Carlye Wisel Dishes on How She Became a Theme Park Journalist, Favorite Attractions, and Junk Foods Around the World

If you’ve ever searched for what the best things to eat at a Disney park are, then there’s a very good chance you’ve read a piece written by Carlye Wisel. Over the last several years she’s become one of the preeminent Disney theme park journalists. She’s also been my go-to source for everything from tips on how to get on Rise of the Resistance to where to go for lunch at Disney World, as well as one of my favorite guests on “Podcast: The Ride.

Courtesy Carlye Wisel

This is all to say that I was very excited when Carlye agreed to sit down with me for a chat about how she got into the theme park journalism world, some of her favorite theme park attractions, tips for getting a theme park fix during this crazy time in the world, and more. Here’s the edited transcript of our conversation.

Becoming a Theme Park Journalist

I came home and was completely brainwashed. I needed to know more, just had to dive in completely to the point where I started pitching stories and it all snowballed from there.

Coaster101: For our readers who aren’t familiar with your writing, or don’t realize they’ve read your work, can you give us some background on everything you’ve done.

Sure! I’ve been reporting about theme parks for about 5 years, and before that I was a freelance journalist covering truly anything. When I was in college I wrote about music, and then when I graduated school I ended up getting a job at a record label. I was in the music business for a few years, then I switched my beat every year. One year it was food, one year it was about beauty, one year it was essays. Most recently, before theme parks, I was writing about boutique fitness. It was kind of all over the place. Once I landed on (theme parks) it all just fell into place. Since then, I’ve been writing for Travel + Leisure for five years. I also contribute a lot of one off Disney stories to different magazines. So instead of someone who has their own website, and is reporting news, if Glamour needs a Disney story I’ll do that for them, or if Men’s Health wants something about beers at Disney I’ll contribute there. I’m more in the magazine and magazine websites space.

Courtesy Carlye Wisel

Did you study journalism? Was that always what you wanted to do?

Yeah, I went to the University of Illinois, and I started school through the Agriculture school. That was because, one, it was the easiest way to get in, and two, they didn’t have journalism open to underclassmen at the time. So then I switched to journalism. I don’t really know why, I wasn’t on a high school paper or anything. You usually think of someone who’s a reporter and, oh, their whole life they’ve been writing little stories. I really wasn’t doing that at all. So I’m not sure really how I ended up there, but I knew it was the right place for me and have been doing it ever since.

How did you end up in the theme park world?

I grew up in Chicago, but I like to say I self identify as a Wisconsinite. When I was growing up I spent every summer going to Wisconsin Dells. It’s like Las Vegas for children, it’s so wonderful. It was always my favorite place in the world, and I always assumed when I got married I’d have my bachelorette party there, obviously. But, timing-wise, that ended up being February. There’s not really enough to do for three days with ten adult women (in the Winter). So my now husband actually suggested “why don’t you go to Disney World?”

I’d only been to Disneyland once as an adult. I was the kind of person who went casually for a day and says “yeah, it’s fine” and then left. To go to Disneyworld seemed so bizarre and foreign that I was said “yeah, I guess we’ll do it.”

I planned the trip, because I’m a psycho. We did one day at Universal and two or three days at Disney. I came home and was completely brainwashed. I needed to know more, just had to dive in completely to the point where I started pitching stories and it all snowballed from there.

It was only part of my coverage at the beginning. When I started at Travel + Leisure I was doing one research story a week, so bigger pieces less often. But, as you know, in the past few years Disney has just stepped up everything in terms of food and news and ride openings. There’s so much happening that I was able to roll out a full career based on the fact that there was an endless amount of news and stories. And even more people were digitally coming together who wanted to be on the receiving end of that.

Writing about Food, Tailoring Work, and Favorite Stories

I eat a lot, and try to straddle the two worlds of filling fried theme park food and things that actually taste good. I don’t care if it’s cute, if it’s bad I’m going to say it.

Let’s talk about your work for Eater. Have you always been a theme park food fan, and how did you convince them to let you write a ton of Disney food articles?

My only motivating factor in life is food. It’s truly the only thing I care about. It’s my driving force. I was always the type of kid who was in the activities for the nacho cheese. I would go anywhere as long as there was a soft pretzel and something to dip it in, I was all about the junk food. I remember being a child and going to Sam’s club with my parents and, this is so embarrassing, asking for a 10 pound can of Nacho Cheese for Hanukkah. My whole life I’ve been asking “where can I find melted plastic cheese?” I never thought, “oh, why don’t you go to the castle of it, you doofus.” I had only experienced (junk food like this) through family vacation to Disney when I was really really young, and didn’t realize this was the place I should have been going to all the time.

