What's the formula for value in the theme park food?
Written by Jacob Sundstrom
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.Tweet
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.
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