Food Service Stars – Celebrity Chefs and Theme Parks

By Chad Emerson

Turn on your television these days and you’re more than likely just a few clicks of the remote away from one of the many celebrity-driven chef shows that dominate the airwaves these days.  From competitions to travelogues to secret insider tips, foodie shows are one of the fastest growing and most popular segments in the television industry.

Which led The Large Park Report to wonder:  Is this trend also gaining traction in the theme park world?Chef in hotel or restaurant kitchen cooking, only hands to be se

What we found was a clear “Yes” at some of the industry’s larger parks and resorts.  Indeed, this trend started over a decade ago and appears to be gaining more strength each year as these large parks continue to introduce new celebrity chef restaurants on their properties.

This issue, The Large Park Report considers the benefits and challenges of this trend and whether it’s something that could translate to other entertainment facilities.


It Begins With Disney

No theme park has more aggressively courted celebrity chefs over the years than Walt Disney World.  This effort dates back to the early 1980s when Disney officials convinced famed French chef Paul Bocuse to operate the park’s restaurants at the France pavilion of Epcot’s World Showcase.  Today, the Bocuse family still operates the restaurants with theme park guests paying over $100 per person for select price fixe menus during the year (with lunchtime often fetching $30 per person).

This might sound like an unlikely amount for a theme park guest to pay to eat but, before jumping to that assumption, you should consider the context.  First, Epcot—and especially World Showcase—is decidedly less ride-focused and more “show and shopping” centric.  Indeed, that entire portion of Epcot has basically two boat rides, both of which are generally tame and unlikely to result in soaked guests.

According to several former Disney execs, World Showcase draws a much different type of theme park guest than many of the other Disney parks.  This includes an expansive local Orlando guest population (that trends older and more affluent) as well as a significant number of adults traveling to Disney World for the resort’s growing convention business (Epcot actually has a special evening-only ticket for some conventioneers).  By their very nature, these types of guests are looking less for low meal costs and more for unique dining experiences.

Similar dynamics hold true at other show and shopping parts of Disney such as Downtown Disney (soon to be rechristened Disney Springs).  It’s here that uber celeb chef Wolfgang Puck has operated multiple restaurants.  In addition, Disney recently announced that fellow superstar chef Morimoto will open Morimoto Asia as part of the Disney Springs redo.  Add in celebrity chef Kevin Dundon’s Raglan Road pub in Downtown Disney and it is clear to see that Disney has concentrated its celebrity chef offerings in areas of the resort that are accessible to locals, convention-goers, and theme park guests looking for more shopping than rides.

This makes a great deal of sense when you consider that, with the exception of Epcot’s World Showcase, finer dining—celebrity chef or otherwise—is typically not the primary focus of in-park guests.  While excellent table service dining options do exist in many theme parks, they are vastly outnumbered by quick service options.  Plus, even the in-park table service restaurants are generally designed less for extended meals and more for fast-paced meals with a higher quality menu.

This strategy is further evidenced by the decision to locate celebrity chef Todd English’s bluezoo Restaurant at the Walt Disney World Dolphin which is located in Disney’s Boardwalk area—a smaller version of Downtown Disney with shops, restaurants, hotels and entertainment.  Just as with Downtown Disney, this area is accessible for locals and business travelers interested in fine dining and aware of celebrity chefs.


Other Theme Park Celebrity Chef Options

Not to be completely outdone by its competitor down I4, Universal Orlando has also embraced the celebrity chef concept.  And, similar to Disney, they’ve primarily done so at the resort but outside the actual parks with two concepts from superstar chef Emeril—one at the on-property Royal Pacific Resort (Emeril’s Tchoup Tchoup) with another in CityWalk—Universal’s version of Downtown Disney—known simply as Emeril’s Restaurant Orlando.

While the resort does have several strong in-park dining options, including Mythos Restaurant at Islands of Adventure which is regularly one of the most popular table service theme park restaurants in the industry, it has also focused its celebrity chef offerings on the areas of the resort that are more accessible to both local foodies and conventioneers.  The same holds true for what might be considered even “lesser” celebrity chef restaurants like the Beatrice Ruggeri family’s Bice Restaurant at Universal’s on-property Portofino Bay hotel which also offers easier access to locals and convention-goers than in-park dining does.

So, what does all of this mean for non-mega parks?  First, it shows that amusement facilities don’t have to concede celebrity chef dining to downtowns or high end resorts.  Almost all of the theme park celebrity chef restaurants have operated for extended periods of time in these settings (with one exception being the short-lived Kouzzina by Cat Cora at Disney World’s Boardwalk) and have realized a significant level of success.

This is a lesson that Las Vegas has learned.  Even though visitors to Sin City focused on gambling first and foremost, they were willing to take extended breaks from that form of entertainment to enjoy high-quality dining from celebrity chefs.  Indeed, today’s Las Vegas has the highest concentration of celebrity chef restaurants in the world.

Another lesson for other amusement facilities is to carefully consider both your location and where you would place a celebrity chef restaurant.  On the first point, does your facility offer convention space or is it conveniently located near convention space?  If so, you might be able to attract a different dining crowd than those typically looking to ride log flumes and space launches.  Also, is your facility located in a more densely populated area where table service restaurants are popular?  If so, you might be able to count on a local foodie crowd if you partnered with a local, regional or even national celebrity chef.

And, finally, if your answer to either of the above was “yes”, then if you do decide to test the waters with celebrity chef dining, carefully consider where you locate the venue—with the best locations either outside the park gates or at least with a separate entrance for non-park goers.  Both provide easier access to the type of customers most likely interested in celebrity chef dining.

(Reach Contributor Chad Emerson by emailing

Chad Emerson

Chad Emerson

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