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Vote of the week: What should theme parks do about their food?

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Published: July 6, 2012 at 2:27 PM

How much do you care about the food when you visit a theme park?

For me, eating is one of the five senses that parks should be engaging with their themed environments. A theme park that ignores food does as poorly in my book as one that ignores its visual composition, sound palette, or physical thrills. I love to see parks go the extra mile and develop treats such as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter's Butterbeer, or a delightful French patisserie in Epcot's France.

Having eaten at a few Route 66 diners in my day, I welcomed the classic diner food at the new Flo's V8 Cafe in Cars Land at Disney California Adventure. Rather than go with the simplistic '50s-inspired hamburger drive-in that I suspect many guests might have anticipated, Disney's chefs created a menu that features homestyle "comfort food," including roast turkey and beef and dinners. These are the "blue plate specials" one might see served in mon-'n-pop diners along the mother road.

Roast turkey at Flo's
The citrus-marinated roast turkey breast, sliced thinly and served with turkey gravy, cranberry sauce and a roll. The two sides selected were mashed potatoes and a roasted corn medley. $11.49 at Flo's V8 Cafe in Cars Land at Disney California Adventure

But not every theme park visitor wants themed food. Some would prefer simpler, familiar fare, perhaps out of concern for picky eaters in the family. Just give them the burgers, chicken strips, and fries they're used to ordering when away from home. Other visitors don't want to spend a moment doing anything other than riding rides. For them, food is a superfluous part of their day, especially at iron parks where there's no pretense of themed environment anyway.

Finally, some theme park visitors simply can't - or won't - pay for what they consider over-priced, mediocre fare.

I'd love to hear what you think about theme park food, and which direction you'd like to see theme parks go in planning future menus. I've got three choices for you - please pick the one you feel best expresses your opinion. (Even if none of them get it exactly right).


Please tell us your all-time best - or worst - theme park food experience, in the comments. Thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider!

Readers' Opinions

From 99.226.40.182 on July 6, 2012 at 2:46 PM
I hate it when theme parks have crappy food and they think they can serve bad food because you are trapped there. It is for sure part of the overall experience and enhances it a lot when the food and snacks are above average.
From Doug Jenkins on July 6, 2012 at 2:47 PM
OUCH!! NOT higher prices!!! Just had lunch at Island of Adventure, 2 people, no alcohol, $33.00!!! Burger and an Asian dish, 2 drinks and onion rings! Flavor was OK but not at that price.
From Michael Owen on July 6, 2012 at 2:55 PM
People often say the main problem visitors to Orlando face is eating healthy, and I have to agree.

International Drive is full of restaurants which, whilst very nice, aren't exactly providing the most healthy of offerings.

A good meal can be found in the parks, particularly in the table service eateries. But the lack of such restaurants at Universal, and the Disney Dining Plan clog on reservations, makes it hard to fit a table service meal into a day at a park.

That's why it's refreshing to see a counter service restaurant offering something different from the standard burgers and pizza. Don't get me wrong, I love that kind of stuff, but it's always nice to have a quick bite which isn't standard fast-food fare.

From 71.98.200.237 on July 6, 2012 at 3:09 PM
There needs to be a balance of all of the above - themed options as well as standard theme park fare. I live where the Orlando parks are a day trip, so I typically only eat lunch at the park - and while I would like to have the experience, I also don't like to eat a big lunch. But you can also get creative with burgers/hotdogs/fries without going crazy.
From Dominick D on July 6, 2012 at 3:11 PM
I usually don't sit down and eat in the parks unless I'm THAT hungry, so I chose I'm here to ride, not eat. But when I do want a meal, I would defiantly want to sit down with great food and great atmosphere.
From Ted Heumann on July 6, 2012 at 3:22 PM
Disneyland is doing it mostly because with a million passholders, they aren't trapped. They have made their food items better to give passholders (and everyone else) a reason to buy their food.
I don't mind high prices as much if the food is worth it and I think that for the most part Disneyland's food has gotten pretty close to that ideal.
I think that for the most part, Disneyland Resort's food prices are in line with other higher end restaurants (e.g. Macaroni Grill, Cheesecake Factory, etc), AND I think that they are getting closer to the food tasting almost as good as those same restaurants.
Actually on a Saturday I went to Johnny Rockets at a local mall and went to Taste Pilots Grill at DCA on Sunday. I paid less at DCA AND the food was better.

