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Just a few weeks ago, our family went to Disney World for a short vacation.  It was the boys’ first time there, and the first time J. and I had been since early in our marriage. We were beyond excited to share the experience with them, but we were also slightly apprehensive about how a family vacation—especially a theme park vacation – would play out, given our need to stay dye-free for P.  How does one handle the whole of Disney, dye-free?

Happily, we managed very well and had no reactions at all while we were traveling.  Here’s the breakdown of how the trip went, and how we ate both dye-free and relatively healthfully at the Happiest Place on Earth.

Day 1: Traveling and Epcot

Wow!  We're at Disney!

Wow! We’re at Disney!

We wake up early, rouse the boys, and tell them the big surprise: We’re leaving in an hour for the airport, and going to Disney!  They scramble to get dressed and ready their backpacks.  We end up waiting at home for a few more hours, because at the last minute, we get word that our flight is delayed due to a mechanical issue.  Everyone eats whatever they can scrounge from our purposely empty refrigerator.

Snacks for the plane: Popcorn trail mix, made from freshly popped organic popcorn, salted pumpkin seeds, and dark chocolate chips; organic fruit leathers; and Yummy Earth organic dye-free lollipops for take-off in case the kids’ ears bother them.

We order plain seltzers from the flight attendants, unpack the crayons and activity books, and have a totally uneventful flight into Orlando…only four hours or so late.

We arrive at Epcot just in time to pick up our park tickets for the week and high-tail it over to the World Showcase, where we’ve got dinner reservations with J.’s parents and aunt, who helped arrange for this vacation.  Our first Disney meal is at the Rose and Crown Pub in Epcot’s “England.”  Here’s an insider tip: J.’s family chose this particular Epcot restaurant partly because his cousin, who’s quite high up in food and beverage management for a famous luxury hotel chain, was culinary school friends with some chefs who have worked at the Rose and Crown.  Because of his connections, we happen to know that the Rose and Crown has its own dedicated kitchen and prepares its food from fresh ingredients, which is not true of every restaurant in the park.

J. orders the corned beef and cabbage dinner, and I ask for the chicken masala (which was great, by the way).  L., our seafood lover, orders the kids’ fish and chips.  For P., our dye-free kid, we order a “Mickey Check” meal of grilled chicken, brown rice, and broccoli, with a side of the same cucumber raita that’s on my meal so he can dip his food.

Verdict: Good food, decent service, but very crowded and with a limited selection for dye-free diets.

For dessert, we head over to the patisserie in “France,” for two reasons: 1) There isn’t much on the Rose and Crown’s dessert menu that appeals, and most of it is questionable as far as its safety for P.; and 2) J. loves the patisserie and has been looking forward to a sweet treat.  The rest of us get eclairs, but pastry cream in Disney is not always a safe bet if you have a dye allergy.  Luckily, P. is excited for a chocolate tart that’s made with real chocolate mousse – no colors added.

Verdict: If you’re going to go, try to avoid the rush. We were there with such a crowd that it was hard to take our time examining the selections and asking questions.

We end the evening with the spectacular fireworks show, then head to the rental house off-property where we’ll all be staying for a few days.

Day 2: Animal Kingdom

J.and P. meet Rafiki

J.and P. meet Rafiki

We’re immediately happy to be staying in a house, which gives us control over the food situation.  My mother-in-law has already stocked up on safe staples, so we all choose from eggs, whole-grain toast, and organic cereals before heading to Animal Kingdom.  After a morning of exploring, we’re ready for a picnic lunch.

Animal Kingdom Picnic: Sandwiches (either roast beef and vegetables or natural PB and J); bananas; pepper strips; organic granola bars; bottled water.

Verdict: This was an easy place to picnic, as there are lots of tables available throughout the park.  However, J. and I couldn’t help but notice that this is a very allergy-friendly park, with plenty of choices for gluten-free, dairy-free, and nut-free families.  We didn’t have to test the dye-free theory, but I’m willing to bet that many of the counter service places that serve up plant-based Indian and African specialties would have good dye-free choices; not to mention, there are fruit stands where you can get whole fruit and fruit salads if you need a quick snack.

After the Animal Kingdom, we decide to kill the last few hours of the day at Downtown Disney, browsing the shops, enjoying the Lego store, and getting a sweet treat at Ghirardelli.  I’d done some homework before our vacation and learned that many dye-free families enjoy certain menu items at Ghirardelli; you still have to order smart, but you can make a solid choice there for a dye-free child.  P. loves his Ghirardelli brownie, while the rest of us have a bit of ice cream and enjoy the view.

Verdict: Do ask questions, because there may be hidden dyes in some of the chocolate products as well as in many of the ice cream flavors.

We wrap up the day at home with a late, light dinner.  My mother-in-law has already roasted some chickens and has them ready to go in the refrigerator, so we all make salads and wraps for ourselves and then put the kids to bed relatively early.

Day 3: The Magic Kingdom

My guys couldn't wait to kiss a real princess!

