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What's the formula for value in the theme park food?

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Published: February 27, 2014 at 11:20 AM

Food is the oft-neglected child of amusement parks in the United States. It’s a solution to a problem, or a cash cow that is bred in tight quarters with limited sunlight. Disney, Busch Gardens, SeaWorld and (to an extent) Universal make an effort to rise above mediocre burgers on a 40-cent bun, but that doesn’t help theme park fans who will only make it to their local Six Flags this summer.

Theme park food is overpriced. That’s not a secret and the proprietors of theme parks will tell you as much. The logic goes as such: Event pricing is an institution at places of leisure. Paying $10 for a beer at a Dodgers game is as normal as it is to pay $7 for a popcorn at a movie theater and the business owners point at their compatriots as backing for their own pricing. This is a form of institutionalized collusion. “Well, hey, everyone else is fleecing customers for parking and soft drinks! Why not us?”

That’s what opens up a crack of light for theme parks such as Holiday World to set themselves apart from their stingy cohorts. The Indiana-based theme park offers free sunscreen, parking and soft drinks to all of its guests; this identification, and subsequent exploitation, of market inefficiencies does not happen enough in the theme park business. That largely stems from a distinct lack of head-to-head competition for most theme parks.


From a food truck, not a theme park. Maybe that's a better idea?

Once you leave California and Florida behind, most theme parks are their own blip in their own market. Six Flags Great America is the only true amusement park in the entire Chicago area. Think about that: 9.5 million people in the Chicago metropolitan area are being serviced by a single theme park. Obviously Great America is competing against other leisure activities more-so than another theme park, but that prevents a direct comparison with another theme park for most people.

When a guest goes to a theme park, the park is battling against the stereotypes of an amusement park. The food sucks, everything is overpriced, the staff is rude and incompetent...the list goes on. Note the way I am using stereotypes here is not in the new-traditional sense. These stereotypes, unlike the ones often used to marginalize a group of people, are certainly rooted in fact. They are often a bit over the top, but that’s the bed amusement industry types made for themselves when they decided to overcharge for mediocre food and underpay high school kids to work at their theme parks. Tough beans!

So about the food: Why is it bad? Or, perhaps more importantly, why is it bad and STILL so expensive? Taco Bell does not serve great food, but it doesn’t matter much because it’s inexpensive and convenient. The formula by which you can judge a quick service restaurant is something like this:

Happiness = Taste + Speed - Cost

Are you charging me an arm and a leg for a bad hamburger that takes a long time to get in my hands? Cool, you just increased the chances of me sneaking in a sandwich next time I visit your park. If theme parks don’t want to put in the time and effort to serve good food, they should at least work on perfecting the efficiency with which it is delivered to guests and the price that is charged.

There are a few common reasons why lines are long at quick service theme park restaurants; one of them is an understaffed stand. When I worked at a movie theater the hierarchy of importance read like a Drake song: Money over everything. The same employee rang up the customer, got the drink, got the popcorn and went to the back to put in hot food orders. Paying an extra two employees could cut this time down to quicker than five minutes — but the business values the extra money more than the extra happiness that could be provided to their customers.

This isn’t exactly a revelation to people who have been going to theme parks for a long time. As I mentioned earlier, this type of treatment has set a low bar of expectation for guests — so why would any park change? Theme park food could be the next great market inefficiency.

Think about the way food trucks have changed what is possible for restauranteurs: Low overhead costs combined with a high valuation of innovation and experimentation. Why can’t the same thing happen at a theme park? Hell, why haven’t we seen food trucks at a theme park? The Los Angeles Coliseum hosts USC Football games seven times a year and they surround the stadium with food trucks offering all sorts of fare. Disneyland brings in food trucks backstage solely for their cast members. [Editor's note: Disney brought in food trucks for guests during the first go-around of what is now the Mad T Party at DCA. Then Disney kicked 'em out to take over the food service at the party for itself. And Downtown Disney in Orlando now has a few "food trucks" that are really just glorified Disney quick-service stands. That's not the same as what Jacob's proposing.]

What’s to stop Knott’s Berry Farm from bringing in a Korean Barbecue truck on Tuesdays and a pizza truck on Wednesdays? When Cedar Fair decides it wants to serve food I can’t get at a mall, it could change the game. Or, at the very least, would ensure we can all enjoy stir fry that’s not found in a panda bowl next time we visit a theme park.

Readers' Opinions

From Anon Mouse on February 27, 2014 at 12:21 PM
It is strange for Disney to use the food trucks since they have many restaurants. It shouldn't be much effort to have their kitchens do a second menu to serve the party. Then again, theme park restaurants are not the most efficient.

More theme parks should do what Disney does, which is the Dining Plans. Regardless of the higher cost, if people think they are getting value for their food, the park benefits from more patrons that prepay their food. Otherwise, guests will be cheap by design and try to bring food into the park.

I brought food many times to the parks. Of course, it is hidden in my backpack. Sometimes I don't if I am lazy or it doesn't matter on occasion. In my next trip to Disney World, I will take advantage of the Disney Dining Plan. I realized that in this trip, I prefer to take advantage of the character dining. There is no way to do this cheaply. I might as well just save the money and spend it as an entertainment expense.