Now at other SoCal parks, the same can't be said.

The problem is that NO amusement park is in the non-profit business. They ALL are in business to make money. And when you let everyone in for free or almost free (by giving away your annual passes), you HAVE to make up your money somewhere else. And that's why they charge so much more for their food and it's HORRIBLE.

From Chad H on July 6, 2012 at 3:29 PM
Its a hard job to convince theme parks of the need to improve them I think.

The parks have a captive audience so they don't have to try - once you're in the park you're probably going to eat there. Food services havent been "proven" to be a drawcard in their own right.

Food service can also grab additional revenue through tie ups with established brands, allowing more cash for ride development, which they believe draws in the crowds in the first place.

It sounds like it needs a "Walt Disney" to change things, and by that I mean an effect similar to how he changed the whole amusement park industry away from sleezy places into respectable themed worlds.

It takes a "Visionary" to create a single resturant/attraction to change things. Do it well enough and soon enough every park in the world will copy it. Maybe something like the Enchanted Tiki Room was envisioned to be?

From 69.166.191.89 on July 6, 2012 at 3:48 PM
Eating at Disney World is almost always a frustrating and stressful experience. Long lines, high prices, and poor attitudes are what you have to put up with for mediocre choices. I try to eat off peak dining hours to at least avoid the lines, but even then there's usually only one lane open at those times.

There are exceptions such as table service at the resorts. And we love eating at the Columbia Harbour House over the walkway for the atmosphere regardless of the hassle. It's also nice that Disney has been offering vegetarian choices for years, but in general I would rather have an energy bar than face counter service at the parks.

From Anon Mouse on July 6, 2012 at 4:00 PM
The food at Route 66 is diner food, which should be cheap, yet you make serving them at DCA seem highbrow and deserving of high prices even if the theming fits. It is quite ridiculous that matching theming deserves high prices.

Most foods that we associate with theming has reached critical mass. The public is familiar with most ethnic foods and food trends. The public now seeks lower prices, but we aren't getting cheap prices at the theme parks. That's the problem with tourist traps, which Carsland represents. So we gotten what we deserves.

I try to mitigate the high theme food prices that bringing my own snacks, drinks, and sandwiches.

From James Rao on July 6, 2012 at 4:32 PM
Maybe even more impressive than the great themed attractions Disney and Universal have been plunking down for millions of visitors to enjoy, is their current trend to provide unique, excellent food offerings in highly detailed settings. I hope this trend continues and more theme park companies follow these industry leaders.

I absolutely, positively, believe that theme park food should be served in a narrative setting that goes hand in hand with an immersive park experience. And I definitely do not mind paying a little extra (take note, Disney & Universal, I wrote "a little extra") for a great themed restaurant especially if the food is high quality.

From Melissa Donahue on July 6, 2012 at 5:18 PM
Our last vacation to UO basically turned into a ping-pong food match during the week between The Three Broomsticks and Mythos... I wouldn't have it any other way. Bring on the higher-quality food and bring on the themed eating environments.
From 12.69.234.130 on July 6, 2012 at 5:21 PM
Disney stands alone in southern California for offering excellent food choices among theme Parks. I'm always impressed with their food choices and always wish I wasn't so full so I could eat something else. Its the only south CA park where I've been impressed with the food.
From Melanie Howe on July 6, 2012 at 6:12 PM
I definitely agree that themed, decent, full-service food is the way to go. When I was a kid, the Liberty Tree Tavern was always a must-stop at WDW.

As an adult, I LOVE Mythos and very much enjoy the under-rated Confiscos and Finnegan's. Lombard's isn't bad either, but I will admit that sometimes I enjoy the fishtanks there more than the food. I've only experienced the Three Broomsticks once for breakfast, but it was great as well... Though I confess to missing the ambiance of the Oak Tree.....

