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Variations on a Theme

You’ve probably seen…or at least heard of…the classic movie comedy called National Lampoon’s Vacation, where the Griswold family takes an ill-advised trip to “Wally World” and encounters all kinds of crazy situations before, during, and after the trip to the theme park. (Watch it, if you haven’t already!) Wally World was a different kind of theme park back in 1983, compared with the technological enhancements that grace newly-constructed theme parks, zoos, and aquariums today. The theme park of today looks, feels, and is different from the old days; and nowhere is this more evident than in the level and quality of foodservice available to its guests.

The Good Ole Days (?)

In times past, the best you could expect from foodservice at an amusement park, zoo, or aquarium was a hot dog, boiled and sitting in water for hours; a hamburger, usually pre-cooked, dry and cold; greasy fries sitting under a heat lamp; chips and popcorn; cotton candy, ice cream cones and novelties from a reach-in refrigerator; and soda-fountain drinks. And for this “culinary” experience you could easily break the bank or at least the family budget, leaving you to wonder why in the world you had even decided to come to the amusement park at all.

Exploding Food Options

That was then. This is now. Dining trends and tastes of both American and international visitors are constantly evolving and changing, and public venues must keep pace with consumer demands if they want to stay competitive in the market. Foodservice is no longer a necessary evil, but rather an attraction in its own right, enhancing the theme park and adding billions in revenue. Cheeseburgers, hot dogs, cotton candy and the like all still exist at today’s theme parks but now there is a whole new, enticing foodservice world available to park visitors in 2016.

Today’s theme parks offer fresh, made-to-order menu items that fit a wide variety of dining tastes while also accommodating today’s dietary restrictions and considerations. Theme parks are no longer just a bunch of rides centered on various themes from a movie studio or a specific location. Parks evolved into different forms from water parks and Marine Mammal parks, to living museums and regional themes, attracting families and adults alike for different reasons. And the foodservice within these parks have become destination attractions as well.

Foodservice at these parks are conceptualized from the beginning so that they become a complementary adjunct to the theme of the park. By offering “authentic” menu options that reflect the theme of the park and the geographic region surrounding it, park visitors are immersed in the experience even as they are eating their meals.

Today, it is commonplace to find quality menu options from various regions around the country and the world, in a quick-service environment that is either made-to-order or made very close to the time of ordering. Authentic menu themes and items such as Barbecue, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, German, Spanish Tapas, Greek/Mediterranean, Indian, and yes, even Sushi, are available at many theme parks today.

Shifting Trends

Consumer dining tastes, as mentioned above, have evolved tremendously over the past 20 years. The dining public (especially international visitors) has gradually but steadily moved away from deep-fried and processed foods to demanding menu items that are grilled, baked, steamed, and/or roasted, along with many raw/uncooked items. Combine that with consumers’ new dietary restrictions such as gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, sugar-free, vegan, vegetarian, etc., and it is easy to see why foodservice at public venues and theme parks embrace current trends.

As dining tastes and trends changed/evolved, so, too, have the facilities and equipment producing these menu items in order to survive a fast-paced service atmosphere, while also producing good tasting food chock full of nutrition and texture. New types of cooking and hot holding equipment (Combi Ovens, Steamers, Moist-Heat Holding Cabinets) have made producing food-to-order in a quick-service environment easier for cooks/chefs, with better quality results for the customer.

Similarly, theme parks now offer table service restaurants and “Buffeterias” to supplement the quick-service options for patrons who desire a more leisurely dining experience and are willing to pay a bit more for the food quality and service aspect.   Additionally, in the ever-pressing expectation that revenues must increase from year to year, theme parks, zoos, and aquariums are now marketed to outside corporate and private/non-profit groups for catered functions. Food at these events must reflect the price points charged and be of high quality and variety.

See The Future

Foodservice at theme parks, and other public venues, typically lag slightly behind retail restaurant trends for the simple reasons that they are not created/developed that frequently, and the pace at which they change existing concepts moves much slower than the retail market. But they generally catch up quickly! For example, Food Trucks have been the rage during the past five years in urban markets because they are known for their quick delivery and the perception of duplicating authentic street-food cuisine from various ethnic cultures. They are also very flexible and agile when it comes to menu concepts (It’s very easy and quick to change the menu concept on a Food Truck.) One could say that a rudimentary, early version of today’s food trucks was the hot dog carts seen in both early amusement parks and on almost every corner in New York City. But just because today’s Food Trucks are essentially “grills-on-a-truck,” it does not mean that the food is all deep-fried, greasy, and fatty.   These trucks still have to appeal not only to current dining tastes, but also they need to be sensitive to dietary restrictions.

What will be the next wave of dining trends to be programmed into theme parks? With society appearing to move faster and faster, and as technology allows everyone to become more mobile and agile, can the day be far off when you order a menu item over an app on your phone…anywhere within a theme park…and within 15 minutes, a bicycle courier finds you, through a GPS signal your cell phone sends to the receiver, and delivers your food item to you personally…still hot!? Stay tuned…Only the future will tell for sure!

By:  Barry Skown

Senior Associate, Management Advisory Services | Portland

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