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Epcot tries new recipe for success

Orlando Sentinel

Original Article »

July 25, 2007

With Soarin', Turtle Talk and Nemo and Friends attractions successfully lining up visitors at Epcot, Walt Disney World planners are turning attention to the park's other lineup of attractions -- involving sushi, tequila and pasta.

Numerous culinary changes are under way at Epcot, which might be the only theme park in the world where food and drink compete with shows and rides. The Walt Disney World theme park has its share of attractions, but it also features a dozen full-service restaurants where average checks run $20 to $40 a person or more.

From 1998 through last year, the dining lineup at Epcot's World Showcase went almost unchanged. Now, three new restaurants are on the way, several others are being expanded or renovated, and menus are being rewritten throughout the park to encourage more healthful cooking styles.

The more extensive renovations are bringing some of the restaurants in line with the latest concept in the theme-park business -- creating "immersive experiences." Epcot Vice President Jim MacPhee said the park is seeking more "interactive dining" experiences that can provide more show-style cooking in the dining room, such as the Japanese teppanyaki style, or more interaction with Epcot's other attractions."I think this is what guests expect now, with more of the interactive experiences in our restaurants," MacPhee said.

Among the changes are new restaurants in Italy and Japan, and changes at the eatery in China. Mexico's restaurant has already been expanded with a new menu. Next, Mexico will get a tequila bar and outdoor waterfront seating so visitors can see the nighttime Illuminations show on the lagoon, MacPhee said.

The United Kingdom restaurants also could one day get more outdoor waterfront.At Epcot, for many, the restaurants are an attraction. While most theme parks have at least a couple of restaurants that serve fine food to go along with numerous casual-dining restaurants, Epcot reverses the mix. Visitors can find Angus beef steaks in the Canada pavilion, Peking duck in China, lobster bisque at the Coral Reef, le coq au vin in France or roast lamb in Morocco.

Epcot attracts 10 million visitors a year -- an average of more than 25,000 a day -- so there is a large captive audience for the park's two dozen restaurants and numerous food carts to split up.

But unlike rides and shows, visitors normally can only sample meals at one or two theme park restaurants a day. And the cover charge starts at $67 the price of a theme park ticket plus parking.

Even at that, some people are attracted to Epcot for the meals, said Christopher Muller, director of the Center for Multi-Unit Restaurant Management at the University of Central Florida. It's one reason the park attracts an older crowd.

He said for some tourists and local residents, particularly those who come without children, Epcot can have the same kind of appeal as parts of Nantucket, Mass., New Orleans or San Francisco, because there is such a variety of restaurants within easy walking distance of one another. Many people with season tickets go back just for the wining and dining, he said.

"If you have an annual pass there's no real cost, other than parking, and it's an enjoyable experience. Plus, you get the light show. If you're paying the fare to get in, then it's not an outrageous expense," Muller said.

Other, less obvious changes are taking place in other restaurants throughout Epcot, said the park's Executive Chef, Christine Weissman.

"Eating patterns change. We're changing how we're cooking," she said.

That means fewer transfats, more foods that meet special dietary needs, smaller portions with lower fat content, and, throughout the park, more fruits and vegetables. Menus have been revised both in high-end restaurants such as the Canada pavilion's Le Cellier Steakhouse and in more moderate eateries, such as the China pavilion's Lotus Blossom Cafe.

Both Weissman and MacPhee said the trends toward interactive dining and more healthful cooking are driving changes simultaneously. It might look as if Epcot is shaking up its dining line, but the large number of changes are mostly coincidental, they said.

"I don't know if it is anything but fortuitous timing," MacPhee said.

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