The Great Iconic Food Race

I have a love-hate relationship with Universal Studios. By which I mean, I love to hate them. For an entire decade and a half, they deserved all the hate and then some. Universal Studios Florida was a masterpiece of ugly when it opened. Islands of Adventure left so many opportunities on the table. They were such a source of perpetual disappointment, they might as well have called themselves the Knicks.

For almost 60 years, Disney has been setting the gold standard for how a theme park should operate, and everyone else is forced to copy them or die trying. Other parks could be counted on for the occasional ride vehicle innovation (floorless suspended standing coaster!) or record-setting coaster arms race (tallest wooden looping coaster!) — but these were just variations on the same thing. The real game changers (themed environments, onsite resorts, ride reservation systems, integrated infrastructure, gift shop exits) either came out of Disney or were perfected by them.

Somehow in the last 5 years, Universal has managed to steal a huge slumbering dragon treasure straight out from Disney’s nose (or under it, if you want to be less gross — but the metaphors stay mixed)

Yes, yes, the so-called “mini-parks” are all well and good (SeaWorld just opened their own copycat this past weekend). But mini-park is just a different branding of the typical Disney land (as in Tomorrowland, Frontierland, etc.), and no different than the kind of mega-themed experiences that Disney has been doing pretty much since Eisenhower was in office. But with Wizarding World of Harry Potter and now the upcoming Simpsons area of USF, Universal has discovered the gift that keeps on giving: highly recognizable unique food items.

How Disney missed this one, I’m not sure. They are usually so far ahead of the game when it comes to making a buck that it is stunning just how this little market has exploded in the last half-decade, and it’s all thanks to Universal. They wisely recognized that every kid and adult in the country who has ever read a Harry Potter book (which is probably every kid and adult in the country) is not only familiar with butterbeer, but would love the opportunity to try some. So they mixed up a cream-soda concoction and sold them that exact experience at its one-of-a-kind theme park destination.

"My, this is delicious! Now who's up for another ride on the Hippogriff?"

“My, this is delicious! Now who’s up for another ride on the Hippogriff?”

Don’t think Butterbeer is a big deal? All you have to do is look at the competition. Disney wasted no time rolling out their own weird marshmallow drink at New Fantasyland, called LeFou’s Brew, highlighting it in the marketing materials. And SeaWorld promptly rolled out a South Pole Chill “infused with Vanilla flavor.” Will it ever stop? Yo, I don’t know. Turn out the lights and it’ll glow.

There’s just one problem with LeFou’s Brew and South Pole Chill: Nobody has any idea what the frick those things are.

Butterbeer has an audience primed to desire it. They’ve been desiring it for years, and never had anybody bother to offer it to them. Universal saw that market and it quickly became one of their biggest success stories. It was so popular, they couldn’t make it fast enough. Not so the frothy concoction named after a very minor character in a 20-year old movie, who never had any association with any beverage anyway, other than as a prop in a song and dance number for the villain. It’s not a must-have drink. No kid is popping in the DVD of Beauty and the Beast and salivating over that time LeFou spilled some foam on Gaston.

I don't know about you, but I take one look at this picture and see dollar signsWhat I find fascinating is that Universal has already spotted a second opportunity to do the same thing, and again it’s sheer brilliance. Duff Beer will be served at Simpsons-land. The fake refreshment that launched a thousand pop-culture t-shirts now lands at Universal, again in a one-of-a-kind unique tasting extravaganza. I predict their sales will be huge.

Especially if they can get Hillary Duff to promote it.

Especially if they can get Hillary Duff to promote it.

I commend Universal for coming up with these pre-made markets and incorporating them into their parks. It’s the kind of opportunity the Mouse dreams about: Not just getting people into their parks with a slick entertainment offering, but finding something they are not only willing to pay for, but pleading to pay for. You expect the Harry Potter ride to be included in your admission, but not a single person would ever think that Butterbeer should be gratis. We’re conditioned to pay for food. If you’re not a raccoon, it ain’t free.

Disney keeps trying to find a unique food item. Carsland brought us the Cones (Chili cone queso, etc.) I’m sure Avatar will bring about Pandoraberry Plunge or something. But they keep bumping into the same trap of making the food an extension of the existing theme, rather than finding something that can be a focal point. I’m wondering if they even have any food items at their disposal that they can capitalize on. Is there anything in the entire Disney pantheon as iconic as Butterbeer or Duff’s Beer?

Let me know if you can think of anything. The best I’ve come up with is Poison Apples and Flubber, neither of which sound all that appetizing. Maybe Pooh’s Hunny Ice Cream or something (served in a plastic Hunny pot). It has to be better than Old Yeller Jerky though.


Comments (31)

  1. I actually felt that Pizza Planet was a HUGE wasted opportunity. When I first heard about Pizza Planet I was so excited to eat there, I truly expected it to be right out of the movie. Instead what I got was a quick service pizza joint with a few arcade games that reminded me of the food court at a miniature golf course. While I felt the pizza was fine (for Disney) and the price was reasonable, I really expected the experience to be more Chuck E Cheese than mini golf. That could have been a Classic for DHS (such as 50’s PrimeTIme Cafe) instead it’s a completely forgettable. When it closes down (and it will close down) I don’t expect too many internet threads will be devoted to bringing back Pizza Planet.

