By Carlye Wisel
May 02, 2016
Credit: Matt Shoshane

Walt Disney World tends to be known for its magic, so naturally, it makes sense that its kitchen would have a sprinkle of fairy dust up its sleeve, too. Turns out there’s now a place where the best-of-the-best new dining offerings are being dreamt up, well beyond what Ratatouille himself could have created.

Welcome to the Flavor Lab, an impressive new kitchen facility where Walt Disney Parks and Resorts develop the exciting new foods, drinks, desserts, and cocktails Disney die-hards will be enjoying and Instagramming for years to come. It’s here, in an unmarked 7,000-square foot facility that opened in November, where they develop all of the food for future endeavors, from the multicultural signature restaurant Tiffins coming to Animal Kingdom to the Quebec-style poutine stand opening in downtown district Disney Springs.

The facility allows a team of experts on staff to communicate directly with fellow chefs at Disneyland, Imagineers in California, and even other parks around the world, but there’s plenty more interesting details we found out besides how the place actually runs. While on a behind-the-scenes tour, we nabbed all the dirt on how the (literal) sausage is made, from new menu items coming later this year to the staggering amount of work that goes into a single cocktail winding up in guests’ hand, and much more.

Credit: Matt Shoshane

Walt Disney World sells an astonishing variety of drinks.

In 2015, over 600 different beers, 900 different spirits, and 2,600 different wines were sold within the Florida parks. Though most guests may not realize, the team expands upon the entire globe for their beverages— Epcot’s Food and Wine and Flower and Garden festivals bring in large lineups of culturally diverse drink offerings twice yearly and Jiko - The Cooking Place inside Animal Kingdom Lodge hotel boasts the largest collection of South African wines outside of the actual territory. Wondering what sells best? Chardonnay is ordered the most overall and Cabernet is the most popular red. While the parks sell more beer than wine, likely due to Florida’s humid weather, signature restaurants often sell more wine than other beverage options. Cheers!

The least caloric thing you’re eating in the parks could be the whipped cream.

When the beverage team developed LeFou’s Brew, the signature drink served at Gaston’s Tavern in the Magic Kingdom, they topped off the 100% Minute Maid apple juice-based frozen drink with a dollop of Fomz, a natural fruit-based cream product that only has four calories per serving.

Credit: Matt Shoshane

To get a coveted job at a place this serious about food, you need to win a Chopped-style challenge.

Seriously! Once new talent makes it through a structured interview process, they take a live “skill validation” test which includes either a mystery basket, a box of proteins or simply carte blanche to use whatever is leftover in the cooler. The chefs will write a four-course menu and cook four portions of each for a set of executive chefs within a two-hour time frame. They don’t tend to go up against competing applicants, so it’s a little different from the show, but we’re told their start and end times may slightly overlap. Drama!

Disney pays crazy-attention to what’s trending out in the food world, but those trends may not enter the parks so quickly if they don’t fit the “story.”

Unlike traditional restaurants or bars which have free reign, everything within Disney World has to tie back to an original concept—so Tiffins, the new signature restaurant coming to Animal Kingdom isn’t just an upscale restaurant within a theme park, it offers a menu featuring items created specifically to match what the Imagineers tasted, touched, and saw during their journeys to Asia, Africa, and South America while planning the park. (This is how they were able to justify a new, trendy Mezcal cocktail within its attached lounge!)

Credit: Matt Shoshane

Until the Flavor Lab was built, the process of creating drinks was basically like inviting yourself over for a potluck.

Beverage directors would head to supplier’s facilities, like Coca Cola in Atlanta or Monin in Tampa and develop their drinks there. It goes to show that partnerships are a big deal here, something you’ll notice if you close-read what’s in the parks’ most popular drinks.

For a cocktail to be sold on Disney property, it essentially has to be the valedictorian of its class.

When creating a new menu, the Disney Parks & Resorts team will let every beverage vendor know that they’re looking for and have a presentation day where over 100 recipes are narrowed to 30. Once those are set, they’ll bring them in and have management and Imagineers sample and decide their favorites. Once their favorites are picked, they evaluate if those drinks can be made year-round or just seasonally, if the ingredients can even be obtained, and if they can serve 80-100 each day. The list is narrowed and narrowed until the best of the best are picked and brought into the bar, restaurant, or park it was developed for.

Credit: Matt Shoshane

The Food & Beverage Teams at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts take plenty of steps to make sure food and drinks are uniform.

This causes them to bypass a lot of celebrity mixologist’s creations for simply having too many steps, making them unexecutable. Even the kitchen equipment is chosen for continuity, allowing the chefs to program time and temperature beforehand and utilize the machinery’s USB port to transfer data to the operations staff so nothing goes wrong when they take over the kitchen. Seems like a lot of planning, but with 490 food service locations in Florida and over 150 in California, it’s necessary.

There is just as much focus on non-alcoholic drinks as there is on booze.

While touring the space, we heard of a “hot chocolate program” coming to Disney Springs’ forthcoming Aristocrepes kiosk and tasted a new watermelon lemonade which is being introduced based on the success of other lemonades at Harambe Market within Animal Kingdom—not to mention the diversity of kid-friendly drinks throughout Epcot and within the resorts.

Here’s how to build a restaurant, Disney-style.

It all starts with a story, which is a concept that will remain the core of the project. Once that’s set, a “blue sky” menu is created and the kitchen design can begin. (Food comes first, equipment comes second.) Plenty of rounds of brainstorming come next in order to figure out what kind of service they’ll offer, and the dishes continually change, becoming refined and reworked and possibly not even making it onto the final menu at all. Up next, Operations offers feedback, and the team ensures the menu is balanced for all kinds of gluten-intolerant, meat-preferring, healthily-inclined or allergy eaters. As long as there are options for everyone, they’re good to proceed to the final menu status—all said and done, the team could spend anywhere from 18 months to two years working on a single concept.