Eater was really smart and ahead of the curve. For awhile editors I would pitch would say “get outta here.” I think they didn’t understand the entire world of Disney and that so many adults were into it. But Eater was really smart and did a huge package four years ago. They went and researched it as if they were writing a package about Barcelona or Paris. They approached it from that perspective and put out really good stuff. They won a journalism award for it.

It’s been really easy to work with them because they understand a lot of people go here and need that style of coverage. Especially people who go to the park the first time or casually. They can lean on those stories and know that Eater will suggest things they’ll actually want, not just the little corndog nugget. Those are gross. Actually, it’s in the guide, but only because that’s in the guide I edit, not the one I write myself. The writers loved them, I don’t.

When it comes to me saying what’s good, every day of my life is research. I eat a lot, and try to straddle the two worlds of filling fried theme park food and things that actually taste good. I don’t care if it’s cute, if it’s bad I’m going to say it. It’s a phenomenon of the past few years where people will say something is great when it’s absolutely trash. So if I say something is good I need to stand behind it. I respect people who don’t agree, but I rarely stand behind a food so strongly and people are say “you’re dumb.”

To quote Carlye’s Instagram post of this photo: “Lunar new year means it’s FULL FISH SEASON, BABY!!!!!!” (courtesy Carlye Wise)

How much has the quality of food improved in even just the last five years?

Oh yeah, it’s unbelievable. Disney has responded to it more quickly than Universal, but I think Universal has implemented some cool stuff too. I especially love things that look good and taste good. Like the cloud cotton candy at Seuss landing. Something like that I love because it’s fun and it’s very themepark-y to eat food like that, but it also tastes good.

With Disney there’s constantly so much that’s new that it’s kind of sifting through the sea to find what’s worth your money. You can go and just exclusively eat new dishes for your whole trip. But even in 5 years, just from stories I’ve reported, they’ve stepped it up an unbelievable amount. Just the array of foods has been really crazy, especially in catering to different dietary restrictions and being open to anybody who has a food allergy or is gluten insensitive or is vegan. They’ve embraced that so much. I appreciate how much their Food & Beverage team puts into it.

When you’re writing for different publications like this, or things on your social media pages, how do you tailor your writing for the different audiences?

A lot of times I try to tailor the voice more than the content. Once I make sure I’m not telling someone who’s looking for budget buys to go to a $15,000 dinner, once that’s done with, it’s more about making sure it’s written in way where people can understand it. That usually comes down to things like explaining what a Fastpass is within the story, or writing “Disney World, which is located in Florida.” Usually if I’m writing something that would go to a broader audience, I’ll write it for the person who knows the least about the parks. That way they can still get the knowledge they need without getting tripped up by the many many words that all of us use casually.

Courtesy Carlye Wisel

Are there any stories you’ve written or experiences you’ve gotten to enjoy that have stood out to you as favorites? Or things you’re most proud of?

It’s kind of easy to say the bucket list stuff like going to the opening of Shanghai Disneyland. That was a true highlight, but really for the back end of journalism of it. I flew there on behalf of seven different outlets. So going and truly reporting a foreign story to so many people, that to me was the pinnacle of my life’s work.

But, my favorite story I’ve ever worked on was a huge feature piece I did for about Disney weddings. I became looped into a Facebook group of Disney brides. It’s a true digital sisterhood. They’re incredible. There’s a document in the Facebook group where if someone’s bridesmaid doesn’t show up or something, which has happened, there’a  document of how far away other people in the group are and how much notice they need. They will fly or drive and be in your wedding. They all kind of work together as their own little wedding planners. Through reporting on it I was able to go to some of the weddings. I loved being able to tell that little pocket of the parks to people. It was really cool to be able to deep dive into that section of fandom.

Do you ever get to cover any regional parks, or are there ones that you wish you could visit?

The problem and the blessing is I get to do so much with Disney and Universal because there is such a demand for it. My whole job is based on nationwide parks. A lot of it is about people planning a trip and traveling.  A Travel + Leisure is covering every single tourist destination on the globe,so it’s really hard to have a story from a regional park push through. Granted, I follow everything that’s happening at them, and I’m dying to go to them.

