Amusement park feeds millions of visitors each season

In 2006, 335 million people visited more than 600 amusement parks in the United States. That amounts to estimated revenues of $11.5 billion, a $4 billion increase over 1996.

Three million of those sun- and fun-seekers visited Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio. The park, open from May to October, is a destination for families within hours of northern Ohio. This May marked the 137th season the park has been in operation and included the grand opening of a new roller coaster. As the park has expanded, so has the amount of time guests stay there and the amount of money they drop – visitors usually make it a two-day trip and spend more than $40 per person inside the park.

Food makes up a significant portion of per-person spending, and the park has to be able to efficiently feed guests more than one meal during their visit. And with so many guests that span every demographic, the park has to offer a variety of food options.

“Unlike most amusement parks, we are much more diverse in what we offer our customer,” said Mike Mason, vice president of food service for Cedar Point. “We really cross all borders when we talk about food at Cedar Point.”

He said the diversity of food choices inside the gates has drawn comparisons to The Walt Disney Company.

To feed visitors, Cedar Point operates 36 quick-service restaurants, nine indoor full-service restaurants, one Johnny Rockets franchise operation (which serves 3,000 to 4,000 meals a day during park operation) and one donut bakery and coffee shop. In addition, there are up to 75 carts scattered throughout the park that serve “everything else in the impulse category,” Mason said. Healthy options include carts with fresh fruit and individual vegetable packets, while other carts have the amusement park staples of funnel cakes, ice cream and sodas.

And that’s just inside the park.

Cedar Fair Amusement, owner of Cedar Point, owns 13 amusement parks and five water parks in the United States and Canada. In 2006, the company expanded with the addition of two more parks in Ohio, Geauga Lake in Aurora and King’s Island. King’s Island is one of the busiest amusement parks in the United States based on the number of rides and the hourly ride capacity. The park also has been recognized as Best Kids’ Area in the World for six straight years.

Cedar Fair also operates a water park, two hotels, a marina and three chain restaurants – two T.G.I. Friday’s and a Famous Dave’s Legendary Barbeque. There also are two off-site cafeterias to feed the 5,000 to 6,000 seasonal workers needed to fully staff the park.

That diversity in food options stems from the demographic diversity at the park. Teens and young adults typically want faster food, while older guests typically stop at the full-service Midway Market, Mason said.

“You always see a mature market in there,” he said.

Cedar Fair has been working to include healthy options for the last five to seven years, Mason said.

New salad mixes and fish and seafood meals have all been successful. Between 50,000 and 60,000 pounds of lettuces and leafy greens were used in the park last year. That was an increase over 2005, with 46,000 pounds of lettuces and leafy greens used. The foodservice establishments outside the park add an additional 50,000 to 60,000 pounds, but with fewer restaurants – which illustrates the challenge of serving healthy food in an amusement park.

Healthy Snacks?

Cedar Point has found that when visitors take a vacation to come to the park, they’re also taking a vacation from eating healthy.

“A vast majority throw the diet out the window for the day,” Mason said. “They want to have our fresh-cut fries, elephant ears and funnel cakes.”

Attempts at introducing fruit as impulse buys haven’t been successful. The park first introduced fruit carts two years ago with six to eight carts, but now has only four – compared to 14 carts that sell Dippin’ Dots ice cream.

Even Mason isn’t immune to it. He said he’s traveled to nearly every amusement park in the country, and he usually doesn’t choose a park’s produce options, so he understands when visitors don’t buy fruits and vegetables.

“Subconsciously, I seem to eat more wholesome foods at home than when I’m at an amusement park,” Mason said.

But not all is lost. While much of the food served might not be considered “healthy,” he said the park was working on making the most popular items lower in fat and cholesterol. The highest-volume item is the park’s fresh-cut fries – made from fresh Idaho potatoes – and they now have zero trans fats and no cholesterol. The fries have a unique taste, and it took some time to find frying oil that didn’t change the taste too much from what customers wanted.

Other items are inching up, too, Mason said. While lettuce use in the park has increased some, it’s gone up considerably just outside the park, so while customers don’t want to eat healthy in the park, once outside they return to the healthy menu items.

Staffing Challenges

Mason manages the many foodservice outlets with just 30 full-time employees. But during the six months the park is open, 1,900 seasonal employees work in the foodservice arena.

That creates some challenges, because turnover is naturally high. New employees go through a Food Safety and Standards Program, which includes orientation and training, plus a 30-day on-the-job training program. Supervisors are all certified by the National Restaurant Association’s ServeSafe program, and the number of people put through the program has built a relationship between the park and NRA.

“There is no single location that certifies more people than we do,” Mason said.

During the off-season, NRA even used Cedar Point to film training videos for all its members. In previous years, NRA has had to visit multiple locations to get footage of the different foodservice outlets, but at the park there is at least one restaurant that could serve each category.

“Everything is here under one roof,” Mason said.

Seasonal Foodservice

One of the biggest challenges Cedar Point faces in its foodservice operations is the seasonality of the park. Each quick-service, full-service and serving cart are winterized and closed when the park closes in October, then have to be ready for operation again in May.

“The ‘downtime’ is almost non-existent,” Mason said.

There are 65 individual units in the park that have to open on the same day, in addition to training the staff and crews. But each season, nearly without hitch, everything is up and running despite a grueling schedule.

With millions of customers buying more than a few meals each visit, it’s not difficult to imaging what kind of profits could be seen by staying open all year. If the revenues were to be annualized, Mason said the restaurants would probably bring in hundreds of millions of dollars. But that’s just wishful thinking – the park sits on the shore of Lake Erie, a climate not hospitable to year-round outdoor amusement parks.

Ensuring Safety

With the number of guests that go through the park each season, Mason takes food safety very seriously. One lapse could mean hundreds or thousands of sick guests and damage to the company’s reputation as a fun, safe destination.

“We’re in a very delicate business,” he said.

Every foodservice location is required to keep hourly temperature logs on food and equipment. Even on slow days or rainy days, if the logs aren’t kept or the food temperatures stray outside their set range, the food won’t be served.

“We take every possible step to ensure our products are safe,” Mason said.

And that includes suppliers. Cedar Fair operates on a purchasing philosophy that makes decisions based on service, product and price – in that order. The most important aspect – service – includes food safety protocols, such as HACCP certification.

“We’re very stringent in that regard,” Mason said.

He also deals with suppliers that have a proven track record and can provide the quantity and quality needed for the park. For that reason, the park’s suppliers are all large foodservice providers with their own internal food safety controls.

The park conducts some testing throughout the season, but not specifically for contamination. Most tests are conducted for weight and consistency for specific products, such as the milk used in shakes at the Johnny Rockets franchise restaurant, Mason said.

If there’s one kink in the food safety armor, Mason said it would be the park’s produce. Even though the suppliers have controls and the park trains its employees, the voluntary efforts are not enough.
“The one area we do the best we can is in the produce area,” he said.

Mason said he would be more confident in the produce he buys if FDA set regulations on the harvest and production of fruit and vegetables.

“FDA guidelines are just that,” he said. “They are guidelines and not mandates.”

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