Tributes to a jungle-themed restaurant chain and its signature robotic animal performers have been popping up all over TikTok. Why is Gen Z so obsessed with Rainforest Cafe?
This isn’t the first time the younger generation has taken to the app to praise suburban classics. In early 2020 at the height of the Alt TikTok craze, people were creating accounts that looked like brands aimed at the middle class, like Burlington Coat Factory and Chili’s. These accounts, though bizarre, seemed to unite people over a common experience.
With Rainforest Cafe, though, it’s different. The novelty restaurant seems to symbolize both the emotional intensity of childhood and the hope of life after quarantine for Gen Z.
The restaurant was founded in 1994 as the pinnacle of “eatertainment,” which is exactly as it sounds — a place to eat as you are entertained. The oldest members of Gen Z were born in 1997, making them younger than 10 years old when restaurants of its kind became less popular as disposable income decreased amid the 2008 recession. Only 16 locations still remain.
It’s likely that many of these members of Gen Z and even younger millennials have memories from the Rainforest Cafe that shaped their childhood, then entirely disappeared as the restaurants began to close (and animatronic animals became less appealing).
When I asked my coworkers to share memories from their trips to Rainforest Cafe, nearly all of them recalled being terrified by the “storm” — a fake lightning show that happened roughly every 17 minutes, complete with flashing lights and screaming animal sounds.
It’s a lot for a young child to handle, and it’s no wonder the place was so memorable, as studies have found that sometimes our clearest memories are the ones we formed in moments of intense fear.
TikTokers also expressed their fear of a tree that had a face on it and could talk.
“I was literally scared of everything there,” one user wrote.
“I used to get mad at it and slap it,” another said.
Its “extra” nature made it the perfect place for special occasions, like birthdays and post-game celebrations. It was a little on the pricey side, too, and still is — according to the Atlantic City, N.J., location’s menu, a salad costs more than $20, although it’s hard to imagine ordering anything other than chicken fingers there.
Though Rainforest Cafe is home to many joyful memories, multiple TikTokers pointed out that their parents weren’t huge fans of the ambience, so there was a bit of tension in every trip. There’s something kind of fun about watching your parents do something they don’t want to do just to make you happy, though.
The innocence of youth — from irrational fears to delight in corny, over-produced “eatertainment” shows — is inherent in the Rainforest Cafe. Its essence could also be considered a “rare aesthetic,” a medium through which Gen Zers reflect upon their nostalgia while avoiding the corny feelings they make fun of Millennials for embracing.
Also, the things that seemed basic and corny have a delightful new twinge to them now that we’ve been social distancing for a year.
“This is your sign to dress up and go to a Rainforest Cafe,” one TikToker wrote in an early tribute to the restaurant.
“I will do absolutely anything to be able to go get blitzed in a Rainforest Cafe,” another said.
Once people can safely leave their homes and gather together again, it’s likely they’ll be met with a renewed sense of appreciation for the restaurant as they seek out joy in the various absurdities of suburban life they once found mundane.
If you’re wondering when these extremely fun restaurants reopen, that’s up to each location, as indoor dining rules vary by state. In the meantime, you can order delivery from some locations, if the ambiance is less important to you than the expensive salads.
Whenever they do reopen, you’ll find us there, and we’ll be splurging on the souvenir cup.
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