Millions visit theme parks each year for thrilling attractions and wonderful worlds that offer a brief respite from reality. The discerning guest knows that beyond the sea of easy-to-grab hot dogs and burgers, a foodie underworld awaits.
I’ve spent three decades visiting theme parks not just for the coasters (which I love) but also to uncover some of the most interesting food creations—ones that embody the immersive nature of the fanciful places they inhabit (oh, and are delicious too). From a traditional English breakfast in the world of Harry Potter to an Ant-Man-themed sandwich with a $100 price tag, these dishes will instantly change your preconceived notions of what you thought theme park food was and should be. There are no Michelin stars or caviar canapes here, but you can easily eat significantly better and more inspired options on your next visit.
Islands of Adventure at Universal Studios Orlando brings to life the whimsical world of the beloved children’s author Dr. Seuss through colorful attractions, playscapes and, of course, food. There are a few worthy creations that merit the calories, but my favorite is from the elaborate themed Green Eggs and Ham Café. The walk-up spot takes the average tater tots and kicks them up a notch in various ways, but my favorite is the locale’s namesake. Fresh and crunchy tater tots are loaded with salty ham bits, luscious cheese sauce and pesto-infused eggs. Oh, the places you’ll go! (And it should be here.)
LEGOLAND Resorts, found in the U.S. in California, Florida and New York, are kid-focused parks based on everyone’s favorite childhood toy. “Everything is awesome” for guests of all ages thanks to their unique creation that is known as apple fries. Found at Granny’s Apple Fries, green apples are sliced into fry-shaped pieces before being lightly battered and fried. They are then coated in cinnamon sugar and served warm. Delicious and satisfying as they are on their own, my favorite way to enjoy them is a la mode style with soft serve vanilla ice cream. The cold ice cream meeting the warm apple fries is the perfect match.
Walt Disney’s original park, Disneyland Park, is home to some of the best snacks in the theme park universe, from churro toffee to a Matterhorn-shaped macaroon themed after the beloved attraction. One of my favorite snacks there can be found at Bengal Barbecue in Adventureland. The counter service spot is backed by an open-air fire grill where they roast fresh meats and vegetables all day long. Skewered fresh vegetables and crispy pork belly shine, but it’s the banyan beef skewer that keeps bringing me back. This hot and spicy beef skewer is loaded with perfectly cooked, tender meat and a sauce so good you could eat it with a spoon.
Any self-respecting Potterhead dreams of making their way to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter for a sip of the iconic beverage. The drink, heavy on the butterscotch flavor, makes for the perfect castle photo op but is awfully sweet. Luckily, the drink manifests itself into various forms, including potted cream, fudge, and my personal favorite, soft serve ice cream. Only available at Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida, Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour is dishing out wildly creative flavors of ice cream—like a spicy chocolate chili—that will put the average theme park cone to shame. Their interpretation of butterbeer soft serve brings just the right amount of sweetness to the vanilla ice cream base with swirls of butterscotch and toffee.
Disneyland’s Avengers Campus opened to great fanfare, and it wasn’t just the land’s attractions that had people talking. Their flagship restaurant, Pym Test Kitchen, is themed after Ant-Man and serves proportion-bending dishes—like massive pretzels and meatballs. The most talked about (and my favorite) item is an Italian-style sandwich. Sounds simple enough, right?
The Pym-ini is available in a family-sized portion for a crisp $100 and features salami, salame rosa with pistachio nuts, rosemary ham, provolone and sun-dried tomato spread on toasted focaccia with a side of marinara dip. Potato bites (a.k.a. tater tots) and an arugula salad with tangy lemony parmesan vinaigrette round out what may very well be one of the most expensive theme park dishes ever. Surprisingly, it’s absolutely delicious and fun to order with a group of people. But be warned—you will get some eyes.
With Dolly Parton as its “dreamer-in-chief,” the sky is only the limit for the team at Dollywood—and that especially holds true with their culinary department. The food embraces its location in the Smoky Mountains with a dollop of Southern hospitality on the side. There’s a cornucopia of delights to be found here, from award-winning barbecue to family-style fare, but it’s the cinnamon bread that has everyone talking. The must-eat dish of the park is made right before your eyes at the park’s Grist Mill. Loaves of bread are soaked in a mixture of melted margarine and cinnamon sugar then baked in a state-of-the-art oven that produces nearly 2,000 loaves a day. The result is a shareable, pull-apart treat that’s utterly decadent and one of the most delicious sweets you will eat at any park.
Dollywood’s sister park can be found in the Ozark mountains of Branson, Missouri. The true unsung hero of theme parks, Silver Dollar City, is an absolute gem and truly an anomaly. The 1880s-themed park is home to industry-pioneering roller coasters that could only be overshadowed by some of the best theme park food in the country. The aforementioned cinnamon bread is given a serious upgrade here and transformed into a bread pudding. Found at the park’s Rivertown Smokehouse, this dessert is oozing with flavors of sweet icing and cinnamon goodness.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with differing versions found at both Universal Studios Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood, remains one of the most incredible feats in theme park immersion. That energy extends well beyond the sights and sounds and into the food. The Three Broomsticks is brought to life here, and this rustic tavern will have you believing that at any moment, Potter and his crew are about to walk in. The pinnacle of the food offerings there is their take on a full English breakfast. The traditional English breakfast is executed extremely well here with savory sauteed mushrooms, baked beans and salty English back bacon. There’s even black pudding, further rounding out this British culinary offering.
A park celebrating over 100 years, Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California may have one of the most fantastical origin stories of all. Starting out as a literal berry farm, the now-amusement park is the embodiment of yesteryear and today—with industry precedent-setting attractions meeting modern-day levels of thrill in the form of serious coasters. Never forgetting its origins, the boysenberry—a hybrid fruit that landed the park on the map—sees itself on menus across the park in various forms. From a tangy boysenberry BBQ sauce to a subtly sweet latte, my favorite boysenberry dish is the park’s boysenberry soft serve. The texture is creamy, almost custard-like, and the flavor has notes of the berry without being too overpowering. Classic vanilla cones be damned.
At the sweetest place on earth, Hersheypark, you might be inclined to grab some chocolate, but it’s a unique snack here that catches my attention. Hersheypark is nested in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, not far from where the Dutch first settled and invented the whoopie pie. This time-honored tradition is available at the park at one of the most unique theme park dining experiences ever. Makin’ Whoopie Pies is part snack stand, part experience where guests are the Willy Wonky to their own made-to-order whoopie pies. The incredibly fresh shells come in a variety of flavors, including strawberry, red velvet, vanilla, and confetti with fillings that range from the typical, like chocolate or original cream, to mint chocolate chip and salted caramel. The result is overwhelmingly messy but absolutely delicious.
Admittedly, I’m not the biggest Star Wars fan, but I appreciate the great detail Imagineering poured into Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge-themed lands at both Disney World and Disneyland. I often make the trip to a galaxy far, far away for what may be quite possibly my favorite Disney Parks food of all time: the Ronto Wrap. Found at Ronto Roasters, this handheld meal features grilled sausage, sliced roasted pork, vinegar-forward slaw, and peppercorn sauce served on fresh pita bread. The meats are incredibly flavorful, and the toppings of slaw and the sauce only enhance the taste. The breakfast version is also worthy of a mention and utilizes the same peppercorn sauce and pork sausage but includes eggs and shredded cheese. Do or do not order. There is no try.