Mickey's Kitchenby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Sometimes it is not just that Disney announced something with great fanfare and then abandoned the project, but that Disney actually introduced something that was meant to expand into a massive franchise but was quickly cancelled instead.
With Michael Eisner in charge as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Disney aggressively tried to expand into other related fields using its name and popular characters as marketing tools.
DisneyQuest was designed as a national series of multi-story, interactive "virtual" Disney theme parks for large urban areas that might have populations who could not frequently visit an actual Disney theme park. It was meant to be a "theme park in a box" and a location was built at Walt Disney World (June 1998-2016) and another short-lived one in Chicago (June 1999-2001).
Larry Gertz, senior show producer and creative director said, "The endeavor would have the environment and variety of a theme park, the interactivity of an arcade and the excitement of a thrill ride. And with the ability to create virtual environments and sets, the whole thing could be indoors and located in various cities, all over the world."
In an era of Smartphone apps, elaborate lifelike video games and other interactive VR attractions, DisneyQuest appeared too dated, too confined and too expensive for many people. If it had been successful, the intention was to expand it to twenty more similar venues, including ones in Philadelphia (where construction had begun but was cancelled), Baltimore, in the Disneyland Resort in California, as well as in Toronto, Canada.
A more successful expansion was the Disney Store that was created as an extension of the theme parks and to promote the latest Disney films. The retail location sold items that were exclusive to the Disney Store and offered a wide variety of products for both children and adults. It was considered the first "retail-tainment" or entertainment store and was modeled after the Disney Parks "Merchantainment" (merchandise entertainment) philosophy where selling was part of a "show".
The first store opened at the Glendale Galleria indoor mall in Glendale, California, on March 28, 1987 with much fanfare. The strong sales led to massive expansion to other cities but eventually it was hard to sustain the original goals and over the decades there were many readjustments made in overall approach and even ownership. Just like in the Parks, guests were enthusiastically greeted by smiling, clean-cut employees who had been trained to have a wealth of knowledge about Disney trivia and upcoming films and events at the Parks.
Disney themed merchandise was arranged to be seen clearly while upbeat Disney tunes played in the background. A big screen played continuous excerpts from Disney movies and telephones were available for customers to purchase theme park tickets or subscribe to the Disney Channel.
"We don't really consider this a retail business per se," said Stephen B. Burke, the senior vice president in charge of the Disney Stores in 1990. "We're in the entertainment business, and we want every single guest experience to be up to the expectations everyone has of Disney."
Of course, the Walt Disney Company has long operated stores within its theme parks and adjacent resorts, giving it considerable experience in selling Disney-related items.
When Eisner came on board, a Disney business development team headed by Burke,a former brand manager at the General Foods Corporation, put retailing at the top of the list of suggested new ventures for the Walt Disney Company.
"It was truly a natural extension of the experience we had, but it was also a wonderful marketing tool for the entire company," Barton K. Boyd, the head of Disney Consumer Products told the New York Times.
However there were some initial challenges like aisles too narrow for baby strollers and difficulties getting suitable employees.
"The major constraint on our growth from day one has been maintaining the caliber of our cast members," Burke said.
Of course, Disney would not say how much profit the stores made but kept increasing new locations. But in addition to the cash they bring in including selling merchandise under license to other companies that provide a healthy royalty, the stores provided benefits to other parts of the company, including the Parks and Film divisions.
In the beginning, the Disney Store was so popular that Disney tried to capitalize further on that business model. One of those attempts was the Walt Disney Gallery.
The first Walt Disney Gallery outside of a Disney theme park was opened next to the Disney Store at the Main Place Santa Ana mall in California on November 4, 1994. It was operated by the Disney Store.
The Gallery was organized into four sections: The Animation Gallery (to take advantage of the then high interest in animation and limited editions cels), The Contemporary Gallery, Vintage Disney and The Gallery Shop. It focused on higher end, more expensive adult merchandise like animation art, limited edition lithographs, dinnerware, sculptures and fashion items like watches, necklaces and cuff links.
However, one of the Disney Store expansions that is largely forgotten today is the short-lived experiment of Mickey's Kitchen that lasted from 1990 to 1992.
When he took over as CEO, Eisner was interested in introducing healthier eating options into the Disney theme parks. At Walt Disney World, that desire resulted in a disastrous transformation of the menu at Pinocchio's Village Haus that offered turkey burgers instead of beef patties and sliced carrot sticks instead of French fries.
It soon became apparent that guests visiting WDW felt they were on vacation and preferred to indulge in the unhealthy options. For years, the joke was that the many unsold turkey burger patties were still rotting away backstage in Food Services.
