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What would you do? Creating a new restaurant for the Six Flags theme parks

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Published: April 7, 2010 at 11:50 AM

How do you increase guest spending inside a theme park, without those visitors feeling fleeced? That's one of the great challenges in the theme park industry. Obtaining a new customer for your park can be incredibly expensive - so maximizing the amount of money you make from each guest who does walk through the front gate is often the most cost-effective way to build a park's income.

Food? Drinks? Games? Souvenirs? Guided tours? Ride reservations? Pay-per-use attractions, such as rock-wall climbs and bungees? You've probably lightened your wallet (or fattened your credit card statement) with many of these in-park revenue options over the years.

Today, I'm going to talk about the Six Flags theme parks and suggest one way that it can increase its in-park guest spending, which averaged $36.72 in 2009, according to U.S. federal SEC documents.

Of all the stuff for which people spend money in a theme park, food might be the most popular. Many folks can pass by the souvenirs, skip paid reservations or tours and stay away from the "not free" attractions. But almost everyone buys something to eat or drink inside the park.

So offering a more expensive food option can be a powerful way to earn more money from each visitor. But how to do that without leaving people feeling fleeced? You've got to offer a more expensive dining option that delivers even more value - a truly unique experience that people want, as opposed to a food option that people merely endure to fuel up in the middle of the day.

Think Disneyland's Blue Bayou. Epcot's restaurants. Or even Miss Lillian's fried chicken at Dollywood. Other theme parks can get visitors to pay a higher per-ticket meal cost by offering unique meals in unique environments. How could Six Flags create a new option to do that?

Miss Lillian, at Dollywood
Miss Lillian, welcoming diners at "her" fried chicken buffet at Dollywood. Could Six Flags do something new like this to increase guest spending in its parks?

This is our "What would you do?" challenge for the week: What new restaurant should Six Flags introduce?

Most food options at Six Flags parks could be found outside the parks - Papa John's pizza, Panda Express. Even the park's sit-down burger place, Johnny Rockets, is a chain widely available in visitors' home towns. A few parks offer a Mooseburger Lodge restaurant/buffet, but we need an option that will increase current average guest spending - something that's going to rise above that standard.

Now, you might make the argument that Six Flags' clientele isn't interested in a premium dining experince - that the chain appeals to younger visitors and roller coaster fans for whom a restaurant meal means sitting down in the McDonald's instead of using the drive-through.

I'm going to take Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro at his words here, though, and proceed under the assumption that the chain is trying to draw more families, the type of visitors who also consider Disney and SeaWorld parks, and who would jump at the chance to splurge for a sit-down meal in one of those parks, if they could get the reservation.

In envisioning such a restaurant, we need two things:

  1. A unique setting, that fits within the theme of its location within the park
  2. At least one signature food item which can't easily be found outside the park.

Remember that Monte Cristo picture I posted yesterday? That's the go-to signature item at Disneyland's Blue Bayou. How many restaurants have you seen outside Disneyland which offer a Monte Cristo like that?

Or consider the risottos at Mythos in Universal's Islands of Adventure. Sure, you can find risotto at fine-dining Italian restaurants in bigger cities, but it's a rare find at the chain sit-down restaurants that most consumers frequent.

As for theme, Six Flags continues to develop its children's play areas, with Thomas the Tank Engine and Wiggles themes, in addition to Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes. But, long term, I think the company does best by developing a theme that's not licensed from another. While its "premium" restaurant should be family-friendly, it shouldn't be exclusively focused to children, either. (None of Disney's table-service restaurants are, for example.)

How about a Roller Coaster Cafe, built around a coaster track, so that the trains run through the restaurant itself? (I'm thinking the coaster runs through a clear tube, or above diners' heads along a wall, for safety and sound reasons.) Or maybe Six Flags needs to develop its own character, like Dollywood's Miss Lillian, and build the concept around that.

Now, let's think fun comfort foods that you don't find in places like Olive Garden or Applebee's - I'm thinking fancy grilled cheeses, souffles, fondues. Help me out here, folks. (Cheese doesn't have to be a primary ingredient, of course, but I do have that Monte Cristo stuck in my mind right now....)

