Originally published by The Special Food Groups MagEzine on July 1, 2010
Our younger son Ryan is seven years old and was diagnosed with Celiac just before he turned two. He's never really known anything other than a gluten-free diet, and he does wonderfully following it. He's great about trying new foods, will never eat anything unless he's sure it's gluten-free, and never seems saddened by the fact that he often has to bring his own special "treat" to birthday parties.
The day after our return from a family trip to Disney World last fall, Ryan was asked to do an assignment that his first grade class does at the beginning of each week: write a few sentences about what they did over the weekend and then write a word describing how it made them feel. He's a very happy kid, so his assignments usually end in, "I feel happy."
Well, weren't we surprised (and delighted!) to see that, after sharing the highlights of our trip to Disney World that week, he wrote, "I feel 'magukl'."
Well, his spelling wasn't right, but you get the idea!
Yes, Disney World DOES make so many kids like Ryan feel "magical" indeed! It really is considered -- with good reason -- the "gold standard" of gluten-free dining and travel (at least for kids -- and perhaps many adults as well!) I'm sure parents of other kids with allergies/intolerances would agree that it's one of the few places you can feel entirely "normal" and not have your vacation revolve around searching for "safe" meal options.
We first visited Disney World as a family about four years ago -- a year after Ryan's Celiac diagnosis. We'd heard great things about how they deal with special dietary requests, and we figured it was probably a good time to take our then 3-year old and 5-year old boys to visit The Mouse. We hadn't really taken a "big trip" that year, partly because it seemed daunting and risky. Well, the trip couldn't have gone more smoothly. And at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I literally almost cried many times throughout those four days at Disney. It was the first time in a year I hadn't had to make a meal or worry about the safety of what Ryan was eating. For four straight days -- three meals a day -- we were in Mickey's capable white-gloved hands.
Well, life gets hectic with kids, so even though we swore we'd go back every year or two for another "vacation from worry," it ended up being this past fall (3 1/2 years later!) that we set out again for a second "magical" experience.
There are plenty of families even more well versed than we are about "the best" way to "do the Disney parks." What I'd like to share are our own "lessons learned" from a largely gluten-free perspective.
When To Go
Our first trip to Disney World was in mid-May. Our more recent trip was over Halloween. I can't say enough about these two times of year. The weather was perfect (not too hot, not too cold), there were virtually no lines for rides and attractions, and our trips cost a fraction of what they might have during holiday times or the summer. Airfares are much cheaper, and Disney typically offers great package deals. Our 4-night hotel package included free park tickets AND a free Dining Plan for all four of us for four days! And with their complimentary Magical Express motorcoach that transports you between the airport and your hotel -- plus the convenient monorail and shuttle buses running constantly to and from the hotels and parks -- there's no need to rent a car.
Should You Stay On Campus or Off?
Some of the advantages to staying "on campus" I just mentioned: no need for a car, money-saving deals, and convenience. But perhaps the best advantage for gluten-free travelers is the ability to take advantage of the Disney Dining Plan. This is ONLY available to guests staying at a Disney hotel or resort. And in my opinion, it's a good idea to take advantage of the Dining Plan. Why? Well, for one, it's a great deal. You get one counter-service meal each day (perfect for lunch at most places in the parks), one "table service" meal (we usually opted to use this for a nice dinner), and one "snack" (can be used for a light breakfast snack in a hotel or a mid-day snack or beverage in the parks). You won't be "out of pocket" for much food at all, and you'll save hundreds of dollars off what you'd pay for similar meals without the plan.
More importantly, however, is the comfort of knowing you have so many gluten-free options when signing up for the Disney Dining Plan. There is hardly a place in the Disney parks -- or their hotels and resorts -- where you can't find a gluten-free menu option. Of course, the service (and chef knowledge) is best in the sit-down, table service restaurants. But as long as you do your research in advance (with the help of websites like GlutenFreeTravelSite and the advice I'm going to give you in this article), you can go to each park armed with a list of what gluten-free items are served at virtually any restaurant, including "counter service" venues. It's also advisable to talk to a manager or chef upon arriving at the restaurant, whenever possible. The staff has been trained well to answer questions and accommodate numerous special diets. The knowledge was apparent when we visited four years ago, and their training was even more impressive during our last trip.
Where (and How) to Find the Best Gluten-Free Dining Options
The first thing you should do after booking your Disney vacation is call the parks' Special Dining departments or send an email to Theresa.Joiner@disney.com. This is how you request lists of gluten-free items available in each of Disney World's theme parks. They will email them directly to you before your trip. For special dietary requests at Magic Kingdom, call (407) 824-5967. For EPCOT, call (407) 560-6395. For Hollywood Studios, call (407) 560-3551. For Animal Kingdom, call (407) 938-3288.
