Vote of the Week: Do you eat more or less than usual when you visit a theme park?

September 19, 2014, 11:02 AM · The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival kicks off today at the Walt Disney World Resort. So let's take this as an excuse to talk about eating in theme parks.

How much do you eat when you visit a theme park? Obviously, something like the Food & Wine Festival is a special occasion, when the whole point of the event is to eat and drink. But what about on a "normal" theme park visit?

Blueberry-peach pie
Blueberry-peach pie at Flo's V-8 Cafe in Disney California Adventure

Even on those days, parks try to tempt you to indulge. Whether it's old favorites such as funnel cakes, churros, turkey legs, and hand-dipped corn dogs, or more unique theme park treats such as Dole Whip floats, Mickey bars, school bread, and Butterbeer, theme parks are trying to make eating as much a part of the experience of visiting as going on rides and seeing characters.

Dole Whips
Dole Whips from Adventureland in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

If you ever get the chance to walk the show floor at the annual IAAPA Expo in Orlando (which we will be doing again this November), you find dozens of vendors offering samples of their new concoctions, trying to persuade buyers to sell these new twists on ice cream, fried potatoes, popcorn, pizzas, and sweets in their parks next season. On the other side of the market, many parks now offer one-price dining plans to consumers, which lock visitors into paying at least a certain amount for food during their visit. (Which, of course, leads those visitors to try to eat even more food, to get their money's worth.)

Vector's Grilled Cheese with Pulled Pork
Vector's Grilled Cheese with Pulled Pork at Gru's Lab Cafe in Universal Studios Hollywood

Not every visitor goes for this. At some regional parks, the selection of food looks no more appetizing than an overpriced mall food court. If you're visiting such a park, you might be tempted to just power through the day with little or nothing to eat, before feasting at an off-site restaurant or back at home. Time waiting for and eating food is time not waiting for or riding rides, after all.

Fish and chips, with Butterbeer
Fish and chips with a Butterbeer at The Leaky Cauldron in Universal Studios Florida

At the world's most popular theme parks however, food becomes part of the theme experience. On a multi-day theme park vacation, eating meals in the park is inevitable, and all the multi-park resorts around the world cater to that, offering mid-range to high-end table-service restaurants that can make a theme park meal an even more unique experience than dining at the finest restaurants back home.

Baked Lobster Tail and Sauteed Scallops with Butter Sauce
Baked Lobster Tail and Sauteed Scallops with Butter Sauce at the S.S. Columbia Dining Room in Tokyo DisneySea

So which is it for you, when you visit a theme park? Do you splurge and chow down on everything you can? Or do you make trade-offs? Perhaps you go light on the meals to load up on the special snacks. Or you resist the in-between-meal temptations to indulge at themed or character meals. Maybe you just power through on less food to enjoy more time riding. Or, finally, you're one of those unshakable souls who keeps to your normal eating habits even when on vacation. If you're not consistent with any of these options, go with the one you end up doing most often on theme park trips.

What's the best thing you've ever eaten in a theme park? And what is the worst thing you've ever had the misfortune of trying to consume in a park? Tell us your answers in the comments!

Replies (13)

September 19, 2014 at 11:15 AM · "Time waiting for and eating food is time not waiting for or riding rides, after all."

Exactly what I was gonna say. I always get up for an early breakfast before park opening. After that, a thing of popcorn should last me until dinner, where I'll usually opt for the quick service place with a short line. Incidentally, the best theme park food I think I ever had were the duck wings at Disneyland last year. As for the worst, one burger for lunch at Burger Digs at IOA was enough to turn me off food the rest of the day.

September 19, 2014 at 11:37 AM · I think Disney has gone out of the way to make their food part of the experience and not just an afterthought like other parks. For Disney, part of the experience is eating, people watching, and taking in the atmosphere. This extends to Universal's atmosphere for Hogwarts. I can't say the same for their food though, as I've never had a great experience at USH or USF when it comes to food. Universal and Disney are so much more than just rides/ attractions/shows.

I was honestly surprised by the price and taste of the food at Flo's V8 Cafe. Don't get me wrong, I love the food at Carthay, Storyteller's, and Napa Rose. But Flo's is relatively inexpensive for a theme park and you can actually get some veggies that aren't just a "garden salad" or some corn.

The worst? Oddly enough, about ten years ago, Blue Bayou at one instance felt like they were rushing my table of 12 even though we were all eating full meals and alcoholic beverages. It made no sense, and wasn't very Disney. I've been back since, and it has definitely returned to form, so maybe it was a one time instance.

September 19, 2014 at 11:51 AM · As I've gotten older, I cherish finding a place to sit down in the air conditioning for a little while and relax and enjoy my lunch/dinner at a theme park rather than devouring my food and running to the next attraction. My favorite spot for this is probably Columbia Harbour House in Liberty Square. I love to sit upstairs next to a window and relax for a half hour or so while people watching and enjoying the atmosphere.
September 19, 2014 at 12:08 PM · It depends on the park but most of the time it's less or as much as normally.
I dislike most food at Disney. The Norway buffet was an exception but when it changed into a character thing I never went anymore.
In general I like the food at Sea World and Busch Gardens.
I really enjoy the food at Universal Studios.
Coming from Europe I find that we have different tasts then most Americans and it happens often that a dish or treat we like leaves and is replaced by something more fatter or sweeter.
September 19, 2014 at 12:34 PM · Best: Mahi Mahi at Epcot's Coral Reef Restaurant.

