How theme parks can increase guest spending: Better breakfasts

August 17, 2009, 9:07 AM · The recession is hurting theme parks, no doubt. Profit is down at almost all the chains, and Six Flags is running in the red, according to recent financial reports. Deep discounts have helped minimize the losses at the front gate, but that's cost parks even more on their bottom lines, as per guest spending has plunged. (Which makes sense: People coming to the parks on deep discounts spend less to get in - obviously - and tend to keep spending less once inside.)

So how can theme parks turn the corner? As fans, we want to see financially healthy theme parks. Discounts are great, but world-class new attractions, well-maintained parks and experienced employees are great, too. And we get those only when parks are making money over the long term. A profitable industry also encourages competition and the construction of new parks and park expansions.

Starting today, I'll be sharing some of the ideas I've had about what parks can do to increase in-park guest spending, based on what I've seen on my cross-country roadtrip this summer. None of my ideas will involve soaking customers, simply to wring more cash from us. (Ultimately, I write for the customers and am on their side.) My ideas are designed to suggest ways that parks can provide extra value to us, value that some (if not many) of us would be willing to pay a little extra to get.

Let's start with the beginning of the day.

Suggestion #1: Theme parks ought to offer more and better breakfast programs

A recent Theme Park Insider vote of the week found that just eight percent of theme park fans eat breakfast in the park. The plurality, 40 percent, ate at their hotels - many of which, presumably, offer free breakfast with the night's stay. But 21 percent of readers reported eating at an off-site restaurant. That's money that the parks could be, and should be, getting.

But to do that, parks have to provide more value than the outside restaurants do.

Here are two ways to do that:

1. Let breakfast eaters get in the park early. I love the program that Legoland California has offered. For an extra charge, visitors get an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at the park's underrated Sports Cafe, as well as early access to all the rides in the park's Imagination Zone, including the Technic Coaster. Think of it as Disney's Early Magic Hours, but only for people who buy breakfast in the park.

Given that our number one piece of advice at Theme Park Insider is to get to the park early, how many more people would choose instead to eat at the park is that guaranteed them first crack at some of the parks' most popular attractions? Plenty, I'd bet.

2. Give breakfast eaters a unique interactive experience. Plenty of parks offer character breakfasts. While those provide great options for families with kids, parks shouldn't limit themselves to that segment of the market.

Breakfast with Shamu at SeaWorld San Diego
Breakfast with Shamu at SeaWorld San Diego

Park managers should ask, with whom else might visitors want to have breakfast? The SeaWorld parks offer a popular Breakfast with Shamu program, where visitors eat a buffet while listening to and talking with the parks' killer whale trainers, who lead a show with the whales. Visitors sit next to a tank beside the main show tank, where they can get much closer to the whales than they can during the regular park performances. That's huge value (pun very much intended) for Shamu lovers.

You don't need killer whales to do that program. Parks with high-quality live entertainment could do a breakfast with the performers, offering both performances in a more intimate setting and a Q&A with the artists.

Oh wait, here's a third:

3. Do both. My biggest problem with character breakfasts and the like is that they leave me in a restaurant while other parks visitors are bagging rides with the shortest lines of the day. I love when parks offer an earlier option, where I can finish the breakfast before the park opens and... they let me ahead of the crowd at the rope drop to make my way back to the top rides. (FWIW, parks could double their money by offering a second run of the breakfast at park opening time for later arrivals.)

Granted, these programs tend to be more expensive than a regular breakfast, even if the extra expense is justified by the value delivered. But parks could do better in attracting dollars from visitors who don't want to spend anything extra, beyond the typical cost of a restaurant breakfast.

Here's how:

4. Offer more variety and higher quality at the front of the park. Visitors should be able to choose from a traditional full breakfast (eggs, waffles or pancakes, meat, etc.) or lighter fare, such as yogurt, fruit, cereal and pastries. Park managers should scope out what hotels at their visitors' price points are offering and replicate that. I'd love to see a theme park with omelette and waffle stations, in addition to heat lamp and refrigerator case selections. (Bonus points for egg white and soy options, too.)

