Everyone looks forward to visiting theme parks, carnivals and county fairs during the summer. All that waiting in line is worth it once you get on the roller coaster, Tilt-A-Whirl or Ferris wheel. Cotton candy, funnel cakes, pizza, nachos, corn dogs and turkey legs give the family a welcome break from run-of-the-mill fare. The food at theme parks is just as much fun as the rides – but you may regret eating all those tasty treats later if you overindulge.
A day splurging on treats at the theme park won’t set back your diet too much if you go back to eating healthy the next day (or after your vacation). Hitting a number of fairs, carnivals and theme parks during summer vacation can be problematic for your waistline.
If you want to avoid tacking on too many extra calories or need to maintain a consistent diet due to asthma or other health concerns, here are several ways to eat better at theme parks.
Eat a Healthy Meal At Home (Or in Your Hotel) Before Going to the Park
Some theme parks have onsite hotels that offer kitchenettes and/or fridges, so you can make your own breakfast. This will reduce the chances of eating too much at the park and save more time for rides, shows and other fun.
Research Theme Park Restaurants Before You Go
Before you leave for the theme park, check out their website, Yelp and other review sites, or ask friends who’ve visited there for food recommendations.
Most large theme parks (and many smaller ones) offer snack bars and sit-down restaurants specializing in different types of foods. The Universal Orlando Resort has 50 restaurants, including Lombard’s Seafood Grill, Finnegan’s Bar and Grill (Irish food) and the Leaky Cauldron, (British pub-style fare), and Mythos Restaurant, which was placed third as the best theme park restaurant in 2010. Most restaurants and quick-service counters have at least one healthy choice (usually salads or sandwiches), and you can always forego condiments or have them on the side.
Once you get there, take a walk around the park to get acquainted with restaurants, food stands (and the rides, of course), so you won’t be tempted to spend a lot of time and money at the first restaurant or food stand you see.
Ask for Vegan or Vegetarian Dishes
If you don’t find what you want on the menu, chefs at sit-down restaurants can accommodate vegan, vegetarian or other special diets. If the park lets visitors bring in coolers and outside food, pack your favorite foods and be sure to eat it early in your visit to avoid spoilage.
By doing a little detective work you can find vegan eats at most theme parks. The larger the park, the better chance you have of finding something suitable and tasty.
Bring Small, Pocket-Sized Snacks
Load up on individual size boxes of raisins and whole wheat or baked chips, plus individually wrapped oatmeal cookies. This will save you money, calories and long waits in line. Replenish fluids with water and refill bottles throughout the day.
Make Sure Your Kids Don’t Overindulge on Sweet Treats
One in three U.S. children are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A study released by the CDC indicated that children’s obesity has doubled since 1981, while obesity in teenagers has quadrupled. This change is due to higher consumption of processed food, fewer home-cooked meals, and less physical activity.
Going to an amusement park has lots of good points for kids, health-wise. It increases physical activity and keeps kids away from their Smartphones (for a while). It gets them out in the sun, walking, playing carnival games and watching concerts or other performances. One day of salty, sugary and fried snacks at theme parks won’t cause a healthy child to pack on pounds or develop health problems. If your child has asthma, allergies or is already overweight, though, too many funnel cakes or corn dogs can make things worse.
We all want our kids to have fun at the amusement park, but that doesn’t mean you need to give in to their every whim. A study in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed that parents who let their children drink sugary beverages freely were most likely to have children with poor diets overall. While it’s not necessary to feed kids a strict “healthy” diet without even an occasional treat, parents should take care to make sure kids don’t overindulge in fast-food or processed food, especially during summer vacation.
Share High-Calorie Foods with Others
There’s no harm in having a high-calorie treat or two. After all, a visit to a theme park is meant to be fun and give the entire family a break from their routine. However, be aware that most theme park and carnival food is served in large portions. Don’t feel you have to polish off that turkey leg or giant sized fried chicken dinner by yourself. Share with a family member or friend. You’ll save money and feel less bloated later in the day.
Moderation is the key when ordering common theme park foods. Eat one or two of your favorites early in your visit, so you have time to walk off some of the extra calories.
Check Menus for Healthy Alternatives
Amusement parks all over the country are now offering at least a few healthy or vegetarian choices for visitors.
Disney World began offering healthy alternatives for soda and French fries with kids’ meals in 2006. Fruits and veggies replaced fries and low fat milk or water replaced soda. This reduced calories by 21.4% and sodium by 43.4%. The change to more nutritious sides didn’t change the cost of meals, and was greeted enthusiastically by customers.
Sales data for kids’ meals at Disney showed that 48% of guests accepted the healthy sides while 66% of guests choose healthy beverages.
Legoland in Florida now offers healthy entrees including rotisserie chicken and salmon, Whole-wheat pizza, ham and cheese California rolls and steak kabobs are also on the menus of sit-down restaurants at Downtown Disney and other theme parks.
