Behind the Bar

Magic in the Details: How to Create an Unforgettable Themed Bar

Interior of the Lockhart, a Harry Potter bar in Toronto
The Lockhart, in Toronto, draws heavy inspiration from the "Harry Potter" book and film series. (Photo: Sandro Pehar)

When it’s time to create a new bar concept at a Disney theme park or resort, the process usually begins in the offices of the creative engineering team behind the rides, decor and other pieces of Disney’s immersive experience: the Imagineers. “Imagineering will create the story, and then we'll say, ‘Well, how can we develop the beverage program and the food experience to work with the concept?’” says Brian Koziol, Food and Beverage Concept and Development Director and Master Sommelier for Disney Parks & Resorts.

On both U.S. coasts, Disney has roughly 100 nightclubs, lounges and outdoor bars. “And we have plans to produce more,” says Koziol. With so many bars, it’s easy to think that there might be some overlap in concept, but that’s not the case. “We pretty much start from scratch,” says Koziol, “That's what makes our locations really unique. We do have some favorites in our pool bars and lobby lounges that are consistent throughout the property, but for all of our themed lounges, that's all one hundred percent unique on the cocktails.”

A fake newspaper clipping. When Disney's Imagineers are considering a new concept, they show great attention to detail. They knew that with Jock Lindsay's Hangar Bar, they'd have to use the decor to tell the story of this obscure Indiana Jones reference. (Photo: Matt Stroshane)

Once the concept has been created, the Imagineers work with Koziol and his team on getting all the details in line with the story. Take Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar, for example, located in Disney Springs, in Florida. “A lot of people come in and they go, ‘Well, who the heck is Jock Lindsay?’ Do you remember one of the opening scenes in the original ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ where Indy is running down the field after he stole the little head from the cave and the Indians are running after him? Those were the Hovito Indians. And Indy starts to yell ‘Jock, Jock, start the plane!’ So that's who Jock Lindsey is,” says Koziol.

During menu development, Brad Ward, Beverage Manager for Disney Parks & Resorts and a member of Koziol’s team, began to connect the dots from the legend to the drink. Koziol explains: “[Brad] says, ‘well, this really is a place depicted from South America. Down in South America they have pisco, so let's create a Hovito mojito using pisco, and we get Jock’s introduction to how he becomes a character in Indiana Jones.” To complete the experience, they created a signature vessel to look like hand-blown South American glass (available for purchase, of course).

This is hardly a one-off story. The Imagineers created a whole mythology to explain how Jock ended up in Florida. One of the drinks, the Fountain of Youth, pays homage to Ponce de León’s quest for it in St. Augustine (apparently, Jock found it). Not only does the drink carry the story forward, but it’s mixed using spirits indigenous to the St. Augustine area.

Interior of the Lockhart, a Harry Potter bar in Toronto The team behind the Lockhart wanted to create a space that paid homage to a theme without delivering it in a heavy-handed way. (Photo: Sandro Pehar)

While the theme is everywhere at Disney, one of Koziol’s goals is to make sure that the theme is simple to identify, right down to the menu items. Some themed bars, however, are playing up subtlety. “We don't want to be snobbish about it, we don't want to look down our noses at people who might not get the references,” says Matt Laking, founder and co-owner of The Lockhart, in Toronto, which draws heavy inspiration from the Harry Potter book and movie series. “I think the other thing is that sometimes you put an Easter egg in somewhere, and the more subtle it is, the more people feel rewarded for recognizing it.”

“We wanted to create a space where we could feel comfortable nerding out, but also that didn't beat people over the head with the theme,” says Mike Keene, The Lockhart’s general manager and “potions master.” “I feel like we've created a space that has a lot in it for people who come for it, but also if you walk in the bar and you don't know what it is, you might not even pick up on it.” Laking notes that guests frequently write reviews about their enjoyment of the drinks and venue, few realizing that they were in a famous bar.

“The sort of obvious connection between alcohol and drinks to potions and elixirs was something that came very naturally, and as we started building out the bar, we literally didn't have a game plan. We started throwing things around, sticking them on the wall, buying things we liked, and we ended up with this really cool, cohesive magical space,” says Laking, though he notes that there were several very intentional touches: the logo depicts a stag, the name references a pompous professor, and the custom sign on the wall reads “all was well,” the final words in the last Harry Potter book.

You won’t see the Lockhart bartenders sporting wizard robes. “For one thing, we do a lot of fire drinks, so robes would definitely be a safety concern,” says Keene. “But for another, they would get really sticky and wet. Also, to my own personal shame, I'm a muggle, so it would be inappropriate for me to wear a Hogwarts uniform.”

