Dozens of new food and beverage creations will be on the menu at Disney World this summer, ranging from the spicy “El Diablo Burger” at D-Luxe Burger in Disney Springs to a refined, ceviche-style octopus – served with artichokes, capers, Kalamata olives, tomatoes and a saffron aioli – at Tiffins, a much-anticipated upscale restaurant at Animal Kingdom.
None of them will be there by chance. Only after years of brainstorming, research and testing will a new restaurant, dish or cocktail get the green light at Disney.
The hard work happens out of sight in Disney’s Flavor Lab, a 7,000-square-foot research and development facility where chefs, sommeliers, mixologists, Disney Imagineers and restaurant managers dream up the dining experiences guests enjoy at Walt Disney Parks around the world.
In addition to its gleaming stainless-steel prep stations, state-of-the-art kitchens and rooms for menu tastings and training seminars, the Flavor Lab has cameras, lights and high-definition TVs that allow chefs in Florida to stream tutorials or collaborate in real time with their counterparts in Anaheim, Paris or Hawaii.
It isn’t open to the public, but the public reaps the benefits of what happens there.
“We have over 475 food and beverage locations in Florida and more than 160 in California, with every style of cuisine and service you can imagine,” said Ed Wronski, director of culinary development at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
It’s said that everything begins with a story at Disney, and that’s true for restaurants as well as rides. “After the story is laid out and we do some brainstorming, we might spend 18 months to two years working on the menu, including many renditions of a dish,” Wronski said.
And the restaurant where the dish will be served gets designed and built only after the menu is set. “A lot of people don’t realize that the menu comes first, not the kitchen,” Wronski said.
While recipes are created for four people, much larger crowds are kept in mind. “I always say when we create a dish for four, we need to be able to do that same dish for 40 or 400,” Wronski said.
And it’s unlikely you’ll find it anywhere else. “We don’t do anything twice as a general rule,” said Lenny De George, executive chef of culinary concept development. “Less than 5 percent of items we will ever design will be used in two different spots.”
De George is confident he has a winner in D-Luxe Burger, which opened yesterday in Disney Springs’ new Town Center neighborhood.
“You may think, ‘What can we possible do that’s new with a burger? Everyone has done everything,’” he said. “But we studied burgers and french fries like we knew nothing for two years.”
Those months of research have resulted in a pared-down menu of four super-juicy burgers – be sure to grab extra napkins – made with a signature blend of Angus chuck, short rib and brisket, with unique combinations of toppings. There’s also a veggie burger and a chicken-patty sandwich, all in freshly baked buns.
There are milkshakes, too, and fries that are cut in-house, cooked three times (steamed once, fried twice) and served with a choice of six dipping sauces, including zesty options like buffalo blue cheese and chipotle and horseradish mayonnaises.
“We did a lot of internal testing for the dipping sauces and kept an eye on industry trends.” De George said. “I don’t think five years ago you’d have seen so many spicy sauces, but the palate is shifting.”
Beverages, too, begin with a story and are themed to their locations. “We work closely with Walt Disney Imagineering, whose team stays with us through the life of the project,” said Brian Koziol, concept development director for beverages.
“We generally start two to three years out. Our team does everything from designing drinks and working on design of bars and layout to specifying the equipment and developing menus, all the way down to training and execution,” said Brad Ward, who works on the beverage concept development team.
For the new Nomad Lounge & Cocktail Bar at Animal Kingdom, the beverage team took its inspiration from the Mexican-style animal wood carvings in Discovery Island and developed a mezcal margarita with essence of agave, as well as a refreshing, African-inspired non-alcoholic watermelon lemonade garnished with basil.
Even the classic bloody mary gets a Disney theme makeover at the Oasis Pool Bar at the Polynesian Village Resort. The “Bloody Mele” is made with bloody mary mix, Hawaiian Hali'imaile vodka distilled from pineapples, soy sauce, Sriracha sauce and “the secret ingredient” – Fee Brothers Zesty Deli Dill Pickle Brine, topped off with celery bitters. “Be careful. It has a bit of a kick,” Ward said.
Of course, cocktails are just the tip of the beverage iceberg. “Last year we sold over 600 different beers, over 900 different spirits and over 2,600 different wines just here in Florida. I can think of no other place that offers that diversity of product.” Koziol said.
Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is the family vacations expert at About.com.