Friday, February 13, 2015

Disney Does It Again...Our Allergy Friendly Vacation

The Magic Kingdom.  Can you find the EpiPen Auto-injector?

The primary focus of this post is to highlight our allergy friendly experiences while vacationing in Walt Disney World.  It's called the 'most magical place on earth' for a reason.  The entire experience was top notch.  Our kids had more food choices than their little minds could comprehend!

My husband and I always knew that we wanted to return to Disney World someday with our kids.  After discussing when we should plan our visit, it became evident to us that the ages 6 and 3 seemed to be the right of passage.  Those were the ages of my sister and I when we first visited Disney World and those of my husband and his sister.  Our trip coincided perfectly with our son's 6th birthday.  After squeezing in a party on his birthday, we left the following day donning our best Mickey attire.

Planning a trip to Disney World can be overwhelming.  Vacations are supposed to be an escape from the day to day life, right?  In the beginning stages I knew that I would need a vacation from this vacation, or so it seemed at the time.  I was a mom during the day and a travel agent at night!  I am not an overly spontaneous person so the idea of showing up in Disney World with nothing planned during the busiest time of year, a party of 7 and two kids with food allergies was insane!  The pressure was on to plan a fun trip that was food allergy safe.

Our trip occurred the week between Christmas and New Year.  I was warned by many that this was the busiest time of the year and #1 on the 'when NOT to visit Disney World' list.  Honestly, my husband and I were not bothered by this since our kids really did not know enough of what to expect other than my three year old insisting that we meet Elsa and Anna.  (I had already started prepping her that they might be stuck in a snowstorm in the event the lines were impossibly long to wait--she just smiled and said 'I can't wait to meet them'!)  Our party of 7 included my parents and my sister.  My husband and I felt that we had plenty support to conquer Mickey and friends!

I started planning our trip with booking our hotel.  We stayed at the Waldorf Astoria.  Not only was it was beautiful, the attentiveness of the staff was superb.  When booking our reservations, I had alerted the agent of our kids' food allergies.  The agent informed me to contact the food services team closer to our travel dates, which I did 3 weeks prior to our arrival.  I exchanged several emails with Robin, the Food and Beverage Administrative Assistant.  I clearly stated what our kids food allergies were and she provided me with several options while dining on site at Oscar's.  I appreciated her personal email and attention to details.  On a side note, the transportation to and from the parks was comfortable (no fees, just tips).  We found it relaxing to be 'off-campus' and did not mind the 15 minute bus rides.  The best part for me was being able to roll my jogging stroller (completely loaded down with snacks and STUFF) into the cargo space of the bus without having to fold it.  Small detail, but convenient.

It's funny when you tell people that your going to Disney World, all of the advice and recommendations that emerge.  I heard some of it, but then my brain turned to mush from DISNEY OVERLOAD!  The reality is, what is great for my family may not be great for yours, vice versa.  I had to focus on planning a trip that would accommodate my kids' food allergies (tree nuts, peanuts, eggs and sesame').  The one piece of advice that I found helpful was to make our dining reservations early since we would be traveling during the peak season.  After reading what felt like hundreds of blogs about Disney World (Disneyworld.com) and blogs about visiting Disney with food allergies (allergyfreemouse.com), I had a better understanding of what to expect.  We had 3 days to visit Disney parks.  We chose the Magic Kingdom (2 days) and Epcot.  This was when my travel agent skills emerged.  I was laser focused on planning our meals and decided to let the rest of our visit just happen.

Because we stayed 'off campus', the earliest we could book our reservations was 180 days in advance (on campus folks have extra privileges).  Sounds crazy, huh?  Well, during my weeks of reading all of those blogs, I learned a few tricks to booking:  persistence is key and in order to make your online dining reservation you will need to set up an account at My Disney Experience beforehand.  Familiarize yourself with the site as you will thank yourself later.  Our 180 day mark fell smack dab in the middle of our Fourth of July vacation!  Even more exciting was that I was suffering from a horrible sinus infection.  Miraculously, I mustered up the energy each morning, 5 AM central time to be exact, to ready my smart phone for making those dining reservations.  I kept seeing my kids' faces meeting the characters and found the energy I needed, while hanging half out of bed trying to get good internet connection (we were at a fishing camp on a bayou in South Louisiana).

Learning from many food blogs that I had read, I made a dining A-list and a B-list.  I based them on their food allergy friendly reviews and the characters we wished to see.  I am glad that I did this because I did NOT get many A-list choices.  I quickly went to my B-list and got all of them.  In the event you find your A-listers available later, you can change your reservations.  For each reservation that I made (including Downtown Disney), I was able to indicate that someone in my party had a food allergy under special dietary requests.  When we arrived for each dining reservation, the staff already knew about our food allergies and the manager or the chef came to our table to discuss dining options.  We encountered this for EVERY reservation made!   My husband and I were completely amazed at how effortless this seemed for the staff.

Here are the places we dined and how we ranked them out of five stars.

Downtown Disney  

Bongo's Cuban Cafe' (***)

The food was very tasty but the restaurant was short staffed and therefore the staff seemed stressed.  They were attentive to our food allergy needs but I was not overly confident of the follow through.  I gave it three stars for the lack of service.  We ate without incident and the food was tasty.  The kids enjoyed the blinking cups and that they could press a button on their cups to change the lights.

