Magic sort of loses its luster with age. Rarely does one find the right occasion to use the term magical as an adult—after a first date, perhaps, or to describe an experience at a concert or a vacation. There is one place, though, where—by design—the magic never seems to die. Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, the amusement park company founded by one of the greatest entertainment figures of the 20th century, has for 60 years provided a fantasy land that even adults struggle to describe without tapping into the idea of magic.
Of course, the operations underlying the Disney World and Disneyland experiences are anything but magic; thousands of behind-the-scenes employees are responsible for creating that fantasy land. That’s especially true of the foodservice operations feeding the families and guests at Anaheim, California–based Disneyland and Lake Buena Vista, Florida–based Disney World. Some 20,000 Walt Disney employees—cast members, in company speak—work in the front and back of the house at the nearly 600 restaurants spread across the two locations, an operation that would be the 35th largest restaurant company in the world by sales.
It’s an enormous task for parks that welcomed nearly 35 million visitors combined in 2013, according to the Themed Entertainment Association. That’s especially true considering that, just like the restaurant industry, Disney is racing to keep up with consumers’ evolving food demands and expectations for healthier and more premium menu items.
Teresa Roth is director of food and beverage operations integration at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and has worked for the company for 35 years. When it comes to food, Roth says, guests today are completely different than those she remembers visiting the park when she first started—more sophisticated, more educated, and more aware of their environment and what’s available to them. Rather than treat a meal at a Walt Disney Park as a refuel, she says, today’s guest treats a meal as a dining experience that is as much a part of their vacation fantasy as Splash Mountain, the Haunted Mansion, and Tower of Terror.
“They still want a hamburger on one day of their vacation, but they want it to be something different, something that stands out, something that’s different than what they could get at home,” she says. “[And] the children have more voting power now than they did when I began in the company. It’s not because parents give in or anything. It’s more that they’ve been educated as well about dining. … What we’re finding is that [kids] really want similar to what their parents want, but smaller portions.”
To keep up with the evolving culinary demands, Disney employs 290 salaried chefs who are responsible for researching, designing, testing, and ultimately rolling out new menu items. Chefs keep up to date with restaurant developments, visit international cities (including Disney properties in China, Japan, and France, among other places) for inspiration, and hold consumer insight groups to develop new menu items according to consumer trends—the same trends that are forcing quick-service operators to reevaluate their own menus. Customization, for example, isn’t just a buzzword for the Millennial-happy fast-casual set; Disney, too, is looking at ways to incorporate customization into its own concepts.
Disney by the Numbers
A look at the foodservice operation powering Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
• 365 quick-service restaurants
• More than 18,455 different food items available
• 81 million meals served annually, including 57 million quick-service meals
• 20,000 food and beverage cast members
Source: Walt Disney Parks and Resorts
The food program is so important at Disney that the company is updating facilities at the 60-year-old Disneyland and 44-year-old Disney World to accommodate. Whereas food used to be prepared in a commissary and shipped to the restaurants for finishing, today’s meals are prepared fresh in the kitchen. “Things are done in-house now,” Roth says. “It’s created some creativity in space and logistics, but it’s also given us a much better product, and the pride of the cast is amazing.”
Ken Whiting is an amusement park consultant with North Star Food & Beverage Associates, as well as owner of Whiting’s Food Concessions Inc. He says Disney sets the standard in the amusement park space with a strong culinary focus that is at the leading edge of the industry’s trends.
“I think I would recommend anybody I’ve ever worked with or anyone I know in the [amusement park] industry, when they go to Disney, to see how they’re preparing menu items, see where they’re taking it from a quality standpoint and a preparation standpoint,” Whiting says. “Because they do have the ability to see so many millions and millions of visitors every year, where they’re seeing traction is going to spill over [to other amusement parks].”
There’s more to be learned from Disney than culinary technique. The Disney parks are also investing in upgrades to service structure and storytelling engagement to create an experience that children and their families won’t soon forget.
On the service side of things, Roth says, Disney guests traditionally want quick-service meals for breakfast and lunch and table-service meals for dinner, when they’re ready to sit down and relax. Among concepts between both parks, Disney has 24,000 seats available for breakfast dining, 27,400 seats for lunch, and 49,900 for dinner. To aid in mealtime capacity and streamline the experience for guests, Disney is blurring the lines between quick service, fast casual, and table service to create more opportunities for families to dine where they want to dine when they want to dine there, Roth says.
“It’s become a lot more complex, which has required obviously stopping and looking at the operations and balancing the guest experience and service level and speed of service, because they’re in the park to see the attractions, not to spend an hour and a half eating a quick-service or fast-casual lunch,” she says. “They’ll invest 35–45 minutes with us, but an hour and a half might be a bit much for them.”
