Delectable for the 'Gram
Step No. 1: Purchase the latest Instagram-worthy cupcake from Main Street Bakery inside Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort.
Step No. 2: Proceed to Cinderella Castle and wait for the crowd to part.
Step No. 3: Take approximately 15 to 30 photos of the cupcake, slightly adjusting angle, position, and filter each time—and don’t forget portrait mode.
Step No. 4: Review photos to ensure you’ve captured the perfect one, only to realize that it was photobombed by an awkward tourist in a crooked Goofy hat.
Step No. 5: Repeat steps No. 3 and No. 4 above.
Step No. 6: Finally enjoy the cupcake you bought 23 minutes ago.
The truth is, social media users aren’t the only ones posting that cupcake to Instagram hoping it goes viral. In fact, culinary leaders from Disney parks around the world are counting on it.
“We go over every detail of an item before it is launched,” says chef Robert Gilbert, culinary director for Magic Kingdom Park in Orlando. “Especially how photogenic something is or isn’t.”
After all, what’s the point of “doing it for the ’Gram” if the subject of the photo does not jump off your screen?
When it comes to guests at Disney theme parks and resorts, “doing it for the ’Gram” means planning or staging a photo that will draw attention from other Instagram users, compelling them to like and engage with the post.
For Disney culinary leaders, that means evaluating social media trends, tracking which items do or do not perform well online and, ultimately, creating food and beverage options they know will look great on camera.
“People are most likely to post images and stories about dining experiences they feel have ‘wow value,’” says Manfred Wong, director of food and beverage at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort. “So, it’s really no surprise there is plenty of social media activity showing our guests enjoying a masterpiece from a Disney chef or a delightful dessert in the shape of their favorite Disney character.”
Just as other Disney cast members create magic all around Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Gilbert and his team are the brains behind some of Magic Kingdom’s greatest Instagram wins of the last several years.
According to Gilbert, the culinary team found success with the park’s variety of ice cream cones.
At last year’s Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at Magic Kingdom Park, the Maleficent ice cream cone—featuring a charcoal-black waffle cone, lime soft serve, purple sugar sprinkles, and two chocolate horns—practically stole the show in terms of Instagram fame for the season.
Even though he helps create the items and always hopes for the best, Gilbert feels a wave of genuine excitement when something is received better than expected.
“The one that really surprised us was the popularity of the Peter Pan Float at Storybook Treats,” he says. “It seemed to explode overnight on social media, and we could not have been more thrilled.”
On United States’ West Coast, savory treats have been hits with Groot bread, inspired by the tree-like character from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and the Mickey Chinese hot dog bun, which was featured during the park’s recent Lunar New Year event, lauded on social media, according to Chef John State, culinary director at Disneyland Resort in California.
In recent years, Disney has received serious Instagram love, partially thanks to the imaginative food and drink they’ve been producing.
“Every time one of our guests visits our parks or resorts, they create a story of their own that they would like to share on social media,” says Gilbert. “Over the past few years, we have seen this trend continue to grow at a rate no one would have ever imagined.”
Generally speaking, Disney parks are Instagram favorites, claiming four spots on the platform’s “Most-Instagrammed locations of 2017” list (the latest year figures are available). Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland, Magic Kingdom Park, and Disney California Adventure Park took the No. 1, No. 5, No. 6, and No. 9 spots, respectively.
Hashtags used specifically to tag Disney offerings, such as “#DisneyEats,” “#DisneyFood,” and “#DisneyFoodie,” collectively account for more than 475,000 hits on Instagram.
Although the food and beverage development process varies from park to park, each destination shares a common connection: a vast pool of characters and intellectual property to use as inspiration.
“We take inspiration from our attractions and entertainment,” says State. “We work closely with our internal partners so guests have the opportunity to fill their to-do list with not just which attraction to ride or which show to watch, but how many places can they eat at today?”
State and Gilbert, who often collaborate on projects and share ideas, agree that Disney’s rich history of storytelling and character development is one of the best advantages it has as a company.
“The Walt Disney Company was built on storytelling,” says Gilbert. “Through mediums of entertainment elements such as live action, film, TV, music, attractions, merchandise, and food and beverage, there is always something new.”
Wong says the 700-plus culinary cast members at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort tap into Disney stories and themes to create more than 300 annual seasonal offerings.
Beyond determining what character or merchandising synergy opportunities exist, deciding on menu items includes spending time determining how a proposed item fits into a park and how guests will take dozens of photos of it before even enjoying their purchase.
“We not only consider eatability, seasonality, and sustainability of an item, but also the color, shape, size, and how do we feel it will be received on social media,” says Gilbert.
Where an item would be placed in a park is important, too.
“Whatever the concept we are working on, we keep in mind the total food and beverage portfolio of the park to make sure it flows and makes sense,” says Gilbert.
All that’s to say one thing: Disney’s culinary cast members are always thinking about more than just how good something tastes.
“As an example,” Gilbert says, “Do we have the right color purple for an item to be sold [and] to be paired with our photogenic ‘Purple Wall?’” The purple wall, located to the right of the entrance into Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom Park, has become a sought-after photo backdrop for guests to share on social media with the hashtag “#purplewall.”
State says his team has learned what it takes for an item to get the greenlight. And the process—the hardest of which is “editing down ideas”—has become streamlined now that they’ve done it for a while.
“My goal is for everyone in the room to learn from each other,” State says. “What used to be multiple tastings are now just a few.”
Of course, there have been some less-than-successful items, too.
According to Gilbert, the Scrooge McDuck eggnog custard dessert on the recent Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party menus did not deliver the results he was hoping for.
“When we do find those opportunities when an item is just not resonating with our guests, [and] is not as popular, we look at changing it out and bringing back something even bigger and better,” he says.
The speed at which items are created fluctuates at each Disney property, but each one aligns with the overall distinct branding Disney Parks are known for.
“The appreciation of food is universal, and dining is unquestionably an important element of any travel experience,” says Wong. “At Disney Parks, creating memorable and once-in-a-lifetime experiences is high up on our mission statement.”