Saturday, May 26, 2012

I Fought The Mouse & Won...Barely

Vegan Warrior
I have just returned from my first trip to Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

After studying the four part series that Amy Shoff did on her experiences of eating Vegan at Disney World: Even Vegans Eat Like Royalty in the Magic Kingdom, as a Healthy Hoff guest writer, I was super excited to finally go on a vacation and not have to worry about what I was going to eat!

That was until I attempted to order my first meal...

Lets back up a moment.  I was a vegetarian for about 7 years and that was by choice.  During that time, I would simply create my own meals from a menu, never asking a single question about how things were prepared.

Now that I been a vegan for the past year due to health reasons, I now must ask how all things are prepared.  Once I started asking questions, my meal options dwindled to next to nothing and I was shocked by what I learned and eventually became very angry...

First, the wait staff does not know how or with what the foods are prepared and it's not until you state you have a food allergy do they take you seriously.  Then they have to tell their manager, who comes to the table to tell you that they are getting the chef.  The chef typically blankly stares at you and asks what your food allergies are (by now I have stated this three times) and asks what you want.  I scramble through the menu asking if I can have the rice - no it's made with chicken broth, how about the vegetable burger - no it's made with egg whites, how about the pasta - no, more egg.  Are you f'ing kidding me?!?  These are basic foods that can easily be made without animal products and no one would ever know they were missing.

Everyone else in the restaurant gets a pretty, glossy menu with photos and descriptions to choose from, but since I have food allergies, I have to be johnny on the spot and create my own meal, using nothing on the menu!  Unacceptable Disney!

I wouldn't be so angry about this poor treatment if I wasn't assured by every "Crew Member" I inquired with about the "map with apples" indicating which restaurant are vegan/vegetarian friendly, that Amy spoke of, which apparently no longer exists, that all restaurants in the parks can accommodate any dietary request or food allergy.  To add to fuel to the fire, I was shown this delightful little marketing blurb every time I asked:

"Walt Disney Parks and Resorts is committed to offering a wide range of options for you and your family. We offer menu selections for all of our Guests, including children, seeking well-balanced meals, snacks and beverages as well as those with lifestyle dining requests or special dietary requests.

Guests are also welcome to speak to a chef or a manager on duty when arriving at the dining location.

Most restaurants offer no sugar added, low fat, low sodium or vegetarian options. Advance arrangements are not necessary for guests with lifestyle dietary requests. Guests can discuss this with their server upon arrival at the restaurant."

Bull shit!  A policy is meaningless unless is is easily attainable and I did not find the ordeal that I had to go through at every single meal at every single restaurant easily attainable.

In fact, my dreamed about, easy go lucky vacation turned into a daily scavenger hunt for acceptable sustenance.  By the time I left, I was disgusted by Disney's lack of understanding or caring for those who choose or simply cannot eat the typical Western diet.  Food allergies or health conditions do not make us any less of a customer and we deserve better treatment.  While over 47 million people visit Disney World each year from all over the world, I was treated as if I was the first vegan to step foot on the property.

Despite the obstacles, lack of understanding and lack of food choices, I persevered, stood my ground and kept it vegan for all 15 meals - it was tedious!  As I heavily relied on Amy's vegan account, to guide me through my journey, I will tell you what I was able to scrounge together should you find yourself in the same debacle and in need of guidance.

Here's what I ended up with...


Day 1 at the most magical place on earth was just the start of what I was going to endure for the next five days.  First stop - Downtown Disney for lunch.  I chose the Rainforest Cafe, because that had to be a no-brainier for healthy food.  Boy was I wrong.  Their "natural" vegetable burger had egg in it as did the bun, the rice cooked in chicken broth.  Other than a salad (you know my thoughts on salads), my only option was a Portobella Mushroom Burger on Texas Toast (which came out the first time buttered - back it went).  A side of fries and chips and salsa completed the meal - pretty good.  I gave up asking for no oil as I was barely getting the vegan thing accomplished.  Oh by the way, my boyfriend opted for the chef's other suggestion of pasta and veggies - he got pasta with sausage, even though he lied and said he had food allergies too, to support me (what a nice guy).  I was delighted with the mango/peach sorbet for dessert, which would become one of many sorbets in my immediate future...

