Food is perhaps one of the greatest parts of visiting Walt Disney World. Just think about all the effort we put into making our dining reservations when that 180 day window kicks in. Much of our vacation planning goes into not just where we’ll eat, but also toward what we’ll eat. There are foods we want to try, foods we want to avoid, and some foods we just want to get a good long look at - food voyeurism is common at WDW, it can help with future vacation planning.
But what happens when your dining choices are gated by more than just desire? Perhaps there are lifestyle choices and/or physical needs that must be accounted for when making your vacation dining plans. No one wants such things to get in the way of their own or their family’s vacation. The very good news is that in their usual and very magical manner Disney is there for you. They don’t want these things to get in the way of your trip either, because they know that food is one of the greatest parts of visiting their World. In fact, Disney goes to great lengths to make sure their dining castmembers are well trained in assisting with these needs.
How do I know this? Because there are several dining issues that my wife, Cheryl, and I deal with every time we go to Disney World. But before I get into those I want to start at the beginning… making your reservation. As you know, I’m a local, and as a result I eat at Disney World a lot, so I have a lot of experience with the online reservation system. And while that system has undergone some recent changes, the process for handing special dining needs has not changed all that much. After choosing your restaurant, date, and time you will see the following underneath your personal info:
Check that box and the area below will expand to look like this:
I’ve checked off the choices that have become a part of my regular dining experience at Walt Disney World. Cheryl, has reactions to both dairy and gluten so we check off the “Milk” and “Wheat(Gluten)” check-boxes as they are are a must for us. In addition to this Cheryl has some other food issues that are not listed, so we also regularly check off “Other“. And finally we check off “Shellfish“, but this is not an allergy. Cheryl and I are Kosher in our home, and as a result we try to remain mostly “Kosher Style” when we eat out. She is far more strict than I am out, but there are two things she and I will avoid eating: shellfish and pork products. The “Shellfish” and “Other” check-boxes cover these choices as well. Cheryl is also allergic to red fish like tuna and salmon, but white fish like tilapia is okay so we do not generally click off “Fish“. Like I said, we’ve got a lot going on in this department.
It’s important to note that if you require a Kosher meal that Disney requests that you call in to the WDW Dining Hotline at (407) WDW-DINE or (407) 939-3463. I personally don’t recommend these meals. They are pre-packaged frozen meals that are brought in from an outside food source. They are not all that good, and I really feel they do not do a good job of representing Jewish cuisine. I do however realize that for some people there is no other option at an on property restaurant. There are however several off property locations that are much better options, including my personal favorite.
Once your needed checks are all in place, you complete your reservation. Once you get the email confirmation, with a few exceptions, you have fulfilled your special needs for that reservation. That is until you arrive for your meal. On checking in to the meal, make sure they are aware of your special needs. It should show up on your reservation already, and on the printed wait ticket they drop into their wait queue. This ticket should also be stamped with a red stamp that reads “ALLERGIES“. When you get to table, your server should take the time to identify which members of your party have the stamp is for, and they will notify you that they will be bringing a Chef to your table to take care of your needs.
The Chef will come out with a pad to take some notes. They will verify your needs, and work with you to create a meal to both your needs and your likings. Then, if you’re at a buffet the Chef will also take you through the buffet to identify which foods you can eat and which you should avoid. Typically the Chef will also be the one who delivers your meal as he is required by Disney to assure that your food does not become contaminated by anything from the time it is plated to the time it arrives at your table.
At a buffet you will not be limited to the choices presented either. If there’s something you want, and the Chef has the ingredients needed to provide that item, it will be made for you. For example, I was with a friend who’s son has severe allergies. We were at 1900 Park Faire, and the Chef determined that he should avoid the buffet entirely. Instead he was served a huge steak with an equally huge portion of broccoli.