Ultimately, the concept, the setting and the food have to provide enough to make you - Six Flags' prime audience - want to come to a Six Flags park, make a reservation and sit down for a meal in the middle of the day.

What would do that for you? Let's hear your ideas, in the comments.

Previously on "What would you do?"

Readers' Opinions

From 99.66.103.14 on April 7, 2010 at 12:03 PM
I think they ought to develop something based on their WB license - a Batman or Superman themed restaurant would surely draw patrons of all ages.
From Derek Potter on April 7, 2010 at 12:25 PM
Before creating these restaurants, Six Flags first has to care about their food. Waaay too many Six Flags trip reports I've read over the years from all over the country contain the words. "We left the park to go to lunch/dinner..etc" That shouldn't be acceptable. Providing the guest with suitable dining experiences should be near the top of the list of improvements to Six Flags.

Here's a solution for the type of food. Every town has a non-corporate local flavor that is beloved. In my particular town, there's a little hole in the wall bar/pizza joint called Jerry's. You wouldn't think to look at the place, but it serves some of the best pizza I've ever tasted. People who leave town and come back to visit, always have to get Jerry's. Coming from a guy that has traveled all over the country and had all kinds of pizza, it says something about my local pizza joint. I've often thought of buying the place and expanding it, because it's nothing more than a house with some tables and a few small counters, but man do they sell a lot of pizza.

My idea, find those local places in each Six Flags town. Most of the parks are around large cities, so I know that these little restaurants exist. It doesn't even have to be pizza. It could be American fare, Mexican, ribs, chicken, steak, seafood, deli, whatever. Find those places and make a deal with them, and use their name to help with the local clientele. If you want to put a theme around them, then do it, but at least serve food that customers are going to hold in higher regard than McDonalds. Use the coaster theme, an english pub theme, a beach theme, futuristic theme, or simply make it a nice restaurant setting. Bottom line, make people want to go to lunch and dinner in the park. Six Flags, you are missing out on a lot of revenue. Up the ante on your food offerings.

From Brandon Mendoza on April 7, 2010 at 12:38 PM
I like the idea of a coaster doing a loop around or over a part of the restaurant, but enclosed of course for safety and sound reasons. Or a corkscrew around a section or something. Maybe even dueling loops.

But if people are leaving Six Flags for food, I think it definitely has to do with quality and offering something that can't be found outside of the park.

Kinda like how Disney has a great Dole Whip. Love it... I think you can only find that same thing in maybe one frozen yogurt place in the middle of Gardena, CA (a pretty bad neighborhood where you don't wanna get get stuck or even drive through after the sun sets)

I get that some people will still go eat elsewhere to get away from the fast paced park, but maybe offer something like Downtown Disney or Universal City Walk? Magic Mountain is pretty far away from major cities though, so that may not be feaseable.

From Ron A on April 7, 2010 at 12:46 PM
A few thoughts here. One partner with the Landry's Restaurant group. This group owns over 25 restaurant brands including, Rainforest, Aquarium, T-Rex and several others. I believe they also have a partnership with the creative talent behind Rainforest and T-Rex. Work with these guys to create a restaurant brand that would be unique for the Six Flags parks. Call it the Big 6, or Sixes or Mr Sixes or something along those lines.

The second thought would be to partner with Hard Rock and build these in their parks. This brand has stood the test of time and the atmosphere would seem to fit well with the crowd that generally visits Six Flags parks.

Finally, build their own brand, call it High Thrill, or Intense, or Mega Screams or something that would convey the feeling of high intensity like their best rides. The food could include BBQ, Ribs, Pork, Beef, Sausage and sides all brought to your table, family style. Or they could make it an all you can eat buffet. Sides would include biscuits and corn bread, corn on the cob, coleslaw, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, and for dessert apple, blueberry and peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream.
These kinds of family style meals seem to work well at Disney, so why not at Six Flags.

