The Disney Chronicles (and Universal): Dining out with 3 food-allergic children – Day 3
A Less-than-Perfect Food Allergy Dining Experience at Disney
Before I say anything else about Day 3, let me acknowledge that my family had a great day today! I say that not only to reassure those of you who I imagine lost a lot of sleep over our plight from the first day-and-a-half here (how about just a wink?), but also to make clear that I’m not a “negative Nellie.” Why is that important? Because I’m going to describe the first overly concerning food-allergic dining experience I’ve ever had at Disney!
First, however, breakfast. Rather than start the day with Pop Tarts again, we stepped it up to cereal and milk (or rice milk, depending on the child). Is that really relevant? No. So I’ll move on.
My 3 older children, my parents, and I took a detour over to Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure today to experience some different thrill rides and of course check out the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. During the course of the day, we stopped at a lunch location called Comic Strip Cafe. Walking in, I immediately had a flashback to a terrible experience at Six Flags New England last Summer (outlined in this blog). The two locations have a very similar layout. You step up to a cashier, tell her what you want from the large overhead billboards, then proceed forward to pick up your meal tray at the counter in front of the kitchens. The counter and kitchens appear a little hectic, like there’s food flying everywhere, which always causes apprehension.
In actuality, however, this was as decent an experience as I think we could have asked for at a lunch stop such as this. The menu board was a little more diverse than most and actually had a few items my dairy-allergic son could have. We were ready to ask about the spaghetti for him, but before I could find out if they used egg-free noodles or not, he decided he wanted to go back to old reliable – the hot dog… or two… and fries.
I mentioned at the register that my sons had food allergies and asked what the fries were fried in and whether or not the hot dog buns had dairy. Poof, out from under the cash register, Ashley pulled a “cheat sheet” that included the ingredients of the vegetable oil used in the fryer, the ingredients in the hot dog buns (no dairy!), as well as the ingredients in a few other key items. I was happy to see that the fries AND the buns were safe for both my sons.
Upon reaching the counter, I called the manager over and asked him the same questions (I always recommend asking twice when possible), plus whether or not there were any nut products around. After confirming what we already knew about the fries and buns, he acknowledged that their two Chinese food offerings do contain nuts. He assured me that those dishes are made in only one of the many cooking areas (and at the far end), nowhere near the other food. I was able to visually confirm this.
The bottom line is that we ended up with another safe meal for all.
Being Harry Potter fans, we then visited the Wizarding World. As we were finishing up riding rides and gaping at the scenery, it was time to head into the Hog’s Head for some butterbeer. Unfortunately, my 8-year-old wasn’t able to partake in this wizarding favorite. There is, in the words of the bartender, “trace amounts of whey at the bottom of the brew.” I couldn’t tell from her tone if this was a “made in a facility” type of warning or if it were more of a “this can’t hurt him, but I need to tell you” type of comment. Suffice it to say that even had I not thought it were the latter, this was a chance I was not going to take. I felt really bad telling him he couldn’t have a butterbeer – do you ever get used to disappointing your kids? – but he took it in stride as always and had a “fizzy apple juice.” (As an aside, I think he was the ultimate winner. The butterbeer was nasty! The frozen top was okay, but the bottom was like sipping butterscotch syrup through a straw. Yet, I digress.)
Finally, our entire family reconvened and eventually had dinner at the San Angel Inn Restaurante within the Mexico exhibit at Disney’s EPCOT. And here we experienced what I consider our first “concerning” Disney dining experience!
I will note, just for comparison with our dinners the first two nights, that no ticket was put on our table indicating food allergies. That said, our server – we’ll just call him “Q” – was aware of our allergies when he came to the table. Yet, being aware and demonstrating knowledge and confidence are two separate things. “Q” was certainly affable enough, but he seemed way out of his league with respect to food allergies. To wit:
- When we informed him of our middle son’s dairy allergy, he needed us to explain what dairy was. No joke. We had to tell him milk was dairy (amongst other things, of course).
- Having learned what dairy was, we were told that everything on the kids menu was fine. The first entree on this menu? Beef tacos… including cheese.
- We were told that the only nuts used were in the desserts; however, the menu clearly stated that one dish was prepared “with chopped nuts” (can’t recall the dish, so forgive my memory on that one, but it had mole sauce).
- Disturbed by these three “little” factors, I asked “Q” if he had a book of ingredients to bring over. He said yes, but never came back with one.
- When we asked to speak to a chef, “Q” came back and told us the chefs were really busy in the back. (That’s when the blood started boiling! – but don’t worry, we didn’t accept that.)
- Overall, “Q” just didn’t seem to understand food allergies or their severity, not to mention what was in any of the dishes the San Angel Inn served.
In addition to the above, we once again ran into a disappointing kids menu. Now, I recognize that most kids’ menus generally have just a handful of basic entrees, but three? Really? Beef tacos, chicken tacos, or chicken strips?
Despite all of this, we still didn’t leave… though I wouldn’t have faulted anyone else had they chosen to! We politely, but firmly, insisted that we speak to a chef (and explained why it was so important). “Q” returned with a chef within minutes.
Chef Marcos was excellent and helped resolve all our questions within minutes. Nuts wouldn’t be anywhere near our kids’ meals. He would make a simple flour and cheese quesadilla for our egg-allergic baby. And he would make chicken tacos free of any dairy product for our middle son. The guacamole was also dairy free, as were the nacho chips. (Be careful of the rice chips that might be brought out with the guacamole – they have egg in them. We had a very close call with the baby on that one.) When Chef Marcos was finished working everything out with us, he took a minute to explain everything to “Q”. Hopefully, that will help “Q” better satisfy future families. (He really was very nice, but that of course was not of primary importance at the time.)
So again, let me stress that we had a great family day together! The meal was challenging and the experience there disappointing, but we all came out safe and enjoyed the late night fireworks. We went to bed exhausted, but happy.
This experience shows that even “the gold standard” (Disney) isn’t perfect. And therein lies a really important lesson that I try to constantly stress – NEVER let your guard down! ALWAYS remain vigilent! No matter how many AllergyEats allergy-friendliness stars a restaurant has, no matter who gives you the recommendation, and no matter the reputation of the restaurant, there is no such thing as a guaranteed safe (or even comfortable) dining experience.
So did I surprise you? Are you shocked to hear the details of our Disney dinner experience? Would you like to share your own experience at that restaurant? And how about our dining at Universal? Please share as many thoughts and comments as you wish by clicking Reply below. Agree or disagree – it’s all good knowledge for us to share. (And OK, you can share your thoughts on butterbeer. I know you want to.)
Please also take a minute to hop over to the core AllergyEats site (www.allergyeats.com) and take a minute to rate any recent restaurant experiences. Each new rating further increases the value of AllergyEats for our entire food allergy and intolerance community.
And by the way, while many people have asked us about AllergyEats on our journey, no one yet has mentioned that they are a member, a fan, or a friend of a fan, so I haven’t had to give away any T-shirts. I’ll up the ante and say that there are (3) $25 gift certificates on the line if someone spots us with our AllergyEats T-shirts, polos, or hats, and tells us they’re a member, fan, or friend of a fan.
Word has it that we’ll be at EPCOT and Disney Studios tomorrow morning into early afternoon. Dining plans are not yet set.