A look at the menu for Seabreeze Amusement Park in Rochester, NY shows that they offer fresh salads and grilled chicken at their California Grill. Aunt Granny’s All-You-Care-To-Eat Buffet at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN, offers a salad bar and a few vegetarian buffet items, a taco bar, plus full breakfast options and a slew of comfort food.
Six Flags Great America offers light fare, including salads, veggie burgers, turkey burgers and wraps. Asian and Italian restaurants offer tasty substitutes for heavier burgers and barbecue, and there’s even a café featuring wraps and salads.
An article in the October 23, 2015 edition of TAP (Tourist Attractions and Parks) notes a trend toward greater variety in amusement park foods and dining spaces. Great America in Santa Clara, CA, recently added Indian food to their offerings and Iowa’s Adventureland has air-conditioned, indoor restaurants to offer patrons a respite from the heat.
Theme Parks with the Best Food Choices
Some more examples of amusement parks and amusement park restaurants with good food options include:
Knoebel’s Amusement Resort – This resort in Elysburg, PA won the Amusement Today Golden Ticket Award every year since 2000 (except for 2012.) In 2013, it tied with Dollywood. Its full-service restaurant, the Alamo, has lots of options for the whole family, including gluten-free choices. For a taste of something unusual, try Alligator Bites(!!) at the International Food Court. You’ll be able to spend a bit more on food here than other theme parks – admission is free!
King’s Island – This Mason, Ohio amusement park has a few calorie-conscious choices at their restaurants, including salads, wraps, frozen yogurt and sub sandwiches.
Disney Animal Kingdom Lodge- Boma Flavors of Africa, located in Orlando’s Walt Disney World Resort, offers smoked salmon , spinach-quinoa salad, coconut chicken curry soup, roasted chicken and avocado, grapefruit and papaya salad, among other healthy, unusual dishes.
Carnivals and County Fairs May Have Fewer Healthy Choices
You may have more difficulty finding light fare at a small carnival, but you probably won’t be spending all day there like you would at a large amusement park. County fairs tend to have local specialties, and some of them may even be healthy! Buy locally-grown fruits and veggies, and look for lean cuts of meat when ordering food. Choose pickles, snacks made with nuts or sesame seeds and avoid sugary sprinkles or whipped cream toppings on desserts.
Choose Grilled Foods Over Fried
When ordering, go for the healthiest choice, even if it may not seem you have many options. For fewer calories and more nutrients:
- Choose chicken over red meat
- Fish over chicken
- Grilled over fried
- Green vegetables over potatoes
- Spices over salt
Pack reusable bottles and refill them with water as needed. You’ll save money, calories – and teeth – by avoiding sugary drinks. Drinking water hydrates you and fills you up, reducing appetite and making it less likely you’ll eat anything sugar-coated or deep-fried.
You’ll have more healthy dining options at a sit-down restaurant, and you can always order adult portions to share with your kids. You’ll be able to make substitutes for certain menu items (ordering salad dressing on the side, or requesting chicken be grilled instead of fried) at a sit-down restaurant as opposed to a quick-serve counter.
Avoid (or Share) the Highest Calorie Offenders
Some amusement park and carnival foods have healthy qualities, but you will need to search to find them. High-calorie, “fun” foods are the traditional focus at fairs and theme parks, but too many fried Snickers and other crazy concoctions will ramp up your calorie count and may just give you a stomach ache.
Soft pretzels may seem like a good bet, but one giant pretzel contains 100 grams of carbohydrates, half the total for the average adult. Children over 2 year should receive between 50% and 60% of their daily calories from carbohydrates, and a giant pretzel, along with other high-carb treats, will push them way over that limit. Candy or caramel apples may seem like a bad choice due to the sticky sweet coating, but the apple underneath contains 4 grams of fiber, Vitamin C and antioxidants. Sugary cotton candy clocks in at 100 calories per ounce, so share with a friend to get a traditional carnival taste treat without going overboard.
A chicken and veggie kabob has 150 calories, much less than a burger or condiment-slathered hot dog. Grilled corn on the cob has 60 calories plain, 200 with spices and butter. Corn is a good source of panthothenic acid (Vitamin B5), Vitamin B3 (niacin), Vitamin B6 and fiber.
Crispy, deep-fried funnel cakes contain 760 calories and 44 grams of fat. (To contrast, a deep-fried Snickers has 444 calories.) Share deep-fried Oreos, deep-fried Twinkies or other carnival-signature sweets with others, or buy them later in the day and save some for the ride home.
The worst offender when it comes to high-calorie count isn’t a sugary treat – it’s a giant turkey leg. With a total of 1136 calories and 54 grams of fat, consuming one turkey leg will bring some people dangerously close to their calorie limit for the day.
Enjoy your day (or days) at the theme park, but remember to practice moderation when it comes to your food orders. Eat a healthy breakfast, splurge at lunch and then have a salad or sandwich for dinner. That way, you’ll get to sample a few high-calorie treats without feeling the need to crash diet the rest of the week.