Month: December 2009

The Disney Gluten Free Dining Experience

The Short of it: Main stream chain restaurants are more and more offering gluten free items, however, If you have any type of food allergy or sensitivity you would be, IMHO, hard pressed to find a better place on earth to eat than at a Walt Disney restaurant. The selections at some of their locations might not be as good as others, but there are plenty of places to eat and great food as well..

(see note at end regarding recent allergy friendly menu’s at Disney restaurants)

Click on the images for a larger view.

It is gratifying to see that, with the recognition that people like myself affected by a food allergy or sensitivity are an increasing percentage of the public,  those in the dining industry are wisely taking steps to ensure that this group are not excluded from eating at their establishments. The menu selection available for special diets is still no where near as extensive as the regular menu, however, so long as the food is tasty I do not mind stopping in for a bite to eat.

A concern I do have though is in their avoiding confusion and maintaining a strict control to assure that those of us who have to police what we consume are getting exactly what we require. I worked almost 10 years in the fast food industry and my experience has shown me that, despite their best intentions, the youths who are predominantly the employee base of the industry can be easily overwhelmed in the frantic pace some restaurants experience; especially at peak hours. If a member of the waitstaff grabs the wrong plate and a customer receives a sandwich with the mayonnaise they had requested be withheld because he or she does not like mayonnaise they would of course be annoyed to bite into the sandwich and taste it there. A person who has an allergy to eggs on the other hand taking a bite of that sandwich could find themselves in a potentially serious situation.

I was reminded of this after a recent dining experience. For me the issue is products containing Gluten. Fortunately, for myself, the result of consuming products containing gluten is not fatal, it just leaves me very uncomfortable for hours, sometimes even days. For others though consumption of gluten can be a more serious matter.

On this particular occasion my wife and I had no less than 3 people bringing items to our table and at one point there was a bit of confusion whether or not something we received was indeed gluten free. I had ordered from their gluten free menu, everyone we spoke with during our stay was very attentive to my issue but, still, somewhere an error was made and I had to deal with the results of that for a couple days. As this was a one time event and the assurances I received afterwords showed me that it is a issue they take very seriously I see no reason to make mention of their name here at this time.

In contrast, when dining at a Disney restaurant, the chance of confusion is remote at best. The extra attention they put into taking care of you puts you right at ease and just makes your stay there that much more enjoyable.

As impressed as I am it really does not surprise me. No matter what area of business the Disney Company decides to pursue, be it theme parks, restaurants, cruise lines, hotels/resorts, etc, they seem to approach it with the thought in mind to not offer just a good product or service, but the absolute Best and quickly become the 300 pound gorilla in the room that sets industry standards which other companies strive to emulate.

Anyone who has been to a Disney theme park would of course notice that there is no shortage of hotels and restaurants just outside of the Disney property. Obviously Disney wants to do everything it can to see to it that someone looking to grab something to eat is not leaving their property to go to one of these places. As such there is no shortage of quick serve and full service places to eat at on property and, although I can not say that the selection at every Disney restaurant can cater to your food issues with 100% satisfaction, there are some really great places there you will enjoy.

Since 1998 we have had the pleasure of visiting Walt Disney World about 26 times. In our earlier trips days in the parks were always fun, with the exception of how I might feel after a meal and the way we had to coordinate our activities after our meals to make sure I did not stray too far from a rest room in case there was a problem. However since we started taking advantage of Disney’s efforts to cater to people with food issues it has made a huge difference. After spending 40+ years always focusing on how my stomach felt at any given time, having a week or so where absolutely nothing bothered me is truly a blessing.

When we now make dining reservations before our trip to WDW Sue takes care to make the person helping us on the phone aware of my issue and a note is added in the computer to every reservation.

When we are seated at our table we can see on the slip that is left for our server a notation printed out clearly stating the food allergy issue. Just in case, because some servers did not seem to do more than quickly glance at the slip, we did make sure the server was aware of my problem. In response the server would tell us that they will have a Chef come to the table and explain what items I can or can not have. Depending on how busy they were it could take more than a few minutes before the Chef would get there but once there I had their undivided attention and they took great care to explain what was or was not suitable for me to eat and, if possible, how something could be made special without including the gluten containing ingredients; such as a sauce or other topping. As well, when at a buffet, if there is an item you can have but are concerned someone may have switched spoons with something you should avoid, the Chef was more than willing to bring out a fresh portion to our table.