The restaurant in Mexico at EPCOT is my be-all-and-end-all for themed restaurants.... Since I don't get there that often, I'm glad that Latin Quarter exists in City Walk. Very similar idea, though without a boat cruise but with a varied menu to make up for it :-).

From 24.11.31.105 on July 6, 2012 at 6:38 PM
Part of the issue is that theme parks are synonymous with vacations. Vacationers want to relax. Adventurously trying new foods isn't relaxing to many people who'd prefer to eat the comforts. Pizza, hamburgers, fries and beer represent comfort food to the majority of carnivorous Americans. Add in some alternative options for vegetarians and the common food allergies and the standard theme park menu emerges. Why change what already sells in droves and is immensely appreciated?
From Thomas tskogg on July 6, 2012 at 11:50 PM
For the most part, the nicer sit-down restaurants are pretty good (Brown Derby, Finnegans, Confisco Grille, the countries at Epcot) but everything else, especially the junk food, is horrible. At least when Disney had McDonald's fries (what ever happened to them?) there was something tasty.
From Randall Peek on July 7, 2012 at 1:21 AM
While I do enjoy going to iron parks, I prefer the complete escapism of a good theme park. The more immersive the more I like it. This naturally carries over into the foods presented by the parks. Why in heaven's name would I want to eat the same exact thing I can get literally anywhere else, and for far less money? A park that puts no effort into their food service is a park that really doesn't want my tourism dollar. I want to be appealed to, and burgers and fries don't cut it. Not only do I want more thematic food, but I want to eat in a more thematic environment. Our last trip to Walt Disney World saw us dining in places like Boma, the Coral Seas Restaurant, and the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater. These places have character and class. Even if the S-F D-I does carry only the normal stuff, at least it makes sense in its environment.
From Mark Hollamon on July 7, 2012 at 4:26 AM
I love themed restaurants and we have plenty of great dining at the main Orlando attractions with Epcot giving us authentic tastes from around the globe and Mythos bringing high end dining right in the middle of a theme park!

I have no issue with the finer eateries at Disney because I do feel food is part of the experience and am willing to pay for it, however, what I am disappointed with is the inconsistent "low end" food quality at Disney. You can go to Cosmic Ray's and one day have a great burger and the next get a dried out hockey puck. Even though they will replace it, you have to go through the line again and take more time out of your day when some intelligent quality control would prevent such an occurrence.

One of the biggest contributors of inconsistent Disney food is the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater. It has great ambiance (I have been here a decade and the movie is the same) but the food is just a huge hit or miss gamble. As an example, the last time we had lunch there I had to point out how unbelievably insulting it is to order an $8 portion of onion rings and receive a plate containing 6 greasy tepid rings. The cast member quickly gave us another order at no charge, but I made sure he understood he should be the last line of quality control and he really needed to check things out better.

I am fine with paying more for better...Just don't charge me more and give me crappola!

From Tim Hillman on July 7, 2012 at 7:50 AM
After standing in queues and riding rowdy rides for several hours, the last thing I want is something fried. Give me a nice place to sit down and catch my breath and chow down on some healthy comfort food, and I'm good to go for a few more hours. It's ok to have the counters and stands with the quickie foods, but every "land" should have at least one themed restaurant or sit down counter service restaurant where the food is appropriate to the setting.
From southie chick on July 7, 2012 at 9:25 AM
It's too bad the parks could't do both - have an area (kinda like a food court) in a central location for the burgers/dogs/chicken/pizza crowd AND theme-type restaurants in/near the atractions. I know that on some vists to the park I'm more go-go-go, so I opt for the quick burger, while other times, I just want to sit & relax & enjoy the environment. Epcot is the park I think comes closest to this - they have the large burger/dogs/chicken place (sorry - the name escapes me!) toward the front of the park, or you can go to one of the countries (Mexico, for example) & sit inside & enjoy the atmosphere. And, you can even grab a quick "to-go" bite in the countries (the patisserie in France, or at one of the carts or booths for example) too.
From James Rao on July 7, 2012 at 2:57 PM
So far the consensus opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of better food in better, fully immersive, themed environments. I hope industry lurkers are taking note!
From 81.70.136.4 on July 7, 2012 at 5:46 PM
Not everything needs to be fried. Not everything needs to be covered in suger (yes I talk to you carrots).
As you stated before Disney is more and more chatering to the rich and upper middel class. They are used to better, healtier food and the themeparks should at least have that choise. Why the foodprices are above and beoyond what you pay in a normal restaurant is unacceptable. I'm prepared to pay extra for awesome decore or the god awefull characters but not for a burger and fries in a barn.
From Rod Whitenack on July 7, 2012 at 7:30 PM
I've been hit harder than many here by the Recession I think, based on general comments I've observed here over the last three years, and I've been surviving on pennies and scraps for most of that time.