Worst: Monte Cristo Sandwich at Disneyland's Cafe Orleans.

September 19, 2014 at 12:45 PM · Best: That baked lobster tail from Tokyo DisneySea, pictured above.

Worst: Tie between the cashew chicken at Sunshine Season in Epcot and the pot roast mac & cheese at the Friar's Nook in the Magic Kingdom.

September 19, 2014 at 1:01 PM · As someone who enjoys being at the parks when they open and usually around when they close, have to eat a lot there. Usually, a quick snack at my hotel to start with to push me on in the morning, then an early lunch. During the day, I'll indulge in a Mickey Ear ice cream bar, those are great, maybe a hot pretzel with water (much easier than soft drinks on stomach/walking) and then a good dinner. If with family, probably a big restaurant but if on my own, somewhere fast, do enjoy time with rides.

With Disney, their selections are just amazing (as seen in that fun Disney Food blog) and a range for everyone.

Fast places:
Columbia Harbor House, Casey's Corner, Pecos Bill Café, Magic Kingdom
Sunshine Seasons at the Land has great breakfast choices after you do Soarin from cereal to bacon and eggs and more.
Liberty Inn
Backlot Express, Pizza Planet, Rosie's All-American Café, Studios
Resturantasourus, Animal Kingdom

Full Dining:
'50's Prime Time
Hollywood Derby
Land Garden Grill
Le Cellier (BEST steaks in Orlando, I swear)
Teppan Edo
Rose & Crown Pub
San Angel Inn
Crystal Palace
Tony's Town Square

All great dining places, great experience and mood, friendly service and enough to help you long as you enjoy your day.

With Universal, mostly the fast places although I like the Irish pub at the Studios and fair enough service there too.

September 19, 2014 at 1:03 PM · As for the best/worst stuff?

Le Cellier has one of the absolute best steaks I've ever had. Enjoy the Japan pavilion as well and Tony's Town Square had great pizzas. Also have to throw it out to the Mickey bars, always fun to have.

Worst? Well, first time at the Mexico pavilion, had a bite of a taco and had to immediately drink an entire glass of water, they spiced that up big-time. Also, not that crazy about Nine Dragons, a bit too dry and upscale.

September 19, 2014 at 1:48 PM · I always have to get a Dole-Whip float when I'm at the Magic Kingdom, but the Orange Freeze is just as tempting. I still have not figured out why the parks usually sell one generic popcorn. In Japan they have a bunch of flavors and it would seem like a cheap way to bring more flavors and entice people to part with a little more money.
September 19, 2014 at 2:00 PM · With all the walking at theme parks, I tend to be hungry more often as I'm burning more calories. I have fewer traditional meals, but often enjoy a nice sit down at one point during the day. Otherwise, I like to snack and share. There are so many treats--savory and sweet--to enjoy.

Dinner at Flying Fish (ok, that's technically not in a theme park).
So I'll add the time I had the perfect tuna sandwich at Columbia Harbor House, and I sat in the windows overlooking the walkway below. I might have simply been hungry, but it's a great meal memory.

The chocolate cookie sundae from the Farmer's Market in Disney's Hollywood Studios.

I was really looking forward to some ice cream on a hot day. The standard chocolate chip cookie at WDW is awful and ruined it for me. It's a large, tasteless circle--a bland monstrosity that's usually found cello wrapped in vending machines to be eaten late at night by college kids and famished office workers. Disney has great baked goods and knows how to do better. I was incredibly disappointed, and couldn't wait until I was hungry again to eat something good and take the memory away. Next time, I'll wait to get Ghiradelli, or stick to the Edy's ice cream by itself.

WORST (Runner Up):
When they were turning Main Street Bakery into Starbucks at Magic Kingdom, they were serving these really weird egg sandwiches at the Tomorrowland Terrace (or at least that's where I ate it). Between the halves of the giga-croissant was a pink, polka-dotted cheese-like ooze that could have passed for alien food in a sci-fi flick. It tasted vaguely of cheese and egg. Quite the frankenfood.

Disney World's frozen french fries. They aren't inedible or even terrible, they are simply sad and unsatisfying. I'm OK with frozen fries... McDonald's probably built their empire on the fries, not the burgers. But WDW's version looks hand cut, yet have a weird texture, strange mouth feel, and don't taste like much besides salted starch. I usually give up eating them, saving the empty calories that I could use for ice cream or something else instead.

September 19, 2014 at 4:50 PM · I no longer rush around with fastpass. Why agonize over a ride when I already have a set schedule and I made reservations at an excellent table service restaurant. I do try to finish as much on my plate since carry out is useless while on vacation.
September 19, 2014 at 10:00 PM · I've never shied away from eating, but we usually kept it reasonable, because we didn't want to get sick or becasuse we wanted to focus on rides. However, I have tended to go for fewer rides and a few more snacks in the past few years. . . and I agree with the sentiment that I tend to actually lose weight (I lost 7 lbs. at Disney last time) because of the amount of walking that I do.
September 24, 2014 at 10:55 PM · Merry Cherry lemonade at Jolly Holiday in Disneyland is the best!

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