Quick Recipes and Easy

Dining At Disney

Walt Disney World is larger than life, a place where statistics reach epic proportions. In the food and beverage area, these figures paint a telling picture of visitors’ eating patterns. Consider: 1.6 million pounds of turkey drumsticks and more than 2.6 million chocolate-covered Mickey Mouse ice cream bars are devoured annually.

Pleasing the tens of millions who visit the Lake Buena Vista, Fla., resort each year (an estimated 16.9 million in 2005 combining the four theme parks, according to Wikipedia.com) is as much an exercise in entertainment and efficiency as it is a spiritual calling for the park’s Senior Vice President of Food & Beverage Dieter Hannig.

“I have a deep connection with food,” Hannig clarifies. “I grew up in a rural area, and we were self-sufficient. From childhood it was spiritual, having respect from where food comes; this whole notion of growing and experiencing the seasons, and having a connection to the land. That’s how I grew up, believing that there’s a social aspect involving food.”

And in a place like Walt Disney World, food is nothing if social – in every 10,000 dessert soufflés served at Victoria & Alberts and 31,000 Cobb salads tossed at the Hollywood Brown Derby at Disney-MGM Studios. If the popularity of theme parks can be measured in food volume alone, then Walt Disney World is by far the most well loved theme park/resort in the world.

Mass appeal
In charge of this massive operation that offers more than 6,000 different food items, Hannig calls upon a belief nurtured through a long career spent in the food industry and, indeed, growing up to appreciate food in his childhood home near Cologne, Germany. It is a business, of course, but also a lifestyle. For a brand as ubiquitous as Disney, which is near synonymous with mass merchandising and appeal, the belief is that food service should not be watered down in order to satisfy such masses. Whether served by Mickey Mouse or a five-star chef, food at Disney, at the very least, should offer a unique and satisfying experience.

“We are reminded daily that we work for a company whose products and experiences hold very special meaning to millions of people throughout the world. That includes food and beverage,” Hannig stresses. “We are able to provide convenience, comfort, and connectivity for the family on vacation. Each meal has the ability to be a ‘magical gathering’ for the family. Vacation should be nutrition for the body, mind, and soul.”

At Walt Disney World Resort, the dining team has flourished under the direction of Hannig. Supervising more than 500 places to eat, Hannig, who joined Walt Disney World Resort in 1993, has introduced a new generation of diverse dining experiences. “In 1988, I went to work with The Walt Disney Company at Disneyland Paris, charged with making nearly two dozen themed resort restaurants. It was one of the most gorgeous times in my life,” he recalls. “After the resort opened in April 1992, I was tapped to come to Walt Disney World Resort.”

How does he bring this belief into his position? “Food and nutrition is just one piece of living better – I try to instill this as a leader, this whole philosophy of lifestyle. It’s very complex,” he says. “People have to know how food relates to our lives; it has to be meaningful. There has to be a purpose to it. I try to make people know if they leave in the morning and they’re not pleased, they won’t be pleased chefs. I tell all my leaders I can tell if someone touched food with respect and like.”

Hannig says he feels very privileged to work with a talented food & beverage leadership team, supported by a cast of thousands, literally (Walt Disney World calls its employees cast members). Combined they direct the operations of 85 table service restaurants, more than 200 snack operations, 20 pool bars, 23 lounges and more than 10 nightclubs. All offer a distinct atmosphere and food menu and each tries hard to place to rest the clichés that surface when the subject is theme park food.

“The theme park industry is always labeled, that it’s only about fries and burgers,” he says. “We want our food service to be recognized on another level; we push hard to be recognized by our guests.” Indeed, as posted on the Web site AllEarsNet, Susan Shumaker and Than Saffel in their column, A Vegetarian at Mickey’s Table, applaud Hannig for undertaking “the awesome task of making Walt Disney World a dining destination to rival the world’s fantastic resorts – while ensuring that hungry toddlers, weary parents, picky teenagers, and people with esoteric diets can all find some delightful culinary treat… It’s a mammoth undertaking, but if anyone is up to the task, it’s Hannig.”

Hence, the establishment of restaurants such as Boma-Flavors of Africa or Spoodles, described as a “mini vacation to the Mediterranean;” California Grill and Coral Reef Restaurant, which features a 5.7-million-gallon aquarium.

“With our diverse cast members, every day I apply the professional and personal experiences that I gained from my “journey” working in more than 20 countries around the world. I’ve been privileged to live in different cultures, to accept different thinking and values, and learn the culinary heritage and traditions of many fantastic cuisines,” Hannig adds.

As such, he tried to instill a personalized agenda with every food establishment. Every restaurant manager has to touch each table, meaning they must interact with every guest. “We want to make sure when they leave they’re excited,” Hannig says, adding, “It’s simple to deal with a pleased guest. The challenge is dealing with people who aren’t pleased.”

Kids, especially, are the simplest guests. “It’s excellent to see how open-minded kids are. I always listen to kids and question what they like.” Once a year Hannig holds a food focus group in the park, in which he questions children to eat various foods and gauges their responses. “Once they ate tofu meatballs and whole grain macaroni. They said it was ‘fantastic stuff, awesome.’ I told their parents they were eating tofu and they could not believe it. They said their kids would never eat tofu at home.”

Hannig has also impressed those at the opposite end of the spectrum with an expanded Walt Disney World wine program, which encompasses improved wine service and selection. He continues to educate all restaurant staffers about wine. “Today we have nearly 300 sommeliers and one master sommelier. All of our cast should know about wine and other beverage and should be well trained and responsive to our guest’s requests. We have come a long way in this area.”

What’s next for Walt Disney World Food & Beverage? “I reckon that Disney dining will continue to grow and evolve and exceed guest expectations. The dining experience is part of the company’s evolution. We always will have the desire, the determination and the discipline to make new dining experiences,” Hannig concludes.

For more information, please e-mail us at mailto:corporate@fdqmagazine.com corporate@fdqmagazine.com

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