Travel Destination: Disney World 2018 Update – Part I
Every year I look forward to spending my birthday week in Orlando and dining like a princess at Walt Disney World. The restaurants in the theme parks and resort area continue to be outstanding at handling celiac disease and preparing delicious and creative vegan dishes.
Let me start off this year’s update with mentioning how high my expectations are for eating at Disney. I’ve had so many great experiences with the chefs, management and waitstaff going the extra mile to make me safe meals, I can’t help but anticipate it when I return each year. Overall, this trip lived up to and, in some cases, surpassed even my lofty Disney standards.
One new addition I discovered this year pertaining to Disney’s ability to cater to food allergies are the allergen menus they have introduced at all their restaurants and quick service areas. These menus feature every item on their menu and mark if one of the top major allergens is present. The one below is from Boma’s Wednesday/Saturday buffet (yes, they have every buffet dish on it). These guides are extremely helpful for everyone with food allergies, and even though I can’t eat most of the dishes, it was a great conversation starter with the chefs.
Below is “Part I” of the restaurants I dined at and my experiences at them. I can’t thank the “cast members” who assisted in making my trip so fantastic enough!
There’s a reason this all-you-can-eat buffet at the Animal Kingdom Lodge is always the first and last place I visit. I’ve reveled in my Boma – Flavors of Africa – dinners time and time again because although there are very few gluten-free, vegan and soy-free options on the buffet, the chefs always put their individual spin on my meal to leave me overjoyed. And yes, it seems like my meals only get better!
When I arrived for my first visit, as usual, our waiter noted the red “allergy” stamped on our dinner ticket and gave me the new allergen menu . He then asked if I still needed to see a chef, I replied that I did. A few minutes later Chef Gene came to my table to guide me on a tour of the buffet. After showing me what was safe for me (green beans, peas/carrots, basamati rice, harira soup, chakalaka and a few cold salads/fruit), he asked what I’d like. I asked if he could make me something special, as previous chefs had done. He agreed, and after bouncing around ideas, he mentioned one vegan dish he’s created before was a chakalaka stew. (Chakalaka is a spicy tomato-based sauce/soup depending on how you use it.)
I thought that sounded fantastic and he rattled off available vegetables and said he could throw black eyed peas in there for protein. He asked what else I wanted with it; they have Energy-G rolls which are gluten-free and vegan as well as falafel chips (the chips are not made in a dedicated facility). I requested mashed sweet potatoes. He wasn’t sure if he had them, but told me he’d see what he could do.
About 20 minutes later, he returned with a trough of the black eyed pea and veggie chakalaka stew. I took one bite and was in heaven. It was spicy, sweet and satisfying all at the same time. He then returned with a bowl of sweet potatoes, mashed just how I like with cinnamon. After I finished, I told him it was so good, I was returning the following week and would love something similar again. Even though there was a ton of food, I almost ate every last drop and resigned myself to happily sleeping off my Boma Coma later that night.
So, when I arrived for round 2, Chef Gene eagerly greeted me and we discussed slight tweaks he could make. He ended up swapping out the black eyed peas for lentils and chickpeas, cooking the vegetables a tad bit longer, and whipping me up what could be the best olive oil mashed potatoes I’ve ever had. Long story short, the meal will go down as my favorite Boma dinner yet. This is not a feat easily achieved.
It was so amazing, I even asked (since I was staying at the resort) if he could make me one to-go for lunch the next day to take on the airplane. He spoke with the manager and they devised some sort of plan to make it happen. Again, when I ate it the next day, it was clear Chef Gene had knocked it out of the park.
Sunshine Seasons is a quick-service, cafeteria-type restaurant at Epcot. They have lots of fresh vegetables grown on property, which is great and makes the meal taste that much better. I’ve have good experiences at Sunshine Seasons over the years, and this time was no different.
I didn’t see an allergen menu here, but there’s probably one available. As always, when I arrived, I spoke with one of the workers serving food about speaking with a chef and they returned a few minutes later with one. The day they had a black bean soup, and I asked if it was safe. The chef said it was gluten-free and vegan, but contained soy (which I am also allergic to) and so wasn’t safe for me. I recounted my visit from last year of eating the black beans that accompanies a southwestern chicken dish along with vegetables. He said those beans now are made with soy, too. Apparently, many places at Disney have switched to a new margarine that has soy. Major bummer!
However, despite my disappointment, the chef said he would be happy to make me black beans without soy as long as I was OK with waiting 30 minutes for it. I said I’m always willing to wait for food I could eat (a cold salad would have been my other option). True to his word, he made me a black bean and roasted veggie entree spiced with the same southwest seasonings usually on the black beans. He also made me a side salad with a special apple cider vinegar/olive oil dressing. It wasn’t a huge lunch, but the black beans were filling and I left satisfied.
Akershus Royal Banquet Hall
This was my first time dining in Epcot at Akershus, an all-you-can-enjoy restaurant in Norway. It’s claim-to-fame is many of the Disney princesses you remember from childhood visit you while you eat. I decided to try Akershus after learning they served a Vegetable Terrine with roasted seasonal vegetables over lentils and a white tomato balsamic vinaigrette. I’ve had versions of this dish before that have been really good, so I was excited to try this Norwegian twist on it.
