All aboard for intrigue: Test your sleuthing skills aboard the Murder Mystery Dinner Train

Scott McIntyre/Staff
Wende Gilmore, left, performs as Princess Clara for guests on board the Murder Mystery Dinner Train during the show, 'Haunted By Death,' where the performers try to figure out who killed who on board the train.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

Scott McIntyre/Staff Wende Gilmore, left, performs as Princess Clara for guests on board the Murder Mystery Dinner Train during the show, "Haunted By Death," where the performers try to figure out who killed who on board the train.

They’ve been haunting the train for about a century, but the four ghosts stuck on the Murder Mystery Dinner Train are determined that 2012 is the year they’ll find out who killed them.

Spoiler alert: One of them did it. But it’s up to the passengers to figure it all out.

The Seminole Gulf Railway in Fort Myers debuted its latest murder mystery, “Haunted by Death,” on Aug. 8. The show — which runs Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays through Nov. 22 — is the latest in a series of productions performed on the railway since 1992.

“We’ve been at it a good long while,” said Robert Fay, vice president of Seminole Gulf Railway and producer of the Murder Mystery Dinner Train “It’s a labor of love. It’s a rolling restaurant. It’s a unique dining experience. It’s whatever you want to call it.”

Most people call it fun.

On a recent Sunday dozens of patrons filled the train’s cars — named after Southwest Florida’s islands — ready for a show. Everyone was there for a different reason. One woman was celebrating her birthday, while another group was just out for a show and a bite on a Sunday evening.

That’s exactly what the owners envisioned when they started the dinner train two decades ago. Fay said the railway initially just served dinner, but knew pretty much immediately that they wanted to add murder to the equation.

“It kind of makes sense,” Fay said.

Within a year of launching the dinner train, Fay started brainstorming ideas and producing small shows in between courses. Wendé Gilmore joined in 2006, first as an actress and later as the company’s artistic director. She’s also responsible for much of the writing and most of the costuming.

“I like to say it’s a sprinkling of vaudeville, with a scripted show and some impromptu,” she said.

If you go

SEMINOLE GULF RAILWAY'S MURDER MYSTERY DINNER TRAIN

When: “Haunted by Death,” 6:30 p.m. departure Wednesdays and Thursdays; 5:30 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 22; and “Dice, Deeds and Death,” 6:30 p.m. departure Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 1. For show descriptions and future shows, click here

Where: The train departs from 2805 Colonial Blvd., Fort Myers

Cost: $66 plus tax on Wednesday, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, and $74 plus tax on Saturdays. The price includes the cost of the ticket and a five-course meal. The cost of beverages and gratuity is not included. Reservations are required.

Information: 239-275-8487 or semgulf.com

The premise of “Haunted by Death” is simple: Four people — Prince Franz, played by John E. Repa; his wife, Princess Clara, played by Gilmore; their manservant Carsey, played by Paul Crane; and aviator Harriet Quimby, played by Susan Dohan — were killed 100 years ago when the train they were traveling on derailed. Most people believed it was a tragic accident, but the quartet thinks differently.

They think it was murder, and Dohan’s character points her ghostly finger at one of her traveling partners.

It’s up to the audience, Gilmore said, to figure out exactly who did it.

Passengers do that by collecting clues from each of the scenes. Some are genuine clues. Others are red herrings. All of them are meant to point patrons in the right direction, while getting laughs from audience members.

Those laughs come from interaction between the actors and the audience. Dohan played with the hair of male diners while walking through the room, Crane chanted the word beer every time he walked into the dining car.

Even interruptions were handled with a comic touch. When a diner started talking during a scene, one actor addressed the talker in a stage whisper, quipping that the cast may be ghosts, but could still hear him.

Gilmore said while keeping things light is important in any stage production, it’s especially important when actors are working in such close quarters. Their stage is the narrow aisle between tables in a room that is constantly moving. While the beginning of the trip chugs slowly through Lee County toward Punta Gorda, the train speeds up on its return and the actors often get jostled when they’re in the aisle.

It’s not just the actors who need to get their sea legs. The wait staff must also determine how to stay stable as they serve bowls of bright red tomato soup or pour scalding hot coffee while the train is moving.

Fay said his staff’s professionalism — and ability to stay upright despite working on a moving train — keeps people coming back. Most nights during the winter, Fay said, the trains have about 200 patrons. Those numbers dip in the summertime, but Fay said the train is still a popular attraction.

It also lets patrons become the super sleuths they always wanted to be. As the play drew to a close, Crane and Dohan collected clue sheets from patrons playing along. One lucky patron in each car was deemed a winner when they guessed the killer.

The question, though, on everyone’s mind until the end was: Did the butler do it?

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