I have thanked a Chef for their offer to make something special but declined because they were so busy and the Chef went and made it anyway; they really make you feel that you are not a bother, they want you to be happy and to enjoy yourself. To a Chef food is their life; it is not just something to provide sustenance, it is their art and their passion – they want you to have as much enjoyment experiencing their dishes as they get making them for us.

One of the things that brings me the greatest piece of mind is knowing that your order does not go through many hands which means there is less chance of confusion or the wrong plate being set before you. It has happened a number of times at chain restaurants we frequent where someone other than our server will bring our order and on my plate are items I cant have so it has to be sent back and I have to wait for a replacement. And since my family doesn’t want to start without me their plates get cold while we all wait. In each of the places we went to at Disney World the same chef, manager, or individual designated to assist people with dietary issues, that took my order prepared  the meal and brought me the plate as well. In the case of the Tokyo Dining restaurant, for instance, at EPCOT’s Japan Pavilion where the chef apparently did not speak English I believe the manager, after taking my order, supervised the preparation of the meal and then brought it out to me.

Incidentally, Tokyo Dining is perhaps the only place we have dined where the selection of what I had to choose from was a disappointment. Sue and the boys are big fans of that style of food, as was I, and, and for them the menu held a rich tantalizing selection which, from what I am told, tasted great. If memory serves correct I had the choice of a piece of steak or a piece of salmon, which is what I chose. Don’t get me wrong; what I had was very tasty, but the few pieces of vegetables and white rice were all I had to go with it and the meal did not stand out as anything special. The staff however was superb.

Foregoing a full service restaurant for a quick serve meal does not mean you are treated any differently. Whether we sat for the full buffet at Tuskar house or just bratwurst and sauerkraut at the Germany Pavililion the same precautions were taken by the waitstaff and a chef or manager would come to the front to take care of us. In fact if we asked the regular order taker if a particular item on the menu was gluten free we were told that, even if they knew the answer, they were not allowed to tell me and promptly requested the manager or chef come to assist me.

Here are some of the Chefs we met on a visit this year as well as some of the meals I enjoyed:

BOMA – Dinner

Allison is a Chef at Boma and was on duty the night we stopped in for dinner. Boma is one of 3 places to eat at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, has been a favorite of ours since the resort opened and is a priority stop in all our trips. Until they changed the menu at the Tuskar House at the Animal Kingdom park Boma always stood out to us with the most unique offerings which are made with an exotic African flare. One of the must have items at Boma are the soups which are second to none. The flavor of all the soups will have your eyes rolling back in your head as you swoon at the heavenly experience. A number of the soups are now forbidden to to me, but my absolute favorite, a squash soup that taste like liquid pumpkin pie, is okay. Although the soup was not being served in that nights rotation, Allison offered to bring some over from the Lodges quick serve restaurant, Mara’s:

Though there were of course items I had to avoid, there was still plenty of great tasting foods to choose from:

To the left is the bowl of squash soup. Another item we always enjoy is the fruit juice cocktail once called Frunch, they now call it Jungle Juice. A non alcoholic blend of fruit juices it is usually offered at breakfast, but if you request it they will bring it out for you at dinner as well.

Cape May

Interestingly, the chef at the restaurant where we ate dinner the following night, Cape May, was also named Allison.

Because all the breads served at the buffet stations contain wheat I have to avoid them. However there are dinner rolls that Disney offers which are made from a tapioca based flour. On their own they are pretty tasty, Chef Allison though went a step further and added melted butter and garlic to them.

Cape May at the Yacht and Beach Club resort is another buffet with a great selection including seafood like clams, mussels, and crab legs. Because Sue has an allergy to shellfish I avoided that stuff but found plenty of other great things to eat.

Crystal Palace

I must have been really starving the night we went to the Crystal Palace; somehow I neglected to take a picture of my plate! But here is Chef Jean.

