We went, we watched, we ate 

Fun fact! The world's first dinner theater, the Barksdale Theater, opened Aug. 1, 1953, in the Hanover Tavern near Richmond, VA. The cast -- six actors, two children, one dog, one cat and two pigs -- hit on the "dinner" part of the equation when their rural neighbors informed them that dining was a vital part of an evening out in those parts. One of the cast members knew how to cook, and thus was an industry born.

Fifty years later, dinner theater is big business in Orlando. Depending on how you define it, there are no less than 13 operations offering dinner and a show on any given night of the week. These places are not empty. In fact, they seem to be nearly full, night after night, week after week, year after year. The appetite for spectacle and comestibles seems bottomless.

From its humble beginnings, dinner theater has split into two factions: "theme" shows and "traditional" shows. You'll know the former when you are surrounded by thousands of tourists, you are watching knights joust or pirates swab decks, and you are eating and drinking all the while. You'll know the latter when you eat first and then watch a "real" play.

Traditionalists look askance at themers. "You see the show, and then you eat," says David Pritchard, president of the National Dinner Theatre Association. "You don't eat while watching the show. We are a little touchy about that."

Snobbery aside, we still can't fathom why dinner theater is so bloody popular. It isn't cheap; expect to pay between $40 and $50 per adult ticket for most shows. It usually isn't really "dinner," as the food has a (deserved) rep for being mediocre at best. And, in Orlando anyway, it isn't really "theater" either. (Guess which side of the theme/traditional divide we fall on.)

Yet people go, in waves, flocks, gaggles and droves. The only way to get to the bottom of this mystery, we reasoned, was to do the same. So we attended every regularly scheduled dinner show in Orlando and reported back. We still don't quite get it, but the company picked up the tab.

Arabian Nights

6225 W. Irlo Bronson Highway
Kissimmee, (407) 239-9223
$47.08 adults, $28.89 children 3-11

The tales of "Aladdin," "Ali Baba" and "Sinbad" are some of the better-known parables from "A Thousand and One Nights," or as it's commonly known, "Arabian Nights." And what these classic fables all have in common is that they have entirely nothing to do with the dinner attraction Arabian Nights, save for a few character names. The show does take place at night -- but Arabian, it's not. (Reportedly, the name is taken from the 30 or so Arabian horses that perform there nightly.)

Arabian Nights' purported premise is to demonstrate the relationship between equine and human via the dinner-theater medium; and through a story that unfolds like (Mr.) Ed Wood's "Orgy of the Dead," that's roughly what happens here. As guests celebrating the royal wedding of Princess Scheherezade to Prince Khalid, the audience is led through a series of vignettes intended to frame the animal's functions throughout history: there's a shoot-'em-up Wild West segment, a blacklit Native American segment, a Roman chariot race and more horses than a can of Mighty Dog. But in the Broadway segment, once the disco balls drop from the ceiling and horses in sequined leg warmers high-step it to Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York," the premise wears a little thin.

Not surprisingly, the whole historical connection to the Islamic culture that the name "Arabian" implies is absent. It's clear why when the show concludes with a moment of silence for the troops and a garish, over-the-top tribute to America, complete with Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" blaring the accompaniment. In fact, other than the belly dancer in the lobby and the quick invocation to Allah at the show's beginning, no other references to Islam occur in the show. Once the "Genie," who is the emcee, first appears from his "bottle" to the tune of "Who Let the Genie Out?" it's apparent that the show is meant to be lighthearted and appealing to middle America.

And taken in that respect, the show has its moments. The Gypsy stunt-show segment is rather impressive, with one performer successfully back-flipping from the back of one horse to another; and the "drunken horse" act performed by Gaylord Maynard and Chief Bearpaw (the horse) is equally amusing.

Dinner portions consist of a choice of vegetarian lasagna, chicken strips or prime rib, with mixed veggies, mashed potatoes, salad and cake, with a taste comparable to something you'd find at a Piccadilly Cafeteria or a Golden Corral. Nothing's too terribly exciting, but at least you have utensils, and there's unlimited draft beer and wine.