Really, Dollywood is my White Whale. It’s so close, I don’t know how I haven’t been. I’m always like “oh yeah, that’s the next thing” and excuses just keep popping up.

But, until I did this, I didn’t really go on roller coasters…

Rides, Attractions, and Theme Park Favorites

I’ve got a lot of bathroom tips.

Do you like roller coasters now?

Yes, but, the reason I only theme parks is because I can ride every ride at any Disney Park or Universal Parks.

There was a time a couple years ago I thought, “should I branch out? Should I be going to Six Flags openings? Should I be covering coasters? Am I going to stand behind Arthur Levine the rest of my life in his shadow?” (editors note: Carlye loves Arthur, and was referencing our recent interview with him. Check it out as part of our theme park journalist series!) I went on one of the coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain and almost blacked out. So because of that, I don’t really tempt fate. I think Hulk is the maybe the most aggressive I’ve been on, and everything at Knott’s Berry Farm except Xcelerator. I really like coasters that go upside down, that’s new for me as of this job. But, I sadly have to cap it at a Universal or Knott’s.

I feel like that’s pretty good. Hulk and the Knott’s coasters are decently up there in intensity.

Yeah, I think I’m functioning, like, I can do it. Going from truly nothing to reporting on them is wild.

But, I’m really there to tell a story about a themed attraction and help people visit, telling them if something is good or bad. So I feel like even though I don’t have a lifelong coaster background, I can still tell you if a ride is s*** or not.

Let’s get more into attractions. What is your favorite Disney attraction? Is it Living with the Land?

Haha, I love Living With the Land, but if I don’t go on it it’s not a travesty.

I have to go on Space Mountain at Disney World. That’s the type of rickety I enjoy, where it’s like, “could I shoot straight out into space and never be seen again?” It’s the perfect ride to me because it’s so simple and yet it still resonates so well.

Wait, so you like the Florida version better than the Disneyland version?

Unpopular opinion. Yes, I do. I love dragging my old skeleton into the bobsled. Like, I want it to hurt when I sit down and I’m not sure if I can get up. That’s what I want.

Wow, that is VERY controversial. Most people find Florida painful and agonizing.

It’s part of the story! I also will only turn right. I think it’s the Omega track. Even if I have a fast pass and they tell me to go to the left I’ll say no and make them let me go to the right.

That’s my personal favorite, but I think the best ride at Disney World is Expedition Everest. It’s a story coaster like I’ve never seen before. The level of detail and the level of story telling – along with the number of lost hairbands. The whole thing is so flawless to the point that the main character within the attraction is broken and it’s still the best ride. That’s how good it is. There are so many different segments and so many different moments, it’s so dramatic, I think it’s perfect.

What about Non-Disney attractions?

I love ET Adventure so much. I think there are so so many basic ways to find joy that have been taken out of parks, replaced with fancier things. Even this many years after ET opened, it’s just so good.

It doesn’t make sense that you can go to the park and ride Hagrid’s, which is so technologically saavy and so fast and cool, and then go to ET and its still very close to the same level of fun. You get to hear him say your name! It’s stuff like that that’s so basic but so exciting. To me it’s a perfect ride. It has that smell, there’s an indoor water feature, there’s a fun ride system, it has everything.

Since food is so important to your park experiences, do you have an overall favorite theme park food?

Hah, yes. I’m very obsessed with the caramel corn at Karamell Kuche in the Germany pavilion at Epcot. I love it because it’s one of the few sweet snacks at Disney that is portable. You get a funnel cake or a whoopie pie, and that does not stay well in August Florida weather. Caramel corn is a snack you can put in your bag and eat throughout the day, which I think makes it the ideal Epcot snack.

Karamell Kuche caramel corn (courtesy Disney Parks)

I’m pretty basic. I love popcorn. I love nacho cheese – but, only at Animal Kingdom because they have actual nacho cheese, not the pull top. I will NOT eat the pull top cheese, it’s disgusting.

I’ve tried it, it’s amazingly bad.

It’s like, you guys are so close. The pretzel looks like Mickey, just give us the good cheese. But, I’m basically all caramel corn these days.

What about the Tokyo Disney popcorn? I loved all the weird flavors.

Oh, yes! I loved the garlic shrimp. I liked the corn potage popcorn, that was good. Then strawberry and milk chocolate obviously.