The Crystal Palace is again a buffet and again there was plenty to chose from. Chef Jean warned me about the gravy’s and, surprisingly, the mashed potatoes as well. It seems the stock they used for flavoring the mashed potatoes was not gluten free. This was the only restaurant  we went to that I could not eat them. A real pleasant surprise though was that I could eat the corn spoon bread; something I loved at Hollywood & Vine but no longer could have. The version at the Crystal Palace contains only corn meal and tasted great.

1900 Park Fare

1900 Park Fare is located in the Grand Floridian resort and is a favorite of Sue for one reason: she loves the cold strawberry soup. Originally we were not able to get a reservation there this trip and had instead booked a table at one of the other places in the GF. However, after taking some photos of the lobby area Sue went over and asked the hostess if they had a table for 2 and they did.

Here now we have a situation where we were not expected but it made no difference at all in the way we were taken care of. We made our server aware of the gluten issue and they promptly asked for the Chef, Chef Gary, to come to our table. As this was a buffet as well he took me around the serving area and made sure I was comfortable with what was available to me. When we had finished he asked if there was something he could bring me and I asked for the gluten free dinner rolls.

In previous years the food selection area was actually smaller; divided in half they served the same food on each side. There was also a pasta bar where they would make up fresh servings of pasta with seafood and such. However the pasta bar was now gone & they had increased the selections in the serving area by offering different things on both sides; so there was quite a bit for me to enjoy.

The Biergarten

The Biergarten at EPCOT’s Germany Pavilion is a restaurant with one of the more unique seating arrangements on property. Instead of having your own table you are sat at a table for 8 and joined by other families whom you are encouraged to get to know. The tables are set in a half circle facing a stage where a group of guys dressed in Lederhosen sing traditional German songs and encourage the audience to sing along and dance with them. Basically it is Oktoberfest every day and a place we like to visit at least once when we go to WDW.

Though we had been there many times, and had reservations for dinner later in the week, we had never used their quick serve area. I do not recall the menu being really expansive; I think the beer selection was larger. I was interested in the Bratwurst with sauerkraut and  asked the cashier taking the orders if the Bratwurst was gluten free. Here was one of those times where the server replied that even if they did know she would not be able to tell me, instead, she said, she would bring a Chef out to assist me.

They were extremely busy that day and we did have to wait about 10 minutes before a Chef came out. Although every Chef we have encountered at Disney since we have had to cater to my gluten issue has been outstanding, Chef Paul Pavlovic stands out among all of them.

Chef Paul assured me that all the sausages they offered were gluten free, and that I should just order the bratwurst without the bun.

A couple of days later when we returned to the Biergarten for dinner it was Chef Paul again who came out and he recognized us immediately.While we made the rounds at the buffet he pointed out how some items could be made special, asked if there were certain things I liked, and if there was anything he could make special for me. If you have ever been to the Biergarten you know that it is a place that is always very busy. I thanked him for his kind offer, pointed out that he had his hands full already and assured him that I would be okay with what he pointed out I could have.  After we parted ways I made a plate for myself and went back to our table to enjoy the meal and the atmosphere. Even though I was beginning to feel pretty full I was considering heading back to the buffet for some of the tasty looking desserts that were safe when Chef Paul returned and placed a mammoth plate of food before me with salmon, mashed potatoes vegetables, some tasty fruit toppings and the tapioca dinner rolls which he had covered with melted grated cheese and garlic.

He also left me a bag with an assortment of Gluten free cookies, some brownies, and promised to return with a waitress to take a photo.

Liberty Tree Tavern

The next dinner we had was at the Liberty Tree Tavern where Chef Sutilak took care of my meal.

A sweet charming lady, she explained what changes she would make to my plate, such as a gluten free gravy, and brought me a order of the dinner rolls as well. They have a honey butter they whip up on premises, but for some reason I had to settle for the regular stuff. My guess is that they may be concerned about the honey (wheat pollen?); if they can not be certain a item they are supplied with is gluten free they then recommend against you using it. Such was the case at another restaurant where I was advised against using the cocktail sauce.

The standard plate they present you contained turkey, beef, ham, mashed potatoes, string beans and a stuffing (which I could not have). Cranberry sauce was available as well and I did enjoy some of that. The food was awesome & you can have as much as you want of everything, but I was full after one plate.