Magic Kingdom

Be Our Guest (*****)

This place, of all of the ones we dined, impressed my husband and I the most.  They do not take lunch reservations (dinner reservations highly recommended).  We decided to wait 45 minutes in a cold, light mist for lunch in Belle's castle.  We were all glad we did!  When we entered the castle we were greeted by a hostess, who promptly directed us to an available computer to place our order.  The menu was easy to navigate and there was a box to check for food allergies.  Once we checked the the food allergy box we could select the allergen(s) to avoid.  It was at this time that the chef came to the computer we were standing and assisted us in our selections and recommended safe lunch options for our kids.  If that was not enough, the chef saw the food through the entire process, delivered it to our table with a friendly smile and a little food allergy flag inserted into each of the kids meals.  He brought a variety of Enjoy Life cookies for the kids to have for dessert.  The service I had read about was real!  The kids were so mesmerized with the castle and seeing the enchanted rose that lunch was an afterthought.  As for the rest of our party, we thought that the food was delicious.  My sister and I each had the French Onion soup with a quinoa cake.  One of our kids had tomato soup and the other had a grilled cheese.

The Plaza Restaurant (****)

Not an overly large restaurant, but it was cozy and the staff was outstanding.  After being seated, our waitress asked my husband and I who were the two in our party with food allergies.  We pointed to the kids and she immediately spoke to them, not us, about different choices they could have for dinner.  She brought me laminated sheets listing of all of the restaurant's food items and their ingredients.  The chef came out a few minutes later to see if we had any questions.  He made recommendations to us and asked the kids what they wanted to order.  I truly think my kids thought they were famous.  The chef delivered the food here as well, complete with a food allergy flag:)  Then the chef said that he would return to take our dessert order.  While enjoying our dinner, Cinderella's castle lit up the evening sky resembling Elsa's ice palace in FROZEN!  I thought my daughter was going to fall out of her chair!!!!  We had met Elsa and Anna that morning.  Dessert was certainly an afterthought at this point but warmly welcomed when it arrived.

Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe' (**)

This is a quick service establishment that had lines out of the door the day we ate lunch there.  When it was our turn to order, I mentioned that my kids had food allergies.  I was given a sign to hold up indicating that someone in our party had food allergies and was politely asked to step aside.  Within 3 minutes, a manager came to take our order and note our dietary needs.  Then we stepped back into our place in the line.  The manager told us that she would be the one to follow our food through until the end.  Our trays were purple and the others were teal (I think).  The service was remarkable but unfortunately the food was not too great.

Chef Mickey's (***)

Located in the Contemporary Resort, this buffet style restaurant delivered on their service, desserts and entertainment, but not the buffet.   The service was what we had come to expect; be seated and wait for the chef or the manager.  When the chef appeared he proudly walked me through the entire buffet, including the impressive dessert station!  He pointed out safe foods for our kids to eat.  The chef was very informative and said that if we had any further questions to ask for him.  As dinner progressed,  we settled into an evening filled with music, dessert and meeting Mickey and friends!


Epcot
Can you find the EpiPen Auto-injector?

Akershus Royal Banquet Hall (****)

This hidden gem came recommended by a friend.  I am glad I heard her!  Upon arrival, we had our picture taken with Belle then were surprisingly greeted by 4 other princesses once seated!  They all stopped by our table, at different times, for a photo-op.  Akershus was worth the money.  It was nice to experience a taste of Norway (buffet of appetizers).  There was more food here than one could possibly want!  Lots of great choices on the menu and a festive atmosphere completed our experience.  In addition to the superb service, I really appreciated the entire plate of assorted allergy friendly cookies that our server brought for our kids' dessert.  Turned out they were Enjoy Life cookies.  The kids did not know this.  I know is seems like no big deal, but my son (6) refers to them as 'allergy' friendly cookies.  For me to watch our kids be included so effortlessly was heartwarming.

Coral Reef (****)

We were pleasantly surprised with our relaxing and tasty meal at Coral Reef.  This full service restaurant was perfect for our late night (8:40 PM) dinner.  There's something about watching fish swim around so gracefully that soothes the mind.  The chef was very accommodating and knowledgable.  The fish we ordered was fresh and delicious.  Our kids really enjoyed their grilled fish and fries.  Coral Reef was a great ending to a fabulous trip.

Overall, our trip to Disney was truly an allergy friendly experience!  Even though we did not get to try a Baby Cakes cake to celebrate our son's birthday (he really wants a cake from a bakery), we were all delighted with our vacation.  We encountered the nicest, most service oriented people in the world!  Everywhere that we went we encountered polite staff who were eager to serve and went above and beyond to provide us with impeccable service.  Walt Disney World's attention to detail and their ability to include EVERYONE made our vacation dreamy.  Our kids loved the parks and dining out was no big deal.  The latter is what made the trip so memorable for me.  The kids were included in every aspect of the trip but more importantly to have choices like everyone else proved magical.  Sometimes the smallest things make us smile the biggest!  Turns out I did not need a vacation from our vacation.








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