Bad food is a problem, but I haven't gone to Six Flags in over 10 years. It is discouraging that the food quality is so bad and the prices are so frustratingly high. The bright side is I don't do this all the time. The food court at the local mall is just as bad and just as pricey.

From Vaughn Miller on February 27, 2014 at 1:58 PM
My family lives in Saskatchewan, Canada. There are no theme parks close to us so these are vacations that we save for and take every 3 to 5 years, that being said there are certain things that have to occur on these trips, turkey legs are one of them. Yes you can do better then theme park food but that is part of the experience, you are on holidays to some place most people don't get to on a monthly or even yearly basis and so good nutrition takes a vacation as well.

As we are not able go to WDW or Universal, I happen to love Orlando, very often we have noticed that the food has gotten better between our trips. In 2010 it was nearly impossible to find non fried food at Disney, in 2013 there were a reasonable number of choices available, not a lot but a start. However as said before I will not go to Disney and not have a turkey leg or ham hock, you just do not mess with some things.

From Anthony Murphy on February 27, 2014 at 5:39 PM
Good article!

I am glad that you brought up Six Flags Great America. Their food is not that great. They have gotten better, but nowhere near the big parks. Is competition a factor? Maybe. SFGA is surrounded by Outback, Joe's Crabshack, and a McDonalds.

From 108.251.192.246 on February 27, 2014 at 5:52 PM
I am perfectly OK paying the prices for theme park food. My biggest problem is the time I have to wait in line to get, at best, mediocre food. Waiting in line for a world class ride that I may not be able to ride anywhere else, that is acceptable. Waiting in line for food that is forgettable at best... not acceptable.
From Annette Forrest on February 27, 2014 at 5:55 PM
Jacob this was an excellent article. It was magazine quality.

Just some insight from someone who lives not far from Chicago in Illinois: almost no one I know goes to Six Flags. It's quite a drive from the city and there is no convenient way to get there from Chicago other than car. No train or anything. Most people who live in Chicago itself don't drive (and instead ride trains and buses). Those who have cars don't seem to ever think of driving out to Six Flags. There's too much to do in Chicago itself and a lot of it is free (festivals, concerts downtown, just the lakefront itself in the summer with the beaches). Going out to an amusement park when you live in Chicago with so much to do is just a strange thought.

My family is out in one of the suburbs south of Chicago and we never go to Six Flags. That park has a kind of rough element sometimes and a lot of teens who would shove my boys around. It gets violent at that park at times. Every once in a while we get free tickets to Six Flags from my husband's work and even then we don't go. It's just not worth it because we have a better time driving into the city and doing something fun in Chicago.

That's just one family's take on it, but it might be why Chicago only has this one amusement park nearby. There's also Navy Pier in downtown Chicago with a few amusement-type rides that seem to satiate any craving a person would have for an amusement park.

From 70.56.21.183 on February 27, 2014 at 6:27 PM
It looks like Disney is bringing even more food trucks to Orlando with the development of Disney Springs. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out.
eater.com
From 192.195.66.4 on February 28, 2014 at 8:01 AM
Taco Bell DOES make great food...it's called the Smothered Shredded Chicken Burrito.
From 209.51.184.11 on February 28, 2014 at 8:27 AM
This all has to do with the "captive audience" theory. Theme park guests are essentially held captive to whatever food at whatever price the park wants to provide. There's very little incentive for parks to improve in this area, because at the end of the day, we've all got to eat. Certainly, some parks allow guests to bring in food and beverages, but the biggest offenders of poor quality, slow delivery, and high priced food is with parks that prohibit outside food and beverage (Six Flags and Cedar Fair). Even if you were able to bring in food, it's going to be sometime cold, so the parks feel they have the upper hand by being able to serve supposedly hot food.

This same theory happens everywhere you have a captive audience. Movie theaters, concert venues, stadiums, airports, highway rest stops, and airplanes. Anywhere it is either difficult or impossible to leave and re-enter, owners are going to leverage that against the consumer. I don't blame them for taking advantage, but it comes down to the consumer to refuse these actions, which are practically blackmail. The only way businesses will change their practice is to demonstrate to them that they will make more money if they simply offered a good value instead of trying to gouge consumers for every penny they have because they have no other choice. When a theme park realizes that good food at reasonable prices sells better and creates more profit than nasty overpriced food, then they will start initiating change.

From Jacob Sundstrom on February 28, 2014 at 9:18 AM
Thanks for the feedback.

It should be noted that I'm not saying the price of theme park food is THE problem, perse, more that it is a problem when the food being served is not good. At Disneyland I'll usually pay the $10 for a plate of [whatever] because it's good food and I know that the upcharge is what I'll get at a theme park.

On the other hand, I just snack all day at Six Flags Magic Mountain or Knott's Berry Farm because the food just isn't good enough to justify the cost (even if I accept the fact I'm being reamed for being in a theme park).

When I worked at Disneyland, there were three cast member only restaurants and those were augmented by a couple of food trucks. The only guest restaurant (when I was working there) that served cast members was Village Haus -- and even that wasn't all the time.

Annette -- Great to hear the perspective of someone who lives in the area. I brought up Great America because it's an island in terms of theme park exposure and reaps the benefits in terms of attendance. It's a shame you haven't had good experiences there; I hope to make it out there myself some time in the next couple years.

As for the Taco Bell comment...I'm so, so sorry.

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