5 Things To Know Before Visiting Medieval Times

Our first-timer's guide to eating with your hands, dressing up, and indulging your inner courtier.

When I was but a wee squire, I built a castle in the woods. For a few months over the summer, I quested over mountains and vast rivers (the mound system and shallow creek), seeking out dragons with my enchanted (scrap lumber) sword. Not long after, the castle was transformed into a starship. But even as my focus shifted to sci-fi, my childhood self would have been ecstatic about a visit to Medieval Times.

Most readers will be familiar with the name, as Medieval Times occupies an interesting place in pop culture. With nine locations in the U.S. (and one in Toronto), its particular breed of dinner theater has been showcased in everything from Saturday Night Live to The Cable Guy. But it wasn't until recently that I had the chance to visit one of its castles. Located just off I-90 in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, this particular fortress played host to a night of eating, drinking, and stagecraft that I won't soon forget. Here's what to know before you go.

Make time to wander before the show

By decree of her presiding majesty, the Queen, "The Castle gates open sixty minutes prior to showtime, allowing plenty of time for photos, exploring and mingling with Royalty." Inside, the Hall of Arms features many interesting diversions: "Suits of armor line the halls, giant candelabras hang from the ceilings and treasures abound."

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Your fellow guests also serve as a means of entertainment. Period cosplay is encouraged, and there are opportunities for medieval shenanigans, such as placing a friend in the stocks. But dressing up is by no means required. Show up in jeans and a band T-shirt and you'll be treated with the same reverence as Sir Humphrey of Janesville, dressed to the nines in his doublet and hose.

Our group, most of us in at least partial regalia, showed up just as the previous show was letting out, which allowed us to browse the gift stands and belly up to the bar. And speaking of which...

The drinks are expensive, but worth it

Craving a tankard of ale? I encountered two full-service bars inside the Chicago Castle. There are multiple tapsters at each, so the lines moved rather quickly. Just know that, for around 24 oz. of Sam Adams, you're going to be paying $30 (after tip). Normally, I'd say this is outrageous. But my drink came in a very large, very nice glass mug, which also served as a take-home souvenir. There are cheaper vessels available, and disposable ones, if you wish. In the end, it's no worse than concert or sports venue prices.

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Once the show starts, there's no need to head back to the bar. A designated drink server will come to your seat (with magic credit card machine in hand) and relay your orders to the wine cellar.

The meal is, as advertised, a feast

As the show is about to begin, the herald calls everyone to the table. Seating within the Grand Ceremonial Arena is a tiered, banquet-style affair, with seats reserved for each group. Ushers (and the color of the paper crown you're given upon entering the castle) will help guide you to your place.

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From this point, the practiced timing of the show is on full display. Dragon's Blood Soup (actually tomato bisque) and garlic bread arrived shortly after we were seated and the knights and court were introduced.

After an impressive display of falconry, a different type of bird landed at my table. "Let the feast be served," her majesty declares from the dais, and trays of hot poultry make their way down the aisle. It was at this point that Medieval Times stole my heart, because from roasted to grilled to fried, whole chickens are my jam. I regularly prepare them at home, which usually devolves into eating with my hands. So when half a chicken was set before me with nary a fork in sight, I was 100% in my element.

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The flavors here were on point, with a simple coating of season salt and lemon pepper. A delicious half-potato arrived soon after, coated with the same spices you'd expect on jojos or potato wedges from a hot bar. How did Medieval Times know that these are my favorite? The court must employ some kind of wizard. Even the corn on the cob, something I usually skip, was pretty decent.

As you pick your way through the chicken, you're treated to various displays of humor and horsemanship. It's the kind of low-impact theater that pairs perfectly with the main course. But as dessert arrives, the real battles begin. Competitive feats lead to jousting, fights with sword and flail, and the crash of steel on shields. Again, this is wise pacing by the folks at Medieval Times: Your belly is full of chicken, the second drink has arrived, and your mouth is now free for cheering.

Dietary restrictions? Medieval Times has you covered.

One of the first things our waiter asked was, "Does anyone have any food allergies or special requirements for their meal?" This made me wonder whether the castle's kitchens accommodate vegetarian or vegan guests.

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"We sure do," says the website's FAQ page. "The vegan meal includes a generous serving of hummus with carrot and celery sticks, a main course featuring three-bean stew with fire-roasted tomato and brown rice, and a choice of fresh fruit or Italian ice for dessert. The vegetarian option includes all of these vegan dishes along with a side of warm pita bread." Huzzah!

Gluten-free meals are also available, and lactose-intolerant patrons can still enjoy items such as the three-bean stew, chicken, hummus, and roasted potato. The company's site includes a handy allergen chart, though it might be worth double checking on the sweet buttered corn, which doesn't list dairy among its flags.

Overall, it sounds as though there's a feast for everyone. Get in there, eat with your hands, and cheer past a mouthful of food. And if you want to be a spoilsport, then yes, silverware is available upon request. It also might not hurt to tuck a few extra wet-wipes in your jerkin, though Medieval Times provides one for each seat.

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The show is all-ages fun

As serviceable as the food might be, you're not really coming to Medieval Times for the cuisine. It's the spectacle of sword and horse that make the experience what it is—and the actors put on a good show. From the lighting to the sound design to the performances, it was an evening of full sensory engagement. There's a lot of call and response, and the volume (while high) never reached the level of painful. If you're particularly sensitive, however, you might want to bring ear plugs.

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Speaking of pain, there's another point that deserves mention: According to its website, Medieval Times is committed to taking care of the horses that make the show what it is. I generally don't enjoy watching animals perform for my pleasure, but the event I witnessed (including a few instances of treats and positive reinforcement) seemed controlled and cruelty-free.

The experience is also decidedly child friendly, and the makeup of the crowd reflected this. Scattered in among the groups of adults were scout troops, class outings, and birthday parties, all of which can be booked with special packages and a variety of add-ons. The tickets for our group landed around $90 per person, as we sprung for the Celebration Upgrade (+$20 per entrant). Baseline prices in Chicago start at $69.95 for adults and $38.95 for children, but there are discount codes and coupons available.

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As the show reached its conclusion, I was left with a general sense of happiness. I'd had dinner, drinks, and the chance to cheer my throat raw as a group of skilled performers put on an exciting, hard-hitting spectacle. Even if you're not a member of the Renaissance Faire or Game of Thrones crowd, Medieval Times has a lot to offer. I may not have grown up to be a knight, but now I know where to find some.

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