I have to follow a very strict keto diet, with very few raw vegetables, or I get very sick. Like, throw up and can’t eat at all sick. For me this isn’t just about a lifestyle choice, but it’s about survival. So, while many people can choose to just let go, and take a vacation from their diet, in order for me to actually enjoy my vacation, I have to stick to mine. This, coupled along with having a child with 27 food allergies and a son who has his own special diet to help him function better, has led me to really exploring food accessibility within the travel industry, and figuring out how we can do better.
I have great news! There are a few companies that are really excelling in this area. We’ll start with a blog post about Disney. Disney has been a safe place for people with food allergies for a very long time. They are committed to being allergy and special diet friendly. In order to get the best possible results, here’s what I recommend:
- Stick to Disney-owned properties. Restaurants in Disney Springs, restaurants in Epcot’s World Showcase, and Yak n Yeti and Rainforest Café in Animal Kingdom are NOT Disney owned, and often have more problems than the actual Disney properties. I have had excellent service at a few of these restaurants (Raglan Road in Disney Springs is a particular favorite), but one should exercise caution when dining at these, and in general, the chefs are not quite as creative or flexible as the Disney owned restaurants.
- Avoid restaurants with limited, set menus, unless they have access to a kitchen with more options. Garden Grill, while super fresh and delicious, is not a good fit for somebody with a limited diet. They can easily handle a few things – gluten free, lactose free, a common allergy or two – but if you have a much more limited diet, places like this are not the right place for you. They just don’t have access to enough ingredients to make a suitable accommodation. Two exceptions are: Liberty Tree Tavern and ‘Ohana. We let the chef at Liberty Tree Tavern know about my diet about 4 hours prior to our reservation, so they had time to prepare for us. Our meal was absolutely lovely. ‘Ohana was fine, because they had access to the Kona kitchen. It wasn’t super creative, but it definitely worked.
- Do your legwork. Have an idea of what you want. Look at the menus and get a feel for the restaurant. See a protein on the menu you like? See a favorite vegetable? Ask the chef about preparing it in a safe way for you. I am a HUGE scallop lover. I have been known to ask for scallops to be my entrée when it appears on the menu as an appetizer. Then, I’ll ask for a well cooked vegetable and maybe a beurre blanc sauce. This makes a fabulous, delicious dinner for me.
- While you should have an idea of what’s on the menu, don’t be afraid to ask the chef for their recommendations, and to let them get creative. They know their kitchen, and what they’re able to do. I have had more than one travel companion comment on the excitement on a chef’s face when they realize I’m adventurous and willing to try whatever they can create for me. It makes things really fun!
- Be willing to wait. Your chef is making you a custom meal. It’s going to take longer. Be patient!
- Don’t be afraid of the buffet restaurants! You won’t eat off the buffet. Once you ask for the chef, he will ask you about what you would like to eat, and your meal will be prepared in the back.
Disney does have a special diets team that you can email prior to arrival. However, I have found that often, the message gets lost between that team and the restaurants, so most of the time, I don’t even bother with that message. I do try to stop by the table service restaurants a few hours before my reservation to give them a head’s up, but that’s not always possible. So, often I just show up with a sense of humor, a sense of adventure, and a lot of patience. For quick service, you want to keep the same kinds of things in mind. If it’s a small building without a full kitchen, it probably can’t do more than a pre-packaged gluten free or lactose free item. The quick services with full kitchens are going to be much better suited for you.
Here are my top 5 quick services, in no particular order:
- Magic Kingdom – Columbia Harbour House. They will use the kitchen at Liberty Tree, if necessary.
- Epcot – Sunshine Seasons in The Land Pavilion
- Hollywood Studios – Docking Bay 7
- Animal Kingdom – Satu’li Canteen
- Any quick service food court in the VALUE properties, or Port Orleans. These food courts are awesome! Go there, ask for a chef, and explain your diet. They have the resources to create something delicious for you! Again, be patient. These food courts are busy!
Here are my top table service restaurants (not including buffets):
- Breakfast: Topolino’s Terrace, Olivia’s Café, Grand Floridian Café
- Lunch/Dinner: SANAA is my FAVORITE OF ALL!!! Topolino’s Terrace makes the list again for dinner! Also Liberty Tree Tavern, The Wave, and 50s Prime Time.
One thing to note. Desserts are hard. Most Disney restaurants WILL NOT accept any ingredients. I always travel with packs of erythritol or monkfruit, and I give them to the chef at the very beginning, and ask them to make me a dessert. I want to be able to enjoy a full experience, just like my traveling companions. When I was on my Celebrity cruise, I even gave them a bag of safe chocolate chips. Most Disney restaurants won’t touch anything you bring, even if it’s sealed. You either resign yourself to nothing sweet, or a simple bowl of berries with unsweetened whipped cream for dessert. At Universal, on the other hand, most restaurants took my (again, SEALED) packets of erythritol/monkfruit, and attempted to make me something safe with it. I DO plan on talking with both companies, as well as most cruise lines, about the need to improve in this area. After all, we should be able to have an equitable experience, and to me, that includes dessert.
The most important part about getting a suitable accommodation, especially if you have multiple food allergies or dietary restrictions, is the conversation. You should:
- Have a list of what you cannot eat.
- Have a list of what you enjoy eating.
- Know what’s on the menu, and be prepared to ask how a dish can be modified to meet your needs.
If there is nothing on the menu that works, be prepared to ask about ingredients on the menu that you enjoy. Be open to the chef’s ideas. I have found that while people are typically intimidated at first by my long list of dietary restrictions, by the time we settle on my menu, the chef is typically excited to get to create something unique for me. I have very rarely been disappointed after an in-depth conversation with a chef, and only then because there was a miscommunication on one side. Communication is your most important tool.
I am currently at Walt Disney World, and I ate yesterday at Steakhouse 71. Not one thing I ate was ordered directly off the menu. I should point out that yesterday’s meal was UNOFFICIAL and the restaurant had no idea who I am or what I do. This is something they would have done for anyone, not just me.
Appetizer: Fancy mushrooms (I can’t remember what kind they were) with a chimichurri sauce. Entree: 3 ounce steak filet with well cooked asparagus and a bearnaise sauce. Dessert: macerated berries topped with a Chambord whipped cream, sweetened with monkfruit and topped with edible flowers.