January 16, 2012

Managing the Mouse – Eating in Disney with Dietary Challenges.

This past week (from the 7th to 13th), my family and I took our sixth trip to Walt Disney World.  Having done this a few times, I know the drill for Disney food, and we know that we like 1 (2 for exceptions) sit-down meal in the parks or at a WDW resort per day.  We also know that vegan pickings are slim on the menus.  However, Disney is very accommodating to dietary allergies or other issues.  They won’t accommodate your preference for a burger at the Italian place, but if you are lactose intolerant, gluten intolerant, allergic to nuts, etc., they will do what they can, particularly when given the right notice.  I am highly lactose intolerant and – having been a vegan for about seven years and a vegetarian for over 15 – I can’t tolerate any animal proteins at all.  I don’t make the right enzymes to process them, so when I get some in food on accident, I become extremely ill.  I also had a daughter who is vegan and a son who is vegetarian with me on this trip.  So, it was important to work the system.

When you have dietary challenges, following the process for Disney dining is a must.  The first step is to decide what your eating strategies will be.  Are you a counter-service (quick meals) type, a table-service (sit-down meals) type, a snacker, or some combination? Factors to take into consideration include whether you’ll be there during a busy time and want to spend all of your available moments in queue for rides, whether you’ll need a longer break at some point in the day to recharge, and whether you have small children in your party.

The second step is to determine how many meals you will be having on the property, including at your resort if staying there, and what types.  For best results, do this at least six months in advance.  I know, it seems ridiculous to plan your meals six months in advance, but believe me, you’ll be glad you did. There is a lot of variety to select from at Disney, and deciding on the spur of the moment can be overwhelming, but more importantly, it will be near impossible to happily meet dietary needs if you attempt it.

Once you know where and when you are eating, it’s time to make reservations for any table-service meals.  Start that process six months before your trip.  Some places won’t let you book that far out, so do what you can and then get others as they become available.  You can make dining reservations online or by phone (407-WDW-DINE).  With dietary needs, it’s a good idea to book for times slightly out of the crush of meals, because you’ll get better attention to your issues.  We tend to shoot for either 11:00 or 2:00 for lunch and around 7:30 for dinner (Disney tends to be an early dinner atmosphere due to the children present).  When you make the reservations, clearly and carefully note all allergies or intolerances on the reservation.  There is not an option for vegetarian, as all of the Disney restaurants have at least 1 vegetarian appetizer, entree, and dessert.  But, if you have needs that go beyond that, including gluten intolerance, nut allergies, shellfish allergies, dairy allergies, etc., note them.  If you have an issue that is not listed, be sure to note it as “other.”

Now that you have your reservations, go plan the rest of your trip and wait.  About a month before you leave, email Disney at [email protected], noting your name, the size of your party, all your reservations (including confirmation numbers), and the nature of your needs.  They will reply with some information regarding allergies and counter service food (which is very helpful if you plan to eat some counter meals) and how to manage if you have a single (or few) common allergy/intolerance.  If this applies to you, then you are done  until you arrive at each restaurant.  If your situation is more complex, you’ll have another step.  In this email, there will be a form included for guests with uncommon or complex food restrictions.  In my case, because I can’t consume dairy, fish, red meats, or eggs, I fill out the form and submit it.   In theory, this information is then passed on to the chef.  I have not often found that to be the case, but it’s good to have it done.  Once that is complete, you wait for your trip to commence.

Once you arrive on property, it’s time to swing into full gear.  For each dining experience, whether counter-service or table-service, know that you will need to be willing to clearly and persistently communicate your needs.  Disney is a huge business with a gazillion employees.  While most are happy to help, some just don’t really care about your diet or will dismiss it.  Stay calm  but persistent.

At counter-service restaurants, you’ll have some idea of what you can get from the previous information emailed to you.  But, you still need to check each time you place an order, because items do change from time to time.  If you have any doubts about the cast member’s ability to confirm that the item meets your needs, politely but firmly ask to see the ingredient list.  If you are having trouble getting needs met, ask to see a manager.

For table-service restaurants, when you check in, remind the host/hostess of your special dietary requests.  Generally, he or she will give you a slip for your table that has “special diets – chef” stamped on it, but not always.  If your server does not mention the issue when he/she greets you, you should bring it up.  Typically, the server will then either send the chef to your table, or communicate with the chef for you.  If you have any doubt that the server is relaying accurate information from the chef, ask to see him/her personally.

The last step is to enjoy your food and have a sense of humor about it.  We’ve generally done well (see a detailed discussion of what I ate on our most recent trip with a ton of pictures), but it does depend on the day, the chef in attendance, and the restaurant.  You won’t always get an amazing meal, but you won’t starve to death.  You will likely be paying more than you think you should for what you get, but that’s Disney dining (on our recent trip, my $30 breakfast buffet consisted of some fresh fruit, oatmeal, fried potatoes, and 2 frozen waffles).  Just grin and appreciate the theming of the restaurants, the interaction with characters and cast, and the dining pleasure of your companions, and it will be ok.

As you prepare for each day of dining in Disney, know that there might be some holes in your diet for each meal that you’ll need to fix later.  In our recent trip, I had meals that contained no veggies/fruits, and meals that contained no protein.  Disney is perfectly ok with you packing some food items in your backpack to munch in the park, so if there is something you know you can’t miss (you turn into a zombie without protein in your breakfast), throw a snack in your pack to have later.

True, this is more work than you might hope to go through, but it’s ultimately worth it to feel good during your vacation.  The mouse isn’t an uncooperative beast, but it is a little wild, and sometimes you have to gentle up to it to tame it down and be able to work with it.  But, once you do, you’ll generally end up with a full belly and an unforgettable experience.

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