Boma – Breakfast

Most of our breakfasts on our trips are simple things like oatmeal or cold ceral we prepare in our room. However as we had the dining plan on this trip we took advantage of that and instead had a simple fare of either a omelet or scrambled eggs with bacon and a small sausage, both with home fries, either at EPCOT or at the quick serve restaurant at our hotel. Though filling the scrambled eggs were just okay & usually cold by the time we got back to our table. The omelet was not bad and being made to order was at least warm to eat.

The breakfast we really look forward to is at Boma and Sue schedules that meal for our last day of the vacation. I did not expect Chef Eugene to remember us from a previous trip but I remembered him; he had helped us on a previous visit to animal Kingdom Lodge for lunch at Mara’s as well as a breakfast at Boma. He is a warm friendly man but with an air of a drill sergeant about him. For instance, while going over the breakfast buffet with me, he is  also watching everything going on, pointing out to his help in the back what needs to be stocked up and excusing himself to replenish a supply of plates that is running low.

Like the dinner meal, the breakfast offerings are really tasty, flavorful, and I highly recommend them.

I made myself a nice plate to start off with which I enjoyed with the Frunch, aka Jungle Juice, and coffee.

After I finished that Eugene came to the table with a delicious serving of gluten free french toast, and, for the trip home, he included some muffins set in the shape of Mickey.

As I said earlier, all the Chefs and Mangers were really great. I am always concerned, as busy as it is, that I am taking up their valuable time but they do everything they can to assure me otherwise.

Tuskar House

Another full serve restaurant we visited was Tuskar house. Until recently this had been a quick serve eatery now though it is a full serve buffet style place with food similar to Boma. Not only was the staff here outstanding but there was a great selection to choose from as well.

Chef Joseph took care of me here and brought me some delicious portions  of a Caesar salad, a seafood dish and a vegetable medley, all which he had made up for me without the gluten containing ingredients which the regular versions had..

Animal Kingdom park closes much earlier than all the other parks, so our late afternoon/early evening diner reservations meant that the place was not crowded at all. This was a blessing for a number of reasons, one of which is that it was not as noisy in that restaurant as it usually is. After our meal Chef Joseph and some of his staff even stopped to pose for photos with us.

Tokyo Dining

As I stated earlier, though it tasted good and the staff was great, I was disappointed in the small selection of items I could have here. Having had steak already a couple times during our trip I chose the salmon which had a interesting crispy exterior. Served with a ‘ice cream scoop’ of rice and a couple of vegetables it really was not a fulfilling meal.

Quick Serves

Backlot Express

For lunch one afternoon we stopped in at a quick serve called Backlot Express over at the Disney Hollywood Studios. Kind of tucked away this was the first time we had ever eaten there. Though we arrived at what would have been a peak time for lunch it was not excessively busy so we had no trouble finding a table and were served quickly.

Carly, the cashier, was very pleasant and brought over the manger, Candy, right away.

Candy was very friendly and went straight away to fill my meal order of gluten free chicken tenders and fries with the gluten free brownie for dessert.

The chicken tenders are quite good, better I think even then their regular version. Cooked in a fryer set aside for gluten free foods there is no concern of getting some crumbs from a regular batch in your food.

Pizza Planet

This quick serve is located at the Disney Hollywood Studios and is named after the Pizza Planet restaurant in the Toy Story movies. We have never passed this place when it wasn’t packed and have only eaten there on one occasion. To the best of my knowledge all the pizzas served here are pre-made and therefore just heated and served.

When it was our turn at the register we made the cashier aware of my needs, and someone was dispatched to assist us. David came out from the kitchen area with a binder of pages for all kinds of dietary issues.

He then showed us all the ingredients in the gluten free pizzas they offered.

After I made my choice he went back to the kitchen to prepare it. This place is where we had the longest wait time for my meal. I believe that all the pies they serve are frozen. Obviously they are prepared for the customers who do not have any issues and tons of pies are defrosted and ready to heat and serve as needed.  We, along with another customer with a gluten issue, easily waited close to 20 minutes for our orders. For a restaurant like this, which is always busy, I would suggest that if possible you try to get hold of the manager before you even get to the cashier so that  they can get a head start on your order.

