Legoland is in the news after a team of researchers from the Soil Association ranked the attraction 21st out of 22 for its culinary options and branded its food “deep-fried crap”. As someone who worked for two summers at the park’s Food and Beverage department, this is not wholly accurate: not all of the food was deep-fried. Some of it was cooked from frozen, boiled in a bag, or roasted in an industrial oven, crap.
Looking back, it should have raised alarm bells that they brought up on several occasions how good it was that my first job involved cleaning toilets. Fortunately, I never had to clean the loos at Legoland – those who did wore the haggard faces of battle-scarred veterans – but serving some of the food required a similarly strong stomach. It was as if the whole department had given itself to consciously forgetting all of the lessons about how to cook cheaply and well on a large scale. To add insult to injury as far as the punters were concerned, meals were eye-wateringly expensive as well as borderline inedible.
Although the restaurants at Legoland weren’t the worst I ever worked at, they were my introduction to one of the most difficult customer service interactions you can have in catering: someone sending food back because they correctly believe that what they have been served is absolutely disgusting, but incorrectly believe that this is because it has been improperly cooked and that a second plate will be better than the first. This was good preparation for another job were one of the more difficult balancing acts was talking people round from ordering steak that had been cooked off-site to a uniform and chewy grey “rare”.
I eventually moved out of serving food to one of the many booze carts that populated the park, which had the distinct advantage that while the drink, like the food, was wildly overpriced, it was at least the same quality as what you could find elsewhere and people never sent it back. The quality of the clientele was also better because most sensible people understand that if they buy food in a theme park they are going to get ripped off but most parents, staring down the barrel of god knows however many hours surrounded by screaming children, will buy a drink. You really see humanity in all of its glory selling booze in a children’s theme park.
Most of the drinkers fitted within a few broad archetypes. You had the luckless designated driver, seething with barely contained fury while their children (or in the case of bigger groups, multiple people’s children) run rampant and everyone else is getting drunker and drunker.
Or a family that had taken the train and coach and were just quietly getting completely hammered: a particular stand-out being two accountants who quite literally drained the bar dry with no noticeable change in their behaviour or poise.
There was the divorced dad and his new partner taking the children round the park, who had made the early error of letting their children buy a “limitless” soft drink, a bucket-sized reusable cup that could be refilled for free at every restaurant and café. By 11am the kids were running wild, the partner would be bored and sulky and the dad desperate for liquid relief and conversation about anything other than Lego blocks or why it was a mistake to have given his children quite so much Coca-Cola.
Divorced families in general provided the best people-watching not least because you’d be surprised just how much you can learn about the circumstances of a divorce from a drinks order. Almost every child whose parents are separated, whether through divorce or simply because it is a teacher training day and only one of them can get leave, has at some point unconvincingly tried to claim that actually the absent parent would let them have a large Fanta, and the reaction – whether worried unease, maybe she does do that now, or the certainty that no, my children are lying to me – revealed a lot more about the state of the parents’ relationship than I could have gleaned over years of conversation.
Then you had truly the worst people on Earth: men – always men – who order a Guinness when you have a huge queue and then a minute later ask why it isn’t done yet. If there is an afterlife there is a designated circle of Hell just for these people.
But despite the Guinness drinkers and the bad food, Legoland was a great place to work: for the first and thus far only time in my life I was paid overtime, there was a strong atmosphere of camaraderie, and you got free entry to much better theme parks as a perk of the job. Nonetheless, the Soil Association are right: the food really is crap.