By June Allan Corrigan
Thrill seekers of all ages gravitate to amusement parks for a good time. For sustenance they’ve long relied on typical amusement park fare – hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, etc. – but some on-site food venues are kicking things up a notch. Adventurous menus and dining spaces are livening the scene, clearly aiming to thrill people’s palates as much as the attractions thrill their soul.
At California’s Great America in Santa Clara, Calif., there’s a definite trend toward ethnic foods spurred in part by the surrounding area’s diverse population. The amusement park recently opened an Indian bowl themed restaurant that’s earning raves. “There’s about 14 different menu items available so it’s very customizable,” said Wilf Seymour, director of Food and Beverage. “They can have it with vegetarian items, or chicken. They can have it on the rice, they can have it on the salad. They can add different toppings, make it a little spicier if they like.”
The Northern California park will likely have a vegan restaurant in place by next year, according to Seymour. They already offer numerous gluten-free options. For example, Mexican street fruit – spears of fruit dusted with chili powder and a squirt of lime – is a very popular snack. “We’re always going to have funnel cakes, French fries, burgers and dogs but people are also looking for something new and different. Guests want to have good food while they’re in the park – the quality has to match the experience they’re getting here,” he said.
The prevailing trend at Morey’s Piers & Beachfront Waterparks in Wildwood, N.J., is for locally sourced foods. Not surprisingly, this translates to seafood at this classic seaside and non-gated amusement park whose annual visitation figures fall somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million guests each year. “When people come to the Jersey Shore, whether they are from the Tri-State area or beyond, they want seafood,” said Walter “Wally” Jurusz, executive chef. “So we have scallops and flounder, mahi-mahi, tuna, lobster.” Folks hungering for beef aren’t disappointed either. The park features a gourmet burger that’s a cut above ground chuck. There’s filet and sirloin in the blend which is ground especially for Morey’s Piers by a butcher.
Guests at the seaside facility also relish the opportunity of being immersed in the scenery while they dine. There’s no greater evidence of this trend than the park’s 4-year-old Breakfast in the Sky attraction which has been featured on the Travel Channel. A gourmet breakfast is served for parties of up to four people onboard a Ferris wheel car as it slowly makes its rotation, stopping strategically at the 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock points. Other dining venues around the park put people in the heart of the action as well, whether it’s overlooking the ocean or mere feet from a ride.
Executive Chef Joe Cross has noticed themed dining spaces have been gaining favor at Adventureland Park in Altoona, Iowa. Approximately 600,000 people visit the park during its 117 days of operation and of course, given its Midwest location, many of them are barbecue fans. It’s fitting, therefore, that Cross recently dedicated an outlet to serving it. He had the structure painted red with flames on one side, then positioned a smoker beside it, which proved to be a stroke of genius. “The local company that does our tree work here splits the logs and instead of hauling them away, I burn them. I burn wood all day and people coming into the park not knowing what they’re hungry for, get a whiff of the scent and say, ‘Where’s the brisket?’ They hunt it out because the wood scent permeates the whole park. It’s increased sales about 15 percent.”
Weather in Iowa can be unpredictable, veering from 90-degree days to temps in the 60s over the course of a summer. To comfortably accommodate guests, Adventureland provides a range of dining spaces. “People seek out the air-conditioned spots when it’s hot or at least shaded picnic tables. On chillier days, they’ll look for those indoor venues where they can go and purchase hot chocolate or a cappuccino. For us, variety is key,” Cross said.
Likewise, Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, is subject to fluctuating seasonal temperatures and has noticed guests frequently choose dining spaces that feature air conditioning. “Space-wise, they’re also trending more to our branded concepts based on familiarity with those brands,” said Chris Miller, vice president of Food and Beverage at the park, which hosts approximately 3 million guests each summer.
Cedar Point is the second-oldest operating amusement park in the United States. There’s a lot of tradition tied to that fact which likely accounts for guests remaining faithful to tried and true amusement park staples like chicken tenders, pizza, burgers, fries and funnel cakes. “A trend we have noted is greater participation in the soda souvenir bottle (free refills on first visit, 99 cent refills for the rest of the season), Ride and Refresh programs as well as our Dining Plans,” said Miller. “Guests are also seeking out the Coke Freestyle machine locations.”
It seems apparent amusement park aficionados everywhere will continue to be thrilled by food and ride selections for many years to come.