Tuesday, August 11, 2009

We Were Not Disney People... But We Are Now!

Published in the Fall September 2008 - Online publication AllEars.net Newsletter by Laura Schmitt

We Were Not Disney People... But We Are Now!

(How Catering to Our Special Diets Won Us Over)

by Laura Schmitt

AllEars(R) Guest Columnist

We were not Disney people. Far from it, in fact. When Eric and I started dating 15 years ago, we considered ourselves a bit individualistic. We watched foreign films, ate ethnic food, listened to music you'd never hear on a radio and so on. With all our might, we ducked and weaved away from the flow of mainstream. When we became parents, we used cloth diapers, I nursed our babies. Heck, I made their baby food, sewed their dresses (OK, only some of them) and we made their toys! Notice a trend here? So how did we end up in Walt Disney World? When did the first addictive bite begin? It all started with a little grain called gluten... let me explain.

As our girls reached the ages of 3 and 6, I began talking to Eric about a family vacation. A BIG one. One that didn't involve us sleeping upstairs from my parents or his. Hmm... this was going to take some planning. I began researching places and we had two BIG criteria to meet.

First, it had to be a place we could drive or fly to affordably. We are smack dab in the center of the country and I was not about to spend $2000 to get to our destination! Chicago and St Louis were both in driving distance, but boy -- wouldn't it be nice to go to a beach? I started looking and wouldn't you know that flights to Orlando, Florida, were cheap. Very cheap! We're talking a fraction of the cost of flying anywhere else in the country! Hmm... maybe the airline was trying to tell us something? Hey! Isn't DISNEY WORLD in Orlando? My husband protested, "We are NOT going to Disney World when Bella is only 3. She is too young. She'll be overwhelmed, overtired, over cranky... over it. No."

OK, but I did say there were TWO big criteria to meet. While cost of travel is big, it doesn't hold a candle to number two. Taylor (our first-born) can't eat gluten or dairy. If you don't know what that means, let me tell you this -- it means she can't eat what everyone else is eating, ever. She ALWAYS has to have her own special homemade foods because everything under the sun has gluten or dairy in it. And to add to that, Mama can't eat it either. If we went to a vacation and got gluten or dairy in our food, we may as well just toss our vacation money into the toilet, because that is the place we'll be focusing on as we spend hours sick. Nope, we can't eat that stuff, and that means we are limited on where we CAN eat. Very limited. As any dedicated organizing mom would do, I started searching. Where, oh where, can a gluten-free, dairy-free family go for vacation? I found two places. A ranch in Wyoming and -- what is this? DISNEY WORLD!

Apparently Disney speaks our language when it comes to food. I began to find report after report of others who enjoyed gluten-free, dairy-free meals all over the World. I nearly fainted when I read that not only could they deal with the meals, but they also had gluten-free, dairy-free breads and desserts around every corner! SOLD! Hot dog, I was going to be free of cooking for five whole days! No homemade rice flour, nut flour pancake making, no gluten-free bread making, no sauteing or baking. I was going to step away from the kitchen and not look back. It was as if something had just gifted me with the dream vacation of a lifetime. But wait -- I could remember hearing the voice of my husband in the back of my joy. What was it he was saying? No Disney? Not Disney? Now Disney? Yes, that was it! He must have said NOW! Book that Disney vacation pronto! Of course that is what he meant. So, off I went to find a resort.

I approached Eric in the evening when the girls were in bed. I came armed with my information on where to stay and when. I told him in my sweetest voice that while I respected his decision to wait until Bella was 5 years old to go to Disney World, my hands were tied. It was the only place we could go where I didn't need to bring a kitchen along with me. And furthermore, Bella would be turning 4 that same month so she would be ALMOST 5, and that is when he said we could go, so it really is about, almost, exactly what he wanted!

He started to protest a bit, I recall, and he repeated his concerns about Bella being too young. But I started showing him pictures of the resort and details of the low allergen foods and a recap of the discounts! My joy was just beaming from within. He was quickly convinced. While Eric doesn't like crowds, he loves his family of women, and he thought that Animal Kingdom Lodge was looking pretty cool. So we were officially booked!

Getting food figured out was as EASY as a gluten-free pudding pie! I just emailed the Executive Chef department of Magic Kingdom and they sent me an email attachment that I treasure as a piece of Disney Magic right in my very own inbox. It was a listing of where and what we could eat that was gluten-free and dairy-free in the World. Wow. It listed restaurants that could easily accommodate us and spots for finding snacks. Oh, how I loved that happy email attachment. Life was looking fine! Now all we had to do was wait a few weeks and we would be on our way.

While we were dining in Disney World, the chefs came to our table at the start of every meal. We found that there were plenty of gluten-free, dairy-free choices and we were feasting like kings and queens. Often, the chefs seemed to enjoy our food restrictions as a fun challenge to mix it up a bit. Maybe cooking the same ol' steak night after night gets boring? Who knows, but everywhere we went, the chefs always made us feel incredibly special and well taken care of.

