[This AllergyEats Blog post written by Lisa Giuriceo, Facilitator of the Food Allergy and Asthma Support Group of North Jersey]
I have a 10 year old daughter with multiple food allergies to wheat, eggs, fish, peanuts, oats rye, barley, sesame seeds, peas, and green beans. When our daughter was first diagnosed with potentially life threatening food allergies at 9 months old, our life was turned upside down but my husband I wanted to provide our baby girl with the chance to live a full life while we managed her food allergies. We had learned that strict avoidance of the allergen was necessary and that we could never be without her epi-pen. We love to vacation and we had no idea how we were going to that with our daughter’s food allergies; until we read an article in Living Without magazine that highlighted Disneyland in California as a place that catered to children with food allergies. After reading the article, I called Disney World in Florida and was told that they did indeed accommodate children with food allergies. My husband and I decided it was worth booking a trip to see if it could be done. We booked a room at the Wilderness Lodge with a full kitchen just in case things did not work out and we needed to cook meals for our 20 month old daughter.
Prior to our arrival at Disney World, we made reservations for table service meals and listed our child’s dietary needs to the agent. We were also given a special phone number to call at Disney. At that number, we were able to speak with the chefs and they were able to tell us what brands they used of such staples as bread, so we could try them prior to arrival and be sure that our daughter was okay with them. (Remember, nine years ago, food allergy friendly items were not as readily available in local supermarkets as they are today.) We found many items that our daughter eats now, including Van’s wheat free waffles, Enjoy Life cookies, and Ener-G brand gluten free bread from speaking to the chefs at Disney World.
Our first trip to Disney was a wonderful experience; the chefs at each of the table service restaurants we attended were more than accommodating. Each of the chefs came to our table when we arrived and allowed us to go through the list of our daughter’s allergens as we presented them on a chef’s card. I cried tears of joy as my little princess was served a plate of delicious food the same as all the other children. We took photos of our daughter with each chef at the restaurants we visited and Disney has become our vacation spot each year since that first visit nearly nine years ago. It is the only week of the year that my husband and I do not cook.
After visiting Disney World so many times over the past nine years, my husband and I have come up with a formula that works best for us. We book the deluxe meal plan with our trip. This plan allows us the option of having only table service meals, where a chef comes to the table and prepares the meal for our child. The meal plans that offer counter service options do not work for us because our daughter has so many allergies. We book a nice lunch or breakfast and then we book dinner at a signature restaurant fine dining restaurant. Remember, we go to Disney for the service that restaurants provide to our daughter and this plan provides my husband and me with the opportunity to eat a gourmet restaurant each night of our vacation too. Our daughter also gets the “star” treatment at many of the signature restaurants. It is very funny, our daughter’s safe meal is grilled plain chicken, steamed broccoli, and a baked potato. Now that she is a little older, the chefs at the signature restaurants talk to her and offer to make more tantalizing safe dishes as grilled steak, corn on the cob, pork chops, hamburgers, etc. Our daughter was so thrilled when a chef presented her with grilled purple fingerling potatoes. We now purchase them in local markets at home when they are available.
As wonderful as Disney is to visit with a food allergic child, they are not perfect - but they are the closest thing to food allergy utopia that we have found. They provide food allergic patrons with the opportunity to communicate their allergies to a restaurant when a reservation is made and they have many procedures in place to ensure that a safe meal is served to that patron. As wonderful as they are, I would recommend staying away from Dinner Shows if you have multiple food allergies. At these venues, the menu is set and they have set times to get the people in and out - they really do not have the time to meet the needs of food allergic patrons. We attended the Luau and it was a nightmare, we got there and there was a green bean salad on my daughter’s plate, she refused to eat anything there because she did not trust the chef after this mistake. We did stay for the show but none of us ate the food.
Never be afraid to communicate the needs of your food child to a chef or manager when you dine at Disney or anywhere else. Open communication is the key to a wonderful dining experience for you and your child. I joke that we are only the people who go to Disney that take pictures of our child eating at a restaurant. I have nine years of photo albums filled with our daughter eating wonderful meals at Disney that were prepared by wonderful chefs. We visit Disney each July and they continue to meet our needs. Some of our favorite Disney restaurants are Tusker House in Animal Kingdom, the California Grille in the Contemporary, Tony’s Town Square in Magic Kingdom, Ohana’s in the Polynesian, all the table service restaurants in the Grand Floridian, Askerhaus in Norway in EPCOT, and the Sci-Fi Dinner Theater in Hollywood Studios.
On our first trip we asked one of the chefs why they do such a wonderful job accommodating food allergic children at Disney World, he said, “We want the repeat business.” It would be wonderful if other resorts would take this cue from Disney and realize that if they accommodate food allergic children and their families, we will return with pleasure and continue to be loyal customers.
What an awesome post! Thank you Lisa for sharing the touching story of your first visit, the tips you’ve learned, and your recommendations (of do’s AND don’t's). This is a blog post that I will certainly share with all those food allergy families nervously considering a trip to Disney World for the first time. (And to learn more about the man who revolutionized Disney World’s food allergy program, please read “Meet Chef Joel Schaefer, pioneer of Disney World food allergy initiatives.”
So what do you, our readers think? I know most of you who have visited Disney World have returned with great joy and appreciation. Have you gone through similar experiences as Lisa? Do you agree or disagree with any of her tips or recommended restaurants? What else do you think “first-timers” should know?
Please also remember to rate all of your restaurant experiences at our parent site, AllergyEats (www.allergyeats.com). It takes just one minute to rate a restaurant, but each of those ratings makes AllergyEats a more valuable resource for our entire food allergy and intolerance community.
And in keeping with this blog post, please note that we launched AllergyEats Disney World (www.allergyeats.com/disney) last November to provide the same peer-based rating system for restaurants in and around the Disney World parks. So please consider helping future visitors by rating those dining experiences as well.