From Alex Gamso on April 7, 2010 at 12:50 PM
I like the Batman theme idea. Have any of you heard of the Safehouse in Milwaukee? Very spied themed, very entertaining. Secret paths and secret messages. http://www.safe-house.com/ I think flipping this theme onto the villains or I guess the heroes. Like a Hard Rock Restaurant, take a ton of memorabilia and plaster it EVERYWHERE.
From Nick Markham on April 7, 2010 at 1:08 PM
I would create some kind of DC Comics Cafe where all of the Superheros are and a highly themed setting with different superhero-themed entrees.
From 24.209.249.83 on April 7, 2010 at 1:31 PM
My experiences at sit-down restaurants in parks haven't been the best. Even the vaunted Mythos at Islands of Adventure. While the food was good, especially for a theme park, it wasn't better than what I could find at most good restaurants outside of parks. It was also pricey and the service was overtaxed and slow. I think my local park, King's Island, really does it right when it comes to food. They server the local favorites, Cincinnati style chili and the local pizza chain, LaRosas. Granted, these are not particularly well executed versions of these favorites, but it is some of the best food in the park. The lines at the LaRosas or chili stands are often the longest in the park. When I'm at a Six Flags park, I'm not interested in eating at Subway, or anything safe or boring. If something unique and well executed is offered, then I will buy it immediately.
From Robert Niles on April 7, 2010 at 1:45 PM
I have to say, I thought the LaRosa's at Kings Island was one of the worst pieces of pizza I've ever had at a theme park. If that's what people in Cincinnati consider good pizza, drive over to Bloomington, Indiana and get a Mother Bear's sometime.
From Joshua Counsil on April 7, 2010 at 2:01 PM
Why not create restaurants representing the six "nations" that Six Flags was named for? France, Spain, Mexico, Republic of Texas, Confederate States of America, and United States of America. Maybe the last two are a bit touchy, but the first four could easily fit within the parks' themes.

French food is a bit of a delicacy to do properly in a theme park, though some of the dishes could be integrated nicely. It would be really nice to see authentic (none of that taco/burrito crap) Spanish and Mexican food at the southern parks. The Mexican food I've had in California is phenomenal, but still in a casual/semi-formal atmosphere. Likewise, I've had delicious soul food in the south served in comfortable settings.

I agree with Derek's suggestion, too. Every cool city and/or college town always has a hip yet comfortable microbrewery/restaurant joint, typically with stone walls, stained glass windows, and dark wood trims. The beer is always excellent, the setting is cool and relaxing, and the servers are professional yet fun. It's the perfect way to unwind after a sensory overload at the parks. The food is typically simple, pizza or pub fare, but with fresh, local ingredients and a bit of flair. For example, we went to a pizza joint in D.C. recently that didn't serve any pepperoni and cheddar cheese, but rather tomato, egg, garlic, parsley, Parmesan, and bottarga. Top that off with a Dogfish Head ale and you're in gourmet heaven.

From 70.168.141.54 on April 7, 2010 at 3:00 PM
Since it is 6 flags over Texas, take your theme from one of the flags that flew over Texas. For example build an Alamo and have Mexican and Tex Mex food .

The Fluer de leis flag flew over Texas at one time. Find out the history of that and have a French cuisine.

Use the Texas flag and go with the Texas Rangers. Have the serving staff dress like Texas Rangers. Give children a Texas Ranger star badge when they eat there.

From James Koehl on April 7, 2010 at 5:14 PM
I'm surprised you chose Six Flags as the park chain to develop a new restaurant theme for. I would have expected it to be for Cedar Point, since it is always being blasted for having bad food. Robert, can we stray from the Six Flags concept, or should it be in another thread?
From Anthony Murphy on April 7, 2010 at 6:12 PM
EXACTLY!!!

Actually, Great America used to have places like you talk about, but have changed it over the years. Taking that thought to the rest of the parks, I think SF has the space, but just have to make the food better. I will use Great America as my ideas of changes because I am most familiar.

Aunt Martha's Chicken- Make it more like Knotts (and the picture)

Crazy Buffalo Saloon- Used to be BBQ and a place to drink up on some booze. Characters used to come around

Mooseburger Lodge. Make premium, but large burgers.

I would like to see a Chicago Style Resturant at County Fair area or a Cajun (perhaps a blue bayou) style place in Mardi Gras.