My guys couldn’t wait to kiss a real princess!

A very early start finds us boarding the monorail at the Transportation Center so we can get to the Magic Kingdom for our character breakfast reservation.  We’re treated to the sight of a crowd-free Main Street, USA as we head for the Crystal Palace.

Once we’re seated for breakfast, we remind our server that our reservation should state that we’ve got a child with a food allergy in our party.  She brings a chef directly to our table to discuss P.’s needs.  Within a matter of minutes, he’s able to tell us that of the entire buffet, only three items – the strawberry yogurt, the “breakfast lasagna,” and the corned beef hash – are off-limits.  P.’s thrilled and loads up a plate with fresh berries and Mickey Mouse-shaped waffles.

Verdict: How can you go wrong with personalized service that allows you to ask specifically about each food item in the place?  We had no problem finding food for our dye-free kiddo, and the rest of us had a delicious breakfast – including L., who was absolutely in heaven when he found that there was smoked salmon on the buffet.

After our breakfast, we head out for a full day of fun.  Because of the huge breakfast, we don’t need a proper lunch, so we just stop mid-afternoon at the tables near the Hall of Presidents and snack on things we’ve packed: Crackers and peanut butter, a little chicken salad for those who want it, fruit and sliced vegetables.  Water is really the star of the show.

By the time we leave the park, it’s been nearly a twelve-hour day.  We quickly boil some pasta and heat up spaghetti sauce that was made the night before, and the kids eat in their pajamas before they pass out cold.

Day 4: Hollywood Studios and the Wilderness Lodge

It’s our last official day at Disney.  Cold breakfasts at the house again before J. and I sneak off to get a few hours to ourselves, exploring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.  (This is not, by the way, a place I’d recommend trying to eat with a dye-free kid, but that’s a topic for another time.)  L. and P. go off to Hollywood Studios with their grandparents and J.’s aunt.

By early afternoon, we’ve caught up to them and get the report: The boys had burgers, bought at the park, supplemented with fruits and vegetables packed by my mother-in-law.  Operating on some research I’d done, they made sure the kids’ burgers were bought from a counter service place that stated they had “fresh” Angus burgers.  In the parks, the fresh burgers are fine, but any burger that’s been frozen has been pumped full of additives and therefore may or may not be safe for P. (not to mention the gross-out factor).

Verdict: Actually, Hollywood Studios has quite a few places where you can get a decent quick service meal, even for a dye-free kid.  There’s a sushi bar, as well as plenty of places serving salads and freshly made sandwiches.  I’d say if you have to eat quick service park food, this is the place to do it.

After a full day that includes L.’s personal trip highlight – an art class with a Disney animator who teaches us all how to draw Snow White – we take off for the Wilderness Lodge, where we’re booked for dinner at the Whispering Canyon Café.  As the parent of a dye-free kid, I have to say that this meal was the highlight, for me.  In fact, I’ve already written an email to Disney Parks to tell them what a wonderful impression the staff at Whispering Canyon made on me.

As we did when we had breakfast at the Magic Kingdom, we intend to remind the Whispering Canyon server that we’d noted a food allergy on our reservation, but there’s no need.  She – Suzanne – greets us pleasantly and then asks, “And I see we’ve got an allergy concern tonight?  How can I help?”  P.  (who’s not shy) raises his hand as I begin to explain his allergy, and Suzanne lets us know that she’ll send a chef right out as soon as she’s taken our drink orders.

While P. sips his plain seltzer, Chef Will comes to our table and, instead of standing formally and addressing me, squats down to P.’s eye level.  He introduces himself to both of my boys so warmly that I have to be honest, no matter how much of a geek it makes me: I get a little misty remembering the whole thing.  He asks smart questions.  He chats with the kids.  He LISTENS.  And he doesn’t just offer a list of safe items.  Instead, he asks P., very seriously, “What do you like to eat?”  Before leaving our table, he personally takes P.’s order and reassures me that he’ll make absolutely certain P. has a meal he will love.

When the food arrives, the rest of us have the Whispering Canyon’s specialty – the all-you-can eat platters of ribs, smoked tenderloin, roast chicken, grilled sausages, assorted fresh vegetables, beans, and cornbread that the restaurant is known for.  I have to say, I’m impressed with the food.  It comes with a big, gorgeous family-style salad to start with, the cornbread is moist and fluffy, and the huge platter of vegetables is fresh and vibrant, with corn, green beans, carrots, and more.  P.’s plate comes with a mound of scratch-made mashed potatoes, three perfectly sized and arranged roast chicken drumsticks, and the cornbread and raw carrots he specifically asked Chef Will to provide.  He says over and over again how much he loves his dinner.

