Making the Food Fun at Family Entertainment Centers, Amusement Parks and Waterparks

By Joanna Ireland

Whether you’re swooshing your way down a curving waterslide, polishing your swing in the batting cages, hoping to increase your bowling score to 150, or ducking and rolling to avoid a tag, playing hard works up quite the appetite! While rides and activities might be what initially put smiles on visitors’ faces, offering a variety of fun foods to keep hunger pangs at bay keeps those smiles in place.

Andrew Sunstrom, general manager at A.J.’s Family Fun Center in Comstock Park, Mich., said the center’s most popular fun food is the funnel sticks. “We do like to make it fun for our customers,” he said, “by having our employees walk around and hand out samples. The funnel sticks are probably our menu’s most fun items.” He said the center doesn’t have plans to introduce any new fun foods for the 2018 season, nor does the center offer healthier—but still fun—foods.

“Our season is pretty short,” said Zoom Flume Waterpark’s General Manager Ed Kerrigan. The waterpark, in East Durham, N.Y., which has an 11-week season, saw slightly fewer than 100,000 visitors in 2017. “Last year was the first time I had to close because it was too cold. It was a beautiful, sunny day, but it was too cold for me to have my lifeguards in the water. The weather definitely had a negative effect on our numbers.”

Adventure Zone in Geneva, Ohio., plans to expand its kitchen at the end of this year. Shown is Amber Pal in the snack bar.

In addition to the fast waterslides, the park offers a variety of foods to satisfy hungry swimmers. “Our most popular fun items are the combo meals that include either chicken fingers, hot dogs, or hamburgers with a side of French fries and a soda,” said Kerrigan. “The chicken tenders and nuggets are the biggest sellers with the kids. Another item guests really like is the shaved ice with different flavors. We teach our snack bar attendants to make the snow-cones extra colorful for a bright, rainbow-like presentation.

“We’ve tried a few other fun menu items that were recommended to us by the food service company with whom we work,” he said, “like deep-fried Twinkies, but they weren’t as popular as we expected. The fried dough and funnel cakes with the fruit or powdered sugar toppings are good sellers, though.”

Kerrigan said they’re considering introducing a few new items for 2018 including self-serve ice cream or yogurt. “I like the idea where people can add their own toppings,” he said, “but the equipment costs are pretty high. We’ve tried healthy foods and the kids just don’t seem to go for them; however, we did add fresh fruit, like apples, oranges, and bananas—whatever was fresh and in season—last year, and those did well. I think anything you can eat with your fingers can qualify as a fun food.”

“Food really isn’t a big factor here,” said Casandra Razo-Bravo, assistant shift lead at Advanced Laser Tag in St. Olathe, Kan. “All our foods are probably considered fun foods,” she said. “We just sell candy and chips. We set them out in a little stand, near the sodas, and that’s it.” The laser tag center doesn’t plan to add new food items for 2018. 

“Sweet and unhealthy,” said Donniella Winchell, partner and marketing director of Adventure Zone. “That’s what attracts the kids. Those items aren’t as healthy as moms and grandmothers prefer, but spending a day here is a special treat, and I think it makes the day even more special to have things for people who don’t get fun foods often. We sell a full, fun experience here, and that includes the food.

“We have a Flavor Burst self-service ice cream dispenser,” said Winchell, “and we have the regular ice cream like butter pecan, chocolate, and vanilla, but the Superman and cotton candy flavors are the most popular with the kids. Our menu also includes all-beef hot dogs, which are healthier, and we offer fruit juice as an alternative to soda. We did try apples and bananas, but they didn’t sell very well. The pizza is healthier, and we grill our burgers fresh, too. Since some of our visitors have allergies or diabetes, we sell non-sugary treats for them, too.” 

Casandra Razo-Bravo, assistant shift lead at Advanced Laser Tag in St. Olathe, Kan. Razo-Bravo said the center will stick with its sales of candy, chips and soda in 2018. The snack concession is small, but has been serving the attraction for 15 years.

The center has plans to expand its kitchen at the end of 2018, said Winchell. “We looked at several items to add to the menu, but right now, our kitchen is pretty limited. We are looking at alternatives that are halfway between totally unhealthy and a little less sugary to introduce in the 2019 season. “One item that looks really good is an apple curl on a skewer. It looked tasty and fun, and I think kids would like it,” she said. 

The center is located in Geneva, Ohio, a community-oriented resort area. “We average between 150,000 and 200,000 visitors each summer,” said Winchell. “And our numbers have been very strong. This community was founded in the 1930s, and over the years, especially in the last seven or eight years, people have ‘discovered’ us. This area has become a destination for the Cleveland, Youngstown, and Pittsburg blue collar communities, especially. The state park added more cottages, and now our season is much longer. 

“At the beginning of the season, we get a lot of locals. At the height of the season, we see an influx of tourists, and at the end of the season, we work with the local groups. We do a lot with school groups who come for the day. We really focus on giving everyone a full day of fun, and that includes the foods we sell.”

Sarah Bracht, manager of Action Bowling Centers in Winter Garden, Fla., said that French fries top the center’s most popular fun foods list. “We use a ton of fresh potatoes to make fries each day,” she said. “The fries are absolutely the most popular menu items, but the funnel cake fries and fresh-baked cookies are also very popular with the kids.

“I think it’s important to make the item advertising eye-catching,” said Bracht, “and it’s also important for our employees to try the menu items themselves so that they can give a real, honest opinion when they’re asked. The enthusiasm factor is big, too. We want our staff to always have a smile on their face when they’re serving customers.”

 Bracht agreed that it’s possible to offer healthier foods that still have an element of fun. “We have grilled chicken sandwiches and customers can choose their own toppings and decide whether to include bread or not. We also sell quesadillas which are healthier because they’re grilled and not fried, and they come with a variety of fillings from which to choose.”

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