It was sometime after the arrival of the butternut squash bisque but before the serving of the fresh salmon, cornbread chicken and prime rib that the passengers got word about the dead body in the baggage car.
Not that they were surprised. In fact, they were ready for it, poised at their tables with pencil and paper to watch for clues as three bickering characters clad in flapper dresses, glittery head scarves and elbow-length gloves burst into the aisle.
Aboard the Murder Mystery Dinner Train in Fort Myers, even an unwitting passenger might find himself pulled into the drama ever so slightly as the play unfolds amid the actors’ tongue-in-cheek humor – with one performer running her hand through a diner’s hair during a joke about her search for the right man.
“That was kind of cool,” whispered Dwayne Acuff, 54, to his date, Debbie Lopez, 48, after the first act.
Unlike some of the other passengers who had driven from as far away as Clearwater for a special night of fine dining and sleuth-partaking, Acuff and Lopez are natives of Fort Myers. Yet it was their first time on this train. Acuff surprised Lopez for her birthday. During the train ride, she spotted sites from their childhood from a unique vantage point, looking through the picture window as the rail cars rolled slowly north through residential neighborhoods, downtown and then across the Caloosahatchee River, glimmering under an orange-pink sunset.
The Murder Mystery Dinner Train productions have been running since the early 1990s, several years after the Fay family’s Seminole Gulf Railway purchased 118 miles of track from CSX that runs from North Naples to Arcadia.
Apart from its freight business, the Fay family decided to try something different and started a dinner train on a short section of the tracks. First, they bought and refurbished four vintage sleeper coaches that seat 200 guests. They ran lobster bakes, trips to the Arcadia rodeo and a jazz train. But nothing took off like the murder mysteries – which became so popular the other shows went by the wayside.
In the next two decades, the Murder Mystery Dinner Train would host more than a half million people and feature more than 70 new productions, said Robert Fay, vice president of Seminole Gulf Railway and producer of the Murder Mystery Dinner Train. Patrons come from all over the state, but many are repeat customers in southwest Florida – first boarding for an occasion such as an engagement party, then returning for an anniversary, birthday or girls’ night out.
At first, Seminole Gulf Railway contracted an acting troupe for the shows. But now the railway employs its own crew of actors as well as a wait staff that deftly balances freshly cooked plates of food with wine glasses and beverages on a moving train, timing their delivery of the five-course meal between acts during the 40-mile round trip that spans more than three hours and begins and ends in Fort Myers.
There’s always a variety of new shows to choose from – including special themed plays around the holidays with names like “Haunted by Death” near Halloween, “A Merry Little Murder” around Christmas or the train’s Sweetheart Express special event with a strolling violinist around Valentine’s Day.
On this evening, guests have boarded to see what mayhem will unfold in “Speak Easy of Murder.” The setting is a rolling speakeasy train running between Boston and New Orleans, secretly serving alcohol to its passengers during the Prohibition Era. Extra booze is set to be off-loaded in New Orleans for illegal distribution in the Big Easy. Running this operation with plenty of sass and swagger is Miss Myrtle O’Brian, played by Wende Gilmore, who has written this and many of the train’s other plays. It also showcases Swanky Sue and her Sophisticated Ladies all-girl band. With tensions high and federal agents hot after organized crime members, it’s no wonder someone winds up dead.
“Hold it right there, girlie! I’m Finn O’Flynn, and who might you be?” yelled actor Ron Kelly to one of the other characters during the second act. By now many of the passengers – seated as pairs at tables of four – had met new acquaintances.
As the entrées were served and passengers pored over their clue sheets trying to figure out the killer, Acuff called over to the adjacent table: “In all the trips you’ve been on, have you ever figured it out?”
“No, and I don’t expect to tonight,” answered Fran Perkins, 67, of Sarasota. For Perkins and husband, Jim, 69, the ride was their ninth on the Murder Mystery Dinner Train.
“We love it. It’s always a different show,” Fran Perkins said. Jim Perkins used to work at a retirement center and would bring two dozen residents at a time on the train for dinner and a mystery.
In the socializing between acts, Jim Perkins quickly learned that he and tablemate Dan Mullett both had ties to Pittsburgh. Mullett and his wife, Marsha, from Clearwater were celebrating their 27th anniversary. Marsha found out about the train while searching the Internet for ways to mark the big day.
As the play drew to a close and the train rolled back toward the station, diners finished off the last slices of apple cinnamon crumb cake and wrote out their final guesses about the killer, sometimes comparing notes or playfully eavesdropping on each other. In the end, someone at a table at the back of the rail car guessed it right and won a prize.
But the couples said they would be back to try again. “It was marvelous,” said Dan Mullett.
If You Go
The Murder Mystery Dinner Train leaves from the Colonial Station at 2805 Colonial Blvd. in Fort Myers. The trains run year round, Wednesdays through Sundays. The cost is $69 plus tax and gratuity, except for Saturday trains, which cost $75 plus tax and gratuity. Holidays and special events have different prices. Getaway packages at nearby hotels are available at special rates through the train’s reservation office. For more information, visit semgulf.com or call 239-275-8487.
Directions: From U.S. 41, drive east on Colonial Boulevard, cross the railroad tracks and turn left into the Lee County Public Education Center, then left toward the back and the Colonial Station. From Interstate 75 at exit 136, drive west on Colonial Boulevard, cross Metro Parkway and turn right into the Lee County Public Education Center, then left toward the back and the tracks at Colonial Station.