You can also visit a special page on the Disney Website for more information on special dietary requests. For reservations at specific restaurants, call 407-WDW-DINE. I'd HIGHLY recommended making reservations at any "sit down" restaurants as soon as you're allowed to, which is 90 days in advance of your trip (popular ones book up right away). Be sure to have them note "gluten-free" on your reservation, and then remind them of your needs when you arrive at each restaurant. They'll send a manager or chef to your table to talk with you about your options.
The Best Restaurants for Gluten-Free Dining at Disney
Some of our family's personal favorites include Le Cellier Steakhouse in the Canadian Chateau at EPCOT (make reservations here on the first day possible -- it is an extremely popular restaurant), Mitsukoshi steakhouse in Japan (teppanyaki style cooking at your table), The California Grille (in the Contemporary Hotel), and Tusker House Restaurant in Disney's Animal Kingom (they have a delicious and unique buffet breakfast). But there are so many others that have gotten rave reviews as well.
Full reviews of dozens of Disney restaurants can be found on the Florida page of our website. If you don't want to scroll through all the reviews for Florida looking for ones in Disney/Orlando, you can also go to our Map Locator page and narrow your search of reviews to the zip code level, entering 32830 for Disney. You'll get a list of restaurants for the mileage radius you choose, with corresponding markers on a Google map. Just click on any of the markers to get a link to the full user-submitted review for that restaurant.
Resources If You Choose to Stay Off Campus
Don't get me wrong...there's more than one way to enjoy Disney, and you most certainly can have a wonderful gluten-free experience if you choose to stay in any one the many hotels right outside the Disney property. If you're traveling with extended family or friends and need more than one room, you'll find you can often rent a multi-bedroom condo or villa for a comparable (or lower) price than you'd pay for a basic hotel room at a Disney hotel. Plus, the other advantage to this is that you'll have a full kitchen to prepare some of your own (gluten-free) meals.
Stocking Your Fridge and Preparing Gluten-Free Meals in Your Condo
If you choose to stay in a condo or someplace with access to a kitchen, shopping for your gluten-free essentials is easy. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, both carrying an impressive array of gluten-free items, have locations nearby. Personally, what I like to do to when staying somewhere with a kitchen is to order a few meals from a gluten-free meal service called GF Meals by Your Dinner Secret. They ship ready-to-cook meals, sides, baked goods, and desserts on dry ice, and most of their meals require no more effort than baking in an oven. So there's no need to buy a so many ingredients for a meal or worry about whether you'll have the right cookware available. We ordered a range of items from GF Meals when we went on a ski trip last year. GF Meals made sure our box arrived at our condo the day we did, and it was nice to be able to prepare quick, healthy, and tasty gluten-free meals in our condo's kitchen, rather than venturing out to eat every night.
Mixes from the Heartland is another favorite company of mine. They sell dry mixes which require only require the addition of a few basic ingredients to make a full meal. They have a huge selection of entrees, soups, casseroles, dips, desserts...just about anything you can imagine! Since the mixes are "shelf-stable," you can order them before your trip and pack them in your suitcase. Again, you can find more information about both these services on our Travel Resources page.
Finally, if it's basic gluten-free staples you want on hand -- and you don't want to go to the trouble of grocery shopping -- there's always the Gluten Free Mall and other similar places for ordering and shipping gluten-free essentials.
Best Restaurants for Dining Out Gluten Free in the Orlando Area
For those times you DO want to dine out -- and want a break from the Disney parks -- you can take comfort in knowing there are numerous "gluten-free friendly" national and regional restaurant chains with locations in and around Orlando. Many of these chains are reviewed in our Florida section and also featured on our Gluten Free Restaurant Menus page. Some worth mentioning include Bonefish, Carrabbas, Fleming's Steakhouse, Outback, P.F. Chang's, Pizza Fusion, Stonewood Grill and Tavern, and Uno's. In fact, Florida was named The World's Most Celiac-Friendly Destination by GlutenFreeTravelSite in our annual contest this year, due in large part to Disney World and the many restaurants catering to gluten-free diners both inside the parks and in the surrounding Orlando area.
As you can see, there are so many different ways to enjoy a safe, gluten-free vacation to Disney and the surrounding area. Whether staying on campus or off, dining in our out, choices abound and are getting better each day! Happy gluten-free travels!