How Disney’s Foodservice Innovation Offers Lessons for Retailers

I have a confession to make: I’m not a big fan of theme parks.

Despite being born and raised in Florida within driving distance of arguably the world’s most famous attraction — Walt Disney World — I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve visited, most times rather reluctantly. I’m just not a fan of waiting in long lines or fighting through crowds. As a student of food retail, however, I decided to make an exception to my “no theme parks” rule and head to the EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival in November.

The festival, which has been running since 1996, was originally dreamed up to boost attendance during traditionally less busy times at the park. Today, the event has become the most popular attraction at EPCOT because it offers a master class in technology, innovation and international culture — all of which are extremely attractive to today’s consumer.

During the festival, guests at EPCOT, which stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, were taken on a culinary journey around the country and the world. The immersive, interactive, communal yet socially distanced and contactless experience offered lessons for food retailers looking to elevate their post-pandemic foodservice offerings.

After entering the park, customers could pick up a digital or paper passport with a complete list of menus, entertainment options and more. The passport allowed guests to map out where they wanted to eat and cross off dishes, cuisines or even shops. It added a gamification aspect to the experience of walking around the park, amid the fresh air and gorgeous Disney gardens, and trying fun dishes from across the globe.

Fun With Food

This year, the festival offered at least 34 food booths. Some of my favorite dishes, which were tapas-sized and meant to offer two or three bites of food, included Irish Chocolate Pudding Cake, Maine Lobster Chowder, Australian Lamb Chop, Hawaiian Passionfruit Cheesecake, French Three Cheese Beignets, Teriyaki Chicken Buns, Wild Mushroom and Truffle Tart, Italian Bomboloni Donuts, Rosemary Roasted Porchetta and a delicious concoction called Crispy Chicken on a Sriracha-Glazed Donut.

Lines were long, but it was easy to keep a distance from other patrons. I saw excited festival-goers — racially, ethnically and generationally diverse — passing around dishes among friends and family. Paying for the food was easy (most dishes were priced in the $5-to-$10 range) because Disney makes contactless payments a breeze. As I walked around and soaked it all in, I couldn’t help but wonder why all grocers don’t invest in food festivals, especially now post-COVID, when many consumers want to be outside more than they want to be inside. 

The post-pandemic consumer will continue to be fickle, following the ebb and flow of COVID-19 surges and restrictions. But grocery retailers can be ready to grab more foodservice share by sprinkling some Disney-style pixie dust on their offerings. Whether by diversifying the prepared food options, hosting a food festival in the parking lot or adding cuisine gamification features to their retail apps, grocers can invite the post-pandemic consumer to have on-premise fun with food again, which will most likely lead to increased purchases for at-home consumption.