Avid Disney park-goers will likely agree – food is its own theme park at Walt Disney World. Snacks like the Dole Whip, turkey leg and the Mickey Mouse ice cream bar have cult followings, and Flame Tree barbecue sauce is the stuff of which dreams are made. I honestly can’t remember the last time I had a meal I didn’t love within the parks or resorts.
My first trip to Walt Disney World was at age five. Since then, I’ve gone to Walt Disney World more times than I can count and had more meals there than I care to share. A majority of those vacations were care-free, although I didn’t realize it at the time. When I was hungry, I ate, and usually whatever I wanted.
Four years ago, I started suffering from Crohn’s disease – an inflammatory bowel disease from which millions of Americans suffer. To have any hope of staying in remission, I have to follow a very restricted diet – gluten/grain/starch-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, soy-free, corn-free, to name a few – which made vacationing much more complicated. Everything I knew about dining at Walt Disney World was irrelevant, and lots of new questions reared their ugly heads. What if they don’t have anything I can eat? Can I take my own food into the park? Will I be eating a grilled chicken breast and steamed broccoli for every meal? What if the kitchen isn’t careful about how they prepare special requests?
A lot of planning and research went into my first WDW trip on a special diet. I made a lot of reservations, and I spoke with a number of chefs. Lucky for me and anyone else with dietary restrictions, Disney’s accommodations for guests with special diets are unmatched by any other resort or restaurant I have visited. Rest assured, if you stay at Disney, you can still have a care-free and delicious vacation.
However, along the way, I have learned a few tricks that make doing WDW on a special diet even easier to manage:
#1 Table-service restaurants – expensive but effective
I’m guessing if you’re vacationing at WDW, you’re not on a tight budget to start, but I know the dollar signs start to add up at the parks. When it comes to food, if I eat the wrong thing, I’ll be sick. That goes for others with Celiac disease, diabetes, lactose intolerance and more. Table-service dining offers the opportunity to speak with the chef face-to-face to walk through the menu, explain your dietary needs and if needed, have the chef customize a special meal for you. While table-service tends to be more expensive than quick-service dining in the parks, in my mind, spending a bit more on table-service is better than wasting thousands of dollars on a Disney vacation for which you end up being sick. I’ve even had chefs walk me through buffet lines at character dining meals, showing me what was okay for me to eat and then bringing me a plate of special food from the kitchen to supplement! The higher cost is definitely worth the investment.
Quick-service locations are getting better at offering food for those with intolerances or allergies, but I still find that speaking with a chef and having a customized meal takes away the apprehension of eating at the parks.
#2 Make advanced dining reservations and call out your dietary needs
If you do choose to go the table-service route, try your best to make advanced dining reservations. Not only does this cut down on stress of trying to find something you can eat without waiting hours as a walk-in, but the reservation systems allows you to alert the restaurant of your requirements ahead of time. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been to a restaurant that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make substitutions after already sitting down and ordering drinks.
A couple years ago when I made an advanced reservation for Jiko at Animal Kingdom Lodge, a Cast Member called me the day before my reservation to understand my restrictions and make sure they could prepare something to meet my needs. Not only was the gesture appreciated, I already knew going into dinner that the chef would be able to accommodate me.
#3 Stay in a DVC villa with a kitchen
My first year at WDW with a special diet was nerve-wracking, as mentioned. I was very limited in my diet and wasn’t sure how the parks would handle my restrictions. My family decided to rent a Disney Vacation Club villa with a kitchen – the best decision we made that year. We ordered groceries and had them delivered to Animal Kingdom Villas for our arrival, and the kitchen came fully stocked with silverware, cookware and utensils. We made breakfast in the room (which also saved time in the morning to get us to the parks earlier) and always had the safety net of food back at the villa, should we not find anything suitable at the park that day.
Also, since Disney allows you to bring food into the parks, you can store snacks or make your own meals and bring them into the park if you prefer to eat your own food rather than scouting for quick- or table- service options. Again, spending a bit more on a villa can save you stress and hassle for the rest of your vacation!
#4 Savor meal time, the scenery and company
Dining out on a regular day often comes with a good amount of anxiety over the restaurant, the menu, the meal and how the kitchen prepares it. While at Disney, dining becomes a pleasurable experience again. Without having the common stressors of someone with intolerances, remember to really savor meal time and enjoy the company you’re with in the most magical place on earth. Pay attention to the Disney details in any of the restaurants you choose – whether it’s the gorgeous tiling or belly dancing at Restaurant Marrakesh in Morocco or all the black and white caricatures of famous Hollywood celebrities at Hollywood Brown Derby. Book a character breakfast and meet your favorite Disney princesses or Mickey Mouse himself without being afraid of the buffet. Sip a signature cocktail and take your time – remember that you’re on vacation!
To this day, WDW is still my favorite vacation spot as a person with special dietary needs. I only wish every restaurant showed as much care and provided such quality service as Disney does. When I come home from a WDW vacation, I always say that I wish I had a Disney chef living with me so I could eat that well year-round.