“We aren’t just bending over backwards doing everything the world wants us to do,” says Laking. “We hold our ground on some of the things we want to see as well.” Keene encourages themed bars not to see the theme as a restriction. “Look at the theming as an opportunity, it give you so many reasons to do things, and so much inspiration.”

Cocktail at the Lockhart (Photo: Sandro Pehar)

For the most part, the drinks have a connection to the theme. “We're all pretty big fans of puns here, sometimes a drink will be reverse-engineered from a pun,” says Keene. Still, he’s most interested in creating drinks with excellent ingredients. He put the Gin Weasley on the menu to show off his housemade bitters, the name came after the drink had been created. On the other hand, Keene spent two months developing the BetterBeer, a blend of Advocaat, cinnamon infused toasted butter washed Sauza, house brewed ginger beer and ginger ale with a whipped cream and toasted marshmallow garnish. “I’m very proud of it,” he says.

If you’re feeling like living dangerously, you can also order The Captain Picard. “For the early menu, I think we weren't quite as focused, but what we did have was a really good Earl Grey gin infusion,” says Keene. “I was kind of wracking my mind for what we could possibly do with it, and then I remembered a Patrick Stewart line. He goes up to the replicator and says: ‘tea, Earl Grey, hot’ and for me that was the drink.” Who says fandoms can’t overlap?

Laking got a kick out of an article which found a Harry Potter reference in a cocktail he named: The Senora Bowski. “It was a stretch. It took them four paragraphs to explain the reference, and the funny joke around here was that drink is named after my dog: Bowie. There was no reference.”

Once word gets out about a bar focused on the world of wizards and wands, expectations mount. “You've got to be very passionate for it," says Laking. “You've got to live and breathe everything about your bar, but what comes along with that is that you also need really thick skin. For every five people that are complimenting you, you're going to have five people saying really terrible, nasty things. It's really hard disappointing somebody that traveled 500 miles to get to your place to only be disappointed because their expectation is based on something somebody wrote in an article halfway around the world. We don't have much control over that.”

“If you're going to start a bar like this you have to respect the fact that people care deeply about the source material,” says Keene. “We use fiction as a way to escape from our lives and sometimes we feel like our relationships with fictional characters are deeper than our relationships with real people. If you have that kind of relationship with the source material that you want to draw from, then by all means go for it, because even though you'll make mistakes, your love for the material will carry you through. But if you don't love the source material, I think you're going to run into issues,” he says. “Why wouldn't you just start a regular bar then? It's so hard to run a bar. Why put yourself through all the trouble if you don't love it just as much as your customers do?”

The exterior of a bar at Disney World. Jock Lindsay's Hangar Bar, like The Lockhart, demonstrates reverence to the source material, which is key in creating a compelling theme bar. (Photo: Kent Phillips)

Both The Lockhart and Disney Parks & Resorts keep their specific demographics in mind when creating drink menus. “Because we know that we do appeal to the families, we always work on a great non-alcoholic program for all of our concepts,” says Koziol. “If you can create a good non-alcoholic drink, chances are you're going to have a home run hit with the alcohol drinks.” One such home run came in the form of a mocktail called Seashore Sweet, created for the AbracadaBAR Lounge on the BoardWalk. Although the concept isn’t tied to a movie, the backstory is no less intricate. The bar is said to be a hangout for magic practitioners from yesteryear which disappeared during the golden age of magic and has now miraculously reappeared. The drinks and decor are based on illusion and mystery. The Seashore Sweet starts with blue cotton candy over ice. As lemonade is poured into the glass, it changes color. This was calculated to be a hit with the kids, but adults wanted it, too. It was easy for Koziol to introduce some spirits.

“Knowing your demographics is so important,” says Keene. “What's your theme, who likes your theme?” Laking checks in on the numbers monthly. “Our demographics are ages 20-29 and 90% female,” he says. As they craft the menu, choose music or develop merchandise, they are thinking about that group, but it goes beyond that. “You need to cater to these people. Not only to the menu, but this needs to be a safe space, this needs to be a place where if a bartender sees a guy walk in and start chatting up random tables like it's a pickup bar they need to know that the entire organization is behind them if they kick that dude out. That's not what this bar is here for.”

Ultimately, fun is the crucial element for everyone involved in theme bars — the guests, the staff and the ownership. “It needs to be fun,” says Koziol. “Then it usually comes together.” It is that delight and passion for the concept that sustains these bars through the hard work, crazy crowds and late nights. And after everyone has left for the night, the staff of The Lockhart have a glowing reminder on the wall: “all was well.” They’ve done their best to make sure that, at least in their corner of the world, it is.

Interior of the Lockhart, a Harry Potter bar in Toronto (Photo: Sandro Pehar)

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