For nearly 40 years now, it's been a key component of a Central Florida vacation. That -
for one night - you take a break from the theme parks and then head indoors
to enjoy a bit of dinner theater.
Of course, the real pioneer of this Orlando entertainment
tradition is the Hoop Dee Doo Revue. Which has been entertaining WDW Guests
(appropriately enough) in Pioneer Hall at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort &
Campground since the Summer of 1974.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
For the longest time, Hoop Dee Doo was really the only game
in town. Disney pretty much had a lock on the Central Florida dinner theater market
until British entrepreneur Robert Earl came to Orlando in the early 1980s.
Mind you, this was before Earl had made his fortune founding
the Planet Hollywood and Earl of Sandwich restaurant chains. Back then, Robert
was just a guy who was looking to take a concept that had proven to be highly
lucrative for him in London (i.e. "Shakespeare's Tavern," an
entertainment-based restaurant where performers playing comic versions of great
characters from English literature regularly wandered through a highly-themed
dining hall and then entertained the patrons with bawdy songs & ribald
stories) and then bring it to the world. Disney World, to be precise.
Please note the never-built theater complex towards the back of thispiece of concept art. This is where Robert Earl hoped to stage hisfamily-friendly version of "Shakespeare's Tavern" at Epcot's UKpavilion. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
In the early 1980s, Earl met Disney World executives about
possibly adding a more family-friendly version of "Shakespeare's Tavern" to
Epcot's UK Pavilion. So that WDW Guests would then have something new to
experience as they wandered around World Showcase.
Unfortunately, Disney's then-management team (this was prior
to Michael Eisner coming on board as the Mouse House's Big Cheese in September
of 1984) said "Thanks but no thanks." That Walt Disney World already had a dinner
theater experience and it was the Hoop Dee Doo Revue. More to the point, that
if Mickey was going to develop any shows for the WDW Resort, that they'd then do
so in-house via the Imagineers.
Gone but not forgotten
But Robert Earl was not to be deterred. Having received the
brush-off from Mouse House management, he just found financing elsewhere and
then went off & built his dinner theater experiences outside of Disney
World property. By the late 1980s, Earl had three of these businesses up and
running in & around Orlando: Fort Liberty along 192 and King Henry's Feast
& Mardi Gras out on I-Drive.
And given how successful these three dinner theaters were,
dozens of other restauranteurs then tried to replicate what Robert & Disney
were doing. Often with little or no lasting success. How many of you remember
unique dining / entertainment experiences like the American Gladiators Live! Or
the Fortune Feast Game Show and Dinner?
Another favorite that faded fast
Florida can be kind of a tough market for dinner theater. Just ask the
folks who financed Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner & Show. That $28
million complex opened with great fanfare in
June 2003 only to then quickly & quietly close its doors in January 2008. Reportedly done in by a
tough-for-tourists-to-reach location over by the Orlando Premium Outlets Mall.
These days, the dinner theater shows that continue to thrive
in and around Orlando ... Well, they do so not just because these entertainment
enterprises are all easy-to-get-to locations. But also because - year in &
year out - these dinner theater shows give Central Florida visitors great value
for their tourism dollar. Delivering fine food and a fun family-entertainment
experience at a very affordable price.
A castle in Kissimmee. Photo by Jim Hill
First up is the Medieval Times Dinner
Tournament. Which has been entertaining tourists at this highly themed location
in Kissimmee since 1983. Once you cross the moat, you'll find yourself back in
the 11th century. Where you'll then enjoy a four-course meal as you
watch knights do battle inside of an immense area. Where - while dressed in
authentic suits of armor - they'll joust at full tilt while riding beautiful
Now please keep in mind that the story that Medieval Times
Dinner Tournament is telling is set in a time before the invention of utensils.
Which means that you'll be eating your herb-roasted chicken and/or barbeque
spare ribs with your hands. But given how tasty the food is at this particular
dinner theater, I don't imagine that you'll mind licking your fingers in order
to clean them off.
