I thought I would do a section on going to Walt Disney World with food allergies or being a vegan, as well as going with a wheelchair, because I found it really helpful when I was planning my incredible trip to have blogs and resources with first hand accounts and tips.
I went to Disney when I was 10 years old, but then I went again this past year (February/March 2011) and had an amazing time!
UPDATE! We went again in 2012 (and had another amazing time!) but there were many changes to Special Diets and Disney. I recommend giving this a read-through, but please check out my updated 2012 Trip Report here.
My travel companion was my super awesome mother, whom of which I call Mom from here on out. Mom is also my super awesome best friend. Which makes for a super awesome time.
As time goes on, I’ll add more and more here, especially because we are planning on going again in February 2012! This past year I participated in the Disney Princess Half Marathon, a race with 14,000 some odd people dressed up as Cinderella, Tinkerbell, and the rest of the crew.
Amazing! It truly was. And yes, it’s worth paying double the amount of normal half marathons. And if you’re going to go to Disney for a weekend, why not go for 11 days?
So we did.
(Questions? Send them here, and I’ll address them!)
As you’ve gathered, I’m sure, I have celiac disease and I am a vegan. I also have a dairy allergy so I am very careful about cross contamination with dairy. It gives me hives, a tight chest, and exacerbates my celiac symptoms.
Mom has Mulitple Sclerosis and visited Disney in a wheelchair, since a walker would be too difficult. She is following the MS Recovery Diet, one that is gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, legumes, yeast, sugar, and caffeine-free. Though she has never cheated on gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, or most legumes, she occasionally has yeast, sugar, and caffeine, though seldom. She avoids legumes for the most part but once in a while eats green beans and, while at Disney, had delicious hummus a couple of times.
Before We Left
We did a lot of pre-planning for our Disney trip. I hadn’t been on a “real” vacation like this since… I was about 10 years old and went to Disney. So we were definitely very excited.
I read a lot of information on different blogs, web sources, and the actual Disney source to get a feel for food allergies. I’d recommend disboards.com, allears.net, and the official Disney World site. With all of these, it proved to be very helpful. We also have a travel agent who is a vegetarian and knew a lot about special diets, cluing me in on a form I had to fill out.
There is more info on this page from Disney, however, they say if you are making reservations (which you should) to simply tell the person on the phone or check off the boxes if you do it online. My advice? Don’t stop there! Email SpecialDiets@DisneyWorld.com and ask for the sheet to fill out regarding special diets. They’ll send you some details, too, about where you can dine if you’re gluten-free. I’ve found not all of these to be accurate, but it gives you a starting point. But the sheet is a good back-up if it isn’t marked on your online/phone reservation. But even that doesn’t guarantee anything. (More on this in a bit).
I used a notebook to write down everything I could before we left, and took it with me everywhere in the park. This proved to be so helpful! I wrote down the times for every parade and show (even if we weren’t going to want to see it), the park hours, the counter service locations that said there were things we could eat safely at, as well as the brands of pre-made items they use (IE what milks, breads, ice creams, and so on), that way I could Google them beforehand and make sure they were really safe. As we all know, some things claim to be safe but really aren’t.
We also were sure to make our dining reservations 180 days in advance, choosing places that looked like they would have multiple choices, had good reviews from others regarding allergies, and had good reviews in general. We aren’t picky – we both love everything, except for the things that we cannot have.
What I knew beforehand… and was glad I did
With all of my research, there are a few key things I had beforehand, which really helped with the trip.
1. I knew exactly all of the brands they used in the park, and wrote them down. These were provided on the allergy-sheets and it was great to have. Because the list only says that they believe these things are gluten-free, I contacted the company and searched to see the status on soy, dairy, legumes, et cetera so I’d know if my mom and I could really have them. Though I encourage you to get the latest version before your trip, here are some of the ones they listed that were good to know:
- The allergen-free buns, rolls, and pizza crust they have everywhere is Ener-G, which has yeast and guar gum. It is free of the top allergens, and tastes okay if a chef knows how to heat it properly.
- They have Kinnikinnick products at the resorts but they all have eggs.
- They have Pacific Rice Milk and Rice Dream milk. I do not trust Rice Dream milk. This is why. I double checked that whenever they were baking something or making something (like Mickey waffles) that they were made with Pacific Rice Milk. Most places had Pacific or both.
- Some places have Vans waffles. They have soy.
- When they make waffles and pancakes, some places uses a mix by Namaste, some use Bob’s Red Mill. Some use Bob’s Red Mill pancake mix. Some use Bob’s Red Mill All-Purpose. I double checked ingredients for chickpeas/legumes, as the AP flour has it.
