How to Visit Florida’s Theme Parks if You Have Food Allergies
By Eric Mohrman
People with food allergies – or whose children have them – take comfort in the controlled environment at home and local restaurants they frequent. Travel, on the other hand, can cause considerable anxiety because of the need to eat in unfamiliar places.
Not everyone appreciates that food allergies can be life-threatening, or that consuming or inhaling even a speck of an allergen can trigger an anaphylactic reaction. People don’t necessarily connect the dots that, say, someone who’s allergic to milk can’t eat food sautéed in butter.
But awareness is increasing, along with the number of people affected. The CDC noted a 50-percent spike in the number of children with food allergies from 1997 to 2011. An estimated 15 million Americans have food allergies today, nearly 6 million of them kids.
Fortunately, Orlando’s theme parks have made major strides in recent years to safely accommodate guests with food allergies. Employees are guided by allergy training and thoughtful policies and procedures.
This isn’t to minimize the role of personal responsibility; any public environment poses risks. However, with some research, planning, self-advocacy and caution, visiting Orlando’s theme parks is a perfectly manageable way for the food-allergic to have an experience of a lifetime – and safely.
Meeting the Allergy Challenge Head On
Tina M. Brown homeschools her 12-year-old son Logan due to his food allergies and history of anaphylaxis. At the time of their first family trip from Missouri to Disney World in 2007, Logan was severely allergic to eggs, milk, peanuts, fish, wheat, oat and corn.
Brown, who blogs about her experiences at Disney and with food allergies at FootprintsInPixieDust.com, says of planning that first visit: “I had my moments where I was petrified with worry, but I would think that to be normal for any parent in this situation ... What it did was spur me to be extra diligent in my research to make sure it was as safe as possible.
“I was certainly nervous and concerned about what [Logan] would touch, the cleanliness of the parks … whether there would be enough for him to safely eat, whether the chefs were trained well enough on food allergy preparation, what would happen if he experienced another anaphylactic reaction... the list goes on.”
Such worries are typical; research and planning are key to peace of mind and a smooth vacation.
Dining on the Theme Park Properties
Preparing for the trip starts with researching where to eat. How many meals you book in advance will probably depend on the number and type of allergies you manage and personal preferences. But the better acquainted you are with your options, the less stress you’ll have over eating during your getaway.
The parks, hotels, and their shopping and entertainment areas have three tiers of eateries: snack kiosks, quick-service restaurants and table-service restaurants. Table-service establishments are the most allergy-friendly, offering bigger menu selections, direct access to the chef, and flexibility to customize meals and – to varying extents – ingredients.
Make reservations at table-service restaurants, and ask that employees make a notation about your allergies. Regardless whether a meal is scheduled ahead, always discuss allergies with the staff when you arrive. At quick-service restaurants, speak to the manager; at table-service restaurants, explain your situation to the server and ask to speak to the chef before ordering.
Keep in mind, while food service staff receives allergy training and takes special care once alerted, none of the park or hotel restaurants have separate facilities for safeguarding guests with food allergies. There are no guarantees against cross-contact, so always evaluate the risks and abide by your personal comfort level.
Vacation Planning Support:
- To request allergy-friendly menus or consult a special diets-trained Disney World Cast Member, or if you’re traveling with someone who has more than four allergies or multiple people with allergies, email Special.Diets@DisneyWorld.com.
- To talk to someone who’ll help plan your visit to SeaWorld Orlando, Discovery Cove, Aquatica or Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, email AllergenFriendlySWF@SeaWorld.com.
- To get advice about allergy concerns at Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Universal’s Volcano Bay, and Universal’s CityWalk, email FoodServiceCUF@UniversalOrlando.com.
- At Disney, ask for the allergy-friendly menu at table-service restaurants, buffets and major quick-service restaurants.
- A special diets-trained “Cast Member” will be dispatched upon request to any Disney World Resort location to assist you.
- SeaWorld parks’ table-service restaurants have allergen information cards to reference and allergen alert cards to fill out for the chef.
- At Universal, Disney, and SeaWorld parks, allergen information or ingredient lists are often available at the different types of eateries.
- SeaWorld partners with Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) to develop the training that all culinary team members undergo at SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, and its other parks.
- In December 2017, FARE gave Walt Disney Parks and Resorts its corporate award for service to people with food allergies in recognition of Disney’s “progressive efforts in making accommodations for guests with food allergies.”
Third-Party Restaurants, Hotels and Vendors
Not every business on a theme park’s property is owned and operated by the theme park. This can have implications for travelers with food allergies who might assume uniform policies and procedures.