For the money, Arabian Nights isn't bad if you can stomach all the rampant flag-waving and jingoistic overtones. But if you're looking to dinner theater for classic storylines with deep allegorical meanings, then you'd better stay out of Kissimmee.

— Micky Michalec

Capone's Dinner Attraction

4740 W. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway
Kissimmee, (407) 397-2378
$39.95 adults, $23.95 children 4-12

There's an odd endorsement on Capone's web site, supposedly from one Paul Parker of Walled Lake, Michigan: "Found Capone's quite entertaining. The food was pretty good, which is not usually the case at one of these dinner shows."

At least Parker got part of his commentary correct: most dinner shows have atrocious food. Unfortunately for Capone's, their food isn't much better than what you'd find at a truck stop. The salad bar is a bowl of lettuce with two kinds of salad dressing. On the night I attended, there were six kinds of starches offered -- spaghetti, potatoes, pasta mixed with mayonnaise, lasagna and baked ziti. The slabs of ham looked as if they'd been held over from the day before and the chicken breast was overcooked and dry.

Drinks were plentiful and delivered by wiseguys who cracked smart if you asked for a glass of water. "Water's in the bathroom. Help yourself." Beer and what passed for a Rum Runner are provided with the cost of admission. I recommend sticking with the beer as the Rum Runner is like Pepto Bismol with a rum chaser.

Capone's show was actually not bad. Forget the plot -- it involves a loosely concocted love triangle involving Detective Marvel, a cop willing to take on Al Capone; Bunny, a cigarette girl hoping to improve her station in life; and Miss Jewel, the ingénue -- but the actors are mostly capable. A reworking of the song "They Had it Coming," one of the showstoppers from the Broadway musical "Chicago," was of particular note.

It hardly mattered what the actors did on stage, however, as the sound of clanking dinner plates interfered with their performance during much of the first set. It was as if, adding to a dyspepsia-inducing meal and an underdeveloped performance, Capone's owners were telling their audience they didn't really care what happened to them. They got their money once and that was good enough. Tourists could head back to their hotel to say they had a time, all right. Not necessarily a good time, but a time nonetheless, which seems to fit with Capone's marketing strategy.

— William Dean Hinton

Dixie Stampede

8251 Vineland Ave.,
Orlando, (866) 443-4943
$48.85 adults, $20.22 children 3-11

What you've got here is a rodeo with good food, a dash of cornpone humor and, if you come between Nov.1 and New Year's, a heapin' helpin' of old-time religion. Not a bad mixture, but not a terribly exciting one either.

Stadium seating surrounds a horse arena that looks to be about regulation size, if there is such a thing. The show (the Christmas version when we visited) begins with Dolly Parton herself doing a little voice-over reminiscing about her favorite time of year. That, by the way, is as close as you're going to get to Dolly.

If you like horses, you'll probably like the Dixie Stampede. There are 32 of them in the show, and you can pet them in their stables before and after the show. (If you don't like horses, focus on the aforementioned cornpone humor, food and religiosity, and try not to let the "horse smell" bother you while you're eating.)

The Stampede boasts of a "four-course" feast, and while that's a touch of exaggeration -- does it really count as a "course" when they bring each item out one at a time? -- the food is as good as advertised. You get a whole chicken that's smoky and fall-off-the-bone tender, a slice of barbecued pork loin, corn on the cob, soup and a buttermilk biscuit. What you don't get is silverware. "At the Dixie Stampede, we eat with our fingers!" said John, our server. (They will bring you plastic utensils if you complain enough, you big wuss.).

What you also don't get is alcohol. The Dixie Stampede is dry, a competitive disadvantage in this reviewer's book. Nothing puts in you in the dinner-theater mood like booze. John assured me the show was so exciting that drinking was unnecessary. John needs a vacation.

Horses are nice, and the ostrich racing was hilarious, but the highlight of the show is the live nativity scene that drops from the ceiling of the stadium, complete with an angel swinging from a cable and Three Wise Men on camels. After the scene ascended, bodily, back into the ceiling, the MC came out on his horse and announced, "And that's what Christmas is all about!"

Amen, brother.