However, I have an opinion here that might not seem in line with someone in my financial condition. I actually don't mind paying a little more for a great themed food experience in a theme park. I really like the theme of the eatery to fit the area of the park I'm in, not just on the facade and/or interior of the restaurant, but on the menu as well. I love being able to get Thanksgiving dinner in the Thanksgiving area at Holiday World. It adds a lot of value to the experience. I wish more theme parks would create more unique menu items that you couldn't get anywhere else.

I don't mind paying extra for that. I would much rather spend the money there than in unexpected kicks in the rear like insane parking fees. The last time I went to Kings Island the parking was $20! It's their own lot! I'd much rather they just include that fee in the admission ticket instead of offereing a multitude of discount tickets only to make up every penny of the discount as you get to the parking lot. They know you aren't going to turn around and go home once you're there. That kind of dealing just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. I'd much rather give them all that extra cash in exchange for a great themed meal while I'm there.

From Aaron McMahon on July 7, 2012 at 9:14 PM
What is the atmosphere at the upper-end Epcot restaurants? I've always been apprehensive about eating in a fancy, sit-down restaurant (preferring counter service) with the appropriate theme park attire:poncho, fanny pack, wife beater, ect.

I prefer how Busch Gardens Williamsburg does food: great food, lots of options, comfortable counter service setting and often in front of entertainment.

Though the last time I went to Disney Hollywood Studios, the counter service food was so bad I'll probably try out the many sit down restaurants.

From 166.248.99.218 on July 8, 2012 at 9:24 AM
Somehow I haven't eaten at mythos yet. Everytime I'm at ioa I eat in Jurassic park
From Rob Pastor on July 8, 2012 at 10:23 AM
Aaron: Agreed with you. Busch Gardens Williamsburg themed counter service & entertainment in adjacent areas is as good as most sit down restaurants in Florida theme parks. Good food, good entertainment & less hassle.They do it well...We also believe that Disney Hollywood Studios has by far the worst counter service restaurants of all the Disney & Universal parks. Very little selection and not very good preparation. It's really hard to find anything of interest, besides a zillion types of burgers & pizza, to eat there. All of the other Disney & Universal parks have a good selection of themed counter service restaurants, with Animal Kingdom's Flame BBQ our favorite. But something really needs to be done at Hollywood Studios to get that park up to par. It's a shame, because Hollywood Studios is probably our favorite Disney park, attraction, show & ambiance wise.
From Jack Curley on July 8, 2012 at 12:44 PM
Why does it have to be "either/or"? Why can't we have some well-themed eateries for people who prefer those, and simple burger joint places who prefer those? Should every food service outlet in every theme park serve burgers and hot dogs? Absolutely not. But there should definitely be a place for them. I enjoy a nice meal as much as the next person, but I have certain foods that I can't eat (and some that I won't eat) that sometimes exclude me from some of the nicer places. So let's mix it up! I think we'll all be a lot happier that way.
From Eric Malone on July 8, 2012 at 6:43 PM
Thing is, it's easy for us to say we want themed food, even if it means higher prices, 'cause we're not eating there right this moment. I about spat out my water when I realized that plate of food in the picture, while delicious looking, was nearly $12. One shouldn't ignore the effectiveness of having cheap, non-themed food in the parks, and hotdogs, hamburgers and pizza are all crowd-pleasers, and when you get down to it, you're trying to please the crowd.

