Form vs. function, or, why Disney's doing it wrong trying to copy Universal's Butterbeer

August 22, 2013, 11:01 AM · Earlier this week on the Theme Park Insider Podcast, attraction designer Dave Cobb talked about the knock-off culture in the theme park industry, and how parks that copy others often don't distinguish between the form and function of an attraction.

It's not just the Chinese theme parks we discussed that do this. Even Disney itself has ripped off others' attractions in the past — sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Few would argue that Disney's Splash Mountain didn't improve on Knott's Timber Mountain Log Ride, the original log flume mountain attraction that Disney's Imagineers have conceded "inspired" their attraction. Heck, that "inspiration" flows both ways, as Knott's just dropped more than a million bucks on new animatronics and show scenery for its Log Ride, to make it more "Disney"-like.

But Disney blows it on occasion, too. Consider Disney's current obsession with rolling out a variety of foam-topped sweet drinks in its theme parks.

Red's Apple Freeze
The impostor: Red's Apple Freeze from California Adventure's Cars Land. (Also known as Le Fou's Brew in Walt Disney World's New Fantasyland.)

Clearly, Disney's trying to capture the success that Universal's had with Butterbeer in its Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

And the original: Universal Orlando's Butterbeer

But in copying the form — a sweet drink topped with a flavored foam — Disney missed the essential function of Universal's Butterbeer. Harry Potter fans didn't love Butterbeer just because it's a tasty drink that leaves a silly foam mustache on your face when you drink it. They've order millions of these drinks over the past three years because it provides one more physical connection between them and the world of Harry Potter and his friends.

As the other attractions in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter engage visitors through sight, sound, and touch, Butterbeer allows visitors to connect with the world of Harry Potter books and movies through taste and smell — two senses too often overlooked in the creation of themed entertainment experiences. It's not the drink itself that provides the appeal (though it's certainly tasty!), it's the fact this is a convincing recreation of something from the books and movies that Harry, Ron and Hermione drank, too. You're not just standing in Hogsmead where your beloved characters stood. You're drinking the same drink they drank, too. That's an active connection with beloved characters, beyond the passive connection one gets from watching a film or riding a ride.

Obviously, if Butterbeer tasted terrible, it wouldn't have the same appeal. (Which is why Universal didn't make the Krusty Burgers in Universal Studios Florida's Springfield USA the foul creations referenced in so many Simpsons TV episodes.) But the ginger/butterscotch flavor and foamy top on are secondary forms to Butterbeer's essential function of actively connecting visitors to the characters of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. To get way too deeply metaphorical here, Butterbeer serves an almost "communion"-like role in bringing visitors into the Wizarding World.

All the foam-topped drink variations in the world won't allow Disney to recreate that, because Disney lacks the context that makes Butterbeer so special. What would Butterbeer be like without Harry Potter? It's be Le Fou's Brew. And who would care?

But here's the irony. Disney does have a food-and-beverage product available to it that could serve the same function in its parks for fans of one of its movies that Butterbeer serves in Universal parks for Harry Potter fans.

It's "The Grey Stuff" from Beauty and the Beast. When Lumiere sang "try the grey stuff, it's delicious," in "Be Our Guest," millions of Disney fans became curious about what "the grey stuff" might be and just how delicious it might taste. When Disney announced its plan to build a "Be Our Guest" restaurant in its New Fantasyland in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the first question many Disney fans asked was: "Will they have 'The Grey Stuff'?"

Yes, Disney does serve The Grey Stuff at Be Our Guest. But rather than embrace it as a Butterbeer-like attraction in itself, Disney's hidden the dessert off the menu, making available only to selected visitors celebrating a special event at dinner.

The Grey Stuff

What a missed opportunity! How many Beauty and the Beast fans would queue to buy The Grey Stuff it Disney made it widely available? Conversely, how much less popular would Butterbeer be if Universal had hidden it as exclusively as Disney has The Grey Stuff? Would the Wizarding World of Harry Potter been as intense a hit without widely-available Butterbeer?

