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Meaty-oric Rise: How Renaissance Fairs and Disney Parks Catapulted the Turkey Leg to Greatness

Ellen Gutoskey
Sorry, vegetarians.
Sorry, vegetarians. / (Background) filo/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images; (Turkey) Nick Li/EyeEm/Getty Images; (Mickey silhouette) Philroc, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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“Some people go to Disney for the magic, excitement, rides, characters, etc.,” Kevin W. of Elburn, Illinois, wrote on Yelp in December 2013. “I come for the turkey legs.”

He didn’t stop there: “I swear, these turkey legs are stuffed with all the leftover magic and wonderment left in Disney World. They are amazing and the reason I can tolerate thousands of children kicking and screaming all around me with their worn down parents.”

Mere weeks later, The New York Times published a feature entitled “Turkey Legs Conquer Land of Mouse Ears,” which stated that sales of the “bulbous, chewy, piping hot drumsticks the size of Fred Flintstone’s forearm” had skyrocketed roughly 25 percent in three years. The clamor may have reached a fever pitch around 2013—thanks in no small part to the viral nature of social media—but the smoky snack itself wasn’t new. Nor did it originate on Mickey Mouse’s playground.

Fair Game

In May 1963, married couple Phyllis and Ron Patterson of Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, organized the inaugural Renaissance Pleasure Faire at a North Hollywood children’s camp known as Haskell’s Rascals Ranch. Some 3000 revelers attended the two-day fête, which is widely considered the first modern Renaissance fair.

The Pattersons expanded the annual event over multiple weekends in subsequent years, and by the 1970s similar festivals were beginning to pop up all over the country. Donning your best doublet or puffy-sleeved gown to hobnob with jousters, jesters, and thespians was proving to be a surprisingly popular pastime. And with all that merrymaking, of course, came plenty of eating and drinking.

Enter the turkey leg.

2008 renaissance fair attendee eats a turkey leg
A 2008 Ren fair attendee fuels up for the festivities. / midiman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The handheld meat quickly became a mainstay of Ren fair fare, along with other old-timey offerings like mead and tarts. While the “well, actually” contingent might be inclined to argue that turkey legs in this context are a bit anachronistic, it really depends on what context you’re talking about. 

Turkeys are native to the Americas, and they didn’t debut in Europe until explorers started importing them circa the early 16th century. The birds were definitely around in England during Elizabeth I’s reign—from 1558 to 1603—which is the era the Pattersons focused on recreating at their events. These days, however, the culture of Renaissance fairs has thoroughly transcended that one slice of time, and even the Renaissance at large: Some festivals are expressly set in the Middle Ages, when turkey meat was as common in Europe as, say, Skittles.

That said, many fairs are much less concerned with period precision than with celebrating our collective portrait of medieval times—which, considering the number of people who show up dressed as elves and wizards, is probably just as influenced by fantasy content as it is by anything we learned in school. And pointing out the historical inaccuracy of a person’s lunch seems a little irrelevant when you’re standing near someone cosplaying a centaur.

centaur cosplayer at 2006 texas renaissance festival
A centaur at the 2006 Texas Renaissance Festival. / https://www.flickr.com/people/16638697@N00, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In any case, when Dave Jarrett came across a turkey leg at a fair in 1989, he didn’t see an anachronism—he saw an opportunity.

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a Turkey Leg for Me

In 1977, Jarrett alighted in Orlando with a biology degree from Indiana’s Ball State University and a completely unrelated job lead from his frat brothers: shucking oysters for $2.50 an hour at Cap’n Jack’s, an eatery located in the shopping center then known as the Walt Disney World Village. (Cap’n Jack’s shuttered in 2013, when the village—which had already undergone a number of name changes—was expanded and rebranded as Disney Springs.)

Though the gig spelled the end for Jarrett’s plans to become a doctor, it kickstarted a successful career within the Disney Parks machine. He worked his way up through the ranks, and by 1997 was serving as a convention manager at Magic Kingdom. But his most notable contribution to Disney World had come eight years earlier, when he floated the idea of serving up oversized turkey legs similar to those he’d seen at the fair. According to an Orlando Sentinel feature on Jarrett, “He was nearly laughed out of a meeting” for the suggestion. Nevertheless, the team decided to take a chance—and it paid off in spades.

“We had to smoke them 24 hours a day,” Jarrett told The Orlando Sentinel. “It wasn’t so funny after that.”

man wearing sunglasses gnaws on a turkey leg at disney EPCOT
A Disney guest toasts his recent engagement with a turkey leg in EPCOT in 2012. / happyskrappy, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

At first, guests could only find the glistening drumsticks at one stand in Magic Kingdom’s Frontierland, right near the Big Al’s Coonskin Caps kiosk. But over the next several years, the snack not only spread to other areas of Orlando’s Disney World, but also other Disney locations. Sometimes, it was marketed to match a certain part of the park: When Disney World launched Animal Kingdom in 1998, for example, its turkey legs were labeled “dinosaur bones.” Turkey leg ascendancy even started creeping outside the culinary sphere: During a 1997 overhaul of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, one animatronic swashbuckler who had heretofore wielded a woman’s shoe and negligee was given a turkey leg to brandish instead.

It wasn’t long before other amusement parks decided to take a page out of Disney’s cookbook. Universal’s Islands of Adventure had turkey legs on offer when it opened in 1999; the Texas waterpark Schlitterbahn had been selling them at least as far back as 1992. Six Flags and Busch Gardens eventually followed suit, too. Nowadays, chances are pretty good that you’ll see someone going to town on a turkey leg at any given theme park, fair, or festival in the U.S. 

An Emus-ment Park Rumor

disney world turkey leg sweatshirt
What do turkey legs smell like? Money. / rickpilot_2000, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Though Renaissance fairs popularized the turkey leg a couple of decades before Disney got in on the action, the company does deserve some credit for scaling it up from a grab-and-go snack to a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. Circa 2012, Disney Parks started hawking turkey leg–scented (and –shaped) air fresheners, T-shirts emblazoned with the words turkey leg alongside an illustrated hunk of the stuff, and other kitschy merchandise.

Also adding to the hype is how Disney’s turkey legs defy our expectations of a typical turkey leg in both appearance and taste—propagating the rumor that they’re actually emu legs. 

According to The New York Times, the reason that Disney’s drumsticks seem so massive is mostly because they’re from male turkeys (toms), while the turkeys we’re used to seeing on Thanksgiving tables are generally much smaller females (hens). Not to mention that farmers are breeding turkeys to be significantly larger in recent years to keep up with demand. But even the hulking toms of today can’t compete with an average emu: A representative from Florida’s Gatorland wildlife preserve told The Orlando Sentinel that an emu leg is some eight times the size of its gobble-happy counterpart.

turkey hen and turkey tom
A hen and a tom. / Peter van der Sluijs, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 1.0

The characteristic ham-like flavor and pinkish hue are reportedly thanks to a curing solution that Disney’s legs are injected with before they get smoked. And emu meat doesn’t taste like ham anyway; it’s more often likened to beef. Plus, as Snopes points out, it’s illegal to pass off one type of meat as another.

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, the conspiracy theory has proven persistent—magnifying the almost mythic nature of Disney’s most sought-after meat. Maybe the magic and wonderment that Kevin W. attributed to the turkey legs was really inside us all along. 

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