Is it possible to eat healthy while visiting Disney World?

We returned Sunday night from a whirlwind trip to Disney World in Orlando. Mark was attending a conference down there and he wanted the kids and I to join him. It had already been a busy week for us when we left on Thursday evening, and in an uncharacteristic move for me, I did not plan ahead and bring any snacks for the trip other than two hard-boilded eggs I grabbed from the fridge on my way out the door. When we left for Disney, I was recovering from a cold that had lingered for over a week and I was trying hard to eat clean and regain my health and energy. But due to an incredible lack of foresight, I was now at the mercy of the airport, hotel and theme parks’ food service.

It was going to be interesting.

Thursday dinner: We arrived at the airport early and had time to stop at concourse A for a meal at the Chop House, which is my go-to restaurant at DIA.  I had the Chop Salad, which was pretty decent, and a Bloody Mary. Food grade: B

Friday am: I’m not sure if it was the long flight, our late arrival to the hotel, the two-hour time change, or all of the above, but I woke up in a complete fog on Friday. I ate one of the hard-boilded eggs from home and half of a Cliff sample-sized bar (Kendall ate the other half). The kids and I headed to the Magic Kingdom for a full day of Disney.

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Jack was happier than he looks here.

One bit of foresight I had before we left was to download the Disney iPhone app on my phone and make a few dining reservations for Friday. I made a lunch dining reservation at the only place I could get into that wasn’t “quick serve.” It seemed like a safer bet.

Around lunchtime on Friday, we made our way to Liberty Square for our first foray into “Disney dining.” The restaurant was the Liberty Tree Tavern, which has a colonial motif. I’m pretty sure I didn’t check the menu out before making the reservation, because if I had, I doubt I would have made it. The menu has items such as “Liberty Lamb Stew,” “Pilgrim’s Feast”, and “New England Pot Roast.”

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Typical lunch at Liberty Tree Tavern

Everything made my stomach turn except for the salad, so I went with that. The kids both ordered pasta dishes off of the kids’ menu. I wish I had taken a picture of the salad, because it was surprisingly good. It had apples, pecans and I think chicken. The presentation of the food was similar to a hospital cafeteria (plastic plates), but the salad was edible. Kendall’s pasta – noodles with marinara sauce – was not, so that went mostly uneaten. Jack’s serving of mac n’ cheese was pretty big, so she shared that with him.

Liberty Tree Tavern grade: C (downgraded for the lack of normal lunch menu items, like sandwiches, the disgusting tap water, and the gross kids’ meals).

A quick word about the tap water at Disney: it is undrinkable unless you are used to well water, in which case you will feel right at home. I’m not sure if you can bring your own bottled water into the park because we didn’t try that (I had planned to fill a water bottle at the fountains), but I bought bottled water the rest of the time we were there.

On Saturday morning, I was not in quite the fog I had been in on Friday, and I headed to the park with a “Green Machine” Naked juice that I had bought at the Starbucks kiosk in the hotel lobby. Originally, I had thought we would go to the Magic Kingdom on Friday and a different park on Saturday, but the park was so jammed on Friday we could not fit everything in. We headed back on Saturday for round two, which was much easier than Friday since we had a better lay of the land.

For lunch on Saturday, I decided to wing it with a quick serve restaurant. It had been difficult on Friday to make it to our lunch reservation and plan out our rides, so I decided on Saturday to play it more by ear. We were in Frontierland at lunchtime, and we picked the “Tall Tale Inn and Cafe.”  The way this works is, you order from someone at a register, pay for your food, and then they help you select your items in a cafeteria line. This was more reminiscent of a hospital or school cafeteria, but the food was actually a little better (and less expensive) than the restaurant on Friday. I ordered a portobello mushroom salad and the kids each ordered a sandwich, which came with a package of baby carrots and a package of sliced apples. I think you could have chosen other sides for the kids’ meals, but I was trying to push healthier options.

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Credit given for offering kids’ sides other than chips and fries

When the server placed my grilled portobello mushroom onto the salad, we both actually laughed.

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That black thing is a grilled portobello mushroom

The funny thing was, it wasn’t all that bad. Maybe my expectations were so low that it wasn’t hard for the food to exceed them, but we all enjoyed this lunch a bit more than Liberty Tree Tavern.  Grade: B (convenient and quick, some healthier options, but cafeteria-style with an “institutional food” feel).

One of the more popular lunch items that I saw people eating was a turkey leg. If there is one sight that makes you want to become a vegetarian, it is the image of hoards of people walking around Disney gnawing on turkey legs.

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Serving up a turkey leg

I’m not a complete freak with my kids when it comes to food. I let them buy at least one treat in the park each day, including frozen lemonade and “make your own” pixie sticks. I’m not always a clean eater myself, but if there is a healthier lunch choice, I will usually order it and I will try to order something healthier for my kids, too. I think it is safe to say that I am in the minority and most people are probably not dissatisfied with the food choices at Disney. The Liberty Tree Tavern is actually pretty highly rated on Trip Advisor (see update below).

Saturday dinner: A dinner reservation is a must for a Saturday night in March in the area known as “Downtown Disney,” which is home to many themed restaurants such as Rainforest Cafe, T-Rex, and Planet Hollywood. By the time I made a reservation on Saturday afternoon, the only option left was Fulton’s Crab House, a huge, riverboat-themed restaurant.

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I had lost my appetite for Disney dining by this point and had instead decided that I would probably lose some lingering off-season weight on this trip. I ordered the lobster bisque as my entree, and it was probably the best meal I had the entire trip. Our waiter did several magic tricks at the table, which was an unexpected surprise and a delight for the kids. I’m not sure if all of the servers do this or if we just got lucky with our table. This restaurant will set you back if you order regular entrees (it is pricey), but as far as Downtown Disney goes, I think it’s a good choice. Grade: A- (good food, great service, but expensive and we had to wait, even with a reservation).

If I were doing this trip again, I would certainly take a little time to pack some snacks in advance before leaving home. Nuts, trail mix, dried fruit and energy bars all would have come in handy. You can always pack your food and bring it into the park, but I saw very few people choosing this option, probably because of the logistics involved in shopping and preparing meals out of a hotel room. It’s not impossible – we do it for races all the time – but it requires preparation and planning.

Can you survive on Disney food alone and not break your clean eating plan? Yes. But this too is a big challenge. We don’t have any special food issues to contend with, such a vegetarian/vegan/allergies or gluten-free, but I would think any of these issues would be an added challenge given the choices I saw at the park. If you have any of these special considerations, I would bring your own food rather than relying on the options at the restaurants.

Non-food-related Disney tips: go early, take the monorail instead of the ferry into the park, get your fast passes for the most popular rides early in the day (Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Peter Pan) and have an awesome time with your family!

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Update: I just read the reviews of the Liberty Tavern on Trip Advisor to see what other people said about it. People had high praise for the fact that they offer some type of “all you can eat, family style” menu. We didn’t eat that so I can’t comment on it, but it gives you an idea of what people are looking for in their Disney food…quantity.

I also figured out why people did not seem to be bringing their own food into the park much. I think Disney offers a dining package that you can buy in advance, a “Disney meal plan,” and people are redeeming meal points at the various restaurants and food booths in the park, as well as Downtown Disney.

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