Orlando Dinner Shows – Dixie Stampede & Arabian Nights
BY MIKE WARING – FEBRUARY 2006
Originally I had planned on writing two articles: Dinner Theaters Outside the World and Dinner Theaters Inside the World. This is why I get paid the big bucks, to come up with titles like that. And it only took me two or three days at most. Ahh, the backbreaking labor of a writer – how do I hold up under the burden?
As it turned out, due to a death in the family we had to cut our last trip to Orlando short, so we didn’t get to experience all the major dinner shows as we had planned. I’ve decided to write up our experiences from the first two shows and call this Part 1. I’ll finish the reviews later in the year when we get a chance to go back to Orlando.
Part 1 of our series is a review of two of the four major off-site dinner theater shows, Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede and Arabian Nights. Part 2 will include Pirate’s Dinner Adventure (Arrr!) and Medieval Times. Then eventually, if I haven’t succumbed to an overdose of hokiness, we’ll check out the Disney offerings: the Spirit of Aloha Polynesian Luau and a revisit of the Hoop-De-Doo Revue.
Disclaimer: I don’t like dinner theater. My first experience with it came many years ago, when my employer “invited” me to attend a mandatory performance. Now, I love to attend professional theatrical productions, and I especially love stage and screen musicals. Imagine my horror when I realized that I was going to be forced to watch a dinner theater production of South Pacific. Imagine the horror being squared, nay, cubed, as I perused the menu and realized that the “dinner” consisted of something so horrible that to this day I have no recollection of it. I believe there may have been something described as meat, but I won’t swear to it.
I will admit the South Pacific dinner show was enlivened for me slightly when one of the cast members, running through the audience for some reason, encountered a chair left in the aisle by a guest and did a very respectable face plant. However, this failed to offset the primary misery of the evening, which was the knowledge that I was watching well-meaning incompetents butchering a wonderful musical, yet I had a pair of tickets to a Who concert in my pocket. Oh, how I railed against the gods that night. And how the gods did laugh!
So you can understand how my affection for dinner theater might be somewhat muted.
The first show we attended was the Dixie Stampede, a show that is owned and operated by Dolly Parton, Inc., a major multinational megacorporation. Or not. It has something to do with Dolly Parton, I’m reasonably certain about that.
The building is large, which is naturally required when people on horses and driving wagons are going hell bent for leather – indoors, pardner. The Dixie Stampede venue in Orlando is only four years old and it shows, in that the facilities are clean, modern and well maintained.
We arrived a little late for the pre-show due to a slight detour we experienced when Mary noticed the Dixie Stampede was located right across the street from an outlet mall. Apparently we needed to stop in said outlet mall for? something, first. I can’t quite remember what it was, but it was important I’m sure.
Anyhow, we had made reservations for the 6:30 pm show. When contacting the various dinner show venues to make reservations, all of them had emphasized that while the show would commence at the scheduled time, the doors would open 60 to 90 minutes early. I suspected this was intended to allow them the opportunity to sell additional products and possibly alcoholic beverages before the show. In the case of Dixie Stampede this was indeed the case.
After checking in, we were directed to proceed through a large gift shop cleverly situated so that we could, if we desired, purchase scale model replicas of horses used in the show. (Or so I assume. They could have been selling scale model replicas of any old horses — I don’t know one from another.) They also sold other down-home-style memorabilia. Reluctantly we passed by this bounty and stoically marched through the shop, hands firmly clenched over our wallets.
Upon exiting the gift shop, we encountered helpful hosts who proceeded to gracefully maneuver us into a photo shoot. This was done so smoothly that we were standing there on some sort of front porch setting, grinning like loons for the camera, before we quite knew what was happening. Still blinking the flash afterimages from our eyes, we were then directed into the main pre-show room. This is set up with large trestle tables on the ground floor and bar-counter-style seating along multiple levels on the second floor.
Each floor of the pre-show area has a bar. Surprisingly, Mary pointed out that they had bottles of Heineken behind the bar. I had resigned myself to the fact that the evening would be dominated by Miller and/or Anheuser-Busch products. Restraining myself, or more accurately under restraint from Mary, I didn’t quite dance a jig but I came close.
Settling in to watch the pre-show with my Heineken in hand, I came to the conclusion that all was pretty much right with the world, at least at this particular point in the affairs of men. Mary settled for a frozen orange drink devoid of alcohol, a concept I find puzzling. But at least it came in a plastic souvenir Texas boot cup, which is not something you see on a regular basis.
