A Dining Story – Part 1
I sit at my computer to check the park hours of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. While I’m notating particulars about Extra Magic Hours for Disney resort guests, a pop-up box notifies me that I have received an e-mail from someone named Chef Patrick.
I open the letter to read a thoughtful note from the chef of The Hollywood Brown Derby. He explains that he was contacted by Brenda, the head of Disney’s Special Dietary Requests Department, about our family’s circumstances and is very interested in enabling us to visit the park. He then requests an e-mail back specifying the items that my children cannot eat.
I am quick to put my current task aside. After all, if our dietary dilemma does not get resolved, Extra Magic Hours will be meaningless anyway. I feel much like Milo when he cohesively organized all his research in hopes of securing passage to the lost city of Atlantis, and I carefully begin construction on my dietary epistle to Chef Patrick. Since the list of foods my children can eat is more brief and specific than the list of foods they cannot eat, I start my small e-book with this itemized list. After that I give an abridged explanation of my children’s medical diet, the science behind it, and our current position in its progression. This is all followed by explicit warnings of the potential physical, behavioral, and neurological consequences for my children if their food is not prepared within the set guidelines.
As I proofread my e-mail, which is probably worthy of publication in a medical journal, I wonder what Chef Patrick’s response will be. The diet actually is a return to whole foods in a very restricted and pure form. However, I am acutely aware that to most contemporary persons, the kids’ diet seems like a maniacal menu designed by The Swedish Chef and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew.
I expel a heavy sigh and acknowledge that the note cannot be helped. If I am going to trust this man with the health of my children, I need to be sure that he understands the magnitude of our situation. So with some reservation, I hit the “send” button, and my short novel takes off through cyberspace to an inbox somewhere in Orlando.
Several minutes have passed, and I’m back to searching the Disney website for details on height restrictions of attractions and recommended activities for toddlers. Another pop-up box informs me that Chef Patrick has responded. Already? I know that Disney tries to be timely in responding to guests, but this is very impressive. I open the new message and read, “May I call you right now?”
“Oh my! Is this a good thing or a bad thing?” I wonder. I oblige by sending Chef Patrick more specific contact information and wait for the phone to ring.
Over the last two years, our family has received a wide variety of reactions to our diet. But the most common reaction is one of disbelief. In spite of the evidence that my children’s recovery provides, most people seem unable to grasp that our extreme dietary measures have been completely necessary (as if I was putting us all through these severe restrictions just for fun). When Joel (my husband) and I first encountered these responses, they were shocking. Then they grew to be infuriating. At this point, they are expected, but they have never become less painful. So – more often than I care to recall – my experience when conversing about my family’s diet has been negative. I brace myself for what I may confront in my next phone call.
The phone rings, so I pick up. I’m greeted by a kind voice, “Hi. This is Chef Patrick from The Hollywood Brown Derby.” I return the greeting. Chef Patrick explains, “I’m sorry to bother you. I received your e-mail and have looked it over. With all my experience in dealing with dietary issues, I’ve never seen the likes of this. I’m calling because I want to make sure that I fully understand it. Is it alright if I ask you some questions?” I take a big breath and agree to answer his questions even though most of these types of conversations turn into something resembling an interrogation.
We start off discussing the kids’ medical condition and its affect on their digestive system. I explain that most likely the reason he is unfamiliar with their prescribed diet is because most individuals on it are unable to visit restaurants. This is why we haven’t been in a restaurant as a family in two years. Chef Patrick exclaims, “Two years!” But rather than with disbelief, Chef Patrick treats my research and experience with a sense of respect and admiration. He continues to ask very specific questions about ingredients and cooking processes. His manner is one of genuine interest, and he asks me to occasionally pause so that he can catch up on his notes. I find myself feeling slightly at ease with Chef Patrick. He is very likeable, and even though I am neurotic, he seems to take me seriously.
After all the questions have been answered, I express my fear that the meals could accidentally be cross-contaminated due to the nature of a restaurant’s operation. Chef Patrick very calmly addresses me, “I want to lay all your fears to rest. Should you decide to come to my restaurant, your meals will be treated with the utmost care. My restaurant is the only five-star restaurant within a Disney theme park. For this reason, we have two kitchens – one that is rarely ever used. If I’m on duty that day, not only will your meals be pulled off the main line and prepared in an entirely separate kitchen but I will also prepare them myself. I want your family to eat in my restaurant. You have been through so much. Please allow me to serve you this way. I truly want to feed your family.”
I nearly choke as my eyes tear up, and I struggle to catch my breath. His words ring in my ears. IWANT to feed your family? Of all the times I’ve witnessed reactions to our story, I’ve never encountered this. I’ve seen arrogant condescension. I’ve seen irritated tolerance. At best, I’ve seen sympathetic compassion. This is the first time though I’ve seen aggressive inclusion, and I am moved in a powerful way.
It is in this moment that I know I can place the safety of my family’s health in the hands of this incredible man. He has succeeded where so many have failed by being humble and realizing there are some things that he can still learn in life (even from a Neurotic Disney Mom). Because he has made himself teachable, he has also made himself trustworthy. My defenses are coming down, and I smile as I imagine my family enjoying the luxury of a restaurant together for the first time since Elle’s birth.
Chef Patrick and I end our discussion with my promise to make a reservation and his promise to remain in touch. He says that he plans to periodically check on our progress before we arrive, and once again I’m awestruck by his desire to be so “hands-on” with us.
