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What would you do? Serving healthy food at theme parks

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Published: May 6, 2010 at 11:49 AM

America's facing an obesity epidemic. Our federal government's agricultural industrial policy has for decades encouraged agribusiness not to deliver healthy vegetables, fruit and meat in their raw forms to local markets, but to create heavily processed, inexpensive and plentiful food products that just happen to lack the nutritional value of their original forms. The various tax and farm subsidies that agribusiness enjoy have helped make it far less expensive for people to buy a fat-laden hamburger meal at McDonald's than to cook a healthy entree on their own. Multibillion-dollar marketing campaigns encourage Americans to suck down soda like it was water. Even the cheap plastic packaging that's been used to contain our cheap, processed foods is messing up our hormones.

Add it all up... and we're adding to our weight and waistlines.

In my ideal world, theme parks should be good citizens as well as fun places to spend a day (or more). They should be reducing waste and recycling more, using sustainable energy and building supplies, and paying employees living wages as they build great new rides and shows in well-themed immersive environments.

And they'd be serving good food, too.

Many parks serve excellent meals, and make a variety of healthy choices available to their visitors. Theme parks were among the first major consumer food-service businesses to drop trans fats from their menus. Count me as a fan of Legoland California's Upper Deck Sports Cafe, which serves an outstanding grilled salmon meal, which included some wonderfully tasty sauteed asparagus last time I was there. I'm also awaiting my next trip down to California Adventure, so I can get another serving of its fine Thai curry tofu.

Whatever theme parks have done to improve their food, though, they could do more. So here is today's "What Would You Do?" - what would you do to help make theme park food better for visitors?

Grilled salmon salad at Disneyland

Theme parks aren't going to solve America's obesity problem by themselves. Heck, even if every park served the tastiest, freshest, most inexpensive organic delights imaginable, that likely wouldn't knock even one ounce off Americans' collective average weight. Nor should a day at a theme park taste like a day at a New Age macrobiotic seaweed spa. Visiting a theme park should be an immersive sensory experience, engaging sight, sound, touch - and smell and taste. Serving healthy food at a theme park should not deny visitors a complete sensory experience with tasteless or unsatisfying things to eat.

That's why this is a challenge: How can theme parks be better citizens by promoting more healthful eating, while at the same time delivering an indulgent sensory experience? And, oh yeah, let's try to keep the price reasonable, so that people can afford to enjoy their day at the park, too.

By the way, the price issue is why I think the whole "well, people can make a choice" counter-argument is rubbish. Unhealthy processed food typically is priced *much* cheaper (by costing less and taking less time to prepare) than healthier options. And it's promoted heavily through advertising, sponsorships and product placement deal where soda bottlers and fast food chains pay theme parks to have their products sold in the parks. Sure, you can choose healthier options, but industry is going to spend billions or dollars to influence you not to.

Ultimately, though, you can't force people to eat something when they've been conditioned to want something else. If theme parks are to serve better food, they need to unleash some kitchen wizardry to blend taste, nutrition and value to make it alluring in the face of all that corporate support for fatty fast food.

Theme parks will need some "culinary Imagineers."

What would you like to see them do, then?

Personally, I'd like to see even more effort to add a variety of nutritious and lower-calorie options at every theme park restaurant and more of their food stands. Don't just throw a salad on the menu or a few overpriced apples on the food cart. How could parks get creative in making better food tastier and more indulgent? Let's explore ethic cuisine for inspiration, and make dining as much an attraction in the park as the shows and the rides, and not just during special events.

To me, Steve Jayson is every bit as important to Universal Orlando as Mark Woodbury, and I'd love if that were the case for more theme park fans, too. With well-promoted new dishes that happened to be healthy, perhaps more visitors might be tempted to step away from the heaps of beef and cheese to explore something different. And maybe that theme park culinary experimentation might lead to different menu choices at home.

I'd also like to see parks stop "dumbing down" otherwise healthy dishes to appeal to fat-sated appetites. Do we really need to put fried tofu in a bowl of miso soup?

