This past week (from the 7th to 13th), my family and I took our sixth trip to Walt Disney World. Having done this a few times, I know the drill for Disney food, and we know that we like 1 (2 for exceptions) sit-down meal in the parks or at a WDW resort per day. For the other meals, we generally eat at our condo (I cook). We also know that vegan pickings are slim on the menus. However, Disney is very accommodating to dietary allergies or other issues. They won’t accommodate your preference for a burger at the Italian place, but if you are lactose intolerant, gluten intolerant, allergic to nuts, etc., they will do what they can, particularly when given the right notice. I am highly lactose intolerant and – having been a vegan for about seven years and a vegetarian for over 15 – I can’t tolerate any animal proteins at all. I don’t make the right enzymes to process them, so when I get some in food on accident, I become extremely ill.
So, I’m willing to jump through whatever hoops they need to get meals that won’t make me sick. I don’t need fancy, but I need something that is vegan. I noted these issues on all of our reservations, made six months in advance. About a month ahead, I contacted dining services and repeated all the issues with all of our reservation numbers. They then sent the paperwork to complete for all reservations, which I did, and submitted back to them. Upon arriving at each restaurant, we also had to confirm the issues with the host/hostess, discuss them again with the server, meet with the chefs as needed, and be willing to wait a bit longer. Because of this, I try to make our reservations at “off” times (after typical lunch or dinner hours) to make it easier for the kitchens (for more specific details about the prep and some advice, check out my post on Elephant Journal).
This is the story of how it went this trip… Click on the images for larger shots. I haven’t color corrected this batch (245 pictures). They are straight out of the Canon S100, and I think pretty decent given the changing light conditions.
We left our house around 8:00 on Friday night, to drive overnight. The drive went pretty well (even crowded with seven people and luggage in a mini-van). We made one stop at Burger King (ugh) for breakfast, where the option was hash browns or hash browns. Abbigael (the other vegan) and I had the hash browns. We got to Orlando earlier than our check in, so we swung by Downtown Disney for some quick perusing and lunch. Lunch, which I forgot to take a picture of, was at Fresh A-Peel. Abbigael, Devin (vegetarian), and I had the felafel sandwich. It wasn’t amazing, but it was fine. We also dropped by BabyCakes Bakery – which serves all vegan and gluten-free items. We had cupcakes, candy, and doughnuts (not all at one time) from BabyCakes. The cupcakes were a bit dry to me, and not as good as I feel like I can make (sorry BabyCakes), but the doughnuts were amazing. I will be craving the cinnamon doughnut for approximately the rest of my life. After having lunch and stopping by Publix for groceries (yes, we put a weeks worth of groceries for 7 into the same vehicle with 7 people and all the luggage – everyone had bags on top of them), we checked into our lovely condo, unpacked, showered, and rested up for dinner.
Dinner that night was at ‘Ohana restaurant, in the Polynesian Resort hotel. ‘Ohana is known for being a meat lovers paradise, which is why I selected it. I know that might seem odd, but Derek (the husband unit) and three of the kids are omnivores. Derek and Nathaniel are particularly big meat lovers. So, I thought it would make them happy, and we hadn’t gone there before. I was a bit apprehensive about how we would fare as vegans, but it worked out ok. The chef dropped by the table to let us know that the salad was not vegan, nor the noodles/veggies that are served as side dishes. Obviously the meat is also not. He offered to make us a little plate of hummus, vegan red pepper pesto, and pita chips to have for our appetizer and then to prepare a tofu stirfry for our main course. We happily accepted. The hummus was a little garlicky to my taste, but the kids loved it. The pesto was delicious. The tofu stirfry was quite amazing, with a ginger/citrus sauce going on. I could eat it weekly, I think. We also had some fresh fruit brought to us at dessert.
