I just returned a week ago from a solid seven days at Disney World (plus two long days of cross-country travel). As vacation destinations go, I don’t think there are many places that beat Disney World for the gluten-free traveler. Whether you choose quick service (on-the-go dining, similar in style to Boston Market or McDonalds) or table service establishments (reservations practically required, casual to fine dining), there are a lot of fantastic meal options. Below are the highlights of what I ate; I apologize for the many absent, fuzzy and poorly lit photos.
Rose and Crown Pub (Epcot, United Kingdom Pavilion):
David and I arrived at the Pub (not to be confused with the dining room or outdoor chippie) just before they began serving lunch. We managed to snag one of the first-come-first-serve tables while we waited for the kitchen to open up. I read somewhere that it’s rude to go to a bar and not order a drink (at the very least one’s supposed to order a soda), so I selected a Jameson and ginger ale to sip on while David guzzled down (kidding!) a Golden Ale (half Stella Artois and half Bass Ale). The bartender, Carl, was very helpful in sorting out my order of un-coated, baked fish and chips for a gluten allergy with the kitchen (I’d been to the dining room several years ago and it was one of the options presented by the chef since they had a dedicated fryer for the fries). While it certainly wasn’t the best fish I’d ever eaten, the atmosphere in the pub certainly made up for it, as did the super strong cocktail (I can only imagine what it would have tasted like if I’d splurged the extra $1.50 and gone for a double!).
Tokyo Dining (Epcot, Japan Pavilion):
This location was selected on a whim for an early dinner. We intended to have sushi at Kimonos at the Swan Hotel but arrived about an hour before they opened. Instead of waiting around the lobby, we chose to walk along the Boardwalk to Epcot instead. Since we were super early (let’s just say the hour we dined would usually qualify for happy hour specials), getting seated right away wasn’t a problem. Unfortunately, the two specialty rolls I was interested in (California and Spicy Tuna) were made with gluten products (fake crab and soy sauce, respectively). It wasn’t a problem for me, though; there were ten or so maki to choose from (all except the Eel are gluten-free). The yellowtail was served with scallions (a negihama roll), just how I like it, and I got my avocado fix with an avocado roll. A bottle of gluten-free Kikkoman soy sauce was also produced upon my request. Plus, the service provided by the entire staff was absolutely impeccable, above the Disney standard even.
babycakes NYC (Downtown Disney Marketplace):
By the third day of vacation, I was having serious gluten-free baked good withdrawals (and internet, but that’s a whole ‘nother story). One of the reasons our vacation was even booked was babycakes, whose Downtown Disney location has been open for about a year. (While they have a location in Los Angeles, it’s not a six-hour-if-you-leave-in-the-middle-of-the-night journey that I particularly enjoy making.) They are a bit difficult to find if you don’t know where to look; I breezed right by as I babbled to David about how the building that now houses Pollo Campero (aside: totally makes me think of Los Pollos Hermanos from Breaking Bad), Fresh A-Peel and, as it turns out, babycakes was formerly McDonalds.
Anyway, back to the goodies. Their menu can be viewed here and they usually tweet the available flavors each day (follow @DTDBabyCakesNYC). I selected a vanilla cupcake with vanilla frosting (my favorite and typically a good baseline) and a toasted coconut doughnut
to get my baked good fix for my taste test. The cupcake was first, and definitely had a more orange tinge to it than the doughnut. Texture-wise it wasn’t too bad, certainly the best vegan, gluten-free cake I’ve had. However, it had a little bit of crunch to it (my guess is they use brown rice flour), which was a tad off-putting. The flavor was interesting, too, not horrible, just more like a lemony cornbread (I think this may have come to mind because of the texture, but it’s hard to tell) with a hint of margarine. While somewhat disappointing, it was by no means inedible. I really enjoyed the toasted coconut doughnut, so much so that we made a special trip back for another (plus a cinnamon-sugar one and an agave-sweetened brownie bite) the night before our flight back to San Jose so we’d have treats to enjoy at the airport. Personally, I wish the entire doughnut was coated with coconut, but it is fantastic as-is and visually appealing to boot.
Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café (Magic Kingdom, Tomorrowland):
When I emailed a list of my dining reservations to the Special Diets department, they provided me with a list of sample menu items available at the various quick service restaurants. Cosmic Ray’s (Bay 2) had gluten-free hamburger buns available which I couldn’t wait to try — it’s been at least seven years since I’ve had a non-lettuce-wrapped burger. They even have a dedicated fry fryer, so I didn’t miss out on anything! The bun was a lot better than I expected, with a much better texture than the brown rice flour bread I’ve tried from the store. Though it was exceptionally dry and pretty much flavorless (but really, how flavorful are most non-brioche hamburger buns?), I was still floored that they even had gluten-free buns as an option at no additional cost.
Les Chefs de France (Epcot, France Pavilion):
For our anniversary night, we splurged in France. At Les chefs de France, I chose the escargot baked in a parsley-garlic butter for my appetizer. I’d never had escargot before, but I’m determined to get through this list (yes, yes, I know it’s for men, but I only have three items to go now!), and I’ve never been one to shy away from garlic and butter. The texture of the dish was quite good (if you are ok with the texture of calamari, clams and/or oysters escargot shouldn’t be a problem) and the provided tapioca roll was a nice accompaniment to soak up the extra buttery goodness. For my main course, I selected the cabernet braised beef short ribs with pearl onions and haricot vert (instead of pasta). The sauce was a bit lacking in substance and wine flavor, more like beef gravy, but the meat was quite tender. Lastly, for dessert I enjoyed a few bites of crème brûlée. Next time, I’d like to try the upstairs restaurant, Bistro de Paris, for comparison.
