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July 7, 2006

Why We Love Mickey Mouse

source: MSNBC.com

For millions of families who visit Central Florida each year, dining on foods such as pizza, hot dogs and milkshakes is all part of the fun.

However, imagine a vacation with a child for whom that list of all-American treats could be a death sentence.

An estimated 150 Americans die each year from severe allergic reactions to food, says Dr. Hugh Sampson, director of the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

"People with a food allergy typically walk around with a little bit of fear all the time," says Editor Ray Formanek Jr. in an essay in FDA Consumer magazine.
Allergy-free fries

But at least one local theme park has taken steps to alleviate those fears for folks who suffer even the most severe food allergies.

Take, for instance, 6-year-old Daniel Clowes, who lives in Pennsylvania.

At 2 days old, he began experiencing hives, eczema and vomiting. His New York specialist says the young boy has more than a dozen food allergies -- some life-threatening -- including milk, wheat, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, peas and mustard. He's unable to eat ice cream, cookies, cakes, doughnuts, hamburger and hot dog buns or pizza.

His mother, Gina Clowes, says it's frightening to think of traveling, staying in a room she hasn't cleaned and sanitized herself and allowing him to eat food someone else had prepared. That's because one night in a hotel room ended in a trip to the emergency room. A previous tenant had left some pistachio shells in the room, and Daniel went into anaphylactic shock.

Gina Clowes says one Orlando-area hotel with a kid-friendly reputation flat-out told her it couldn't help with any of her son's food concerns.

Walt Disney World, however, takes extra care so even those with severe food allergies can visit its properties.

For example, the Clowes family, including husband John and their older son, Steven, just returned from a two-week trip to Disney without a single incident.

They shipped their own food ahead and carried a cooler on the airplane -- "We only fly peanut-free airlines, regardless of the cost," says Gina Clowes -- and stayed in one of Disney's Saratoga Springs villas with a full kitchen.

The family dined at Artist Point, an upscale restaurant at Disney's Wilderness Lodge -- a dining experience which included special food for Daniel and several visits from the restaurant's chef.

Clowes says the chef even asked her a couple of pointed questions she hadn't thought to mention, which convinced her that he understood the seriousness of the issue. "He even made both boys' French fries the same way, so when Daniel snuck some of his brother's fries, it was OK for him to eat them," she says.
'Simply a guest service'

Clowes says many people have a hard time believing food allergies are such a problem. "It's a hidden disability," she says. "They don't know -- but I've seen him react."

Clowes knows of no other company that goes to the length Disney does for families with allergy issues.

In 1993, Walt Disney World began its special diets program as part of its food and beverage department. It all started when Chef Ralph Gosswiler got a call from a guest who suffered from Celiac disease, a gluten intolerance, wondering if Disney had anything on the menu he could eat. Chef Gosswiler prepared the meals in box lunches for the guest.

Today that program has grown -- about 100 percent each year -- to the point that it serves 7,000 to 8,000 meals a month for a wide variety of needs, says Joel Schaefer, manager of the special diets department.

Guests making meal reservations are asked if they have any special dietary needs, and that information is passed on the restaurant staff, who can accommodate up to 15 types of food allergies, as well as requests for low-sodium and kosher diets.

Schaefer works with chefs at each of the hundreds of Disney food locations to provide alternative ingredients that can be used to create allergy-free meals, ranging from soy ice cream to a specially blended batter for the Mickey Mouse-shaped waffles that are a signature breakfast dish.

Disney adds no service fee, even working with families who want to enjoy a buffet by individually preparing the food items the guest selects.

"It's simply a guest service," says Ed Wronski, executive chef for product development in Disney's food and beverage department.


Posted by David at July 7, 2006 2:08 PM


You are so right about Walt Disney World. We have a child with a severe peanut allergy and have tried traveling other places with her. Nothing is like Disney. the chefs can tell you how every item is prepared, what you can and can not eat. They are wonderful and I wish that more restaurants and resorts could be like Disney.

Posted by: Kathryn at February 14, 2007 6:32 PM

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