In today’s meetings and events scene, the F&B business is show business, and nowhere is this more evident than with the top-shelf team at Disney Catered Events.

The catering theater staged by Disney is worthy of a Hollywood production, or in this case, Walt Disney World, with Culinary Director John Clark in a leading role.

And for Clark, as the saying goes, business is good.

“The total number of events for us in 2018 was 19,200,” Clark said of the blockbuster amount of business in the four Disney parks he supervises. “We have about 10,000 events per year, through our catering line of business, at Walt Disney World.”

The extensive list of Disney facilities Clark works with on catered events includes:

Epcot, Magic Kingdom Park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park; five resort hotels: Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club Resorts, Disney’s BoardWalk, Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort and Disney Contemporary Resort; and two waterparks: Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park.

Operating out of a central kitchen located in Epcot, food is trucked to the locations and finished on-site. But although the numbers are somewhat staggering, it’s not the logistics that turn diners’ heads.

[Featured Recipe: Mickey-Shaped Vegetable Frittata by Chef John Clark]

The food operation is but one player on the stage, with Disney Events Group (DEG) directing the associated theatrics that people expect at any Disney-fueled affair.

“We have the ability to really blow it out and make it an interactive experience for events,” said Clark, who wrote the menu for a small “showcase” of what the Disney team can do during a reception at the annual IMEX America event, held in a suite at The Venetian Las Vegas in October 2018.

Clark’s stagecraft for that event included a number of twists and turns that craftily played with people’s perceptions of standard reception fare. Think dessert eclairs that are filled with salmon mousse, or “cream puffs” that snuck in a mushroom filling.

The idea was to serve savory fare in place of the sweet tastes one would associate with a dessert table, with all the actual ingredients shown, of course, for any dietary considerations.

Over-the-top theatrics also play a starring role in the production.

“From the food end we find out what the clients want, and if there’s an over-arching story line, that’s when my team interacts with the sales rep, the client and DEG to spin that whole story of what they want,” Clark said. “Normally, you might meet the sales manager and the chef.

“We have the ability to put together a group to tell your story,” he added.

Examples have included a Monsters, Inc. party at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, in which DEG built an entire Monsters, Inc. warehouse with themed food and a show that unfolded throughout the evening.

“It’s not just sit at your table and get your food and go,” Clark said. “That just speaks to our resources. It takes it one step more than you’re going to get anywhere else. We can tell your story stronger than most places can. We can bring in characters into each room. We can take you into a park.

“We can take you into [ESPN] Wide World of Sports or Typhoon Lagoon Water Park,” he added.

Group Dining Trends at Disney and Beyond

A 34-year Walt Disney World culinary veteran, Clark noted trends he’s implementing at his venues.

“We’re seeing a lot more emphasis on small plates. There are more choices and smaller sizes so [participants] can taste more,” he said, adding that culinary is more and more becoming an integral part of event entertainment, with chefs being called out front to finish dishes and set up chef stations for carving meat, serving pasta dishes and even nitro stations for exotic cocktails and desserts.

“Traditionally, for a buffet you come in and they’re lined up,” Clark said. “Our emphasis is we set up stations and those stations are finished by a culinarian up front so they can talk to them.

“Boy, when you put it out there the guests just love it,” he added. “We’re spinning the same story you would get in a table-service restaurant in a banquet environment.”

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