A themed resturant would be nice! I think it would be dependant on the lands at the Six Flags parks.

From rick stevens on April 7, 2010 at 6:21 PM
I have only been to SFMM so I have limited knowledge of dining experiences within the Six Flags chain. I do remember that Panda Express was popular and there were no real restaurants. That said, what would be the theming? Coasters is a must, but how to incorporate them. How about doing a restaurant themed to each section of the park. A Gotham uptown dark restaurant, a Marvel Universe Superhero "Healty" restaurant. What about the Looney Tunes? Would you do a Porky Pig Pulled Pork Emporium? A Donald "Peking" Duck Chinese fare? How about a vegitarian option in a Bugs Bunny Beanery?

Just thoughts.

From 72.95.114.196 on April 7, 2010 at 6:28 PM
That was an interesting article about creating a new restaurant for Six Flags parks.

You are quite right. People will spend money for drinks and food...if only to prevent dehydration and hypoglycemic reactions that creep up while you are having fun on a sunny day.

We lived in Florida for 5 yrs, and purchased a Floridians pass to Sea World, our favorite spot, and visited weekly someitmes. We found the food sold by the Busch Hospitatlity Ctr, which we heard "is no more", was VERY reasonable compared to other parks, and the SMokey Creek, where they had ribs, beef & chicken was good too. The servings were quite genrous and my husband and I (not endowed with endless pockets of the bucks) could often share a lunch in either spot, and purchsed our drinks separately. Sad to say, when you went to Disney or Universal, or any other spot it was as, my hubby the comedian, said "YOu have to take out a loan even to eat at McDonald's at Disney!!

Sas to say, there are many tourists that save up for the "big drive down 95" to Florida for a yearly visit to one.... .yes ONE them park, because that is all they can afford. We have been there, done that!! I remember the days when in the spring we walked and walked all over the country side collecting returnable bottles.(A green thing to do nowadays!) and turned them in to save for our 10 day vacation to Florida by car!!We turned them in for cash and called it the "toll savings". We bronw bagged it all t he way to Floirda, taking turns driving and sleeping becasue we could not afford a motel/hotel...but when we arrived at our cousin's house it was a bit of heaven..Sea World became a bit of heaven too, with their 2nd day free pass..yes even offered to non-Floridians!!! We need this type of break ...fresh air for today!

We have also "just eaten snack crackers from our pockets andand drank water" because the food was just too darned expensive. (At those times you made SACRIFICES just to afford the theme park TICKETS.....and sad to say, during THESE times we, and many ohters will do so too!)

A reasonably priced lunch is going to be a very important strategy for THESE ECONOMIC TIMES. For all the tourists that are not well endowed in the purse, it will be the ultimate method of hospitality that any theme park can offer.

YES! It would be refreshing to see food more reasonably priced! That would be the guide to follow in creating a new reataurant in the Six Flag theme parks and in ANY theme park!

Just my 2 cents worth!!

Glenda for New England

From Anthony Murphy on April 7, 2010 at 6:35 PM
Well, I know its a problem at Great America since there are the following places not more than a mile away from the SFGA's Gate:

Joe's Crab Shack
Rainforest Cafe
IHOP
Irish Pub
Olive Garden
Crackel Barrel
Ruby Tuesday's
Lone Star
Steak and Shake


To name a few!

From 24.90.249.214 on April 7, 2010 at 6:42 PM
Hey what about a good idea if they made a haunted theme to a resturant. There is a manhatten resturant called jeklyn high which is a haunted resturant based on the book. So what if sixflags made a haunted resturant based on the dark night coaster. obviously this would only be at the themeparks with this ride. But there is no reason why they couldnot incorporate what the other reader wanted with a superhero theme. This resturant would probably be more teenager freindly since it is scary. THey could have munchies and fingerfood. The resturant would be located in the batman section of the park by the rollercoaster.

Another idea could be a family oriented theme that would serve some what fanceyer food. Now people do not want to ride rides after eating a big meal so what if they made a section of the parking lot of every park a place to park and have dinner included. so make the resturant almost liek a fifties themed place were you can have the tray atached to the car and have the waiters rollerskate to the car and serve you. THis place could serve pizza burgers and fancy sandwiches. Also if you did not want to do this make it at the end of the safari and have a exclusive backstage pass to the safari were you could see the feeding of the animals and see things that are not displayed. this could be called mealtime with the animals.

