Today, we take you behind the scenes at SeaWorld Orlando as we interview VP of Culinary Operations Cathy Valariano on the challenges in creating food experiences for the new Antarctica area of the park. We’ve also got a preview of the new Antarctica area music for you. Plus all the latest park updates.
Antarctica First Look and Interview with Cathy Valariano
Walls came down around the front entrance to Antarctica this week, giving us the first official look into what the finished product will look like. We could not be happier. This incredible immersive environment will truly take you out of the hot Florida Sun, and transport you to the cold snowy climate of Antarctica. The rockwork/icework is incredibly impressive, and is a testament to the artistic talents SeaWorld has hired for their parks.
With the upcoming opening on May 24th, SeaWorld is introducing a new concept for families to experience what dining on the bottom of the Globe is like. Cathy Valariano, the VP of Culinary Operations at SeaWorld Orlando Resort, was kind enough to sit down with MiceChat to discuss Antarctica, Theme Park cuisine, and how SeaWorld is leading the industry on sustainable seafood, and local sourcing… And the Snack Rations that will be available to guests as they embark on their expedition to Antarctica!
MiceChat: What got you into Culinary Operations?
Cathy Valariano: I have been at SeaWorld almost my whole life. I’ve been here for 26 years and it has been a passion of mine to work in the theme park industry. I went to school to be in the food and beverage industry and it is something that I am very passionate about, it has allowed me to be very creative and it keeps me challenged every day.
MC: What have been your jobs at SeaWorld over your time there?
CV: I have worked in the Food and Beverage department my entire life! I did a little bit of a stint through retail, but a lot of my background is in the construction side and development of the food and beverage industry. But I’ve worked from the kitchen side to the front of the house. I actually started as a patio attendant when I was 15, so I have kind of done it all and worked my way through the ranks!
MC: What are the different experiences you want people to have when it comes to food and beverage at the 3 Orlando parks (SeaWorld, Aquatica and Discovery Cove)
CV: It is about coming hungry and leaving happy! At all of our parks, we strive to bring families together. And what better way to get everyone together than sitting down around the table to eat!
MC: We have heard that SeaWorld is looking at doing something really different with the food experience at Antarctica; what can you tell us about that?
CV: That is right! I have to credit our guests in the park, because we have conducted a lot of surveys, and a lot of research and they have been very vocal about wanting to have more variety under one roof. So I credit our guests, and we are listening to them. It is based on a group of scientific explorers who come from around the world and work together. The Restaurant’s name is “Expedition Café” and the menu is very reflective of the different regions where the scientists come from, from all around the world! So you are going to get different regional cuisines, from places like Italy, North America or Asia, all under one roof. One thing that is very unique is our own hydroponics garden we will actually be harvesting our own basil, fresh herbs and greens right there. It is quite the experience, and you have likely never see anything else like it in the world!
MC: What been some of the challenges creating this new menu for Antarctica?
CV: Any time of construction is going to give you challenges, but this has gone very smoothly for us. We are actually in there now running the equipment, and training our team. We are very excited to get this restaurant open.
MC: How does SeaWorld accommodate people who have allergies and special needs?
CV: We are very proud of our allergen training program that all of our team members go through in our culinary department. Our team members go through a course so that they can learn about the top 8 allergens that they are likely to encounter. It can be life or death for our guests and we realize that and take it VERY seriously. You can actually go on our website at SeaWorld.com and you can see our entire guideline, and you can you contact our allergen team ahead of time before you even come to the park and talk to one of our chefs. If you have an allergy, we can prepare a meal just for you. So don’t be shy to come to the parks if you have an allergy, we love to create menus just for you! We also offer gluten free to go options in the parks.
MC: If you are in the park and you are in a restaurant, what should a guest do to alert SeaWorld that they have an allergy?
CV: The first thing they need to do is speak to a member of management. Let us know and we will take it from there! We will come out and we will make all the recommendations, we will show you our allergen training binder we will go through the menu, and we will create a menu that will accommodate your allergen. We will make it fresh for you and in a safe zone, without cross-contamination!
MC: SeaWorld is the example to the world on how to treat marine life, our oceans and when you look at the Seafood fare served at SeaWorld, what are you doing to be leaders in seafood?
CV: We partner with our Zoological department, and we are proud of the fact that we have very strict guidelines on where we purchase, and we work with our vendors on procuring seafood. All the seafood at all the SeaWorld parks comes from a sustainable source, and we are certified in various programs… We also work with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, and that goes for all the seafood in the parks, whether that is our catering events, or team member dining or in the park for our guests.
MC: For guests visiting Antarctica, what is the food dish or food item that you are most excited to share with us?
CV: There are so many different items, because the it is totally different from anything else you can find in the park! We have fantastic fried chicken! We have a complete Asian line featuring pepper steak! We have Snack Ration packs that you can get in Antarctica. So make sure you stock up on your Snack Rations before you head out to the wintery cold of Antarctica! It will be something very unique. We will also have a hot cinnamon roll in the morning so we can help all of our explorers stay warm! We will also have a nice Italian rope sausage and a meatball platter. Lots of different entrees.
MC: What was the taste testing process like?
CV: This is a process that happens over a year and a half, and we continuously go through what we call “taste cuttings!” It is done with groups, and it comes together in the end. We look at what is popular, what is the trend, what fits the region, and what is exciting and new.
MC: So these taste cuttings? Is this like American Idol but with food?
CV: Sort of. Our Chefs prepare the food, we bring in a group, and we try the food, we rate it, we roll the comments together, and we do it all over again, until we get a final plate presentation and cutting.
MC: Thank you Cathy. The effort going into Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is absolutely fantastic and that goes for you and your culinary team as well. We can’t wait to get in there and try all that delicious sounding food!
Antarctica officially opens May 24th.
The Unofficial SeaWorld Podcast
We have a longer version of the interview with Cathy in the latest episode of the Unofficial SeaWorld Podcast. Plus, we’ll share a clip of the new Antarctica background music with you!
Turtle Trek Refurbishment.
Work continues around the park as SeaWorld prepares for a busy summer that is sure to include record crowds. The entrance to Turtle Trek, has been completely obscured with tarps and is receiving a new coat of paint to keep those blues and yellowish-oranges bright and vibrant.
Stay tuned to MiceChat for more, up-to-the-minute information from from SeaWorld Orlando and we’ll see you again very soon!