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Why Disney World Needs An Automat

Automats are 1. Fun, 2. Out-of-the-Ordinary, and 3. Nostalgic. Wouldn’t that fit right into what you’d expect in Disney World? But let’s begin at the beginning…

What’s an Automat?
What’s an automat, you ask? Nope — it’s not a laundromat. It’s a construct of the first half of the 20th century — a restaurant + vending machine combination. Automats offered individual servings of freshly made food that were placed behind little windows. If you wanted one of the items, you dropped your nickels in the slot, opened the little window, and took out the plate. The ultimate in “fast food” before fast food joints existed!

Automat Photo (c) National Geographic

Automats were prevalent and prominent in New York City and Philadelphia — primarily run by Horn and Hardart; they popped up in films and art depicting the time period.

Horn and Hardart Automat

Automats started to slowly disappear in the 60s and 70s as fast food chains became more prevalent and customers moved to the suburbs. Fast food was cheaper to make and serve than the oxymoronic, heavily-staffed automats (you had plenty of change-makers, busboys, and highly trained chefs in automats) could keep up with. Horn and Hardart closed their final automat in 1991. And although Bamn!, an even more automatic automat, opened in New York City in 2006 to cheers from the late-night bar crowd, it closed in 2009, likely a victim of the same demise its predecessors encountered — cheaper, better, and fresher competition nearby. A couple of automat-like survivors keep their doors open in Japan and the Netherlands, however, so there could be hope.

Overall, though, it seems that automats in America have gone the way of nostalgia. Which brings me to my point… Aren’t Disney theme parks themselves all about nostalgia and “idyllic memories” from your childhood?

If It Won’t Work in Real Life, It Can Still Work in Disney World
Clearly people will eat at restaurants simply for the novelty of the atmosphere. We have an idealized representation of a Drive-In Movie Theater, an idealized representation of a 50′s diner, and an idealized representation of the famous Hollywood Brown Derby…why not an automat?

Brown Derby Lobby in Disney's Hollywood Studios

Disney theme parks are all about giving people an experience that they can’t re-create in “real life;” and if there’s a historical context, even better! Even if the construct isn’t profitable outside of the big purple gates anymore, Disney theme parks thrive on nostalgia and interesting dining experiences! Surely it could work! It’s fun! It’s novel! It’s an interesting alternative to counter-service! You would go, right?

Plus — kids would love looking in all the little windows, making their decisions, and putting their coins in the little slots so they can snag the chosen menu items from their tiny see-through boxes. Neil Simon thought so…

“To have your own stack of nickels placed in your tiny hands; to be able to choose your own food, richly on display like museum pieces; to make quick and final decisions at the age of eight; this was a lesson in financial dealings that not even two years at the Wharton School could buy today.” —Neil Simon

But What If It Didn’t Work in the Parks?
If the nostalgia/atmosphere pitch won’t work, let’s try this argument:

It’s late. You’re tired. Your kids are tired. Your food court or counter-service location in your resort is closed. You have no food in the hotel room. You don’t want Cheeto-s or Doriots or Snickers or packaged crackers. You’re out of luck.

Unless there’s an automat!

Bamn Automat in NYC

Automats don’t have to be staffed the way they were in the early 1900s with chefs and busboys. Automats can (and are in some places) glorified vending machines offering cold sandwiches, fresh fruit and vegetables, microwaveable items (good for those in DVC Villas), yogurt, Lunchables, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, salads, hummus and pita, Zebra Domes, Tie-Dye Cheesecake, Mickey Rice Krispie Treats, fresh fruit and cheese platters, muffins, and numerous other “real food” alternatives to chips and candy bars. Of course if you have a hankering for a baked item like a cupcake or a slice of grapefruit cake, it could stock those as well!

Why not sell this at an Automat?

Just put the same grab-and-go section you’d find in any Disney food court behind a plate of glass and a coin slot and there you go! Imagine all the extra money they could bring in during the midnight-6am hours! These could be located just outside of the theme parks, inside the resorts, or even in Downtown Disney and wouldn’t take any more effort than is put into stocking a grab-and-go wall.

