Disney’s world of resorts sports custom foodservice

Disney’s world of resorts sports custom foodservice – Walt Disney Co

Ron Ruggless

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The same imagination and creativity that go into, say, an animated film like “Beauty and the Beast” apply to foodservice at Walt Disney World’s hotels and resorts, Florida’s own Fantasy Island of 14 properties with more than 11,500 rooms.

The resort foodservice spans more than 100 operations, from the award-winning fine-dining restaurant Victoria & Albert’s to lakeside quick-snack kiosks. Per-person checks can range from a few dollars at the inventively themed food court at the Dixie Landings Resort to more than $80 at a premier restaurant in the Grand Floridian Resort.

In between are convention facilities that can accommodate as many as 3,600 people, dinner shows such as the 327-seat Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue with three seatings nightly and hotel “character breakfast” buffets, where children can be turned on and ‘tooned in to Mickey, Minnie and their animated cohorts.

“In a small geographic area, we have hotels with different guests with different needs and with different desires,” says Scott Lillie, Disney World’s director of resort foodservice. “We have tailored the foodservice to those individual hotels.” And they are individual, indeed. The accommodations range from the rustic campgrounds at Disney World’s Fort Wilderness Resort, with its backwoods, lower-priced Crockett’s Tavern, to the suites of the Grand Floridian Resort, where celebrities dine in posh luxury.

To appeal to the varied guests at each of the properties, Lillie says, Disney World taps into what he calls “food energy.”

“Every one of our restaurants that we are developing has got to have some segment that creates food energy,” he says. “It’s above and beyond what the physical layout of the facility is. It’s an icon of some sort, whether it’s a display kitchen or whether it’s a bakery that’s on stage or whether it’s a huge meat locker. So when we’re developing each one of our restaurants, we try to keep that in mind: What is the icon? What is the |food energy’ portion of this restaurant?”

Like the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center and Disney-MGM Studios theme parks they serve, the resorts have their themes and missions carefully drawn.

“Our hotels span a very large spectrum, and most of our hotels are a thousand-plus rooms, from the Grand Floridian, which was a recent recipient of the Robb Report’s Outstanding Hotel in the country last year, to a moderately priced property that does an $89 room rate,” Lillie says.

“We build the hotels with a definitive theme for both the rooms and the environment they are in – whether it is a Dixie Landings, Port Orleans, Grand Floridian or Polynesian,” Lillie says, explaining that restaurant concepts are tailored to the hotels through a process in which Disney officials evaluate “the [guest] market segment that’s going to be in the hotel, and we say , |OK, this is the restaurant that’s going to hit that market segment.”

Emphasizing service, innovative food efficiency, Disney resort foodservice is a big world after all.

|You never get a second chance’

“We believe you never get a second chance to wow a guest,” says Barry Jacobson, food and beverage manager at the Grand Floridian Beach Resort.

The premium hotel takes the philosophy of pampering and coddling guests to heart, with the resort’s executive chef, Robert Notre, summing it up in three words: “Service, service, service.”

For example, when a cancer patient recently visited the property with his family, the hotel staff went to great lengths to accommodate his special macrobiotic diet.

“The family called ahead to make sure we could prepare the macrobiotic meals,” Notre says, “but we took it a step further. We called his doctor, talked with the family and did some research. The family brought some special rices and grains, but we went out to find other foods that would fit into his diet.”

Information in hand, the staff was well-prepared for the special diet.

“We didn’t want to make it an ordeal,” Notre adds. “So, when the family wanted to dine, they would call the concierge and tell them which restaurant they were planning to go to. We’d have the special macrobiotic meal ready for the guest, and the rest of the family could order off the menu.”

The staff – or “cast members,” as they are called at Disney – are expected to perform such feats.

“It is the training and nurturing of those hourly cast members that is paramount to us,” Lillie says. “We spend most of our time making sure those hourly cast members are trained and empowered, that they are able to deliver to our guests.”

To keep the level of service consistent, Lillie says, “we routinely videotape all the training classes we do for the staff so that when the third generation of employees comes in, we are able to convey that same meaning of what the hotel is to them.”

When Middle Americans venture to the Disney theme parks, they expect to see the world. The resort division anticipates showing them new worlds, too.

“We try to create in each one of these environments an entrepreneurial hotel,” Lillie says. “When you’re all in this same area with the same company directing you, it can be very easy to be cookie cutters and all be the same.

With construction started on the 725-room Wilderness Lodge resort, which is to open in 1994, and plans announced for two new 1,920-room themed hotels – an All-Star Sports Resort and an All-Star Music Resort – to open in 1995, the variety is wide.