We missed some of the pre-show, so we cannot give a full accounting of all the frivolity and merriment. We did catch the last few minutes of a magic act that was pretty decent. This was followed by a dance hall number with a saloon piano player and requisite big hearted gal warbling some country and western tunes. Audience participation, ranging from everyone singing along to actually being pulled up on stage, appeared to be a facet of all the acts. The audience seemed to be pretty entertained.
At the appointed time the mob was directed into the main dining hall, arena, coliseum, stadium, whatever you want to call it. Seating is assigned, so rushing to get a seat is probably contraindicated, though fun to watch. Depending on where you are seated, you will then belong either to the North or the South. I assume if you have a philosophical or geographical issue with being lumped with one side or the other, you should specify when reserving that you could never sit with the “Damn Yankees” or “Johnny Rebs.” Otherwise, better get used to humming “Dixie” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” very quietly.
Anyhow, the seating is on tiers surrounding a large arena where the action occurs, so everyone has a clear view. You are seated on individual chairs behind a long counter that forms your dining surface. There is an aisle with a railing in front of the counter, which the servers use to maneuver freely among the guests. It’s a setup that makes up with efficiency what it lacks in aesthetics.
Food is served throughout the show. The food service and the show are timed so that you finish and have a little time to digest just before the show concludes. The culinary offerings were copious, if not particularly adventurous. The meal starts off with a cream of vegetable soup, something I have to confess that I haven’t encountered before in close to a half century of epicurean exploration. It wasn’t bad, actually. I wouldn’t go out of my way to order it, but I’ve definitely encountered worse things.
The main course was a carnivore’s delight. A whole (small) roasted chicken and a slice of pork loin are accompanied by half an “herb basted” potato, corn on the cob, and a biscuit. The chicken was fairly moist and flavorful. The pork loin slice was small and mediocre. The potato was pretty flavorless even though it had been “herb basted” – how is that even possible? The corn on the cob was pretty much like every other mass produced corn on the cob – mushy and overcooked. The biscuit was pretty decent. (By the way, vegetarians have an option, which is vegetable lasagna. You may have to request this in advance – it was not offered to us.)
The meal is accompanied by all-you-can-drink Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, iced tea, or coffee. They limit the beer and wine to only two (large) glasses per person. In the case of the wine this is understandable. Any more then 2 glasses of what they were serving (some sort of generic pinkish stuff that came right out of a box, I’m sure) might induce severe stomach distress. On the other hand I find limiting a person to only two glasses of beer, even mass-produced domestic beer, to be downright un-Amurrikan!
Dessert, for those who have an interest in these kinds of things, was an apple turnover. It was flaky, but the filling was the usual overly sweet, gloppy mess.
However, the main reason one comes to one of these things is not the food (or at least it shouldn’t be), it’s the show. In the case of Dixie Stampede, it’s entertaining. There is no overall story line – it’s a variety show, pure and simple. The emphasis is on a competition between the North and South, and through this they attempt to engage the audience. It seems to work fairly well, from what we observed.
A succession of different acts are all introduced and narrated by the Master of Ceremonies, who is on stage virtually the whole time. The show starts off with a slight bow to historical events: American Indians hunting buffalo, the white man coming and settling, and then fast forward to the War Between the States. From that point, the rest of the show is basically races and contests between the actors and riders representing the two sides. This is interspersed with short comedy interludes that are strictly yokel humor. There’s also a magic comedy act that is fairly entertaining.
To top it off, there are also racing ostriches and racing piglets. I have to say, it’s been too many years since I’ve seen a piglet race. (And it’ll probably be a lot more years, good Lord willing, before I see another.) The kids in the audience liked it a lot. Besides the races there were also a couple of musical numbers, including one that would not have been at all out of place on Lawrence Welk. Not my cup of chowder personally.
If you’re wondering about the potential for the North vs South competition to have political overtones, I should mention that the show is very carefully scripted to avoid taking any position on the Civil War. The Confederate flag is never displayed. Flags are sold for audience members to wave, but they are either blue or grey, with the Dixie Stampede logo on them. The evening concludes with a “we’re all one happy family of Americans” patriotic message and the Stars and Stripes are featured prominently during the closing number.
On the subject of merchandising: there are plenty of ways this show will try to suck additional money out of your pockets. Besides the gift shop (through which you enter and exit the building), you are also given the opportunity to buy souvenir mugs, alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, and popcorn during the pre-show. During the show you can buy the above-mentioned flags to cheer on your side. Someone also comes through offering to sell you the photos that were taken on your way in. These cost $20 for two 6″x8″ prints (one color, one black & white) in a souvenir Dixie Stampede folder.