— Bob Whitby

Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue

Fort Wilderness Pioneer Hall, Walt Disney World Resort
(407) 939-3463
$49.01 adults, $24.81 children 3-11 (tax and gratuity included)

There's one big reason why Disney is the mammoth cultural force it is: the people there know how to do things exactly right. And not in the creepy, Stepford way. No, they do things right in the way that has kept a show like the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue going for three shows a night, seven nights a week for nearly 30 years. People schedule their vacations around this show, and, without actually seeing it, it's hard to understand why. Unlimited fried chicken sounds yummy and bottomless jelly jars of beer and sangria are nearly necessary when surrounded by tourists from Wisconsin, but when Disney says "during the meal, a troupe of six Wild West performers entertains guests with a bucket-load of corny jokes and folk songs," you wonder just what the hell your fifty bucks is buying. Boredom?

Nope. In true Disney fashion, the entire Revue is tightly choreographed. From the moment you sit down -- to a table that's already set with a salad and bread, mind you -- it's a non-stop spectacle of cheesy hilarity that is completely entertaining. Vaudevillian in nature, the show shifts from straightforward musical numbers ("Shenandoah?" Geez.) and comedy bits, to mixtures of the two. The "comedy" is just so stupid you can't help but laugh along. There's just enough spice to the jokes that adults and older kids aren't totally left out of the winks and nudges, and younger ones are completely clueless. All of it's done in a rousing, sing-along style that's mercilessly uncool and completely infectious.

The food is nearly an aside to the actual production, which is a shame considering how excellent the "grub" is. On the night I went, I was a little gun-shy about taking the no-meat option (see the Medieval Times entry), but the grilled vegetables, baked potato, salmon and penne pasta that was served at our table was on par with the better restaurants throughout Disney. I mean, grilled portabella mushrooms? All of it was cooked perfectly and without the second-class attitude some other places regard their vegetarian customers with. (The carnivores at all the other tables were way into their fried chicken and ribs; in fact, the chicken smelled so good, I was ready to check my ethics at the door.)

The Hoop-Dee-Doo is the standard-bearer when it comes to dinner theaters around town. Some might have great shows and mediocre food, others decent food and laughably bad shows, but this one succeeds on all counts. It's a little scary being this enthusiastic about anything -- especially something this dorky -- but you gotta call 'em how you see 'em. A justified classic.

— Jason Ferguson

Makahiki Luau

Seafire Inn, SeaWorld
Orlando, (407) 363-2559
$37.95 adults, $27.95 children 3-9

The more I think about this homage to Don Ho and the singer's relaxed, over-cocktails style of entertainment, the more I hope they never change the heart and soul of the Makahiki Luau. It's delightfully cheesy, with its laid-back, 1960s flavor. You know this when one of the three Ho-like guitarists who open and host the show asks, "Is there anybody out there celebrating a marriage or an anniversary? Or are you just shacking up, like me?" And then they sang "Tiny Bubbles" and made us all happy.

You get a complimentary rum-flavored cocktail and a lei on the way in, and you're greeted by coconut-cup-fitted girls and bare-chested boys. Everybody feels special among this mostly grown-up crowd.

Cocktails are consumed as the preshow takes place, outside the Seafire Inn, where a boat carrying the Big Kahuna docks as hula girls shake their skirts and warriors beat their drums. Out comes the Big Kahuna, a massive man made even more formidable by his festive headdress and body paint. He leads a parade of followers into the luau theater.

Dinner starts with a preset appetizer plate, a pleasant combination of salad and muffin. The main courses, served in dishes to share, are mahi-mahi with coconut sauce, sweet-and-sour pork and chicken teriyaki, with fried rice and stir-fried vegetables (cooked on a truck-tire-sized wok in an open kitchen). The diversity made for a nice mix, and the mahi-mahi tasted especially good if you like it well-done.

There's nonstop entertainment on the stage throughout the serving process, including a string of hulas, audience-participation drum contests and a real and colorful variety show. There's a brief intermission as the plates are cleared away and coffee and dessert -- a rather dinky and tasteless ladyfinger -- are served.

