When your polling place is a dungeon: Medieval Times workers vote on unionizing
They may play knights and squires, lord chancellors and queens, but some performers at the Medieval Times dinner theater castle in Buena Park say they’re treated more like peasants, enduring long hours and sometimes dangerous duties for low wages, with minimal say over their working conditions.
On Thursday, they’ll have a chance to change that, casting ballots to determine whether they will unionize.
The election at Medieval Times is part of a wave of organizing efforts spanning industries not traditionally represented by unions — quality assurance workers at a video game studio, strippers at a North Hollywood strip club, baristas at Starbucks. The increased activity traces back to the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted deep disparities in treatment and pay between front-line workers and their managers.
At Medieval Times, organizers are calling for better pay and working conditions, clearly defined job responsibilities and a greater voice in the workplace. The election is set for Thursday afternoon in the castle’s dungeon.
“There’s sort of this prevailing sentiment in the performing arts especially, that, well, you should just be grateful to have a job doing what you love,” said Erin Zapcic, 39, who plays Queen Doña Maria Isabella and is one of the union organizers. “We certainly are grateful, and we certainly do love it. That doesn’t mean that we’re not entitled to things like a living wage or a safe work environment.”
Medieval Times did not respond to a request for comment.
A group of dancers filed a petition for a union election through the Actors’ Equity Assn.
The Buena Park castle closes on Mondays — a remnant of the pandemic’s effect on staffing levels — but otherwise can run multiple shows a day, particularly during weekends and the show’s busy holiday season.
“Professional athletes have an offseason. We don’t have an offseason,” Zapcic said. “We just have a season where we do 10 shows [a week] instead of 21.”
Knights fight with real (if blunted) titanium weapons and can sometimes get cut or otherwise injured. They throw themselves off horses at 25 miles per hour, and they do it for about $19 to $29 an hour, depending on experience level, Zapcic said.
To be a knight, one must start as a squire making “essentially minimum wage” while running around on the arena’s sand floor handing weapons to knights, setting up for the jousts and even shoveling horse poop, she said. Many knights are interested in athletics or gaining on-the-job stunt performer experience.
Stable hands can make $16 an hour. Zapcic, as queen, makes $21.50 an hour based on her long tenure with the company.
The proposed bargaining unit would consist of knights, squires, stable hands and show cast members, including queens, Lord Cedric the lord chancellor, the lord marshal and trumpet players. (The falconer is an independent contractor.)
The American Guild of Variety Artists, which the Medieval Times cast is voting to join, already represents some performers at Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood. Actors Equity Assn., the biggest union for stage actors, has been on a push to swell its membership with performers from beyond the theater, including the dancers at North Hollywood’s Star Garden topless bar and lecturers at Griffith Observatory.
Educators who teach visitors to Los Angeles’ iconic planetarium about the night sky have filed a petition to join a union known for representing stars of the stage.
“I would just think that all the other entertainment complexes are watching ... seeing what the issues are,” said Amani Roberts, a management professor at Cal State Fullerton and executive director of the university’s center for entertainment and hospitality management.
Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament, headquartered in Irving, Texas, occupies an unusual and memorable niche in the realm of live-action entertainment. The Spanish nobility-themed dinner theater show got its start in 1973 in Majorca and made its way to the U.S. 10 years later with the opening of the Kissimmee, Fla., castle. The Buena Park castle opened shortly after in 1986. Today there are 10 Medieval Times castles throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The concept is well-known and oft-parodied. Customers are treated as guests at a royal feast, welcomed with paper crowns that match the color of the knight they’ll cheer for.
As the audience feasts, the knights parade into the arena on horseback carrying flags with their individual colors. The queen — also on horseback — welcomes, a falcon is released and sails through the arena, carnations are tossed to the crowd.
Then the jousting and sword fights begin.
Except for the knights and stable hands, Medieval Times show cast performers are largely part-time and often have additional jobs at nearby Knott’s Berry Farm, Disneyland or the Pirates Dinner Adventure show down the street, Zapcic said.
“A lot of people just cobble together an income with different jobs,” she said.
Zapcic, too, is part-time. When she’s not commuting 40 miles to don her royal regalia on weekends, the North Hollywood resident is a business administrator for a musician. She works remotely, which gives her flexibility during the week.
The Buena Park castle is the second Medieval Times location to attempt to unionize. In July, the New Jersey castle voted 26 to 11 to join the American Guild of Variety Artists.
Josie Martinez, 24, who is a trumpeter in the show, remembers seeing news of the New Jersey castle’s unionization trending on Twitter. Shortly after that, she heard about the unionizing effort at her own castle.
“What a lot of us hope to get from this unionization effort is a structure for accountability,” she said. “Because right now, a lot of us feel that they can listen to us, and then decide what is best for our jobs, even though we’re the ones who have been doing our jobs and understand the ins and outs.”
Trumpeters have had to get the company-owned horns serviced on their own time. The trumpeters were reimbursed for repairs, but Martinez said their requests for regular trumpet maintenance went unheeded by the company. As a result, trumpeters sometimes have to use their own personal instruments. They make about $16 an hour, despite most having at least eight years of trumpet education, she said. In addition to providing musical cues, trumpeters’ duties include helping set up equipment and props for parts of the show.
“I don’t know a single trumpet player in Southern California who hasn’t dreamed of being either a toy soldier at Disney or a herald at Medieval Times, said Martinez, who started working at the Buena Park castle in 2019, and has performed at Carnegie Hall. “These are kind of, like, dream, fantasy jobs.”
She said she would like more job security.
“Everyone wants to make a little kid smile on their birthday,” she said. “It’s just frustrating to know that the company doesn’t have that same level of enthusiasm when dealing with us.”
Zapcic got her start at the New Jersey castle in 2011 after she was laid off from her office job. Her mother suggested she apply at Medieval Times, which was five minutes from her apartment and would be a flexible enough job to continue her acting career.
She started in the gift shop making minimum wage and then moved to a role at the bar, which paid an extra $25 to $50 a week in tips, allowing her to stay at Medieval Times. She was promoted to bar lead and eventually joined the show cast as a princess while keeping her bar job.
In 2018, the show’s storyline changed from a king and princess ruling the roost to a queen in charge. Zapcic’s role changed to queen — a more substantial role that required her to learn horseback riding. She moved to California later that year and got a job at the Buena Park castle as a queen.
On a Tuesday in September, Zapcic is casually dressed in jean shorts and a black T-shirt that says “Get Medieval” with her last name on the back. She’s headed to riding practice later that day, typically a weekly part of her job.
What’s kept her with Medieval Times for more than a decade, despite her long commute and the other working conditions she’s hoping to influence by unionizing?
“I love it,” she said. “We all love what we do. And that’s why it’s really important for it to be sustainable.”