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How theme parks can increase guest spending: Improving food service throughout the day

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Published: August 28, 2009 at 10:42 AM

While I sometimes enjoy buying souvenirs in theme parks, I spend far more money, overall, on food and drinks when I'm inside the parks.

So any discussion about increasing the amount of money that people spend must focus on in-park food service. Again, to bring infrequent readers up to speed, I've been writing several articles about how parks can help themselves by earning more money from each visitor spends in the park during this recession. But my suggestions are designed not to lead to more nickel-and-diming, but to show parks ways to increase the value of what they offer, so that we will want to spend more money, and will get better deals in return.

I've already written about breakfasts, and why parks should offer better options to lure visitors earlier in the day. And we've gone over why it makes sense for parks to offer free drinks to their guests in the parks.

Today, I'd like to talk about lunches, snacks and dinners. Here's my top advice:

Offer well-themed food and drinks

What's your favorite meal of the year? Mine is Thanksgiving dinner. Which is why I was completely captivated by the idea of a restaurant in Indiana's Holiday World that serves Thanksgiving dinner year-round. Not only does it fit the park's theme perfectly, it sounded just delicious.

Holiday World Thanksgiving-style dinner

And it was. (Though, as I mentioned at the time, I really would have loved the addition of a fresh cranberry sauce. Please, Mr. Koch!)

Theme park food should enhance the theme of a park. Holiday World's ongoing Thanksgiving feast does this, as does SeaWorld Orlando's Sharks Underwater Grill and Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Festhaus show. And Epcot's Future World provides the strongest example of dining as themed entertainment.

Such restaurants become additional attractions, ones that encourage visitors to dine in the park and consider those meals a benefit of the day, not a hassle.

Chain restaurants and snack stands not only fail to add to the theme of any park, they remind visitors of the world outside the park, on (literally) a gut level. People who are not mentally immersed in their theme park visit are far more likely to cut their day short, resulting in less in-park spending.

The fussier, the better

If there's one word I could use to describe what a theme park experience should be, it would be "special." Every experience you have within the park should be something that you can't easily or wouldn't frequently replicate outside.

When I worked in the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland, the longest line in the area often wasn't for a ride, it was for the Turkey Leg wagon. I rarely visit Legoland without stopping for a serving of apple fries. And who doesn't like to ogle the French pastries at Disney's Epcot?

Part of the appeal of a theme park snack also should include a moment of individual service to the guest, beyond handing you food-on-a-stick and taking your cash. Part of the appeal of getting cotton candy is watching the person twirl the cone in the bin, building your treat. That "specialness" is lost when parks sell cotton candy in a bag.

Let's put omelette stations in for breakfast, and crepe stations for snacks and lunch. Offer hand-dipped and fresh-fried corn dogs and only hand-pulled cotton candy. The more moments of individual service that a park can provide a guest, the better that guest will feel about the park, and the longer they'll stay. And that means more money for the park and more value for the guest.

Prepackaged snacks and meals look better on the park balance sheet in the short term, but only because those balance sheets don't account for real cost of lost service to park guests - less spending, lower satisfaction and fewer visits.

Lower calorie snacks

Few people think "theme park" and "healthy food" in the same thought. And, as I mentioned in the point above, theme park food should provide a special experience, outside of one's normal, daily diet.

But there's a practical reason why parks should offer more lower-calorie snacks, and it's the same reason I keep coming back to throughout these posts: parks should be doing whatever they can to encourage visitors to stay longer in the parks.

People who load up on high-calorie snacks are less likely to want to go on certain rides, limiting the number of attractions available to them throughout the day. They're more likely to want to either skip or minimize dinner, which can be both a lucrative meal for parks and an enticement to keep visitors in the park through the afternoon. High-calorie snacks and heat don't mix, either, leading to sick-to-their-stomach guests who don't enjoy their stay in the park and don't make plans to come back.

So push the popcorn... and the free water. Offer frozen fruit. Reduce snack portion sizes (and their prices). Forcing meal-sized (and priced) snacks on visitors in mid-afternoon leaves too many of them feeling fat and fleeced, not fun and refreshed for a longer stay in the park.

Offer less expensive options at lunch

Same principle. The idea is to keep the guest in the park until dinnertime (and beyond). A less-expensive lunch keeps money in their pockets for later in the day.

When we visited SeaWorld Orlando, we had lunch at Sharks, one of the most expensive restaurants in the theme park industry. We enjoyed it, but when dinnertime approached, we high-tailed it out of the park for a cheap pizza dinner back at grandma's house.