2. I knew what counter service locations had options, though later, it didn’t matter too much. But it still helped narrow it down. More on that in a bit.
3. I read a lot about Chef TJ, who is known across Disney goers as AMAZING for both vegans and allergy folks, doling out 5 to 7 course meals that are customized to their needs and so knowledgeable. We booked where he was working and made sure we dined when he was there. He is currently, to my knowledge, at 1900 Park Fare (email me if you’ve heard this has changed so I can update this!)
4. Buffets, something I have stayed away from since diagnosis, were going to be fine. I had read that the chef comes out, takes you through the buffet, tells you what is safe, then brings SAFE food from the BACK to your table for you OWN buffet. I couldn’t wait, and yes, this did happen – and then some (more on that in the reviews).
What I wish I knew beforehand… and am glad I know for this time
1. Allergy-sheets and notifying chefs often doesn’t mean anything. Yes, it says it, loud and clear, on your little dining reservation ticket when you walk in, but that is about it. We were lucky for a different reason, more on that later. But had our luck not occurred, the chefs knew nothing and were unprepared.
2. Counter service is a pain. Some places are good, some aren’t. This was the case because I am gluten-free AND a vegan. Mom had no trouble: burgers, Ener-G buns (she ate yeast on this trip), and a side of salad or fruit was always available. She never eats burgers so it was a treat for her. Some counter service was okay, and I’ll write about those individually below.
3. How amazing chefs are ONCE THEY KNOW! So the key? Contact them before you leave! Scope out their details! Gather cards and contact info when you are in Disney for next time!
4. Some chefs aren’t amazing. And act like you’re a bit of a pain. Maybe they are tired. Maybe they had ninety other food allergies that day. Maybe they have a sick baby at home and want to get there for them. Maybe they burnt their hand on the grill 10 seconds before you arrived. And that is all okay. Just keep me safe, thanks.
5. You will eat like a queen (or king), and you will eat things you never, EVER thought you would eat again.
6. If you have a wheelchair and your mom is as gorgeous as Mom, then everyone does everything for you. (Haha!)
7. Magical Express isn’t all that magical, and only offer you two luggage tags (one per person) that they pick up for you. We had a third one and it took about 6 hours later to get to our room. Unfortunately, this was the one with snacks and some medication. Next time I would only take two pieces of luggage in total, or put things that COMPLETELY don’t matter in the third one.
8. Mom had to get out of the wheelchair for Magical Express, and considering we had woken up that morning at 2am, it was a very long, tiring day.
9. It is hot in Florida in late February. Don’t wear boots.
10. Walking up the ramps of the monorail pushing the wheelchair is as good as any hill workout I’ve done.
11. There are very few wheelchair automatic door openers everywhere.
12. Bring your own real maple syrup if you are going to be having waffles.
13. If you ask someone where the “bathroom” or “washroom” is, they look at you funny and then say, “oh, do you mean restroom?”
Note: I’m sure I will be adding more in here soon enough.
Magic Kingdom 101
Magic Kingdom was fun, but it is definitely the most kid-oriented park. That being said, it’s fun to kick back and relax like a kid! It was also very nostalgic, because I remember it well as from when I went.
We soon discovered a few things about Magic Kingdom. First, because it is old, a lot of the rides aren’t very disability friendly. And some of the markings on the map that indicate they are (with a little wheelchair sign) aren’t. For example, Tom Sawyer Island is wheelchair friendly (so it says). So we wait in line and get up to the raft, and I said, “once we’re over, can we navigate any of the island?” and the Cast Member says, “no, you might as well stay on the raft.” And so on.
Magic Kingdom was definitely also the most difficult place to eat from the Counter Service standpoint. We ended up dining at Columbia Harbour House and Pecos Bill (we came here two days), and I’ll review those below.
From the Multiple Sclerosis standpoint, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad annihilated Mom. So much that I think if it was her first rollercoaster ever, she would have hated them for life. On a side note, her first rollercoaster ever WAS during this trip. Just not this ride. Because she has no strength in her legs, she couldn’t keep herself upright and felt like she was slipping out. If you have MS or lack that sort of strength, this isn’t for you. It is a quick, bumby rollercoaster, though totally tame otherwise (if you have been on lots of them, as I have).
Similarly, she didn’t go on, and I would recommend not go on, Space Mountain. The lack of head support would be too difficult for a person with my mom’s level of MS.
On a contrasting note, Splash Mountain was fine for her! We went on other rides, too, and it was fun.