You can even use the special needs requests to meet caloric intake requirements if you are dieting. As much as we’d all like to believe that nothing in a place as wonderful as Walt Disney World could ever have any calories (I tell myself this with every bite of a Mickey Ice Cream Sandwich), if you are dieting, do not let this keep you away from any restaurants. Just check off “Other” when you make the reservation, and give the Chef a calorie count to meet.
Very often, Cheryl finds it easiest to ask for a vegetarian or even a vegan option. We have learned that many restaurants at Walt Disney World have tofu and/or quinoa available as an alternate protein – though some restaurants will have neither. Most restaurants will also have available tapioca dinner rolls as well as dairy free margarines to cover gluten and dairy allergies. And many will have dairy and gluten free options for dessert.
This, of course, leads us to the topics of cakes. Lets say you’re having a birthday, anniversary, or other celebration and you’d like to get a cake, but you have special dietary needs. Well outside of a calorie requirement, Disney is extremely accommodating in this area. For starters, the special 6 inch made to order celebration cakes can be made gluten and dairy free at most restaurants. You can also order more elaborate desserts and cakes from the various bakeries in and around Walt Disney World. Simply call the cake hotline at 407-827-2253 and tell them your needs. Cheryl and I have been ordering cakes at WDW this way for years now.
So, I’ve been doing a lot of talking about sit down restaurants, but what about counter service? Also very accommodating. When you reach the cashier tell them you have special food needs, and ask them to see “the book“. You may not know this, but at WDW some sit down restaurants and all counter service restaurants have a version of “the book”. But just what is this book? It contains a list of all the ingredients, calories, and other information about all of the menu items at that location. If you tell them you have allergies (they should ask) the cashier must also get for you either a manager or a chef to handle your needs. If you have gluten issues, many of the sandwiches can have their bread swapped out for the same tapioca rolls mentioned earlier. Veggie burgers are available at many counter service locations, as are Kosher meals – keep in mind neither are gluten free typically.
Counter service locations at resorts are also an excellent choice for breakfast when working with special food needs. Most locations will have some form of pre-packaged gluten and dairy free waffles available. And home fries can be specially made providing you work this out in advance with a chef at the location. The home fries are typically dusted with flour to prevent them from sticking to each other – so this will be especially important for those with gluten issues.
Many shops and counter service locations also have gluten and dairy free desserts. This includes cookies, brownies, jelly beans, and ice cream, but not all items can be found at all locations. If you do not see these items, ask a castmember for help tracking them down. There is also fruit available at many locations as well.
If I had to pick some sit down restaurants where we’ve gotten the best service in terms of Cheryl’s needs I’d have to go with Turf Club, The Wave, Sanaa, Artist Point, and Tusker House. I would not recommend either The Plaza, or Cape May as neither restaurant seemed adequately prepared to handle her needs. Until recently Turf Club was Cheryl’s #1 choice, but that was definitely replaced by Sanaa. We also had a particularly good experience for our anniversary dinner at Artist Point because one of the original chefs from Sanaa now works there.
For counter service some stand outs in the past have been Everything Pop, Sunshine Seasons, Roaring Fork, Captain Cook’s, and all of the ones at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (I’m thinking that Matt Hochberg just placed another tic mark in his DHS “Pro” column). With the Asian Salad at the ABC Commissary probably being the best of breed (gluten free if you ask for no noodles). There are far too many counter service meals in all the parks that would need to be avoided for one special need or the other, but for Cheryl’s needs we avoid locations like Pinocchio Village Haus, Yakitori House, and Lotus Blossom Cafe.
If you’d like to talk with someone at Disney World about your special needs it is recommended that you either use the WDW dining hotline (407) 939-3463 or send an email to SpecialDiets@DisneyWorld.com – it is recommended you do this after making your dining reservation and at least 48 hours prior to your arrival.
What about you? What are your experiences with Special Needs Dining at Walt Disney World? Do you have any additional questions? I look forward to hearing from you and discussing this further. Thanks for reading!
The post is part of the Fifth DisMarks.com Disney Blog Carnival; click on the link for more great Disney articles.