Back in 1995 when Epcot launched its International Food and Wine Festival, the idea was to generate attendance during the slow period in the fall. It worked. After two decades, the festival is mobbed on the weekends and has grown to one of Walt Disney World's largest annual events.
The rest of the theme park industry took note, including struggling SeaWorld. They have learned Epcot's lesson in offering higher quality food than you'd expect in the shadow of a rollercoaster.
This fall not only brings the return of Epcot's smorgasbord, but Busch Gardens in Tampa is adding an Oktoberfest-themed Bier Fest, which opens this weekend, and SeaWorld is bringing a Craft Beer Fest running weekends in November.
Chefs aim for the wow factor of nibbles with alluring words like crispy duck and bacon and artisan grilled beets. And craft beer and wine fans can sip their way around a world of rare offerings, easily dropping $100 in one trip.
The rise of food and wine festivals dovetails with demographic changes at theme parks, said Duncan Dickson, a former Disney executive who teaches at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality. Both baby boomers and millennials have a taste for high-quality food, craft beer and cocktails and also like having adult-oriented theme park entertainment, he said.
But the pressure is on the chefs, brewers and mixologists to craft an appealing menu.
"The downside is, if you put out a bad product, that's going to get out there very quickly, so you have to be vigilant about quality," Dickson said. "But the upside is, if I'm an annual passholder, I won't mind going for three or four hours for a food festival. The gate's already paid for, so let's go ahead."
From the parks' perspectives, food and drink festivals give them something fresh to highlight without having to spend upwards of $50 million on a new roller coaster, Dickson noted, and it gets visitors to spend more once they are inside the park.
SeaWorld, which also owns Busch Gardens, has been in a long slide in attendance and revenues since Harry Potter arrived at Universal in 2010 and animal rights activists questioned SeaWorld's treatment of orcas. But this year, it is showing positive attendance and earnings.
SeaWorld's summer Electric Ocean event, foodie-approved Seven Seas Food Festival and Busch Gardens' Summer Nights, which brought gourmet food and drink kiosks, deserved a lot of the credit, company CEO John Reilly said after a second positive earnings report this month. It also didn't hurt that both parks offered free beer this summer (ending Friday in Tampa and on Sept. 2 at SeaWorld).
The company has announced a three-year plan to drive increases in attendance that includes beer fests in Orlando and at Busch Gardens. Adding more alcohol to the mix can be tricky, but Dickson noted that theme parks have so far done a good job of increasing security. And with beer priced at $4-$8 and cocktails costing $8-$10, it's costly to get tipsy.
"That's an expensive way to get drunk," Dickson said, "so that keeps the crowd generally well-behaved."
We checked with the chefs and brewers bringing festivals to Florida's theme parks this fall. Read on for what's new for food and craft beer fans this year at Epcot, Busch Gardens and SeaWorld.