In theme parks’ early days, food was often an afterthought — served and consumed quickly, so visitors could get back to riding Space Mountain or watching the Shamu show.
These days, visitors want more from their meals, and theme parks are offering them a smorgasbord of options. The breadth of menu items and restaurants is growing. Food festivals are flourishing. Chefs are creating dishes meant to give guests a fuller experience of the Jungle Cruise ride or Diagon Alley.
“I think guests expectations’ have changed over the years,” said Beth Scott, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts’ vice president of food and beverage. “Certainly with things like The Chew and the Food Network and social media, people are becoming much more savvy about their dining experiences.”
With 475 restaurants, kiosks and other food outlets, Walt Disney World in particular has become known for pleasing the palate. Its food-and-wine festival at Epcot has grown to 62 days. Hours of many Disney eateries have expanded too, with more serving breakfast. Many events have dessert parties attached. Heeding more than 700,000 special dietary requests Disney says it receives annually, the parks have introduced allergy-friendly “Snacks with Character.”
Eater.com last year published an in-depth online guide to Disney World, with guides to everything from ice cream to cocktails. Not everything got a great review, but editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt wrote that “pleasures can very much be found — not only pleasures but ingenuity, quirky surprises and pure joy .”
Ed Wronski, Disney’s director of food and beverage product development, said his company’s portfolio of restaurants has become more diverse over the years. “We . really expanded the different dining options for our guests based on the experiences they were looking for.”
Disney says its commitment to quality cuisine was demonstrated with the recent opening of its Flavor Lab near Port Orleans resort — a 7,000-square-foot building devoted to research and development across all Disney parks. About 20 employees work there full-time on an increasing number of new projects such as recipes for the Tiffins restaurant opening in Animal Kingdom this spring. Other new places executives point to include Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar in Disney Springs, featuring signature cocktails such as the bright green Reggie’s Revenge made of vodka and melon liqueur.
Then there’s the Magic Kingdom’s Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper Canteen, an ode to the regions traveled in the Jungle Cruise ride. Dishes from Asia, South America and Africa include sustainable fish collar with yuzu-soy sauce.
When that restaurant opened in December, “reading the social media and the press, the way it was described, it’s not your typical theme-park food,” said Jean-Marie Clement, Disney’s director of food & beverage concept development. “They were talking about the flavor, the spices, the presentation.”
There’s still plenty of basic grub such as burgers and pizza to be found among the gourmet goodies. But local food blogger Ricky Ly said he’s been impressed by Disney’s increasing sophistication. He would like to see other theme parks introduce more high-quality, locally-sourced ingredients.
“A lot of their folks sometimes plan their trips around food,” Ly said. “To miss that demographic is, maybe, shortsighted for businesses looking to cater to the next generation who cares more about their food.”
Many try to get as much for their money by the using theme parks’ meal plans, the costs of which have regularly increased. Disney’s prices went up this week week after two years of staying steady.
SeaWorld is placing emphasis on its festivals, many of which feature something to eat. Its sister park in San Antonio last year debuted a Seven Seas Food Festival. For its Bands, Brew & BBQ, SeaWorld Orlando has started cooking the barbecue in-house and expanded the menu to include down-home delicacies such as a maple-bacon cupcakes and corn-chip chili pie. “It’s really taken it to a whole new level,” said Cathy Valeriano, SeaWorld’s vice president of culinary operations. In Orlando, SeaWorld also introduced New Year’s Eve four-course dinner with champagne and dessert reception.
Last year Universal Orlando joined the trend of events built around eating, with a dinner featuring Halloween Horror Nights’ scare actors.
At Universal Orlando, the opening of the first Harry Potter land in 2010 unleashed some serious culinary creativity. While planning Universal’s Wizarding Worlds, senior vice president Ric Florell and his team referred to now dog-eared copies of the Potter books filled with notes on meals, treats and drinks that they could bring to life.
Universal found its signature beverage in Butterbeer. The books didn’t specify its flavor, so Universal’s team had to use its imagination. After more than two years tinkering with the recipe, Universal delivered a foamy concoction that tastes taste of cream soda and butterscotch. Butterbeer now comes in several forms — even a fudge.
Universal’s two Potter lands also feature British pub fare, oddly flavored ice creams, and Wizarding World beverages including Fishy Green Ale, a minty beverage with blueberry boba-style bubbles.
The heavy theming can also be found in Universal’s Simpsons area, which when it opened in 2013 included Krusty Burger and Duff Brewery.
Grabbing an unusual bite to eat in these lands “completes the experience,” Florell said. “It’s the exclamation mark on the rest of your day.”