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Kevin Yee

DCA Dining Overview

I have put it off long enough. For weeks I have pondered creating a conceptual overview of the restaurants at Disney's California Adventure (DCA). When DCA first opened, nobody really knew what to expect from this place, and it was difficult, if not impossible, to make generalizations about things like food for the simple fact that no one can possibly eat that fast.

By now, I have had most of the food there, and it is time for an assessment ... But not just a review of the food as a whole.

What I would like to do here is tackle the larger issues of the entire food service philosophy at DCA. Can you guess my main point already? The product is priced too high, right? Well, no. That is not my argument, or at least not all of it. Rather, I will attempt to show that the food service pricing, variety, and philosophy mirror the flawed creative vision for the park as a whole, since the same set of faulty assumptions guided the creative decisions in both cases.

We start with a thumbnail overview of the parks food service:

Sun Court
Bakers Field Bakery -- counter-service cookies and baked goods
Bur-r-r-r Bank Ice Cream -- counter-service desserts

Bountiful Valley Farm
Golden Vine Winery -- table-service fine dining, or counter-service deli sandwiches
Bountiful Valley Farmer's Market -- counter-service sandwiches
Sam Andreas Shakes -- counter-service desserts

Condor Flats
Taste Pilot's Grill -- counter service fast food

Pacific Wharf
Cocina Cucamonga Mexican Grill -- counter-service Mexican food
Lucky Fortune Cookery -- counter-service Asian pastiche
Pacific Wharf Café -- counter-service soups and salads
Rita's Baja Blenders -- counter-service margaritas

Hollywood Pictures Backlot
ABC Soap Opera Bistro -- table-service fine dining
Hollywood & Dine Food Court -- counter-service fast food (several varieties)
Award Wieners -- counter-service sausages
Between Takes -- counter-service snacks
Schmoozies -- counter-service coffees and shakes

Paradise Pier
Wolfgang Puck's Avalon Cove -- table service fine dining
Pizza Oom Mow Mow -- counter-service pizza
Burger Invasion -- counter-service fast food
Catch a Flave -- counter-service desserts
Corn Dog Castle -- counter-service corn dogs
Malibu-Ritos -- counter-service fast food
Strips, Dips 'n' Chips -- counter-service fast food

At first blush, this is an impressive list of eateries for a 75- acre theme park. And in truth, there are a lot of restaurants -- the restaurant density in the park is at least as rich as it is in nearby Disneyland. On top of that, there is quite a lot of variety here to choose from, and Disney has smartly chosen to offer several things that Disneyland never had, such as Chinese food, sausage specialties, and healthy sandwiches.

But how is the quality? Well, if you ask 100 people, you will get 100 different answers. My take is that the quality is hit- or- miss, with the majority of eateries offering bland or mediocre food. The big exceptions are the Mondavi table service and Avalon Cove, both of which sport sky- high prices. You might however, also be pleasantly surprised by the toppings bar at Taste Pilots Grill, or the large and satisfying corn dogs at the Paradise Pier location.

Fortunately, the facts are far more concrete when it comes to price. What you find if you look at all the prices -- and you can find them here at our Restaurant Review - is a kind of dual system: moderate- priced fast food and higher- price fine dining. My next observation grows out of the last; namely, that there is no middle ground here.

Let me back up a step. Disneyland -- and for that matter, most every other amusement park in the world -- has something closer to a three- tiered system of restaurants: cheap fast food, moderate buffets or buffeterias that incorporate tray slides, and expensive table service. Several of the tray- slide buffeterias have recently been converted to scramble- style food courts. Not quite fast food, these are more like a tray slide broken up into several independent sections and a centralized area of several cashier stations.

Where are the buffeterias, tray slides, and scramble- style restaurants at DCA? There are none. What we find instead are counter- service versions of these eateries. Thus, you find both fast food and buffeteria- style food (such as the enormous soup breadbowls at Pacific Wharf Café) served out of fast- food type windows and counters.

The net result of all this is that the price of fast food is inflated -- no surprise there -- but with buffeteria food served at proportionally high prices as well, while using fast- food style service. Why is this significant? I think it sends an unconscious and pretty substantial signal to the guests that the food, higher- quality though it may be, is priced too high because it is ordered and served as if it were fast food.