Photo by Jim Hill
Next up is Arabian Nights,
which initially arrived on the scene in Central Florida back in March of
1998. This dinner show is an equestrian extravaganza with over 50 talented
horses prancing around inside of a 90,000 square foot stadium. As you dine on prime rib or
lasagna, you'll be treated to a 22-act production. Where Arabians, Andalusian,
Lipizans, Palominos, Quarter Horses, Belgians and Percherons go through their
paces. Doing tricks and stunts that are sure to dazzle everyone seated in this
1001-seat venue. (1001? Arabian Nights? Get it?)
Anyway ... If you and/or any of your family members are real
horse fans, then you ought to yourself to come by Arabian Nights an hour or so
prior to showtime. That way, you'll then get the chance to enter the Great Hall
early and do a meet-n-greet with some of the four-legged stars of this popular
dinner theater experience.
Of course, if you prefer swordplay to horseplay, then you
need to set sail for the Pirate's
Dinner Adventure. Now this particular Orlando area dinner theater opened
back in May of 1996, long before Disney began making its super-popular "Pirates
of the Caribbean" movies. So while you won't find anyone like Captain Jack
Sparrow out here on I-Drive, you're sure to enjoy a full evening of
family-friendly fun, food and interactive entertainment.
And when I say "interactive," I mean interactive. The climax
of the Pirate's Dinner Adventure show comes with the younger members of the
audience are recruited to come battle these buccaneers. So be sure and have
your cameras ready when these new members of the British Navy make their
appearance and get ready to storm the ship.
What's that you say? Real pirates weren't family-friendly.
These rogues drank rum while they hung out with loose women and then told ribald stories & sang bawdy
songs (Hmmn. That sounds familiar for some reason). Recognizing that there
might be some visitors to Orlando who'd then be in the market for a more risqué
dinner theater experience, the folks behind Pirate's Dinner Adventure just
opened an adults-only, after-hours establishment known as the Treasure
You get the idea that this dinner show is not intended for
kids when - as you walk through the door - you're immediately handed a flagon
Tavern's signature drink. Which is rum punch. Then Gretta (i.e. the
tavern's outrageous barmaid) serves as your host for a two-hour long
experience. Which will feature live music, all kinds of comedy plus daring
And did I mention the food? We're talking a fresh garden salad,
slow roasted prime rib, opera cake, and a full liquor bar. Which will hopefully
make it that much easier to get in the true pirate spirit for an hour or two.
If you prefer thinking to drinking ... Then there's another
International Drive establishment that you have to check out. And that's Sleuths
Mystery Dinner Show. This is (after Hoop Dee Doo Revue, of course) the
Orlando area's oldest dinner theater experience. Since 1980, both locals and
tourists have been trying to solve these hilarious who-dun-its. Which - given
that you actually witness the murder and then get to interrogate all of the
suspects - sort of redefines the idea of "interactive."
Mind you, the menu always stays the same at Sleuths Mystery
Dinner Show (i.e. succulent Cornish game hen, thick slabs of prime rib and/or a
vegetarian option). But the mysteries keep changing. There are currently 13
different crime-laden comic scenarios that this talented cast of performers plays
out. So depending on which night you come through the door, you could find
yourself in the middle of a wedding that goes horribly wrong, a celebrity roast
which takes a homicidal turn, even a high society pre-fox-hunt banquet where
it's the hunters who suddenly become the prey.
There are - of course - other dinner theater experiences to
be found around the Orlando area. But as the Walt Disney World Resort gets
ready to celebrate its 40th anniversary, I thought that it might be fun
to take a look at some of Central Florida's other long-running shows. Which
(obviously) include Medieval
Times Dinner Tournament, Arabian Nights, Pirate's
Dinner Adventure and Sleuths
And if you're looking for tickets for any of these
long-running dinner theater experiences ( or the recently opened Treasure
Tavern Show) ... Well, I think I know some folks who can help you out there.