Those of us here at TPI are what I like to consider connoisseurs of theme parks. Of course we want to see new and interesting food in themed areas of the park, and Universal has proven that that sort of thing can be extremely profitable, but when you get down to it, a lot of that success has to do with the fact that they've got something colossal behind it, pushing this food and drink toward success.

And really, one can't truly compare butterbeer, cauldron cakes and pumpkin juice to mom-and-pop restaurant food, 'cause to me, they're on entirely different levels.

Personally, I voted to see themed food for higher prices, but that was largely because I want to see them put more EFFORT into making the meals and food offerings on par with Potterland's offerings. Drinking butterbeer and nibbling on chocolate frogs in Hogsmeade is extremely immersive, even if the temperature happens to be ninety degrees, but again, that brings us back to what's behind the food and drink that's driving it to success.

From Todd Donahue on July 9, 2012 at 7:04 AM
I love the themeing of many sit down diners from the three broomsticks, mythos, and the yak restaurant near everest. Paying a little more is no problem because I'm on vacation. But my one true love of park food is the hand dipped corn dog I get at cedar point. I don't like them when I buy them anywhere else. They'll try and fool ya by giving you already dipped corndogs at various places in the park and I say F that. There's only one place where you can actually see them making the corndog and that is in the back of the park near the train station between the Maverick and Mean Streak in a little Kiosk that I think is red and is a little slice of chlestoral heaven that I must go to at least once on my visit to Cedar Point.
From Mike Gallagher on July 9, 2012 at 8:21 AM
(Makes mental note on corn dog)

I had a corn dog at CP once from a stand near Troika. It was God-awful.

From Brandon Mendoza on July 9, 2012 at 9:26 AM
I'm with Ted. DLR is stepping up the quality of their food. DCA's new restaurants are actually worth the price you pay, comparatively speaking. I'm mostly speaking about Carthay Circle Restaurant and Paradise Garden Grill... they're both great tasting food and relatively reasonable prices. These places will keep me in the park rather than going off campus.

Can't say the same with USH, Sea World SD, or Knott's. Overpriced for less than mediocre food.

From Amanda Jenkins on July 9, 2012 at 12:03 PM
My vote was for better food and theme, but that also includes better burgers, corndogs, etc. I love the themeing and am very willing to pay extra for it, but sometimes I am in the mood for a good burger and want it to not taste like blackened leather.
From Beth Olliges on July 9, 2012 at 2:22 PM
We usually try to sit down and have one nice meal each day of our theme park visits. Whether it's Cobb salad at the Brown Derby, Mrs. Knott's chicken dinner (yum!), or one of the many delicious choices at Epcot, it's nice just to sit and relax for a while away from all the crowds, noise, hustle & bustle. (We even commemorate these occasions by taking pictures of our meals -- yeah, we're weird that way.)

I do have one question: why doesn't Disney offer an adult-sized portion of mac&cheese? I absolutely love this particular comfort food, and it bothers me that I can only get it in a kids' meal. Come on, Disney food managers, haven't you watched the Kraft commercials? Adults love mac&cheese, too! :-)

From 65.47.250.230 on July 10, 2012 at 1:38 PM
I would go for the better food and theming; my family has several favorites at DLR including the mexican place in Frontierland (the name evades me right now) and Taste Pilot in DCA. But I have been VERY Disappointed with the last 2 visits to Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Resturant and the last time I really complained aboput the greasy under cooked chicken and cold mashed potatoes to the waiter and did not even get an apology or offer to resubmit the order. I wrote a letter about the experience and never received a reply. The last time I went to Knott's Berry Farm we ate off property at Po'folks and it was very good value priced food.
The worst experience we have had at DLR when eating was not the food but the fact that we had to sit on a planter balancing plates of food in our laps at the River Belle Terrace because all of the tables were occupied by very selfish people waiting for Fantasmatic that was still 2 hors from starting. We did complain on the way out at the GR office and later I worte a letter about the experience and recieved compensation from DLR. At least they took the letter seriously unlike the Knott's management.

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