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Friday, October 15, 2021

With international travelers returning to Orlando, dinner theater entertainers hope to get back to something like normal

Posted By on Fri, Oct 15, 2021 at 12:53 PM

click to enlarge Tony Brent, dressed as Jack the Trickster, for his Halloween-themed Outta Control Spooktacular Magic Dinner Show - IMAGE VIA KEN STOREY
  • Image via Ken Storey
  • Tony Brent, dressed as Jack the Trickster, for his Halloween-themed Outta Control Spooktacular Magic Dinner Show
Last week, Disney World announced more live entertainment would be returning to the resort in the coming weeks. Character meet-and-greets, resort entertainment, live musical acts, and multiple stage shows will all be returning this fall. The move is one of the biggest signs yet that things are slowly settling into the new normal.

On International Drive, many of the dinner theaters are also beginning to welcome guests once again. Sleuth’s Mystery Dinner Shows, one of the region’s longest-running dinner theaters, announces across the top of their website ‘WE ARE OPEN’ in all caps, followed by three exclamation marks. Down the street at the Pirates Dinner Adventure, they’ve been welcoming guests back for the better part of a year. Still, without the large European crowds that typically flock to the region’s tourism-focused live shows, theaters throughout the region have yet to truly feel back to normal.

Starting in the near future, vaccinated Brits will be welcomed back to the U.S. The move can’t come soon enough for Orlando, which has seen a downturn in visitors after a promising start of the summer season. At WonderWorks Orlando, Tony Brent is back on stage for his one-person magic act, Outta Control Magic Dinner Show.

The comedy-filled dinner show had a large following among British visitors. Brent explained to the Orlando Weekly that he’s missing his guests from the U.K. but noted they’ve seen an increase in locals coming out to the show. There’s also been a noticeable increase in large families who are partaking in an evening of magic.

On 192, Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament has also been missing its international visitors but Shaira Graulau, the Marketing Manager for the Orlando castle, says locals have help fill the void left by the closed borders.

"Our locals have supported us since re-opening in July of 2020," explains Graulau. "We’re forever thankful and grateful to have the support of the local public. We couldn’t have done it without them."

Noting the increase in locals attending entertainment typically viewed as reserved for tourists, Brent is hopeful more residents in the area come to better appreciate the diversity and talent offered in the region. But he notes not all performers have been as lucky as him.

“I have been very fortunate; many of my performer friends are still out of work with no light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

That talent comes thanks to hard work by those involved in all aspects of the industry. During their prolonged closure last year, Graulau said the cast continued with rehearsals via Zoom. The animal stars aren't that good with Zoom but Graulau said they too took the shift in stride.

"The true stars of our show, the horses remained active at the castle rehearsing like any other day, and enjoying their down-time frolicking in the sun," they said.

Prior to reopening the Orlando castle last summer, team members returned several weeks early to review new CDC guidelines and to ensure guests would remain safe at the dinner theatre.

Brent’s show also saw an extended closure. He explains the pandemic caused the curtains to close on the show for a year, and when it reopened, they had to rework many aspects.

“The pandemic shut us down for a year, and I spent my downtime gaining weight, writing fiction, and walking my three dogs," he shared. "Then, Brian Wayne, the General Manager of WonderWorks, emailed me asking if we could do a trial run of two shows to test the waters. Of course, I said ‘yes.’ The stipulation was that no one could come onstage. It was a challenge; however, we overcame it and it worked. We sold out the test shows, then ran shows on the weekends until mid-June, when we reopened full-time.”

Those early days of returning to the stage were difficult for Brent, who was worried how comedy in the time of a pandemic would be received.

“I spent a lot of time thinking about the mental state of society at the time since I'm a comedy act,” he said.

But after months of streaming at home, the audience was excited to be back in a theater.

“During the first few shows, I would peer out from behind the curtains and see the audience members swaying and dancing in their seats just listening to the preshow music," Brent recalled. "I sensed that they were starved for the live entertainment experience and the sense of ‘community’ it provides.”

Today, guests are being brought back on stage, but some aspects of the show have had to retire for good.

“Certain bits had to be removed,” he explained, “especially my closer where I placed a mask of Cher on a male audience member and we do a rendition of "I've Got You, Babe,” my closer for twenty-plus years.”

Things at Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament have also mostly returned to normal with the exception of masks and meet-and-greets with casts currently being unavailable. With a massive show arena, Medieval Times was well suited for the era of physical distancing.

"Luckily for us, the show was not impacted any," explains Graulau. "Our characters provided the same show guests have come to love; the only additional element added were face masks." The post-show meet-and-greets with cast members are currently unavailable.
click image A physically distanced meet-and-greet with Mickey Mouse in his 50th Anniversary outfit - IMAGE VIA DISNEY
  • Image via Disney
  • A physically distanced meet-and-greet with Mickey Mouse in his 50th Anniversary outfit
Disney is bringing back select character meet-and-greets, but social distancing and masks will still be required. Face masks can also be seen on performers on stage at many of the region’s theme parks, and Halloween Horror Nights have many of their ‘boo-holes’ covered in plastic shields.

With hope that the worse of the pandemic is now subsiding, Graulau said the past year and a half have been challenging but the ability to push forward with live entertainment has been an inspiration for her.

"Who would have thought something so severe would sweep through our lives and change our day-to-day activities. We work as a team to make the best of any challenges- that’s what keeps us going," Graulau shared.

Like many, the live entertainment opportunities the region’s theme parks offer is what brought Brent to Orlando. While Orlando is best known for its rides and themed lands, the return of live entertainment is viewed as a significant step towards creating a new sense of normalcy. According to Brent, live entertainment is part of what makes Orlando special.

“Live entertainment adds the ‘organic’ element to the Orlando attraction DNA, and if you think about it, how many places can you witness that form of entertainment in conjunction with rides and immersive experiences? Orlando is truly unique in that respect,” he said.

click to enlarge A masked scare actor watches guests at Howl-O-Scream Orlando. - IMAGE VIA JAYCOB PORTER
  • Image via Jaycob Porter
  • A masked scare actor watches guests at Howl-O-Scream Orlando.

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