It seems like every time I travel down to the land Walt Disney created the gluten-free and vegan options keep getting better and better.
I’ve blogged about my trips to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, many times before, and I have to say it appears the ultimate family vacation destination is getting better at catering to food allergies and intolerances. This year at Disney, I tried out some new places and thoroughly enjoyed my old favorites. In doing so, I found out they have incorporated more allergen-free brands, such as Namaste, and have extended the practice of completely catering to specialty diets even down to the theme parks’ restaurants, which used to be spotty at best. The availability of more unique grains, including quinoa, was also noticeable. However, my biggest grip remains the tapioca dinner rolls that it seems every restaurant serves. Have they heard of Bread Srsly??? So many better types of allergen-free breads exist. It is a shame to get served the same hockey-puck shaped rolls while I watch the rest of my family dine on freshly baked breads.
Nevertheless, I left every restaurant full and mostly satisfied. I did get poisoned once, but it was not a restaurant.And I left Orlando once again counting the days I could return to feast on my personally-crafted, chef-made meals. Here’s a rundown of my trip:
My first and last dinner took place at Boma— my favorite African-inspired buffet in Animal Kingdom’s Lodge. As always, due to my food allergies, my waiter went to retrieve one of Boma’s chefs to “walk me” through the buffet’s options. Chef Arol (pictured above) was given my ticket, and despite some initial hesitation on what he could make me (since the buffet generally lacked many options I could have), ended up creating an amazing meal out of ingredients he had on hand in his kitchen. My feast featured: sautéed brussel sprouts, asparagus, and green beans, olive oil mashed potatoes, a perfectly spice quinoa pilaf, and a vegan chakalaka tomato and onion sauce, along with the harira lentil stew (one of Boma’s signature soups). It was all delicious. I left completely full, but could have eaten another helping of mashed potatoes and quinoa because they were that good.
The next day we went to Epcot to enjoy the Flower and Garden Festival that was going on. As usual, I headed to Sunshine Seasons in the Land Pavilion for lunch. Sunshine Seasons is a quick-service food court. None of the meals adhere to my dietary restrictions, so usually the chefs create me some sort of salad. This time, however, a super friendly and helpful culinary team member put together a “vegetarian plate” full of sides I could eat, which ended up being more filling and flavorful than the salad I usually get. I had a black beans with rice, grilled zucchini and squash, and a side salad. It was a perfectly balanced lunch. Unfortunately, I was too hungry to snap a photo of it.
For dinner that day, we went to Chefs de France. I have not been to this restaurant since I was a kid and had no specialty eating concerns. But the Coral Reef Restaurant, where we typically eat at, got rid of my beloved black rice dish and replaced it with a soy- and gluten-containing vegan replacement. So, trying a new place seemed like a good option. When we were seated at Chefs de France, our waitress (clearly very French) did not have any idea on what I could eat off their regular menu. That’s when my Disney training kicked in and I asked to speak with the chef. She kindly retrieved a chef, and after discussing possible options, he suggested a ratatouille stuffed pepper with potatoes and veggies. I thought that was rather creative of him, and happily agreed to his suggestion.
When the stuffed pepper arrived it looked great and came complete with an allergy stick alerting everyone to be careful with it. Though it looked great, the meal generally lacked much flavor. It begged for salt and pepper, and the ratatouille need basil. Toward the end of the meal I mixed all the remaining mashed potatoes, veggies and ratatouille together with additional seasoning and that ended up being a nice flavor combo. Therefore, it was a good attempt at making a more creative meal, but could have been executed better. I will still return on future trips because it was by no means a bad experience.
The next dinner took place at Artist Point inside the Wilderness Lodge. I dined at Artist Point, a signature restaurant, a few years ago and was not too thrilled, but thought I’d give it a second chance. The menu had no vegan options or things that could be easily tweaked gluten-free and vegan. The chef was very attentive to my allergies and what things I liked, and made me a beautiful plate of roasted veggies. The trumpet mushrooms and sweet potatoes were stand-outs, but the veggies needed a sauce to be cohesive. For such a high end restaurant, and my suggestion for two sauces, I thought more could be done with it.
But then the dessert menu arrived, and the dinner suddenly turned around. On the restaurant’s allergy menu, there is a totally top-8 allergen free warm berry crumble with black raspberry sorbet and fresh berries. The crumble is made with a Namaste mix, and is the best dessert option I’ve ever seen on a Disney menu for specialty diet patrons. It was so good. I haven’t had a crumble in who knows how long, and it totally made up for the rather lackluster dinner. It’s a dessert I would go to Artist Point again just to have.