And whatever choices a park offers, put them at the front of the park, in front of the rope drop, so that early arrivals can finish their breakfast before entering the park.

I've saved my biggest suggestion for last, though. If parks do nothing else to better serve potential breakfast customers, they should do this:

5. Get a decent coffee vendor. On our entire roadtrip, my coffee aficionado wife reported getting exactly one decent coffee drink in a theme park.

At the Starbucks on International Street in Kings Island.

For all the great food we had otherwise at the two Busch parks we visited, the coffee was consistently lame. Either spend the bucks to install a fancy machine and lure some good baristas to run it, or contract out to a firm like Starbucks, Peets or Coffee Bean. Spring for high quality beans, tea, milk (including soy) and syrups, too. Instant coffee and flavored artificial creamers don't cut it anymore.

So... what do you have to say about theme park breakfast options? What would you like to see?

Replies (12)

August 17, 2009 at 9:15 AM · brilliant ideas & i agree 100% @mouseofzen
August 17, 2009 at 9:18 AM · Busch Gardens Williamsburg offers "dine with elmo and friends". one of the times you can do it is at 9:15, which is breakfast and 45 minutes before the park opens.
August 17, 2009 at 9:42 AM · Those are GREAT ideas. The best way to start a great day at the park is with a good breakfast, but usually it ends up being a (not so great) cinnamon roll or something like that. I remember at Cedar Point that the Silver Dollar Cafe (now something else) used to serve a nice traditional breakfast and we often went there and had breakfast before beginning our day. And let's face it, if you charge more then a couple of buck for some eggs or pancakes, you're going to make money and you know they'd charge more than that!
August 17, 2009 at 9:46 AM · P.S. Either have really good food that people are willing to pay for, or lower the prices so that it's not so cost prohibitive and more people buy it. We generally eat at the park, but usually in one of the sit down restaurants like Famous Dave's because you might as well do that as pay over $5 for a burger :) We loved that burger place at the front of Cedar Point, Johnny Rockets, but with two of us getting a nice burger, fries, a couple of drinks and an order of onion rings, I bet it set us back $40.00! And I'm not even sure that included the tip.
August 17, 2009 at 9:58 AM · I've always been strongly for an early entry breakfast. I could have sworn I got one at the Animal Kingdom years ago at Donald's Restaurant-osaurus.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, often underappreciated by many. Many of my group, for example, skip it entirely or opt for something mediocre, like a bowl of cheap cereal.

Very few Disney, Universal, or Busch theme park restaurants offer a good breakfast. The resorts often have good options, but that usually requires extra travel.

Offer the early entry, or, at the very least, a breakfast that concludes just before opening.

August 17, 2009 at 10:41 AM · I like the idea's Robert, especially the Legoland system of getting in early.

My only problem is I don't know how many people this kind of system would appeal to, especially at the bigger theme parks around the world. Whilst everyone on here carefully plans their trip and aims to be at the park early some more casual guests (which is the large majority of guests) seem to enjoy sleeping-in or taking their time getting to the parks in the morning. I simply don't see this appealing to those people.

I'd like to see some sort of front-of-the-line system introduced for breakfast customers. For example if you have breakfast at Magic Kingdom then you get a Fastpass valid for a number of attractions throughout the day. This way guests don't have to worry about getting up to get in the park before opening and they still get queue skipping advantages by paying for a breakfast at the park.

August 17, 2009 at 10:42 AM · Good Point!

However, the hotel breakfasts are not always free. I would venture to bet many are at eaten at Disney or Universal resorts as well (so they get the money).

I will say, EPCOT seems to have the best of them all within the Land with a counter and character table service.

The issue I see is that to eat breakfast and get into the park early, you need to get up extra early. MK does have early breakfasts so maybe somebody is gettin the hint!

August 17, 2009 at 10:55 AM · I love the free FastPasses with breakfast idea!
August 17, 2009 at 11:39 AM · I too like the free fastpass idea. It would be an excellent selling point at those parks that offer a fastpass-type option.