The last segment of the show is high-energy, a kaleidoscope of colors and movement and fit physiques -- lots of banging beats and primal yells. A general theme about the history and culture of the Polynesian islands pervades. At one point, a stage of dancers carry flags of a sort, each representing an island and its culture, and while it's difficult to follow any real sense of history, they do convey a genuine sense of the welcoming and exotic cultures, and their pagan roots. A talented fire-dancer tosses about his flaming baton with martial-arts precision for a breathtaking finale, only to be topped by the 4- or 5-year-old who bravely goes through similar motions with his own (unlit) baton -- a totally precious moment.

"Makahiki" refers to the time of year after the harvest, when battles stop and celebrations start. Not that there's anything to get all choked up about, but the Makahiki Luau could warm the cockles of the most attraction-cynical hearts.

— Lindy T. Shepherd

Medieval Times

4510 W. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway
Kissimmee, (407) 239-8666
$45.95 adults, $29.95 children 3-11

It must be said that the folks at Medieval Times have really gone all-out in their quest for accuracy. Despite the plastic mugs and neon "swords" and paper crowns and picture-hawkers and American flags that continually remind you that you're in a tourist trap that's very much of today, it's the little touches that make all the difference. For instance, when my "serf" Les dished up some stale bread, moldy fruit and hard cheese for my "dining pleasure" -- just like the knights ate -- I realized I was in a truly special place where "medieval" can also mean "pre-health code." I was holding out for plague-ridden rats and a sluice bucket in the bathroom, but the smell of horseshit in the dining area had to do for rounding out the castle's ambience.

Unlike about 99 percent of the people who pass through the doors of Medieval Times, my 9-year-old and I don't really cotton to tearing into chicken and spare ribs with our bare hands, so we opted for the "vegetarian" option, knowing it was gonna be a plate of fruit, cheese and vegetables, and that was just fine. "I tell you what, I'll sneak you some extra garlic bread too," said Les, right after he told everyone at our "table" (bench) that tips weren't included. We figured that for $80, we'd get food that was at least edible. It wasn't. Although our tablemates had nothing but compliments for their roasted chicken/spare-rib dinners, our food was moldy. (And our "extra" garlic bread was stale.) Les valiantly (as in Prince Valiant!) offered to replace our plates with fresh ones, but proceeded to just bring us the exact same plates of moldy food and still had the balls to put a tip plate in front of us. Lesson No. 1: When in the castle, don't eat the fruit.

But, honestly, it's not about the food, is it? It's about horses and jousting and washed-up Shakespearean actors who can't get summer repertory jobs but have really cool British accents. And to that end, Medieval Times is quite successful. Only a few of the horses seemed genuinely stressed out, and all of them performed their tricks quite admirably, to the general apathy of the entire crowd.

By the time the show got under way, most everyone was on their second or third round of beer and the competitive aspect that undergirds all dinner theater was beginning to show itself. "Blue sucks!" "Go green!" "Whoooo-hooo!" The shouts were oddly in unison and completely unprovoked. Lesson No. 2: When in the castle, be prepared to fully back a "team" you neither know nor care about.

Food eaten (or not), horses displayed, buzz on, it was time for the "competition." Punctuated with dramatic interludes that nobody understood (or cared about), the climactic contest between "the knights of the realm" was what we came for. And we were not disappointed. Not when our knight jumped from his horse. Not when the blue knight got preferential treatment. Not when the dirty, rotten, stinking green knight -- that bastard -- cheated. No, it was all good, if you completely ignore the fact that it had all the dramatic tension -- and skilled execution -- of an amateur wrestling match. Lesson No. 3: When in the castle, suspend all disbelief.

Unbelievably, the place was packed -- on a Wednesday in November -- so apparently, the American appetite for spending way too much money on bad food and marginal entertainment is insatiable. Or, as my 9-year-old so eloquently summed it up: "The show was cool. The people selling stuff were annoying. The food was gross. I liked it!"

— Jason Ferguson

MurderWatch Mystery Dinner Theatre

Grosvenor Resort Hotel
1850 Hotel Plaza Boulevard
Lake Buena Vista, (407) 827-6534
$39.95 adults, $10.95 children 4-9

From the private, centrally located "VIP table" of the Grosvenor Resort's fifth floor mezzanine, you're supposed to be able to see the entire MurderWatch Mystery Theatre show without the hassles of dealing with the tourists. And whether you consider being elevated above the plebeians a benefit or not, the VIP table does have advantages. Specifically, you're closer to the buffet, and your server offers to refill your drink every two minutes.