The next night we went to Jiko, the signature restaurant at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. I had several great experiences there last year, and eagerly wanted a repeat performance. Like last year, I ordered the West African Koki Corn tamale off their regular menu. It’s already gluten-free, vegan and delicious. I got a side of roasted veggies (cauliflower, kale and butternut squash), and then a second tamale because it was that awesome. The tamale has spicy veggies and corn, and is topped with crispy mushrooms with two sauce purees underneath. It’s one of Disney’s best vegan options hands down.
We woke up early the next morning, which was also my birthday, and headed to Animal Kingdom Park. We were going on an African Wild Trek safari adventure, and went to the Tusker House Restaurant buffet beforehand to fuel up for the 3-hour trek. Again, my waitress went and retrieved a chef to go through the buffet. Luckily, I was assigned to Chef Takashi. Chef Takashi went through the buffet and pointed out maybe two things I could have. He then asked me what I wanted. I told him about my love of chickpea omelets, and by some miracle, he said he had chickpea flour and would be glad to try and whip up an omelet for me.
A few minutes later, he brought out a giant spinach and onion omelet with amazing roasted rainbow carrots and green beans. My mouth watered as I dug into its deliciousness. Chef Takashi returned to my table a few minutes later to get my opinion of his omelet. I told him he nailed it, although he was a little heavy with the onion. He admitted his love of onions in his omelets, and then told me he used to be a vegan. He was also new at the Tusker House, and felt the breakfast buffet did not have enough vegan options. He had ordered the chickpea flour himself to experiment with possible options the restaurant could add to its morning line-up. This blew my mind, and I thanked him repeatedly for the omelet and for looking out for fellow vegans.
Be sure to look out for new vegan options to come there! I can’t wait to go back and see what Chef Takashi (pictured right) comes up with!
After Tusker House, we went over to the Africa Wild Trek. The trek itself was everything I’d hope it would be… fun guides, cools animals, VIP access to animal enclosures, and one rickety bridge over the Nile Crocodile pond. But then they served us a gourmet snack at an animal lookout location. My tin came marked gluten-free and vegan, which I assumed made it safe. However, it was not, and something that I ate (bread, hummus or a black-eyed pea salad) made me instantly sick.
Note to self: don’t eat food you cannot ensure is safe by the person that made it. Even if it is Disney World.
Even though my stomach was not feeling so great, I willed myself to eat my annual birthday dinner at Citricos in the Grand Floridian Resort. This year, Citricos switched up is vegan standby dish that I’ve eaten previously to a new Quinoa and Provençale Ratatouille with tomato confit, chanterelle mushrooms, pistou, and a chickpea sauce. After briefly talking with the chef, he assured me the dish was safe as is for me and agreed to make an extra side of roasted rainbow cauliflower because I told him it was my favorite. The meal was divine. I loved the multicolor quinoa and everything was perfectly spiced and sauced. I even told the chef after (who I’ve had before but cannot remember his name) my opinions of the new dish. He was delighted to hear my thoughts, of course. Citricos, along with Jiko, are places that are worth the extra money you pay for the food.
For our final day, we headed to Hollywood Studios. Usually we eat lunch at the Backlot Express, but it no longer exists due to the extensive renovations undergoing at the park. So, we headed to the 50’s Prime Time Cafe because it was the only place where we could get a reservation. No one in my family remembers the food being so great, but wow have they upped their game! Chef Bea was brought out to speak with me about potential options. I noticed they had zucchini on the menu along with the ingredients for a nice veggie pasta dish, so I inquired if she could make me a “zoodle” dish with a tomato sauce. No problem, she said, it would just take a few minutes extra because she would have to go track down the right equipment. I instantly said that would be more than ok.
In all my Disney experience, I don’t think I’ve had a chef go that far out of their way to make me a completely random dish I was craving. And it really did not take that much longer to make. The zoodle dish was exactly what I wanted, and they even stuck an allergy stick into a broccoli floret on the side of fresh veggies I ordered. It made me smile even larger. Thanks again, Chef Bea!
For dinner we traveled back to Boma for Round 2. Chef Arol was there, and I requested him again. He seemed thrilled to see me again because it meant I liked his first meal so much. I told him I really was, and asked for the same thing again, except different vegetables… my favorite ones: cauliflower, collard greens, asparagus and brussel sprouts. He even added some perfectly roasted butternut squash for presentation’s sake, and pureed the harira stew instead of using the chakalaka as a sauce because I told him I dunked my mashed potatoes into the stew the first time. And he doubled the amount of potatoes and quinoa pilaf. I’m pretty sure I ate my weight in food that night. It was absolutely fantastic. Chef Arol came back and checked in on me after I finished. When I told him how much I enjoyed it, he told me he really took his time because he knew I would appreciate it, and he shared his secret for the quinoa pilaf (which I will keep a secret and maybe reveal in a later recipe).
I cannot believe my week at Disney went by so fast. It was an all-around great trip, made so much better by all the amazing Disney chefs. Disney is well-known for its ability to craft the perfect experience. Their dedication to specialty diets sure shows that.