I feel most of my apprehension melt away. In its stead, the familiar feeling of Disney excitement grows. Somehow this saintly man, disguised as a chef, has broken the curse of Disneyphobia that has tortured me for too long. Upon recognizing this, I whisper a prayer of thanks for his entrance in my life. He is the Genie in a lamp that I’ve been waiting to find, making my Disney wishes come true.
*Contact information for Walt Disney World special dietary requests:
(407) 824-5967; WDW.Special.Diets@disney.com; http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/guest-services/special-dietary-requests/
Although I have been doing my best to not allow my newly acquired Disney phobia get the best of me, it has been hard for me to entirely shake it. Traveling with our special dietary needs is a concept that still makes me very uneasy, so I decide not to set our expectations too high. We will brave one park for one day, and we will remain content within that limitation.
The park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS), seems like a good fit for this trip. My little starlets have never been to this park, and my husband, Joel, and I have not been since our honeymoon. It is a park that can be almost completely seen within a day if one carefully plans and strategizes. And because Disney’s Hollywood Studios has a large amount of shows with only a couple rides that exempt small children, our choice is particularly wise for our toddler.
As I analyze the situation, I am continually frustrated by our dietary circumstances. I want to feed my children food that I have prepared because I know this guarantees their safety, but it is impossible for us to carry entire meals for our family around the park. The amount of edibles would require a large cooler to be schlepped around the full day. I am not about to consider this possibility when I will already feel like a pack mule under the weight of a diaper bag, a camcorder bag, and a backpack that contains all the essentials for surviving a Walt Disney World theme park. Plus, I will need all my hands available to manage and direct my Disney troop.
In the back of my mind, I hear the voices of easy-going Disney guests advocating a retreat back to the villa during meals. But this habit is strictly forbidden for my family. It is deep within the commando code to never leave a theme park before its closure forces such dreadful action. So if I intend to have my family experience as much as humanly possible within the limited hours DHS is open, a mid-day retreat is out of the question.
Think, think, think. I tap my furrowed brow with the tip of my index finger as I search for an inspiring solution. This technique in mental exercise always helps Winnie the Pooh visualize “outside the hunny pot.” Perhaps, it will assist me as well.
Ah! I’ve got it! But my plan of ingenuity will require special permission. I retrieve the phone number of Brenda Bennett, the primary supervisor of Disney’s special dietary department, and quickly dial the digits. Surprisingly, she answers personally rather than a voice message. I quickly introduce myself, my circumstances, and my brilliant idea. I propose, “If Joel and I made reservations at a restaurant for lunch and dinner, we could drop meals off there for the children first thing in the morning. Then the restaurant could store the kid’s food in the refrigerator until we arrived for our reservations.” In my mind, the notion is perfect. The restaurant will receive our business; the children will be safe, and our family will experience eating together in a restaurant for the first time in two years. However, Brenda finds a glaring flaw in my scheme. It is illegal.
Disney is responsible whenever a guest reacts negatively to a meal eaten within their restaurants. So to ensure they are only held accountable for incidents that they have actually caused, these eating facilities are not permitted to serve food that they have not prepared. As a loyal Disney mom, it is difficult for me to imagine persecuting an innocent Mouse in a court of law, but apparently there are people who do this sort of thing. As a result, it has dashed all hopes of my family living the Hollywood life for a day.
I do my best to hold it together, but tears fill my eyes. Our dietary restrictions have kept us from being able to do a great many things these past years. I have tried to stay positive in spite of it all, but this is more than I can bear. As I attempt to thank Brenda for her time, I hear my voice quiver. She hears it as well and begs me to consider trusting one of her chefs. As I try to explain the complexity of my children’ s diet and my apprehension, I find myself taking big breaths and long pauses to stave off the sob fest that I am dangerously close to engaging.
Brenda extends her sincerest sympathies and remarks that my fears are natural. She assures me, though, that if I’m willing to give her a chance, she will go beyond the routine process of filling out the standard Dietary Needs Form. She will put me personally in touch with chefs that not only ensure my kids’ safety but guarantee that their meals will receive exclusive attention.
I begin to hope. Maybe if I’m able to speak with some chefs first-hand, I will be able to ascertain whether they actually can handle the grave responsibility of safely feeding my delicate, red carpet walkers. I tell Brenda with some trepidation that I will take this initial step with her. She is elated to hear it and promises that I will begin receiving e-mails from Disney’s Hollywood Studios chefs within a day or two. I express my gratitude, and we end our conversation.
I sit and wonder if I have done the right thing. I desperately wish that I did not have to make such a scary decision; however, because we are a Disney family we cannot live in a bubble that floats outside of the realm of Disney. I’m perfectly content for my bubble to exclude almost everything else in life, but when Mickey is on the outside looking in, it is time for the bubble to pop.
I try to relax and feel comfortable in the direction I’m taking. After all, this is Walt Disney World we are talking about. If anyone is on top of their game, it is this company. Surely I can place my family in their hands and trust we will be taken care of, or can I?
I bury my conflicted head in my hands. Will I ever fully recover from my doubtful Disney state? This is the most distressing condition a Disney Mom could have. It sure would be nice to access Genie and his magic lamp right now, but I’m starting to wonder if my deliverance from this misery is even beyond the reach of the most powerful wish granters.
A Dining Story–Part 2
*Contact information for Walt Disney World special dietary requests: