Growing up Disney, Joshua Scott experienced some turmoil as his foodie fate was disrupted at the age of eleven with a celiac diagnosis. He's gone on to be an even bigger Disney fan. He's guest-posting today to tell us why!
At the age of 11, I was diagnosed with Celiac disease. I was told I would never be able to eat gluten again for the rest of my life. As you can imagine, and as some of you are experiencing, that news required a major lifestyle change. Easy snacks were almost nonexistent, and inexpensive pastries or pasta don't exist in this country to this day. As a family who went to Disney just about every year, we had no idea how to do the gluten-free thing on the property. We were struggling to figure out how to do simple things like order pizza again, let alone navigate the Disney system. Eventually, we did discover that Disney set the gold standard for gluten-free dining at that time. I have another article I've written about that if you are interested. Today, however, I'm going to tell you about the Celiac experience on any of the Disney cruise ships.
Disney Cruise Line, or DCL, has 4 ships in its fleet; the Wonder, the Magic, the Dream, and the Fantasy. They are also currently prepping their newest ship, the Disney Wish, which is scheduled to set sail in June of this year. I have had the privilege of sailing on all 4 of their beautiful vessels. I have also eaten gluten-free on all of them, as well as Disney's private island, Castaway Cay. Dining on a Disney ship is very different from the parks. If you are familiar with the parks in Florida and California, then you know about the quick service or full-service dining options. The former being a more casual self-service style of dining while the latter almost always requires reservations. On a Disney ship, however, your nightly dinner reservations are planned before you even set foot on board.
The more traditional quick service options are available all over the Disney ships, and they are included in the cost of your trip. There is no need to swipe a card or scan a Magic Band. Simply walk up, order, and find a chair on the deck to enjoy your food. For us Celiacs, the process of eating at these locations looks very similar to the one at the parks back on the mainland. We may need to ask for a chef or supervisor, but some locations already have full gluten-free menus available upon request. Just about anything you see someone eating, you can order. French fries, Pizza, Burgers, Pasta, Salads, and Sandwiches are among the many foods you can have prepared gluten-free while pool-side on the top deck. Even the soft-serve ice cream machines they have on every ship are free from gluten and cross-contamination. One word of advice is to bring packets of hot chocolate. On deck, there are drink fountains that have hot water for tea and coffee, and hot milk with Nestle brand hot chocolate packets. If you have been doing this for a while I don't have to tell you that Nestle brand isn't gluten-free. Find your favorite kind and pack a box before you sail.
Disney ships also offer free room service in every cabin. The menu is fairly limited, but there's nowhere else to get a hot pizza at 3:00 am. I have enjoyed many late-night snacks and in-room movie nights with friends thanks to the way Disney takes care of me. When you call down to order room service, you will need to specify that you have a gluten allergy. After which you can order whatever you like from the gluten-free menu in your cabin. It's a pretty slow service, especially for a gluten-free order, so it's a good habit to order before you get too hungry.
Now let's talk about the real food on the ships; the nightly rotational dining. Each night on the ship, you will have a set reservation at the same time each night with the same waitstaff. Now, this may sound odd to those that have never sailed with Disney, but for me, it made a massive difference in my dining experience. Each Disney ship has 3 restaurants with their own unique menus and atmospheres. During the times I sailed, going to dinner was my favorite part of the day. The rotational dining is much higher-end than the service on the decks of course, and the food is honestly outstanding. The service is also incredible. Your two servers will learn your names, your choice of drink, and generally entertain you while they take care of you every evening. The “hello I am gluten-free” talk will only need to be had on the very first night. After that, they know you and they will take care of you.
Since the nightly dinners are of a somewhat higher caliber, it is typical for the head server of the given restaurant to get your order a day in advance. They will bring you the menu for tomorrow's dinner, and go over your options. The options on board are just as varied as in the parks, but with one major difference. As your gluten-free appetizer, entree and dessert are ordered the night before, it gives the chefs the opportunity to make your food to their standard. If you want the lamb with the duck sauce, but it isn't gluten-free, they may be able to make it for you from scratch before you even arrive at your table. One thing I learned on the sea with Disney is that highly skilled chefs love their jobs and love making good food. I remember two experiences that highlight this.
As I have said before, being diagnosed taught me to have an “I'll eat anything you put in front of me” mentality when it came to new foods. I was already so limited, so why would I limit myself further? After talking to the head server one night on a 7-night cruise and looking at the next day's menu, I essentially told him just that. Whatever his chefs would cook for me, I would eat. Well, he went and told them that, and I didn't have to order dinner for the remainder of my cruise. During the next few nights, I was served some of the most amazing foods I have ever eaten. Off-menu soups the chefs made for me that day followed by a medium-rare steak seasoned with a delicious assortment of who-knows-what and hand-made creme brulee for dessert. Every night was something new. These chefs not only cooked amazing gluten-free food for me, but they also got so excited doing so that I could taste it on the plate. I felt like the king of the world every evening and I will never forget that truly amazing experience.
My second magical experience was shared with my grandpa. He and I are the only two in my family who truly enjoy seafood, so we were going to try and take full advantage of dining on the sea. I was actually taking two cruises back to back with the same dining rotation and the same staff. The first was a “work trip”, which would be followed by the relaxed trip where more of the family would join us. During the first rotation, I ordered a shrimp cocktail for an appetizer. I had never seen it gluten-free before, and it was absolutely delicious. Delicious and tiny, having one sauce cup with 5 or 6 shrimp. During the next cruise, ordering a night in advance as we do, I told my grandpa how amazing the shrimp cocktail was, and he said let's get some. I asked the head waiter if he would be able to give us 3 servings the following evening so we could make them last longer between the two of us. He said he absolutely can. The next night we arrive at dinner, with our preferred drinks already on the table, and my grandfather and I are greeted with a be-our-guest-style covered silver platter. We open it to find a pile of maybe 50 shrimp and a small bowl filled with the sauce. This time, our servers went above and beyond to make our experience memorable. We ate the entire thing before entrees of steak and grilled Ahi tuna.
If you are worried about cruising with Disney as a Celiac, I hope I have reassured you. My amazing experiences stretch across several cruises and all of the ships. The stories I have told you are not isolated events, nor are they exclusive to me. I have heard nothing but high, high praise from other gluten-frees when asked about their meals at sea with the mouse. I didn't think anywhere in America could top Walt Disney World's gluten-free standard, until I went aboard the Disney Wonder with my family. After becoming the gluten-free man I am today, Disney cruises quickly became my favorite travel destination. I cannot recommend them enough to my people and I hope you go experience the same bliss as I have.