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50 Years of Walt Disney World Food and Beverage – Interview with Karen McClintock

Walt Disney World, the largest theme park in the world, first opened its doors on Oct. 1, 1971 – 50 years ago. Today, Walt Disney World is home to four theme parks, two waterparks, golf courses, a shopping destination and 27 resort hotels, leaving an indelible mark on Central Florida’s economy and culture – from hospitality to food and beverage.

As the 50th anniversary celebration at Walt Disney World continues to run through the end of 2022, we spoke with Karen McClintock, Global Public Relations Manager – Food & Beverage – Content Creation & Digital Integration for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products about the food and beverage scene at Disney – how it has changed over the years and where it is going next.

Tasty Chomps Q and A With Karen McClintock, Walt Disney World 

Tasty Chomps: Looking back over the years, what are some seminal / breakthrough foodie moments at Disney World that you remember most?

Karen McClintock: In the early years, food and beverage at Disney was mainly considered an amenity except for a few locations, notably Victoria & Albert’s and restaurants at EPCOT such as Les Chefs de France opened by French culinary legends Roger Vergé, Gaston Lenôtre, and Paul Bocuse. But overall, the culinary highlights for many were hot dogs, hamburgers, and churros! Here are just two seminal moments, in my opinion, for Disney Food & Beverage.

First, in 1995, the perception of Disney dining drastically changed when we opened California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. This was a cutting-edge restaurant – especially for a theme park – catching the attention of the culinary world and, of course, our guests, paving the way for many other elevated dining experiences – both table- and quick-service – at all Disney sites.

Second, in 1996, the first EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival was held, and it was such a groundbreaking moment for Disney Food & Beverage. (I coordinated the earlier 4-day “wine festivals” for several years for Disney’s Food & Wine Society. At that time, we thought those wine “festivals” were soooo busy with only a few thousand attending each day! Hahahaha!)

The cultural backdrop and expansiveness of EPCOT made it the perfect venue. Food Network had debuted a few years prior, so it was the ideal combination of the culinary talent and creativity from the Disney chefs and sommeliers for all the marketplace offerings and the “celebrity” chef element. A highlight for me was meeting Julia Child, an honored attendee for a benefit gala in 1997.

How has the philosophy of food and beverage transformed, evolved, revolutionized over the past 5 decades?

The overall Disney philosophy of creating unforgettable stories, experiences, and products that capture the imagination of generations of people around the world, extends to Disney Food & Beverage. To that end, we have evolved and transformed through the years with various areas of focus with the ultimate goal of making every guest feel special.

Choices and options with great diversity
• We offer so many diverse dining choices and options – from food trucks to Five Diamonds – that enable our guests to choose what satisfies their cravings at their convenience and budget.
• We feel guests with food allergies and special diets should also have choices and options. Disney strives to be an industry leader in serving guests with food allergies and special diets. Disney guests can find hundreds of plant-based offerings on menus by looking for the plant-based menu icon, a green leaf.

Blending cuisine with storytelling
• Our guests are immersed in Disney stories at our themed restaurants, making these dining experiences distinctly Disney.

Environmental stewardship
• The Walt Disney Company’s commitment to environmentality goes back to our founding more than 90 years ago. Walt himself said that “Conservation isn’t just the business of a few people. It’s a matter that concerns all of us.”

o Maximize energy efficiencies and provide plant-based and plant-forward options on menus.
o Conserve water resources in kitchens and serve 100% sustainable seafood.
o Prevent food waste and optimize recycling programs and Disney Harvest donations.
o Continue to reduce single-use plastics and replace them with sustainable materials when possible.
o Drive environmental efficiencies and sustainable design for our food and beverage facilities.

• Technology through the years has brought our food and beverage operations to a whole new level for safety, efficiency, and quality. This includes mobile order, inventory controls, and HACCAP controls.

Lots of new openings here with the new space themed restaurant at Epcot, Steakhouse 71, La Creperie… what are some other upcoming plans for food and beverage in the near future?

The Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser is exciting, taking food and beverage to a whole new level. (Sorry – can’t reveal details quite yet – but here is a link to the blog post!)

What are some of your favorite “Disney” food memories over the years as a part of the team?

I started my career with Disney in 1992, so I was fortunate to be on the ground floor of an exciting and transformational time for Disney Food & Beverage. It was a small but mighty team led by Dieter Hannig (vice president of Food & Beverage), responsible for so many incredible concepts that shaped food and beverage across all Disney sites. Those early years, when we opened California Grill and the unique restaurants at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, as well as the reimagination of Cítricos and ‘Ohana, were truly memorable. We all knew we were part of something extraordinary.

Starting in these early years, I was fortunate enough to partner with Pam Brandon, a former publicist with Disney PR, current Edible Orlando editor and cookbook author. Pam and I have collaborated on 20+ Disney cookbooks over the years. We have hosted multiple media events in Florida, California, and New York City at the esteemed James Beard House. We have even coordinated events on a farm – Edible Orlando’s Field to Feast event with Disney chefs cooking on Long and Scott Farm to benefit Second Harvest Kid’s Café! All great highlights as we both have a passion for telling the Disney Food & Beverage story.

Tell us about your time in Shanghai! What are some lessons and things learned that you took back from that trip?

Opening Shanghai Disney Resort was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. To open this beautiful resort was so much fun and so much work! I was there for over four months working alongside our Shanghai cast members and fellow cast members from Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort. We did not have too much downtime, but when we did, exploring Shanghai and surrounding cities was simply amazing – especially with other foodies.

I know it sounds (Disney) cliché, but it really is a small world – especially in the food and beverage world! You can accomplish anything with talented and passionate people with a common goal and vision – regardless of cultural differences.

Images Courtesy of Walt Disney World


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