Backlot Express (Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Backlot):
I was still pretty full from the previous night’s dinner, so I had a light lunch of a turkey club with roasted red peppers and arugula at the Backlot Express. Unfortunately, they don’t have a dedicated fryer here, so I had to go with the apple slices instead of fries. The sandwich was prepared on a gluten-free roll and pressed until nice and crispy on the outside. I’m not typically big on sandwiches (never was, unless served on a croissant), but would happily order this extra-flavorful (mmm peppery arugula, sweet peppers) one again.
The Hollywood Brown Derby (Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Hollywood Boulevard):
Dinner at The Hollywood Brown Derby was absolutely the highlight of the vacation. Our server, Christie, was so sweet and patient with us as we selected out our meals and wine to match. She brought me a basket of gluten-free rolls, the best I’d had the entire trip, with my very own salt-sprinkled, whipped butter topped so David and I didn’t have to worry about any cross-contact issues. Turns out, the rolls were a brand-new variety that they just got in that day and she, without prompting, returned to the table with the name written down for me (Udi’s unsalted whole grain rolls). I tried to find them on their website to no avail, I’m hopeful that they’re not a Disney-exclusive since I’d love to have a good roll on hand in the freezer.
But enough about the rolls, my dinner of charred filet of beef glazed with a red wine reduction, topped with a cabernet-roasted shallot butter over white truffle forest mushroom whipped potatoes was outstanding. When it arrived at the table, I was admittedly disappointed that there was barely any red wine reduction on the plate, but one swipe told me why — it was a perfectly reduced, flavor-packed swirl, any more would simply be too much of a good thing. (And the glass of Coppola Diamond Merlot I selected was a nice complement, a full-flavored, but not hugely tannic wine.)
Turkey Wagon (Animal Kingdom, Dinoland U.S.A.):
Our final day at Disney World also happened to be Thanksgiving (and David’s birthday). To celebrate, I chose a smoked turkey drumstick for lunch. I’d show you a picture of the massive thing, but I also happen to be in it and I hadn’t yet recovered from riding Expedition Everest five times in a row in the span of an hour (I LOVE roller coasters) — surely you can picture it. They are quite tasty, especially if you get one with an extra-crackly exterior (not that they let you choose), and have more meat on them than I typically eat within a week at home.
Jiko – The Cooking Place (Animal Kingdom Lodge, Jambo House):
For his birthday dinner, David selected Jiko at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. I was happy we chose this for our last night since getting to the Lodge is a bit of an ordeal (Disney Resort to Downtown Disney to the Lodge or Park to Resort to Downtown Disney to the Lodge). It’s an absolutely beautiful resort, and even if you aren’t a guest there you are more than welcome to wander outside to the animal-viewing platform (a good way to kill some time if you’re waiting for your reservation).
Once we were seated at our table, the hostess provided me with a special menu for “Guests with Gluten Allergy, Intolerance or Celiac Sprue,” a nice touch. Unfortunately, since it was also Thanksgiving, quite a few of the menu items were not available, which was explained when our waiter came to take our order. As such, my first choice appetizer was knocked off, as well as my first through third picks for main course — to be fair I didn’t even consider the filet or short ribs since I’d already eaten both earlier in the week. Needless to say, not a very good start. While we waited for our appetizer — roasted beet salad with blackberry-shiraz vinaigrette, pistachio-crusted goat cheese and serrano ham — a generous basket of black pepper pappadum was brought out for me (the dude got a basket of assorted breads). These lentil crackers were so tasty and spicy that David abandoned his bread basket in favor of several rounds of the crisp flatbread. The beet salad was well-executed starter, but I am a huge fan of roasted beets tossed with vinaigrette AND goat cheese AND contrasts in texture (crunchy nuts, crumbly cheese, fork-tender beets) — I’m definitely recreating it soon!
My main course of maize-crusted corvina with vegetables of the moment and tomato-butter sauce was, flavor- and composition-wise, about a 180° from the beet salad. The “vegetables of the moment” consisted of peas, edamame, carrots, grape tomatoes and, I think, spinach (a combination that is all too reminiscent of the five (or more) pound bag of frozen peas/edamame/carrots/corn from Costco that I eventually managed to work through less than a year ago). On their own, they weren’t particularly flavorful and combining them with the vodka sauce-esque tomato-butter sauce was just a bit off. The corvina was good with either the vegetables or sauce, but it’s a pretty mild-flavored, somewhat sweet fish (reminded me of mahi mahi) and the cornmeal crust didn’t do much for it besides offering a tiny amount of texture.
The meal was certainly redeemed when it came to dessert. After overhearing another waiter’s description of the parsnip crème brûlée as, “like pumpkin pie, only way better,” I had to order one for dessert. Thankfully, an extra, petit ramekin filled with the crème brûlée was provided for David as a birthday treat — we needed the few additional bites of the spicy (not in a hot way, but in the “holiday spices” way as the menu described it), creamy-crisp, caramelized delight. Plus, the cinnamon-sugar fried parsnip topping made for a beautiful, edible garnish that also lent the dish an added layer of crispiness. It certainly was a fantastic, unexpected twist on the classic and the perfect ending to our meal (and vacation).
Tips for communicating that you have an allergy:
At quick service locations, be sure mention to the cashier/order taker/cart attendant that you have a gluten allergy, they’ll call over a manager or chef to help you out or go over some options with you in allergy binder themselves (seriously, even the ice cream and popcorn carts have an allergy binder on hand that details the list of ingredients in the various products). For table service dining, I cannot recommend enough that you make a reservation as soon as possible if you want to be seated at typical lunch or dinner hours. A neat feature on the online system is that you can indicate any allergies right when you book the reservation (see below). The host usually confirms the allergy when you check in as will your waiter (don’t hesitate to mention it if not).