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Mall prepares for summer opening of castle attraction

LAWRENCEVILLE - A new kind of dinner theater, without stodgy associations of filet mignon, red wine and Willy Loman, is taking shape at Discover Mills.

Medieval Times, which announced last year it would build its ninth U.S. location at the Lawrenceville mall, is on pace to open this summer. The chain was launched in 1983, but made its way into popular culture when showcased in the 1996 film "The Cable Guy."

For curious mall shoppers, the most striking feature of the Medieval Times construction site is an 18-foot-deep pit seen through holes in a tarp-covered chain-linked fence.

This crater will become a jousting area - centerpiece of the 87,000-square-foot replica of a medieval castle, where patrons eat dinner and experience the competition and chivalry of a medieval tournament. That includes knights, horses, romance and falconry.

When the idea of Medieval Times was first proposed 23 years ago, many cities were skeptical. Few understood the concept. Kissimmee, Fla., a tourist city near Disney World, was the first to take a chance.

"No one had done anything like this before," said Medieval Times Chief Financial Officer Eric Chiusolo.

Since then, the company has become increasingly efficient at building its Medieval castles.

There are challenges.

Each site requires the ability to excavate. Sometimes contractors dig deep enough to hit water.

A Medieval Times site in Toronto was built in a 100-year-old building.

Discover Mills might have offered the easiest test so far, Chiusolo said.

Contractors needed to ensure patrons had clear sight lines for the jousting matches. That required cutting out the columns - typically positioned about every 45 feet in a mall. Engineers designed a plan to reinforce the structural steel minus the columns.

Another advantage was moving into the former Home Co., which displayed the typical look of Gwinnett retail.

"Big and boxy," Chiusolo said.

A Medieval Times arena can host 1,000 people for performances. It's expected to draw up to 400,000 additional visitors to the mall each year.