Dining With Special Needs

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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 ClubThe WaveSanaaArtist 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 PopSunshine SeasonsRoaring ForkCaptain 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.

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Posted on June 8, 2010

36 Responses to “Dining With Special Needs”

  • Awesome!! And I was just developing my questions to interview Cheryl for one of my own blog posts! :-) Thanks, Todd — I’ll be adding this to my round-up this week!

    • Thanks AJ! Having your seal of approval means a veritable ton to me. Don’t let this stop you from interviewing Cheryl, chances are you have a different perspective on this than I do. And did you catch the waffles pic ;)

  • Great job, Todd!

  • Love to read about how awesome Disney is at accommodating dietary needs! I have celiac sprue and have to eat gluten free. They make me feel like a normal person. I usually go home 10 pounds heavier… well worth it!!!

  • by Amy from KC on June 8, 2010, at 9:47 pm EDT

    Great article, Todd! I am allergic to msg, and was thrilled with almost all of my dining experiences at WDW last October. The restaurants were phenominal in their service, both table and counter service. However, I did find that the Food & Wine Festival booths were not as prepared as the restaurants. 100% of the booths where we ate had to make phone calls to find out about food ingredients, with varying waits and delyas, and at two they never were able to get an answer. Their response was that I would have to eat at my own risk. Ummmm…no thank you. After being so well-taken care of in the restaurants, it was a bit of a disconnect.

    The other place I had trouble, and by trouble I mean that there wasn’t anything on the menu except for drinks that I could order as prepared, was Bahama Breeze. (We’re talking salad dressings, spices on fish, seasoned veggies, rice, soup, anything with a broth as ingredient…) I mention this because even though it has no connection to Disney, it is one of the outside-the-World recommendations in the UG. Now, I like pina coladas and daquiris, and am as big a fan of tequilas as Len, but I just can’t see myself making a whole dinner out of them.

    • Food and Wine is odd yes. Chery and I will sit on our iPhones researching dishes, proteins, etc. to determine if they work or not. There’s a lot of fish outside of shellfish that is not Kosher for example. Because we’re local we usually case the booths one afternoon to map out a future eat around the world adventure. We do often find though that we’ll need to stop for a meal for Cheryl elsewhere even during Food & Wine.

      And don’t get me started on Bahama Breeze, suffice it to say we ran into very similar issues and never went back.

  • by Lisa Pereira on June 8, 2010, at 10:31 pm EDT

    Wow. I didn’t realize it could be like that. I just made my ADRs and ordered extra epi pens from my doctor. Also I avoided most restaurants- except Boma- where I might cross coconut. Can you go back in after the fact and add an allergy?

    • So despite that my go.com account is hopelessly broken and Disney has been unable to fix it thus far, I do know that if you were logged into go.com at the time you made your reservation you should be able to go to the “My Reservations” link, recall them, and modify them. If not, then you’ll have to call in to (407) 939-3463 and have them modify the reservations – they’ll need your confirmation numbers.

      You may want to still have the epi pens, jic. But I’d steer clear of all restaurants at the Poly for something as serious as a coconut allergy. When Chef T.J. was at Boma the allergy accommodations were fantastic, it’s been a mixed bag since he switched to Ohana – though breakfast works out better than dinner there I think.

  • Great roundup Todd. Glad to hear Hollywood Studios offers a lot of good options for those with dietary special needs, but doesn’t surprise me since it is the best theme park in the world!

  • Thanks for a great post. A lot of people have questions and concerns about their diet while at WDW. You’ve done a very nice job of letting them know that they have no worries.

  • Great article, Todd! Thank you for taking the time to lay all that out for us.

    Two small editing notes, though: the sweet end to a meal is spelled ‘dessert’ while the dry regions are known as ‘deserts’. Also, the quick service restaurant at the Wilderness Lodge uses the singular form: Roaring Fork.

    Again, thank you for the great article!

  • I wish they had a box to fill in when we check off “other”. I’m on a cardiac diet – low-fat, low-sugar, but there’s no way to let them know that in advance just by checking “other”.

    • Wow! I can imagine those two things to be hard to manage. I presume you need to avoid foods that process out to sugars as well.

      I agree a comment box for “Other” would be a welcomed change. That said, it’s not going to give them advanced warning because I doubt anyone would read it until the seating ticket got printed, which might be why they don’t do it.

      • I’ve dealt with the issue in the past by using the email address to contact the special diets office – they send me a form, and I give the details of my diet and a list of my ADRs.

        At least I know the information is in the system somewhere. Some restaurants seem to be more on the ball than others.

  • Great article. My daugther and wife are Gluten Free and going to WDW is like heaven for them. It is so easy.

    We have gone where we have planned ahead with the chef and also where we haven’t. We didn’t see much difference either way. Everytime we got to where we were going to eat we just mentioned that we had allergies and the chef came out or the manager with the book.

    • I think the reason for you ticking it off when making the reservation is that they can manage consumable resources to make sure that any specially needed items are available at that restaurant on the night of your reservation. I’ve been to some places where you pop in, and they have to go find all the items sometimes they have to check with other restaurants etc.