Walt Disney World Resort has independently managed “Operating Participants” on property, like some resorts and many eateries at Disney Springs and Disney Boardwalk. Disney expects them to accommodate guests with food allergies, but they have their own rules and practices.
Similarly, many table-service options at Universal Orlando Resort are found at CityWalk, where businesses are independently operated and implement their own policies and procedures.
Theme park hotels are key places to find allergy-friendly, full-service restaurants, so keep in mind that SeaWorld and Busch Gardens don’t have their own lodgings. They partner with independently-owned hotels that must be approached directly with allergy-related questions and concerns.
Bringing Your Own Food into the Parks
Having some of your own food is doable and provides peace of mind.
As Tina Brown recounts, “We made sure to bring plenty of food that was safe for our son to eat. Because we were traveling by car, this was easy to accomplish. We never wanted to be in a situation where he didn’t have something on hand, especially if faced with an uncomfortable situation at an eating establishment. We brought foods that were easy to transport and wouldn’t spoil. ... For those who fly, there are grocery delivery services that deliver to the resorts.”
Guests with special dietary needs may bring food into any of the Orlando theme parks and Busch Gardens. Simply inform the security guard of the reason on your way in.
Hard coolers, large soft coolers and glass containers are not allowed, nor is food that requires refrigeration or heating. Employees are prohibited from storing, preparing, or otherwise handling food and drinks brought by guests. Rules change, so check your destination’s website before departure.
Tips for Enjoying Orlando’s Theme Parks with Food Allergies
To help make your trip as safe and simple as possible:
- Bring phone numbers for your doctor or pediatrician and allergist.
- Carry EpiPens, Auvi-Q or other epinephrine injectors in a compartment with an ice pack wrapped in cloth to keep them cool in the Florida heat.
- Carry injectors in a fanny pack, strap-on pouch or sealable pocket to avoid being separated from them on rides that require riders to leave loose items and bags in a locker.
- Disney stocks EpiPens and EpiPen Jrs. at all first aid stations (but it’s not a substitute for carrying your own, as you may not be close in an emergency).
- Bring wipes to clean off tables, chairs, handlebars and other surfaces; consider disposable placemats if they make you more comfortable.
- Wear athletic gloves when concerned about hand contact with allergens.
- Dine at off times; servers and chefs can be more careful and attentive when less busy.
- Parks offer allergy-friendly snacks; for example, SeaWorld parks carry Divvies products (free of tree nuts, peanuts, eggs and dairy); Disney parks carry Enjoy Life products (free of 15 major allergens); Universal and the other parks sell fruit and various snacks free of all or most of the top eight allergens.
- Everything at Erin McKenna’s Bakery NYC at Disney Springs is free of gluten, wheat, soy, egg and dairy.
- Know the closest hospital with a 24-hour emergency room; it’s Dr. P. Phillips Hospital for Universal and SeaWorld, Celebration Hospital for Disney, and St. Joseph’s Hospital for Busch Gardens (St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital has a pediatric E.R. on the same campus).
Moderating the Risks, Maximizing the Magic
Orlando’s theme parks are committed to providing comfortable, supportive, safe experiences for people with special needs. While it can be challenging for those with food allergies – especially children – to feel “normal” eating in public, the parks and hotels strive to serve up positive mealtime memories.
Since Brown’s first family trip in 2007, they’ve returned to Disney World with Logan about 10 times, despite his life-threatening allergies. Moving often, they’ve visited from Missouri, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, and since late 2017, they reside in Central Florida.
Brown still recalls how Disney World won her family over on their first vacation:
“We scheduled a breakfast at Cape May Café at Disney’s Beach Club Resort. I’d spoken with the chef prior to our trip, so Chef George Paterakis knew we were coming and what he was up against. … When we arrived, he visited our table several times and made sure our son was well fed, happy and safe. This was the first time our son had been able to have waffles! Upon Chef George’s last visit to our table, he asked that we promise not to leave without his being made aware. Why? He had prepared four gigantic allergy-friendly muffins for us to take back to our room – muffins our son could eat. I cried. I literally broke down in tears. No one had ever done that for our son before. It was our first real experience with pixie dust and that one moment ignited a love for Disney World vacations that has never been surpassed.
“The point is, they try as hard as they can to get it right and make it magical. They are there to make everyone’s trip something special, something unique – and it shows.”
And Logan’s feelings on the matter?
“I love how they have gone through rigorous training to ensure food safety for kids and adults in situations like mine. Most Cast Members cater to my needs very well and with a nice smile. Of course, I love that they usually spoil me rotten and bring me more food than I can normally eat. The desserts are pretty awesome, too.”