Even the ketchup is magical at Disney
If you have a child with a food allergy, or who is on a special diet - like my son, Alex - who is gluten and casein free.. dining out can become nightmarish and maybe you feel like you can "forget about" going on vacations unless you plan on preparing all of your own meals.
Well, the good news is that there are places that you can vacation and Disney is one of them.
One thing about Disney is that dining at their "sit down" or Table service restaurants is highly in demand and you need to make what is called "Advanced Dining Reservations" (ADRs) 90 days in advance. You can now book these online at the Disney website as well as through the the Disney Dining reservation line. This is especially important if you are dealing with a food allergy because the restaurants can bring in special food for you, but they need notice!
When you make your reservation you can state that there is a food allergy on the reservation. I found a wealth of information at the DisBoards.com message board site including restaurant reviews and suggestions for what places are 'favorites' for gluten and casein free diet. Of course, what type of restaurant and meal you like also is a personal preference and so I like going to the AllEars website and also looking at menus on the Disney website when selecting places to dine. Now that I've navigated the Disney parks and dining system a few times now, we have picked some favorites that we like to repeat as well as trying out a handful of new places. My family uses the Disney Dining plan which is a prepaid meal plan (and sometimes Disney offers this mealplan free - the case with our recent trip) which allows for 1 sit down and 1 cafeteria style meal per day per guest plus a snack.
When dealing with a special dietary request at Disney it is important to read and become familiar with Disney's policy listed on their website here: http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/guest-services/special-dietary-requests/ I also emailed Brenda Bennett at Disney (Special Diets) and received a list of all the restaurants broken out by park and whether it is a Counter Service or Table Service location that are No Gluten and a separate list by Food allergy (Nut, Dairy, etc). So I had to do a little bit of cross referencing but I had a list of which restaurants had certain types of food that could accomodate us best. She then had me complete a form that listed all of our dining reservation confirmation numbers and dining restrictions.
Overall, our dining experience at Disney was excellent for Alex with his gluten and casein free diet and we ran into very little issue finding food for Alex and keeping him well fed. In fact, even though he is under 9 years old and would normally be ordering off of the kids menu he was able to eat larger portions and keep his belly filled because of the "custom" meals that the chefs made for him -- even at the counter service restaurants. He ate like a king and even expanded his food repertoire and started eating chicken that was not in a nugget or tender form and potato that was not in french fry or tater tot format. He also tried and liked rice! These may seem like small things but for a child who is extremely picky and selective about foods it was huge.
At the Sit Down restaurants a chef would come to our table and discuss food options ahead of time letting us know what they could prepare and asking what Alex would like. They always checked back during the meal to make sure everything was OK and offer to make additional food, too!
At Counter Service locations, you need to ask for a manager who will pull out "the allergy book" and let you know what foods are available for the diet. Some examples of gluten free items available are Ener-G gluten free hot dog and hamburger rolls, French Meadow gluten free brownies, and Allergy Free Foods chicken tenders (this is our holy grail GFCF chicken!)
We ate at the following locations
Coronado Springs Resort - Pepper Market
items included grilled chicken, separately grilled fries, hot dog, soy milk
Magic Kingdom - Columbia Harbour House and Cosmic Rays
Columbia Harbour House was actually our favorite for Alex because they served the Allergy Free Foods chicken tenders and fries - both baked separately for him. We got very good service here even though we entered the restaurant near closing time.
Cosmic Rays is a very very busy and large fast food place in Tomorrowland. There is an animatronic show that was entertaining and at the same time distracting for Alex. He had a hot dog on a Ener-G gluten free bun here, baked fries, and a gluten free brownie here.
Hollywood Studios - Studio Catering Company
Alex ate a chicken drumstick here
Animal Kingdom - Restaurantosaurus
Alex ate a hot dog on an Ener-G gluten free bun here
Epcot - Sunshine Seasons
Alex ate here twice. We had planned on going to Liberty Inn (America) in the international section of the park for standard faire but Alex didn't make it that long and was so hungry he ate a chicken drumstick (for the first time in his life not counting the turkey leg he ate when he was one year old). He loved the chicken drumstick so much that we ate here again and he also was eating rice at this point, so he had some steamed rice also and a gluten free brownie.
Also we picked up snacks throughout the parks at various concession stands and many had items like soy milk, rice dream and tofutti dairy free desserts, and gluten free brownies.
Alex eating dairy free ice cream (from the ice cream parlor on Main Street) watching a show in front of Cinderella castle. Two years ago, he couldn't tolerate the hustle and bustle by the castle and this same LOUD show. This trip - he loved it.
Sit down (Table Service):
Magic Kingdom - Cinderella's Royal Table Lunch
I was worried whether this would be worth it or not, because it takes 2 credits on the Disney dining plan instead of the usual 1 credit, but we wanted to eat here for my daughter after her Sleeping Beauty makeover at the bibbidi bobbidi boutique.
It was totally worth it. Alex got a feast including an appetizer of a fresh fruit cup, entree of grilled chicken with potatoes and carrots, dessert was a rice dream sundae. He enjoyed the princesses mingling about and getting photos and autographs. Alex LOVES the Cinderella castle and spent most of his trip talking about the Cinderella castle and wanting to see it, so to go inside and dine there was a real treat for him.
They did, however - give all the boys in the place a sword and all the girls a magic wand which the kids put to use as weapons while they ate.. ugh. Well, at least they are eating and fighting at the same time - right?
