Did you know that there is a magical place where all the servers respond to your inquiries with, "we take allergies very seriously. I'll bring the chef over."
Yes, I promise you this place does exist. I know this is not a new revelation, that allergy peeps have been flocking to Disney World for ages. But hey, it was my first time there in twenty years and I had a fabulous time, so I'm eager to write about it.
This is the final installment in the Wedding Series, where I have shared all the details about how I planned my allergy-friendly wedding.
Once the wedding celebration was over and we returned home to sleep blissfully for a few days, we decided we should go on a honeymoon right away. Brandon knew I was longing for Mickey Mouse (because I repeatedly said so) and booked us a flight to leave the next day. We tend to not plan our vacations very far in advance and instead prefer to go on a whim. I have a very standard food prep and packing routine that I've developed with all my work travel so all I need is a day's notice. Disney is notoriously good with food allergies which held my usual level of travel anxiety at bay.
Just before getting on the flight we booked the Animal Kingdom Lodge hotel, which is modeled after The Lion King. I was so thrilled to have a room that looked right out onto the faux Sahara with exotic birds and beasts right below our window. That alone was a big treat, and every morning and evening we'd stand outside and watch the wildlife interact while sipping a coffee or tea in our pajamas. One day we even got a visit from an ostrich! When venturing to the pool there was a beautiful grotto full of flamingos, and a lookout point for guests to get a better view of the animals. A willowy giraffe fed on leaves in the distance.
We visited 5 parks during our 4.5 day stay, which was only possible because weekdays in February are the slow season. We visited Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. With the park hopper pass and Disney's free and efficient bus system, we were able to jump between several parks in a day. We dedicated almost a whole day to Universal Studios where I nearly threw up on the Simpson's simulator ride, Brandon had a Krusty Burger, and we fell in love with Harry Potter land and all its intricacies.
I am still very much a child so I loved Disney's Magic Kingdom the most; the Small World ride, character parades, and all the kiddie "rides" and experiences. I didn't go on the roller coasters because I am a huge chicken and I get intense separation anxiety when my Epi Pen is not near me (you have to put your purse in a locker while on the big roller coasters) but I was happy to line up with Brandon and then wait for him at the bottom. We wore buttons that said "Happily Ever After" and at a concession stand, a server gave us our drinks for free "on the house of mouse", as congratulations.
Whether you are in Disney or Universal parks, one thing that was consistent was the daytime food, which was mainly burgers, hot dogs, and pop. My dairy allergy is the hardest one to manage in the US because cheese and butter are very common ingredients in their cuisine, as well as additives derived from dairy in things like hot dogs and bread. The prevalence of deep fried foods is also difficult to navigate, and since all the food appeared to come from one supplier there was not much variety. I brought my own snacks every day and bought water or a pop there. The food selection is very different than what I'm used to in Toronto and my body was craving salad, fruit, and real juices which were hard to find.
We didn't make a stop at Whole Foods (there is one within Uber-ing distance) because we were at the parks every day and it's quite a venture to leave and return. I planned ahead for this and brought oatmeal, instant coffee, tuna, oatmeal cookies, and whole wheat scones in my luggage. I thought I'd for sure be able to get fresh fruit at the hotel but I was limited to oranges and bananas, and plain Lay's chips from the takeout dining hall. I imagined that since it was Florida there'd be plentiful fruit everywhere, but I was wrong.
Oranges were a premium at $4 USD per bag of 3 mini oranges, but nevertheless I bought a bag per day. Other fruit like apples and grapes came pre-packaged (the apples came with caramel sauce) and had may-contain warnings. The 100% pure orange juice actually had a list of additives so I didn't buy it either. I didn't check in with the kitchen staff at the theme parks because the busy environment of the takeout counters looked too contaminated with dairy products to even wrap my mind around finding something safe. I was content with my own food. We learned very quickly that most people plan their Disney vacations months in advance and book the marquee restaurants like the ones modeled after Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella's Castle. If it's important to you to visit them, I highly recommend booking well in advance. That being said, there are a ton of other places to eat as well.
In the evenings we went to Disney Springs which is their downtown entertainment area. I used the Allergy Eats app to find the best restaurants for us. T-Rex Cafe was highly recommended and I read several reviews praising Chef Jose for his dedication to creating safe meals. There was a lineup but we managed to get seats at the bar; being pretty much the only people there without children did afford us some flexibility. When I presented my allergy card the server told me that they take allergies very seriously and that she'd bring over the chef. I met Chef Jose and he was very well versed in food allergy language, and made me feel extremely comfortable about dining there. He made me a salad with grilled chicken, and after a long day of sparse eating I was so grateful for the large portion. He made it and brought it over to the table himself. Five stars for chef Jose and the T-Rex Cafe!
The next night we went to The Boathouse restaurant which was, by comparison, a "normal" restaurant meaning it did not have a twenty foot T-Rex. The nautical theme was tasteful and the live band was fun to listen to. We sat on the patio and I had a plate of oysters and a salad. The server was also very confident in her allergy knowledge and brought the chef over. Their menu seemed to have more dairy products on it, at a glance, so I wasn't entirely comfortable eating a cooked entree. Salad and raw bar was a safe choice for me and they had different regional oyster varieties than what we have at home. The chef offered me his "allergy friendly" brownie which the server affirmed is "life-changing" but I declined to try it. My legume allergy falls outside the top 8 list so I'm always hesitant to trust things just because they are "allergy-friendly". I did appreciate that they had the dessert option available and I'm sure many allergy kids that never get to eat dessert in a restaurant are happy to take up the offer.
On our final night we went back to T-Rex Cafe because you really can't get anything like it in Toronto. It's such an over the top experience that makes Rainforest Cafe look tame by comparison. And I wanted a Chef Jose meal again! This time it was a different chef (admittedly I can't remember his name) and he was not quite as communicative. He told me he needed his glasses and took my allergy card away, and did not return. Then a server dropped my meal off and it looked different than it did the previous night, despite having ordered the same thing. I asked to speak with the chef again to clarify and he told me he was looking for my salad and sorry he intended to drop it off himself. I asked if he was sure this was my order, and he said yes it's very different than anything on their menu. I glanced around at the fries, ribs, and, seafood around me and realized he was right. It was a great dinner again and I would go back to T-Rex for sure.
Sadly we had to leave on the Saturday evening after having such a magical and carefree week. We took a West Jet flight and the attendant was very kind about asking passengers in my area to refrain from eating peanut or nut products. She asked me where my Epi Pen was (in my purse, never in my luggage) so that in the event of an emergency she would be able to locate it quickly.
Returning back to real life was difficult after a seriously amazing and fun-filled week in Orlando.