Dumping trans fats was a good first step for theme parks. Now limit portion sizes so that no menu item exceeds one-third of the calories than an average (5' 9") non-overweight man should eat in a one day. (That means no single menu item should exceed about 830 calories.)

Finally, if consumers really are going to be the ones responsible for making healthy choices, shouldn't they be given the information they need to make an informed choice? Put the calorie counts next to the price on all theme park menus. Then let costumers decide. (That should be the case for all high-volume dining establishments, IMHO.)

What would you like to see from a theme park culinary wizard? What's your wish list for great theme park food? Let's hear your ideas, in the comments.

Readers' Opinions

From vernon griffin on May 6, 2010 at 12:10 PM
I would like more vegies and a better selection of salads. But keep the BBQ for my wife and I to split.
From Joshua Counsil on May 6, 2010 at 1:48 PM
Good topic, Robert. I'd say the best and most important one yet.

And what timing. I just got back from Wendy's. Recently, many fast food chains in Canada have taken a different route. Typically, the standard Canadian fast food portion is smaller than the American equivalent. However, I was just asked if I wanted a small, medium, or large meal. I've never been asked that before. Apparently, we've switched to the American sizing system, as my "medium" was the size of our previous large. It was delicious, but now I feel rotten.

Robert once mentioned that college towns, such as mine, are lucky in terms of dining because we have access to so many inexpensive yet satisfying meal options, and plenty of ethnic choices, too. The family-owned takeout spots outweigh the chains in number. My favorite takeout spot in town is a Cambodian restaurant. For $10 CAD, I can get Phanaeng Kai, a spicy chicken curry dish with enough rice to last two meals, and a Coke. The food tastes better, is equally (if not more) filling, and costs the same as the Wendy's meal I just ordered. In terms of production cost, it can't be that much worse than fast food. Most of the dish is just white rice.

From Robert Niles on May 6, 2010 at 2:12 PM
Laurie reminded me of my love for the Mitsitam Cafe at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. That's a great role model for what theme parks could do with themed food.
From Nick Markham on May 6, 2010 at 2:37 PM
I am actually not all that crazy about shoving health food into theme parks. A day at a theme park is a special day that should not be full of being so health conscious you can't enjoy the experience.
From 24.90.249.214 on May 6, 2010 at 7:00 PM
Theme parks realy do need healthy options a very easy fesable option would be to add frozen yogert to parks. THis has less fat then ice cream but yet still tastes as good as ice cream. Somtimes on a hot day The frozen yogert might taste better. Also in the bbq resturants of the park they should add some types of salad or somthing most bbqs have some sort of salad option
From Victoria Jurkowski on May 6, 2010 at 8:12 PM
i think whatever healthy food is though of, it shouldnt be advertised as healthy food. describe it the same way you would the other foods, let it seem a reagular food item, then the people who are against having helath shoved down their throat on vacation wont even notice. i agree with posting calories. also, when i was at hershey par this past summer i got a gyro for lunch, i'm guessing it was healthier than the hamburgers. just varying the menu selections to include sandwiches and salads, more than just pizza and burgers and fries, would probably help alot.
From Joshua Counsil on May 6, 2010 at 10:37 PM
@ Nick -

I don't think we're necessarily talking about "healthy" foods. I think we're leaning towards health-conscious food. For example, the Mitsitam Cafe Robert speaks of (which I had the pleasure of dining at in January but never had a chance to finish my D.C. trip report) serves cafeteria-style food in several stations based on different American Indian tribes. You can still get a burger at the Great Plains station, but it's made with house ground buffalo and duck, roasted pepper Dijonaise, smoked tomatoes, aged cheddar cheese, and served with Chili spiced fries. Definitely not a healthy meal, but at least your body will thank you for some real nourishment.

As for not enjoying the experience, I mentioned in another thread that people get bothered about minor theming mishaps, like the view of Soarin' from Canada at Epcot, but don't seem to care that they are eating cheeseburgers in a land themed as Egypt. There have been some incredible advancements in rides and shows. Let's see some advancements with food.

