Getting the food offer right is important for theme parks. Celia Woolfrey speaks with operators and consultants around the world about hitting the sweet spot with visitors
There’s a buzz in the Stadsmästargården restaurant at, one of Sweden’s premier visitor attractions with half a million visitors a year. Children sit at tables with their families for a midday meal before throwing themselves back into the world of Pippi Longstocking, Emil and other Lindgren characters.
There’s no brand hard sell, no promotional deals or bottomless fizzy drink refills. Instead there’s a short menu of healthy, traditional home cooking with vegetables and salads. Calm children and no ultra-processed food – not what you’d usually expect at a theme park.
A few months after my trip to Sweden, secret diners from Out to Lunch, a group within the Soil Association campaigning for healthier food for kids, placed Legoland’s Windsor resort joint last in a 2018 league table of UK visitor attractions based on their food offering, saying it should be called “Deep-fried Crap Land” instead.
Theme park food today covers every extreme. Done well, it’s a key part of the visitor experience, immersing visitors more deeply in the theme park worlds they’re visiting. Not so well, and it’s no surprise that guests complain about prices or bring in sandwiches from home.
As an industry, it’s vast – over 475 million people attended the top 10 amusement park chains worldwide in 2017. At its epicentre, Disney, Merlin (which runs Legoland resorts, Gardaland in Italy and Alton Towers among other attractions) and Universal attract an aggregate 266 million visitors a year. In 2017, Disney Parks and Resorts alone did $20.29bn worth of business worldwide.
Both Disney and Universal are investing in the expanding Asian market – Shanghai Disneyland opened in 2016 and at $5.5bn is the company’s largest foreign investment ever, and Universal’s Beijing outpost is due to open in 2021. China’s richest man, property developer Wang Jianlin, is in the same market – his $3bn Wanda Cultural Tourism City opened in Nanchang in 2016 and he’s spoken out about how he’s positioning Wanda’s parks against “an invasion of foreign cultures”.
The industry is multi-layered, with regional thrill park chains such as Six Flags and Cedar Fair in the US, and cities such as Dubai investing in visitor attractions including parks inspired by Hollywood and Bollywood, plus tens of thousands of other water parks, fairground style amusement parks and other fun attractions on every continent.
With around 25% of revenue coming from food and drink, potential rewards are huge for those businesses that can deliver what their customers want.
“Theme park food is moving in many interesting directions at once,” says Dr Martin Lewison, associate professor in business management at the State University of New York and an expert on the global theme park industry. “Nostalgia plays a part, so there are some things – like corn dogs [deep-fried hot dogs in batter] – that you can’t change, and other cultish favorites such as the cinnamon bread at Dollywood and Silver Dollar City. That said, there’s been a lot of great innovation. Disney was the first to create a perception of value to help guests feel justified paying a lot for food.”
In 1995, Disney made food an event in itself with its now annual food and wine festival at Epcot in Florida, originally conceived to bring in guests in fall, a typically slow period. After seeing it take off and become one of Walt Disney World’s busiest events, other parks have followed suit. “It’s a great way to get more spend per guest,” Lewison explains.
Part of the story
It’s all about generating excitement. “Disney has the resources to introduce, say, a limited edition dessert, bring it into the parks for a week or a month, people go insane and there’s a line 10 miles long to buy it, and then they take it out the park – because they can,” says Lewison.
F&B has become an essential part of the storytelling. One theme park land that ups the ante for marrying food with intellectual property is Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which opened in May 2019 at Disneyland Resort, California, with another one opening at Walt Disney World, Florida at the end of August. A grilled sausage and pork wrap, for example, becomes much more than that when it’s sliced from a side of ‘ronto’ – a massive beast native to the planet Tatooine in the Star Wars films – spit-roasted over a podracer engine. And who wouldn’t want to rub shoulders and drink a Jedi Mind Trick cocktail with the galaxy’s bad boys at notorious watering hole Oga’s Cantina?
“We worked closely with Walt Disney Imagineering as the food and beverage of the land is such a big part of the overall immersive story,” says Peter Zampaglione, director of food and beverage concept development at Walt Disney World. “We usually focus on menu development around a year prior to opening but this was more involved as we wanted to achieve a more definitive [F&B] experience that links to the land.”
Taking menus from concept to reality and designing foodservice venues for quick turnover is a mammoth undertaking. “For past projects, such as Harry Potter, I read books or watch movies for reference. Often, our client has a basic idea and we help them expand on it – rounding out the selections,” says Dick Eisenbarth FCSI, CEO of Cini-Little in Florida, which has worked with Universal in both Orlando and Los Angeles and is in the process of finishing its upcoming park in Beijing.
“We then think about how many venues and how many square meters do we need for a restaurant that will serve 300 people an hour. Most theme parks have a central commissary for producing bulk food, which is then shipped to restaurants and kiosks out in the park. You save a lot of money by not using space in the park for big kitchens .”
Delivering the service
Making cooking as simple and as quick as possible is vital. “We’re looking at as much technology as we can with equipment and we’re also looking at different types of holding equipment so you don’t have to be constantly producing,” adds Eisenbarth.
The key is flexibility, says architect and foodservice consultant Tom Galvin FCSI, CEO of the Galvin Design Group, which has worked on scores of theme park projects including the first Wizarding World of Harry Potter for Universal Studios. “We develop concepts from scratch but we have no idea how guests are going to react. I ask chefs: ‘What’s your signature item? If that doesn’t sell, what’s your fall-back?’”
The challenges of delivering a food and drink service at a theme park will be familiar to any F&B business. The bottom line is to keep guests relaxed and a flow of people moving in and out of the restaurants with as little waiting in line and switchback as possible. However, Galvin reckons there is an additional challenge when developing foodservice concepts for something like Star Wars and Harry Potter, with such a strong identity.
“It is difficult because you have guests who know the ins and outs and every detail of the subject matter,” he says. “A few of the challenges we encounter are in the supply chain – sometimes we experience extremely high footfall and it’s difficult to predict the number of visitors,” says Mohit Kohli, food and beverage manager at Bollywood Parks in Dubai. Sara Hedblom, in charge of F&B at Astrid Lindgren’s World, says the weather plays a huge part for her team: “The volumes of food, drinks and coffee vary a lot depending on the weather – if it rains in the morning we can lose 1,000-3,000 guests, which makes a big difference for the chefs. And if the temperature goes above 20°C (68°F) even the adults buy ice cream and we have to refill the freezers.”
All cite labor as a huge part of the equation. “Even if I, and my core F&B team are passionate about what we’re doing and why, it means nothing if we can’t inspire the seasonal staff and bring them along with us,” Hedblom says.
Looking to the future, parks are exploring healthier, plant-based offerings as well as what Martin Lewison gleefully calls “absolutely sinful eating” at restaurants such as Toothsome Chocolate Emporium at Universal Orlando CityWalk, which offers dessert engineering that is perfect for Instagram.
Put resources into F&B and parks do see a return on investment: “If you have great food in the park, you’re more likely to keep people for longer. The longer they stay, the more they’ll spend. It’s a self-feeding loop – you just have to get it going,” Lewison concludes.