The buffet, which certainly constitutes the high point of the $39.95 Saturday evening show, was fresh and well-maintained. There wasn't a whole lot in terms of vegetarian fare in the hot-plate section, just a vegetable medley and some tasty mashed potatoes.

The carnivores are crowded around the meat entrees -- beef, chicken or fish -- which smelled delectable. There is also a full table of assorted cakes, each moist and rich with filling. This ain't Shoney's.

Neither is it Broadway. Under the circumstances, however, the acting is as good as you might expect, and the plot, though thin, was full of the obligatory adult insinuations intended to get a rise of the wine-filled audience while leaving the children blissfully unaware.

The plot: Shelly and Bud are two lounge singers who may or may not be having a fling. Bud's sister is in town, and has a strange fondness for bananas, though the play never addresses the phallic nature of her obsession. Then there's Bud and Shelly's manager, who apparently has a deal for Bud in Las Vegas, if he chooses to take it. And then there's Shelly's jealous boyfriend, who tries to pick fights with everyone.

Twenty minutes into the show Shelly is electrocuted while gripping her mike stand. Over the next half-hour, we learn that Bud had a crush on her that was getting in the way of his professional ambitions, that her ex-boyfriend is an asshole, and that Bud's manager is annoying. Then the banana-loving sister dies after her banana daiquiri is poisoned.

OK, now for the audience participation part of the program. You see, as the evening's events transpired, subtle clues and key conversations occurred throughout the auditorium, and if we get out of our chairs and mingle maybe we can figure it out.

No one moves.

Then the grand finale: The two dead characters come back from the dead, and along with the boyfriend and the agent, share a different version of the night's events. It is up to you, dear dinner theatergoer, to figure out who is telling the truth. It's not a huge mystery. About 80 percent of the audience got it right.

— Jeffrey C. Billman

Orlando Broadway Dinner Theater

(Formerly Mark Two Dinner Theater)

3376 Edgewater Drive
Orlando, (407) 843-6275
$43-$49 adults, $33-$39 children under 15

From the glass chandeliers to the red draperies to the Actors' Equity performers, the New Mark Two Dinner Theater -- which changes its name to the Orlando Broadway Dinner Theater in 2004 -- is a class act. That's probably why the Mark Two is now working on its third decade. The Mark Two is no dinner "attraction," but indeed a theater that serves dinner. There are no hokey concepts to tap into the tourist market. The Mark Two is after the repeat theater patron, which means they must do things right.

Quality in this case begins with a delicious and generous dinner buffet. The salad bar, for example, isn't a bowl of lettuce served with salad dressing. The mix of different lettuces is tossed with herbs, and other vegetables, like grape tomatoes, are offered for the taking. Roast beef, seasoned roasted chicken, ham, handmade mashed potatoes, fresh green beans and an assortment of vegetables round out the buffet. For a few extra dollars you can order hand-dipped ice cream at intermission.

The stage presentation is professional quality. Eddie Mekka, best known as Carmine Ragusa of the 1970s sitcom "Laverne & Shirley," was playing the lead in Fiddler on the Roof when I visited. Mekka, as well as the rest of the cast, had excellent vocal range and stage presence. He was such a crowd-pleaser he got a standing ovation.

Director Virginia Light didn't try to overdo the production with distracting or flashy choreography. Of particular note was the opening number, "Tradition."

About the only drawback to the Mark Two is the ticket price. That's to be expected. Quality theater comes at a cost. Look for more great things from the Orlando Broadway Theater as its new owner, Karen Good, increases the old Mark Two's marketing, reminding theater patrons across the region of the dramatic benefits very few can offer in these parts.

— William Dean Hinton

The Outta Control Magic Show

9067 International Drive (in WonderWorks)
Orlando, (407) 351-8800
$17.95 adults, $14.95 children 4-12

I'll say it flat out: This is the best dinner show I've seen in Orlando.

Reason No. 1: Price. For less than half of what you pay for an "attraction" show you get all-you-can-eat pizza that comes to your table fast and hot. Better still, you get all the beer you can drink, and they don't let your mug stay empty for long. It's Bud, but quality can always be overcome through quantity.

