Fandom Files #6: Eating food at Disney World as a full-time job? It's possible!

Presenters
Dec 11, 2017

AJ Wolfe has an encyclopedic knowledge of all the restaurants and food items at Disney Parks, with on-demand expertise on matters ranging from breakfast menus at Orlando resorts to dessert orders available at Tokyo Disneyland. As the founder and proprietor of the DisneyFoodBlog.com, she's an authoritative source on the culinary offerings at Disney's many theme parks and hotels, her knowledge so deep that she can identify a restaurant with only the slightest, foggiest clues — even clues based on the fractured remains of a decade-old memory.

We know this because we tested her. When The Fandom Files co-host Emily Gaudette described a meal she shared with her parents nearly 15 years ago, and could only remember that the restaurant "was on the water and it had a Wild West theme," Wolfe did not hesitate. "It sounds like Whispering Canyon Café, in the Wilderness Lodge," she instantly replied, identifying the buffet-style restaurant where Emily's mother had gotten drunk during a family trip to Disney World back during the first term of the second Bush presidency. 

Wolfe herself grew up visiting Disney World, but her obsession really started later on in life, when she began escaping the harsh, relentless reality of New York for the welcoming fantasy of the micromanaged theme parks. "I started racking up my credit card bills going down to Disney World, because it was so clean and pristine and everything was nice and there were no cockroaches anywhere," she recalls in a conversation with Gaudette and SYFY WIRE Features Editor Jordan Zakarin in the latest episode of The Fandom Files. "I realized I love food, and I started planning my Disney trips around the food instead of around the rides or the attractions or the characters."

 

Disney fans had been building websites and discussing the theme parks since the inception of the consumer internet, and by 2007 there were already entrenched leaders in the fan community, quasi-celebrities unto themselves (it's a small world). Most experts, many of whom doubled as guidebook authors or travel agents or full-time nostalgists, lived near Orlando and Anaheim and offered breathless updates about every little development in the parks and resorts, from changes to fan-favorite rides to changes in scaffolding design.

But Wolfe, when she was back in New York between trips (both solo and with her roommate), started to notice a seam in the market: There were no websites devoted to chronicling the food found in Disney World and Disneyland, at least not with any acceptable frequency. The opportunity was obvious to her, and her circumstances made starting her own site devoted exclusively to Disney food — hence the URL — an even more logical move. By 2008, she was married to a computer programmer who had his own digital resources, and so all in all, why not?

"We were going to Disney anyway and buying this stuff, and we always spent too much money on food," she remembers, laughing. "Plus, he had servers set up already, so those expenses were already taken care of. It wasn't that expensive to do in the beginning."

The real challenges, at least at first, were generating interest and finding food worthy of coverage. This was back in the very early days of social media, two years before the launch of Instagram, the ultimate hive of food photos, and three years before Twitter would allow users to attach a photo to their messages. The modern foodie movement was only just beginning, and while Disney often leads the way in technological innovation and certainly has a dominant hand in shaping our pop culture (you hear that a new Star Wars is coming out this week?), it was slower on the culinary uptake.

"They did have their higher-end restaurants … but the rest was just there," Wolfe says of Disney World's food scene at the time. "People were eating the hockey-puck burgers. It was just bad."

By 2009, Wolfe's part-time passion project became her full-time focus when she lost her day job amid the Great Recession. She credits her husband, who co-owns the site, for spotting the opportunity and encouraging her to take the plunge. His computer skills allowed them to ultimately build and host sites for other people, which they do under the Cambrick Yard banner. And most importantly, their timing couldn't have been better.

 

Though she hesitates to take credit for the development, Wolfe's site and Disney's emphasis on food have grown in tandem, feeding one another in different ways. Though Disney has been putting on the Epcot Food & Wine Festival for decades, it has begun to focus on its other restaurants and events, with healthier options in resorts and a massive makeover for Disney World's downtown area, now rechristened Disney Springs.

In turn, DisneyFoodBlog has over half a million Facebook fans and over 213,000 Instagram followers, a massive audience for a niche that Wolfe largely invented herself. She also publishes several e-book guides per year, offering visitors succinct recommendations for eating in parks that are often far more expensive than outside restaurants and eateries.

Wolfe is now based in Dallas and says she visits Disney World about eight times a year and Disneyland two or three times, depending on events and other calendar considerations. Her staff of contributors, however, are in the parks every single day, trying out the ever-rotating menus at the 300+ eateries across the world; Wolfe, in fact, was just at Tokyo Disneyland, which she believes has the best food of all Disney Parks.

Running the site is no longer a cheap, experimental venture in fandom. While she works well with Disney, Wolfe also takes pains to keep her distance, eschewing most offers of free food and park admission, and always disclosing on her site when an article is informed by such an arrangement. And yet, again, it's a small world, so she sometimes has trouble retaining anonymity … especially when it comes time to testing out a new menu.

"A lot of the Disney World chefs follow my blog and follow my newsletter," she admits. "And if they know that I'm in Disney World and realize there's some weird girl ordering a bunch of food, sometimes they'll come out and ask if that's who I am. Usually I order whatever interests me on the menu, which is usually almost everything, so there have been times I've gone and ordered the whole menu."

 

The Disney community is as divided as any group of intensely passionate people. There are people like Wolfe, who chronicle and embrace the changes to the ever-expanding theme parks; and there are the nostalgists, who see the parks as a collective holy land, and would rather see them forever encased in amber, preserved exactly as however they think Walt Disney intended them look (never mind that he passed in 1966).

That schism expresses itself most in debates over park expansion — any slight adjustment made to accommodate the massive new Star Wars parks is heavily litigated by fans — but it also factors into discussions about food. Most of the focus there is on the introduction of alcohol to the parks, which has slowly become the norm in most Disney territories. Walt Disney did not want liquor in the parks, a more than half-century-old stance that has sparked the ongoing controversy.

"When they opened new Fantasyland in 2012, they opened Be Our Guest restaurant — still probably the most popular restaurant in Disney World — they announced that they were going to serve beer and wine," Wolfe recalls. "When they announced they were going to start serving beer and wine at that one restaurant it was a big deal, it was a very big deal. Now, Disney's not upset about it, because they just brought more alcohol to five more restaurants in the Magic Kingdom last year, and pretty soon I think you're going to be able to get alcohol just about everywhere."

That's OK with Wolfe, who jokes that all of her favorite meals in Disney involve alcohol. "I've never had a problem getting completely wasted in a Disney park," she says, laughing.

Epcot is her number one food park right now — unsurprising given its focus on international fare — and each of her recommendations come with a drink order. "The UK Pavilion has some really good fish and chips, and they've got a really fun pub there," she offers. "I would actually direct you more to the offshoots like the pub in the UK, they've got a really good margarita, they've got a really good tequila bar in Mexico."

If she could pick one meal, Wolfe doesn't hesitate in naming a few menu items at Cafe Orleans in Disneyland. "I would have the Monte Cristo and the Pommes Frites and then Mickey Beignets for dessert."

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