Our first full day at Disney found us skipping off to Epcot. We usually start out with Epcot and save Magic Kingdom for our second day. We have tried a number of restaurants in Epcot over the years, to mixed results. We find Coral Reef to be good, but ridiculously priced and not veg friendly. Restaurant Marrakesh has good food, but were SO not veg friendly on our last visit that they made my daughter cry. Teppan Edo (Japanese Teppan-yaki style) is good and we have gone twice, but we wanted something different. So, this time we tried out Rose and Crown in the UK pavilion area. The meal started out with some beers for the adults (great selection), while we waited to speak to the chef. He did not come to the table, but sent the waitress over to tell us that they could make a vegetable curry dish. I had heard that they also could do a delicious vegan pot pie with a biscuit crust, so I asked about that (hoping for something a bit less spicy) and the waitress confirmed that it could definitely be done. Abbigael also wanted some chips (fries), so we ordered a side of those and they indicated that they would be fried away from the fish. Our food arrived a bit later. The pot pie turned out to be more like vegetables in a creamy soy based sauce. It wasn’t bad, but nothing to write home about. The chips were chips, and coated with vinegar and salt, we snarfed them up. Have I mentioned that the beer was great? Later that day, I had to make a stop at the Kingla Bakeri in Norway, where I knew that the sweet almond pretzel was vegan and delicious. That was our late day snack, and quite worth it!
The second morning, we headed off to Magic Kingdom, with visions of Space Mountain dancing in our heads. After some attractions adventures, we returned to a tried and true location for lunch, the Liberty Tree Tavern. Here too, the chef declined to speak with us, but indicated through the server that there was one vegan item on the menu, the vegetarian patty sandwich made with quinoa. So, that was what we ordered! The patty looked beautiful, full and big, and came with a side of tofu tzatziki sauce (you know, that well- known early-American condiment). The official side for the dish was sweet potato fries or fruit, but I was feeling misbehavish, so I ordered it with tavern fries, and the other two veg-heads followed suit. Overall, it was quite good. In fact, it was good enough that on our last day when we really just wanted to get out of the cold for a while and weren’t planning to have lunch so had no reservation, I actually had it again. I think it would be improved if they made it a bit less voluminous, so that it would be a little more done/crisp in the center. But, other than that it was tasty and made me think about how I could turn quinoa into patty form.
Our third day was a big one for eating. We had both a lunch and dinner reservation. I was exhausted in the morning just thinking about all that food. Our park choice was Disney Hollywood Studios. It’s a park we can do in less than a day (and see pretty much all the attractions and selected shows). We have had lunch at the same place every visit to DHS except our first, so I would say that we like it. 50′s Prime Time Diner is really well-themed, fun to be at due to the antics of the staff, and has reliably good food. I have had a veggie stuffed pepper there the last few trips, so I was anticipating that again. When the chef came by the table, he indicated that the vegetarian item on the menu, spaghetti and faux meatballs, was actually vegan, and that would be our option. So, the vegetarians all ordered that. The dish was fine, certainly serviceable, but again nothing amazing. It would have been good to have a vegetable somewhere in the mix, maybe a side salad or some broccoli. One of the great things about 50′s Prime Time is the deserts and ice cream, so I had to have a vegan chocolate milk shake, and it was delicious!
Dinner that night was such a big deal that it gets its very own section in this post. During our 2008 trip, we had reservations at Boma restaurant, which is an African themed buffet. I requested to be shown what items were vegan, and Chef TJ arrived at our table and took me for a tour of the buffet, giving me many choices and explaining how he had arranged the items so that the non-veg items didn’t get slopped into the veg items by customers (neat!). He then proceeded to make me several special appetizers, a special entree, and an amazing dessert, bringing each to the table himself and checking frequently to be sure I was happy with my meal. It was the best dining experience I have ever had in Disney, and one of the best I have ever had period. In 2010, we went back to Boma, hoping to see Chef TJ again, but we learned too late that he had moved on to ‘Ohana, and we didn’t have time for a meal there on his work days.
