Liam Petitone knelt on a pillow before King Don Carlos at Medieval Times’ Lawrenceville-based Atlanta castle on the evening of June 29 and flashed a beaming smile as a crowd gathered to watch him.
The 4-year-old birthday boy was draped in a black and gold silk cloak with a knight’s helmet wrapped around his hair and ears. He clutched a wooden toy sword in his right hand and the handle of a toy shield in his left one as the king lowered the long titanium blade of a real sword on the little boy’s right shoulder.
The king, portrayed by Charles Groves, then proclaimed the lad Sir Liam as his family snapped pictures and the crowd cheered.
“He’s really into knights and stuff, obviously,” said Liam’s mother, Laura Petitone.
Scenes like this have played out countless times at the castle, which is housed in Sugarloaf Mills, since it opened on July 21, 2006.
For cast manager Chuck Padrick, however, it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that Medieval Times was preparing to open a castle in Lawrenceville.
“I was here the day they opened the doors, they brought in every manager that we needed,” he said. “They brought in ones from different locations. Once we were open and going, they left and we stayed behind and ran it.”
What goes on inside the castle
Medieval Times re-creates 11th century Spain in a tribute to the company being founded in that country. Audience members are separated into six color-coded seating sections that represent different regions.
Green represents Asturius while its fellow “western” regions Red and Yellow, and Blue, represent Perelada and Valiente respectively. Among the eastern regions, yellow represents Navarre while Black and White represents Santiago de Compostela and Red represents Castilla.
While Medieval Times might seem as if it has a limited number of employees during shows — it has about 30 to 35 people running or participating in any given show. However, it’s actually a major undertaking with 200 people working at the castle.
Fifty of those people make up Medieval Times’ national call center staff, who handle reservations and customer questions for the company’s nine U.S. castles.
On top of that, the castle has 24 horses, three Barbary Falcons and one Eurasian Eagle Owl. The staff includes a master falconer and her apprentices, knights, stable hands, servers and wenches, bar staff, a kitchen staff that has to be prepared to feed as many as 1,100 people per show.
Every meal served to an audience member during the show consists of a a piece of garlic bread, a tomato bisque soup, half of a roasted chicken, a short cob of sweet buttered corn, an herb-basted potato, a pastry, an optional cup of coffee and two rounds of drinks.
“If you think about it, when we have three shows in a day, they have to prepare more than 3,000 pieces of everything we serve,” Padrick said. “But our kitchen staff makes it work every time.”
a full-time job
The crux of a Medieval Times show is the tournament involving the knights who represent each of the six color-coded regions.
It involves jousting, horsemanship, swordsmanship and skills with other medieval weapons, such as an axe or a mace. It starts off with the knights doing non-violent contests, such as catching rings on their lances, and escalates to jousts and finally the knights fight each other “to the death.”
Head knight Jason Jones said the knights work 37-40 hours per week between performing and training. Fitness, Jones said, is the key to a knight being able to take the physical pounding he goes through in a show.
“Muscles look cool, but they also prevent injuries,” he said. “If you’re 120 pounds and you take a little sword to your hip when you’ve got nothing there, you’re going to get a bone bruise but if you put a little padding on you, a little muscle on you, it prevents injuries.”
It’s not easy to become a knight at Medieval Times, either. Jones said a prospective knight has to undergo about 400 hours of training before he is ready to fight in the arena. They start off working in the stables and work their way up to being a squire before moving on to train for knighthood.
“Most of (the training) is horse-based,” Jones said. “We’ll have an hour or two, maybe two-and-a-half hours of just straight horse training in the mornings. A guy can learn to fight within a three-month span if he’s really gung-ho. Being a horse rider in a three-month span is not too realistic. It can be done, but you’re looking at at least six months to a year to teach them correctly.”
Noble horses …
The castle uses three types of horses for shows and events: Andalusians, Quarter Horses and Friesians.
Jones said a lot of work goes into caring for the two dozen horses used at the Atlanta castle, which has an on-site stable as well as an off-site one. The work includes daily changing of the wood chips in their stalls, baths before and after shows, and frequent visits by a veterinarian who keeps individual files on each horse.
“We have a nice ranch about 25 minutes from here where, on Mondays and Tuesdays, they get their days off,” Jones said. “Our horse trainer actually lives at the ranch so he transports the horses back and forth on those days so they all get a rotation of having a vacation and having a day off, which is nice because they do the work so they need a break as well.”
The castle also has stable hands who work on a schedule to make sure someone is with the horses 24 hours a day. Padrick said security also comes in and checks on the horses overnight to make sure they are OK.
Other steps taken to care for the horses include a stash of shampoos, conditioners, wraps, brushes and rubber hooves to protect their feet during parades. The stalls are air conditioned and there are misters overhead to keep the horses from overheating.
And high-flying birds of prey
The horses aren’t the only animals who have a home at the castle.
The falcons and the owl have their own mews in the castle, as well as an off-site area where they are taken to rest and spend some time outdoors. The falconry staff at the castle consists of master falconer Debbie Tennyson and three apprentices.
Like the horses, the falcons are rotated out and the owl is only used for educational purposes.
“I like to say we have a little bit of a blessing with our falconer because where most of the falconers in our company are experienced hunters and falconers, her main thing when we hired her several years ago was that she was also an experienced rehabilitator,” Padrick said.
Eamon Frawley, an apprentice falconer and event staff member, said the part of the show for which the falcons are used, where they fly in circles around the arena early in the program, is called lure flying.
“That’s an ancient art,” said Frawley, who also teaches history at Central Gwinnett High School. “Since medieval times, they would use that to train birds for the hunt, get them exercise and get them used to not devouring the food immediately and waiting for the handler to bring them the food so that you can take their prey.”
Visitors praise family friendly atmosphere
A large number of people who visit Medieval Times are families who bring young children to the show.
The staff also puts on special theme nights and day shows for scout troops and school groups. There’s even a DragonCon Night where guests are encouraged to wear costumes. It also has junior knight training for children before some shows. That family focus is what some visitors said they like the most about the place.
“It’s an interesting place for kids to experience,” said Woodstock resident Josh Bernhardt, who came with his wife and their son to a show on June 29.
Padrick chalked it up to what the castle put in the show — and what it leaves out.
“It’s a clean show, so there’s no blood, no gore, no inappropriate language,” he said. “But there’s enough action and enough fun participation that adults are also drawn to it.”
Petitone said her family has been to the castle twice — she said her son sat mesmerized throughout the first visit — and they plan to come back again in the future.
“It’s awesome, it’s really wonderful,” she said.