I Rest My Case
Fast, fresh food, available anytime day or night, and potentially healthier than what you’d get from a standard vending machine. Brilliant, right? I think it’s a no-brainer.

Of course, I also think adding a real-life, staffed automat to one of the theme parks would be a particularly fun experiment. Talk about adding a real piece of recent history to the parks. Possibly a nightmare during crowded times, but what Disney World restaurant isn’t?

So, clearly, Disney World needs an automat of some sort. Whether it’s cold items only for those of us who arrive late to the hotel and just need some sort of sustenance, or whether it’s a full-fledged automat in one of the theme parks, I think it’s a winner of an idea… .

Photo Source — Bamn Automat

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41 Comments

  1. Dannette Kelly says:

    I kind-a like it! Yes, there has been many times that we are late getting back to the resort and nothing to eat and almost too sleepy to wait for room-service ( and maybe not THAT hungry).

  2. Janna says:

    I think it’s a fantastic idea. I have always been fascinated by automats. The only thing I can offer is that in addition to a cash/coin slot, they would need to have a card reader for the KTTW cards for added convenience. (Similar to how Great Wolf Lodge has bracelets that act as your key/room charge and all of the vending machine and restaurants have a scanner for them.)

  3. Wendy says:

    It’s a brilliant idea, and I really do think it would be a moneymaker. The idea of having an automat-style restauraunt in the studios would fit in beautifully with the theming…and the studios could REALLY use a unique offering. And putting in grab and go at the resorts. Oh yes, please. The only problem would be that if you wanted snacks at off hours, you’d have to sacrifice using DDP credits to get them and use cash.

  4. Becca says:

    Ooh, I like it! I remember seeing one of these at a French bowling alley and being quite intrigued.

    I’d like it to stay true to the location, though. I like that certain dishes and snacks are exclusive to certain places and wouldn’t want to see grapefruit cake appearing at the Poly, or tie-dye cheesecake at Saratoga Springs, for example.

  5. It’s funny you mention this. I’m reading a new book by the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, and he tells a story of his first “magical” experience at an automat. Seems like a good fit to me!

  6. Greg says:

    Gotta admit, I don’t love it. I know I wouldn’t want to eat there. I don’t see many people choosing this alternative novel or not. There’s a reason the automats went the way of the dodo. I hear your argument for it working at WDW, but I just don’t see it.

  7. I really love this idea. I could see it in Hollywood Studios for sure, maybe somewhere on the Streets of America. I agree that there would have to be card slots for people using KTTW cards for charging or the Dining Plan, but that would be an easy enough fix, I think.

  8. Bill says:

    AJ, this is the best idea I have heard today! I have many fond memories of my Grandfather bringing me to the NYC Automat when I was a wee one. The food wasn’t memorable, but the experience sure was.

    Such a place would be a perfect fit for the Hollywood Studios, as well as in the new Hyperion section of California Adventure. Let’s hope some big Disney Muckety-Muck reads this blog and gets inspired to make this a reality- or at least hires you!

  9. Jo says:

    I’m not a fan of this idea. The only experience I have with an automat is in the waiting room of a hospital.

  10. Jill says:

    AJ what a great idea. My grandfather was the maintenance man for the Horn and Hardart in New York city. There is a certain nostalgic feeling I get at the thought of this in WDW, the greatest memories of my Grandpa and his stories. Thanks for this article, it brightened my morning!

  11. vanessa gordon says:

    I think this would be a great idea to add to DHS. They could put it near Studio Catering – already lots of seating-or else someplace near the front of the park, for after Fantasmic lets out. It also would be great in the resort areas that do not have food courts. The machines could be configured to take credit cards or room keys only- no change required.

