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Traveling to WDW with food allergies? Read on!

This post originally ran on Trueconfessions.wordpress.com.  

My mom, Soccer Girl, and I just got back from a one week vacation to Walt Disney World. It’s certainly among our favorite places to visit, and not just because of all the great rides and attractions. Most visitors walk around Disney in amazement, marveling about how they think of just everything. Thankfully, that goes for food allergies too. One of the reasons that I enjoy going is the great attention they pay to the needs of those with special diets.

Soccer Girl has a food allergy.   As such, the world can be a scary place. Ever since she was diagnosed 6 years ago, we’ve put an allergy plan into place for her. It’s kind of a like a “WWSGD” that helps her cope with any situation where food is involved.

Disney too has it’s own food allergy action plan. Based on my experiences, during this trip and prior ones, it works and can make your vacation a whole lot more relaxing.  I’ve put together a list of do’s and dont’s for anyone planning on going to Disney who has to deal with food allergies.  I hope you find it helpful in planning your visit to WDW.

DO be sure to tell people at any restaurant that you have a food allergy. The Disney protocol seems to be to have you talk directly with a manager or chef, and this works fairly well.

DO read lists of ingredients, just like you do at home. At the counter service places, the front desk cashiers have “the book” that lists ingredients for all menu items, and in some cases has ingredient lists and nutritional information pulled directly from the packaging. Yes, this is one sad way to learn that Toy Story Pizza Planet serves frozen pizza from distributor, but you know with confidence that you are getting food that works for you.

DO plan in advance. You can make restaurant reservations (currently) 90 days before your visit. Tell your reservationist that you have allergies so it’s noted on your reservation. In most cases, they will have access to the phone numbers so you can call the restaurant directly and talk to the chef about any special needs you might have. This is important because…

DO call restaurants in advance if you are visiting because of a certain menu item. For instance, at Le Cellier in the Canada pavilion at EPCOT, SG was prepared to have the dish she had last year, their most yummy Portobello Mushroom Ravioli. However, when the chef came out during the meal to go over menu options, this was off her list because the dish now contains pine nuts. She was most disappointed, and while she willingly had the prime rib, it really wasn’t what she wanted. Lesson learned, I walked into the Morocco pavilion a couple of days before our planned meal there to ask if the dish she’s been obsessed with was ok to eat. Wouldn’t want to take the chance of breaking her heart again, so in the future, I will definitely call ahead to discuss menu items. I assume this is the way you would want to go if you had more complex allergy issues because they can do things for you if you give them enough advance warning.

DON’T assume that there is not a menu option for you. I met a woman from Venezuela on line at Pizza Planet who had a son with celiac. She had been relying on food she brought from home or bought locally, supplemented by fruit and other things on the regular menu. Unfortunately, that night she forgot to bring something for him, and was anxious about having him see pizzas for everyone and not being able to partake. She had no idea that you could get a gluten-free pizza there if you specially requested it. I knew because I saw the Amy’s label in the allergy book there. I got to chat with her and give her some advice about how to find gluten free items for him. The boy was so happy to find a pizza he could eat – a pizza, I might add, that looked way better than the ones we had.  Ask at every counter service, and when you make dining reservations, call ahead and see what the options are.

DON’T be surprised when hiccups happen.   At Pizza Planet, I assumed the front cashier needed to mark “allergy” on our order. However, because the manager and I agreed there were no nuts/chance of nuts in the pizza, and they didn’t have any nut products in the restaurant, eliminating the chance for cross-contamination, we were just going to get a regular pizza. By marking allergy, I ended up spending time waiting for a special pizza that wasn’t coming. But that was my fault as much as anyone else’s!  We also had the experience in the Germany pavilion where SG decided she wanted a pretzel. The woman working at the pretzel cart wouldn’t confirm or deny nuts in the pretzel, insisting I seek out a manager, who was working at the back of the pavilion. I headed back there, and looked for him, but he wasn’t around. They called him on walkie-talkie, but after 10 minutes, he was a no-show and I gave up. She ended up with popcorn, and was just as happy.  In one counter service place, the chef made a special batch of chicken nuggets for us, and told us to only take the food from him directly.   A staff member kept trying to place nuggets on our tray, but we told him no, and another staff member corrected him, reminding him of the protocol.   Thankfully, these hiccups showed that Disney tends to err more on the side of safe, avoiding sorry wherever possible.

DO bring your epi-pen, benadryl, or whatever other medical precautions you have to deal with a reaction.  Just because you are on vacation doesn’t mean you give up following your usual protocols for your allergies.

DON’T be rude.  Be pleasant, say please and thank you.  This may sound stupid and obvious, but these people are going the extra mile for you.   Let them know their efforts are appreciated.   We got wonderful service at some of the counter service places, the aforementioned Le Cellier and Restaurant Marrakesh, Boma at the Animal Kingdom Lodge (where the chef walked us through the buffet and offered to make a special dessert for SG) and Fresh at the Dolphin.  Special mention must be made of Kona Grill, where the chef made a special “Big Kahuna” for our little Kahuna, and Tutta Italia at EPCOT, because they didn’t give up in helping SG find a dessert that worked for her.  They seemed happy to do it, and I was certainly happy to have it happen.  So often kids with food allergies feel alienated and left out at mealtime.  It was great to have her feel special at mealtime.