From Pyra Dong on May 7, 2010 at 3:15 AM
Wow... that's something I've complained a lot in visiting theme parks.

Especially since I'm Asian (what... you couldn't tell from my picture????) I always love me some good ol' rice, veggies, and seafood. To me-- that beats a burger any day. Whenever my equally Asian family goes theme parking with me, they always stare at the menus for a loooooooong time. (And it doesn't help that my dad's a pediatrician helping many obese children). Burger? Oily. Fries? Salt and oil. Salad? Aw, it's not so yummy.

I say... take foreign food concepts to parks. Aka... more Italian food! More Asian food! More grilled food. And the good thing about lots of Italian and Asian dishes is... you can make a variety of foods using similar ingredients (not that expensive) and MORE SOUPS!!! I don't see how any soup can be unhealthy or expensive to make.

From Scott B on May 7, 2010 at 5:16 AM
I eat healthy year round, am an avid runner and bicyclist and I even work in the cardiology field as a researcher for heart disease. So I get the importance of a healthy lifestyle. That being said, I don't really see the need per se to be healthier at the parks. Listen, if I am at a park....I like to do it all. Ride all the rides, take in the atmosphere and clog some arteries. There is nothing like hanging out at Epcot, downing some tacos in Mexico while washing it down with a margarita and still find room for a turkey leg once you can track down that vendor.

I think variety is the most important thing. The reason I love Epcot so much is because of the world showcase. One of my favorites there is Restaurant Akershus. Norweigan food, I never knew I was a fan until I went there. If only all parks had this much variety.

In a sense, many parks do have variety, but it is only in the restaurants and not at the food stands. For example, if you have the time to eat at Islands of Adventure, you can sit down at Mythos and have a great meal that is both flavorful and healthy. Last time I was there, my wife and I both ordered the ceviche which was a chef's special that day. My wife and I loved it! And my wife is from Peru, so she knows her ceviche. If we didn't have the time (or the money) to sit at Mythos, what would our options have been? Probably the usual. Pizza, burgers, fries, chicken tenders. I think the stands could use a bit of variety to help spice things up.

From Derek Potter on May 7, 2010 at 7:17 AM
I do think that parks should offer more variety of healthy foods. It's not that all the classics shouldn't be there, but offering alternatives to the grease and fat should be on the table for discussion because everyone doesn’t always want to eat that stuff. Many do it because it’s in ready supply and in many cases the only option. At Disney, Universal, and other year-round operations, there is more variety. The healthy food option is a bigger problem at the seasonal parks.

Restaurants are tricky business, they have a fairly slim profit margin, and it's not always easy for them to be real moneymakers. Because of that, quality of ingredients (better cuts of meat, fresh veggies, etc) sometimes takes a backseat to the bottom line. In fact, it's one of the first things subject to cost cutting when times get tight. Drawing the balance between quality and financial viability isn't the easiest thing, but with consumers, quality tends to wins out over price if they are able to keep the price reasonable. A good first step would be improving the quality of ingredients.

I think the second step for many parks would be to open up more sit down restaurants. Food stands serve grease, fat, and sugar because it's quick, easy, and cheap. Opening up more places where the food is prepared instead of pulled out of a plastic bag is a start. There’s a bit of a “feeding trough/school cafeteria” mentality with a lot of these places because they have to deal with crowd control. When thousands of people break for lunch at the same time, it’s a tough task to feed them quickly. Also, many guests are perfectly fine with grabbing the cheeseburger basket or a hot dog for lunch, and may balk at a sit down place that’s a little pricier. Staffing more of these restaurants may be tricky for some seasonal parks, but there are plenty of culinary arts majors in college. There are plenty of people in the park (I’m one of them) that would gladly sit down to breakfast, lunch, or dinner with wait service, and pay a little more for a freshly cooked, well prepared dish. Look at it this way, many leave the park and go out to dinner at Outback, TGI Fridays, etc. Why wouldn’t they stay in the park and have a meal in a restaurant of similar type and price?

