Offering a restaurant-quality meal and an evening of professional entertainment in one place, dinner theaters seem custom-made for group tour organizers. Any itinerary planner will tell you that treating clients to a dinner and show under one roof—without even changing seats—makes his or her job just that much easier. No need to worry about pulling your group away from an early dinner, piling them onto the bus and rushing over to the theater before the curtain rises. Dinner theater has always been a staple of bus tours. Many of America’s best-known dinner show venues have been around for decades, a reassuring thought for tour planners counting on a no-surprises experience for their guests. Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, Ind., has been operating for nearly 40 years. Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse, housed in a restored 1921 movie theater in Rock Island, Ill., has entertained Quad Cities-area guests since 1978.
The emphasis at these happy venues is on lighthearted entertainment, with fresh comedies and time-tested Broadway musicals comprising most of the offerings. Planners can expect middle-of-the-road theater fare—rarely any worries about material that’s too racy. You can’t miss with standbys like Annie Get Your Gun, Fiddler on the Roof, South Pacific, Singin’ in the Rain and The King & I. The antics of The Church Basement Ladies is another reliable crowd-pleaser. Some theaters also present concerts, from Beatles and Motown revues to Big Band nights to Branson-style shows and musical tributes to beloved performers like Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, Johnny Cash, John Denver, the Andrew Sisters and the Four Seasons.
In November and December the holiday shows take over and are typically “coach fillers.” Playlists feature holiday variety shows and classics like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Groups also like the intimacy of a dinner theater. Instead of being lost in a sea of seats far from the stage, theater-goers easily connect with the performers as they belt out their tunes, sometimes just feet away. Expect good sightlines and tiered seating.
Ticket prices, moreover, are much lower than the big-city houses—and a fraction of Broadway shows in New York. For less than what you might pay for a show alone, you get both the show and a multi-course meal. Groups, of course, receive attractive discounts, and a comp may be granted for every so many guests booked. The bus driver is usually taken care of, too.
Dinner theater owners know that food quality is just as important as the show being staged, so their meals rival the best restaurants in town. Many theaters boast all-you-can-eat buffets, offering a choice of meats, potatoes, pasta, hot vegetables, rolls and more. There may be a salad bar or the server may bring salad (or soup) to the table. Luscious desserts are a hallmark of these showplaces, and most have full bars.
Many dinner theaters belong to the National Dinner Theatre Association (NDTA), which offers professional development workshops at its two annual conferences. Sessions spotlight cutting-edge issues ranging from marketing and fiscal management to employee relations and new technical wonders.
Smart tour planners find that scheduling an evening or afternoon of food and fun is a no-brainer. In fact, a dinner theater visit could be your itinerary’s star attraction.