All in all, if you have a hard time saying “no thanks” you had better bring a lot of extra cash. Also, don’t forget to bring cash for the strongly suggested “15% of full ticket price” (works out to about $7.50 per adult / $3.50 per child) gratuity for your server. This gratuity is overtly solicited by the server, both verbally and by placing something in front of you. The Master of Ceremonies also makes an announcement about tipping.
Of the four non-Disney dinner shows in Orlando, Dixie Stampede actually has the least expensive admission price when purchased at the door. Plus, there are discounts available if you purchase in advance through ticket brokers. Given that it has the newest facilities and arguably the slickest show, if eating whole chickens and watching people ride around on horses and in wagons is your thing, Dixie Stampede is a decent value for the money. Even Mary and I, who are not country and western fans, nor interested in horses or county fair events, enjoyed ourselves. Watching the people around us, it was obvious that the kids especially liked the races and competitions — particularly the racing pigs, but then who can resist those?
We were seated next to a family of seven with two young boys well under the age of 10. The mother apologized profusely to Mary before the show started because her kids were extremely squirrelly, but as soon as the lights went down, we didn’t hear a peep from them till the end of the show. So I’d say if you have young children who enjoy spectacles without loud noises and bright flashing lights, this will probably entertain them. The food was acceptable – nothing to write home about, but considering the average level of culinary achievement most dinner show venues attain, it was a respectable effort.
Please note: Arabian Nights closed on January 1, 2014. The review below is just for amusement purposes.
Okay, I have to offer another disclaimer here. We didn’t expect much of this show from the beginning, and we were pressed for time on this trip to Orlando, so we took advantage of the fact that on some nights both Arabian Nights and Dixie Stampede offer two show times. We went to the early show at Dixie Stampede and the late show at Arabian Nights, on the same night. We do request that readers please not attempt this at home – we’re professionals. And really the only way we made it from one show to the other in time was by suiting Mary up in her NASCAR helmet and letting her drive while I cowered under the dash and whimpered.
Due to the tight scheduling, we did not manage to get to Arabian Nights before guests were led into the main arena. Therefore we cannot give any kind of report on the pre-show activities. As with Dixie Stampede, there was a quick photo shoot at Arabian Nights on our way in. We had to walk through the gift shop to get to the pre-show area, and through that area to the main arena.
At least there was a bar still open in the pre-show area, so I was able to score a Heineken. This fortified me for the walk to our seats, where I found unlimited domestic beer was available, an improvement on the un-Amurrikan situation that existed at Dixie Stampede.
The Arabian Nights facilities are clean and fairly nondescript. The overall feel of the place reminded me of the auditorium in a rural high school for some reason. Lots of Formica and linoleum tiles, perhaps? In any case, the atmosphere is inoffensive.
The main arena at Arabian Nights has a solid surface covered with shredded wood chips. The reasons for this became clear during the show. Overall, capacity is probably around 800-1000 people. There’s also a glassed-in box at one end of the arena – I’m told you can request this section if you have allergies.
Seating is in tiered levels and aisles for the servers to maneuver through. Sight lines are excellent from pretty much anywhere in the arena. The main difference in the seating is that you are sitting on benches (with backs) instead of chairs at Arabian Nights, which makes escape difficult if you are in the middle.
Okay, first the bad news. The food was awful. No, beyond awful, it was food that had been turned down by the school cafeteria. All right, now I’m exaggerating for effect. Nothing’s that bad. But it was pretty bad. Arabian Nights offers five choices for the main course. We decided to each try something different. The choices were prime rib, a ground beef patty (described as “Certified Black Angus Chopped Steak”), grilled boneless chicken breast, chicken tenders or vegetarian lasagna.
Mary had the lasagna and I had the beef patty. I picked the patty because the menu specified that the prime rib was cooked medium well only. I’m not usually a big fan of prime rib anyway, because I kind of like my meat to have some fight left in it, and prime rib always seems a little too tender for me. Also, other than hamburgers and pot roasts, I feel that anyone who serves meat medium well should be horsewhipped. Horsewhipped, I say!
Anyhow, we had already eaten chicken that night, so that was out. And we both decided to pass on the prime rib. This may have been a mistake. Everyone else near us apparently ordered it and seemed to be eating it with a certain amount of enjoyment. We certainly did not enjoy our meals. They started with the inevitable factory-made salad, which came with the same salad dressing in little hygienic plastic tubs that we always get on American Airlines flights. We might be forced to eat it in the air, but on the ground we have a somewhat stiffer backbone. So we picked at the salad.
