Table Service and Quick Service
Quick Service restaurants do NOT require a reservation. At first, I assumed that counter service restaurants would only offer “fast food” fare. While some offer only burgers and hot dogs, most serve an impressive range of foods--from roasted chickens to make your own salads to African stew. So be sure to give a quick service restaurant a try. And if you have the dining plan, you probably will eat at least one meal a day at a quick service restaurant. (We'll talk about the dining plan tomorrow.)
Table Service restaurants require a reservation (more on that in a minute) and during your meal a waiter/waitress attends to your table--even at buffet-type restaurants where a server handles your drink order and special requests. Table service restaurants range from VERY upscale (Victoria and Albert's) to very casual (Mickey's Backyard Barbeque.)
Disney's dining website lists whether a restaurant is counter service or table service.
Make Your “Dream” Dining List
Start by looking over Disney's list of restaurants. See what grabs you. When planning a Disney trip, I select restaurants that offer foods that are hard to find gluten-free at home. Gluten-free African cuisine? Sounds good and isn't something I can find in Troy, NY. I put Sanaa on my list. If I feel like gluten-free Southern fried chicken? I put 50's Prime Time cafe on the list. Reading the different menus is my favorite part of my trip planning process.
2. Make reservations. Make reservations. Make reservations.
This applies to “table service” restaurants only
Hey! Did I mention that you need to make reservations for your trip to Disney? You do. Seriously. With over 200 places to eat, you'd think that it would be no problem to just stroll up to any restaurant and grab a table. That really isn't the case. If you don't have a reservation, you might not find a table. (Counter service restaurants will be available to you without reservations. So you won't starve.)
Disney opens up their reservations (called “Advanced Dining Reservations” or “ADRs”) 180 days prior to your desired dining date. I know what you're thinking. “That's nuts!” How will I know where I want to eat 180 days from now?” I totally get that. When I planned the trip with my mom, I thought the same thing.
However...early planning really worked out. And I did it again for my recent trip with Greg.
Here's how I plan: First, I head to TouringPlans.com. It's a nifty site that tells you on a scale of one to ten the predicted crowd level for each park. Just plug in your travel dates and you'll see which park is “recommended” and which park(s) you should avoid for each day of your trip. I'm always amazed that one park might be REALLY busy while another enjoys light crowds.
Since Disney is always a busy place, I use TouringPlans.com and plan to visit the park with the predicted lightest crowds each day of my visit. (Touringplans.com isn't an offical Disney site and it requires a membership. The $15.00 or so dollars is so totally worth it.)
How does this affect my dining? Well, if, for example, on the Monday of my trip the Magic Kingdom was a “recommended” park, I look at what restaurants are around the Magic Kingdom. I also include the restaurants that are located in the hotels on the monorail line. After looking over the menus, I decided where I wanted to eat and book my reservation. When I arrive at Disney, I know that on Monday I'm headed to the Magic Kingdom and I'm eating at “Be Our Guest” restaurant. Easy peasy.
Now that might sound like a drag if you're someone who wants to wake up and just “explore.” But Disney isn't a city waiting to surprise you. It's similar in size to a city, sure, but it's a resort. Having a plan doesn't hinder spontaneity; it helps it. Not having to decide where we we're going each day of our vacation allows us to explore more freely than if we did our planning when we woke up each morning. Plus, by using the crowd predictors, we enjoy a park that isn't as busy as it's sister parks--something I could not guess on my own.
Now back to those dining reservations. When you book your reservation, this nifty screen pops up:
Simply note your allergies/intolerances and you are all set. (Well, you're all set until you get to the restaurant. More about that in a second.)
Of course, there is no “suggested time” to dine with food allergies. However, I'd like to suggest one: If possible, don't go during the height of service.
Restaurants are busy places. Run by people. And you know what happens to even the best person when they are busy: they can make a mistake. To prevent this before it happens, I dine during somewhat “off” hours while at Disney. I eat lunch around 1:30 and dinner after 7:00. If off-hours dining works for your family, I suggest it!
3. Note your Special Diet When You Arrive.
Whether you are dining at a table service or quick service restaurant, you NEED to mention your special diet when you arrive.
If you are at a table service restaurant and noted your allergies/intolerances on your reservations, they *might* have that in your file. In my experience, most of the time the hostess greeted me with, “And who in your party is gluten-free?” If this doesn't happen, be sure to say something right away about your gluten-free needs. This way, the host/hostess notes it and your server will have the information she needs to serve you a safe meal.
At a quick service restaurant, walk up to one of the workers and kindly say , “Hi! I'm gluten-free (have food allergies) and I need to speak to the chef before ordering.” This is key!
Don't place your order--at any Disney restaurant--without first speaking to the Chef or manager. Gluten-free meals use special ingredients and are usually prepared in a separate area. A chef or manager needs to handle this for you. Even though it might seem easier, don't order something that seems gluten-free without speaking to someone first. Something as basic as a salad needs to be ordered specially and handled safely to ensure it comes to you gluten-free.
In my experience, the chef arrives to see you pretty quickly at a table service restaurant. They'll listen to your needs and walk you through the menu, pointing out what they are able to make gluten-free. In a busy quick service restaurant, you might have to wait about ten minutes. The wait is worth it. If after ten minutes, a chef doesn't come out to see you, ask to see her again. She might not have received your message in the busy kitchen.
4. Ask questions.
Whether I'm at Disney or another restaurant, I always ask questions prior to placing my order. Ask the Chef how your meal will be handled. Remember to ask if gloves are changed, if a dedicated gluten-free fryer is used, and if separate utensils are used when preparing and cutting your food.
Planning for and ordering a gluten-free meal while at Disney takes a little extra time. But, I have to say, it's totally worth it. In fact, I wish I was there right now. (Hmmm...I think I need to go back.)