Fresh off my too-short trip to the Magical Kingdoms down south, I thought I’d share some tidbits of information that will hopefully help you in planning your next vacation there. I’ve heard from many of you who are trying to decide which parks to go to, which hotels, which restaurants … and first let me say, you won’t be disappointed by going to Disney if any in your family eat gluten-free. The organization has long been known for catering to its food allergic patrons, and I would heartily agree, based upon my recent experience. Even their snacks can be accommodating: their “Chip and Dale” Trail Mixes (photo at top) are made in facilities that don’t share equipment with wheat – yay!
Although nearly every food counter at Disney is prepared to accommodate with things like gluten-free rolls, brownies and the like, Disney encourages early planning if you’re traveling with dietary restrictions, even supplying guests with phone numbers and emails to reach out before your trip to let them know you’re coming.
This is standard Disney language regarding their policies:
The Walt Disney World Food and Beverage Team is committed to offering a wide range of choices to accommodate Guests with food allergies or intolerances. Your desired dining requests will be addressed, but please note in many cases, advance notice is required—usually at the time of your reservation, which can be up to 180 days in advance. Please call the Disney’s Dining Reservation Center at (407) WDW-DINE or (407) 939-3463 to speak with a Cast Member. Guests under age 18 must have parent or guardian permission to call.
Websites abound with information on great Disney dining — a good one is Orlando Gluten Free , since it lists all the Special Diet hotline numbers for the Disney World Park, as well as links to some other favorite Disney review pages like AllEars.net (note: this website doesn’t look like it’s been updated in awhile, but the links and numbers are still current). If you don’t mind getting really hungry, take a photographic tour of every conceivable gluten-free dish served at Disney on GlutenandDairyFree’s visual review of their vacation there. You won’t any have trouble finding accolades for Disney’s food allergy policies — heck, Disney even gave a McDonald’s outlet the boot from its Downtown Disney Marketplace and replaced it with Babycakes from NYC – a wheat-free (some gluten-free), vegan bakery. If that change wasn’t food allergy-friendly, I don’t know what is!I also found eating at Disney properties to be fairly easy, and I did not call in advance. Nor did I pack my usual travel necessities — for me: a store of homemade muffins; trail mix; Lara Bars or Bora Bora Bars; and fruit. I wanted to know just how accommodating Disney and Universal could be on-the-fly … so here goes!
My first night’s dinner was at Bongos Cuban Café in Downtown Disney. While the menu was not labeled gluten free, several options looked like possibilities. I asked to speak to the chef, just to be sure. The man who came out to speak with me though, was not the chef at Bongos. He was THE chef for all of their chain of restaurants, and as it turns out, his child also eats gluten-free! He was extremely knowledgeable on the diet and on avoiding cross-contamination. We went over the menu and I ultimately chose stuffed green plantain cups with shrimp creole, black beans and rice, and sweet plantains — my kind of meal! Everyone else enjoyed their dinners as well, and there was much dancing and Congo-lining with the kids before the night was over!
The next day was at Universal Studios — a place I was less sure could accommodate my dietary needs. Before leaving, I had researched Universal, called several different numbers and left messages … all to no avail. Unlike Disney, which encourages you to call and give them an opportunity to serve your special diet, Universal never mentioned it in any of their literature or websites I could find. One website (not affiliated with Universal Studios) offered a partial listing of restaurants at Universal that were gluten-free … but had no gluten-free menus … not sure about all that.
So, I came to the park prepared with trail mix I had purchased at the airport, just in case, and my bottle of water (I just couldn’t let go entirely of my “be prepared” mentality, I guess!). I’m so glad I brought both with me to the park, as there was quite literally nothing I could eat at any of the quick food restaurants (there were watermelon slices at one stand we found though). To be honest, the rest of our 12-person party didn’t find anything quick about their food either, but at least they could eat! One good thing — there were lots of water fountains, and the fast food counters also all agreed to fill my water bottle, so I highly recommend bringing in your own snacks and bottles of water!
In all fairness, I only had one day at Universal, and though we were there for over 8 hours, we weren’t dedicating any of that limited time to stand in long restaurant lines and then to sit for a full-on restaurant meal. Thus, I cannot promise that accommodations could not have been made for me at one of those restaurants, but it would have been nice to have had an option otherwise. I have heard wonderful things about Margaritaville’s special gluten-free menu, so if I went back with any extra time for a sit-down meal, that’s definitely where I would go.
One more note on Universal: Tiffany Janes over at Celiac-Disease.com just published one family’s account of their bad gluten-free experience at Harry Potter in Universal. Apparently, the “Butterbeer” served on the carts all over Harry Potter-land is not gluten-free (despite the widely-held belief, previously perpetuated by Universal, that it is gluten-free) due to the topping used in the drink. Universal is apparently bound under contract with J.K. Rowling to not alter the recipe, so they are refusing to make the drink for anyone — medically-necessitated diet or not — without the topping. Fair warning.
Now, back to Disney. We were staying at the Disney property, The Swan & Dolphin – highly recommended! We spent one day just poolside with the kids, on their white sand beach (next to a man-made lake, of course), playground, giant checkers set, water slide and lap pool.
Their poolside restaurant, Cabana Bar and Beach Club, brought our lunches to the pool so the kids didn’t have to take a break until they were all ready, and we got to eat and watch them frolic at the same time! I enjoyed an appetizer of summer rolls that was skimpy but tasty enough, and already gluten free!
Dinner was at the hotel’s sushi restaurant, Kimonos, and was deliciously gluten-free (I skipped any tempura, marinated eel or soy sauce). I’ll spare you any stories of the karaoke after dinner! Exploring other restaurants at the resort and on the Disney Boardwalk only a short walk from there, I found tons of options. The resort’s Picabu “buffeteria” prepared gluten-free French fries for me by using new oil and pan-frying my fries — quite a treat! The Fountain restaurant was also willing to make some menu changes.
Chatting with Chef Sayles about their gluten-free menu options.
My favorite dinner find there though, was Kouzzina, where the Sous Chef, Robert Sayles, spoke to me at length about their already gluten-free menu offerings, and the changes they could make to regular dishes by substituting breads for Ener-G rolls. Chef Sayles, whose child also eats gluten-free, was particularly enthusiastic about Kouzzina’s gluten-free breakfast options like gluten-free pancakes (something most Disney restaurants also offer, by the way, so don’t hesitate to ask!). He proudly recounted all the happy kid faces he sees there each morning as they make breakfasts to suit every dietary need.
All in all, we had a wonderful time and I found eating in and around Orlando to be refreshingly easy. I would definitely recommend packing your own lunch and snacks if you go to Universal Studios, though, and be sure to let them know that they could take a lesson out of Disney’s playbook. We’d all benefit, and wouldn’t that be magical?
Note: Busch Gardens/Sea World just announced they would also introduce some gluten-free options at their parks, including GF Pizza.