Sunlight streams through the windows of our dining car, done up so it feels as if we are riding the rails decades ago and have just popped in for dinner. White tablecloth-covered tables line the walls, leaving the aisle free for porters to deliver our dinners.
Only this aisle isn’t really for porters. It’s a stage for actors who will present a murder-mystery play between courses. Perhaps after soup but before the salad we’ll learn of the death of one of the “spies” traveling with us. We are aboard Murder Mystery Dinner Train.
Robert Fay, vice president of Seminole Gulf (still a working cargo rail in addition to offering rides), describes the start of the dinner train: “It’s our family business. We started as a freight railroad in 1987, then started the passenger service with the dinner train in 1991. These are comical murder mysteries: lighthearted, not deadly serious. They are fun and engaging. This is a nice evening out that’s different.”
The Mystery Unfolds
The train presents the show over the course of the three-and-a-half hour trip, which takes us north through the backyards and warehouse tracks of Fort Myers, then over the scenic Caloosahatchee River on a 75-foot drawbridge into the coastal countryside of Florida’s Gulf Coast, or Old Florida, as Fay calls it.
The actors play out scenes between courses, performing the same scene in each car. The train seats as many as 200 passengers for dinner, so a full crowd can mean some real hustling for the small cast – but they are good and play to the crowd, occasionally interacting with passengers. We write down dates and facts the actors pepper their dialogues with, all possible clues to the killer and the cause.
The ride is popular with visitors and locals – locals come for special occasions (we celebrated a birthday and a new marriage in our car), and visitors come from all over the world. Indeed, the couple across the aisle from us was from Iowa, enjoying the balmy climes of South Florida.
Dinner is five courses, always changes and is posted on the web site. Dinner always features prime rib, and there is a full bar and wine list. All of the cooking is done on the train.
The night we ride the rails, the entrees are panko-crusted chicken, salmon and prime rib. The salmon is moist, coated with marmalade and served with rice and peas. The prime rib is a real hit with our across-the-aisle neighbor, who cleans her plate and gives it a “fabulous” rating. Dessert is a little strawberry and cream cheese tartlet.
The train ride is as thrilling to me as the mystery. The gentle rocking relaxes me, and I watch the scenery roll by out the window. I am touched by children and adults waving as we pass. I think, “Doesn’t this happen every night?” But I wave back, smiling, knowing I’d be waving if I were watching the train pass, too.
We hit the river crossing just before sunset, and a spectacular view of sunset over the Gulf of Mexico greets us. This sight takes my breath away when I’m driving down I-75, but I’m even more impressed on the train. I’m closer to the water, not speeding over it. The buildings of Fort Myers are visible in the distance, and I can see the homes, big and small, that line the shores of the bay formed by the wide river.
The train continues north, and darkness envelopes us – now the only thing we can see is the brush and the trees by the tracks, illuminated by the train as we pass.
Our mystery continues to unfold. The back of my clue sheet is packed with notes. After each scene, we lean across the aisle and compare notes with other diners. By now the train is heading south again, and we know the pressure is on to point a finger at the guilty party.
Before the final scene, we are asked to come to a decision and name the murderer, along with motives and clues to support our guess. I won’t give anything away, but we over-think it, assigning reason and motive to obscure clues we think we’ve gleaned throughout the ride. Needless to say, we don’t get the Super Sleuth Award.
After the reveal, the cast gets rousing applause. The diner with the winning guess is awarded his clue sheet, a certificate signed by all the actors “should one of us become famous someday” and a Super Sleuth mug. We pull back into the station at 10 p.m., and we all stream out – everyone seems to have enjoyed themselves in this dinner theater on rails – past the cast and crew, who cheerfully bid us good night.
In 2012, Seminole Gulf Railway has eight new shows. They also run hotel getaway packages; these rates and specials are only available through Seminole Gulf Railway.
Murder Mystery Train, 239-275-8487 or 800-736-4853 (800-SEM-GULF), www.semgulf.com.