As parents of a child with severe food allergies, we have found that food is our biggest concern whenever we vacation. The easiest answer (for us) would be to take snacks and squeeze pouches that we know Eva can eat and feed her only from our stash. Although that has worked for the occasional day trip, ultimately tourism is a lot about enjoying new things in a new place and that means exploring new foods. Scary...but it can be done safely at Walt Disney World!
Even though we're lifelong Disney fans, I think we'd be new converts to the Disney vacation love as allergy parents because the Disney parks are one of the safest destinations for kids who have food allergies. Since Disney handles millions of guests, they're used to food allergy requests and they have great systems in place to help keep visitors safe.
That being said, you do have to be ever vigilant as an allergy parent and it's smart to know what you should expect on your vacation.
Here are 8 tips for navigating food allergies at Walt Disney World:
1 /// This is a given for allergy parents, but it's important enough to warrant a reminder: carry your meds at all times.
On our vacation we carried Eva's Epi-pen and an Auvi-Q epinephrine auto-injector as well as her emergency inhaler for her asthma. We kept it in a padded lunchbox to keep it safe from the heat and never went anywhere without it. It might be tempting to leave medication in the stroller or with a non-rider before you enter an attraction, especially if you've got your hands full with your kids, but many of those queues take you a fair distance into the building before loading you onto the ride vehicle and some of the rides at Walt Disney World can take 20-30 minutes to finish even with no wait. You don't want to be without meds for that long if your child starts having a reaction.
If you do find yourself in the Disney parks without your medications and you or your child start to have an allergic reaction, they do have epinephrine injectors available in the medical center. You can find the Epi symbol on any park map, but since reactions can progress quickly (even if they've never been fast before) it's probably a better plan to alert a cast member that you're having a medical emergency so assistance can come to you where you are. Be sure to carry your health insurance and primary care physician information in case you need to be transferred to the hospital.
2 /// If you're enjoying a sit down meal, you need to tell your server that there's a food allergy in your party so the chef can be alerted.
You can also have them make a note of the allergy when you make your dining reservation. The chef will come to your table and write down the food allergy information before taking your food order for the person with the allergy. You will order for the rest of the table separately.
Note: don't count on the server to warn you if a food is an allergy risk if you're ordering it for someone else because the servers don't know as much about the ingredient risks as the chef will. If you want to know if something is safe to be consumed near your child, you need to ask the chef during that conversation. He won't take the order for your food, but he'll be able to tell you if it's a good idea for you to order it. (A classic example for us is checking to make sure that nothing we order contains pesto, since getting pesto on our fingers and touching Eva will cause a reaction.)
3 /// If you're ordering from a quick-service restaurant (fast food style), tell the cashier that you need to place an allergy order.
Either the chef or a manager will come out to talk to you. Every quick-service restaurant has an allergy book that lists ingredients and they will be able to answer questions about whether food is prepared in the same area or shares the same cooking oil, etc. It's possible that not all quick-service restaurants will be able to accommodate your allergy requests.
We ran into this twice, but we had a runner (thank you, Kyle Morgan) grab a kid's meal from another quick-service spot and bring it back to the restaurant we were eating at. They won't have any problem with this (it's all Disney!) so if your child finds a particular safe meal that they really enjoy keep that in your pocket as a backup.
4 /// If you're ordering from a snack cart, ask to see their allergy book.
We had different reactions to this request - some snack carts had the book on hand and others had to call in a manager to come out to the cart with the information. The nice thing is that many of the snack cart foods are uniform across the parks so we were able to get the same safe snacks a few times (even though we always mentioned the allergy just in case there was a contamination issue).
This doesn't apply to snacks purchased in the shops (like candy, pretzels, suckers, etc.). They don't keep allergy information on hand for packaged foods and the cast members working in those shops won't have that information. You need to trust the labels and if you have any questions there is contact information listed on the back of most products.
5 /// Some restaurants, quick-service places, and snack carts are better than others about the allergy thing.
Trust your gut and if you feel like the cast member you're talking to either doesn't understand or isn't taking the allergy seriously, go somewhere else. I've heard very mixed reports about the restaurants in the World Showcase at Epcot because many of those are operated independently by the countries sponsoring the pavilion, so you might get a different level of service than you would at an all-Disney restaurant like Coral Reef or Sunshine Tree Terrace (two Epcot food spots that we had great experiences with). I'm not saying you can't get a safe meal at these other places, but it's a good reminder to always be on guard.
6 /// Be aware of your surroundings.
Even if the meal is safe, your kid could still have a reaction if they contact an allergen left behind on a table or seat and with seating in demand during peak park hours, you might not always have the option of sitting down at a clean table. If you do snag a table with food on it, grab a busser to wipe down the table as soon as possible and consider taking your own Lysol wipes to do a quick sweep of your own. (I once saw someone change their baby on top of a table at a quick-service restaurant at WDW so I always Lysol the tables like a crazy woman.)
Don't forget that dining areas aren't the only risk. With all of the visitors moving around Walt Disney World, a lot of people are eating in other areas so be careful with benches, grassy areas, play areas (like the new splash pad in Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom), and on the ride vehicles themselves. We boarded a boat at It's a Small World and ended up having to move Eva back a row because our row had an almond granola bar wrapper on the floor. The busses and monorails are other places where we found food wrappers.
7 /// At your resort, the same ordering plan goes for the food court: tell whoever will be taking your order that you need to place a food allergy order and they will have a chef or manager come out to talk to you.
If you have a question about any food or drink (like the hot chocolate), you can request to see an ingredient list. This goes for room service as well. If you're doing a character dining experience (whether it's at a resort or in the parks), ask to speak to the chef when you get there and they will be able to tell you what to avoid and what is safe. If necessary, they will make your child a special plated meal even if the restaurant is buffet-style.
8 /// Final tip: don't forget to check for allergens in non-food items if your child has a contact allergy.
We run into this occasionally when we use products like lotion or sunscreen that contain a nut or seed oil that isn't safe for Eva. We didn't run into this on this trip (making me wonder if Disney has taken an extra step and rid the soaps of common allergens) but if you're traveling with a known contact allergy it's smart to bring your own personal care items from home.
I hope that these tips aren't overwhelming, because Walt Disney World is a wonderful place to visit for families with food allergies and Eva was able to enjoy meals and snacks that she never gets because we could trust that they were safe! It was exciting for her to try things like caramel corn and funnel cakes without being afraid to eat them.
We even enjoyed chocolate cupcakes from the allergy-friendly Gardens kiosk at Animal Kingdom, which is the first time Eva has had a baked good that isn't homemade in at least three years. And yes, they were delicious!!