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Walt Disney World: The Most Allergy-Friendly Place on Earth?

Chef Gary Jones 4.jpg

Gary Jones is the Culinary Dietary Specialist of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. He discusses his role and explains why Disney Parks are so committed to assisting guests with severe food allergies and other special dietary requirements.

What is your role as the Culinary Dietary Specialist for Walt Disney World?

The job really has two parts to it. The first part is trying to get healthier foods on our menus across the domestic segments in Disneyland, Walt Disney World and Aulani – a Disney Resort and Spa in Ko Olina, Hawaii. The second part is working with our guests with food allergies to try and create a strategy to ensure that we have products here to meet as many of those needs as possible.

What programs have you started since you took this position? Can you explain a little about your “stealth health” initiatives (incorporating built-in menu options for guests requiring special need diets)?

The process for the guests continues to evolve. I remember the first time I encountered food allergies back in the early '90s. I think it was a gluten allergy, and back then everyone was in a panic. But a lot of people over the years have said, “I need to bring all these food products to make sure that my child or relative can be safe during their visit.” Of course that is okay. But my goal is then to make sure that we have enough products, either pre-made or choices on the menus, along with the correct process to make sure that there’s no cross contact so guests with food allergies don’t have to bring a suitcase full of food.

I understand if you’re traveling with young kids that you’ll bring a couple of snacks just because that’s a smart thing to do. But there’s enough hassle and aggravation to travel without having to bring a suitcase full of food. That should be our role: to do our best to accommodate those needs. The chefs and I continue to learn over the years both about food allergies and products available in the marketplace, which continue to get better and better all the time. We continue to learn how to manage processes and ingredients in the kitchen so there are a wide variety of options available for every guest, regardless of what their allergies are. And a peanut allergy is a pretty severe one that we’re pretty conscious of.

Are all staff and chefs trained in food allergy management? How do you work with the chefs to establish guidelines regarding food allergy management?

The guidelines have really developed over the years, and they eventually became codified into our operating guides. There is also an online training program we developed that talks about the process and goes into the allergens, as well as some of the hidden names for allergens like PDP.

These are things that they didn’t teach us in culinary school, at least not when I was going to school. Without knowing that, you’re not set up for success. We try to get knowledge out there. All of our chefs and food beverage leaders are required to take a course once a year. It shows up automatically in their online learning plan. Then there are a number of non-salaried cast members that we train as well, but at a more basic level, so they could be at that first level of interface with the guest so the guest isn’t stuck waiting a long period of time for a chef who may be at another location.

Many members of our community expressed their appreciation that Disney parks go above and beyond to cater to those with allergies. Why are Disney Parks so committed to assisting those with food allergies?

Historically its just part of the Disney hospitality philosophy. Every guest is the same and should have the same level of opportunity. The people that work here that we’ve hired understand the hospitality and the service attitude. You have to have a service attitude to want to do this business. Otherwise, you’re just not going to be good at it.

Disney really engrains that into everything we do, and we genuinely believe that anything is possible. Walt said, “If you can dream it, you can do it,” and we’ve done some pretty amazing things around here. Everybody just tries to make it the best experience possible for the guest.

For those with food allergies coming to visit Disney parks, what recommendations do you have for them to have a safe and pleasurable experience when dining out?

Last year we calculated that about 625,000 guests between Walt Disney World and Disneyland that come here with a food allergy. We see a pretty significant number, so for someone to say I’m allergic to gluten, peanuts, and tree nuts, that will not stress us out a whole lot because we have seen it 6 to 8 times during the day. We recommend that those guests, especially if they make an online reservation, just note it in there. There’s a couple of drop down boxes in the online system where they can note that.

And then if it's quick service, they can just walk in and talk to a designated trained cast member. If they need it, they’ll get additional assistance, but generally we have the resources to take care all of the single, double, or maybe triple allergies.

If someone comes in, and unfortunately this is not unusual, and says I’m allergic to 6 items plus red dye number 2, then we have a special dietary requests page on Disney.com.

It will take them through a little disclaimer that lets them know about everything we do, and that we don’t have separate kitchens for guests. We outline what we can do and can’t do, and we’re very fortunate that we can do more for guests.

The page will also take them to an email that will send them to the special diets department, and those folks will contact them back in a few days and will try to dig down a little deeper and find out what their needs are. They will then contact those in charge of dining reservations and say, “Hey. Gary Jones is going to come in, and somebody in his party is allergic to tree nuts, red dye #2, and corn.” Then all the places where the guests have made dining reservations will be made aware of that.

That way, when the guests show up, the chef or whoever is the leader in charge will have a little bit of a heads up on what their needs are. The guest will still go out and meet that chef or leader, just in case something’s changed or maybe they forgot an allergy, just to reconfirm. Then we can talk a little bit about what the process is and what their needs and concerns are.

Disney parks are setting the standard for other amusement parks when it comes to food allergy policies. What steps can other theme parks take to become more food allergy-friendly?

It’s all about knowledge. You have to have a desire to know about this. In a lot of cases, at least from the early days, our guests were the best source of knowledge. They would educate us about products that we would then go back and dig into more later on. Really just talking to the guests and treating each guest as an individual is the most important thing you can do.

It’s also really important to educate yourself. Go on different websites, like the new FARE site, which is accurate and has a tremendous amount of information.

Also, think about the economic impact of your location taking care of these people. If you have a family of four and two people have food allergies and they know they can go to Disney and eat safe for a week, then they are loyal, maybe to the exclusion of every place on the planet, because they know they can have fun and eat safely. You cannot buy that kind of loyalty.

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