Now this idea is for great adventure. Turn granneys chicken into a desert bar. this could be a candy land themed place put the game board in the building since taht building is so fancey. this signiture thing they could serve are chocolate coverd oreo which are imposabe to find anywere outside a thmepark.

From James Rao on April 7, 2010 at 7:14 PM
Add my name to the list of folks who totally agree with Derek's post. Forget the theming because Six Flags is no good at it. Instead, focus on the quality of your food offerings and on local flavors that are unique to the area and unique to each park. Enlist local entrepreneurs in getting new and exciting restaurants into the park. Heck, who knows, maybe Six Flags will strike gold and Guy Fieri will stop in with his Triple D team and do a feature on the delicious foods of Six Flags. Now, wouldn't that be something special?!

As for Cedar Fair, James is right. Their food is terrible too. When Panda Express and Subway are your food anchors, you know your customers are going off property for lunch. Why pay $10 for a sub I can buy for $5 down the road? Think, people, think!

From Derek Potter on April 7, 2010 at 7:23 PM
Cedar Fair parks are hit and miss with food, but there are pretty good places to relax and eat at Kings Island. Robert mentioned LaRosa's pizza, which is a local Cincinnati chain. I still like LaRosas, but it hasn't seemed that great the last couple of times I've had it. I kind of wonder if they haven't switched to cheaper ingredients. It's still ok pizza, but the pizza joints in my town are much better. Regardless of what I think, people eat it up at Kings Island. There are some other local flavors like Montgomery Inn ribs at Rivertown Junction, Graeters Ice Cream (yum) and Skyline Chili, which is a love it or hate it kind of place among people who like chili. Kings Island seems to do really well with food. I think it has a lot to do with the local flavors that they provide inside the park, hence my idea for incorporating local favorites inside the Six Flags parks.
From James Rao on April 7, 2010 at 7:45 PM
One more thought just occurred to me...

If nothing else, Six Flags mgmt should travel to places like Knoebels, Silver Dollar City, or (as Robert mentioned in his article) Dollywood. These parks don't have the money the Disney parks do, and yet they still manage to make food one of the reasons people visit. No need to reinvent the wheel...when in doubt, be a copycat!

From Joshua Counsil on April 7, 2010 at 8:58 PM
Robert -

Is it just me, or have article comments increased in the past little while? Maybe it's just runoff from the tournament.

From Tony Duda on April 7, 2010 at 9:02 PM
I like the 2 ideas of food from the 6 countries of 6 Flags and the local favorites. Maybe they can even find a great local restaurant that would relocate into the park (with off-hours access somehow).

But I'm thinking that there should be something tangible that makes eating at the park preferred. I suggest that each fancy restaurant patron get one front-of-the-line pass to any park attraction.

From Brandon Mendoza on April 8, 2010 at 8:05 AM
Thinking about this over breakfast before my weekend trip to Anaheim, I'd definitely agree with dropping themed food places for Six Flags.

Maybe if Six Flags got a famous chef to help out with their restaurants and "affordable" food? Give out samples at the parks and advertise on TV along with the creepy old man who's selling some other deal. Maybe have a TV show on Travel Channel or Food Network hype up the new food if it's really good?

I always say quality over quantity any day.

From Ethan Betcher on April 8, 2010 at 8:21 AM
This may sound a little odd but I don't know of any other theme park that does this. Why not open early for people if they want to eat breakfast or brunch? Do any other theme parks do this? The park could open at 7 or 8:00am and serve breakfast till 10ish. Then on Sunday they could have a brunch. If the breakfast is good enough then patrons might stay in the park longer. Just a thought.
From Brian Emery on April 8, 2010 at 8:27 AM
A McDonalds would really class up those parks.. hahahah
From 67.100.68.203 on April 8, 2010 at 9:40 AM
I'm thinking it should be something that's local to the area and would therefore also make it different to each of their parks. How about a tie in with a local sports team. Of course, the MLB would be the best fit for the so many seasonal parks. It's hard to start from scratch and it takes much longer to see the return on investment, so I doubt Six Flags will want to try from scratch. Go with a tie in.
From Larry Zimmerman on April 8, 2010 at 10:25 AM
Forget it -- they tried it, and found that in-house food service was more expensive than out-sourcing it to established franchises. Busch, Universal and Disney get away with it by economies of scale and centralized warehousing, something Six Flags can't do because of their geographically widespread distribution.