In the mornings, we headed down to our hotel quick service restaurant, called Mara, for breakfast. I would start by going up to the counter to let them know that we'd need gluten-free dairy-free breakfast. This was the cue for the chef to come out and greet us. Now, I always feel badly about this. I KNOW they are busy back there in the kitchen and I KNOW they really don't love to just up and drop everything to come talk to me, but you would never know it for how nice the chefs are at Disney World. And let me tell you something -- Chef Eddie at Mara was no exception! He brought my daughter gluten-free, dairy-free waffles and he made me dairy-free eggs with fruit. Not only did he hook us up, but he came out to check on Taylor, he asked her if she liked her food, complimented her on her cool endangered animal t-shirt and found out if she was available to date one of his sons in the future.

I liked Chef Eddie. I like people who treat my family so special. I like it when my little girl doesn't have to be the only one left out of things at social events involving food. I liked that she got some extra positive attention in Disney World. And I liked that everyone in my family was happy. What's not to like? (And did I mention I liked the vacation from my kitchen duties? Oh yeah. That was a BIG bonus!)

One of our dinners was a character meal at a place called Liberty Tree Tavern. Now, we come from Iowa, where a good meal consists of lots of meat, potatoes, corn, butter, and probably some sort of pie or cake. We are farm food kind of people, even with our love of ethnic foods. Some things you just can't change. Give me a Thanksgiving dinner and I'm a happy girl. I told our server about our food allergies and a chef came out promptly.

They brought us a ton of gluten-free, dairy-free food. We had ham, turkey, potatoes, gravy made with rice flour, buns, you name it! It was like Thanksgiving on steroids! I was in my childhood joy with a feast before me that was so yummy and nostalgic. Taylor was so easy to feed here, as there were so many gluten-free, dairy-free options to be had! She paused from her eating to say, "Mama, they sure have a lot of gluten-free bread in Florida!"

It was at this meal that we were celebrating Bella's 4 (almost exactly 5) year-old birthday! I asked, with all the hope I could muster in my voice, if they had a cupcake for Bella and a -- gulp -- gluten-free, dairy-free dessert for my other daughter.

Did they ever. I could kiss every person in that place! They brought Bella a chocolate cupcake with sprinkles. She LOVED it with all her might. Chocolate is her favorite, of course. Here was our little Bella. Turning 4 in Disney World. How could we EVER top that? We were so happy that we could give her that moment. That memory. Pluto clapping as her birthday song was sung -- chocolate cake, sprinkles, Mom, Dad, big sister, and Bella in her finest princess style sporting her extremely large birthday button. Her face was pressed back in such a determined smile that new dimples were established on her cheeks that very night. She was so beautiful, perfect, and happy in that moment.

And as if a mama needs more than that to fill her cup of joy -- well, as if I needed or could even withstand any more happiness -- out comes the chef with a gluten-free, dairy-free chocolate brownie in the shape of a little Bundt pan. It was served warm with one large scoop of Vanilla Rice Dream on top.

Perfect. I love those people and those mice, and the dogs, and that Goofy -- all of it. Taylor was so happy to NOT be left out of Bella's birthday dessert. Really, so happy. Taylor is always left out of what the other kids have for desserts. Of course I send her desserts, but hers are always different and not the same. Well, this time she felt that hers was even BETTER! She was so enjoying herself. We all were. I hated for that dinner to end.

With as much fun, joy, and inclusion as we had during our five days at Disney, it was a no-brainer that we'd be going back again. We've been twice since 2007 with another trip planned in 2008! I'm sure it will be our family staple for vacations for years to come. I would like to say we're there because of the rides, the castle, the characters. I'd like to say it is purely for my children. True, the joy that beams from their faces is worth its weight in gold. But how could I be honest without mentioning that Disney World is the ONLY break I get from my kitchen all year long? And what a break it is! We dine like royalty. We are never without a thing when we are in Disney World and my daughter is always included in all aspects of our family vacation. I am so thankful the chefs are capable and willing to handle our allergies and I dare to hope that other restaurants, maybe even here in Iowa, will pick up on Disney's approach to dealing with allergies.

So, we started off in January 2007, skeptical about Disney, but ready to eat some good gluten-free and dairy-free food. Little did we know that we had bitten into a newfound travel addiction that would stretch our imaginations almost as much as it would stretch our budget! What's in store for our family in 2008, 2009? More Disney.

You can bet I'll be back to tell you! We are officially Disney people, now, and there's no stopping us. We have to feed our addiction with small bits of magic, pixie dust, and the occasional overwhelming heaping of joy. You know the kind. The kind that melts tall strong fathers and brings them to a pile of mush... the kind that brings families and friends together... the kind that makes new dimples appear on little cheeks from excessive smiling... the kind that warms my heart and brings a mist to my eyes whenever I think about it. Yeah, we are gonna need more of that kind of magic.