  • Thanks for the article. My wife and I have been to Disney in 2009 and 2010 and quickly became spoiled by the personalized treatment for her gluten sensitivity.

    We did notice one difference between the two trips that was important. We were less organized in 2009, which often meant that they weren’t ready for my wife when we arrived. In turn, this meant that my meal was served and eaten before hers even arrived, especially at counter service restaurants. In 2010, we were better organized and the lag time was much less.

    To help yourself, Disney has a more detailed form (than the one you noted) that you can download and fill out beforehand. On the form, you can indicate any allergy, plus the full AND counter service restaurants where you intend to eat on a specific day. This cuts down on the scrambling in the kitchen and makes it more likely that everyone’s food will arrive at or near the same time.

    • Thanks! That’s good information. Considering Cheryl and I are there almost every week, I’m not sure the form will work for us (we’d probably beat it to it’s destination), but it’s great knowledge for anyone else reading this.

  • Great article, Todd!

    I have a poultry allergy which I can avoid on my own at all the places I’m eating except ‘Ohana. Can I just put “other” on the one reservation or will it get linked to all my ADR’s automatically?

    • “Other” should cover it. Just make sure you make it clear to the Chef when you see him/her. At Ohana they will even make sure that whomever serves you doesn’t carry the Turkey Skewers. As far as I can tell there is no “default” settings for reservations in terms of preferences. So you’ll have to make sure it’s checked off on each and every one.

  • Thanks for the great info in your article. One thing to add for all of us stuck in the food allergy club… I have literally over 100 food allergies and intolerances, and even the strictest GF menu usually leaves me without options. But last year, by accident, I found out from the awesome head chef at Ohana that the ever-present Mickey-shaped waffles can be made free of ALL of the big 8 allergens. I didn’t believe him, until he made them, and showed me the recipe- first time I’d eaten a waffle since being diagnosed w/celiac & the allergies. After that trip, I started asking every chef about the special waffles. They’re not necessarily ready to serve these at breakfasts in the parks or on Disney Cruise Line, but all the hotels have the recipe. I only wish I’d known sooner. Pass it on!!

    • Sounds fantastic! Was that Chef TJ? Believe it or not, you get fantastic service all around on the Disney Cruises as well when you have dietary needs. There’s a form you’ll need to fill out ahead of time where you can make specific requests of items you want them to have available for you, but this is not guaranteed! Usually our head server at night will alert the other head servers around the ship, and they will arrange with Cheryl her lunch plans in advance and a Chef will usually handle breakfast and lunch directly as a result. Note that outside of fruit, they won’t do anything on island, so even at Castaway Cay you’ll need to have lunch on board.

  • Great article! In my family we have one diabetic, one vegetarian, and one with a diet limited by autism. We have been able to successfully eat at WDW for many years, mostly at CS, but Boma turned out great for us as well.

    I agree about the kosher meals being not too good; my husband tried the one at Cosmic Ray’s even though the cashier tried to warn him off unless he absolutely had to have it. It wasn’t vile, just not as good as other choices. However, that experience allowed us to assure some worried guests in line with us at a CS that indeed, the kosher meal was kosher and that they could safely eat it instead of relying on salads for their whole trip.

    • Believe it or not, once upon a time there was actually a really good Kosher meal at Cosmic Ray’s. It was this fantastic little number with corned beef and these sweet potato dumplings sprinkled with cocoa powder. This was back in 2004 or 2005. Then they changed it out with this substitute meal that was nowhere near as good and it’s been all downhill from there.

      Once during Passover we tried to go, and they even served us *corn* in a meal – which is a no-go during Passover and shows that Disney dining needs to consider a better Kosher consultant.

  • I have just booked a trip for our family. Though we have visited and had success with special diet in the past, this 1st we are staying in a Disney property. Due to son and husband’s multiple food allergies, I booked a Villa with kitchen, but am still mulling over purchasing the dining plans.

    From what I read in book, I am assume the plans may be too restrictive for a child who cannot eat typical “kiddie food.” We routinely order from adult menus or require something special when we dine out. In your opinion, are the dining plan requirements too restrictive for children w/multiple food allergies, or will Disney allow accommodation?

    • The dining plan does not dictate in anyway way what specific things you eat. If you require any sort of special allergy needs for your son and husband, as long as the restaurant knows ahead of time, you should be okay. They will work with you as much as is needed.

      For example, we once went to WDW with a friend who’s son was allergic to many, many things. We were at 1900 Park Fare, which is a buffet, but after talking the Chef determined that nothing on the regular menu would do or could be modified to suit, so he went over to the store for one of the other restaurants at the Grand Floridian and made them a very simple grilled steak with a heap of broccoli.

      If you feel the allergies are more complex than the choices on the online dining reservation page you have two options:

      1) Do your best when making the reservation, and then call in to amend the additional items.

      2) Just call in to make your reservation.

      If you have any concerns I think calling is the best option always. But overall I think you’ll find that Disney will do their best to accommodate you no matter what.

  • Thats a nice post! I’m so delighted you decided to write about it.

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