If you are like me, going to a Disney theme park is not just about riding rides, seeing shows, watching the parades, and gawking at the fireworks. Do not get me wrong. All of those things are super-important. But I also go to Disney for one more reason: to try all the tasty treats!
So imagine my delight when I saw that the new season of the Disney+ series “Behind the Attraction”, which provides insider info and behind-the-scenes peeks of all our favorite Disney attractions, has one entire episode devoted to an attraction close to my heart (and stomach): FOOD!
That’s right. Episode 5 of the second season of “Behind the Attraction” (which drops on November 1!) is dedicated to revealing the answers of such important questions as: How did the ever-popular pineapple Dole Whip originate? Who brought those mouth-watering wands of cinnamon-coated churros to the Disney Parks? Where do all of those Cookie Num-Nums come from? And WHO is thinking up these amazing morsels?
As the voiceover from the episode tells us, from Aladdin to Zootopia, food has become a key element to keeping the stories that Disney Imagineers are trying to tell us going.
I recently had the chance to chat with Chef Brian Piasecki from Walt Disney World’s Flavor Lab and Gary Maggetti, Food & Beverage, Disney’s California Adventure, about their thoughts on FOOD as an attraction at the Disney Parks.
DMK: I was very tickled to see that food was included as one of the episodes for the new season of Behind the Attraction. How did you feel when they approached you and said, “We’re going to give you a chance to talk about food as a major attraction.”?
Chef Brian Piasecki: Well, I thought it was great, but the first thing I said was, “Wait. Just one episode? We don’t get the whole season?” Because we could fill up the whole season. We could do it all. So I was thrilled!
Gary Maggetti: Yeah, completely agree. It’s fantastic to have the acknowledgement that food and beverage is such a part of the quintessential Disney experience at all of our theme parks… I grew up in Northern California, and so I was a Disneyland kid. My twin brother and I would come down with our parents every two years, and we either stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, or we stayed in the campground. And when we stayed at the Disneyland Hotel there was always the expectation that we were going to go to one of the restaurants — the Monorail Cafe, which is no longer there now, and we would get the Mickey-shaped cookies that were made at the Disneyland Hotel bakery. Now we’re making them at our central bakery for the entire resort. And I sometimes pinch myself thinking about this item that we, my twin brother and I, had to have, and it’s our team that’s actually making them!
DMK: In the show, the idea of food as an attraction itself is traced back to early Disneyland. They even mention that Walt Disney had the idea for “thematic dining.” But it seems that today it’s even more of a focus, where often the first thing people take a picture of in the parks isn’t necessarily the castle or a character — it’s their Mickey bar, or their dinner, their turkey leg, to post on social media. How does that challenge you and also maybe inspire you in creating food for Disney?
Chef Brian Piasecki: Well, I think from the concept development side it’s more of a challenge than discouraging, because it just forces us to put on a different hat. Sometimes it forces us to think out of the box. It forces us to be even more creative, and it forces us to be even more intentional in what we are doing, and why we do it now. Of course, whatever it is has to be delicious. That’s the the number one thing. But… do we add height to a dish? What color do we add to a dish? Does it look good in the land? All those are bonus elements of building food into a concept. So again, it just forces us to be a little bit more creative. But there’s so much collaboration that happens when we put all this together that we’re able to figure it out.
Gary Maggetti: I used to say we’re humble enough, in Food and Beverage, to realize that guests come for attractions and entertainment, but the food and beverage actually have to support the story. I don’t say that any more, because now they’re coming for those food memories. They’re coming for their iconic churro, or the corn dog, or the Monte Cristo at the Blue Bayou, or their favorite menu item. And what we’re finding is that the more that we give our culinary team creative license and the freedom to create deliciousness, then the challenge is not the creation. It’s the scaling of it, being able to do 2,000 Cookie Num-Nums a day, to be able to do the Grey Stuff (made famous in the film “Beauty and the Beast”). That’s operational. And we can solve that. But once you have the fantastic idea that is actually part of the experience, of having blue milk in Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge or the Baymax macaron in San Fransokyo Square — that creative license is super powerful.
DMK: I was actually going to ask about the inspiration of having movies like Star Wars and Marvel as your springboard for creating new things. How important is it for you to incorporate those references, in addition to all the traditional Disney references?
Chef Brian Piasecki: Star Wars, to be honest, it’s a little bit intimidating. Like if we mess something up, boy, we’re really going to hear about it, right? So to do the research and to collaborate and to hear the stories with everyone from Lucasfilm, from Walt Disney Imagineering, from the people who put the planet Batuu (in the parks’ Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge areas) together, it takes a lot of time. It’s watching movies. It’s asking questions. It’s diving into all of these pretend animals and planets. When we work on these things, we have to ask ourselves questions that you really wouldn’t ask yourself normally. A chef doesn’t put together a beef dish on his menu and say, “Well, I wonder what this cow ate?” We all know what it ate. But when you’re developing blue milk, you say, what’s the flavor profile? What environment did this animal live in? What was its diet? What might translate to the flavor? It’s a lot of work. It’s incredibly fun. It’s incredibly challenging, but we have to get it right, so we do it over and over and over again. And the bottom line always comes down to the story. People ask me all the time what comes first? The food, or this, or the story. And I always tell them it has to be the story. The story has to come first, because that’s what we build off of.
Gary Maggetti: Sometimes you don’t have a ton to go on, when it comes to some of our creative films. Like for Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure. One of the last lines in the last Avengers movie is, “I know a great shwarma place. That’s it. We don’t go to the shwarma place. We don’t see anybody in the film eating it. That’s it. And of course, now we have full-on delicious shwarma in many different ways. Breakfast shwarma. We’ve got lunch and dinner shwarma. Sometimes all it takes is the inspiration of a particular story plot line that the culinary team just amplifies.
Chef Brian Piasecki: And I love it. I love that story, Gary, because it’s the same with blue milk. They never even talked about it [in the Star Wars movies]. They just drank it, in 1977, in one scene, and now it becomes iconic.
DMK: Speaking of iconic… What do you think the next iconic Disney snack will be? Do you have an idea?
Chef Brian Piasecki: We’re always working on something, that’s for sure. But until that next big thing really does reveal itself, I think the culinary teams are really doing an incredible job expanding on some of the current iconic items. You know, there’s different flavors of Dole Whip now… You can get churros garnished with all kinds of seasonal ingredients or cookie crumbles or sauces. So the ability for the culinary teams to be creative and expand on those current iconic items while we continue to work on what could be next — that’s the fun of it.
Gary Maggetti: Chef Brian is absolutely correct. There’s this whole “variations on a theme” perspective, which really resonates with our guests because it talks about different palettes… Then there’s the other theme we’re specifically talking about. How are we going to have authentic Princess Tiana food at the former French market in Disneyland? Or what is blue milk like? There’s that kind of very specific story theme. And then there’s the additional level of playfulness, the ability for our teams to say, “OK, we’re going to have Festival of Holidays at the Disney California Adventure Park — if it were a celebration of multiple cultures all going to a potluck, what would everyone bring?” It gives our team the freedom to say, for example, “I love adobo. So I’m going to make a pork belly that’s adobo-flavored” Or “I have the the best bourbon-spiced cider you’ve ever tasted. It’s been in my family forever.” That is what we’re giving our teams the freedom to do. And it’s exciting. It’s very, very fun.
If the idea of food as an attraction at the Disney Parks is fun for you, too, don’t miss Episode 5 of the new season of Behind the Attraction. In fact, I’d recommend you watch all six episodes of the new season, available to stream on Disney+ on November 1. For a taste (see what I did there?), check out the official trailer below!