When Disney tried to copy the form of Butterbeer while ignoring its function, it falls into the same trap as those cheap Chinese theme parks that roll out creepy knock-off versions of It's a Small World. It's not what something looks, feels or tastes like that matters in the theme park world. It's how it makes us feel that matters, and how that feeling connects us with a beloved world we long to visit.

Replies (20)

August 22, 2013 at 11:09 AM · I agree with you that Disney isnt embracing the connection, but for what its worth, Lefous brew is probably the best drink I've ever had in any theme park, alcoholic or non alcoholic.
August 22, 2013 at 11:45 AM · I tried ordering "The Grey Stuff" and the server looked at me with a sly grin and said "I don't think we serve that here", wink wink. What a letdown.

I think the other big thing about Butterbeer was that, as fans, we'd spent a decade reading descriptions of it and dreaming what it might taste like. Upon Harry's first taste in "Prisoner of Azkaban," Rowling writes "Harry drank deeply. It was the most delicious thing he’d ever tasted and seemed to heat every bit of him from the inside."

How many fans have wondered what that taste, what that feeling was like? Now, they know.

August 22, 2013 at 11:46 AM · All theme parks copy each other. Go to Six Flags over Texas. They claim it is the first tubular steel coaster. That would actually be the Matterhorn that Six Flag copied from. You could even argue that every theme park on the planet more advanced than a state fair copied Disneyland. Sometimes it is not so offensive, but other times it is. The new Fantasyland obviously is to capture the Harry Potter momentum, and copying a drink seems to be in poor taste, but at least they are coming up with unique attractions with the mine train. Universal has many examples of attempts to copy Disney, and, in one respect, we have all benefitted: Customer Service. What all theme parks need to realize is why the attractions work. Why is it that the Haunted Mansion is always at the top of the favorites? Because it never tries to be "trendy." What happened to Terminator and Back to the Future? The popularity has gone. Stitch has lost its charm (bring back mean alien!). It does seem that Disney is embracing topics that will last. I guarantee a Star Wars Land will last much, much longer than a Harry Potter Land, but I just can't see an Avatar Land doing the same thing. Also, I am sure I will be enjoying a Dole Whip in my elderly days. Not so sure with the Butterbeer, but I am extremely happy that they need to add new things to compete with one another.
August 22, 2013 at 11:51 AM · A very good article and I completely agree. Disney missed the mark on this one. I had Le Fou's Brew during the cast preview and a Butterbeer clone was the first thing that came to mind. On top of that, I didn't like it too much. To me Butterbeer tastes much better too (frozen all the way). I get that it is supposed to be a tavern so they needed something that said 'brew' but it seemed like a half baked effort. There was no connection to the place or the theme.

My thought would have been a specialty root beer. The 'beer' part fits with the tavern theme, you keep the MK alcohol free (at least people walking around with it), you can serve it frozen or normal and you can put vanilla foam on it (since that was the look they were going for). It would have been perfect. It still doesnt have the function that Butterbeer does but I think it would be a lot closer then the Le Fou's Brew.

August 22, 2013 at 12:11 PM · I totally agree. Butterbeer is a huge money maker for Universal, but it's one component of the Harry Potter package. Disney is checking boxes and trying to recreate it, but people don't have the same connection. It feels lazy to me.
August 22, 2013 at 1:41 PM · Beauty and the Beast's Gaston loves beer. Why not a non-alcohol Gaston root beer?

I can think of a Dole Pina Colada.

How about a Little Mermaid tropical punch drink?

Maybe Starbucks is good enough. The frappucinos are selling well.

The cars drink is okay, but I haven't ordered it. Last time I was there, I got the marvelously tall soft cream cone. There needs to be a Cars' beer. Beer goes with cars, although not while driving. Another thing that goes with cars is a Coca Cola Slurpee. They should offer the slurpee drink.

