A fascination with the theme parks’ cuisine has spawned fan websites and snagged our critic, who has a Disney back story of her own.
By guest author Tejal Rao from the New York Times. Tejal Rao is a critic at large. She writes about food and culture for The Times and contributes regularly to The New York Times Magazine
April 10, 2023
ANAHEIM, Calif. — The strawberry Dole Whip sundae at Disneyland, in its first minute or so of life, looks perfect. Billowed with fresh fruit and a syrupy drizzle, veiled with tender cake crumbs, it has the dazzling color and softly drooping tip of a cartoon dessert.
By the time you pick up a spoon and find a place to sit down, this may no longer be true. But on the day I met AJ Wolfe in Disneyland, the weather was overcast and slightly chilly, and the sundae was holding just fine.
With her phone, Ms. Wolfe took a vertical shot, then a horizontal shot. A hero shot, then a group shot of all of the snacks we’d ordered from Tropical Hideaway in Adventureland. Together, we tasted every item on the table.
By then, the sundae was melting — a super sweet, sickly pink, half-eaten wreck that had managed to make everything in a three-foot radius sticky, including my phone, my hands and my eyelashes (how?). I found myself going back for bites, but by then, I almost begrudged it.
Luckily, Ms. Wolfe had packed wet wipes. At 44, she lives in Dallas and runs Disney Food Blog, a website title with perfect search-engine optimization that employs more than 30 people. There are many Disney fan sites on the internet exploring our intense and complicated relationships to the multinational conglomerate, but few take theme-park food, and by extension the people who obsess over its pleasures, so seriously.
“Disney is a religion for people — a drug,” she said. “I know because there was a time when all my thoughts were focused on: How do I get there again?”
In 2008, just before she started the site, Ms. Wolfe was living in a little apartment on the northern tip of Staten Island, running up her credit cards with trips to Disney World in Florida. For a while, the park was the only thing that mattered — a trap door in the back of her life as a grant writer, opening out into a perfect, if provisional happiness.
From the start, the thing Ms. Wolfe loved the most about Disney was the food. She documented every chicken tender and corn dog with her Kodak point-and-shoot camera, treated every ice cream cone in the way of a serious food blogger, shuffling around to be near a window, or rushing dishes outside before they melted to get shots in the best light, with the prettiest background. Over time, she built an archive of the food at the parks, with continuously updated notes on every bakery, restaurant and kiosk.
When Disneyland opened in Anaheim in 1955, the food offerings weren’t so different from what you’d find at a local county fair — hot dogs, fried chicken, barbecue and pancakes. That genre of food hasn’t disappeared — there’s always a wait for the incomprehensibly large and glistening turkey legs — but as Disney parks expanded across the world and matured, so did their menus.
Today, there’s a discreet corporate “flavor lab” at Disney World where chefs experiment with new dishes, a series of bumper food and wine festivals, as well as sit-down restaurants serving everything from Zanzibar-inspired vegetable curry to roast duck with pistachio pâté. Reporters on the food beat for Disney Food Blog are in the parks every day to catch and document new items.
Disneyland, in Anaheim, is known as a kind of locals park — I know plenty of Angelenos who grew up with annual passes (as well as those who consider it a red flag when people brag about annual passes on dating apps). Though I live about 45 minutes away, I had never been until I met Ms. Wolfe there for a day of snacking that began with soft, malt-scented Mickey waffles in Carnation Cafe.
“You haven’t touched your ears,” said our server, Dave, as he poured us more coffee, and told us that Walt Disney had hired his father as an animator in the 1950s.
About a third of visitors here are “Disney adults,” or as Disney calls them “non family guests,” meaning grown-ups with no children in tow — often in for birthdays, dates, anniversaries and honeymoons. Die-hard Disney fans hold annual passes and don’t need a reason to visit. They know the park and its offerings inside and out, in long-term relationships sustained throughout their lives. (Disney has tried, and failed, to prevent people from scattering the ashes of their loved ones in the park, particularly on rides like Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.)
In the slow, white tram that takes you from the parking lot to the park entrance, I thought I must look like a Disney adult, clutching my tote bag, entering Disneyland alone.
