Taste of Orleans Jazzes Up California’s Great America
In 2014 Knott’s Berry Farm launched their Boysenberry festival to help reconnect with the history of the park and give guests a new way to enjoy a day there. Last year in 2015 Carowinds launched their Taste of the Carolinas event to feature the food of the states it straddles. This year, California’s Great America has joined in on the Cedar Fair food festival fun with their first-for-the-park Taste of Orleans festival, reconnecting to the theming of the “Orleans Place” section of the park, while also giving guests a taste of the wonderful food and music the Big Easy is known for. I visited on Sunday, day 2 of the festival, whichcontinues next weekend on both Saturday and Sunday (July 30th and 31st).
The Art and Color of Taste of Orleans
Orleans Place is a part of the California’s Great America that has been there since the Marriott days when the park first opened. Near the front of the park, the area consists primarily of one stretch of path (the Rue d’Orleans) lined with shops, most of which are in buildings themed to look New Orleans-ish. These days there are few other references to any theme in the area, with only small things like names of the Bumper Cars, “Rue Le Dodge”, and the theater in the area, “Theatre Royale”. However, at least for these two weekends, that changes as the whole area from the “Orleans Place” gate shown above was decorated with bright colors and decorations along with the sounds and smells of New Orleans.
Decorations hung overhead and buildings were covered in garlands and streamers. Even better, chalk artists worked all along the pathway to fill the area with bright, colorful, designs (each signed by the respective artists) that captured the spirit of New Orleans and Mardi Gras.
As dusk fell bright colors filled the area, with LED spotlights lighting up trees and buildings with bright colors and awesome projected images appearing on paths and hillsides. The lighting was all amazing, and it made it one of the most colorful sections of any amusement park I’d ever been in. I’m hoping the lighting installations are something that will stay year round, maybe used for other events (like the new WinterFest coming the CGA this December).
Music Fills the Day
Along with the visual decorations, a mix of live performances filled the festival. There were two small stages that had live performers throughout the day featuring four bands in total (I believe). The last band on the stage finished around 7PM, but regular performances by a young brass band who took a brief march through the area until playing on the balcony continued throughout the night. The performances were accompanied by stilt walkers tossing beads out to the crowd. Along with the music, costumed employees danced and entertained the guests throughout the day.
This photo captures the feeling of the festival: Colorful lights, awesome projections, crowds gathering to listen to live music, and performers tossing beads to the crowd.
Along with the live performances, one of the best changes to the area for the festival was the quality of the sound system, which projected New Orleans music throughout the day between performances. Roof mounted speakers had been added to the buildings along the path which projected a much better, and louder, sound that filled the area. Like the lights, I hope they keep these up all year, it adds so much to the quality of the experience walking through this part of the park.
Fireworks Capping the Night
The festival finishes each night with a fireworks display shot up over Flight Deck. The display isn’t long, but it’s well done and very very low and close to the park, which is great. The accompanying music is a medley of New Orleans tunes that fits in well with the show and festival, and there are a few surprise pyrotechnics fired off from the roofs of buildings all throughout Orleans Place. It was a great way to close out the festival, and a really well done show.
Tasting the at Taste of Orleans
Of course, the other big aspect of the Taste of Orleans festival, as implied by the name, was the food! There were six stations set-up (well, five since one carried two items) that served a range of Louisiana fare. Guests purchased a tasting card for $25 (less for gold and platinum pass holders) which gave you one serving of each item. The cards could be bought from the actual restaurants in the area, as well as a couple merchandise stands.
You can get a sense of how popular things were, as multiple stations were empty when I first got to them, but they were replenished quickly. I asked two of the guys working one how busy they had been, and the response can be paraphrased as “very”.
