- Disney World debuted dozens of new menu items when its 50th anniversary celebration began last year.
- In fact, Disney chefs are always researching, creating, and testing items for menus and events.
- Insider spoke with Julia Thrash, one of the chefs who creates those items, to learn what her job entails.
As I sat in a restaurant at Disney World with a Monte Cristo sandwich in front of me, my first thought was: “Is that powdered sugar shimmering?” My second thought was: “How cool that they brought back a menu item from the day Disney World opened.”
Disney World chefs created dozens of new dishes, drinks, snacks, and desserts for the park’s 50th anniversary celebration last year, and they leaned heavily into the history of the park and the “EARidescent” color scheme Disney dreamt up for the occasion.
I had to know how they did it, so I went straight to the source and spoke with Chef Julia Thrash. Thrash manages 24 kitchens at the Magic Kingdom park, which service quick-service restaurants, outdoor vending carts, and special events.
Thrash has been cooking up magic in Disney World kitchens since 2009. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh, her journey began with the Disney College Program, and she worked at numerous parks and hotels at the resort before landing in her current role at Magic Kingdom.
No two days are the same, but every day starts with a morning meeting over coffee
“Things change very quickly in my role, but there are certain things that are happening every day,” Thrash told Insider. She begins each day with a morning coffee with her team so they can map out their plan for the day. From there, her team heads out into the park to visit the kitchens, talk to cast members (what Disney calls its employees), and get feedback from guests.
“It can be as simple as seeing someone eating a chicken sandwich and asking them how they like it,” Thrash said. Most of the time it’s great, but sometimes it’s not, and Thrash’s team needs that feedback because it lays the groundwork for “what’s next, what do we need to look at, and what do we need to change.”
Thrash also spends a lot of time in what she calls “the war room,” dreaming up blue-sky ideas for what’s next in Disney dining. A good part of her day is also spent in the kitchen actually creating the dishes coming down the pipeline in the next few months.
“A lot of my job isn’t the day-to-day operations,” Thrash said. “It’s checking in on things and then planning and doing research and development for future offerings.”
Creating fun, new menu items is very serious business
The process of creating new foods and drinks can begin nearly a year before they show up on restaurant menus.
“We have meetings with all of our teams prior to the launch of any new items … and it’s not just chef teams throwing out ideas,” Thrash said. It could be the person in the office next door, a front-of-house restaurant leader, or cast member from another department who sparks a new food concept because “food is a part of everyone’s life and everyone has a different view to offer,” Thrash said. “Gaining all of that information and bringing it into one central funnel helps us embellish on those great ideas.”
It can be up to a month into the process of honing those ideas before Thrash actually gets into the kitchen to start tinkering and figuring out how to turn her culinary fantasies into reality. Once it’s ready to taste, each item goes through an internal tasting process before getting the stamp of approval.
In some cases, new items may go on restaurant menus for a limited time so Thrash’s team can get feedback before unveiling them for a special event or giving them a permanent place on the menu.
“There are certain cases where we’ll pick a restaurant and put this special out for maybe a month-long test period,” Thrash said. “Then we make sure to have either a chef or front-of-house leader go to the table and get feedback from the guest so we can determine whether or not it’s a hit.”
The chef is well aware that you want your food to look good for Instagram
If you spend even a few minutes scrolling through the #DisneyFood or #DisneyEats on Instagram, you’ll see that people rarely take a bite of their Disney foods before snapping a photo. I’m definitely guilty of that. It’s hard to resist sharing photos of a bathtub full of ice cream or a waffle slathered with Nutella and berries, and Disney designs their dishes with that knowledge in mind.
“Ten years ago, photo-worthy food wasn’t even a thing,” Thrash said. “You would never see someone take out a phone at the dinner table and take a photo of it, but now it’s a huge part of what we do.”
Thrash compared finding the balance between delicious tasting food and photogenic food to creating a work of art. “A piece of art has many different layers that exist in there; different colors and textures,” she said. It’s the same with food. “We use fresh, high-quality ingredients and different layers and textures to make it eye-catching.”
In some cases, this quest for balance leads Thrash and her team to surprisingly delicious discoveries.
“We might start out knowing we want to put certain colors on the plate and then thinking about which ingredients we can use to achieve that color,” she told us. “Sometimes, there’s this unique thing that happens where we put together a flavor combination we wouldn’t have thought about otherwise.”
I know she wasn’t directly referring to the hot dog from Casey’s Corner that I had on Disney World’s 50th anniversary, but if you’d told me strawberry-bacon jam, funnel cake pieces, and powdered sugar would pair so well with a hot dog, I wouldn’t have believed you until I tasted it for myself (and polished off every last crumb).
The food had to look extra special for Disney World’s 50th Anniversary
Whenever there’s a special event on the horizon that requires new food and beverage items, Thrash’s team will get a “snippet of information” and then use that information to gain inspiration for the event. In the case of Disney World’s 50th anniversary, that meant leaning into the park’s rich history and the “EARidescent” shimmery gold, blue, and purple color scheme Disney used in decor and costumes throughout the anniversary festivities.
With Thrash, I had to get that one question answered that had been on my mind since my visit to Magic Kingdom for the 50th: How did they make the food shimmer like that?
Turns out, it all goes back to Disney’s rigorous menu development process.
“We actually did some R&D and created this iridescent edible powder,” Thrash said. “It’s almost the consistency of powdered sugar, but it has a shimmer effect to it. We knew iridescence was a huge part of the celebration and we want to bring that into food and beverage, as well.”
And, because it’s flavorless, they can use it just about anywhere to enhance a dish (or drink) and really make it pop. “It’s just kind of cool to play with so we started putting it in different things,” Thrash said. It was used to create a shimmery “EARidescent Sip-a-Bration” drink and also sprinkled on cupcakes, donuts, and even a Monte Cristo sandwich.
Like most things at Disney World, there’s more to the story than what you see on the surface
“There is a backstory to every food item for the 50th anniversary,” Thrash said. “First and foremost, we are a storytelling company. We’re all about that and we want to make sure that we’re being true to who we are.”
The aforementioned Monte Cristo was actually an opening-day item served at the Town Square Cafe (now Tony’s Town Square Restaurant). Thrash’s team knows that every guest who visits the park won’t know that backstory, so the iridescent powder served as a more obvious tie-in to the 50th anniversary that can give the new menu items a little extra flair.
Another perfect example are the Firehouse Doughnuts served at Tony’s Town Square. “The story behind that dish is, it’s themed to the fire engine on Main Street that you can see across the way at the Main Street Fire Station,” Thrash said.
To weave in those historic details, Thrash has done a lot of research over the past few years. She’s dug into items from the Walt Disney Archives and even gone on backstage tours at the parks.
“I’m a huge history buff,” she said, “so being able to look through the archives and read about the history was amazing.”
Next time I dine at Disney World, I’ll look at my food in a whole new way
Knowing the thought and care that goes into creating new Disney World dishes, I’m sure I’ll be thinking about everything I’ve learned before I take a bite. After snapping a photo for Instagram, of course.