Streamlining the service model while also creating a space within which a story can be told is another challenge altogether. Roth points to the restaurant Be Our Guest as an example of Disney’s extensive work to balance restaurant-industry trends with the magical sort of storytelling Disney is famous for. Nearly five years in development, Be Our Guest opened in Disney World’s Fantasyland in 2012 at the base of Beast’s Castle, a Beauty and the Beast–themed restaurant with 550 seats, three dining areas, and a hybrid service model that is fast casual by day and full service by night (breakfast was later added to accommodate guests who couldn’t manage to score a reservation months in advance). The restaurant dishes up meals like the tuna Niçoise salad and turkey baguette for lunch, while the dinner menu features things like a charcuterie plate and pan-seared chicken breast.
Before the theme or location of the restaurant was ever decided, Roth had worked with the Walt Disney Imagineering team—the design and development organization for The Walt Disney Group—to construct a basic outline of a restaurant that could alleviate capacity issues in the Magic Kingdom.
When it was finalized that the new restaurant would be located at Beast’s Castle and would carry a Beauty and the Beast theme, Roth and her team set about giving the new concept as much French influence as possible to transport guests to the story’s setting. Cast members who worked the restaurant learned about 30 words in French to use while engaging guests; menu items were given names like croque-monsieur, even when “ham and cheese sandwich” might have been easier for the average Disney guest.
“When you think about the story of a restaurant, it is the ambience, it is the structure, and the storyline that comes with the structure,” Roth says. “We’re fortunate with our Imagineering partners; they have created a great storyline. It’s then taking that great storyline and creating it into a living, breathing document. The last thing you want is for somebody to three years later not understand the story or the ‘why’ behind some of the elements.”
Helping Disney improve upon the service and storytelling within its restaurants are technology upgrades that make the experience truly seem like magic. Be Our Guest opened with touch-screen ordering terminals rather than traditional point-of-sales stations. And a recent $1 billion, Disney-wide development, MyMagicPlus, takes dining at the parks to a whole new level; guests who sign up receive a MagicBand ahead of their trip, a bracelet that connects via radio to sensors all over the park, delivering information on the guest’s purchases and preferences without them even needing to say a word or press a button on a terminal.
“We think about technology as that enabler to our cast members to provide the service,” Roth says. “With Be Our Guest, the guests don’t have to use the point of sales. That doesn’t mean we cut the labor of the point of sales; it means we were able to re-appropriate those individuals to provide additional service points for our guests. Technology is going to play a very, very key part [in the future], but in the end it comes down to the food we’re serving, as well, and the way we’re serving that food.”
Much as the quick-service industry has realized that it must face the music on the health and wellness of its customers, Disney has similarly made nutrition a major focal point in its menu development efforts.
To accommodate parents looking for healthier meal opportunities for their kids, Disney introduced nutritional guidelines in 2006 that suggested limits for things like calories, sodium, and saturated fat. It updated the guidelines in 2012, around the same time it rolled out the Mickey Check, an icon—featuring the silhouette of Mickey Mouse’s head with a check mark in the middle—that signals on menuboards which food items meet Disney’s guidelines.
“Being a family atmosphere, moms and families were asking us to improve the kids’ meals and create guidelines that were easy to follow,” says Gary Jones, culinary dietary specialist at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. “That’s why we came up with the Mickey Check icon that shows up on our menus and also shows up outside Parks and Resorts.”
Half of all kids’ meals meet Mickey Check guidelines at Disney World and Disneyland today. Jones says Disney still needs to offer a variety of options, including indulgent foods—“Let’s face it, we’re a celebration atmosphere, so there’s going to be a little more indulgence here sometimes,” he says—but adds that chefs have successfully found ways to incorporate stealth health, making for many items that are both healthy and seemingly indulgent.
Take Be Our Guest as an example again. The restaurant’s menu includes the Mickey Meatloaf, a turkey meatloaf served with carrot ketchup made with fresh carrot juice. The natural sugar of the carrots gives the ketchup some sweetness without being unhealthy, and Jones says the pulp left over after the chef juices the carrots is cooked back into the meatloaf to fortify it with nutrients.
Disney is also actively developing more food items for guests with allergies or intolerances; Jones says roughly 650,000 guests with an allergy or intolerance visited a Disney park last year. That’s part of the reason Disney just partnered with the New York–based vegan and gluten-free bakery Babycakes to open Erin McKenna’s Bakery NYC in Disney World’s Downtown Disney Marketplace. It’s also why the company ran an allergen-friendly menu pilot in the fall, which has since expanded to 117 of Disney’s restaurants.