What was Disney thinking? That is pretty clear, too. Lines and slow service are a restaurant's enemies, and buffeterias and tray slides do not process nearly as many people per hour as fast food counters do. So those locations that might otherwise have been trayslides -- my guess is Pizza Oom Mow Mow, Pacific Wharf Café, Cocina Cucamonga Mexican Grill, and Bountiful Valley Market here -- were instead designed as fast food outlets. Result: Disney makes more per hour. Side- effect: People feel ripped off, though possibly not consciously. They may well simply feel that the food is vaguely too expensive.

The kinds of service offered underscore an important point: Disney thinks people either want food to go or an experience very nearly like it, or else they want sit-down table service. I can see why Disney would think that. It is a theme park, after all - wouldn't everyone want to rush off to the next adventure, or else pay well for the chance to sit back and have quality food in a table- service environment? Thus we have perhaps the most important principle to the park's restaurant philosophy, and one that mirrors the thinking behind DCA as a whole: the only two types of patrons at this park will be tourists who want to rush to the next attraction, and tourists - and maybe a few locals - who are so flush with cash they will not hesitate to spend big for special experiences.

Think about it: the merchandise is mostly geared toward out-of-state tourists - would a local want California- themed postcards? The new Grand Californian Hotel, with rooms at $300 a night, is clearly geared toward that other group of big spenders. No middle ground.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it rests on the assumption that folks who are not big spenders always want quick food and do not mind paying extra for it. Well, it does not work that way. Premium pricing is too expensive even for premium food if presented in the wrong way, and counter- service is precisely the wrong presentation. On top of that, the assumption is just plain wrong -- folks do not always want to rush off. Many enjoy the slower pace of a real restaurant that is not counter service, though they do not want to wait in long lines. This is why scramble service is a real crowd pleaser, and is also popular with management for its efficiency.

The only real winner in the buffeteria with counter service is Disney, which reaps higher hourly sales while only slightly dampening the nature of the guest's visit. Is your day ruined if you cannot find a buffeteria to eat lunch in? Of course not. But something is missing from your theme park experience, and the lack of this middle variety of dining contributes to a hurried, not- quite- Disney experience at the park as a whole.

The other assumption -- that folks would spend big on a Disney vacation -- may be working for the Grand Californian (and I suspect it is not, at least not as much as Disney had hoped), but neither is it working over in DCA, where the expensive restaurants are suffering a lower-than-expected patronage.

What we are left with, then, is fast food that is too highly priced, a missing middle ground of trayslide service, and fine dining that is tasty but too expensive for many folks. Arguably, the fast food is the only segment of the restaurant philosophy firing on all cylinders, pleasing both management and visitors alike.

I can hear the outcries from the peanut gallery already: Isn't the Hollywood & Dine food court already something of a scramble service? Doesn't the central seating area in Pacific Wharf approximate the relaxed mode of a buffeteria dining area?

Well, no on both counts. The Hollywood food court looks like the type you would find in your local mall -- each station there has a unique theme and look to it. Compare that with the Plaza Inn, a single restaurant with a unified theme and appearance, but with multiple stations to pick up your food. The magic is in the details, guys. The same argument can be applied to the Pacific Wharf region, with the additional complaint that the open- air tables here resemble a picnic area more than a dining room.

Naturally, the addition of scramble- style restaurants or buffeterias to DCA would not solve all of its problems, but it would be a start. Like most of DCA, the restaurants were not designed with repeat visitors, such as locals, in mind. But unfortunately for Disney, the locals form an alarmingly high proportion of the daily totals. And the locals, as you might imagine, prefer alternatives to the expensive table service locations, and the fast food with fast service, which grows old quickly.

The first- time visitors to DCA who complain that the park lacks the warmth and magic of Disneyland are legion, but few can point to specifics that define the blandness of their visit. Well, Disney, here is one. Fix your restaurants and DCA will be the better for it, even if guests are hard- pressed to tell you what is better this time around.


Questions and comments can be sent to:  kevinyee@mouseplanet.com

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