After we’ve eaten, Suzanne comes to take dessert orders.  Amidst the berry cobblers, apple pies, and chocolate chip cookies, we remind her that Chef Will has offered to make something special for P.  She nods enthusiastically.  She gets it.  Just a few minutes later, the chef returns and presents me with the label for a raspberry sorbet he’s got on hand, saying that while he’s pretty sure it’s clean, he wouldn’t want to serve P. a product I hadn’t approved.  It gets the thumbs-up, and while the boys are off engaging in a Whispering Canyon tradition – riding hobby horses around the restaurant – Chef Will returns to personally serve them.  He’s got cookies for L., a dish of sorbet ringed with a generous tumble of fresh berries for berry-loving P….and two little Buzz Lightyear figures with LED lights inside.  “I wanted to bring these out for them,” he says, “because your two boys are so awesome.  I’ve really enjoyed them.  You guys have done a wonderful job as parents; congratulations on your great kids.”

Floored. Floored does not describe how I feel at this moment.  I thank him profusely, probably embarrassingly.  He waves me off and goes back to work.  The boys return to the table, and P. actually squeals with delight when he sees the tailor-made, beautiful dish waiting for him.

Verdict: Yes. Yes, a thousand times, to the Whispering Canyon Café.  It’s quirky, it’s fun, the food is good, and the staff blew me away.  If you have a dye-free child, eat here. If you don’t have a dye-free child, eat here.

Showing off their Buzz Lightyear toys from Chef Will

Showing off their Buzz Lightyear toys from Chef Will

Day 5: The Polynesian

Before we head to the airport, J.’s mom decides we all need to enjoy one of J.’s favorite Disney traditions: Breakfast at the Kona Café in the Polynesian Resort.

We immediately let the hostess and server know of P.’s allergy, and by now, having a chef come straight to the table is old hat to us.  I’m only four or five words into my opening sentence when he starts nodding vigorously.  He knows this allergy well.

He offers a grain-free, nut-flour waffle as his top choice for P., but my little guy’s not much of a morning person, and he seems underwhelmed by the idea.  I start asking questions.  When I ask, just for the sake of information, about pancakes, things get interesting.

“Our pancakes are made with a highly refined, bleached flour,” the chef says.  “Frankly, it’s so highly processed that I would not consider the chemical processing it goes through to be any better for your son than giving him dye.”

I haven’t had any coffee yet, so I’m not totally sure how to receive this, but later I decide that I’m giving this guy major points for honesty.  He knows the pancakes he’s serving are basically crap food, and he’s not going to recommend that I feed my sensitive kid crap.  I like that.

P. finally gets enthused about eggs, so the chef leaves with an order for scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast “with lots of butter,” and fruit salad.  I give L. the kids’ menu first, not because I generally have my boys order from kids’ menus, but because portion-wise I think maybe he’ll find the right fit here.  He reads it and shrugs.

I read it and shrug, too.  Nothing looks particularly good, and of course now I’m aware that the pancakes aren’t anything close to what I’d like him to eat, especially right before we get on an airplane to travel home.  I pass him the adult menu and tell him to go nuts.

When he places his order for steak and eggs with rye toast, our server has to try, visibly, not to laugh her head off.  J. wants the Polynesian’s famous “Tonga Toast,” but knows he should have some protein, so he orders the toast and I get a ham and cheese omelet with fruit so we can share our plates.  L. shares some of his steak with P. and goes to town on the rest of it, along with his over-easy eggs and toast.  P. just about cleans his plate and is all smiles by the end of the meal.

Verdict: The Polynesian is a great breakfast (especially if you like French press coffee), but if your dye-free kid is a selective eater, it may not be the best place to go.  We were fortunate that P. enjoys eggs and fruit, but if that hadn’t been the case, there didn’t seem to be many other options.

A note on “Mickey Check Meals”:

Before I wrap up, I need to say something about the Mickey Check system that’s being used throughout Disney as a way to identify “healthier” meal choices for children.  Everywhere we went, we saw these meals on menus, and I did a little digging online about them as well while we were there.

There are some positives I can see, chiefly the emphasis on better proteins (for the most part) and the easy availability of sides like carrot sticks and applesauce rather than fries.  However, by no means are these meals unprocessed or safe for dye-free kids across the board.   Some options, like P.’s first-night Mickey Check meal of grilled chicken and broccoli, are excellent choices.  Some are less so. The lunches in particular come with a good deal of processed stuff in them – applesauce cups that definitely aren’t without sugars and additives, yogurt squeezers, cereal bars, etc.  Some of the main meal items, like turkey sandwiches, might be okay for a dye-free kid, but I wouldn’t waste money on the meal knowing that I may have to trash a good portion of the remaining food.  And in general, if you’re looking to eat (relatively) unprocessed in the parks, these meals are not – in my humble opinion – going to be your answer.  You’re likely better off ordering food off the adult menus, as you would be in almost any restaurant anywhere in the country, than ordering these.

So that’s it – the full detail of our Disney adventures.  For a quick reference guide to dye-free Disney, download The Dye-Free Disney Guide.  If you have more questions, feel free to hit me up in the comments, on my Facebook page, or by email at redroundorgreen(at)gmail(dot)com.