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Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament freshens up but stays the same

Published Jun. 25, 2012

KISSIMMEE — Inside the castle walls, it was time to strive for perfection. Good can't just defeat evil without some polishing.

The green knight, the bravest of the brave, nailed his entrance. Then the king entered, surrounded by squires marching with flags. They turned, but didn't hit their marks with the necessary verve one would expect of a squire.

"Stop," said Leigh Cordner. "I'm going to cue the squires. We'll just try the turn one more time. Squires, I'll give you the cue."

They nailed it on the next try.

"To honor!" the king chanted. "To glory! To chivalry! To victory!"

The latest production of Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament opens to the public Tuesday. The show remakes itself every four years, taking feedback from the audience, improving music and lighting. This latest show has a new story, new costumes and new music produced in Kiev, Ukraine with big booming renaissance sounds mixed with electric guitars and drums.

Essentially, though, the tournament remains the same. It always does. There are impressive performances from Andalusian, Quarter, Friesian and Menorcan horses. There is a damsel in distress. There are color-coded cheering sections and lively jousting matches with splintering weapons. There is a feast, and there are no utensils.

"You don't really change too much about what brought you to the dance," said Cordner, who as Medieval Times creative director has overseen eight rebirths of the show. "Medieval Times is generational. If you loved it as a kid and now you have a couple kids, you might bring them."

In modern tourist Orlando, you can choose from a wealth of high-tech Walt Disney interests, go bungee jumping along the highway, watch Cirque du Soleil, meet a killer whale and step into Harry Potter's fantasy world. Medieval Times, which has nine locations across the country, has survived among that competition since opening the Kissimmee castle in 1983. The company has weathered bankruptcy, been teased in movies like The Cable Guy and Garden State and seen business shift with the economy. The past two years have been healthy, employees said.

The success has everything to do with being timeless. Little kids still come up to the men in armor after the show with twinkling, freaked-out eyes.

"It sounds a little corny, but it's not," said head knight Sam Talley. "We always have to stake a step back and remember how special it is."

Keeping it simple is essential. Last time, some critics called Cordner "overreaching" for a plot that was too complicated. There were back stories and flashbacks, a little too much for people to follow while they were gnawing on chicken and slurping tomato bisque. He relented.

"This really is a back to basics approach," he said. "You can't have good versus ambivalent. It has to be good and evil."

The goal now is for guests to relax and follow along, even if they don't speak English. There are flashing red lights when the bad guy comes out. There's a process of elimination to find the best knight, and the best knight fights the bad guy to defend the princess (females still do not scrap with the guys at Medieval Times, even after all these years). It's all timed down to the second. The actors use real weapons. They train for months to get ready.

Not to give the new show's ending, but there's a pretty good chance honor will be defended and chivalry will be redeemed.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8857.

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