When visitors travel to Orlando's many theme parks, they are often in search of the fastest new rides or exciting new shows. But increasingly, food has become as big of an attraction -- as the major parks try to lure guest in through their appetites.
Walt Disney World executive chef Jens Dahlman says Epcot is becoming a "food park," noting that culinary tourism there is some of the strongest among the resort’s other areas, including Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studio and Animal Kingdom.
"They can just come, hang out, chill, have a good time, go back to the hotel, come back the next day, take some cooking classes, wine classes. Who else can offer this kind of experience?"
- Jens Dahlman, Walt Disney World executive chef
"Epcot is pretty diverse. You can please the traveling gourmet and you can please the school class of 10 year olds," said Dahlman, busy preparing for the annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival this year, beginning September 27. It's his sixth year leading the team of chefs that cook small plates of food inspired by worldwide cultures throughout the park's World Showcase.
The festival's popularity has become as much of a draw for Walt Disney World as its new rides. Last year, 1.5 million dishes and drinks were served at the event, with 80,000 plates of the popular Le Cellier Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle Butter Sauce being dished out alone.
"We have people who plan their vacations to come during the festival." Dahlman even recalls some guests spending weeks each year in Orlando specifically to take in everything the Food and Wine Festival offers. "They can just come, hang out, chill, have a good time, go back to the hotel, come back the next day, take some cooking classes, wine classes. Who else can offer this kind of experience?"
To ensure the experience stays fresh for repeat guests, project manager Michael Jenner says they redo around 20 percent of the festival offerings each year. Among this year's best new dishes are a crispy pork belly from Brazil, kimchi hot dog from South Korea, and a twist on the Disney park favorite Dole Whip with an orange flavor instead of pineapple, available non-alcoholic or generously topped with a white chocolate liqueur.
Disney has also recently "re-imagined" its popular upscale California Grill restaurant on the 15th floor of the Contemporary Resort, adding new, fresh flavors to its high-end menu. The restaurant also offers improved views of the Magic Kingdom's nightly fireworks show nearby with a new, second fireworks observation deck where guests can enjoy a glass of champagne or wine while watching the display.
Manager Michael Scheifler hesitates to call the California Grill an "attraction," but says it offers a unique dining experience.
"We are known for our guests coming and seek us out for anniversaries, birthdays, proposals, and we have a lot of repeat guests coming back just for that," said Scheifler.
Disney isn't the only Orlando park to emphasize food. Universal Orlando recently opened a highly-themed, immersive area based on "The Simpsons" TV show, offering guests a "taste of Springfield." Visitors can try a Clogger from Krusty Burger, a treat from Lard Lad Donuts or quench their thirst with a Duff beer at the Duff Beer Gardens.
Mike West, executive producer of Universal Creative Studio, feels the fictional food they've now created in real life is just as exciting as the rides or environment they've built.
"If you look at things like the Krusty Burger, Flaming Moe, and Duff, and the Clogger, those are almost characters in the show, so we wanted to make sure that the culinary experience here was every bit as important as the architectural or the characters or the music or the paint or the ride or anything."
Since opening in September, the food court has already been a huge success, says Ric Florell, Universal Orlando senior vice president and general manager of Resort Revenue Operations. "Once they find out we've got this place - we've got Duff Gardens - they're making a beeline over for it, especially the second they see it.”
Universal already understands the powerful draw of culinary items. In 2009, when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, Butterbeer–a frothy cream soda-like drink-- became one of biggest reasons for guests traveling there, and in 2012, the park marked its 5 millionth drink served. An expansion of the Wizarding World, opening in 2014, has been announced to include another themed dining experience straight out of the "Harry Potter" franchise, although what it is exactly has not yet been announced.
Disney is also looking to the future with the transformation of its Downtown Disney shopping and dining district to Disney Springs. One of the first steps in that transition is the upcoming addition of Disney-created food trucks, scheduled to roll out on Walt Disney World streets in November.
Four unique truck concepts have been created, inspired by Disney's theme parks. Enchanted Fare will serve favorite foods from parks around the world, Superstar Catering emphasizes Hollywood cuisine, Namaste Café will be straight out of the world of Disney's Animal Kingdom, and The World Showcase of Flavors will feature a first-time, year-round opportunity to enjoy flavors from the Epcot Food and Wine Festival.
Chef James Kleinschmidt, the Downtown Disney food and beverage manage in charge of developing these menus, says he takes inspiration from Orlando's own local food truck scene.
"I was just at a food truck rally this past weekend. There were 22 food trucks there, which tells you it's not going away," said Kleinschmidt. Disney successfully tested the concept last year by temporarily adding Food and Wine Festival booths at Downtown Disney. Kleinschmidt believes the mobile restaurants will be a big hit with visitors.
"The sight of them, the dishes that we have on there, are going to be awesome and flavorful and that's going to be an attraction within itself," said Kleinschmidt.
Ricky Brigante is a theme park expert and fan who edits InsideTheMagic, a blog focusing on Disney and theme park news and entertainment. He's also host of the award-winning "Inside the Magic" podcast.