If the high-priced Sharks hadn't been open for lunch, we'd have eaten somewhere else in the park for that meal, then stayed for dinner at Sharks. And SeaWorld would have made more money from us. If Sharks had offered a lower-priced lunch menu, we still might have eaten there for lunch, but we'd have been more likely to stay in the park for dinner, too, since we wouldn't have blown so much on lunch. SeaWorld probably would have made more from us in that case, too, as we'd have stayed longer in the park, eating two meals rather than one.

Change the menu at dinner

If parks go less expensive for lunch, they should pull out all the stops and offer guests the option of larger, fancier entrees at the dinner hour.

That not only plays to Americans' (and others') cultural taste, the addition of dinner-only entree options rewards visitors for sticking around until the end of the afternoon. You can't get this good stuff at lunch.

When I first visited Disneyland's old Big Thunder Barbecue, I enjoyed the barbecue chicken I had for lunch. But I also noticed that it offered grilled trout and steaks for dinner. So I came back the next day to see if they were as good as the chicken. (They were.) Had Big Thunder BBQ offered the same menu at lunch and dinner, I wouldn't have returned, and with one fewer restaurant option in the park for that second day's dinner, the odds would have been greater than I might have left the park to eat elsewhere.

Again, I offer these suggestions in the hope that they will help both parks and visitors. Parks need money, but we demand value. There's plenty of room here for a mutually beneficial deal. But to find it, we need parks to quit looking so much as the short term and instead look for options that keep visitors in the parks longer, even if they cost park a little bit more upfront.

I think that parks will find that a little bit of patience can pay.

Readers' Opinions

From Kevin G on August 28, 2009 at 11:20 AM
I just recently returned from a trip to Cedar Point and the food choices were extremely disappointing. I agree that the last thing I want to see is a chain operation that I drive by on the way to work each day. Closed my eyes and looked away when I saw the Chic-fila at Cedar Point !!
From Anthony O'Neal on August 28, 2009 at 11:35 AM
I really like the idea of lunchtime specials, and lighter fare for snack would just be brilliant... like a trail mix for theme parks.
From 71.28.225.250 on August 28, 2009 at 12:15 PM
Holiday World is simply a great park. I live 2 hours away and visit them two times every year and we stay for two days each trip. They are a great value for family's, offer free drinks, and their pizza is absolutely amazing (not to mention pretty reasonable).
I pass two amusement parks to go to Holiday World, and will never think twice about stopping at either one. Holiday World is the cleanest and friendliest park in the World.
From Vickie Boyd on August 28, 2009 at 12:17 PM
I love your ideas. We rarely eat in parks unless we're really hungry. We do have our "usuals" at places we frequent, like the chocolate chip muffins and brisket in New France from BGE. Of course, the muffins are also at Sea World. That was nice to see when we were there. I love those muffins!

I have to agree with you on the deserts in France at Epcot. There were four of us late for our bus because of the line there back when I was in HS, which was I think the second year Epcot was open. I'm sure it's still just as drool worthy.

From Anthony Murphy on August 28, 2009 at 12:25 PM
I like your ideas, but it seems that most of the major theme parks already follow most of your suggestions (you pretty much said all of them except Six Flags and I think Universal).


You can also get that Thanksgiving dinner (or you used to) at Liberty Tree Tavern. How much better or worse it is than Holiday World I do not know.

But I really agree with your idea of the kinetics of making the food or certain foods that have a reputation. I miss the beaver tails at Canada for example.

The one I do not really agree with is changing the menu up between Lunch and Dinner. Case in point: the Blue Bayou which only carries its very famous Monte Cristo Sandwich at Lunch and Bruno's Porkchop at Cinderella's Royal Table which is only at Dinner (and the best thing on a pretty iffy menu). I get your point, but some places are just known for their stuff.

Here is my list of things I think of at the parks (some don't exsist anymore):

Magic Kingdom: Dole Whip and Turkey Legs
EPCOT: Cheddar Cheese Soup, Beaver Tails, Red Bean Ice Cream
DHS: Mom's Meatloaf
SFGA: Funnel Cakes
Busch Parks: DA Brats! (Gotta go with the midwestern thing!)
AK: Peanut Crusted Chicken

From 72.2.253.87 on August 28, 2009 at 1:18 PM
I completely agree. I have sat and watched our caramel apples being hand dipped by our beautiful Holiday World server several dozen times...and it's just fabulous.

