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Sangria blood bags: Theme parks use Halloween to take #foodporn a step further

At Universal Studios Hollywood, one of the most popular drinks for the Halloween season is the Mind Flayer’s Milkshake, a strawberry and chocolate concoction topped with a black waffle cone and adorned with licorice to resemble the giant spider-like creature featured in the Netflix series “Stranger Things.”

A lemon-filled macaron, decorated with icing to depict a vampire alien, is a hot seller at the Disneyland Resort during the fall celebration of all things spooky.

Meanwhile, at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, park visitors are chugging down a sangria drink served in what resembles an IV blood bag.

Such over-the-top treats and beverages represent a growing effort by Southern California theme parks to entice parkgoers to snap and share food images on social media sites and generate some buzz for the parks on platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Theme park foods are typically decadent and high calorie but park executives say they unveil the most outrageous dishes for Halloween to be part of the hugely popular photo-sharing activity known as Foodstagramming.

“Halloween gives us an opportunity to be a little bit playful,” said Modesto Alcala, senior vice president of food and beverages at Universal Studios Hollywood. “We say food is an attraction here.”

That might explain why the Disneyland Resort recently issued a Halloween food guide that lists more than 100 items, including the Boogie Man Sundae (mint chocolate, hot fudge and gummy candies), the Minnie Witch Shake (mint chocolate shake with purple whipped cream and Oreo cookies) and the Haul-O-Ween Churro (chocolate-covered churro with green sauce and gummy worms).

Six Flags Magic Mountain blood bag
Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia is selling a sangria drink in what looks like an IV blood bag.
(Six Flags Magic Mountain )

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“Among our guiding principles is to create a destination and make it social media and Instagram worthy,” said Michele Gendreau, food and beverage director for the Disneyland Resort.

To make sure the parks get recognized on social media images, Universal Studios Hollywood includes the tags #UniversalHHN and @HorrorNights on the map to the park’s Halloween mazes. Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia posts the hashtags #Frightfest and #Thrillcapitaloftheworld on signs throughout the park.

The goal is simple: create edible monstrosities that bring attention to parks on social media and, in the process, sell tons of chocolate churros, lemon-flavored macarons and blood bags full of sangria.

Theme parks in North America typically generate about 25% of their revenue from food and beverages, according to the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions. But that rate increases during holidays such as Halloween, industry insiders say.

“Many parks are now very proactive and strategic about the development of some menu items, ensuring they are designed for Instagram,” said Ken Whiting, a theme park food consultant and vice chair of the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions. “It helps to get the word out on new menu items, and leverages digital marketing efforts.”

The prices for some of the extreme dishes can be steep, with the Mind Flayer’s Milkshake at Universal Studios Hollywood selling for $11.79. Disneyland’s Mummy Donut costs $8.99 and the Vampire Alien Macaron is priced at $5.99.

Smoked Bat Wings, a treat from Knott’s Scary Farm
Smoked Bat Wings are among the Halloween dishes served at Knott’s Berry Farm.
(Knott’s Berry Farm)

The social media trend of posting food photos exploded several years ago and has yet to show any signs of abating. The hashtag #foodporn — a popular tag that accompanies tantalizing food images — now appears alongside 209 million posts on Instagram, up from 122 million posts in 2017.

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According to a 2018 survey of 21,000 people by Facebook, 46% of Instagram users in the U.S. say they like to see and share content about food and drinks, making it Instagram’s most popular topic.

At Southern California theme parks, visitors can often be seen gripping a frosty drink or balancing a plate of food in one hand while snapping a smartphone photo with the other.

At Disney California Adventure Park, Millie Kattenhorn, an emergency room nurse from Reno, stood outside of a food booth called Schmoozies on a recent weekday, snapping photos of a Caramel Apple Smoothie — a messy green drink featuring a caramel apple lollipop — before posting it on social media.

“I’m a big hashtagger,” she said.

Nearby, Elaina Perez, a pharmacy technician from San Jose, was training her smartphone camera on her Minnie Witch Shake — a mint chocolate shake with a candy bow tie and Oreo cookie ears. She admitted that she bought the shake because it was visually appealing, not so much for the taste.

“It looks amazing,” Perez said.

At a table a few feet away, Rich Ramos and his wife, Monica, from Santa Clara snapped photos of their 4-year-old son, Richie, as he attacked a Haul-O-Ween Churro in all its green-sauced, gummy-worm glory.

“He thought the churro with worms was pretty cool,” Ramos said of his son.

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Monica Ramos holds a picture she made of her son, Richie Ramos, 4, with a Haul-O-Ween Churro at Disney California Adventure Park.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

At the Queen Mary in Long Beach, the Halloween celebration that features scary mazes and circus-themed performances around the 83-year-old ocean liner has a more adult theme, and so cocktails, not sugary sweets, get most of the attention.

In fact, the annual spectacle called Dark Harbor has installed bars along the queue lines and hidden inside the mazes. A few years ago, Dark Harbor built a cocktail bar inside of a refrigerated container to resemble a meat locker. Visitors to the bar had to wear a parka to endure the freezing temperatures.

“I think it’s something that sets us apart from some of our competitors,” Charity Hill, co-executive producer of Dark Harbor, said of the bars. “We really leaned into the theme of an immersive bar.”

In the past, she said, the bars have served drinks adorned with cotton candy and candy sprinkles. This year, one of the most popular drinks at Dark Harbor is called the Corpse Reviver II, a cocktail with absinthe served in a martini glass.

Universal Studios Hollywood’s food and beverage choices were created to pay tribute to the movies that inspire the haunted mazes featured at the park during its annual Halloween Horror Nights festival.

Such dishes include Zuul’s Egg Sandwich, inspired by the 1984 blockbuster “Ghostbusters,” and the raspberry-filled Kotton Kandy Cocoon Doughnut, a massive confection that pays homage to the campy 1988 flick “Killer Klowns From Outer Space.”

But the park also tries to appeal to social media-savvy adults by offering vodka drinks ($16) that are served in plastic mugs in the shape of skulls, with battery-powered lights inside.

It worked for Ivy Lim, a software engineer from Whittier, who sat with three friends at an outside table at Universal Studios Hollywood on a recent Friday night, watching the tiny lights at the bottom of the mugs change the color of their drinks.

“I’m thinking of posting this,” she said. “That’s the one thing I’m good at.”

468177_la-fi-theme-park-foods_431.jpg
Sam Saks-Fithian, left, Sli Murray and Ivy Lim sip on Halloween Horror Nights cocktails at Universal Studios Hollywood. The theme park is serving foods inspired by ‘80s pop culture and are visually interesting with hopes of people posting them to social media.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

At the annual Fright Fest at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, the Halloween snacks include a salute to the latest uber-spicy food craze, with dishes such as Sriracha-infused chicken wings and the Zombie Takis Nachos, made with cucumber, lime and habanero-flavored corn chips.

“The entire culinary team takes pride in creating fun, colorful and sometimes outrageous food offerings for Fright Fest, knowing that our guests like to share it on social media,” park spokeswoman Connie Lujan said.


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