Pizza is one of those things I really miss since I have had to make the change in my diet. The pizza they serve at Pizza Planet is not one of those great gooey pizzas where the greasy cheese stretches as far as your arm will reach, but it is not too bad. The ‘crust’ is more spongy; I think that it is corn based, so it is more like eating pizza toppings on a slice of bread.   Which reminds me, the boys looked over at mine with a bit of envy because it actually had more toppings on it than there conventional pizza did.

The cookies you see in this photo are the ones they served as dessert at all the restaurants the first time we went to WDW and asked for gluten free meals. They were not bad, but I only saw them that one time.

Boulangerie Patisserie pastry shop

This little pastry shop is tucked into the France pavilion at EPCOTs World Showcase. We were under orders from Sues mom for Sue to have a Napoleon ‘for her’. As expected, this was not going to be a place I was going to find an abundance of goodies to enjoy. The only thing there I could have was the Creme Brule, which was okay, nothing fabulous, but not bad.

Steven was very pleasant and I think a touch remorseful that all he had to offer me was the one item.

Note: There are two full serve restaurants at the France pavilion as well, Bistro de Paris, and Chef’s de France. In a a segment I heard recently on a Disney related podcast a caller, who has a family of children with a gluten allergy, told how her family had gone to eat at Chef’s de France because of the Ratatouille character they have entertaining the guests but were disappointed to find that the restaurant, apparently, had no gluten free offerings for the children. I find this really surprising, however, as we have never dined at either of these places I can not say with any certainty that there is or is not gluten free meals available. I would strongly suggest then that when you call to make reservations you confirm that they can accommodate you dietary restrictions.

Follow up to the note on Chefs de France: Sue and I went there about a year or so ago and, for me, the gluten free dining experience was nothing short of wonderful. So, although I can not speak of the offerings for children, as an adult you should not be disappointed at all. (1-25-13)

Desserts/treats

Compared to our first time, the second time taking advantage of Disney’s efforts to cater to the gluten free guests appeared to have slightly more dessert offerings available at the restaurants. It still has a a way to go though to really be as enjoyable as the variety of offerings available for those without dietary restrictions. In speaking with some of the chefs they expressed their disappointment that some items, both for desserts and main courses, would be easy for them to make gluten free but that they had not gotten approval yet from HQ to make the changes. Considering how tightly Disney controls its standards for quality, this is not really surprising and, considering the efforts they make to cater to their guests needs, I am confident that eventually there will be more items available..

For now the two basic items offered for dessert, I think in all the Disney locations, are the cookie and the brownie:

Tip: In the restaurants that also have soft serve ice cream, like the Crystal Palace and Hollywood & Vine, ask the chef to heat up the brownie and then add some ice cream to it!

A final thought.

In closing I would like to thank the Walt Disney company, as well as all the wonderful cast members we met, for taking such good care of folks like myself who are forced to restrict our diets. It is really difficult for someone who can eat just about anything they want to really comprehend what a joy it is to be able to just go to a restaurant and without too much effort have a wonderful meal and not have any worries pressing in the back of their mind about the safety of what they are eating.

When Sue and I met I was popping anti-diarrhea medicines like they were peppermints. Though it eventually escalated to a point where I had to seek medical attention, I had had ‘crummy tummy’ issues all my life and thought it was normal. Being able now to go to a place we love, like WDW, and not even worry about it not only gives me relief physically but mentally as well. Food should not be your enemy. Along with the discomfort, the stress and fear one experiences dealing with food allergies or intolerance’s in a environment you can not control can be overwhelming at times.

The Disney parks are a special place Sue and I have been to many times and look forward to many more. Some people, those who have not as of yet been there, shake their heads when we tell them we will be going again; they do not understand why. We have told them of the people you meet, how you are treated, the interesting and fun things to do, etc, etc. Now though we have one more reason to share: it is not just for the fun and all the the rest of those things, but the peace of mind as well.

NOTE: If you are curious about GF dining at IKEA click HERE for a recent experience

NOTE: A recent article at the DIS website announced some changes WDW was making in its menu’s. According to them WDW will be offering allergy friendly menu’s at all the restaurants, but you will still be able to ask for a chef if you desire. It is only an assumption on my part, but I am guessing that buffet style locations without menu’s will still function as they have before.

You can read the DIS article HERE

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