Let me start by saying, it’s not easy to get reservations at this restaurant, despite the steep $60 per adult price tag. Apparently that’s the price you pay to eat with royalty next to the new Frozen ride. (Still upset that the Malstorm is gone.) Not holding this small grudge against the restaurant, I had high hopes. When we arrived we were quickly swept into a room to take a photo with Belle and then ushered to our table and presented with our menus. Akershus has a unique take on the all-you-can-enjoy model. Your Royal Feast starts by ordering your entree and then going to pick what you want from a cold appetizer bar, the Taste of Norway “smorgasbord.”
Since my reservation ticket was stamped allergy, I was given the allergen menu with the Vegetable Terrine on it. There was some confusion because it wasn’t marked dairy-, soy- or gluten-free. Regardless, I would’ve wanted to speak with the chef anyway, and he came out a few minutes later. He gave me a tour of the cold bar and mentioned the ones that were safe and ones he could make safe. Mostly cold grilled vegetables, salad, and a bean medley. Not being a huge fan of chilled vegetables, I said just my entree would be fine, but I would like grilled asparagus and broccoli with it.
As we discussed the terrine, he again said that the lentils did contained soy, although the menu was incorrect as it was naturally gluten- and dairy-fee. But if I was ok with waiting a few minutes, he said he’d again make me some lentil without the soy. I also asked him to leave off the balsamic vinaigrette since I’ve reacted to balsamic (which has some weird relationship with gluten) before. He assured me the vegetable stack was cooked in a garlic oil and would have plenty of flavor even without the dressing.
It really didn’t take that long for him to make my meal. Unfortunately, even though I said I didn’t like cold vegetables, both the broccoli and asparagus were cold and I sent them back. The terrine was hot and I eagerly dove in. The stack had peppers, zucchini, squash, eggplant, onions and portobello mushroom. Each vegetable was tasty, but the overall flavors were not there. Likewise, the lentil base also lacked a strong flavor. This is not to say it was horrible, but not the quality one would expect for a $60 dinner. Finding myself wanting more, I asked if I could have any of the other vegetables on the menu served hot. Our waiter consulted the chef and brought our pickled red cabbage and a green beans/carrot mix that was their seasonal vegetable.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the pickled cabbage. Beside the mushroom, which let’s be honest, it’s hard to mess up a roasted portobello, I like the green beans/carrot mix the most. My mom, who had the meatball and mashed potato entree, wasn’t really thrilled with her dinner either, but also thought the mixed veg was the best thing on her plate (and she doesn’t really like vegetables.)
Since we were running to catch a Fastpass at Soarin’, neither of us had dessert. I think they said they had allergen-free cookies, most likely from Enjoy Life which they serve at many restaurants. Upon leaving, we both agreed that we would not be back. This is sad because they have a vegan option on their menu, but we both thought we were paying for the princesses and not quality food.
Ale & Compass Restaurant
Ale & Compass is a new gastro-pub inspired restaurant in Disney’s Yacht Club Resort. It borders between casual and fine dining with an elegant, but not stuffy atmosphere. Doing my traditional pre-visit research, I saw a mention of this place being vegan-friendly and found they offered a vegan “protein plate.” The protein plate has vegan Italian sausage, quinoa, sweet potatoes, and broccoli rabe with a roasted cherry tomato sauce. I was pretty sure the sausage would have gluten or soy in it, but I liked the sound of quinoa and sweet potatoes so I wanted to try it out.
Again I received an allergen menu when I arrived. Looking it over, it turns out the sausage was neither gluten nor soy free. As usual, our waiter bought out Chef Stephanie to speak with me about my food allergies. She confirmed what I thought, that without the sausage the dish was safe. She said she’d be glad to substitute vegetables in the sausage’s place. In addition, she said they had tofu that would be a good option if I didn’t have the soy allergy, too. I said that was great and asked if I could have lots of the sauce (especially after my dinner at Akershus the night before) and a side salad.
When my dinner arrived, it looked awesome! To make sure I had enough sauce, she gave me an entire side bowl of it so I could use as much as I wanted. Of course, it was delicious and I ended up using every last drop. The quinoa was nicely flavored with a few bell peppers, onion and garlic and the sweet potatoes had a variety of herbs that weren’t overpowering. Likewise, the subbed vegetables (cauliflower, swiss chard and enoki mushrooms) were cooked and seasoned perfectly. It’s amazing how a little seasoning can go a long way.
Overall, I really, really enjoyed Ale & Compass. Disney nailed the food, service and ambience with this new joint. Even two non-vegan friends I was with ordered the protein plate with the sausage and thought it was great. My other friend ordered their chicken and waffles and asked for just waffles and they happily accommodated his request as well – giving him a mountain of waffles and tons of syrup. I’ll definitely be back next year as long as this entree remains on their menu.