  12. Susie says:

    This idea would also fit in with the time period that they are renovating with the front of DCA. it would be a nice period accurate addition. As well as convenient it would also be a nostalgic and historical look as something that was once unique to this country but they have practically all have vanished from our landscape. One thing that I think gets forgotten is that these parks were at one time meant for ALL ages, not just rides and the latest in technology but little details too, right? Mainstreet is all about childhood memories and for a lot of visitors is a favorite stop. As others have stated in comments, what a great treat this could be to bring back childhood memories for our grandparents and us who remember the stories they have told us about them. Thanks for a great post.

  13. Lisa Ngai says:

    I love this idea! I’ve never experienced an automat, but I’ve always been intrigued by them.

  14. Griffin says:

    I think this is a great idea!! :) I like the idea of having it in hotels when the food courts are closed. Or how about in Tomorrowland? I think it would fit in well there…Disney, are you listening :P

  15. Dawn says:

    I love the idea. We’re planning our first trip for this December and I would totally go for this experience. My kids like doing things they did “when grandpa was a kid”. They’ve made butter and ice cream, seperated a chicken (we buy only breasts and legs), fertilized with manure straight from the stables, bought a glass bottle of pop from a vending machine, scored bowling by hand, … The’yd love it.

  16. Mark D. says:

    In general, I think there is a reason automats are no longer around and there are already vending machines in the laundry rooms of most of the resorts.

    That said, for a nostalga (sp?) factor, I think it would be very cool to have one of these in Pop Century.

  17. Melissa says:

    Griffin, ITA! It could work in Tomorrowland by making it more a futuristic take on what dining could be. Like The Jetsons!

  18. Sandra says:

    Wow! I actually mentioned this idea to my husband a while ago, and I agree that it would be a great addition to WDW. Those who think automats would mean dry, hospital vending machine food, or think it is an outdated concept, simply don’t remember the experience of feasting in a Horn & Hardart while shopping in downtown Philly. Putting those nickels in the slot and getting crusty mac and cheese, cherry pie, and steaming hot chocolate from a swan-shaped dispenser are fond memories for me. An automat at resort food courts would definitely solve the problem of late night food; you could even have it facing outside so that the food court space wouldn’t have to be open. And it would definitely be a great way to add CS options at the Studios or in Tomorrowland. A card reader to deduct DP points could certainly be added to make it work for those looking to spend snack credits. Let’s go, Disney!

  19. Alan says:

    On Sunday mornings my Dad would take my sister and me on the subway to the Central Park Zoo and then to the Automat for lunch. It was like being in a video game before there were video games. It was magical to a little kid. I don’t know if it would pay, but it would be worth a try. Think of what a great back story the Disney people could come up with. By the way, the machines that dispensed the drinks were the most fascinating.

  20. Pudge the Fish says:

    I also am on the bandwagon with you for this one AJ. My immediate thought when I read the headline was “that would be great for the ABC Commissary at the Studios.” But for that matter it would work well thematically to Pop Century or Cosmic Ray’s. If the food is fresh and the turnover consistent it would great for newer, non-mid-century foods like sushi and dim sum too.

  21. Anne Boulley says:

    I’m fascinated by this idea and I think it would be perfect for Disney!

  22. Wishesdv says:

    Put one in the Studios! Just like the old staffed ones, busboys and all. Add some of the Disney Favorites and add some comfort food too. Love the idea and the article.

  23. Diane says:

    Put one in at Hollywood Studios with detailing related to the old Doris Day era movies. Ever since I saw the one in “That Touch of Mink”, I’ve wanted to eat from one. In a smart suit and heels of course.

  24. EEFoster says:

    Love it! I remember automats in NY fondly. Although clearly this is classic Americana, it almost seems like a Japanese concept at this point, with all their wacky (to us) vending machines.

    http://www.japanguidebook.com/articles/10-most-bizarre-vending-machines-japan-82.html

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what types of restaurants Disney is missing – how they could branch out. This certainly qualifies as something new and different for them.

  25. Jacquie says:

    Brilliant!! We really need to start a petition or facebook sign-up page for this. You make so many good arguments – I love the nostalgia angle, and the easy of service and ability to get some healthy, quick food in the park. Nice post!

