ORLANDO, Fla. — It made its humble debut at a single stand in the late 1980s next to Big Al’s Coonskin Caps in Frontierland. Slowly it spread — dripping, always dripping — beyond Walt Disney World to Disneyland in California.
In 2010, with sales spiking, Disney rolled out related souvenirs: hats, pins, sweatshirts, T-shirts printed with the slogan “Nice & Juicy!” The Magic Kingdom has even started selling air fresheners with its scent for your car.
Disney’s latest megahit is no ride. It’s a turkey leg.
Depending on the final sales count from the holidays at six of Disney’s North American theme parks, the company in 2013 is likely to serve up an astounding 2 million of its jumbo turkey legs — bulbous, chewy, piping hot drumsticks the size of Fred Flintstone’s forearm. That is 25 percent more than three years ago.
“It’s a chance to channel my inner cave woman,” Karen Wang, 22, said as she gnawed into one of the hickory-smoked legs at Disneyland in December. Nearby, Juventino Santillan, 16, had the same idea. “Let’s take pictures,” he said to his sister, Christina, 17. “Make it look really gnarly, like a cave man.”
Indeed, in one explanation of their booming popularity, only part of this thrill seems to involve taste, which some say resembles ham. (The 1.5-pound legs are cured with a salt solution.)
The real treat comes courtesy of social media sites such as YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr and Instagram — being able to post pictures for friends back home, the more primitive the pose the better.
Food review sites such as Yelp.com have also spread the word. “I could kiss ’em, caress ’em and sleep with ’em all day and night,” John Giron from Daly City, Calif., wrote of the fare at the Disneyland Turkey Leg Stand. He added, “We’re like a pack of velociraptors gnawing every bit and piece until what’s left are bones and cartilage.”
Boiled down, Disney parks are about selling memories, and a spokeswoman, Angela Bliss, noted that foods like turkey legs play “an integral part in the storytelling.” For instance, at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, they have been sold as “dinosaur bones.”
Disney is also in the business of making money, of course, and a jumbo turkey leg sells for up to $11.79.
Still, some executives at Disney’s corporate offices worry that the craze is starting to obscure their efforts to improve overall food offerings and nudge customers toward healthier items. Of the 12 million children’s meals Disney serves annually, for instance, more than 50 percent now come with milk, juice or water instead of soda. Disney has also sharply reduced salt in its children’s meals.
Yet the cave people will not be denied.
“Our guests have come to demand these legs,” said Robert Adams, Walt Disney World’s executive chef.
“We always get one because they’re filling for the price, and they’re not bad for you,” said Jena Gibson, 18, adjusting her red sequined Minnie Mouse ears. “They’re actually one of the healthier things here.”
Maybe if fudge is the comparison. Each leg is roughly 720 calories with 36 grams of fat, according to a supplier, Yoakum Packing. Bliss, the Disney spokeswoman, noted that the legs are meant to be shared, adding that the average park visitor walks about 7 miles during a visit, burning 700 calories.
Just about everyone who comes into contact with these legs seems to have two questions: Are these really from turkeys? If so — if they’re not emu or ostrich, two urban myths — then why are they so big?
People are accustomed to Thanksgiving turkeys, which are female birds, or hens; the males, called toms, are bigger — up to 50 pounds apiece — and their legs are the ones that Disney serves, said Keith Williams, a vice president at the National Turkey Federation, an industry trade group.