Traveling to California? At Theme Parks, Food Is Main Attraction

For now, theme parks are turning into outdoor food venues.

Sally FrenchMar 17, 2021
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Southern California theme park Knott’s Berry Farm is known for its decadent fried chicken dinners and boysenberry pie. It’s also equally famous for its thrill rides, like the rickety, wooden GhostRider and the inverted Silver Bullet. Combine them, and you’re sure to lose your lunch.

Alas, a lot more than lunch was lost for the theme park industry in 2020. High-contact places coupled with large crowds and the coronavirus pandemic made last year brutal for theme parks.

In California, large theme parks have remained closed since the onset of the pandemic. That’s because of the state’s tier system, which prevents theme parks from opening (or otherwise severely restricts capacity) based on COVID-19 case counts in the area. Unsurprisingly, that’s affected the bottom line for the theme park business.

Those limitations have prompted California theme parks to get creative. Since outdoor restaurants can reopen, they've reinvented themselves as outdoor food halls to stay in business. If you're traveling to California this spring break or live there, here’s what you need to know about these new food festival events.

At Disney California Adventure, visitors could walk through the park’s front half for shopping and dining for free through March 14. Beginning March 18, it becomes a special ticketed event space called “A Touch of Disney.” (Photo by Sally French)

A foodie dreamscape

Instead of charging for admission, many California theme parks have adopted a format where visitors buy a meal card — and can enter the theme park (erm, outdoor food hall) only if they've bought one.

Among the earliest creators of the theme-park-as-outdoor-restaurant concept was Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park. In July 2020 the theme park, located a roughly 15-minute drive from Disneyland, introduced "Knott's Taste of Calico," an outdoor food festival where $25 got you a tasting card and admission into the theme park, without access to any rides.

The event was wildly successful not only in terms of selling out, but also in boosting the quality of theme park food from stale hamburger buns and soggy, bland fries to creative fusion dishes like samosas served with boysenberry chutney.

Other theme parks have jumped on board, and Knott’s has hosted many more food events since the Taste of Calico, including the Taste of Boysenberry Festival running through May 2.

Beginning March 18, Disneyland Resort is set to hold its own separately ticketed event called "A Touch of Disney," where you get a dining card worth $25 plus free rein to wander the park (again, sans rides).

Universal Studios Hollywood launched its "Taste of Universal" event this month, where tickets get you a tasting card to sample dishes like butterbeer from the park's Harry Potter-themed section and a giant donut from the Simpsons-inspired Lard Lad Donuts shop.

And at SeaWorld San Diego you can eat dishes like honey-glazed salmon at the theme park's Seven Seas Food Festival.

How California’s food theme parks are handling COVID safety

At Disney California Adventure, a mask-clad Minnie Mouse and a temporary sink are reminders that the pandemic is still happening. (Photos by Sally French)

California’s theme park food events adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for social distancing, and the restaurants all operate outdoors. Hand-sanitizing stations are abundant, and it’s common to see a random sink in the middle of a street.

At Disneyland, chipper employees clad in their own masks will pleasantly remind you to pull your mask above your nose. At Knott’s Taste of Boysenberry Festival, you can meet Snoopy dressed as an Easter Bunny, though he stands behind a barrier so you can’t hug him.

Most events that dole out food tasting cards give you a badge with a scannable bar code, letting you avoid exchanging paper cards or tokens that you’ve touched. Ticket sales are capped, so it never feels too crowded. However, indoor store capacity restrictions mean you may have to wait in line to shop at an indoor retail store.

For boysenberry brisket tater tots at the Knott’s Berry Farm Taste of Boysenberry Festival, you’ll have to let a Knott’s employee scan your tasting card — no exchange of physical cards required. (Photos by Sally French)

What you'll pay

For an event like the Knott’s Taste of Boysenberry Festival, $45 lets you choose five “tastes” from a menu of dozens of items. Some are certainly “tastes,” like the two pork bao buns with boysenberry kimchi. Others could serve as an entire meal, including a presumably-healthy salmon and orzo salad, or a sumptuous shrimp and grits.

Included with admission to the Knott’s Taste of Boysenberry Festival are your choice of dishes, such as pork bao buns with boysenberry kimchi, salmon and orzo salad with boysenberries, and boysenberry-flavored shrimp and grits. (Photos by Sally French)

The event’s $45 admission is cheaper than the usual $55 theme park admission. Of course, you can’t take advantage of the rides, but usual theme park prices won’t include any food. A Touch of Disney is $75 — about half the cost of a usual one-day ticket. Taste of Universal has tickets starting at $44, and SeaWorld's event will cost you at least $60.

Are California’s food theme park events worth it?

If you prioritize zipping down Splash Mountain to the tune of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," then of course not. But the theme park shutdown affirmed that theme parks are about more than just rides. You can people-watch, counting how many plush Baby Yodas you spot in tow. You can sit on a freshly sanitized bench next to the popcorn stand and breathe in that buttery scent (from behind your mask, of course). For once, you’re listening to the ambient music — and not your family arguing about what FastPass to get next.

For people whose stomachs might not survive a thrill ride, food festivals provide a rare opportunity to experience theme parks at a discounted price, without the pressure to go on a nausea-inducing coaster.

In fact, people might prefer refreshments to rides anyway. A January 2021 survey conducted by Morning Consult for the American Express Global Travel Trends Report found that 62% of travelers said eating is the top activity they’re interested in while on vacation.

Of course, whether or not to go to a theme park — or outdoor food hall — is still a personal decision. While safety measures are aplenty, there's still some risk.

California theme parks could reopen sooner than most people thought. A surprising amendment to California’s strict tier system means that theme parks in the state could reopen on a limited basis with capacity restrictions as soon as April 1.

At Knott’s Berry Farm, the Wheeler Dealer Bumper Cars space has been transformed into an extended outdoor dining area, and there’s ample room to spread out. (Photo by Sally French)

Many theme parks won’t open that early, as they’ll at least allow the food festivals to finish their scheduled runs. Disney CEO Bob Chapek said Disneyland could open in late April, and based on how quickly A Touch of Disney sold out, many fans will likely be eager to rush back when the theme park reincarnates itself as an actual theme park.

Still, the concept of a theme park as a food fantasyland is one more thing to add to the growing list of positive changes to come out of the pandemic (amid other shifts like waived airline change fees, improved hotel cancellation policies and better airplane sanitization).

These food festivals remind us that theme parks are a place to slow down, rather than rush around on roller coasters. They're evidence that food can be a main attraction too. For now, savor the incarnation of a theme park exclusively as an outdoor food festival, because it likely won’t be around for long.

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