Inside Disney Parks' initiative to add plant-based items to every menu
From creamy "lobster" rolls made with hearts of palm to smoky vegan "sausage" topped with barbecue sauce and slaw, there's something for every plant-based eater at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.
Disney Parks has made sure of it, just completing an initiative that began in 2019 to add at least one vegan food option to every menu at its theme parks and resorts.
Cheryl Dolven, a registered dietician and manager of health and wellness for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, has worked with Disney Parks' plant-based initiative since the beginning, and calls her work on the program a "really exciting" opportunity to "activate one of the hottest food trends" for Disney-goers.
"At the end of the day our goal was to ensure that our guests, whether they were living a vegan lifestyle, looking to eat a little bit less meat or wanting to try new and different things, would be able to find fun and flavorful plant-based menu items across our parks and resorts," Dolven tells Yahoo Life. "We didn't just want it to offer a few basic things — we really wanted those plant-based options to be plentiful and an integrated part of our guest experience."
But what does plant-based mean at a Disney park?
To achieve their vegan-friendly goals, Dolven says Disney had to first figure out which guests were looking for delicious animal-product-free options during their vacations.
"We recognized very early on that the words 'vegan' and 'vegetarian' are not clearly defined as much as you'd think," she says. "There's a lot of people who just don't relate to those labels, so we carefully crafted our own definition of plant-based, which refers to options that are made without animal meat, dairy, eggs or honey. Instead they're made with ingredients from plants: vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds and those types of things."
Suzannah Otis is owner of Vegan Disney Food, a website and accompanying social media accounts dedicated to helping Disney visitors who follow a plant-based lifestyle easily figure out what they can eat while hanging out with Mickey Mouse. Otis has been a vegetarian for over a decade and has been following a vegan diet for about four years. The Orlando, Fla.-based writer says she's been thrilled to watch more and more plant-based options roll out across both Walt Disney World and Disneyland.
"I have definitely seen improvements, even just in the span of time since I became vegan," says Otis, who offers everything from reviews of specific plant-based Disney dishes to park-specific guides on what's OK for vegans to eat at Disney on her site and on Instagram. "It used to be quite a vegan desert 10 years ago when you could get just plain pasta or a black bean burger and not much else, so when Disney came out with the plant-based initiative back in late 2019 — to have a plant-based item on every menu — it was an exciting time."
Among Otis's favorite vegan meals at Disney are simple pleasures like Mickey Mouse-shaped pretzels and Pineapple Dole Whip, an iconic fruity soft-serve treat served across Disney property. She also sings the praises of menu items at one of Walt Disney World's newest restaurants, Steakhouse 71 at Disney's Contemporary Resort.
"We have had some new and rave-worthy creations come on board," Otis says. "The Vegetable 'Wellington,' a combination of mushrooms and artichokes wrapped in puff pastry, and plant-based onion rings at Steakhouse 71 have been a great hit. And they took it one step further and made a plant-based version of their stack burger on the lunch menu, which is drool-worthy."
"Knowing there are Disney chefs out there who get it and are willing to take risks and create culinary masterpieces, or even just ensure that vegans are taken into consideration and not an afterthought makes it a very exciting time," she continues.
So how does a Disney park-goer know if a menu item is plant-based?
"Look for the leaf," says Dolven, describing the leaf logo that appears on every Disneyland and Walt Disney World menu next to a dish that meets plant-based requirements. "We have a great mix of menu items across property — some of them are almost entirely made from fruits and veggies and grains and those types of things, and then we have other items that use some of the newer faux-based meats to deliver that type of experience — anywhere you see the icon, which is that green leaf."
Otis says she is hopeful that the plant-based initiative within Disney Parks will lead other theme parks to increase their own vegan offerings.
"Believe it or not, other parks are catching up," she says. "Universal Orlando Resort has been really upping their plant-based game lately, listening to guests and fans and really offering some amazing and truly unique vegan options. I'd love to see more options at places like Legoland Florida, where we also love visiting."
"I can only hope that additional parks follow suit," Otis adds. "With movements like Veganuary — happening now — where people pledge to go vegan for an entire month, the lifestyle is only growing and plant-based options will hopefully become the norm, not the exception."
Dolven says she and her team are happy to serve as trailblazers in the plant-based food arena.
"I hope that our culinary team has inspired other food service companies, whether it's a theme park or not," she says. "We didn't want somebody that was looking for something without meat to have to ask for something special or feel like they were an afterthought. We wanted all of that great plant-based stuff to be front and center."
"The task that we gave our culinary community was: Make something that looks great and tastes great, that everybody's going to want and that just happens to be plant-based. And I think that's what they did."
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