  2. Well for me the two iconic food would be Remi’s Ratatouille and Tiana’s Beignets…. other than that we,re kinda stuck.

    • Ratatouille is probably the best one. But do people want to eat it? Vegetables. Blech.

  3. Narnia, Turkish Delight?

    • Turkish Delight is an actual candy though. It’s mostly found in the UK, and rare to find in the US, but it existed when C.S. Lewis wrote the Narnia books; he didn’t make it up. It also doesn’t have nearly the same pull as something like butterbeer; it’s only mentioned in a few moments of one book of the series. Add to that the fact that the Narnia franchise hasn’t been quite the cash cow I think Disney was hoping for.

      The closest Disney comes right now is the Grey Stuff. When they first announced Be Our Guest, there was a good deal of excitement over the idea of having The Grey Stuff on the menu. I think where they went wrong with that was having it be an off-menu, only if you’re celebrating something dish. The fact that people make up special occasions to try to get it should be a sign to Disney that it should be a regular dish. Also, it is in fact delicious.

  4. don’t get me wrong, Disney is the greatest, but I love Universal Studios too, I believe in a world where both can happily coexist

    I hate the use this term, but it’s the only word that comes to mine, Universal is just a little more “grown up” than Disney, I’m sorry, I’m sure that makes you roll your eyes, but it is what it is, I’d much rather ride the Jurassic Park ride than Dinosaur any day (not that Dinosaur is bad mind you) for example

    also, I friggin’ LOVE the Hard Rock hotel on their property and the Palm restaurant inside it

    however I will say this, Disney is a lot classier, there’s nothing in either of the Universal parks that’s as just flat out [i]beautiful[/i] as Main Street USA for example

    • Not sure if “grown up” is the right term (it makes them sound more mature, which is the exact opposite of how I feel about them). But certainly they aim for that teenager demographic more than Disney, and they should to more of it to differentiate themselves!

  5. Well now that we see what Universal did with the Simpson’s it is a bit disappointing.
    No REAL Krusty burger… just faceds hiding pretty standard scamble service kiosks. A real missed opportunity… frankly if done right I think they could honestly have freestanding honest to goodness Krusty Burger locations all around the world… they missed on that.

    Still, just having a location that looks like the show, and Moe’s Tavern more or less nails it, is another feather in Universal’s cap.

  6. “Pandoraberry Plunge” is so spot-on, it hurts a little. Why do I feel like it would be a blueberry version of the Pina CoLAVA that’s offered at all of the WDW resort pool bars? (In a souvenir cup shaped like a Na’avi head). (With a glowing stringy-creature clipped to the side).

    And yeah, I got nothing for a Disney version of an iconic, pre-established, unique food or drink item, a la butterbeer or a Squishee. Damn.

  7. What they need at Disneyland is a sundae shaped and topped to look like the Matterhorn.

    For Epcot, a perfectly round scoop of ice cream propped up on specially shaped cookies to represent Spaceship Earth.

  8. I think it has worked in reverse for Disney: I can’t look at a picture of Mickey Mouse now without wanting an dark chocolate-covered ice cream pop. They could jump on the association and announce that Mickey was ice creme filled the whole time–then people would realize that it was something they always wanted.

  9. There is very little in any movie that focuses on unique foods (maybe because taste-O-vision has yet to be invented) so it is tough.

    Butterbeer is a GREAT idea for the parks… copies suck. All of the Simpsons foods make perfect sense (Krusty Burger etc.)… I cannot belive it took them decades to get them into the parks. But Disney has very little on that front.

    In Tokyo they do sell “Hunny” flavored popcorn that comes in a honey pot bucket. In fact they are huge on the popcorn buckets over there. I am shocked that they have not pushed them here more since it is a HUGE mark up and kids literally crawl over each other to get them. Endless possibilities in the packaging / shape / name of foods… very little in terms of the food itself.

    • The more I think about it, the more I think the Pooh Hunny is the closest thing Disney has to an iconic food. And eating the same unexciting condiment as a teddy bear doesn’t hold a lot of appeal, compared to dining at Krusty Burger.

      It’s interesting about the popcorn buckets. I have noticed them getting a little more elaborate at WDW lately, but it’s been a gradual thing. There’s a really nice R2D2 they do for Star Wars weekends (and now seemingly year round). They’ve had a few other cool designs as well. I wonder if they’re catching on to what Tokyo’s doing.

  10. You are thinking small. Instead of doing one drink like Butterbeer or Duff’s beer (which will be a regular beer in a Duff’s label, ooh take my picture with a Duff’s Beer), Disney has been doing entire themed eating and drinking experiences since the beginning. Plus, Disney has been selling overpriced drinks and souvenir glasses for years and I have the dead battery light-up ice cubes to prove it.

