Food is an important part of the fun experience at amusement parks everywhere. For this article, park spokesmen and owners provided a mouth-watering look at the top-trending treats at their parks, as well as revealing the ways they elevate guest interest in food items, and discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic has or will shape their food service offerings for 2021.
In a Maine seaside town, Old Orchard Beach is home to Palace Playland, where food service is a big part of the ocean-close park’s appeal. Co-owner Joel Golder said the theme park draws visitors from local areas as well as from Boston, New York, Connecticut, and Canada. The variety of food the park offers reflects the diverse clientele.
According to Golder, the park has a large array of food items from fried clams to ice cream, fried dough treats, candy apples, and fast-food items such as hot dogs and hamburgers. But unique food offerings are a big part of Palace Playland’s dining pleasures. “We have some specialty food items that actually come from different parts of the world, offered by vendors who are from these places,” he explained. “We have Columbian food, Mexican food, we have Chinese, all created by people from those countries. And we have a pizza operator with Italian heritage. We have another vendor that has lobster rolls, which are a part of our area, and are an item that’s not typically available all across the country at amusement park locations,” he said. Lobster rolls are a New England regional favorite, a mix of large lobster chunks, mayonnaise, and celery in a hot dog-type bun. Another unique regional item at Golder’s park is a Québécois dish consisting of French fries topped by cheese curds and gravy, called poutine, he related. “That really appeals to our Canadian visitors.”
To generate interest in food, Golder noted that the park uses some social media promotion; there’s no specific campaign as most of the food vendors are individual operators. “They have the opportunity to advertise but usually don’t, so other than the food itself, it’s social media mentions.”
Golder doesn’t feel the pandemic will really change the food service picture at the park, “not if they let us open,” he stated.
At Magic Springs Theme and Water Park in Hot Springs, Ark., Michelle Keeney, company spokesperson and sales and marketing director, said while the park typically offers some new food items each season, tried-and-true food selections often have the most appeal. “We work hard to offer new and innovative items each season, but continually see the classics as guest favorites. Hamburgers, chicken strips, pizza, and funnel cakes are always at the top of the list,” she noted.
The pandemic has already impacted the menu at Magic Springs in 2020 and caused some continued alterations for 2021. “In 2020, we did scale back the underperforming items on our menus, like many parks across the country. We refocused our efforts on perfecting those time-tested favorites.” In short, guest favorites will be expected to make up a large portion of the menu this year.
To stimulate sales of food items, to some extent Keeney said the food speaks – or rather scents – for itself. “The incredible food smells wafting across the park is truly one of our best sales tactics,” she enthused. “It’s a huge part of the experience and part of what our guests love.” In-park signage also plays a big role. She explained that it “helps showcase our dining options.” Online promotions also come into play. “We highlight dining on our website. We’ve introduced a special meal plan in our Gold Season Pass and even offer one-day meal plans online, which make dining even more convenient.”
Those meal plan options include a choice of pepperoni or cheese personal pizza plus a 16-ounce drink at the park’s Blue Canoe or Pizza di Lago; or combos that include fries and drink at the Split Rock Grill with a choice of chicken tenders, cheeseburger, hamburger, or hot dog. A crispy chicken salad is also offered, sans fries.
Bethany Thompson, office manager at Wonderland Amusement Park in Amarillo, Texas, said Wonderland is also sticking to more of their guests’ favorites. “We had to limit our menu last year due to the pandemic, but we kept a lot of our most popular items, items that are easy to carry as well as great to eat,” she said. “That includes hot dogs, corn dogs, and burritos, which are deep-fried bean. We also offered popcorn and cotton candy.”
This year, she reported that the park hopes to expand “back to our normal offerings of recent years, like my personal favorite, fried pickles. And we’ll add in pretzels and mini-corn dogs as well as some other more kid-friendly items that we’ve had in the past.”
To stimulate interest in the fun park fare, Thompson said the park, which will be celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, relies on a number of techniques, including some that invite guest interaction. “We have a social media team that promotes our food items, often by asking questions that promote with giveaways, such as offering a free bag of cotton candy for correctly guessing how many bags of cotton candy we will sell in a certain time period. We also offer combo specials, such as pairing food items with drinks for savings,” she said.
Raptor Ranch is a new focus for an old attraction, Bedrock City. Bedrock City is a 1970s-era park themed to the Flintstones TV cartoon program. It’s been improved and rehabilitated, slides, dinosaurs, and all; the location now shares space with Raptor Ranch, a conservation-oriented attraction with raptor flight demonstrations, a campsite, and educational displays, described as a birds of prey adventure park. Co-owner Debbie Morris said the Williams, Ariz., attraction is planning to expand its food offerings for the coming season. “We are still getting set up the food service property, but we have demo’d our kitchen to repurpose it. We intend to open a smoker for many different cooked foods.” Currently, the park offers simple snacks at the snack shop. “Chips, candy, beef jerky, sodas, things like that. We cater to the locals in the area as well as to tourists,” she said. Signage, local discounts, and food placement are the way the attraction currently generates interest in food. “We have a Coke sign up that does bring people in for soda sales, and we offer a discount for local residents for the food items in our snack shop as well as gift shop items. But I think enticing displays are the best way to lift food sales for now. We have our Dip n’ Dots located right by the snack shop door where they’re easy to see. They practically sell themselves.” While she described current offerings as “limited compared to where we want to be with food selections,” she is looking forward to offering more choices for visiting travelers and area residents in the coming year.
At Glenwood Caverns in Glenwood Springs, Colo., Food, Beverage, and Entertainment Manager Bob Stepniewski said the park made pandemic-related changes last year, but this year, his planned menu changes are following a different course. “Last year we made our menu to be produced faster, and also to reduce the number of people in the kitchen to comply with all the needs and requirements and be as safe as we can possibly be. Going into this next season we are bringing burgers back and building another food and beverage option at the park. We are not a large park, but our ownership is great. They are looking toward the future, and once we come out of the pandemic, I’m expecting people will be coming out and wanting to have some fun and we are planning on that.”
Stepniewski always bases food and entertainment choices on input from employees, he said. “We ask them what guests want, because they are out there on the front line and we try to respond to that and engage them to help us make decisions in that way, which is critical.” It was staff input that helped with the decision to bring back the most popular food trend for the park – “Burgers, burgers, burgers,” he laughed. “Meat, veggie, we always do what we can to accommodate everyone’s specific needs. Sometimes it’s a challenge to satisfy everyone, to balance food costs, labor costs, guest needs, employees and owners – it’s very important to accommodate for all five, to be adaptable. A couple of years ago we had burgers on the menu but couldn’t keep up with the demand, and there were long lines, guests don’t like that.” The solution at that time was to take burgers off the menu in favor of paninis and sandwiches. “We went with the kind of food you could put out faster, but now we have found a solution to bring burgers back this year that will be great fun.”
Other popular foods at the park are pizza and nachos. “When people come to an amusement park, in my opinion, it is a reason to play and have fun. People let loose a little bit. The food reflects that, like cold drinks and food in the summer, and warm seasonal items, like right now, in the winter, when we have a great hot drink menu for kids and adults.”
To promote all these treats, he relies on signage in the park and information on the park’s website. “Our excellent marketing department and social media department are also planning to step up food references. We have big plans for the future. We are really fortunate to have an ownership that looks to the future and gives us the tools to be ready for the next 10 years.”
So, pandemic or not, guests seeking thrills and amusements of all kinds can expect to feast on fun foods, nationwide, now and in the years to come.