Animal Kingdom Know-How
As a vegan, I don’t go to zoos and don’t support animals locked up in cages, though I wanted to visit Animal Kingdom to see how it was done here, as well as to see the other stuff, such as Africa and Asia, as well as Dinoland USA because once upon a time before I became a baker, writer, personal trainer, musicologist, tutor, and every other job I have, I wanted to be a palentologist. That would have been simpler, but I hate science. That all being said, I still love all things related to dinosaurs.
Animal Kingdom is really neat. We did the various safaris, and I spoke with a lot of the trainers. Expedition Everest was Mom’s first roller coaster ever and I was so proud of her!
Animal Kingdom is wheelchair friendly and very accessible — probably because it is so new. The only thing I would mention would be that it is bumpy and hilly, so if you are pushing someone it might be (a) a little uncomfortable for their bum and (b) a little bit of a challenge at some point (meaning, holding them on a slant up hill while throngs of people squeeze by you to see various things).
There are a lot of washrooms here, and separate accessible ones (so you don’t have to go in the actual washroom), making it easier for quick MS-driven-must-need-bathroom-immediately moments. (As well as quick-celiac-driven-must-need-bathroom-immediately moments).
Hollywood Studios Help
Okay, so this Hollywood Studios business doesn’t really fly with me. All I do is call it MGM – now, and probably forever. Some of my favourite things are here, and I remember thinking I wasn’t really going to like it. Rockin’ Rollercoaster, Toy Story Mania, Art of Animation and, dare I admit, American Idol were awesome! Again, because this has been updated immensely it is very wheelchair friendly. A note here: if you’re going to see Fantasmic, arrive super early (about 1 1/2 hours). Even the wheelchair special seating fills up fast.
Epcot it huge, so expect it to take a couple of days. There are so many things to see and do! I wish I could eat my way through Epcot like some folks but that isn’t in the cards, and because these places aren’t done up by Disney chefs, language barriers can get in the way.
Much of the stuff here is easy with wheelchairs, and because it is so spread out, it is very easy to navigate.
Downtown Disney Details
We like to shop and Downtown Disney didn’t disappoint. A few things to note here was that it is easy to get around (though most shops didn’t have wheelchair buttons, making that difficult). We did go to Babycakes and were pretty disappointed – most of the cupcakes were very heavy, dense and crumbly. The frosting was fabulous, though. The cookies were too crunchy and very oily. The doughnuts were baked so they tasted like muffins in doughnut form (though not dry, like the cupcakes). Two things stood out: they made a special parfait with layers of cupcakes, cookie crumbles, banana, strawberry, some sort of creamy sauce, and frosting. THAT was so delicious. They also made a cranberry tea cake that we packed up and ate the next day on the plane, and I could have eaten a loaf of that. Very delicious.
Another high point is Mickey’s Pantry, filled to the brim with kitchen stuff! But there is a huge spice wall and a huge tea wall, both of which were fun to buy for me and gifts. Loved!
We also went on Characters in Flight, a giant hot air balloon that takes you up 400 feet into the air. We could bring on the wheelchair and it was a really neat experience!
Food: how they deal with allergies
Overall, things went well with the food. I did not feel well a few times, but am not yet sure why. I do get an odd symptom that I can never pinpoint if it is exactly from something specific (extreme, brutal brain fog). That came a few times. I only got flat out sick one time, and that was “okay” because it was on our last dinner.
Remember, just because it is Disney doesn’t mean they all know what they are doing. But most do. One of the Chefs, Majdy, at Sanaa, detailed to us the rigorous training the Disney chefs have to go through for allergies! It was very interesting.
Basically, they have a separate area in the kitchen that is only for preparing allergy meals. That is why sometimes you have to wait – especially if there is more than one at a time. They have dedicated appliances, too, such as waffle irons, blenders, et cetera. They chefs are (usually) really slick.
Food: how they deal with vegans
I am not sure how they would have dealt with me if I was “just” a vegan with no other special requests, though for the most part it didn’t make a difference (though limited my options to usually one or two). Most chefs were excited that they could experiment, making it much better!
One note: the allergy-free fryer at some places is just used for fries, but at other places, they have allergy-free chicken tenders. I only got fries one time, and he asked if I wanted them baked because of this. I was glad because I wanted them baked anyway for health reasons, so it all worked out!
Restaurant and Food Reviews
I am going to do each of these in a separate link because I’ll upload images, too. That way these 3000 words or so aren’t bogged down with photos.
All of the reviews include my order (gluten-free/vegan), and Mom’s (gluten, dairy, egg, soy, and often legume-free).