They will even cut up the apple for you and then pour caramel and nuts ontop! Then they wrap it up for our trip home.

I have never had a caramel apple so fresh and so delish!:P
It's under 2$ for that and it's very worth it!

Lanie<3

From 216.135.33.179 on August 28, 2009 at 1:32 PM
I never will forget Opryland having a roasting pig on the fire all day long, then serving it up for suppertime later that day. Used to watch the show across the walkway just to take in the smell.
From Robert Niles on August 28, 2009 at 1:48 PM
To be clear, when I say that park should change their menus at dinner, I meant that they should *add* options, not take any away.

And while Disney, Universal and Busch do many of the things I've suggested, even they could do them more consistently.

From 216.196.185.2 on August 28, 2009 at 3:02 PM
I agree with not having chain restaurants in the parks. Most of the time the food offered is just a subset of what they offer on the outside at twice the price. I was a Kings Island last week and Subway had their 6 inch subs for over $6 - much higher than the $5 foot longs offered at the stores outside the park. Same thing with Skyline Chili. Their coneys are almost $4, when they cost about $1.75 outside.

I understand there may be a higher cost to operate a store within a park (or airport), and I don't mind paying a small premium for food I know, but doubling the price keeps me from purchasing the food. I'll leave early and stop at the Skyline Chili restaurant about a mile from the park on the way home.

Drinks are even more outrageously priced than food at $3-4 for a soft drink or $7-8 for a beer. I'll bring a water bottle and fill it up all day. If prices were more in line with what I can purchase outside the park, I would be spending a lot more at the park.

From James Koehl on August 28, 2009 at 3:40 PM
I love Cedar Point, and there is some good food to be found if you know where to look (and don't set your standards too high). I also agree that there is no outstanding restaurant in the park, and that to find really good food at Cedar Point you need to leave the park proper and go either to Famous Dave's (a chain, but still great food) or to the Bay Harbor Inn, both in the marina. The Breakers Hotel also has some good restaurants, but they're also chains. The ironic thing is that from the early 1900's until the 30's Cedar Point was known for its outstanding food, especially the dining room in the Grand Pavilion. And no, I don't remember that.
From James Rao on August 28, 2009 at 6:24 PM
I could not agree with you more, Mr. Niles! The food options at most amusement parks are mediocre at best and abysmal at worst. And the prices! Ugh! Honestly, I wouldn't mind the high prices of theme park restaurants if they were offering something unique and delicious. So few parks even make the attempt, and instead their food options are just an afterthought used to price-gouge a captive audience. Pathetic.
From Stephen Tuday on August 28, 2009 at 8:06 PM
Although the food at Six Flags is mediocre at best, I have been able to eat essentially FREE this year! If you have a Six Flags Mastercard, you can save up points with your purchases which can be redeemed for in-park spending certificates. Since I have a season pass, I use my certificates almost exclusively for food and beverage. In an ironic twist several years back, I found myself visiting SFoG just to use up some of those certificates near the end of the season as they expire at the end of the year. That was a rare example of food and souvenirs taking center stage in a theme park visit!

On another note, I avoid like the plague purchasing the all-you-can-drink souvenir cups at Six Flags. The reason being is that some rides will not allow storage of personal items (except shoes) on the loading dock, but rather require that all such items be stowed away in a rental locker, which are located at the entrance to the queue house. While purchasing the cup seems like a good deal on a hot summer day, the deal becomes not-so-good when you have to spend $2 on a locker for storage of your cup every time you get on certain rides. This is nickel-and-diming at its worst and no doubt hurts the sales (and value) of purchasing a souvenir cup.

From 75.159.176.60 on August 29, 2009 at 8:03 AM
Having recently visited Disneyland, I was extremely disappointed with their food service offerings. Waiting an 1/2 to 1 hour in line (and this was at 8:30pm, I'd hate to see what it was like at 6:00pm) to get food is absolutely ridiculous. I work in a concessions environment where we are required to serve 19,000 people during a hockey game. If we had line-ups like this, people would kill us.

These places need to focus not just on the people who pick a dining plan, but on those who want a quick meal. Offer more places to go and more variety. People will spend money if they perceive that they will get value for their dollar and not have to wait in line to get food.

From 195.166.205.35 on September 1, 2009 at 3:38 PM
Although not a theme park, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC does this VERY well. Their food court features about 10 dining station, each one representing a tribal region to be found in the museum, serving modern takes on dishes of that area. It's like an edible exhibit, and as a museum professional, I'll tell you that that's the best kind :)

Cheers!

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