For this visit, I did some extra research (stalking) and found out that he now works at 1900 Park Fare, so we clearly had to make dinner reservations there. I also established that he works primarily Mon-Thurs, so I wanted to be sure we went in the middle of the week, and on a day that we wouldn’t be rushing too much from the parks. It all worked out wonderfully, as we were done at Hollywood Studios in time to go back to the condo and clean up for dinner, and then get to 1900 Park Fare well before our reservation time. After arrival, the waiter confirmed that the chef would come by (but I still didn’t know if it was the chef that I was hoping for). Derek and the non-vegan kids headed to the buffet to make plates, and after a minute or two, Derek looked back at me from the buffet line and gave me a thumbs up. So, I knew Chef TJ was there and I was super excited.
Chef TJ (whose full name is Tjetjep Sudiswa) was wonderfully enthusiastic, again, about preparing us special vegan food. When he heard what the issues were, he exclaimed, “So, you’re VEGAN?!” And, upon our agreement we got a big thumbs up. He walked us through the buffet and showed us a few things that we could have, and then ascertained that we had plenty of time and headed off to the kitchen to create a feast. I didn’t want to fill up on anything from the buffet, so I just awaited the masterpieces. Abbigael elected to have some tomato Florentine soup, which she pronounced delicious, and a roll. After a bit of time, our fist course arrived. It was a sun-dried tomato hummus, with plantain chips, and vegan spring rolls with a sweet sauce. Yum. The salad course came next, and was a grilled head of romaine, covered with mango, avocado, pistachios, and a balsamic vinaigrette. By this time, the vegetarian at the neighboring table, who had just fended for himself at the buffet, was announcing his full jealousy, and I felt vaguely guilty (but, I did tell him how the process works). Our main course was a tofu masterpiece with all sorts of vegetables (carrots, broccoli rabe, mushroom, sweet potatoes, onions, green beans, etc), crispy rice noodles, and crisply fried tofu. Delicious! And, of course, there was dessert – two towers of sweet goodness. One was a sorbet and fruit tower, while the other was soy cream, banana, and brownie. Both were resting on a bed of fresh pineapple. I couldn’t have been more happy with the meal, and I felt very lucky to have such a wonderful and kind chef be available to cook for us. It was worth every penny (and I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t inexpensive).
The next day, we took the day off and just ate at the condo, but Thursday found us at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Here, we had lunch reservations at Tusker House, which is sort of a junior Boma in the park. We had eaten here before, and I had been able to, with the help of a chef showing me through the items, cobble together an acceptable – if appetizer-heavy – meal. This time, the chef, whose name I didn’t catch, was quite wonderful. She walked us through the buffet, showing us items and indicating which were vegan in ingredients, and which were not (due to being fried in oil with meat items or containing dairy), but that she could make vegan for us. She recommended a set of dishes that she felt would make a good meal, and we took her up on them. While waiting on the food to arrive, and during the feasting of the omnivores, we munched on a delicious mango chutney with pita chips, and a really excellent tabouleh. After a short wait, the chef arrived with an apple walnut salad, vegan samosas, fragrant orzo with olives, and a zucchini and tofu dish. For desert, she sent out some vegan soy cream and a pack of cookies. It was an unexpectedly wonderful meal.
Our final day at Disney we spent back in the Magic Kingdom, with an early breakfast reservation at Crystal Palace. We have been to Crystal Palace before, but never at breakfast, so we thought we would give it a try. Here too, the chef visited our table. However, he seemed kind of baffled about what one would feed a vegan at that hour. He walked us through the buffet, pointing out the fresh fruit, oatmeal, and fried potatoes. He also offered to bring out a couple of waffles (vegan frozen variety). I wouldn’t say it was a particularly wonderful meal, and for the price, it was only worth it because of the offerings they had for the vegetarian and omnivores and the character interaction. We later ended up back at Liberty Tree, for an unplanned lunch (I was cold and just wanted to sit), where I repeated my prior choice.
All in all, it was a good experience with a couple of really stellar meals. I wouldn’t say it is easy to eat vegan in Disney, because it requires prior planning and being willing to make requests repeatedly, but it’s certainly possible! I’m still kind of full, but I’m almost ready to go back.