Dinner the first night consisted of a Vegetable Burger at Cosmic Ray's Starlight Café in the Magic Kingdom with a side of apple slices.  In retrospect, I now fear the bread contained eggs as that seems to be the trend everywhere else in the parks.  The meal was fair.

Day 2

I could not bear hunting down breakfast, so we opted to eat at our hotel, Port Orleans all five days.  To my dismay, they only offered fast food service.  I spoke with one of many chefs who provided us with vegan, gluten-free waffles in the shape of Mickey's head and a side of hash browns.  He even offered to get ingredients to make a tofu scramble the following day.  I was thrilled - things were looking up!

Then we hit up San Angel Inn, a Mexican Restaurant in Epcot.  I was impressed that they had a special Vegetarian Menu, containing all of two items, none of which could be made vegan.  Things started to look bleak until the chef hit with inspiration blurted out, "How about steamed vegetables on a bead of black bean mash and rice?"  I'll take it!  This would turn out to be the best and most memorable meal of our trip and one that I will be recreating for a later post!  Fruit for dessert.

For dinner I decided to try Chinese at Nine Dragons Restaurant in Epcot.  This is where I was denied a Cucumber Salad because it was marinated with chicken stock.  I ended up with a side salad (grrr) with specially made ginger dressing (yummy) and a tofu/vegetable stir-fry with white rice (not on the menu).  The tofu was awful. They just tossed some cut up tofu in at the very end of cooking and it was watery and flavorless.  Had that been my first experience with tofu, it would have been my last.  I was also denied sweet & sour sauce because it couldn't be confirmed as vegan - seriously?  For dessert a mango and strawberry fruit slushy - delightful!

After a rather stressful and tiring day, I was hell bent to make it back to Downtown Disney in search of Baby Cakes NYC - a vegan, gluten-free bakery.  And did I ever indulge: 2 chocolate chip cookies, 4 brownie bites, 4 cupcakes.  Every last crumb delicious and magical!  No, I didn't eat it all that night, although very tempting.  I relied on this stash to get me through the next three days...

Day 3

Returning to our hotel for breakfast to find that my promised tofu was still frozen, yielded another round of Mickey heads and hash browns.

Next, I found myself at Yak & Yeti Restaurant in the Animal Kingdom for lunch.  Still a pain in the ass to order, but we did get awesome lettuce wraps and an equally awesome vegetable stir-fry.  The chef found it necessary to give me a hard time for not knowing that Hoisin Sauce was made from fish. My bad, I've never heard of it before!  And for the record - this is what Wikipedia has to say about it - "Despite the literal meaning of "seafood", hoisin sauce does not contain fish."  Uneducated and rude lesson in sauce not appreciated!

On to dinner...I was starting to feel bad that my vegan necessity was sucking the from the fun of our trip, so against better judgement I suggested we dine at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater in Hollywood Studios, where you sit in 1950 Cadillac replicas and pretend to be at a drive-in movie theater.  I got a little pissed when the waitress asked if my food issues were a preference.  Um, yeah I prefer to be allergic to mac & cheese, fried chicken and chocolate - it's a real dream come true!  Ok, maybe she didn't mean anything by it, but I was pretty frustrated by this point.  Some negotiating with chef yielded another veggie burger with a side of sweet potato fries.  The veggie burger tasted generic, like institutional food, just as my boyfriend's vegetable pasta, which he claimed was good to spare my feelings of getting him roped into another sub-par meal.  The sweet potato fries rocked!  And you'd never know it because it's not on the menu, but this restaurant has Tofutti ice cream, which I talked the chef into making as a chocolate milkshake.  It's little details like this that make it really hard to navigate Disney dining and something really easy to fix!

Day 4

Another new chef at the hotel, so more Mickey waffle heads and hash browns - yippee!  Might I mention that we couldn't have the oatmeal because it was prepared with milk and we couldn't have cereal because they didn't have a milk alternative.  More very simple fixes that apparently are too much for Disney to handle.