    How can Disney charge $18-$20 for a plate of spaghetti? Because you are eating in Tony’s Town Square restaurant, just like Lady and the Tramp. How to get people to overpay for a buffet? Have people believe they’re eating with a princess in Cinderella’s Royal Table. Other examples, Pizza Planet from Toy Story, 1900 Park Fare, etc. The latest and greatest example is Be Our Guest Restaurant, just try to get a reservation. Does Disney want you to buy one overpriced drink in a souvenir mug or an entire meal and a souvenir mug? You know the answer.

    What Disney needs to do is create a food or drink into the next Pixar or DAS movie and then introduce it into the parks. Ratatouille and the Princess and the Frog were based around food, but did not have enough novelty to make people want to eat or drink anything from the movies.

    If you are looking for food and Disney check here:

    • I completely agree about the character meals and what-not. It’s kind of the same situation, only in reverse. Other parks have tried to copy the character meal, but they don’t have the iconic characters (although if Universal is smart, they should start hiring Snape, Dumbledore, and Hagrid lookalikes for a Hogwarts Dining Hall character meal, and then they will have the hottest character meal in Orlando).

      I guess the thing about butterbeer that is in some ways better than the character meals is that it is something EVERYONE wants to try. The princess meals… even if you want to, many times the prices are too high or the seating too limited. Character buffets rake in cash, but they have a finite number of tables they can turn over, and come with a lot of kitchen staff, wait staff, real estate facilities, and pricey entertainers that eat into your margins. Butterbeer is available from a stand run by a couple hourly kids, churning out mug after mug of foaming money.

  11. The best I can think of are the gross food gags from Monsters, Inc., but again we’re in the category of unappetizing.

    In fact, now that I think about it, there are a lot of unappetizing food tie-ins possible. You have the Temple of Doom feast for Indiana Jones, the cars from Cars consume oil and gasoline, it’s better left unsaid what many of the bugs from A Bug’s Life likely eat, while Timon and Pumbaa would be potentially eating Flik and his pals.

    The only thing I can think of as a natural (and appetizing) food tie-in is the French cuisine from Ratatouille (including the titular dish), but even that isn’t iconic in the same way as Duff or Butterbeer.

    • The signature dish from Ratatouille is kinda close to the type of thing we’re looking for. It’s a beautiful scene in the movie, and they do make the food look incredible. But it just doesn’t have that iconic feel. Like, with Harry Potter, fans think “I would love to go into Hogsmeade and drink butterbeer with all my magical school mates!” But Ratatouille just doesn’t incite the same passion.

  12. 12345678910 – is it just my computer or are the first 9 character spaces of this comment box hidden underneath the “comment” tag? took me a whole minute to work out!
    Just so I could say that over the past year Disney have been foaming everything – from drinks to dinners – I put that down to the butterbeer invention.
    blimey – this is a bit hard off the top of my head. Everything I think of is an everyday food or a live animal character – and Disney tend to just Mickey-ise the item e.g. waffles. i think there may be movies where nobody ate anything

    • I love the statement about Disney foaming everything. It is very true. They also cupcake everything now too. I feel like the entire Limited Time Magic campaign is based on cupcakes.

      • That Darth Vader cupcake was freakin’ amazing, though.

  13. Not from the Disney pantheon, but I’d pay dearly to have a pint at the Prancing Pony in Bree from The Lord of The Rings. If I could buy it from someone playing Barliman Butterbur, so much the better.

    Cold pizza at Flynn’s from Tron as breakfast?

    A tea party on the ceiling with Mary Poppins? There’s a challenge for imagineers.

    • They have tried to do the Mary Poppins tea party thing. I think there’s one at Grand Floridian (though obviously not on the ceiling). This type of thing is probably the closest we can get (along with a Remy restaurant or Tiana’s restaurant). But none of the fans are ever really dying to try those things (except maybe Ratatouille; they did make it look amazing in the movie). They’re just sort of atmospheric.

  14. Maybe if they build a Star Wars Themed area in the future (and they’d be fools not to!) they can start serving Bantha fodder…just saying…or whatever the heck Jabba keeps eating alive in Return of the Jedi…or perhaps some barbequed Storm Trooper from Endor…

    • If I remember from my “Making of Return of the Jedi” viewings, those things Jabba keeps eating are three-legged frogs.

  15. How ’bout a nice fresh “Timothy Q. Mouse’s Booze Bucket.” Or now that they own Star Wars… Blue Milk!

    • If they ever do the logical thing and build that Star Wars Cantina everyone keeps telling them they should build, Blue Milk should definitely be on the menu. But like the Grey Stuff, it’s an insider joke, not a must-have item.

  16. You’re absolutely right. For some reason, Disney just doesn’t get this one. The closest thing they have to something that people might want to try from a movie is “The Grey Stuff”. So what did they do with that? They made it an off-menu item that seems to only be available by request, and even then it’s not guaranteed. An odd marketing decision for sure.

    • Yeah, it’s weird that they tried to make the Grey Stuff into a thing. A throwaway line in a song. I like that they have it, as it’s a cool insider nod, but hardly anything you can build a marketing campaign around.

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