Reason No. 2: The show. I thought I was in for a lot of rabbits-out-of-hats, watch-the-marble, kid-friendly hokum. Wrong. Magicians Tony Brent and Danny Devaney are top-shelf performers, and funny as hell. I laughed until my sides hurt. When I wasn't laughing I was scrutinizing the duo's moves, trying to figure out how they managed to squeeze a bowling ball from a notebook, for example, or extract a $50 bill from inside a lemon.

The show is a series of skits, each heavy on audience participation. And if they call you up, you'd better have a sense of humor about it, because Brent and Devaney are merciless. Gary, a good-natured audience member of few words, spent 10 minutes on stage being verbally taunted, much to the audience's delight, for not answering questions fast enough. Yours truly was dragged onstage, forced to put on rubber gloves that were inside out, and made sport of for my career choice (not for the first time). They grabbed my notes and read them out loud, then spit ping-pong balls at me. It was fantastic.

The show is loose enough, and Brent and Devaney are fast enough, that the improvisation is seamless. You would probably never see the same performance twice. Which is fine. This is the only dinner show I've been to that I'd pay to see twice. Little kids will dig the magic tricks, big kids will dig the off-color humor (pen sniffing and rednecks were recurring themes) and mom and dad will dig the bottomless beer mugs. Highly recommended.

— Bob Whitby

Pirates Dinner Adventure

6400 Carrier Drive, Orlando, (407) 248-0590
$47.87 adults, $29.29 children 3-11

Dinner theater is about two things: competition and audience participation. A show that follows the rules will have you thinking you're about to be pulled out of your cocoon and put onstage all night. Pirates adheres to the formula well; they excel at making you a part of the show, whether you want to be or not.

You enter into a large room festooned with banners, barrels, boxes of booty and (most importantly) cash bars. A tankard of grog or five is recommended to help set the scene. Frederick the Town Crier is up first, and his job is to cajole and wheedle 16 men into a conga line, and then force four of them to do an acrobatic stunt resembling a Chinese puzzle box. Then Princess Anita makes her entrance, welcoming everyone to her father's party, the "Freedom Festival," in held in honor of kicking pirate captain Sebastian the Black's scurvy ass off the island.

But Sebastian's minions come roaring back, grab the princess, the scantily attired Golden Gypsy and everyone in the audience, and haul them all off to their ship in the main dining room.

That's where things get interesting. The main stage is the main reason to visit Pirates, worth the price of admission to gaze upon, at least once. Stadium seats ring what the brochure calls "an authentic 18th-century galleon." That's a stretch, as the "ship" has no sides, but the super-sized set is impressive nonetheless, from the 40-foot-tall sails, to the crow's nest that nearly scrapes the ceiling, to the 300,000-gallon lagoon.

The food is institutional, featuring chicken (nicely spiced and tender), beef (sliced and chewy) and shrimp (your best bet), served on plastic tableware. You can opt for a vegetarian meal, but I'd advise against it. The quiche (or was it lasagna?) was cold and mushy.

As you start chewing, the show begins. There's a narrative, but it's hard to follow between mouthfuls of grub and tankards of ale (which got empty too often for this reviewer's liking). No matter. There's a lot of singing, dancing, sword-fighting, rope swinging and deck swabbing. The audience is divided into color-coded sections, and the pirates pit section against section in a stevedore contest that's surprisingly involving (those purple bastards still make my blood boil). In the end, Princess Anita is rescued from the oddly acquiescent pirate captain, and then something else happens and the lights come up.

Plot is secondary to spectacle and Pirates has no shortage of things to look at; busty wenches for dad and ripped pirates in skin-tight leotards for mom. In the midst of it all, the comely Golden Gypsy does a frightening acrobatic routine that involves swinging from her neck 20 feet off the ship's deck. Steep learning curve on that one.

— Bob Whitby

Sleuths Mystery Dinner Shows

7508 Universal Blvd. (in Republic Square)
$41.95 adult, $23.95 children 3-11
(407) 363-1985

After 23 years of wining 'em, dining 'em and doing 'em in, Sleuths is one of the mainstays of Orlando-area dinner theater. Located in a strip mall behind Wet 'n Wild, the operation now numbers three separate theaters, where lively comedy whodunits are presented seven nights a week, 365 days per year.

