Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dining (Without Dying) – Disney Gets it Right

I had the good fortune recently of spending a week vacationing at Walt Disney World resort in Orlando, Florida. Having been there several times over the years since our first family trip there in 1996, I knew I was headed straight for a land of (admittedly) long lines, but also tons of sun, fun, great photo-taking and people watching opportunities. As a foodie, too, Disney World promised a land of all sorts of gastronomic delights. With four theme parks, including the international smorgasbord that is EPCOT’s World Showcase, plus two water parks and a “downtown” shopping and dining district that rivals most cities’, it is truly a land of sensory overload. I have eaten my way through Disney enough times to know the best spots to find everything from breakfasts to desserts, whether it’s a to-die-for chicken Caesar wrap on the fly or an elegant, sit-down three-course dinner. I can pretty much work the World’s food scene with my eyes closed.

Except this time would be different. This time, I would have to navigate WDW carting the baggage that is my host of dietary restrictions – the extent of which makes even the dieticians I’ve consulted with blanch. The exclusion of (amongst other things) anything high is dietary fat – including any oils, meat, oily fish, egg yolks, dairy, nuts and avocado – usually makes dining out with me a logistical nightmare. That olive oil used to cook the onions and garlic in dinner’s marinara sauce would effectively ruin my night, at the very least locking me in the bathroom for hours in incredible pain, as would the drizzle of butter on an otherwise innocuous plate of steamed broccoli. The few dinners “out” that I have a year – whether at a restaurant or a family member’s home – have to be meticulously planned, often with the unfair and awkward imposition of my need for kitchen space on my hosts. However, when my mom approached me with the possibility of a trip to my favourite place in the world, I was game to give it a go regardless of my nerves. I knew we could pull it off if we did some careful forethought, and if there was any destination that would help us out along the way, Disney would be it.

I began investigating other “dining at Disney with allergies” tales online (namely on AllEarsNet) and was, quite frankly, blown away by the immense compassion and seriousness the Dietary staff at the resort seemed to have for any special circumstances. I still wondered though – because I don’t have an “official” list of allergens, nor do I have a conclusive diagnosis of my problem, would they put the same effort into my case? I had to give it a shot, because there was no way I was missing out on another trip!

I wasn’t disappointed – the Mouse came through with flying colours. From the moment I contacted their Special Dietary department inquiring about my case, I found myself enveloped in a kind of security blanket that encapsulated all things culinary. I discovered that Disney doesn’t want any of their guests to simply “eat” at their parks. Instead, they strive to provide everyone with a unique and memorable “dining experience” regardless of age, preferences or restrictions. Within a week they had e-mailed both myself and my mom (being the principal name on the bookings) a list of what we needed to do once we secured our tickets and hotel reservation, including suggestions of local grocery stores and food delivery services (we used Garden Grocer, who was absolutely fabulous) as well as all the allergen information sheet for us to complete and fax in. This sheet is extensive – covering not only the basic “where and when” of your dining reservations, but also the name of the resort you’re in, the length of your trip and all the contact information Disney will use to get in touch with you. The names of everyone in your party as well as a space for who specifically has the allergy or condition are also included. Under the “food allergy” section of the form, Disney lists the “top 8” most common triggers: egg, milk/casein, peanut, fish, shellfish, soy, tree nuts and wheat, as well as an “other” box that you can specify particulars in. Separately, there is a list of food-related conditions in another checklist: celiac, PKU, diabetes and “other”. If you, like me, don’t fit one of the classifications, or there is just too many particulars about a certain allergy or condition (for example albumen [egg white, but not egg yolk] allergies), there is a large space for extra information and details of the unlisted food allergies. What I particularly liked about the form we were given is that the largest blank space was allocated not to what could not be served, but rather what could be. It was a refreshing take on the standard “cross-off” lists I was used to, and allowed me to put down my favourite ingredients for the chefs to play with.

Tony's Town Square
Our restaurant choices were, of course, slightly dictated by the menu options available. Again, I was able to find a comprehensive and highly-detailed list of WDW menus on AllEarsNet which enabled me to find not only restaurants with items I could make simple alterations to, but also locations that the whole family (including my picky sister and stepfather) would enjoy. For us, our selections for full-service meals were Tony’s Town Square in Magic Kingdom, Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano in Hollywood Studios, and both the Coral Reef and a single spot for me at Tokyo Dining in EPCOT. We also made reservations at the Wolfgang Puck Cafe in Downtown Disney, but because it is not an official WDW restaurant the form didn’t cover their facility. In that case, we simply followed our usual process: having them note it on the reservation sheet and double-checking that my ideal menu alterations were okay.

The quality of Disney’s special needs team continued front and centre as the weeks before our trip wound down. Both myself and my mother were in almost constant contact with their department, both on the phone and through e-mail, and any questions we had were always answered with patience and reassurance. We found out that my needs were not only on the broad “priority seating” sheets, but also on the daily notes for the specific chefs who would be on duty at each restaurant we visited over our stay. Upon arrival at the restaurant we would have our table visited by that chef, who would then talk to me about my specific needs and ideas and let me know exactly what would be going on in the kitchen. If I had any concerns or doubts, they would not cook my meal until we were both confident the situation would work for me.

