Amusement parks find green in themed dining

From chocolate frogs to Duff Beer, food and other custom products are ingredients for profit

Krusty Burger employees prepare a burger at the Krusty Burger in Universal Orlando.
Krusty Burger employees prepare a burger at the Krusty Burger in Universal Orlando.

ORLANDO, Fla. — At Universal Orlando, visitors can buy mugs of butterbeer pulled straight from the pages of the Harry Potter books — or eat Krusty Burgers made infamous by The Simpsons television show.

At Walt Disney World, they can sample LeFou’s Brew or The Gray Stuff, a drink and a dessert inspired by the animated film Beauty and the Beast.

And now, at SeaWorld Orlando, they can sip on South Pole Chill amid the glaciers of Antarctica.

It’s the latest attractions arms race. Though Orlando’s theme parks have for years tried to top one another with sophisticated rides and shows, the battlefield today extends to food and merchandise. Comcast Corp., Walt Disney Co., and SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. are investing in more-immersive restaurants and shops, and devising new lines of custom products.

As Comcast’s Universal proved with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter — which has made drinking a butterbeer a must-do for Orlando tourists — finding the right formula can lead to big gains in guest spending.

And that’s vital for a maturing U.S. theme-park industry, where boosting attendance and extending vacations become more challenging every year.

“While overall theme-park attendance is growing, the rate remains in the low single digits. So to grow faster than inflation without big capital spending, you need to get more out of the customers you have,” said Bob Boyd, a leisure analyst with Pacific Asset Management.

Another factor is the skyrocketing cost of intellectual property as theme parks compete for the rights to fictional characters and worlds — from Harry Potter, Star Wars and Avatar to the as-yet unsecured Lord of the Rings — that can underpin new attractions.

“There isn’t a lot of really good intellectual property out there, and what is available is expensive,” Mr. Boyd said. “So you need to get everything you can out of what you have.”

The industry’s emphasis on theme-based retail is a shift from just a few years ago. Throughout much of the 2000s, theme parks culled, rather than expanded, their product lines, the better to improve their purchasing power and wring savings out of suppliers.

Industry-leader Disney, for instance, eliminated items such as hotel-specific Christmas ornaments. Instead, it began introducing more “Disney Parks”-branded merchandise that could be sold at Disney World and Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.

Then came the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal’s Islands of Adventure. In addition to rides and shows, Universal built intricately detailed shops and eateries, all based on the Potter books and movies — and all selling items from chocolate frogs to golden snitches.

The results stunned the industry. When it opened in June, 2010, the lines to get into the stores often surpassed those for the rides. Per-visitor spending on food and souvenirs at Universal Orlando jumped nearly 30 percent in the first year, from less than $20 to almost $26.

Comcast and Universal are racing to duplicate that success. A direct descendant of Wizarding World is Springfield, the hometown in The Simpsons, under construction at Universal Studios Florida. The area will include more than a half-dozen stores and restaurants based on favorite locations in the TV show.

Some eateries, including Krusty Burger and Moe’s Tavern, sell Krusty Burger platters, chicken-thumb baskets, and Flaming Moes — a citrus soda that bubbles and smokes — and Duff Beer.

“When we create a moment for guests to share a butterbeer with their family or have a Flaming Moe together, it brings the experience alive for them in a whole new way,” Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said.

“And like everything else we do, if we give our guests the best experience, it’s great for them, and it’s great for our business.”