“Guests will be able to walk in and we’ll have multi-allergen menus in those locations, which is pretty awesome,” Jones says. “It makes it easier for guests because they’ve got more selections; it makes it easier for the kitchen because it’s already pre-programmed.”
It’s an impressive feat of innovation for an amusement park. Whiting says parks are still trying to figure out how to balance new consumer trends—high-quality foods, customization, a variety of options, and faster speed of service are a few in demand from amusement park guests, he says—while also offering traditional items like funnel cakes, corndogs, and turkey legs.
He adds that Walt Disney Parks and Resorts is much different than most amusement parks—particularly in the fact that many guests stay on campus for multiple days and nights—but says it still deals with a simple truth of all parks: Most purchases are made on impulse.
“If I’m walking around, and all of a sudden I come upon something that’s merchandized well, communicated well, utilizing all the other senses of sight and smell and maybe the occasional sound, I’ll buy it right now because I can’t get it any place else,” he says. “That’s probably one of the core things in coming up with some signature items in amusement parks: When I leave here today, I might not be able to find something just like this.”
That factor has created a divided opinion on name brands within parks. While some parks, like Cedar Fair Entertainment Company’s 15 U.S. destinations, rely heavily on outside brands to operate locations inside the park’s grounds, others, like Universal Studios Florida, are very committed to proprietary brands, Whiting says. He adds that there is “not a unified belief” on which option is best.
The vast majority of Disney’s restaurant locations are proprietary concepts, but it also partners with several other name-brand companies to open locations at Disneyland and Disney World. Starbucks, for example, opened its first U.S. Disney location in March 2014, a company-operated location in Disneyland’s Downtown Disney District. The first of at least six Starbucks to open on the U.S. properties, the unit features reclaimed wood siding, a green wall with more than 1,000 native plants in the shape of a coffee cup, a 10-foot video installation that introduces customers to the brand’s story, and a touch-screen activity for kids.
“This store is a reflection of two iconic brands coming together to offer their customers the kind of high-quality experience they expect in a way that embodies the unique passion of each,” said Arthur Rubinfeld, chief creative officer and president of global innovation for Starbucks, in a release at the time. “Collaborating with Disney offered us the opportunity to create a unique moment of connection for our customers in a way that evokes the magic that their guests expect.”
Roth says Disney partners with brands that closely align with the company’s values and looks for operations that can ace a number of standards, such as safety, courtesy, and efficiency. In addition, partner brands must be able to fit well within the overall Disney show.
The Starbucks relationship, she says, has been advantageous for Disney because it has been able to learn from the coffee giant’s industry expertise. “It continues to be a collaborative partnership,” Roth says. “But when the guest is on the property, they’re at Disney; yes, they will seek out brand names, but they expect it to be the same as [the rest of the park]. The cast has to be at the same level of customer service.”
La Brea Bakery opened a café location 14 years ago in Disneyland’s Downtown Disney District. Marty Breverman, vice president of La Brea Bakery Concepts, says Disney wanted to partner with California brands at the time, and that the original idea was for Disney to run the location, which was primarily quick service with the only seating on an outdoor patio.
The restaurant went through a redesign and relocation four years ago, and La Brea now operates the Disney location on its own. Breverman says Disney doesn’t get involved in the day-to-day operations, but does lend its resources to ensure the success of the restaurant; the redesign, which has significantly increased sales, was developed with the help of Disney’s Imagineering team, he says.
“It’s really turned into something much different than what we probably could have done on our own,” he says. “They’re really great partners in coming up with innovations on the design level, and they’re great partners to work with because they’re always willing to help and they’re always coming up with ideas of what we can do better.”
Breverman adds that La Brea, which owns two other restaurants and licenses 11 locations throughout the U.S., has learned invaluable operational lessons at its Disney location, such as crowd control and customer service. “You get a better understanding from the standpoint of a guest experience, making sure everyone is happy,” he says. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but it truly is in a lot of ways a magical place. People come down there with an expectation that they’re going to be wowed, and you have to perform to that expectation.”
There is a lot more work to be done to get Disney up to speed with the myriad dining trends bubbling up in the restaurant space. Roth says the organization is exploring sustainable seafood while also investing in other sustainability initiatives, like food-waste programs and reusable containers.
She sees the future of Disney’s food operation as being one that is much more immersive and entwined with the storytelling going on all over the rest of the park. “It’s not just about dining; I am a part of something when I’m dining,” she says. “And it’s not just about seeing the restaurant. I want to do something in the restaurant; I want to engage with the restaurant.”