That said, I've always thought the cliff at Fiesta Texas would be a great place to carve out a restaurant and/or build a REAL "mine train" attraction. Why not combine the two like the Blue Bayou? Call it the Miner's Lunchbox. Think of the fun with signs saying things like "We only serve MINERS," "Your food is prepared fresh, so please pardon the MINER delay," "Our chicken nuggets are GOLDEN," "We really DIG our customers!" and the like...

The signature dish would have to fit the theme, of course -- perhaps a half-pound, flame-broiled hamburger, with a hole cut out of the middle and filled with the melted cheese of your choice...the Open Pit Burger, waiting for YOU to dig in at the Miner's Lunchbox...

p.s. you sell the "cut-outs" as Miner Sliders, so you aren't wasting any food...

From Joshua Counsil on April 8, 2010 at 10:35 AM
Not bad, Larry. I mean, the puns are terrible, but I like the idea of a mining restaurant.
From Anthony Murphy on April 8, 2010 at 1:48 PM
Larry, you are on to something!

One thought that just came to me is that Great America tends to do a very good business on catered events. Many businesses come and have a party at the park since they have the picnic grounds just for that!

Personally, I think they should do something with that area, but it is the main Fright Fest House. So......?

From Robert Niles on April 8, 2010 at 3:51 PM
Tiny parks, such as Legoland, Holiday World and Dollywood, do an outstanding job with food service, so super-large, Disney-like scale is not necessary to provide better, higher-ticket dining options in a theme park.

In fact, even relatively small parks (1 million-plus per year) serve many more meals daily than any sit-down restaurant out there, so volume advantages are there for any park that cares to pursue this end of the market.

From Dennis Dowhy on April 9, 2010 at 2:25 AM
Pricing: Keep in mind a family of six, food is quite expensive so when meal time comes around they go back to their car and eat. With parking fees so overpriced, it cuts into the spending.

KID Driven: Keep in mind it is the Kids that drive the parents to spending. In their kid's world, "Crabbie Paddies" from Sponge-Bob would want the kids to say they ate there. This goes true for other eating establishments.

Magical: The scenery in Disney world restaurants screams, you got to try this place.

SPEED: There is nothing worst than waiting a long time for food.

From Larry Zimmerman on April 9, 2010 at 3:01 AM
You're right, Robert, but you must have park execs who really care about the guest experience and who understand that their core business is entertainment, not just packing butts in coaster seats. If Six Flags could economically outsource their food service to China, I'm sure we'd see it happen. Then again, with Panda Express as one of their concessions, maybe it already HAS!!! ;)
From Anthony O'Neal on April 10, 2010 at 8:05 AM
Like Anthony, I am most familiar with Great America. I've actually found that two adults can eat some of the portions served there, so I don't necessarily have an issue with price if the meal is shared.

They could go one of two ways. They have specific areas (like Southwest Territory) and the foods could represent that or they could go with local favorites. The latter would be my preference.

Gurnee is within an hour of both Chicago and Milwaukee, I can't imagine it would be hard to find something local to feature in the park, as both cities are known for certain cuisines (the same could be said for Texas, California, etc.). For crying out loud, people sell hot dogs, brats, and Italian beef sandwiches out of carts on the street!

Do those things well. Add some lighter fare, like a deli-style place. If you want a sit-down restaurant, maybe a nice Chicago-style pizza place instead of Papa John's. If you have those things, you could work a little outside of that for a second restaurant, like a steak house or Italian place or something like that. Something a little pricier, but still afforable.

The biggest thing is to do whatever you do well, with reasonable prices, and people are more likely to pay for it.

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