To try to circumvent using fast food chains like McDonalds, Burger King and others for promotions for the theme parks and movies, Eisner decided that Disney had decades of experience with food and beverage and so could reasonably operate a chain of fast food restaurants outside of Disneyland and Walt Disney World. In addition, he concluded that the locations would offer healthier food options that would distinguish the operation from its competitors and that they would initially open connected to the popular Disney Stores so there was already an available audience.
In fact, the restaurant space next to the store would be elevated so that customers enjoying their meals could gaze at the plethora of available Disney merchandise arranged attractively on the shelves in the store.
In the first year, a Disney survey found that Mickey's Kitchen increased the annual revenue at the adjacent Disney Store by at least twenty percent more than Disney Stores without a Mickey's Kitchen. By 1990 when the first experimental Mickey's Kitchen opened, the Disney Store had expanded to a 78 stores in 32 states.
In April 1990, a Disney Store opened at the Montclair Place Mall located in Montclair, California, roughly 30 miles east of Los Angeles. In addition, the first Mickey's Kitchen fast food restaurant also opened as an experiment taking up 6,000 square feet (roughly half) of the shared space with the store.
It had seating for 190 people. Without any advertisement or press releases, 25,000 customers showed up on opening day.
The second location opened May 31, 1991, at the Woodfield Mall located in Schaumburg, Illinois, northwest of Chicago. It was much larger at 14,000 square feet and was also attached to a Disney Store.
"We are still at the prototype-testing stage," said Disney spokesman for Disney Consumer Products Charles Champlin at the time. "We're still trying to satisfy ourselves that it's a concept that is excellent. We're happy enough about it to try another one. We're still trying refinements to get the prototype right. The opening of Mickey`s Kitchen seemed like a logical extension of what we already do. I think it's most likely that if we decide to open more, they'll be paired with a Disney Store but really, anything is possible. We want to stay creative. They won't be ubiquitous growing into thousands or even hundreds. Our priority is to create fun . . . and the emphasis is to offer really good food with something for everybody."
P. Martin Yates, senior vice president with Taubman Centers, the Michigan-based owner of the Illinois mall, said he had high hopes for Mickey's Kitchen.
"We were very impressed with what we saw at the Southern California operation," Yates said. "The restaurant doesn't detract from the theatrical side of the store, and it gives customers' minds a longer time to work on the idea of buying Disney merchandise."
Yates also said Disney executives had discussed opening other Mickey's Kitchens at some of Taubman Centers' 19 other shopping malls, but he stressed that the talks were preliminary.
Disney said it could be a year or more before it decided whether to build more restaurants. The company stated that Mickey's Kitchen would probably not be added to most of the stores and insisted that the concept would never be franchised. Both McDonalds and Burger King refrained from public comment.
"The whole idea of opening a restaurant is to extend the customers' stay at the store," said entertainment analyst Paul Marsh of Bateman Eichler, Hill Richards, a Los Angeles brokerage. "They have a history of going into new businesses by going slow and first sticking their toe in the water."
Eisner had recently become enamoured of the fact that Imagineers sometimes created back stories for things they built leading him to proclaim "Everything Speaks!"
So for a period of several years, everything Disney built had to have some type of elaborate back story. Most of those stories are now largely forgotten because they were rarely integral to the location, too complicated and even Disney Archivist Dave Smith confessed to me that he had stopped recording many of them since they were fairly meaningless.
For Mickey's Kitchen, the Imagineers created a story that was also posted at the location:
"Once upon a time in the Magic Kingdom where only good things happen, Mickey Mouse invited all his Disney friends to his house for a party. After they all sat down to eat, Donald Duck suddenly jumped up from the table and squawked, "Hey, Mickey, why don't you open a restaurant?' Everyone agreed.
"Dumbo flew into the air. Tinker Bell twinkled. All 101 Dalmatians barked their approval. Even Grumpy managed to smile. And so, Mickey's Kitchen was born. Mickey and all of his friends at the Disney Store are dedicated to making this the happiest of restaurants – a magical place of fun, food and fantasy. It is our hope that all who come here will share in the magic and dine happily ever after."
A logo was created of Mickey Mouse in a chef's hat and apron and carrying a tray with a hamburger and a frosty yogurt shake with two straws. That same design was featured on the boxes, placemats, cups, trays and napkins.