August 22, 2013 at 2:02 PM · I really love Disney, but I think a lot of executives there must just be plain stupid. I believe the reason Harry Potter turned out so great at IOA is because JK Rowling was so involved in very detail. She insisted on Butterbeer being developed and she made sure it was just right.

There's no one like that at Disney. There's no Walt anymore. So executives say something will be too expensive to develop and so it never happens. The executives are so stupid.

"The Gray Stuff" could have been a lot of things. In the cartoon, it's clearly pate because it appears in a savory course of h'ors deouveres. Clearly that would not have worked for a them the Gray Stuff could have been either a custardy dessert or a milkshake type thing. I think having it be some kind of super delicious milkshake would have been amazing...and make it nondairy and no nuts so that everyone can enjoy it.

They could have sold it not only in Be Our Guest but also in little stands in New Fantasyland, similar to how Butterbeer is sold in Three Broomsticks and also from carts in Harry Potter's Wizarding World.

I don't know if Disney will ever learn from its mistakes. They leave a lot of money on the table all the time. The Gray Stuff is a missed opportunity...and also they generally have such crappy merchandise for sale that no one wants and is so generic. I think the executives are just so stupid and can't think of good things...and they don't have someone like JK Rowling around to tell them what to do or insist they get it right.

THAT might be the real problem come to think of it. Disney and Universal executives might both come up with lackluster ideas...but at Universal they have Rowling approving all the Potter stuff and she might be telling them to go back to the drawing board and make things better. But at Disney, there's no one ensuring all opportunities are seized like that.

August 22, 2013 at 2:25 PM · "I think the other big thing about Butterbeer was that, as fans, we'd spent a decade reading descriptions of it and dreaming what it might taste like. Upon Harry's first taste in "Prisoner of Azkaban," Rowling writes "Harry drank deeply. It was the most delicious thing he’d ever tasted and seemed to heat every bit of him from the inside."

How many fans have wondered what that taste, what that feeling was like? Now, they know."

Have to admit I found Butterbeer anything BUT the most delicious thing I've ever tasted. Sickly, sweet. Couldn't even finish the glass... I understand exactly why Universal created it and kudos to them for doing as Robert highlights, but not for me thank you.....

August 22, 2013 at 2:48 PM · I haven't had the Red Apple Freeze in CarsLand, but I did have the Boysen Apple Freeze in the new Fantasy Faire.

I liked it & thought the name was a clever play on the "snow white apple" bit.

August 22, 2013 at 3:13 PM ·, you're wrong, at least partially. Disney - or at least Disneyland - has John Lassiter. He's been looking over the proverbial shoulder on all the Pixar stuff. As far as an iconic drink in Cars Land, who'd go for a drink named, for instance, 10W-30, no matter what was in it?
August 22, 2013 at 4:18 PM · I agree with the Grey Stuff.

As somebody who likes Lefou's brew (and Butterbeer), I think Disney would have been served better if they actually served Beer at Gaston's. Heck, get somebody to make them some!

Then again, isn't Butterbeer Universal's response to Dole Whip (which was copied off of something else, etc).

This poses the question: Whats with all this whipped concoctions?