I also like combining #3 and #4, providing excellent breakfast choices prior to the rope drop at the front of the park.

At Silver Dollar City (Branson, MO), Eva & Delilah's Bakery is just inside the park entrance, in the main courtyard area. It is open one hour before the official park opening time and offers some delicious breakfast items in an open, air conditioned environment. I ALWAYS make it a point to stop and try some of their fresh breakfast offerings before I tour the park. It is an excellent way to begin the immersive experience offered by SDC.

Also, breakfast is not the only meal that should be improved at most theme parks across the nation. I have yet to visit a Cedar Fair or Six Flags park that had even one destination eating establishment that was better than the local fast food stop a few miles from the park. Improving restaurant quality across the board at those two chains specifically would be a HUGE bonus for visitors.

August 17, 2009 at 4:00 PM · Lynda, the Silver Dollar is now a sports-themed restaurant. I don't know if they still have the breakfast. We usually eat at home before we get to CP, but if we get there early, or on the way home, we stop at Donut Time, right next to the skyride station. They have great pastries and cookies. We don't eat at Johnny Rockets any more- too expensive for what you get, and we have NEVER had good, or evan adequate, service. We always ended up with a waiter who just wanted to sing and dance, not serve us (and he couldn't sing OR dance!). We found what everyone in our group considers the best salad bar we have ever found-anywhere- in the Joe Cool Cafe (the former Macaronis). Fresh vegetables, great salads, fruit, and a wide variety of deli sandwiches for under $10. However, we usually head over to the marina to Famous Dave's for a meal. We discovered a great money and time-saving tip, which I will only share with my closest friends in here. When you arrive at CP at the parking lot, where you hand over $10 for the privilege of parking your car, tell them that you just want to go to Famous Dave's for lunch or dinner or whatever. They will direct you to the parking lot along the marina, near the restaurant. Keep your $10 parking receipt. If you eat at Famous Dave's or the Bay Harbour Inn, give the receipt to your server and they will refund the $10, plus you get to park near the side entrance gate between the Good Time Theater and the Cadillac Cars. When you leave the park at the end of the day, you are on the main exit road and don't have to wait for the other 5,000 cars trying to leave the main parking lot at the same time. If you stay for the end or day fire and fireworks show, you don't have to fight your way down the midway to the main gate, then across 100 acres of cars to try and find your car. Just turn right past the theatre, out the side gate, to your car and head home.
August 18, 2009 at 9:47 AM · I love the idea of posting suggestions for improving revenue by making guests want to spend more money. Disney's response to this trend has been entirely the opposite. It seems like everything they do is an attempt to discourage people from spending money. They make day-passes all but completely unaffordable while making annual passes practically the same price as a single day ticket, and as we know APs spend less than casual guests. They started charging extra for hat embroidery, which was previously included in the exorbitant cost of ear hats. When people are looking to cut back, raising prices only causes them to cut back more, especially on something as discretionary as a hat. Then they cut out all variety from their menus at the same time that tons of restaurants are opening right outside of Disneyland. They really need a reality check on what makes people want to spend money and so far your ideas are all firmly rooted in reality.
August 21, 2009 at 4:23 PM · I agree, more breakfast options would get me to the parks earlier. Not just restaurant experiences but better food-on-the-run options.

On a recent trip to DL we got to the park early to get in the never-ending line for the finding nemo subs and I ran off to track us down a hend-held breakfast option. I came back with bananas and coffee, I would have rather seen a breakfast burrito or something a little more stick-to-your-ribs.

This brings me to another point, they know people are trapped in that line for hours, why is the banana cart over by the Matterhorn? why isn't it rolling back and forth along the line, eminating the delicious scent of fresh baked cinamon buns to people who have nothing better to do for an hour than talk to their spouses?

There's your money maker, and a crowd pleaser, sell to the poor schmoes waiting in line. My wife would break me if there was a pin store in the queue area of Indiana Jones.

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