Disney’s Message To Gluten-Free Diners

“ Be Our Guest”

For years, Disney World has been the place for people with special dietary needs to vacation, and I’m thrilled to announce that Disney has done it again. They’ve taken their commitment to gluten-free and allergy-friendly dining up another notch.

I recently spoke with Gary Jones, Culinary Dietary Specialist at Walt Disney Parks & Resorts – and a 29-year veteran of Disney. Things have certainly come a long way since his first year at Disney, when he remembers getting a letter from a convention guest who needed to eat gluten-free. No one on his team knew what that meant, and they had to look it up. Of course, the program for exceeding the expectations of guests with special dietary needs has evolved tremendously since those early days. Along the way, chefs have been continually trained, and there has always been a huge sense of collaboration between staff (called “cast members”).

Chef Jones conservatively estimates that in 2014, Disney World and Disneyland served 650,000 guests with food allergies or intolerances. This is up 100 percent from four to five years ago. Half of those guests required gluten-free diets.

He was especially proud to share the details of Disney’s exciting initiative that was just rolled out throughout restaurants at Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland in Anaheim, California. A result of focus groups held with both guests and cast members with special dietary needs, the initiative began last fall and introduces allergy-friendly menus at almost all counter-service and sit-down Disney restaurants. Menu items are notated if they do not contain each of the top eight allergens: gluten/wheat, eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soy, and tree nuts.

While it’s traditionally been a good idea to note any dietary requirements when making a reservation at Disney restaurants or when arriving at the restaurant, it’s not necessary now that gluten and top allergens are noted on the dedicated allergy-friendly menus. It’s all up to the guest and his or her comfort level. Many diners appreciate being able to order right from the main menu without having to draw attention to their special needs, while others still prefer to speak directly with a chef. With counter-service meals, it is recommended that gluten-free diners and others with allergies ask the manager for an allergy-friendly menu since the top eight are not posted on the overhead menus.

Of particular note was Chef Jones’s comment that all gluten-free requests are treated equally as important, regardless of whether it’s a medical necessity or dietary choice. Therefore, people with celiac disease do not need to wonder whether their request is being taken seriously and if proper procedures are being followed to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen. They always are. In fact, there are many different checks for gluten-free and allergen-free meals built into the system in Disney’s kitchens, and the process is constantly reviewed with cast members.

While he stressed that virtually all restaurants at the Disney parks and resorts have a wide range of options for gluten-free guests, he did mention a few in particular that are especially noteworthy. One is Flying Fish Café , a “signature” restaurant at the BoardWalk Inn Resort, where Tim Keating serves as Chef de Cuisine. In his 35 years working in the food and beverage industry (eight of those at Disney), Chef Keating says he’s “never seen anything like it,” in referring to Disney’s new allergen-friendly dining initiative. The training is intense and involves everyone at all levels in the kitchen as well as the front of- house cast members taking orders. “We drop everything to do anything we can,” he said, when referring to guests with dietary restrictions. “It’s a lot of extra work, but it’s worth it to make magic happen.”

Gluten-free flour is used to coat the few battered and fried seafood specialties served at Flying Fish Café (where dedicated gluten-free fryers are used), and only gluten-free croutons are served on salads. This opens up much of the restaurant’s menu to gluten-free diners without any modifications. Flying Fish Café was one of the restaurants that were part of Disney’s pilot program, and now Chef Keating is more than happy to advise chefs at other Disney restaurants about ways they can make more of their menus accessible to folks with gluten-free and other special dietary needs.

The commitment to their jobs and to their guests is evident in talking with both chefs. Chef Keating remarked, “The smile on someone’s face when they learn they can have gluten-free crab cakes, gluten-free fried calamari, or gluten-free cheesecake for the first time makes all the work worth it. It is a magical moment for them.”

Disney World

Magic Kingdom’s relatively new Be Our Guest Restaurant , in which diners can choose one of four rooms designed to mimic the Beauty and the Beast  movie, is another standout. Here, gluten-free diners can enjoy many options for breakfast, a quick lunch, or a more elegant dinner. Le Cellier Steakhouse  in Epcot’s Canada pavilion has always been another favorite destination for gluten-free diners who can enjoy a wide range of steaks and other delicious specialties. The AAA 5-diamond Victoria & Albert’s  restaurant at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa offers a seven to ten course menu, making it perfect for a special occasion or for those who enjoy haute cuisine. Chef Keating specifically mentioned Jiko – The Cooking Place  at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, as being a good dining choice. The restaurant focuses on the flavors of Africa and Asia. He also singled out California Grill  in the Contemporary Resort. But again, both chefs stressed that as of fall of 2015, the roll out of this program will make gluten-free options available at all table-service and quick-service restaurants.

One remaining challenge that Chef Jones and his team would like to work on is making the buffets at many of their restaurants even more allergy-friendly. For now, however, guests who need to avoid any of the top eight allergens are encouraged to talk to a chef who will happily prepare food in the kitchen in order to minimize any risk of cross contamination at the buffet.

In his nearly three decades with the company, he has witnessed – and been on the front lines of – the quantum leap from the approach to handling individual dietary requests to where Disney is today. He loves how the new menus give guests a wider variety of choices and simultaneously help streamline things for the chefs.

Downtown Disney, home to many (non-Disney) restaurant chains, is worth checking out, too. There you’ll find the popular Erin McKenna’s Bakery NYC  (formerly Babycakes) selling all sorts of allergy-free treats. Some packaged items from the bakery can even be found at select locations throughout Disney parks and resorts. And, with one week’s notice, the bakery will gladly deliver their specialty cakes to most table-service dining locations on Walt Disney World property.

If you’re spending time at Disneyland in Anaheim, recommended options for dining include Wine Country Trattoria  (at California Adventure), Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue , and Tomorrowland Terrace .

So whether you don your Mickey ears at Disney World or Disneyland, you’ll never be far from amazing gluten-free and allergy-free cuisine that allows you to remain safe and enjoy the true magic of Disney’s chefs.

Gluten free Karen Broussard headshot

Karen Broussard publishes glutenfreetravelsite.com and the free DINE GLUTEN FREE mobile app. Both contain thousands of GF dining and travel reviews from around the world. Karen is also the publisher of the Gluten Free Travel Blog and two e-books available on Amazon: Gluten-Free in London and Gluten-Free in Italy.

Tags: Dining Karen Broussard Magazine
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