Meals With Thrills

August 03, 2005|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Clint Novak is a self-professed roller-coaster geek, an amusement park enthusiast who loves thrills and spills. In fact, the Fredericksburg, Va., disc jockey buys season tickets each summer, visiting theme parks in this region and across the country.

But lately, it's not just the coasters giving Novak an adrenaline rush during regular visits to one of his favorite parks, Paramount's Kings Dominion near Richmond.

Would you believe it's the gourmet coffee and specialty drinks at the park's new Starbucks? Since the full-service, 1,800-square-foot shop opened earlier this summer inside the sprawling 400-acre park, business has been booming.

"When you first enter the park, you can smell that great aroma," says Novak, 24, who typically orders a hot caramel apple cider.

"I love sitting in the air conditioning and chilling on the couches. It's amazing because you forget you are in an amusement park. It's great to see parks bringing in reasonably priced, good food."

From designer coffee to sushi, from grilled salmon to elaborately made desserts - not to mention imported beer, fine wines and chic cocktails - more amusement parks nationwide are offering sophisticated culinary options for guests.

It's not that pizza, funnel cake, fries and other standard park fare are being replaced; national surveys suggest they remain wildly popular. But, increasingly, more parks are updating their menus to include fare that may be more healthful and lighter, and even nouveau cuisine.

Industry experts say the changes are about appealing to a broader segment of the population and taking into consideration how folks travel these days.

Besides families, empty nesters, young couples and childless singles visit parks. And sometimes they come together. According to the National Travel Monitor, an annual survey by a marketing research firm, some 69 percent of leisure travelers reported being "very or extremely interested" in so-called "togethering" - vacationing with family, extended family or friends.

"The trend in the last five years is that [park guests] are multigenerational," says Beth Robertson of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, an Alexandria, Va.,-based trade group with some 4,000 members worldwide. "So we need experiences that please many levels of guests."

"Guests are looking for immersion in the sights, sounds and tastes of the park; they want to escape," adds the spokeswoman. "And that means eating things that they normally wouldn't, or whatever good things they want."

At Busch Gardens, the European-themed adventure park set on 100 manicured acres in Williamsburg, Va., menus are designed to evoke the cultural ambience of Germany, Italy, Ireland, France and other nations.

The latest restaurant is LeMans Bistro, an outdoor cafe, where the signature entrees include chicken cannelloni crepes and panini sandwiches.

"Many of our guests dine out often and have high expectations," says Franz Kitenko, the vice president of culinary operations, who leads a staff of nearly 900. "We're constantly trying to enhance their day in the park with our meals."

There's smoked salmon at Trappers Smokehouse, which opened in 2003. Elsewhere in the park, you'll find jambalaya, freshly made Irish stew and pasta, and a variety of bread and desserts baked on-site daily.

One popular treat, the Spanish-influenced churros, are sold from a pushcart. But they're made to order, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and served with a caramel dipping sauce.

"We strive not just to give you a meal, but an experience," says Kitenko.

It would seem the park is doing something right: Its food recently won a "Golden Ticket," award, the industry's version of Oscar or Emmy.

Pennsylvania's Hersheypark, known as the "Sweetest Place on Earth," maintains its reputation as a haven for chocolate lovers. But along with quirky, fun specialty items like chocolate barbecue wings and chocolate ketchup, you also will discover more upscale fare. At the sit-down restaurant Tudor Grill, there's lobster-stuffed ravioli, for instance. In other parts of the park, there's sushi, gourmet wraps and fresh salads.

While it's not clear who pioneered the concept of fancy park food, folks at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., generally get the credit.

Over the years, the world-famous resort has formed restaurant partnerships with celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and created other innovations such as "on-demand" kosher meals and in-house sommeliers (about 300 are on staff).

Disney also hosts the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival each year with wine tastings and cuisine from more than 20 regions of the world.

"We've come a long way from just the hamburger, hot dog days and we're still evolving," says Ed Wronski, executive chef for product development at Walt Disney World, where about 2,000 food and beverage pros man hundreds of diverse restaurants. "As our guests become more sophisticated, we find they want more variety," he adds.

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