If you’re a sucker for nostalgia, take a delicious trip down memory lane with us. As we have grown, so have our taste buds, but there will always be a special place in our hearts (and stomachs) for the foods we loved as children. From a sweet and crunchy churro to the downright messy, briny turkey leg, one bite of these amusement parks foods from our childhoods instantly sends us back. With origins at the early days of Renaissance festivals to a secret Disney collaboration, here’s the delicious truth behind these bites of our lives.
One of the most notorious amusement park foods is also one of the most polarizing—and no, it’s not made from emu. The turkey leg remains a theme park staple even with its sodium-laced, unappealing nature. The portable food’s origins go back to the Renaissance and Medieval festivals that rose to popularity in the early 1960s. Its unique appearance can be attributed to the fact that they come solely from male turkeys, as opposed to the bird you know and love on Thanksgiving, which is female.
Love it or hate it, we don’t see these going away anytime soon. Disney parks, which are thought to be largely responsible for landing the turkey leg in popular culture, reportedly sell millions of them a year. The bird is the word, after all.
Ice cream is the epitome of park delights and a beloved favorite for children and kids at heart of all ages. The soft-serve frozen custard dates back to the early 20th century when this summertime tradition was first scooped out on the boardwalk amusement piers of Coney Island and the Jersey Shore. One of the oldest custard companies, Kohr’s Frozen Custard, has been dishing out this favorite for over 100 years. Now known for their signature orange vanilla swirl, the family began by using milk from their farm in Pennsylvania. You may have noticed that custard is a little thicker and richer than its cousin, ice cream. That’s because it sees the addition of egg yolks to create a less meltable consistency—a match made in heaven for a scorching hot beach day.
Ah, one of the most beloved of handheld carbs: the pretzel. Perfectly good on its own with a generous heaping of salt or dipped into a vat of plastic cheese, the pretzel is a twisted standard at any fair, amusement or theme park—and we have European settlers to thank for it. When they first settled in America, specifically Pennsylvania Dutch country, they brought the traditional recipe along with them. Pretzels got their big break outside their little community when Julius Sturgis opened the first commercial pretzel factory in Lititz, Pennsylvania, in 1861. The historic factory is still open to this day and continues to dish out hard and soft pretzels.
Hot dogs, and its earlier iteration, frankfurters, were a working-class street food that became popular in New York. Nathan’s Famous changed the name of the weiner game when it founded its first location in 1916 in Coney Island using Nathan Handwerker’s life savings of $300 to get the business up and running. With the original location still in operation to this day, the company is credited with making the dog a household name. The hot dog is now synonymous with amusement parks, whether it’s sitting between a bun or dipped in a sweet batter and fried. Ketchup or mustard? Have your pick… we won’t judge.
The churro has its origins in Spain, but in the U.S., we have made it all our own. The fried combo of flour, water, salt and sugar was originally created as a breakfast item served alongside hot chocolate or dulce de leche. Churros are a staple of theme parks, and now, wildly inventive versions, like red velvet or cookies and cream, fill the menus. The crunchy treat gets its signature ridged appearance thanks to the special star-shaped nozzle that’s used to pipe it. While in the U.S., we typically indulge in ours with some cinnamon sugar, in other countries, the popular treat is filled with guava paste, sweetened condensed milk and even appears in a savory version with melted cheese.
The only thing better than a waffle? A Mickey waffle. The adorable breakfast is not only a staple at Disney parks but in thousands of homes thanks to commercial machines in the shape of the beloved mouse. The secret to the distinct malty goodness of a Mickey waffle? The batter. While neither company has publicly comment on the unique partnership, it’s long been reported that Disney uses Golden Malted waffle mix. Also a fixture in hotel breakfast buffets worldwide, the result is a crunchy golden exterior with a pillowy inside. The alleged partnership with the batter company is said to date back many decades, but Disney Imagineering and Golden Malted apparently struck waffle gold when they invented the Mickey-shaped machine sometime in the ‘80’s. The top-secret collaboration has now spread to hundreds of Disney dining locations.
The giant pickle is not the most obvious amusement park food, but nevertheless, it’s super popular—and it’s specifically a hot ticket item at Disneyland in Southern California. Maybe given California’s affinity for health and wellness, the giant individually packed cucumber pickle is a low-calorie option in a sea of potentially artery-clogging options. Don’t let their low carb and fat content fool you, though—these pickles are absolutely delicious and addictive. The park staple can be enjoyed in a classic version as well as sour and spicy.
The origins of the candy apple can be traced back not to amusements parks and fairs, but surprisingly, Christmas. Candy maker William W. Kolb invented the unique creation as a way to showcase his new red cinnamon candy. The red-laced apple was solely meant for display, but the promotional endeavor proved too delicious not to eat. Customers quickly began demanding candy apples, and the buzz spread from his little candy shop in Newark, New Jersey, to the nearby shore towns and traveling circuses. Before they made their way to amusement parks, they were often handed out to trick-or-treaters during Halloween in the first half of the 20th century. The trend subsided when kids got spooked because of an urban legend suggesting that blades were hidden inside the brightly hued, candy-coated confection.