For family vacations, it can be difficult to top a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fl., or to Disneyland California in Anaheim. But you may not know that Disney caters to guests with special diets, and offers a gluten-free dining experience that's almost completely stress-free. Really.
If you're expecting typical theme park fare of pizza and French fries, you'll certainly find it - but you'll find gluten-free versions of those foods right at the same quick-serve restaurants, complete with gluten-free buns for your hamburgers.
You also can find upscale dining featuring a variety of different cuisines - think Asian, Middle Eastern, Polynesian and African along with Italian, Japanese and French - plus family-oriented buffets where you'll be greeted by Winnie the Pooh or Mickey Mouse himself.
At each restaurant, a chef or manager will make certain your meal is free of gluten and of any other allergens you specify. My daughter and I - both celiac - have eaten literally hundreds of meals at Disney. I view it as one of the very few places I can let my guard down and relax. (For more on how Disney does this, check out my interview with Disney top chef Gary Jones.)
Still, successful gluten-free Disney dining takes some advance preparation. Here's my list of tips to make your trip more enjoyable.
Plan Your Gluten-Free Disney Restaurant Choices Far in Advance
Deciding where you'll eat on vacation months ahead of time may kill the spontaneity, but having celiac disease or gluten sensitivity and worrying about eating gluten-free tend to do that anyway. To get the most out of your gluten-free Disney vacation, study the restaurant choices and make your reservations for table service restaurants two to three months before your trip.
You really do need to plan that far ahead, especially in the busiest times of year - the best restaurants and the most popular character dining experiences, such as Cinderella's Royal Table in Disney World's Magic Kingdom, fill up very quickly. Almost every table service restaurant has several gluten-free choices, and the chefs in the most upscale restaurants will make almost anything on the menu gluten-free.
About.com Theme Park Guide Arthur Levine has put together two great lists of the best restaurants at Walt Disney World and at Disneyland. Several of my own personal favorites appear on Arthur's lists, including Les Chefs de France (where they serve gluten-free crème brûlét) and California Grill (a very expensive choice, but worth it for the view of Magic Kingdom fireworks).
Specify 'Gluten-Free' When Making Disney Restaurant Reservations
You can make reservations for Disney World online or by phone at (407) 939-3463. For Disneyland, call (714) 781-3463.
If you make reservations by phone, be sure to tell the cast member that you need gluten-free food, and mention any other allergies or intolerances you have. The web site form for Disney World provides a check-off box to note your gluten-free and other requirements.
Once you've made your reservations, you'll be given phone numbers for each restaurant to call and discuss your dietary requirements. You can call if you wish (and you should call if you have a special request to make, such as a gluten-free birthday cake), but in most cases a call to the restaurant isn't necessary - the restaurant will have everything on hand for a gluten-free meal, including gluten-free waffles for breakfast (usually Van's Natural Foods) and gluten-free rolls for dinner.
At the Restaurant, You Talk Directly to the Chef
When you arrive at a Disney table service restaurant, the person seating you should make note of your gluten sensitivity on your reservation card (if not, be sure to tell your server you have a food intolerance). Your server will fetch the chef, who will take your order directly.
Disney chefs understand gluten and where it can hide, so you can trust a chef if he or she says something is safe. Also, don't be afraid to ask the chef for items not on the menu - the chefs are happy to substitute items and even to create entirely new dishes.
If you're eating at a buffet, the chef will take you through the line to point out what you can and can't eat. If eating directly from the buffet makes you nervous (it does me), the chef will bring you whatever you want straight from the kitchen, avoiding potential cross contamination from other guests.
For gluten-free kids, you almost always can get a hamburger or a hot dog with a gluten-free bun, plus ice cream or a gluten-free brownie for dessert. Many restaurants also offer pizza (usually from Amy's Kitchen), and in Storytellers Café in the Grand Californian Hotel in Disneyland, you can make your own pizza with a gluten-free crust.
At Counter Service Locations, You'll Deal with a Manager
Before you arrive at the parks, you should contact Disney's guest relations department for a list of gluten-free foods available. If you're traveling to Walt Disney World, call (407) 824-5967 or email email@example.com. For Disneyland, call the reservations number, (714) 781-3463. You also can pick up lists at the guest relations offices located just inside every park.
When first arriving at a counter service location, you should look for a cast member and ask that person to find you a manager, who will handle your order directly. You might want to plan your meals for off times, and remember the process can take 20 to 30 minutes.
Most parks have numerous options for counter service meals and snacks, although you'll have the best luck at larger locations. I've found that the hamburgers and hot dogs are gluten-free (but be sure to double-check), and most locations stock gluten-free buns. The ice cream carts almost always have a gluten-free selection, as well.
The counter service locations usually have a dedicated fryer for their French fries, and may be able to substitute or remove some ingredients (for example, make a salad without croutons or Chinese noodles). Also, many stock pre-packaged gluten-free brownies and cookies.
Gluten-free dining at Disney does take some advance planning, just as it does everywhere. But the parks and resorts offer more choices for gluten-free foods and treats than you're likely to find in many other places - which can make for a great gluten-free vacation.