A rotating cast of actors yuks its way through 11 scripts whipped up exclusively for the attraction. Scenarios include a B-movie premiere that ends in tragedy and an English-manor outing populated by suspicious Brits and Yanks alike. Diners who solve the crime earn prizes of limited value, and a few audience members are recruited to play supporting parts -- indentured servitude that's a lot harder to disdain if you actually get a laugh. Wisely, the management doesn't try to divide the customers' attention between watching and eating: Meal courses and on-stage action are presented in alternating shifts. At all times, the show is clearly seen, heard and understood.

That said, Sleuths is traditionally more maligned by its own staff than almost any other theater in town. To hear some employees tell it, the place is grade-Z vaudeville, with a bill of fare that's pure ptomaine. If that's true, then this reviewer is either the luckiest son of bitch on Earth or has no taste whatsoever, because I've visited Sleuths three times in eight years and never had a bad experience.

While the cuisine isn't gourmet by any means -- the appetizer course is a floating tray of tiny meatballs and cheese cubes -- all but the fussiest eaters will find something serviceable in the choice of three entrees, including lasagna and an awfully tasty Cornish hen. (Upgrading to prime rib incurs a modest extra charge.) There's also a veggie meal, a medley of corn, string beans and carrots that's more of a thoughtful gesture than a culinary triumph in its own right. The ticket price even includes unlimited beer, wine and soft drinks. The quality of the food, however, is reputed to vary wildly, depending on which chef is on duty. Cross your fingers and hope for the best.

The level of humor isn't about to get Christopher Guest running scared, but so what? The one-liners spouted by the outrageous murder "suspects" are funny in an eyeball-rolling kind of way, and they're perfectly suited to the sensibilities of the tourist audience.

One of the reasons the Sleuths formula works so well is that the theater remains a top employer of local comedy talent: In any show, you're likely to encounter a number of highly skilled actors who moonlight in unaffiliated sketch and improv troupes. And if you're very lucky, you may get to hear one of them deliver a line like, "Sometimes when I go potty, it smells like ham," at the exact moment you're lifting a piece of food to your mouth. Anybody can learn to cook lasagna, but serendipity like that doesn't just happen.

— Steve Schneider

The SoulFire Theatre and Dinner Experience

15609 State Road 535
(in Factory Stores at Lake Buena Vista)
(407) 465-1886
$43.95 adult, $29.95 children 3-12

When SoulFire threw open its doors late in the summer of 2002, there was every reason to expect quality a cut above the normal dinner-theater standard. An offshoot of a highly regarded "legitimate" theater company, the attraction debuted with an original, "National Lampoon"-style show titled "Memories and Mayhem: The Reunion of the Cursed Class of Herbert Hoover High," which was written by gifted Discount Comedy Outlet founder Brian Bradley.

As it turned out, the technically ambitious show was all but smothered by the venue's inferior acoustics (and some unwieldy staging), and the theater's jam-packed schedule was swiftly curtailed to a few performances per week. SoulFire regrouped with a production of the more easily saleable "Tony n' Tina's Wedding," which enjoyed a long and fruitful run. It's currently enjoying an extended "encore" engagement that admits audiences on Saturdays only.

The blocking of the show is a marked improvement over "Memories and Mayhem," bringing the wedding of goofy goombas Valentina Lynne Vitale and Anthony Angelo Nunzio Jr. directly to your table. Bridesmaids, groomsmen, beloved relations and even members of the clergy plunk themselves down in vacant seats to make small talk, thus advancing the story of nuptials gone horribly awry. There's drunkenness, festering resentment and even the unseating of the maid of honor -- all brought home with hilarious force by an exemplary rotating cast. (SoulFire's roots in traditional theater have always reaped big dividends.)

Some of the play's bigger moments, however, still tend to get lost, with too many of them taking place off-mike and far from the eyes of patrons seated at the outermost tables. You'll cherish the opportunity to quiz the wandering members of the wedding party about what just happened.