DISCLAIMER: There are my experiences at WDW, and mine alone. Your mileage may vary. I encourage you to do your own research to help meet your own individual needs.  For more inforomation on food allergies, visit the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.  Disney also maintains their own food allergy page you can check out for more info.


Are you familiar with Lenore Skenazy and her movement (and Wiley book of the same name) “Free Range Kids”?  Lenore is the mom who wrote the article for the New York Sun on how she let her 9 year old son take the subway home alone, a ride that he had taken with her many, many times.   She got a huge amount of media attention, for and against, and used it to launch her Free Range platform.

I felt a lot like Lenore while I was at Disney Social Media Moms.  You see, the celebration is very much a professional business conference.  As such, on day 2, there was a full line up of speakers for us to learn from and be inspired by.  This action packed day was just for attendees – the assumption was that family members would tour the parks or hit the pool while we were getting our learning on.

For most families, that was not an issue.  But for me, I didn’t have my spouse or partner with me to look after my 12 year old daughter.  I didn’t want to try and bring her to the conference – it was clearly not allowed, and even if I could get an exception, she’d be bored out of her mind listening to the speakers, which would make me miserable.  Disney does offer “kids clubs” and in-room babysitting, but since the age ranges was listed as 4-12, I felt silly considering it for someone at the top of the range.

While it seems like I debated this issue, I really didn’t.  As soon as I realized she and I would be going to Disney Social Media Moms, I assumed she would tour a park by herself while I attended the conference.  And with that, you would think I put her on the subway herself the first time.

I heard from a number of friends, and Mr. IT about how this was NOT a good idea.  That “things could happen.”  That she wasn’t to be trusted by herself.

Hogwash, I thought.  First off, she’s been to Disney more times than I can count.  She knows her way around better than most adults.  Secondly, it’s not as if I wasn’t close by and reachable by cell phone.  And lastly, she’s a good kid and I trust her.

We came up with a plan, and I was so impressed to see her doing most of the planning.

We decided that it was best for her to go to EPCOT.  The Disney conference was at the Yacht and Beach Club Convention Center, and EPCOT was the park that was closest and within walking distance.  I mean, it’s not like Disney transportation is dangerous, far from it.  I just wanted to know that if something happened that she couldn’t handle, I could walk to her.  She seemed ok with that, and understood my concern.

She was to carry her cell phone and Epi pen (food allergic) with her in a small purse.  She was NOT to lose her room key, park pass or anything else – on penalty of extreme mom rage as these were not replaceable.  She could buy food, within reason, and had to have the discussion about food allergies with the staff at the food service places herself.  She was not permitted to buy expensive souvenirs or do any shopping.  That had to wait for me, so I could join in the fun.  I also asked that she text me every once in a while, partly to make sure I knew where she was, but also so I could vicariously live the day through her. She researched the park online and used apps to view maps so she could remember where everything was.  She knew she could do it, and I was going to cheer her on.

When I settled into my seat to begin the day at the conference, I kept my iPhone on the desk waiting for texts.  She kept to her word and texted about every hour.  I learned that she road “Soarin'” about 6 times and visited Figment at “Journey to Imagination”.   Breakfast was easy – she got some sort of breakfast sandwich at the food court in “Living with the Land.”  Lunch was not so easy – there were a couple of places she wanted to go, having researched all the menus on her iPod app beforehand, but she really wanted to find a place with good seating.  As she said, she didn’t want to be “that person eating with their tray perched on a garbage can.”  What a great image.  She ended up in Mexico after walking through several of the pavilions in World Showcase.  Seemed to be a good choice for her.

I was thrilled when I viewed our PhotoPass pictures and saw that she went through the Character Spot in EPCOT all by herself, autograph book and pen in hand.

She also tracked down a PhotoPass photographer to do some fun outside shots.

When we reunited at the end of the conference sessions, I planned for us to head straight to Animal Kingdom where our dinner was that night.  Nice idea, but she had other plans.  It was hot, she was tired and she ran herself ragged.  While she agreed to go to AK with me because I wanted to go, I knew she really wanted to head to the pool.  Which we did.  She had a new-found confidence about her that was so great to see. I’m glad she had the opportunity to go “free range” that day. She learned a lot about herself and what she was capable of.  She learned to trust her gut and make the right choices.  Now, I am left to wonder if she will want “me time” on our next visits – I hope my coaster buddy still wants to hang out with me!

Disclosure: As an attendee of the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration, I received for a fee hotel accommodations, park tickets, many meals and access to special events not made available to the public.  Disney did not ask me or anyone to blog about this event, but being a fan of the company I can’t help myself.  It was originally published on ConfessionsofanITgirl.com on May 24, 2012