Toky Dining
Another key element of our Disney experience with food allergies was our choice of hotel. In the past, our family roomed at one of the “Value” resorts on-property (one of the All-Star series or Pop Century) which fulfilled our basic needs of a bed, shower and occasional meal while eliminating the need for a rental car (WDW has an incredible inter-property bus system). This trip, not wanting to roll the dice with the grab bag of counter-service options, we needed a location that gave us means of preparing and storing my packed meals in addition to saving us money in restaurant bills. Still wanting to stay “in-house”, we opted for a one-bedroom villa at one of the newer resorts: Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa. No doubt choosing that style of accommodation is anything short of extravagant, as it’s slated as a “Deluxe” resort alongside the Grand Floridian (the original pinnacle of Disney hotels), but the extra amenities and space it provided fit our needs as adequately as any guest house could. Our room featured a full kitchen, complete with stove/oven, dishwasher, microwave and apartment-sized fridge-freezer as well as all the dishware, glassware, utensils and tools we would need. There was even a set of three pots, two frying pans, a cookie sheet, mixing bowls and a Pyrex baker! Ironically enough, given that an oven and bakeware were provided, we were not given oven mitts, and we also were without a kettle or non-stick cooking spray. While none of these omissions were a big deal, they were all items we take for granted at home – especially the kettle. To keep our tea-drinking family sated, we boiled up to 5 pots of water a day! Regardless, being able to have some amount of control over what I’d be eating so far away from home was an extra layer of that security blanket I’m glad to have experienced. The grocery deliveries you have the option of ordering for your stay at the resort are delivered to your room and stored properly by the time you check-in, and though I still did bring a portion of my meal ingredients (any of the unconventional items such as TVP and Kamut Puffs), the service was invaluable in that saved us a day of cabbing to the grocery store without any idea if they would have what we needed. Our family was able to eat every breakfast in the room, as well as several dinners, and saved time and money by bringing drinks and snacks from our fridge or pantry to the parks instead of buying them there.

Mama Melrose's
The meals we did spend out at sit-down restaurants were, for the most part, stellar. At each location I mentioned above (even Wolfgang Puck Cafe), the chef did indeed come out and speak with me about my options and ideas. Although I had been told by various others this would happen, it was still a pleasant surprise that reassured me that my needs would be met. At Mama Melrose’s and Tony’s, the chef was incredibly eager and (I believe) excited to be working with such unadorned ingredients – sub-par seafood or overdone, under salted pasta couldn’t be hidden under a rich sauce and pats of butter, and any vegetables that looked fresh and perfect were fair game! My food arrived at the same time as the rest of the table: large plates of fresh, crisp salad greens and tomatoes to start, followed by attractive, piping hot and perfectly portioned bowls of al dente (egg-free) pasta and steamed seafood strewn with sweet, fresh tomatoes and basil. The seafood was perfectly cooked, and so fresh that it rivalled food I’d eaten dockside by the Pacific Ocean. For my meals at both Tokyo Dining and the Wolfgang Puck Cafe, I already knew that my favourite “go-to” meal whenever it’s offered – maki sushi rolls – was going to grace my plate, and my requests for no avocado or soy sauce were honoured without question. At each restaurant aside from the Coral Reef, I was again visited by each chef as the meal was winding down who inquired if they could do anything more for me – creating a dessert, a bowl of fruit or anything else I could care for. I was so (pleasantly) full at each meal that I had to decline, though I do have to admit feeling as if I hurt their feelings by saying no!

The Coral Reef was the only location where I was not one hundred percent confident that my condition was being taken seriously: the chef on duty, despite having the list of allergens with him at the table, asked me twice if I could eat “just a bit of chicken” and then if I had PKU, giving me an almost suspicious once-over when I replied no on both counts. In the end, we both settled for a simple meal of grilled-without-oil fillet of fish and a double portion of steamed vegetables, as I didn’t feel comfortable asking for a plain side of steamed rice when the menu stated the standard was made with cashews and coconut. Sadly, my plate arrived with a pitiful amount of vegetables, and though they were perfectly cooked, my piece of fish was as tough as leather. In fact, the texture and taste of the fillet had changed so drastically from the moist flake I knew that I had a moment of panic – thinking that I had been served chicken instead. It was the only meal of the entire trip that caused any sort of adverse physical reaction, and though I doubt it was any fault of the kitchen staff on duty it did put a bit of a damper on an otherwise flawless trip.

Coral Reef
Looking back at the week I spent in the “wonderful world of Disney”, I can honestly say that I ate better and felt more “normal” than I have since becoming ill. For once in my life, I didn’t have to worry about being forced to subsist on nothing but a plate of iceberg lettuce for lunch or dragging my family to another place to eat because the chef at our first choice couldn’t deal with me. The combination of bringing my own meals and working intensively with the special needs team both before and during our stay earned me a type of freedom that I haven’t felt in many years. When my doctors and extended family told me a trip to a place with mealtimes as risky as Disney World would land me in the hospital, they didn’t understand the power of a little fairy dust, a magic wand and a couple phone calls. I dined Disney, and didn’t die.

What We Used Along the Way

WDW Special Dietary Requests Team:
Phone: 407-824-5967

Special Dietary Needs Info:  

Garden Grocer:
Phone: 866-855-4350

All the WDW photos from my trip can be found here 

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