Our family drives to Florida, from Illinois, annually to visit my parents, who live in The Villages. While in central Florida, we sometimes plan a few days in Orlando to see some of the attractions. This year, we spent a couple of days at Universal Orlando and the rest of our week in The Villages.
Before our trip, I called ahead to Universal to determine what we needed to do to eat safely while there. We decided to stay on site, at The Hard Rock Hotel, because that was the only way to gain early admittance to The Islands of Adventure and Harry Potter's World. There is one attraction in Harry Potter's World that does not take Universal's version of Disney World's Fast Pass, so if we wanted to avoid a line of 90+ minutes with three children, this was the best way to do it.
At The Hard Rock Hotel, I needed to state medical necessity for a refrigerator and microwave to be placed in our room. I did not need to provide documentation, however. We did bring gluten-free breakfast foods and snacks to the hotel. For lunches, we all brought Go Picnic meals into the park and bought beverages in the park.
There are some restaurants in Universal and also some food stands that offer gluten-free foods. Some of the restaurants offer gluten-free menus. (I emailed Universal in advance and was provided with fairly specific information about the gluten-free status of the foods in the carts and the menus in the restaurants). We did not go this route, however, in the interest of time and money. The gluten-free food cart offerings were not extensive. I recall turkey legs and fruit being some of the options. So, we enjoyed our Go Picnics instead.
The restaurants in The Hard Rock Hotel did have gluten-free hot dog and hamburger buns available. For our dinners, we ate by the pool and ordered hamburgers or hot dogs on gluten-free buns for our family members on the gluten-free diet. Honestly, I did not interview the kitchen staff on cross-contamination practices, so I do not want to state that it is unconditionally safe, please ask about this if you travel.
At Universal, the gluten-free options were acceptable and satisfying. Universal's gluten-free offerings did not compare to our experiecnes at Walt Disney World! During a 2012 trip to Walt Disney World, I took photos of the incredible and artful food served to my daughter and husband. Take a look at this!
Gluten-free meal at 1900 Park Fare, The Grand Floridian, Disney World (2012)
Specially prepared gluten-free desert at 1900 Park Fare, The Grand Floridian, Disney World, FL (this drew comments as we left the restaurant!) (2012)
As you can guess, the food offered at Universal, while good, didn't really compare.
After leaving Universal, we enjoyed two nice gluten-free surprises in The Villages, Florida. (As background, we have been travelling to The Villages since about 2004. It is not a gluten-free haven, by any stretch of the imagination, however, it is possible to find places to eat).
The first was Toscani's. They make and deliver gluten-free pizza.
Mom and Dad's restaurant in Lady Lake, FL
The second surprise was Mom and Dad's, a family-run restaurant just outside of The Villages in Lady Lake, FL. Mom and Dad's has a full, and very complete, gluten-free menu, including homemade dinner rolls (definite 10 on my scale)!! I was amazed at the variety of gluten-free entrees available in this small Florida town.
Homemade gluten-free dinner roll at Mom and Dad's in Lady Lake, FL
As we have seen before in family-operated restaurants with wonderful gluten-free menus, often a family member is on the diet, thus inspiring the menu.
My husband and daughter both enjoyed gluten-free pizza.
Delicous Gluten-Free Pizza! (In a restaurant!)
I ordered gluten-free chicken parmesan on rice pasta. Delicious!
My daughter, mother and I also dined at Ruby Tuesday's in The Villages. They did have a gluten-free menu (about a 5 on my scale), and we ordered my daughter a burger without the bun. It was served well and I was not worried. We put her burger on an Udi's bun that I brought in with me. I was so delighted when the server came by to check on us and remarked, in shock, that he could not believe they served the burger with a bun after his careful instructions. I assured him that it was our own gluten-free bun, but I was so happy that he cared enough to check. (We had the totally opposite reaction at a Shoney's in Manchester, TN)!
I continue to be delighted by the variety of gluten-free options that I can find not everywhere, but many places, and, sometimes, where least expected. As Elizabeth Barbone has just written, the menu is just part of the issue. It is also essential that good kitchen practices are in place to avoid cross contact. I am interested to hear about other local restaurants with wonderful gluten-free menus that you have discovered!
About the author:
Elizabeth Carroll is a wife and mother of three living in the suburbs of Chicago. She has been preparing gluten-free foods for her family, two of whom are eat exclusively gluten-free, since 2004. Before staying home with her children, she worked in human resources consulting.