The menu was broken done into different categories:
- Pinocchio's Pizza: Choices of Cheese and Tomato, Garden Vegetable or BBQ Chicken
- Supercalisandwiches: Choices of Goofy Burger (lean beef patty), Mickey Burger (meatless patty), Jumbo Dumbo Burger (Double Meat & Cheese), Charbroiled Chicken Sandwich, Peanut Butter-Jelly-Banana Handwich, or Hot Diggity Dog (turkey frankfurter)
- Salads in Wonderland: Choices of Supercalisalad or Chickensaladocious
- Silly Symphony Sides: Choices of Character French fries (French fries cut into the shapes of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck), Soup-A-Dee-Doo-Dah garden soup, Zip-A-Dee-Doo Dah Yogurt (with Mickey's Mixins: Dry/Hot/Fresh Fruit), Character cookies or Fresh fruit cup
- Mouseketeer Meals: Choices of The Huey (hamburger), The Duey (yes, that is the way it was initially spelled on the menu. A hot dog), or The Louie (Peanut Butter and Jelly and Banana sandwich). These were the Kids Meals and were served in a box and included the main selection, small drink, fries and a "special prize" toy.
- Bibbidi-Bobbidi Beverages: Great shakes made with yogurt. Vanilla or Chocolate.
- Sipping Beauties: Coke, Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, Root Beer, Sprite, Iced Tea, Fruit Juices (Orange or Apple), Coffee, Decaf, Tea and one percent Milk
Years ago when I visited well-respected Disney merchandise researcher Tom Tumbusch in Dayton, Ohio, and spent time talking to him in his office, he told me that he had made a half dozen trips to both Mickey's Kitchen locations.
"My experience was that people were ordering at least 10 times as many Goofy Burgers rather than Mickey Burgers," he recalled. "Maybe less than a third of the people were visiting the dessert bar. It was clear that such an operation required more additional personnel than might be compensated by the business. The company was also bucking the emerging food-court trend at malls where all the food operations were moved to a central location instead of scattered throughout the place. I am sure there were many factors including negotiating a long term deal with McDonalds that led to it closing."
It was certainly unique to offer a wide variety of low-fat, lower-calorie items, including a meatless burger, turkey franks and fresh-fruit options. Menu items ranged in price from fifty cents to $3.25 and in general guest comments were positive.
The three varieties of pizza were priced at a cheese pizza or vegetable pizza for $2.95 or barbecue chicken pizza for $3.25. The Peanut Butter-Jelly-Banana Handwich was a pancake wrapped around a banana half and filled with peanut butter and jelly and proved very popular with children. The Goofy Burger with lean ground beef had fat content of less than fifteen percent and sold for $2.05 for adults and $1.05 for children. The Hot Diggity Dog was a turkey frank that sold for $1.50.
The meatless Mickey Burger consisted of a blend of walnuts, mozzarella, bean curd and vegetables. Rather than being fried, it was browned under a heat lamp.
What did it taste like? Two friends of mine who had a bite to eat at Mickey's Kitchen told me it was much like the hamburger or pizza you might find at a Tomorrowland quick serve location. It was edible but not memorable. One said that besides the menu items I listed, he remembered Piglet curly fries as an option and there might have been Figaro fries as well.
However, Mickey's Kitchen never seemed able to compete against the other better established fast food offerings at the mall despite guests praising the friendliness and cleanliness of the place.
Not only was the decor more elaborate at Mickey's Kitchen that that of the average McDonalds or Burger King, diners were seated in one of four themed areas that were mock sound stages–giant friezes referencing a famous Disney cartoon being "e;filmed," although no actual filming took place.
One section was devoted to a picnic in Winnie the Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood while another was themed to Tony's Restaurant from Lady and the Tramp and yet another to the tea party from Alice in Wonderland.
Disney released a statement that closing Mickey's Kitchen would allow the company to concentrate more on expanding the Disney Store retail chain overseas.
Privately, Chuck Champlin of Disney Consumer Products Division admitted that the restaurant barely broke even and that when the restaurants first opened, they received a tepid response in the investment community even though revenue exceeded the average sales in the fast food industry at first.
Harold Vogel, an entertainment analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York said that Mickey's Kitchen "was an experimental concept to begin with designed to increase traffic into the Disney Store that each adjoined but seemed to become more of a distraction."
At the time, some marketing experts felt that the rapid expansion of the Disney Stores presented the danger of overlicensing its characters and overexposing its name, sacrificing their image and their value in the long run to make a little more money in the short run.
In addition, they pointed out that venues like a restaurant carried the added risk of staining the Disney name every time the French fries were soggy or the hamburger tasted dry.
The stores and restaurants were a part of Disney's specialty retail unit within its consumer products sector, which is relatively small by comparison to its theme parks and filmed entertainment businesses but was meant to take advantage of the "synergy" between business units.
"For decades, the Disney Store has helped fans and families around the world make Disney magic a part of their daily lives," said Paul Gainer, executive vice president, Disney Retail. "We have continued to evolve and address not only the needs and interests of Guests, but also the growing slate of Walt Disney Company brands and franchises, including Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars. We look forward to the future as we continue to deliver the very best of Disney at retail."