Gluten-free doughnuts from Erin McKenna's Bakery NYC. Photo: Erin McKenna's Bakery NYC
At Erin McKenna's Bakery NYC's brand new digs in Downtown Disney, trays of frosted cupcakes lounge near chocolate-draped “Thin Mint” cookies. Cinnamon sugar donuts keep company with mini brownie cupcakes and classic chocolate chip cookies. But something sets this pink-splashed bakery apart from the other stands at Disney: Everything inside is gluten-free and vegan.
The bakery’s late February opening at the Orlando, Fla., resort is the latest play by Disney to appeal to the gluten-free crowd. It’s been a priority since the early 1990s, although back then eating gluten-free at Disney might have required some careful planning. These days, however, on-the-fly options abound.
For instance, at 50s Prime Time Café, a retro-styled restaurant in Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort that looks an awful lot like your grandmother’s kitchen, one might order the “Dad’s stuffed pork chop” infused with tangy gouda cheese, baked apples, and herbs. Across the country, visitors to California’s Disneyland Resort can drop into the wine-forward Napa Rose, where offerings include Cabernet-braised rib eye with a Yukon gold potato puree. On both coasts, a variety of restaurants have gluten-free pasta, bread, and desserts at the ready.
Disney World’s 50s Prime Time Café offers a number of gluten-free options. Photo: Disney
"Last year, between Disneyland and Disney World, we accommodated 650,000 guests who had a food allergy or intolerance,” Disney’s culinary dietary specialist Gary E. Jones told us, adding that the number has nearly doubled since 2009. “Fifty percent [of the 650,000 guests] were gluten-free,” he continued. “It’s a very significant number.”
Disney began to take serious notice of the trend about a decade ago and started ramping up its gluten-free options. Today, every sit-down restaurant in the Disney empire and most quick-service restaurants can accommodate visitors with sensitivities to eight different allergens—peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, eggs, and milk—plus gluten, which is an intolerance. On request, restaurants can maneuver around four of those dietary restrictions in a single dish.
Gluten-free bakery Erin McKenna's Bakery NYC recently opened a standalone store at Walt Disney World. Photo courtesy of Erin McKenna's Bakery NYC.
That means training culinary staff on various allergies and intolerances, and careful sourcing of ingredients and vendors. Jones stressed Disney’s laser-eyed attention to detail: “If you get a bread basket at a full-service restaurant, there can readily be several kinds of gluten-free bread in there depending on the location,” he said.
So far, the options have played well with visitors. Several blogs richly document the parks’ gluten-free options, including sites like Allergy Free Mouse, The Disney Food Blog, and Glutenista. “This was our favorite gluten-free dining of our trip,” Liz and Jeff Reynolds of Allergy Free Mouse wrote about 50s Prime Time, taking note of the restaurant’s dedicated allergy-free deep fryer. “We were amazed at our options here,” they wrote.
The goal of the culinary program, Jones stressed, is to remove as much stigma from dietary restrictions as possible. “If someone with a food allergy or intolerance is in attendance, they should be able to eat three meals a day, for as long as they choose to be here,” he said. “We want them to have the same experience as everyone else,” Jones said.
More gluten-free stories to chew on:
Have you sampled Disney’s gluten-free options? How do they stack up?