I was, in fact, a Disney kid. When I was 8, my father took a job working for Disneyland Paris, which was not in Paris at all, but in Chessy, about 20 miles east of the city. This was the early 1990s, during the renaissance years for Disney animation — the years of “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Before the park officially opened, my family stayed in each of the American-themed hotels for a couple of nights, eating at all of the restaurants and answering detailed questionnaires about each meal. I’d never been to the United States, and without any understanding of these foods and their origins, I ate black bean soup and tortilla chips at the Santa Fe-themed hotel, and oysters Rockefeller in a replica of the Rainbow Room in the New York-themed hotel.
I could have lived on the park’s warm caramel popcorn, the smell of which was pumped into the air at several key points in the park, and which I can accurately conjure now, if I take a deep enough breath. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that my first Oreo milkshake — from Annette’s Diner in Disney Village, where most of the servers worked on roller skates — shifted the course of my life.
I don’t usually say all that, though, because it sounds absurd. And did I really enjoy the food, or did the exhaustion and frustration of the theme park put me in such an emotionally fragile place that I clung to the pleasures of a milkshake? There’s no way to know what effect a few years of extremely high Disney doses had on me.
The brand’s culinary reference points can be just as vivid and enduring as its characters and stories. Chad Wright and Venessa Hinojosa-Wright met in 2009 while they were working at Disney World. They were later married there, and put Disney’s sweet potato pancakes on their wedding brunch menu.
Ms. Wolfe’s food-fan site caters to families planning first-time trips with detailed instructions and tips, as well as to Disney fans who simply want to know what’s changed — if there’s a new chef or menu item, a new hard-to-get, limited-edition seasonal snack — since their last visit.
As she developed the site, Ms. Wolfe’s goal was to show all readers what Disney food really looked like. She didn’t make restaurant reservations under her own name, avoided photos on the internet (and for this article) and paid for her own meals.
“I’m old-school, and that’s how restaurant critics do it,” she said.
She ripped open cheese sticks for the camera to reveal their stodgy or stringy insides, depending on the temperature at which they were served; spooned up soups and sundaes, illuminating their textures; and broke apart cupcakes and cookies.
“These families are going to go and spend so much money,” Ms. Wolfe said. “They don’t need to see perfect images of the food: They need to see what they’re actually going to get.”
What you’re actually going to get at Disneyland is, of course, impossible to predict. Crowds swell and prices go up. Characters disappear moments after you arrive to see them. Wait times for restaurants and rides unfurl indefinitely. Key rides shut down and snacks disappear. And bathrooms are never nearby when you really, really need them. You don’t know when something’s going to veer from the script, only that it is.
After waffles and sundaes, lumpia and char siu bao, chicken tenders and mac and cheese, blue milk and green milk, one of our last stops of the day was Oga’s Cantina, in Galaxy’s Edge. The “Star Wars”-themed bar also happens to be one of the few places in the park to serve alcohol, including a vodka, falernum and Curaçao-spiked juice called the Jedi Mind Trick. The drinks don’t make much sense as cocktails, but still, I couldn’t wait to have one in front of me, ideally with a ridiculous garnish on top.
Ms. Wolfe put us down on a wait list and we wandered around, delighted that the wait for Oga’s today was just 20 minutes. But within a few seconds of getting inside, it became clear that something had gone horribly wrong.
“Protein spill,” said Ms. Wolfe with authority. “Want to get out of here?”
“Protein spill” is gentle Disneyland lingo for vomit. And in a dark, windowless, crowded room like Oga’s, the smell is both especially unpleasant and impossible to escape. My eyes hadn’t had time to adjust to the darkness, to take in the details or design of the room. I hadn’t even opened the menu. But the answer was yes, I wanted to get out of there. We all did.
Later, in the shade of an umbrella, Ms. Wolfe and I shared a paper basket of corn dogs. They were warm and bulging, crisp-edged but yielding, with juicy sausages inside. They were almost sweet, and the batter hadn’t sponged up too much oil from the fryer. They were, as the sign advertised, “hand-dipped.”
I’d tasted so many snacks by then, I was almost nonfunctioning as a critic, unable to process. The corn dog was fine, but in the chaos of the park during the surge of spring break, after walking about 10000 steps (Ms. Wolfe was keeping track for us), the corn dog was also more than fine.
It was no Oreo milkshake, but it was consolation, fortification and even joy. For a minute or two, the corn dog at Disneyland was everything.
A version of this article appears in print on April 12, 2023, Section D, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Taste for Magic.