Saturday, February 28, 2015

Traveling to Walt Disney World with Food Allergies

When you travel with a kiddo that has food allergies, you put yourself on high alert. Everything gets wiped down, extra epi-pens are packed, menus are scoured, reviews are... well... reviewed. You prepare as best as you can and steel yourself to become your child's food advocate, protector of all that may enter the mouth of the babe.

Then you go to Walt Disney World.

Prior to heading down, we checked in with the Disney Moms' Panel and asked them about what to expect. We did some checking into menus on the Disney Food Blog and All Ears and read up online about experiences others had before us. From what we could tell, it looked like we would be able to go just about everywhere and not stress (too much) about the food that we brought or had brought to our table. We made our ADR's (Advanced Dining Reservations), made the note on our reservations that we had a peanut/treenut allergy, and headed off to Florida.

As it turned out... our worrying about Will's allergies basically went away with the wind as soon as we stepped onto Walt Disney World property.

Since finding out that Will has peanut and walnut allergies in the fall of 2013, we have been nervous just about everywhere we go. We read labels on sample carts, we avoid foods that servers and managers are "unsure" about, we don't go into places that fry their food in peanut oil (gosh how we miss Chik-Fil-A). We brought every Epi-Pen in our possession with us (including 2 that had just recently expired) because we are so worried that our little guy is going to get an unwanted surprise out somewhere that we wanted to make sure we were as prepared as we could be.

The folks at Disney, as it turns out, are pros. No. Let me retype that. They're PROS. All caps, baby.

We ate at a restaurant for most of our meals (a couple of lunches were had in our room with groceries we had purchased), and were blown away by the attention to detail and knowledge of allergens that the staff had. Here are some of the things that we experienced while we were dining out at the Walt Disney World Resort:

Special Attention. As soon as we sat down to eat at almost every restaurant we went to (with the exceptions of T-Rex and Raglan Road, which are not "technically" Disney restaurants), our server notified the chef in charge of allergens for the evening - and that chef came to our table. From the mouth of the source we would hear what menu items to avoid to keep our little guy safe and what items could easily be altered if we wanted to try them within the bounds of the allergies. Buffet? NO PROBLEM. The chef - not a sous chef, not a server, but the chef - would walk us through the line and explain what dishes had what nuts in them and would then personally take our requests for any menu items located near nuts that we would want brought to our tables. Oh - the restaurants that we didn't see the chef? No worries there either; the servers were pretty darned knowledgeable and were able to give us the same rundown as a chef would have.

"This duck best not take my Mickey waffle..." - Evie
Off-Menu Items. As you can imagine, there are some things that are just too risky for us to attempt with our little man at the table. The biggest problem we ran into were desserts regardless of whether or not we were eating at a buffet. The fine Disney chefs were prepared for this, however, and would immediately ask us if we were interested in a plate of Enjoy Life cookies or whatever other special nut-safe dessert they may have had on-hand. For my husband and I this was awesome because we kind of really enjoy desserts. And for the kids... well... who doesn't love special cookies? This also resulted in my son getting basically a bottomless bowl of blueberries at every meal - which he totally loved too.

Counter Service Chaos? No Problem. Anyone who has ever been to Disney (or really any amusement park's counter service) during a high-volume meal time knows how incredible chaotic it can get. Hungry kids and frazzled parents and service staff trying their best to keep up with all of it are common sites at any counter service dining option during these times. This was the most nerve wracking ordering scenario for me because it seemed like the highest risk for cross contamination (if any was possible) due to higher-volume repeat orders. Turned out - not to worry. Disney has this down pat too. Oh, you have a food allergy? No worries. Our manager will personally handle your order which will be delivered to you on a tray a completely different color than everyone else's tray so that you can be assured our staff knew that your tray was an allergen-safe tray. Seriously. Don't stress it.

Stress-free Corn Dog Nuggets & Fries for our Will!
Extra Goodies. Knowing that the small purchased snacks throughout the parks and hotels tend to be made in a facility with allergens present, the fine folks at Disney dining have made sure to cover that for you as well. There were at least 2 different occasions where the chef (again, not a runner - but the CHEF) brought us out some extra Enjoy Life cookies or Babycakes in to-go containers. The day of our flight home, the chef brought us EVEN MORE so that we would have goodies on the plane for our little guy (which - side note - JetBlue has Skeeter nut-free cookies - score!).

To say that we were impressed with how the Disney Dining crew handled allergy issues is an understatement. At one point, Steve (who did the bulk of talking with chefs and servers) even said that he was close to tears because for the first time in over a year and a half it truly felt like we didn't have to worry about Will while we were out eating in restaurants. The Cast Members were beyond helpful, incredibly understanding, and super well-versed about their menus in ways that I always wish other places would "just get". We were about as relaxed about eating out as we had been in a long time (you know... taking a toddler and an infant out to eat aside...).

So if you are a parent of a kid with food allergies and you're wondering if a Walt Disney World vacation is something that you can consider - the answer is yes. Yes yes YES. Walt Disney World Cast Members have shown us that they take their food allergy training VERY seriously and want to make sure that folks can have a safe, enjoyable vacation.

As such - I can't wait for Will to outgrow this toddler eating phase and start to get more adventurous so we can show him our favorite foods at WDW... stress free.

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