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Living Without’s editor, Alicia Woodward, talks with Joel Schaefer, manager, product development and special diets at WALT DISNEY WORLD® Resort, about how Disney tries to make dreams come true for people with food allergies and sensitivities.
LW: We originally featured Disney in the summer 2002 issue of Living Without. What’s changed since then?
Joel Schaefer: The biggest change is growth. Disney began its special diet program about 17 years ago and the program has grown about 100 percent each year to the point we’re now serving over 7,000 meals a month to our guests with special needs, especially food allergies.
What food allergies do you see most?
We see a lot of people with celiac disease, a gluten intolerance. We get many visitors with a single food allergy, like peanut or tree nut allergy. We see a lot of allergy clusters, especially in children; the most common is kids with milk, egg, peanut and tree nut allergies. We’re also seeing a lot of casein and gluten intolerance. There’s been an increase in families coming with autistic children and they’re requesting that specific diet.
Can you accommodate everyone?
For the most part, yes, depending on the number of allergies. We’ve had people who normally don’t dine in restaurants. We’ve had people who usually don’t travel. We’ve seen children with allergies to every Big Eight food [wheat, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, soy, fish and shellfish]—and more. Allergy to corn, to potato. We’ve had children and adults who can only eat a total of three foods. It’s amazing what we’re seeing. You name it, we’ve seen it.
We give guests all the information before they arrive and let them make the final decision about whether to visit. We tell them what we can do and they decide if they’re comfortable with it. They might say, “This won’t work for us.” But we do our best. There have been very, very few people we haven’t been able to accommodate.
Generally, what other special-diet requests do you handle?
We’re happy to discuss other special-dietary requests with our guests, like no sugar added, low fat, low sodium, low carb, vegetarian or vegan. We’ll attempt to accommodate them at the time of dining. The guest should tell the server that there’s a special request and the server will communicate it to the kitchen. We need 24-hour notice for dinner shows. At most WALT DISNEY WORLD® Resort table service restaurants, no-sugar-added desserts and vegetarian options are already on the regular menu. If not, just ask the server.
We can also accommodate kosher meals if they’re requested at least 24 hours in advance by calling 407-WDW-DINE (939-3463). We require a credit card to guarantee this order but we won’t charge the card unless the reservation is canceled within 24 hours or the party fails to show.
If someone on a special diet wants to visit Disney, what’s the first step?
Contact us ahead of time. Pre-communication is vital. We want to get information into visitors’ hands before they arrive so they can educate themselves about what we do. This is especially important if someone is traveling for the first time or if they’re new to Disney. Repeat guests pretty much know what to do. Even so, we like them to contact us ahead of time.
What’s the number?
The Disney Reservation Center is 407-WDW-DINE (939-3463). It’s best to contact us as soon as possible but you can call at least 72 hours in advance and inform the cast member about food issues. The cast member will document the allergies and then give the guest the number for a food and beverage representative who can further assist. If need be, we’ll send guests a form to list their allergies. This form is then given to the appropriate chefs who, in most instances, can modify menu items to meet dietary needs.
I know it’s best for people to call first, Joel. But what if someone just shows up at a Disney restaurant?
They should always find a server or cast member and let them know of the dietary issue. That’s the main thing. Always communicate. Don’t just try to navigate the menu by yourself. There’s someone you can talk to about it.
Are the buffets a problem for special diets?
Most of our character meals are buffets. The chef can walk through the buffet and show a guest what’s safe to eat. But, frankly, there’s always potential for cross-contamination in a buffet. We can prepare a special diet meal in the kitchen if it’s been prearranged with the Disney Reservation Center.
What about fast food?
The selection of special foods is pretty limited at our quick service and counter service locations. Guests should ask to speak to a chef or manager to discuss their specific request. We have some prepackaged snacks that are specific for people with food allergies. Guests should read food labels carefully to make sure a product meets their needs.
Can visitors bring their special-diet foods into the park? What about things like EpiPens and asthma medication?
If guests inform the security cast member of their food allergy or medical condition, there’ll be no problem bringing in this kind of food or medication.
What advice can you give special dieters to ensure they have a safe and fun Disney vacation?
First, plan appropriately for your trip. If you have severe allergies, bring your EpiPen and any other medications. Second, communicate with us ahead of time so that we can share information and answer your questions. Third, once you arrive, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Communication is the best way for us to assist. Fourth, and this is important, once you’re here, plan to eat your meals either early or late during the meal period.
In most of our locations, we’re servicing anywhere from five to 30 special diet requests per meal period. If you’re arriving right in the middle of a meal period, you’re there during the very busiest time. You’ll have to wait longer to see a chef and get your food.
What’s been the biggest challenge of Disney’s special-diet program?
I think it’s the volume. The guests keep coming and the requests keep increasing. We continually get letters from guests saying they won’t travel anywhere else but Disney or that they won’t eat anywhere else because they know we make the effort to meet their requests. This is our business. We are educated about food issues and we want to handle them appropriately. People come to Disney because they want to be safe. We understand this and we take it very seriously. LW