For the most part the employees were quick to serve things, with the one exception being the Beignets. That’s because unlike the other items which were all sold from small temporary stands, the beignets were sold from the permanent Sweet Tooth restaurant which also sells funnel cakes. That meant that it had a huge line all afternoon and evening. One benefit of the tasting cards was that it meant the small stands didn’t have to worry about exchanging money, so they could quickly get people their food with a simple punch of the card, but the beignets didn’t get to benefit from that. If the event happens again, I hope they’ll get either a separate window for folks with the card or put them in a separate stand.
The portions were very very generous, which meant, sadly I only sampled four of the six dishes. I had pass on the beignets because of the long lines the whole time I was there and the crawfish etoufee, as I was absolutely stuffed from the other items. I was only at the festival in the evening, so I could see how if you were in the park all day going through all six things would have made sense, but I wish there had been an option to purchase like a three item set or something instead of only all six (or a token system like Taste of the Carolinas used so you could get as much or as little as you wanted).
The stand-out of the four I had was very clearly the chicken-andouille gumbo. It had a lot more kick than any of the other dishes, with a complex flavor, a generous amount of sausage and chicken, and a perfect texture. I would love for them to find somewhere in Orleans place to have it year round (especially in the colder months). I think I should have followed the advice of the guy serving it and poured it over the red beans and rice which while they had a good flavor weren’t as “saucy” as I like. The wings were solid, a little on the sweet side but with a decent flavor, and while the meatballs probably could have used a little more spice they were good as well.
One downside of the service was that the stands with food did not have any drinks at them. Some water cups would have been nice (especially to go with the spicy gumbo). It also would have been nice for a few more tables with seats to have been set-up. There were a few high top tables you could stand around, but no chairs other than the benches.
In addition to the sample card foods, there were a couple other special sandwiches available at the Pizza Orleans restaurant: a Shrimp Po Boy and a Muffuletta. Sadly they weren’t well advertised, and I don’t think I saw anyone eating them. I only noticed them on a small sign next to the order window, and they weren’t mentioned on the tasting cards. I wish I hadn’t been stuffed so I could have tried one of them.
Finally, beer and wine were on tap for the festival. Like the food tasting cards, guests could get a beer and wine tasting card good for 6 tasting pours for $25. Although the sign claimed the pours were only 4 ounces, talking to a couple people who had done it, they were definitely larger than that (although they weren’t complaining). Since I wasn’t at the park too long I didn’t join in, but it looked like a good deal. In addition, there was a small beer garden open for guests and Pizza Orleans was serving Big Easy IPA from Lousiana’s own Abita Brewing Comapny.
Put simply, Taste of Orleans hit on all the things that make theme parks fun beyond the rides. It was amazing seeing how much a little love with music, art, and food that stuck to the theme could do to rejuvenate an area of a park. The food ranged for “better than theme park food” to “really good”. Just walking down the path to the improved music through the speakers I’d spot people dancing and clapping a long. Although the crowds thinned as the night went on they still gathered around to watch the live performances and the fireworks, and the line for funnel cake never seemed to get shorter. I saw plenty of people eating food from the tasting stands and walking around with drinks, and most seemed to be enjoying what they had.
It wasn’t perfect, but most of the issues I mentioned earlier were minor. None of them really detracted from the fact that Taste of Orleans was a great way for California’s Great America to both add some new life to that section of the park and add something new for guests to enjoy (spend more time at the park). I really hope it returns back next year, and I really hope they keep some of the music and lighting up all year.
In the meantime, the park has one more weekend of Taste of Orleans. The festival runs from Noon to 10PM both July 30 and 31 with fireworks capping both nights. More details on that can be found on the Great America site, but make sure to arrive early in the day to listen to the music and have enough room for all six tastings. The park has another big festival coming up later this summer, the Fiesta Hispana, featuring Latin American music and food. Then there’s the new Winterfest this December, with the park open for the holidays for the first time ever, plus lots of other things in between that you can check out on the Great America events page.
If you get a chance to check out Taste of Orleans, or already have, let us know what you thought! You can also head over to our Facebook page where I’ll put up a gallery of all the awesome chalk art I saw at the park, and follow us on Twitter for lots of live updates from parks.