May 25--The way to Disney World visitors' hearts may be through their stomachs. Not coincidentally, that also may be a route to their pocketbooks.
The resort is introducing a number of food-driven entertainment options that encourage guests to linger at theme parks, chow down and spend more.
Already underway this spring are the IllumiNations Sparkling Dessert Party at Epcot -- which mixes sweets with an exclusive viewing spot for the park's fireworks show -- and the Epcot After-Hours Wind Down, which allows patrons to stay after the end-of-night fireworks to drink and eat in one of four venues at World Showcase.
The dessert party costs $49 per adult, and the Wind Down is $35 per person, in addition to regular Epcot admission.
Coming next month to Disney's Animal Kingdom is "Harambe Nights," an after-hours dinner show and street party tied to the 20th anniversary of the company's animated film "The Lion King." Admission is $119 per adult, and there's a premium-seat option for $134.
The combination of food and entertainment has long had a place at Disney World, ranging from character breakfasts to the Party for the Senses, an add-on to the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. But the new offerings are end-of-day events designed to extend visitor stays -- and their spending windows.
"What Disney World sells is an experience, more than anything else. This is another flavor of that," said Kevin Yee, an Orlando-based author and blogger who writes about Disney.
"It's selling exclusive and it's selling experience, but it's using existing assets," he said. "They're not putting in a lot of risk in doing this -- unless it doesn't sell at all."
Epcot's Wind Down, offered Thursdays through Sundays until Sept. 15, features select appetizers and a flight of drinks at outlets within the United Kingdom, Mexico, Morocco and Italy pavilions. It begins at 9:20 p.m. -- when the IllumiNations fireworks show wraps up -- and ends at 11 p.m. Visitors without Wind Down reservations are not allowed in the lounges.
"There's a certain cache to being allowed in the park after hours," said Debra Martin Koma, editor of AllEars, an independent newsletter about Disney World attractions and events. "I liked the idea of having the pub to ourselves. ... Usually you can't get into the pub, it's so crowded."
Koma, who said she has been at Disney's Animal Kingdom after normal operating hours for private special events, said the "Harambe Nights" experience should feel special to guests
"It is a very cool vibe" in the park after dark, she said.
"Harambe Nights," which is scheduled to run Saturday nights from June 7 through Aug. 9, includes a reception, a new stage show celebrating "The Lion King" and an outdoors after-party that has 25 food stations stocked with Africa-inspired fare.
Robert Gilbert, executive chef of catering operations for Walt Disney World, said he expects "Harambe Nights" to be a draw for foodies as well as "Lion King" fans.
Orlando is "becoming a food destination, and we want to make sure this event leans on that and it makes the local area proud of what we're trying to accomplish as professional chefs," Gilbert said.
The after-dark event at Animal Kingdom could create anticipation for future park attractions, including the announced nighttime spectacular called "Rivers of Light" and an area based on the film "Avatar," Yee said. Animal Kingdom, the youngest of Disney World's four parks, has a reputation in some quarters of being less than a full-day experience. The park typically closes by 7 p.m.
"It's a multipronged ... approach to getting rid of the half-day image," Yee said.
In the short term, the new summer offerings also give guests an alternative to the Downtown Disney entertainment complex, which has several construction projects underway and presents traffic challenges as it's rethemed as Disney Springs, Yee said.
"Their usual go-to in downtown Disney is not a good option right now."
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5477
(c)2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services