And the mission for each hotel is decided early on.

“When we open a hotel, we typically assign the general manager a year out. Then his executive committee, being the food and beverage manager and the executive chef, will come shortly after that,” Lillie says.

“When we opened the Yacht-Beach hotel, we took a group of them, including the executive chef and the food and beverage manager, and we traveled throughout the country for a week and a half, looking and talking about what was good and how these things apply,” Lillie adds.

Jerry Kuchinskas, executive chef at the Yacht and Beach Club Resorts, went on that expedition. “It’s central that we match the food to the theme for the hotel,” he says of the resort’s fare, which includes a nightly clambake.

“Theme is very important,” says Dale A. Stafford, general manager of the Port Orleans and Dixie Landings resorts, Disney’s newest and more moderately priced resorts.

The food courts at both properties carry the resorts’ themes. Port Orleans features Mardi Gras, and Dixie Landings has a working cotton press and 35-foot waterwheel, which was designed and made for the 480-seat food court.

The food matches the southern Mississippi River theme. “We’ve done our homework,” says Tony Donnelly, executive chef for both properties. The staff toured Louisiana restaurants to get a feel for the Cajun menu.”

With Disney guests in a hurry each morning to get to the theme parks, breakfast is not only the highest-volume meal but also the one with the highest expectations.

“Guests want to be in and out and on their way,” says Scott Stead, assistant food and beverage manager at the Port Orleans and Dixie Landings resorts.

The food courts at those resorts can serve guests quickly, efficiently and at modest prices – usually around $5 for a full breakfast – without sacrificing what Lillie calls “the smoke and sizzle.” The goal, adds the resorts executive chef Donnelly, is to serve those guests in five minutes. With nearly 4,000 rooms at both resorts and with each accommodating an average of two to 3.5 guests, the number of diners hitting breakfast at one time can be phenomenal, especially with eager youngsters’ minds more on Mickey Mouse the character than Mickey Mouse the Waffle.

Planning includes a 21-day guest forecast that is produced by a Disney computer model, according to general manager Stafford. But that is not without hitches. “There’s no way to put rain into the budget,” says chef Donnelly, adding that breakfast numbers can leap enormously during downpours.

With the resort division providing a wide variety of food – from counter service to fine dining, from family to specialty restaurants – Lillie says purchasing is finely tuned.

“We have central purchasing for Walt Disney World, which purchases for both parks and resorts,” Lillie explains.

Frank Brough, chef at the exclusive Victoria & Albert’s, says central purchasing works well although the fine-dining restaurant must make special requests for high-end goods and some purveyors do not meet the Disney specifications.

The resorts depend less on Disney World’s food-processing center than do most outlets on the park grounds, with the majority of executives at the various resorts saying 95 percent of the food is prepared on property. Most even have bakeries that produce trademark breads for the individual restaurants.

Conventions are also a large part of the Disney resorts’ foodservice landscape with facilities at the Yacht-Beach and Grand Floridian resorts. With a recent addition of more than 71,500 square feet of convention space at the 1,053-square-foot Contemporary Resort, which at 21 is Disney World’s oldest, large meetings draw an increasing share of the hotel and resort foodservice business.

“When we do a banquet function,” Lillie explains proudly, “it’s not just foodservice. It’s an environment we create. We try to put that Disney touch on it. Convention business is not just feeding people; it’s a very dynamic side of our business.”

Disney develops its own talent

To run this vast food world, Disney develops its own foodservice executive talent, says Lillie, who started with Disney in 1972 – “planning to just work for that summer,” he says now – and has been with the company since.

“We look internally; that is the first place we look,” he says of his executive staff. “We have an extensive internal management training program that takes six months to complete. We’ll put as many people as we need for growth and expansion into that program.

He recruits from such hotel schools as Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University and Cornell University, bringing likely candidates into Disney’s college program in their junior year.

Far from the madding crowds, amid the dewy ferns of central Florida, lies the Fort Wilderness Resort.

Mike Turner, manager of food and beverage operations at Fort Wilderness, points to a wooden rocking chair on the restaurant’s porch and recounts the story of a guest who spent hours there reading a book, rocking to and fro.

“He swore that the rocking chair alone was worth $50 a day,” Turner adds with a chuckle.

That, according to the Disney Resorts Division executives, is the aim of the many food outlets and accommodations.

Arthur Ebrahimoff, assistant manager of food and beverage for the Disney’s Resorts Division, sums up the philosophy this way: “Everything we do is fun here.”

COPYRIGHT 1992 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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