Internationally, I really really like the food at Shanghai Disney. It’s funny because I have a friend who lives there who disagrees with me, but they have a Peking duck Mickey shaped pizza that I love. They have these really meaty strong flavors. When I go to Disney World, I go to skipper canteen all the time, I go to Tiffins, I go to restaurants where they have more Eastern flavors. Because every restaurant at Shanghai Disney is a different take on that, it’s like everything I would ever want to eat is served at those restaurants.

Peking Duck pizza at Shanghai Disney (courtesy Carlye Wisel’s Instagram)

Do you have any favorite hidden gems or secret spots in any of the parks?

At Animal Kingdom I like finding a place to sit on the water or walking through the winding paths behind the tree of life. There’re a lot of secret little spots that are really nice to hang out in, especially if they’re shady. I enjoy those to get away.

And until the last time I went, I had never used the bathroom at the America pavilion on the right hand side as you’re looking towards American Adventure. I’d always used the left bathroom, which is a garbage pit.  The one on the right is beautiful. I’ve got to give credit, my friend Deanne Revel told me about it. Truly the best bathroom at Epcot, all the other ones are bad. I’ve got a lot of bathroom tips

Dealing With Disney Withdrawl, and What To Do First When the World Gets Back to Normal

You can really fool yourself into thinking you’re somewhere else with some of the specific theme park audio that has sound effects in it. Your brain just thinks for a second you’re somewhere else.

Obviously we’re in some pretty crazy times right now. Any tips you’ve found for people who are desperate for a theme park fix?

I’ve really been enjoying the audio soundtracks more than I ever have before. Like, I’d always turn on a Tomorrowland loop of background music and just chill, but I actually started listening to the Tokyo background loops. Specifically I’m thinking of the Cape Cod loop. It has sound effects of things like waves crashing, and it feels like you’re somewhere other than being trapped in your house. Just hearing rushing water is like “oooo, we’re on vacation!”. You can really fool yourself into thinking you’re somewhere else with some of the specific theme park audio that has sound effects in it. Your brain just thinks for a second you’re somewhere else.

Thinking about when the world gets back to normal (whenever that happens), what’s the first ride you’ll rush towards when parks reopen?

Oh my, I haven’t even thought about that. Oh, Spaceship Earth. Because I thought I said goodbye to it, and now I don’t know. They were supposed to close the ride in May, but it’s on the record that construction projects have halted because of the closures. There’s probably a chance Spaceship Earth will stay open longer than we thought, so I might be able to say one last goodbye. So if Spaceship Earth is operational, I’ll be there.

Otherwise, I really think Living within the land. Weirdly, I want to thank it for its service. I dunno, in times like these it’s like, we’re all desperate for groceries and I want to thank the ride for highlighting how much food we need, haha.

Alright, lastly, because I’m sure lots of our readers think you’ve probably got the best job in the world, any tips for someone who wants to get into Theme Park or Disney journalism professionally?

What I always recommend is finding the absolute core of why you’re interested in this stuff. Being able to hone in on what resonated with you or interests you will drive you forward. I have a bunch of friends who write about Disney, and we’ll write completely different stuff. I always reference my friend Matthew Panzarino, who’s the editor at techcrunch. He approaches the parks in a way the I don’t even understand. He’s still able to pull out stories that he loves from the parks in the same way I am, but the stories look completely different. So I think really figuring out as niche as you can get, as detailed and as deep into what resonates with you personally, and then working backwards from there. There are a lot of people talking about news or about their trips, but if you can figure out what really drives you, that’s the ticket.

Awesome! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me Carlye, anything you’ve got coming up or anything you want to plug?

Not a lot of stories coming out right now that I can talk about, but I’m on social media all day and trying to have a good time while we all can’t go to the parks!

Another huge thank you to Carlye for taking the time to speak with me. As she said, you can find her all over social media doing lots to keep us distracted while we’re stuck at home. Find her on Instagram, Twitter, or join her combo-Starbucks/Disney fan Facebook group. If you’ve got any burning Disney questions, feel free to ask her. She’s one of the friendliest and most responsive people in this industry on the internet! And keep your eyes out for any upcoming pieces from her all over the internet, but especially at Eater, Travel + Leisure, and SyFy.

If you’re looking for more great interviews with people from all over the theme park industry, whether other journalists or Park managers or ride designers, make sure to check out our whole interview archive. We’ll hopefully have lots more coming out while we’re all in quarantine!