Once described as “a bit like an acid trip without the comedown,” a meal at this 1990s mainstay is much more than a meal. Rainforest Cafe has been delighting families with animatronic elephants, misting waterfalls and gargantuan fish tanks—and occasionally terrifying young children—since ’91, and it all began with a primal urge in suburban Minneapolis.
1. THE FOUNDER BROUGHT THE RAINFOREST TO MINNESOTA, OF ALL PLACES.
The chain is the brainchild of entrepreneur Steven Schussler, who in 1989 turned his home outside Minneapolis, Minn., into the prototype for the Rainforest Cafe—replete with live tropical birds, a baboon named Charlie, 150-pound tortoises, giant aquariums, a greenhouse/bar on the roof, even retail products for purchase—to attract investors.
2. SHOCKER: SUCCESS WASN’T IMMEDIATE.
Schussler lived in his artificial rainforest for months, changing that baboon’s diapers and spending more than half a million dollars building rock formations and indoor waterfalls; initially, investors weren’t too interested. As a local broker (who, spoiler alert, co-managed the company’s eventual IPO) told Fortune in 1996, “How he ate or slept is beyond me. I thought he was nuts.” Two years later, Schussler filed for bankruptcy.
3. THEN, A CASINO MAGNATE SAVED THE DAY.
Schussler’s luck began to turn around when Lyle Berman, co-founder of Grand Casinos, came on board. Shortly thereafter, the first official location opened—not surprisingly—in the Mall of America in 1994. Remember, this was an era when Hard Rock Cafe was still going strong, and Planet Hollywood had just opened three years prior. Within a week, folks were waiting up to three hours for a table, and within a year the space was expanded not once, but three times, to seat nearly 300 diners.
4. IT’S MORE THAN AN AMERICAN PHENOMENON.
These days, after dozens of openings and closings, Rainforest Cafe has restaurants in 13 states—plus Niagara Falls (the Canadian side), Tokyo, London, Paris and Dubai. Notably, none of those locations have natural rainforests, though Dubai certainly is trying.
5. IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO RUN EVEN ONE LOCATION.
There’s the veritable army of “navigators” (bartenders), “safari guides” (waiters), “trailblazers” (cooks), “safari assistants” (bussers), and more. And it takes more than a manager to look over the menagerie, human and animatronic: The headset-donning director of operations, at least at the 33,000-square-foot location on San Francisco’s Fisherman's Wharf, looks over the rainforest from a high-tech control room with computers that monitor every waterfall, sound effect and storm.
6. FORECAST: STORMY WITH A SIDE OF RAGING THUNDER BUFFALO WINGS.
Speaking of storms, every 20 minutes a simulated thunderstorm rips through the place. Lightning flashes, thunder cracks, and the rain picks up, pouring into waterfalls and pools and alarming the animatronic wildlife—macaws, jaguars, gorillas and more. And, on occasion, terrifying younger diners.
7. THE FARE ISN’T EXACTLY TROPICAL.
Don’t let the names (Mongoose Mai Tai, the Beastly Burger, Tribal Salmon) fool you. The most popular dishes on the menu here? The Rasta Pasta, an alfredo pasta with chicken, broccoli and spinach, and the Sparkling Volcano dessert, a mountain of brownies with ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate and caramel sauce. In years past, the dessert for two was delivered to your table with a lit sparkler sticking out of the top. Recently that tradition was replaced with a plastic replica. Guess the gators were scared of the flame?
8. BUILDING EACH RESTAURANT REQUIRED SOME REAL EXPERTISE.
Each location’s fiber-optic ceiling, for example, was developed and installed by Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Fiber Optics Systems. The surface resembles a September night sky; after dark, diners can try and spot 400 constellations and the occasional shooting star.
9. THIS IS ‘EATERTAINMENT’ AT ITS FINEST.
Rainforest Cafe holds a title that other concept restaurants can only dream of: It’s the only spot to open in every single Disney location.
10. GOOD LUCK GETTING YOUR KIDS OUT OF THERE.
The place’s tagline says it all: “A Wild Place to Shop and Eat.” Notice which activity comes first. In true Disney fashion, each restaurant spills out into its own gift shop, where you’ll find stuffed tree frogs, souvenir T-shirts, flip-flops and more. This is also where you can purchase your souvenir portrait, which a roving photographer snapped at some point during the meal.
11. AND DON’T WORRY, THAT MAD-GENIUS INVENTOR IS DOING JUST FINE.
Schussler has since developed a slew of concept restaurants, ranging from Green Acres to Galaxy Drive In to T-Rex Cafe (which is said to make Rainforest Cafe “look like a quiet sidewalk cafe”). And in the age of a million start-ups, he’s even written a book about believing in your own ideas: It’s a Jungle in There: Inspiring Lessons, Hard-Won Insights, and Other Acts of Entrepreneurial Daring. Just, maybe, don't bring home a baboon to try to sell an idea.