  26. David says:

    Great idea! I just forwarded it, and a link to this blog post, to the “Contact Us” form on the WDW site.

  27. Leigh B says:

    I have always loved the idea of automats. I totally agree with Pudge. Would LOVE to see this at either Hollywood Studios and/or Pop Century.

  28. In my opinion, I think Disney are the only people that stand a chance at pulling this off. I’ve seen lots of automats in my travels across Europe and many of them are old, grotty and not too popular.

    If Disney can do what it does best, by providing good food and a clean setup, this could work. Of course I don’t think it would be a great idea to put this in all CS places or anything, but maybe one or two places and a few snack outlets would be nice :)

  29. Jeanine says:

    “A kiss on the hand may be quite continental
    But diamonds are a girl’s best friend
    A kiss may be grand but it won’t pay the rental
    On your humble flat, or help you at the automat…”

    When I was little it took me _forever_ to figure out what the song was talking about. I had a vague idea it was someplace people bought cars…

    I vote “yea.”

  30. It’s so funny that you should write this – the first trip my husband (then boyfriend) and I stayed at a Value, he and I had this discussion about this. We thought it would be great at POP Century and/or DHS – just like others have suggested.

    On a related side note…I really like this food history and (re)designing Disney approach. I hope you do more of these!

    dkp

  31. AJ says:

    Dannette — There’s ALWAYS time for room service ;-)

    Janna — Yes — for sure. THIS automat would be able to read your KTTW card and deduct your DDP credits! At least it does in my imagination..

    Wendy — I think this machine would be super smart and you’d be able to use DDP credits! We could make that happen, right?

    Becca — Totally. Agreed that if it’s not sold at the food court or counter service location in the resort, it’s not allowed to be sold in the resort’s automat! ;-)

    Deej — So cool about the Starbucks CEO! Yeah; I think people are in a space where they’re nostalgic about these things.

    Greg — Totally against it, eh? I do wonder what some of the drawbacks might be. I’m sure they’re there!

    Ashley — Love the Streets of America idea! It would be perfect in New York Street.

    Bill — Ha! Thank you!! I’m always a sucker for nostalgia and food.

    Jo — Yikes! Not a good memory, I’m sure. :-(

    Jill — Aw, thanks! What a fun memory for you to share!! Cool job, Grandpa — must have been busy as the maintenance person at an automat!!

    Vanessa — Exactly! I could totally go for these over in the Epcot deluxe resorts!

    Susie — Little details for sure!! I’m also loving that folks are associating this with great memories of grandparents :-)

    Lisa — Thanks for the support :-)

    Griffin — I KNOW! I realize I’ve probably been eating all day, but sometimes I need MORE food when I get back to my resort!

    Dawn — How fun! Your kids are definitely getting some experiences!

    Mark D — I know; but I can always hope :-)

    Melissa — You said JETSONS! I’m even more on board now!

    Sandra — I loved hearing you talk about your H&H memories! Swan shaped dispenser — awesome!!

    Alan — What fabulous weekends you must have had! Did I know you were from NYC originally?

    Pudge — Agreed 100% on ABC Commissary. That location would absolutely lend itself to an automat!

    Anne — Great to “see” you! Thanks for the support :-)

    Wishesdv — Doesn’t it sound like fun?!

    Diane — We’d bring the sexy back to dining with our elbow gloves!!

    Erin — My thoughts exactly. It would be something completely out of their typical “comfort” zone, but still fresh.

    Jacquie — Thanks! It does sound like fun, doesn’t it?!

    David — Awesome! I wonder if you’ll get anything back! :-)

    Leigh — I like those ideas, too. And Tomorrowland is growing on me… :-) A futuristic take on the automat!

    Stephen — Agreed. I think the concept would have to be freshened up to actually work. But if it will work anywhere in America, I think it’s Disney.

    Jeanine — Ha!! VERY good point!

    Debra — Thanks! Every once in a while I go back to the whole “I’m just gonna state my opinion!” concept for posts. It’s fun!

