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Think of Holiday Feast as Thrill Ride

Orange County

Growing popularity of Disneyland Hotel's annual spread reflects the evolution of a homebound holiday.

November 29, 2002|Kimi Yoshino, Dave McKibben and Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writers

The tables were set, the turkey perfectly browned and roasted. There were side dishes and desserts galore: Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, apple nut stuffing, sweet potatoes drizzled with honey.

Just like Grandma used to make.

Only this Thanksgiving feast wasn't prepared by relatives. And it was far, far away from Grandma's house.

This meal was the creation of chef Robert Arcos and his staff of 58 cooks at the Disneyland Hotel, one of many places where a growing number of Southern California residents opted to dine out on Thanksgiving.

To some, it might seem sacrilegious to eat at a hotel on Thanksgiving, one of America's most traditional -- and least commercial -- holidays. Especially in a cavernous ballroom that seats 1,400 diners, with Snow White, Minnie Mouse and Alice a quick photo opportunity away.

Lonnie Dorsey, 49, of Los Angeles didn't see it that way.

"For Californians, especially those of us who are baby boomers, Disneyland is traditional," she said before digging in. "We grew up on all these characters, and they have been part of our lives."

Peggy and Mike Nath, from Paradise, Utah, stumbled across an invitation to the feast on the Internet while researching activities for their trip. They came with son Steven, 4, who happily munched on crab legs while wearing an elaborate wizard hat with blinking gold lights. Their favorite dish? "Where do you start?" Peggy Nath said with a laugh.

As tourists, they were in the minority Thursday. Most of the crowd -- about 70% -- were locals, Disney spokesman John McClintock said.

Given the nation's demographics and changing values, it's not at all surprising that families would stray from a homebound holiday, said anthropologist Sidney Mintz, author of "Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom," who has studied eating habits and culture.

"You bet Thanksgiving's changed," he said.

For starters, America's a melting pot. Immigrants bring their own tastes and preferences or abandon the concept of turkey altogether.

"People don't feel any longer that they've got to cleave to the notion of Native American food or that we're all supposed to be giving thanks the way the Pilgrims did," Mintz said. "That's all out the door. You can have turkey sushi now if you want."

Savvy Disney cooks clearly had their disparate diners in mind. Next to heaping trays of stuffing, juicy fowl and thick cranberry sauce were crab legs, mounds of shrimp, lobster cakes with citrus beurre blanc sauce and sculpted chocolate confections. At the children's buffet were thick-cut fries, tiny pepperoni pizzas, chicken nuggets and Goofyroni and cheese. Design-it-yourself sundaes came with vanilla, strawberry and chocolate Haagen-Dazs.

Each table displayed a "Disney Family Thanksgiving Feast 2002" wine list.

Having alternatives -- and the luxury to afford them -- is a significant factor contributing to the evolution of Thanksgiving traditions, Mintz said. "One of the ways to feel luxurious, to feel festive, is to eat out."

Of course, there is another, more practical matter: Women, who have traditionally been the primary cooks, may not know how to baste a turkey, bake an apple pie or whip up marshmallow yams. Or want to.Plus, the prime attraction for many on Thursday was even simpler: not having to clean up afterward.

"Oh, I'd be cooking if I was home," said Pam Wilcox, who arrived with husband Mike and sons Curtis, 13, and Michael, 11, from Selah, Wash., a little town outside Yakima. "We did this two years ago, and we just decided to do it again. The kids love Disneyland, and every once in a while I need to take a year off."

Calvin Morrill, professor and chairman of the sociology department at UC Irvine, offered one more possibility. With blended families, in-laws and ex-spouses, hosting a huge Thanksgiving gathering with everyone hanging around the living room all day "may make it a difficult go in terms of conflict management," he said.

"It may be easier to take it out of the home," he said.

So then, where better than "The Happiest Place on Earth"?

"It's not the Thanksgiving tradition in a conventional sense, but there is so much Disney tradition that people are wrapped up in," spokesman McClintock said. "Spending Thanksgiving with Chip and Dale is probably as much as like spending it with family for some of them."

There was some griping about the cost: $52 per adult and $13.50 per child. But there were no complaints about the spread. A team of chefs worked 10-hour shifts leading up to Turkey Day; on Thursday morning, they began before dawn.

The grocery list to last the day? It was hefty: 120 28-pound turkeys, 700 pounds of shrimp, 1,000 pounds of prime rib, 400 pounds of halibut, 1,000 pounds of potatoes and 14,000 servings of dessert.

The centerpieces alone -- sumptuous cornucopias made with brushed chocolate -- measured 7 feet tall and 10 feet long, said Carlos Acosta, Disney's operations manager for resort banquets and special events.

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