We had our long-awaited spring break at the beginning of April. Unlike our usual vacation days in L.A. when we stay with the grandparents, we decided to focus our week on pure kiddy fun and go to Disneyland, California Adventure, and Legoland. I had visions of cooking our meals at my brother's place where we would stay near Disney and in a kitchen-equipped hotel in San Diego. My dear husband, however, pointed out the benefits of a true vacation for all of us. So we committed to the idea of little or no cooking.
I have heard some wonderful things about the way food allergies are accommodated at Disneyland and Disney World Resorts from message boards, bloggers, and Sarah. I called Disneyland's special number for discussing special dining needs. Within three days Chef Chris Justesen returned my call. Chef Chris explained how experienced Disney managers, chefs, and "cast members" are with meeting the needs of people with food allergies and sensitivities in their sit-down restaurants. I was told that no advanced reservation or planning of the kids' meals was necessary. I could simply inform a cast member or manager about our food allergies and figure out safe food choices right then and there. By contrast, quick-service "fast food" meal choices are one-size-fits-all with no customizing (because then it wouldn't be "fast" food" right?). Chef Chris did not have any ingredient lists for the quick-service meals and, according to other bloggers, food servers were not privy to the ingredients in the meals they were preparing.
I can see how relieving it for food-allergy parents to know that they can work with managers to come up with safe meals within Disney restaurants. But for me, the "go-into-any-restaurant-and-we-will-work-with-you-on-the-spot" felt a little too risky for me. It's hard for me to let down my guard. Maybe this is because my boys are highly allergic to milk and milk is everywhere in American foods and popular kid fare (think pizza, buttery pasta, mac 'n' cheese, hot dog buns). Also, I always avoid giving my kids anything deep-fried. Some restaurants repeatedly deep-fry foods in the same oil. If you order fries, it could have traces of someone else's order of fried mozzarella, for example. Avoiding deep-fried foods means that chicken nuggets, french fries, and corn dogs are always off limits. Incidentally, these choices sometimes already contain milk!
I decided I was more comfortable with skipping Disney park food altogether and sticking with foods that we were used to eating. Besides, quick bites to eat anytime we needed them are more our line-waiting, park-hopping style!
Here is how we managed during our weeklong Southern California-Legoland vacation:
- We brought in our own lunches, ice packs, and snacks into the parks everyday. It was a Trader Joe's week for us as we had a steady supply of Trader Joe's ready-made turkey club sandwiches (milk-free but not egg-free), granola bars, hard-boiled eggs, bagels, and sliced fruit. We brought cookies by HomeFree Treats and Mary's Gone Crackers as special snacks. We made sure to stick with foods that the kids had eaten before without any incident that had the greatest chance of winning over our sometimes picky eaters. We did buy some apples, juices, and dried cranberries at Disneyland. It was encouraging to see that Disneyland had packs of hummus and veggies and fresh fruit for sale.
- We brought our Epi-Pen Twin Packs, Benadryl liquid antihistamine, and wet wipes everywhere. We also had our doctor's note regarding the necessary access to safe foods should we get stopped by bag-checking park personnel. We had no problems bringing meds or food into any of the parks.
- We had Select Wisely allergy translation cards in Thai, Chinese, and Spanish so that we could better communicate the kids' special needs. Translation cards for food allergies are worth every penny. You can buy allergy alerts that enable you to display translated alerts on your smartphones. But I strongly recommend having a physical copy that can be handed directly to chefs. We pulled our cards out every time we ate out and I felt worlds more comfortable with our dining experiences.
- It did take us a couple of tries to find a restaurant for safe dinners. Except in one instance at a local restaurant where lactose-free milk was used in a soup dish, we have always had luck with Thai food. Yes, it's true that a couple dishes do use peanuts but the peanuts are limited to garnish for a couple of dishes (salad and pad thai) or in peanut sauce that is served on the side. We checked out Yelp reviews and settled on a Thai restaurant close to Disneyland. However, after discussing the food allergies and ordering our food, I insisted that the server show the chef our Thai-translated Select Wisely cards. Were we ever glad we did! The server quickly returned and informed us that the restaurant uses peanut oil to cook their dishes. Obviously we couldn't eat there. My husband quickly found another restaurant on his smartphone, talked to the server about our kids' food allergies, and was assured that peanuts were only used as garnish for pad thai noodles and in their peanut sauce which is already-made. Peanuts are not used anywhere in the cooking process. This is what we were used to so we quickly gathered up the kids and headed to the new restaurant, Select Wisely cards and allergy medication in hand. We had the exact server who spoke with my husband and the experience was friendly and safe! We went back there again after our second day at Disney. After all, it's hard to find restaurants that you can trust.
- We chose accommodations with a functional kitchen so that we could prepare meals. Reducing the number of restaurant or fast-food meals meant fewer chances of cross contamination and less risk of allergic reactions. We stayed at the Homewood Suites Del Mar which offers apartment-style accommodations. We had breakfasts and a dinner in our suite -- perfectly relaxing bookends to our busy daytimes at the theme parks.
- We did venture out to a Japanese restaurant for one of our San Diego dinners. We gave our server the allergy alert cards and spent time explaining about the extent of the kids' allergies and the need for chef knives, cutting boards, and utensils to be completely clean for our order. We ordered a noodles and broth dish and steam dumplings -- not deep-fried as the same oil could have been used to deep-fry sushi and wontons with cream cheese. We always avoid ordering rolls made with imitation crab, a kind of mystery meat whose blend can contain milk. (Imitation crab often contains egg and wheat, too.) When the server brought out our sushi, she detailed the care with which the sushi chefs prepared the rolls so that no cross contamination would occur. We were grateful and felt comfortable with letting the kids try their first raw sushi. Ryken enjoyed the salmon roll!
- Legoland does have an online allergen guide to help visitors with food allergies and special dietary needs. However we stuck with our Trader Joe's foods for the kids. The park didn't even search our bags or stroller. My husband and I did visit the park's main food court and we get some shrimp pasta which I was told was dairy-free. The server, however, offers to sprinkle parmesan into the finished pasta while it's still in the pan so it appears there was no protocol for preventing cross contact. In this quick-service food environment there was no cleaning of hands, utensils, and grills after each use to ensure that traces of foods don't get on other orders. I did at least see pre-packaged bags of gluten-free chips in the food court.
- The weather was mostly sunny throughout our week. We slapped on hats and slopped on sunscreen each day. We recently made a switch to Vanicream sunscreen, recommended by our allergist and highly rated by the Environmental Working Group for safety, and have been happy with its gentleness and effectiveness. No sunburns and no skin irritation so far!