Based on Amy's recommendation, I decided to hit The Hollywood Brown Derby at Hollywood Studios and order exactly what she had.  But before I even waited in line, I asked the maître d' if they could accommodate my needs, just to make sure (there is a line for everything you do at Disney).  He said of course and gave me the standard Disney policy blah, blah, blah.  Another chat with the chef and I got the Cobb Salad - veganized and the Noodle Bowl with Wok-fried Coconut Tofu, Soy Beans, Sugar Snap Peas, Bok Choy, and Shiitake Mushrooms in a Red Curry Broth.  I was treated to grilled portobella mushrooms on my salad that were to die for - yes, I actually enjoyed a salad!  The Noodle Bowl was quite yummy as well.  Turns out the maître d' was a vegan too due to sustaining a heart attack years before and not wanting drugs or surgery turned to diet to regain his health.  I asked if he was on the Esselstyn diet, but he had never heard of him.  He was just following the diet of his people (I forgot where he was from).  He chatted with us so long that he got yelled at three times for not being at his post - very nice man, he understood me.

By the time dinner rolled around, I was not in the mood for anything particular, I just wanted food! That landed us as Portobello, an Italian Restaurant in Downtown Disney.  More blank stares and quite frankly a cold reception from the chef.  Another meal I had to create myself.  I asked if he could do a side dish of vegetables as an appetizer - that yielded very tasty sauteed zucchini, squash and caramelized onions.  For dinner I got him to add mushrooms and zucchini shreds to spaghetti - best spaghetti ever!  I forced myself to finish it all.  Screwed for dessert - come on guys, you couldn't run across the street to Baby Cakes?  I say screwed because on the pre-paid meal plan, you get one appetizer, one entree, one dessert and one drink per person - no refunds for anything not used.

Day 5

Final breakfast and I was determined to get that damn tofu scramble!  New chef again - asks if I just want the block of tofu...I freak and say never mind give me the Mickey heads.  He says "wait, let me get the chef."  I thought you were the chef?!?  Again, I have to tell the chef how to make the scramble, this time my boyfriend bails on me and gets more Mickey heads.  My boyfriend is a very wise man.  The tofu scramble sucked!  Disney really has no clue how to handle tofu. I ended up with a watery mess of sauteed onions, red peppers, broccoli, hash browns, chunks of unseasoned tofu and some vegan cheese.  I looked longingly at those Mickey heads - I'm so sorry I scorned you...

We hung out at the hotel pool that morning since we had to leave for the airport that afternoon, this meant having lunch at Port Orleans.  What a surprise that I could eat nothing from the menu.  They did have vegan veggie burgers but no vegan bread - come on!  The chef dug into the freezer and found some gluten-free Tapioca buns they no longer use.  Instead of the fries, I opted for grapes and mixed fruit.  The burger sucked and frankly so did the fruit.  I was so ready to go home.

The Bright Side

I really didn't see this one coming, but my 5 days in food hell made me appreciate my own cooking.  I could not wait to get back into my kitchen with my tools and my recipes and my own ingredients.  I wanted my power back!  My Disney disaster had returned my cooking mojo.

My Disney Vegan Tips

Do not use the term, "vegan" no one who works at Disney knows what that means - instead you have to say, "no meat/fish, no dairy, no eggs" - just like that.

Whether it's true or not, you have to say you have food allergies - it's some type of code word that sets off alarms and gets people's attention.  Otherwise they assume it is a food preference and don't really take you seriously.

Be persistent, you are paying A LOT of money for these meals and if you're on a food plan, be prepared to get screwed unless you push them.

Download the free Disney App to your Smartphone, you can browse through the restaurants and get a very vague description of what they offer.  (Yet another opportunity for Disney to add a vegan/vegetarian friendly notice for applicable restaurants.)

Final Thoughts
The last day I was there, the chef at my hotel asked if I would return.  I said absolutely not.  It was just too damn hard just to eat.  For the amount of money invested in this vacation, I should have been treated better.  He agreed, stating that the entire Disney Resort lacked viable vegan/vegetarian offerings.

Get it together Disney, an estimated 15 million people in the U.S. alone have some type of food allergy and this number is steadily growing.  Around 1 million people are vegan and 7.3 million vegetarians - these numbers continue to increase each day as well.

We'd like to come to the most magical place on earth too, but right now, you're no where near where you need to be handle our business.

Have a magical day,
The Hoff


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