  32. Patty says:

    I went to college at night. The college center cafeteria was closed. But they had similar machines that had sandwiches and small salads. It wasn’t the best, but after a long day of work, a lousy tuna sandwich during a 3 hour lecture was a godsend.

    I would love to see this in Tomorrowland. It seems to fit with the 50-60′s idea of the future. I could also see it in Future World in Epcot, but Sunshine Seasons is so good I may never get there. Even if it only ran on “snack credits”, it would be just unique enough to be Disney.

  33. Tracy says:

    This is such a good idea! As long as the food is freshly stocked, most things like fruit/veggies, cupcakes, cookies or other baked goods ad AJ has outlined would work great!

    Considering they have soda machines that take your KTTW card or credit card, it should be very easy for these machines to accommodate plastic.

  34. Heather says:

    I love this idea for the resorts! So many times we’ve come back hungry from a late night at the parks and everything is closed!

  35. Alex (@ajcenac) says:

    This is a brilliant idea. The only draw-back would be the ability to keep the portals compliant with health and sanitary regulations. The choices would be limited, since they would want to avoid not selling any items and having to dispose of them. I think something like this would be nice to be available during Extra Magic Hour mornings and/or evenings in the parks. Have you ever stood in the line at the Main Street Bakery? All of that stuff could easily be available in an automat.

  36. Brian says:

    This reminds me of many Japanese-style fast food restaurants. But rather than inserting your money and taking your food, you put your money into a vending machine in the entrance and received tickets. After sitting down in a booth or at the counter, you handed your tickets to the server and they brought your order from the kitchen.

    Very efficient, very inexpensive, very Japanese.

    I also love that many of the foods had the same picture, but different serving sizes. Rather than describing serving sized by Small / Medium / Large, serving sizes were labeled 800 / 1000 / 1200 calories.

  37. Sara says:

    While an automat would be a cool concept for WDW, they are a company based on quality customer service. I know the reason I keep going back is largely because of the interactions I have with cast members. Sure, when hungry and craving a late-night dole whip while staying at the Poly, I’m going to care more about my treat than any conversation with cast member who gives me my change. On a busy day I understand the desire to get food as fast as you can to get one more ride on space mountain before the parade, and automat would definitely be efficient. Even still, I feel like most people would rather deal with a person than a machine. It’s kind of like the touch screen ordering kiosk they have at pecos bill’s…the line is never long for those even if the regular lines in the restaurant are long.

  38. Piddles says:

    I agree that this would be perfect for Tomorrowland! I’m also in the “I’ve only seen automats in hospitals” club, but I still think if it was well-executed and had enough of a retro-future feel to it, I wouldn’t associate the automat itself with a hospital. They could even play around with the specifics of how the automat would work to make it more futuristic, just by having the doors be a little more complicated (for a second I was thinking about those fancy new vending machine, where a robot arm grabs your drink from slot C6 for you, how awesome would robotic servers be? Maybe there could even be little LED lights thanking you for your patronage or a robot-voice wishing you a good day or something).

    Even if it wouldn’t be successful year-round, it would be pretty great if there was an automat on the busiest days. It would offer an alternative for those of us who don’t want to wait in an hour-long line for a hot dog. Come to think on it, it would probably cut down the other food lines quite a bit, as well.

  39. What a creative idea! I think it’s definitley worth a try for disney! Contemporary, BLT, DHS and Tomorrowland all come to mind for this idea. Of course the kinds of foods you offer would make it an easy fit in almost any park, resort, or “land”! I like it!

  40. MissGamble says:

    Awesome idea! I agree with others – Tomorrowland would be the perfect place for this. Fast and kind of futuristic (even though we have them today) + the great use of more neon lights. I would also go with the possibility of the Contemporary Resort, and Downtown Disney! I would love to see a nice range of foods in these and the whole experience is just fun!!

  41. Katie says:

    Awesome!!!!!!! I like it! It would just be another classic Disney experience that you wont have anywhere else!!

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