Where the Fun Flows Freely
Dining and Alcohol Options at Large Parks

By Chad Emerson

If I told you that one single resort has a restaurant with over 4,200 wines in its cellar, another restaurant with 20 sommeliers on staff, and a third with the largest collection of South African wines in America, where would you guess?

A beautiful Miami Beach resort?  A 5 Star Colorado ski resort?  Maybe an exclusive California wine country getaway?

You might guess any of these (and all would be great guesses) but certainly not a theme park, right?

Well, the reality is that the above wine statistics describe Victoria & Albert’s, California Grill, and Jiko—all premium dining experiences at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Recently, The Large Park Report researched an interesting new trend in the large park and resort world—the addition and expansion of high-end food and beverage experiences for guests looking to spend a premium beyond just front of line passes and backstage tours.

Not Just the World 

Disney parks and resorts have historically (and somewhat quietly) incorporated premium dining experiences into the repertoire.  Quietly in the sense that Disney has fastidiously protected its image as a family vacation destination that offers experiences for individuals at a wide variety of price points.

This was not without exception though.  Indeed, even as Walt Disney proudly proclaimed Disneyland as a place where the entire family can play together, he was designing the exclusive Club 33 at his signature theme park.  Walt Disney derived this idea from witnessing the VIP lounges scattered around the 1964 World’s Fair in New York where he developed several of the fair’s most popular exhibits.  Since opening Club 33, Disney resorts have continued to set the bar for high-end dining at theme parks earning AAA, Mobil, Fodor’s and other restaurant awards.

Notably though, high-end dining options are not limited to Mickey Mouse’s kingdom.  Indeed, other large parks and resorts are eschewing the conventional approach of primarily serving fast food and fair-like snacks for park visitors and incorporating higher quality food and beverage offerings.

For instance, the Universal Orlando resort has made unforgettable dining experiences a distinct piece of its resort marketing.  They’ve backed up this campaign with two restaurants from celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and an Orlando outpost of the world famous Palm Steakhouse.  Most entrees at Emeril’s Orlando come in over $30 while a premium Palm steak costs nearly $100—hardly your typical amusement park food fare.

Meanwhile, the other major Orlando area theme park, SeaWorld, offers higher-end dining at Shark’s Underwater Grill where dishes feature filet mignon and a wide range of seafood—a marked departure from the walk-up counters and quick service you find elsewhere in the park.

The trend toward finer dining options isn’t limited to Southern California or Central Florida, though, as parks like Cedar Point offer fine dining restaurants including Bay Harbor Waterfront Dining where several entrees cross the $40 threshold—and that’s before ordering from their extensive wine and cocktail menus.


Closeup of a concentrated male chef garnishing food in the kitch

High End Food and Wine Festivals 

The large park forays into finer dining and wine aren’t limited to just restaurants though.  Instead, you’ll find an increasing number of food and wine festivals throughout the theme park industry.

The oldest of these special events is the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival which just celebrated its 20th anniversary as hundreds of fine dining and wining opportunities took over much of World Showcase for nearly three months this fall.

Other large parks have taken notice and introduced their own wine festivals including Busch Gardens which hosts its 4th Annual Food & Wine Festival—a month long event that features high-end wine and food pairings.

Meanwhile, Hershey Entertainment & Resorts transforms its on-property Hotel Hershey into a wine, food and (of course) chocolate festival where private tastings and winemaker dinners can exceed $100 per person.  Add in festivals at large parks like Worlds of Fun and the “Grape Adventure Wine Festival” at Six Flags Great Adventure and Safari and it’s easy to see a new trend as most of the industry’s larger operators experiment with higher-end wine and food events of some type.

From a fiscal perspective, this can be a logical start for almost any-sized amusement facility since the capital investment for a special event is significantly less than building and operating a fine dining restaurant.  Indeed, introducing the concept via an in-park festival is a great way to test drive whether your audience is interested in higher-end food and beverage options.

An additional benefit for food and wine special events is that they often can be priced as a separate premium ticket or added cost to the existing ticket required for admission.  Plus, the events lend themselves to evenings and off-seasons when your facility might be closed or less visited.  In fact, that’s the exact strategy behind the Epcot food and wine event which transformed one of the resort’s slower seasons (early to mid-fall) into one of its most popular ones.

Whether it’s a start-up festival or a brick and mortar restaurant investment, your amusement facility has several options to consider when evaluating whether to join many of the industry’s larger parks and resorts in offering enhanced and higher-end food and beverage options.

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