Also, on a humorous note -- Alex tried to cut his fresh melon with the plastic sword. Kurt had been working with him on cutting his food with a knife, so we got a chuckle when he tried to use the sword. Boys will be boys - autism or not!
Epcot - Akershus Dinner (Norway)
This is another princess meal that we had booked, largely for my daughter. We'd eaten here before at lunch time and even though the food is a little 'different' (norwegian fare) the princesses are super. I had originally thought of doing Breakfast here but since on principle my family doesn't get up real early and we already had 2 other character breakfasts booked I opted to go for dinner. I am glad we did. We had a late dinner which was actually during the fireworks and when the fireworks went off the kids insisted on running outside to catch a minute or so of the finale. The princesses were dazzling, and our meal was very good. My daughter had to order from the kids meal and get an english muffin sized pizza. Meanwhile, Alex - who couldn't order anything off the kids menu got a feast made for him that I would have enjoyed. It was his typical "grilled chicken, potatos, plus corn" meal. This was his staple meal in Disney but Alex is the type of child who will eat the same meal over and over. There were other options that they could have done gluten free and dairy free but this is what we requested for him time and again because it is food that he likes and we know he will eat.
The highlight of this meal was, however, when dessert came - it is something as simple as an Itzakadoozie popsicle but the smile says it all. My daughter might have been jealous about this giant ice pop, but check out the dessert trio in front of her that was served family style to the rest of the table.
Epcot - Le Cellier Dinner
My husband wanted to go here because they have great steaks. Unfortunately Alex's gluten free meal was really not so good here overall even though it was the same types of favorite foods he had been eating elsewhere (chicken, specially baked fries, dairy free ice cream, etc). The chicken was pan-seared and very dry and Alex kept saying it tasted like mustard. This was funny to me because for the life of me - I don't remember Alex ever eating mustard in his entire life but he has sniffed mustard before and he sniffed the chicken and ruled that it was cooked in mustard. He didn't eat more than a few bites of it. What saved Alex at this meal was the fact that the kids menu was an activity worksheet with puzzles and wordsearches that were all either UP movie themed or Wizards of Waverly Place. It was a good save because the food wasn't very good here for him.
Contemporary Resort - Chef Mickey's Character Breakfast
My kids love Chef Mickeys for the character mingling (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto & Goofy). In the past, we have dined here at dinner and found the food to be 'ok' and plentiful but not real spectacular. We decided to try breakfast here which is the standout breakfast buffet and very hard to get dining reservation. Definitely go here for breakfast and you will not leave hungry!
The server let us know that the "allergy child" and one adult needed to stay at the table til the Chef could come over so I stayed back with Alex while my husband and daughter went off and filled their plates. Chef Les came over and sat down across from Alex and talked to him about what foods he might like. He figured out right away that Alex was autistic and when I asked about making Mickey Waffles GFCF he asked Alex if he liked Waffles and Alex told him yes, with syrup! He let me know what foods were GFCF on the buffet and cooked separate and I was given the go ahead to get him fruit, bacon & sausage, and tater tots. He came back just a few minutes later with a plate full of sliced bananas, grapes, and specially prepared dairy and gluten free Mickey waffles and even his own syrup cups.
Polynesian Resort - Ohana Character Breakfast
Breakfast with Lilo, Stitch, Mickey and Pluto was a favorite when my daughter and I dined here in February '09 so I wanted to come back with the whole family. Since food is served family style, the chef brought out separate food for Alex. He ate 5 (or maybe 6) Mickey waffles made gluten and casein free and some fresh watermelon. Alex loves orange juice but wasn't a huge fan of their special orange and tropical fruit blend juice.
Polynesian Resort - Ohana Dinner
Dinner at Ohana is served family style also and consists of various meats served off of skewers (chicken, shrimp, pork, steak). It is all prepared with soy sauce that is not gluten free - his entire meal had to be made by the chef in the kitchen. I had heard raves and raves about Chef TJ at this restaurant and how great he is with gluten free and allergy kids. Well, as our luck would have it - he wasn't the chef on duty that night for us. I was bummed but as my daughter says "you get what you get and you don't get upset". As it was, the chef said he could make him any of the meats but Alex opted for Chicken (again!). For dessert, the rest of the family had a bananas foster and bread pudding dessert and Alex had a rice dream ice cream.
Animal Kingdom Lodge Resort - Boma Dinner
This is one of our favorite restaurants at Disney, located at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. We like this restaurant for the plentiful buffet and it is great to go to (by Disney bus) after a day at the Animal Kingdom park. Boma is in Jamba House, the main house of the Animal Kingdom lodge resort which also has animal viewing areas. This is a buffet restaurant so the choices for Alex were very limiting. The chef came and walked the buffet with me and basically Alex could have the prime rib (but he doesn't like beef), lettuce, or fresh fuit. Because everything either had gluten or dairy in it - he made Alex a huge plate of grilled chicken, potatoes several different ways, rice, beans - plus fresh fruit.
They didn't have a dessert option and he went to other restaurants at the resort and ended up coming back with a fruit cup (like jell-o) that was gluten free and some candy. It wasn't a great dessert but Alex didn't care and the effort that he put into seeking something out was stellar.
We loved this chef! Look at the smiles!
Disney really made dining out enjoyable for the entire family and one very happy and not hungry GFCF kid.