In the area of food, SoulFire has actually taken a few steps backward from its origins, when the idea was to surpass the sometimes-questionable fare served up by competing attractions. Though the Vitale/Nunzio wedding buffet is highly digestible, variety is not its strong suit: For those who don't like pasta and meatballs, there's pasta and meatballs. The salad is humble iceberg lettuce with croutons, and on the night we visited, no one received the coffee that had been advertised on the printed program. (Informed later of this bad-faith move, SoulFire cofounder Rus Blackwell vowed that it wouldn't happen again.)

Is it worth paying full price for a dinner show that's likely to leave some attendees (especially vegans) with hunger pangs? It depends on how much you value the adept comedic interplay that is the strongest suit of "Tony n' Tina's Wedding." At the performance I attended, a cast member who was portraying a boorish family photographer got the ball rolling by instigating a mock altercation with a customer at our table, offering to take their dispute out to the parking lot if necessary. As far as I'm concerned, all theater would benefit immeasurably if the actors were allowed to put the heavy hurt on random audience members. Just don't tell the Shakespeare Festival -- they have knives.

— Steve Schneider

Spirit of Aloha

Polynesian Resort, Walt Disney World
$49.01 adults, $24.81 children 3-11 (including tax and gratuity)
(407) 939-3463

Poking around vacation message boards, I found more than a few comments by disappointed Disneyphiles about the show that replaced "The Polynesian Luau" in Disney's Polynesian Resort. Nobody likes change, it seems, especially when it comes to grass-skirted kitsch reminiscent of "Gilligan's Island." That's always been the appeal of this rustic 847-room resort, one of the originals, opened in 1971, the same year as the nearby Magic Kingdom attractions. People tend to forget about this hideaway, which fronts the famously army-engineered Seven Seas Lagoon and is conveniently hooked up to the monorail line.

Naturally, time has demanded renovations to the structure, which are still ongoing, as is its six-days-a-week, two-times-a-day dinner show. Never having seen the original revue, I found the "Spirit of Aloha" to be a Hawaiian-flavored pop picnic, with perky high-production numbers and perfectly timed food presentation. But the overall atmosphere of the evening is of the fill-'em-up, move-'em-out variety.

Like many of Disney's stalwart attractions, reservations are not easy to come by if you're a last-minute planner. Be prepared to make a date and secure it with a credit card. The drive into Disney territory is deep but easy to navigate.

There's a bit of waiting in line in the lobby to make the reservation-to-ticket transfer, then you walk a winding trail to the Luau Cove theater, where one of the staff hands out an itchy lei and seats you at one of the long tables under a cabana facing an outdoor stage. Already waiting is a silver, fish-shaped platter of appetizers -- so-called coconut bread, green salad and fresh pineapple (the best dish of the night). Cocktails, beyond the included beer and wine, cost about $10 a pop. Dinner was family-style portions of barbecued spareribs and chicken, stir-fried rice and vegetables, all fine if not noteworthy.

The dazzle is in the show, and the start-and-stop pace of "Spirit of Aloha" suits this early-show audience loaded with parents and kids. There was a minor fray during one of the intermissions when one overindulged two-foot fella broke away from his identically equipped dad -- tan Bermuda shorts, island-print button-up shirt and camcorder -- and made his way onto the stage. Next thing there was a swarm of little people advancing toward the back-stage area. A stagehand tried to shoo them away, but a voice-over command was required to get everybody back in restraint.

At this point, there was another swarm -- mosquitoes. There was nothing obstructing our perfect view from seats at the outside edge of the cabana, but we were also at the front line of the invasion coming from tropical landscapes.

The entertainment "main course" is served after dinner and "Volcano" dessert, a sponge cake filled with chocolate mousse which sounded better than it tasted. It was very cool to see some extreme talents in action. Young men and women -- it would be difficult to speak to their heritage -- donned authentic costumes of feathers and foliage and shared painstaking dances from cultures under the Polynesian umbrella. Of particular note, the skirts made from hundreds of strung-together, foot-long tea leaves were works of art, and the awesome fire-dancing made for an over-the-top show-closer.

Once the flames were extinguished, there was a mass exodus as the next audience shuffled in.

— Lindy T. Shepherd

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