What Makes an Perfect Amusement Park Food, According to an Expert

Funnel cakes and fries are perennial hits, but you might be surprised how welcome a strawberry spinach salad can be between coaster rides.

Poutine at an amusement park
Photo: Amy Muschik / EyeEm / Getty Images

I am what they call a roller coaster enthusiast (or nerd, if you want to drop the niceties). I am such an enthusiast that you can show me any picture of a roller coaster, and I can tell you the manufacturer by just the train and track design. Not necessarily impressive since any enthusiast can even decipher a Giovanola from a Bolliger Mabillard. Amusement parks have been a huge part of my life since childhood. At the age of 15, I started my "thrill tenure" working at the Dippin' Dots stand, and I persisted seven years later. I grew to have a slightly unsettling obsession with park operations. I was even a ride operator for an inverted B&M at "America's roller coast," Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH. I was also a supervisor in the food services department, and I saw the ins and outs of amusement park food fare.

Not to brag, but I created a wrap with chicken and strawberries — weird but good. It was a hit and it sold like funnel cakes (get it?). Amusement park food, once upon a time, was not really alluring. You had your typical funnel cake, elephant ear, cotton candy, or anything fried. Amusement parks have been stepping up their game with their dining options, but they would be foolish to take away the OG's. Bigger theme park chains may employ executive chefs across their parks with inventive menus, but the biggest test is the acceptance of the general public (GP in park nerd terms). What essentially makes any amusement park dish a hit, isn't necessarily a science, but it's a compilation of sorts. The following elements are all indicators of a perfect amusement park dish.

It's easily replicable.

The majority of a parks' workforce is between the ages of 16 and 18. Menu items have to be easily replicable that even the most novice cooks can understand. Teenagers may not necessarily possess the most robust cooking knowledge. I once had an employee who served paper to a customer (was unaware of parchment paper between cheese slices). As a previous supervisor, I had the luxury of training teenagers on how to use a deep fryer or a flattop as well as teaching them how to hold a knife. After a few test runs, they eventually get it.

Kings Dominion has added a new themed area, X-Pedition Base Camp, where a venue is dedicated to just loaded French fries. Deep-frying doesn't require culinary school, however, cleaning one should because that is something that is not taught enough.

It's inexpensive to make.

Amusement parks make a lot of profit from dining. Have you seen their prices? Sixteen bucks for a hotdog and fries combo is steep. The inevitable, "That's a lot for a hot dog!" is correct. Inexpensive ingredients can be bought in bulk and are easily expendable. Funnel cake is literally flour, sugar, baking powder, and water. It costs pennies to produce. Slap some hot fudge and whipped cream, and the markup is in the double digits. I had a boss who almost discontinued glazed walnuts in a salad because it was too expensive to procure.

It should be seasonal.

Our pineapple pico de gallo and the strawberry spinach salad were hits. Fresh produce is always a way to entice any consumer, especially the parents. We all know parents are the spenders, and are likely to want a fresh option for their kids besides the usual fried and sweet offerings. Fresh fruit cups are popping up on menus because of this. It also doesn't hurt that the seasonal produce adds a bit of horticulture to the park.

There should be an Insta-factor.

Back when I was working at parks, Instagram was not what it is today and TikTok was not even a thing. I hail from the era of Vine, and the only indication of any smartphone capability was the Blackberry. Food culture has exploded on social media, and it has made its way in the theme park industry. Parks across the nation are adding items that are "Insta-worthy." Hersheypark and Six Flags have top-heavy — and difficult to eat — milkshakes that would be any influencer's muse.

Adults-only options are welcome.

Adults were once forgotten on the menu front. I guess family-oriented entertainment spaces put all of the eggs in the children's basket. I am not a parent, but I have witnessed parents buy lunch for their family and nine times out of 10, they choose what the kids want. Parks are now providing the "drop your kids off, and enjoy yourself" offerings. More cocktail-driven menus are now beckoning. Busch Gardens just opened a new speakeasy this year, along with a new roller coaster attraction.

So now that we have the formula for the perfect amusement park dish, would a hot dog topped with pineapple pico de gallo, with a side of loaded fries, and a spiked lemonade work for mom? It is not always definitive. Like anything, it takes trial and error. What I can say is that the pineapple pico de gallo-topped hot dog will do well somewhere by the ride photo kiosk.

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