The entrees followed and neither of us were able to eat more then a couple of bites. My hamburger patty was covered with a brown gravy that was, even for me, too salty — and that’s saying something. Mary’s lasagna was a glutinous, mushy and tasteless mess. The steamed vegetables accompanying each entrée were bland, but not overcooked. The dinner roll was dry-ish but relatively inoffensive.
Now admittedly, since this was our second dinner in the space of two hours, we weren’t hungry enough to overlook slight deficiencies in the cuisine. But even so, we concluded the food probably wouldn’t be much more edible even if we were starving. On the other hand there was unlimited beer, so all was good. There was also unlimited wine, of about the same non-quality as Dixie Stampede. I recommend sticking to the all-you-can-drink beer or soda (diet or regular cola). Dessert was a piece of grocery store quality, sugar-and-Crisco frosted cake.
Now, the good news. The show was considerably better than Dixie Stampede. In fact, we were quite pleasantly surprised with the quality of the entertainment. First, there is a story line of sorts. It’s a contrived and somewhat silly story line, but at least they came up with something, which puts them one up on Dixie Stampede. The basic plot is a variation on the story of Scherazade, the fabled storyteller of the 1001 Arabian Nights. So naturally it includes Arabian princes and princesses and genies (in both father figure and comedy relief versions).
Using the storytelling premise as a background, the princess introduces a wide variety of acts, all involving horses. It’s kind of like a story a kid would make up, with pirates and tigers and cowboys and gypsies and bears. Well, except it didn’t have any of those other than the cowboys and gypsies. Not to mention a salute to Broadway (?!?), chariot racing, Bedouins, and a drunk rider and his horse (or was it a drunk horse and his rider?). Something like that. For the girls, there are two rather romantic segments featuring the princess interacting with a “wild” horse.
The level of riding skill and stunts on exhibition at Arabian Nights was much higher than at Dixie Stampede. Basically the riding in Dixie Stampede consisted of going around an arena very fast and that was pretty much it. There was little in the way of stunt riding. By contrast, Arabian Nights had several very entertaining acts with impressive stunt riding and circus-style acrobatics. The need for the firmer ground in the arena became clear after watching the more ambitious of the acrobatic acts – they never could have handled the requisite running and jumping if they had been forced to do it in sand. There was also a higher level of stagecraft overall, with better lighting and special effects like fog and such.
From our observation, kids really enjoyed the show, especially the comedy acts. In fact, even though there was less orchestrated audience participation at Arabian Nights than we had experienced at Dixie Stampede, it seemed like children were more engaged in the Arabian Nights show.
You’ll have ample opportunities to spend more money at Arabian Nights, though we felt it was a softer sell than other shows and an overall better value for what was offered. You enter and exit through the gift shop, which has lots of “Arabian” costumes and the requisite scale model replicas of horses for sale. At the pre-show bar you can purchase drinks in a souvenir glass. During the show they’ll bring around the photo packages, which are $20 and include one 6″x8″ photo in a souvenir Arabian Nights folder, plus two small photos, along with a key chain and magnet photo frame you can slide the small photos into. Your server will drop a slip of paper in front of you, suggesting a $5 per adult, $3 per child gratuity, but there is no further pressure about tipping.
The Arabian Nights show itself was head and shoulders above Dixie Stampede and the level of horsemanship was light years better. Yes, the overall plot was hokey and the acts incorporated into the plot were connected only by the most tenuous of threads, but it was still an entertaining mishmash. Kids especially seemed to like it. Young girls ought to eat this up with a spoon – beautiful princesses, beautiful horses, and princes. What more do you need?
The food – oh, dear god! Do yourself a favor and eat either before or after the show. Plan on paying to watch the show itself and not for the food. If you look at it that way, we feel it’s probably still an okay value, particularly since you can get huge discounts (sometimes 50% off or more) by purchasing tickets in advance through various dealers.
The Dixie Stampede is the more polished show overall, in a corporate, all-the-rough-edges-polished-off sort of way. It’s bland and pretty much undistinguished. The food is edible. It’s not a bad value and if you’re looking for something a little different to do while you’re in Orlando, it can be a fun way to spend an evening.
Arabian Nights, on the other hand, is a much more interesting (if less corporate) show. If you have little girls who love horses, they’ll really get a kick out of it. Even the boys were enjoying themselves. However, the food is below airline food standards — well, at least back when they had airline food in Coach. Plan accordingly.
More Information on Dinner Shows
To see a summary and overall grades for all of the shows, click here.