Again, a lot of those decisions are purely financial. It costs more to operate such a restaurant; hence there is an element of risk that profit won’t be maximized. Seasonal parks only have a few months to make their money and they have bills to pay. If people are gobbling up the junk at food stands, then why take the financial risk? It’s a case of “corporate responsibility vs. personal responsibility”, even though that choice doesn’t always include a wide variety within the park gates. Ultimately, it’s the consumer that determines what is successful and what isn’t, and if they wish to eat their way into oblivion, they are going to find somewhere to do it.

Something interesting that I would want to know if I’m in management. How many people leave the park for lunch, or go out to dinner at a restaurant after their visit? If that number is high, the parks are missing out on money and guest satisfaction. If the number isn’t high, than people seem to be happy with what they have. I’m sure the data would vary by park, region, and culture, but I would be very surprised if that number wasn’t high in many of the seasonal parks.

From Tiffany Alfonso on May 7, 2010 at 10:44 AM
I wish there's more healthful imagination in the foods, especially in the kids' menus. Walt Disney World has done a great job of including fruit and carrots in their meals, but I think that there should be more (as in more menu items, especially in the produce department). Epcot does a great job doing so, but I hope the other parks would improve their cuisine for the younger set. Otherwise, I'd advise parents to offer a portion of the menu item they're eating.
From Mark Hollamon on May 7, 2010 at 11:27 AM
I don't want health food shoved at me at theme parks. I want great theme park food. That being said, Disney is really creating a paradigm shift with their menues that offer both. They are innovators and way ahead of the field. Mythos at IOA also offers some outstanding healthier recipes...but I have to have my banana gooey chocolate cake and if they ever try taking that off the menu again they will have seen the last of me!

I often go to the parks for an escape from D2D life and that includes my D2D diet. I really look forward to that Dole whip pineapple float or a good old funnel cake at MK.

Everything in moderation! If the "full figured" traveler would get to the parks more and do some 10 mile daily treks they would probably lose a couple inches off the old waistline...I'm just saying.

From 72.50.98.76 on May 7, 2010 at 5:54 PM
I like the idea of a healthier menu. I don't think the idea is shoving healthy foods down our throats. I agree that we go to the parks to indulge in everything we can including food. I'm one of those who goes to Sizzler or Ponderosa but at night after I've exit the park. I just think the idea of healthier alternatives would be nice. But let's face it is not only price that determines that cheese burgers or hot dogs are sold there. That is what people want. Like my mother. (Every day of her life have eaten by taste and not by health)
But I stayed like 10 days or sometimes 15 days when i go. I don't think is only the price that determines to sit and wait for healthier food. I wouldn't sit sometimes not only by price but cause I'm too concerned with time. Running from ride to ride doesn't leave me time to sit peacefully at restaurant. But after ten 12 days straight of eating fatter food i would appreciate some turkey sandwich or something to make me feel better. I've never returned being fatter from a trip for the"12 mile" hike. But it would be nice to have more choices.
From Anthony Murphy on May 7, 2010 at 8:54 PM
I think the fruit carts are a step in the right direction. I think there are pretty healthy options and many of the major parks, but people are too distracted to look for them. Especially at EPCOT, I bet there are a ton of great bites there,

But yeah, I get your point! I would like to see a fruit cart at every theme park first!

From 97.79.161.86 on May 8, 2010 at 12:32 PM
I think theme parks should serve healthy food. Add resh fruits, 100% fruit smoothies instead of ice cream. You already spend 80 dollars entering a Disney park so how can you really compain about the price of food. Also, those of you who say that you dont wanna ruin your day worrying about being healthy. Who said unhealthy food isn't fun. You don't have to load up on fat or fry food for it to be good.
From Joshua Counsil on May 8, 2010 at 3:30 PM
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Replace the ice cream with fruit smoothies? Let's not get crazy.
From 184.59.154.231 on May 9, 2010 at 4:47 AM
I would settle for the option to make an informed decision. Make nutrition information available and have healthier options so that those of us who WANT the option can take it, and those who don't want anything to change don't have to give up their fatty foods.

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