August 22, 2013 at 4:19 PM · 1. Butterbeer has a diety aftertaste. Blech!
2. Lefou's Brew is great! Replaced the Dole Whip for me!
3. Disney can afford to keep 'The grey stuff' a secret for now. By the time the reservation line is shorter than 3-4 months, everyone on the internet will know about 'the secret'.
August 22, 2013 at 9:32 PM · I agree with you, Robert.
For me Disney failed on the whole new fantasy land thing. Three places out of the Beauty and the Beast movie and they are a mess. One is a glorified meet and great with a broken story (how the hell did we get back to the cottage when we where transported trough the mirror to the castle). The rest is shops and restaurant. Whole beast castle is gutted by the Disney company to put a restaurant in. Disney has worked with forced perspective but the castle on top of the mountain is a bloody miniature! And then we have a tavern that has almost nothing to do with the movie and didn't play a key role or anything but is there only to serve the stupid drink. And of course a shop. Wow Disney, well done. And if we want to see the old and tired show we can move to the Studios.
Then there is the little mermaid smacked in there. What the hell is it doing there? Tropical plants and all inn the forest that started in a French wood. And when finally endless work and money is spent on the kiddy coaster we have the 7 dwarfs mine train, a darkride coaster hybrid like the Mummy with cars that swing. All that on a small plot of land in that huge and empty WDW where Walt envisioned enough space that every distinctive land would be completely on it's own. Good job imaginering.
Man I used to love Disney but I don't feel it anymore.
August 23, 2013 at 4:23 AM · Disney is failing at basic hospitality. I went to previews of both Harry Potter and new Fantasyland before they officially opened.

At Harry Potter they let me have a sample of butter beer before buying it to help me decide between the cold and the frozen. Harry Potter also offers hogs head tavern beer which is a special brew for adults sold only there.

Gaston's had a strong chemical smell like planet smoothie and they offered no sample and the price is actually higher then butter beer and its only frozen. Plus the rest of the land was years from being done and it had no major E ticket ride. Most of the land is new bathrooms and a circus. Pack em in. Walt must be happy that Disney now has a circus carnival.

August 23, 2013 at 6:46 AM · Boy, you certainly nailed that one. Really like the philosophical insight....
August 23, 2013 at 7:20 AM · I think future Disney films will have drinks or snacks "planted" into the story so Disney can cash in later.
August 23, 2013 at 11:15 AM · ""....... Even Disney itself has ripped off others' attractions in the past — sometimes successfully, sometimes not. ........ Heck, that "inspiration" flows both ways, as Knott's just dropped more than a million bucks on new animatronics and show scenery for its Log Ride, to make it more "Disney"-like. .........""

Did the concept of a single singing Chinese nightingale animatronic + giant crooning flowers below, in the Efteling themepark (Netherlands, 1952...)
Concept drawing from Anton Pieck :
Just build :
(Now replaced by a dragon protecting a treasure coffin)

...inspired Disney to have a full orchestra of singing birds + crooning flowers (Tiki room, 1963 ... ) ??? ;-)
(The technology jumped forward gigantically, in 10 years time, but concepts are timeless... )

Then, indeed, later (1999) Efteling did the Chinese Nightingale story all over, with full storytelling, many animatronics, Pepper's ghost effect etc etc... everything (even sea breeze fragrance when entering the show building ! ;-) ...)
... much like in a Tikki room style atmosphere :-) (Colorfull, and any corner of the space can come alife)

August 23, 2013 at 11:01 AM · Great article! Very well said. Disney is seeming to lose some of its edge. They have been at the top, and still are in the attendance category, ever since they started opening parks. Maybe being at the top so long has made them lose some of their focus.
August 23, 2013 at 11:08 AM · Disney is actually going through their 2nd big panic period in their 60 years history. .
The first period was called "Six Flagisation"
The second period is called "Universalisation"
Panic has never helped anyone !
August 23, 2013 at 3:52 PM · Agreed. We ordered the brew thinking it would be something rather different but the similarity was soon obvious although the brew is more of a slushie than a drink and we ended up throwing away the dregs. From the movie one would expect Le Fou's to be actual beer and in fact the other customers ordering at the bar at the time asked for actual beer and left after being told that no beer was sold at the park. The Harry Potter butterbeer on the other hand does not appear to be alcoholic in the books and movies so the deliciously refreshing drink offered makes sense. As has been rightly said it and other drinks like Pumpkin juice and sweets like Bertie Bott's all flavored beans and chocolate frogs help you to feel like you are part of the Harry Potter world. BTW a visit to the excellently themed Three Broomsticks is a must.

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