcia to move on.
He’s not alone in his fervent devotion. Medieval Times breeds loyalty and longevity, from executives like Cordner, heading into their third decade with the organization, to squire-types like Willis, who has no plans to leave. As he says, “I want to keep doing it till there’s nothing left to learn.”
Medieval Times is in need of a king. This is why I’m here. Not to audition, sadly—the castle demands a male head of state—but because I’m curious about how one might find a monarch within spitting distance of Parkdale.
I watch Bruce, an affable, stubbly fellow, deliver his best take on His Majesty’s introductory monologue. Pacing in circles on the floor outside the main arena, beside shuttered kiosks that sell beer in glowing branded steins and exorbitantly priced cone-shaped princess hats, Bruce bellows his lines in a Scottish brogue.
After he’s done, Bruce wanders over to chat. He discovered the try-outs through Craigslist and decided to give it a shot because, hey, he only lives about 10 minutes away. He’s been in a few summer plays, for fun, but most of the time, he works hauling kegs for a beer company. He opted to be a Scottish royal, he says, because he didn’t want to sound like a hoser—“I’m not gonna be a king from Toronto!”—but his British accent is shaky.
I ask whether he hopes this will help him score future acting opportunities and he shakes his head. “Nah,” he says. “I like this because I’d get to keep my regular job. And who wouldn’t want to be king, right?”
Well, sure, Bruce: Who wouldn’t want to bask in the screaming adulation of hundreds night after night? Who wouldn’t want to have the power to trigger a duel with the flick of a wrist? But the job of a ruler isn’t all fanfare and regal proclamations. Sure, it may look like horseback rides and playacting, but even here—especially here—the work is immersive; you can’t just waltz in and out between shifts. So you may want to be that guy, Bruce, but I just don’t know if you’re fit to be king. Being stuck in the Middle Ages is a full-time gig.
A crowd favourite, the tomato bisque (or “dragon’s blood,” as it’s described by the serving wenches) is prepared fresh in the Medieval Times scullery every day. Planning on hosting your own mass gathering and wondering what it takes to feed an army? Here’s everything you need to make soup for 1,000 guests, courtesy of the Medieval Times kitchen staff.
Six cups olive/Canola oil blend
20 pounds carrots (peeled and halved)
12 pounds onions (peeled and quartered)
12 pounds celery (trimmed and cut in thirds)
1 ½ cups garlic (chopped)
Six #10 cans tomato paste (each #10 can weighs approx. 3 kg.)
Six #10 cans tomato purée
44 gallons water
4 ½ cups salt
16 cups sugar
4 ½ cups “Medieval Times potato seasoning”
1. Put the carrots, onions, and celery in a food processor and process until they’re just about puréed.
2. Place oil in a hot steam kettle, add vegetable purée, and cook for 15–20 minutes.
3. Add the garlic and sauté for approximately 10 more minutes.
4. Stir in the tomato paste and purée, add the water, and mix thoroughly. Add remaining seasoning. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat and let simmer for an hour.
5. Serve in hollowed-out gourds and enjoy with gusto while watching a jousting match between grown men. [Okay, we added this one.]