We all deal with our own struggles — big and small.
From fears and anxieties to allergies and disabilities — visible or invisible, everyone has their own challenges to face. And if you or a family member of yours are facing some of these struggles right now, you might think that a Disney trip is completely out of the question or will be ridiculously complicated to arrange. But, one guest’s experience in the parks shows that might not be the case. Instead, Disney could be just the place to experience something completely new. You could be inspired to take on those challenges like never before.
Meet Winter. At a young age, Winter was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. She had some serious food and dietary restrictions that made eating the foods that everyone else ate nearly impossible. But, when she went to Disney World back in 2013, the kind actions of one Cast Member would totally change Winter’s perspective about her food restrictions and what things were possible for her. We got the chance to talk to Winter a few days ago and are SO thrilled to share her story with you!
We started our chat with Winter with a few rapid-fire questions we just couldn’t resist asking!
- Favorite Disney movie? Winter’s response: Wreck It Ralph.
- Favorite Disney World Theme Park? Winter’s response: Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
- Favorite Disney character? Winter’s response: Vanellope von Schweetz
- Favorite thing you’ve eaten at Disney World? Winter’s response: Anything on the menu at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort
Okay, now let’s dive a bit more of Winter’s story and her specific food restrictions during her trip to Disney World in 2013, when Winter was about 9 years old. Winter shared that she had a lot of allergies and issues processing food. She couldn’t drink regular milk or have things with red dye or lots of sugar. Foods kids typically eat without even thinking about it, like ice cream, were really just out of the question for her.
So, ahead of their Disney trip in 2013, her family was working hard to plan out all of their meals. There were just a few spots they felt she could comfortably eat at — the restaurants at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, specifically ‘Ohana, were on that list because of the different options they had available.
Winter’s trip to Disney World in 2013 would actually be her very FIRST vacation to the Most Magical Place on Earth. Winter said that her family had saved up for this trip for a while, so they had been anticipating it for a very long time. She also shared that both she and her sister really loved Winnie the Pooh and were hoping to meet Piglet while they were there. Spoiler alert: they did get to meet the cute little pink Piglet! Hooray!
The trip was extra special for Winter’s mom Denise too. Denise had never been to Disney in her entire life! She had saved up for a long time and wanted to give her kids the experience that she never got as a child.
But, Denise said that traveling with a child with lots of allergies was concerning, and ahead of her trip she was honestly a bit paranoid. As a parent, it can be incredibly difficult to trust any place will be able to have what you or your child need. This is especially true if you’ve had experiences with other restaurants or places that have only had SUPER limited options for your specific allergy situation.
Denise said she called Disney ahead of their trip, she put their allergies in bold letters, and she did everything she could to make sure Disney was prepared to accommodate them, if at all possible. Denise said that she had heard about how Disney really could accommodate lots of allergies, but she understandably still had her fears, especially since this was their first trip there. She still packed ziplock bags with canned vegetables, chunks of chicken, and other things she knew Winter could eat — just in case. But, Denise said they were surprised they really didn’t need it. And day after day, she took less and less snacks in those ziplocks to the parks. Everywhere they went was happy to accommodate Winter’s needs.
At one point during the trip they made their way over to ‘Ohana at the Polynesian to eat. Denise says that Winter went into that meal with an attitude of “I won’t be able to eat anything.” But, that quickly changed thanks to one special Cast Member.
Winter says that they gave her a list of options of what she could eat, but she and her sister were looking at the regular menu anyway and really wanted to try some of those items. Throughout their entire trip, Winter said that Disney had been really accommodating with their situation. So, Denise, Winter’s mom, said she’d ask to see if any of the regular items could be made with some substitutions. Enter: Chef Jeff.
Chef Jeff was a sous chef at the Polynesian at the time and he came out to speak with Winter and her family. Chef Jeff took a list of ALL of Winter’s allergies and restrictions and went back to the kitchen to see what could be done. Winter says he then came back and told them all of the items from the “regular” menu he could make for them with substitutions.
What Chef Jeff may have just considered to be a small action made all the difference to Winter. That day, Winter got the chance to actually eat what some of the other people at the table were eating, with (of course) the appropriate modifications and substitutes. Winter shared that school lunches were different for her compared to other kids. But, this experience of being able to be included and having the same thing as everyone else around her was truly an eye-opening experience.
Denise, Winter’s mom, said that all she heard for the rest of the day (and the rest of the trip!) was Winter saying “I can’t believe I could eat that!”
When they later returned to ‘Ohana for dinner on that same trip, Denise says that Winter went in with a totally different perspective. This time, Winter went in specifically looking for and hoping that Chef Jeff would be there so that she could eat a good meal. “Who is Chef Jeff?” Denise asked Winter. And Winter reminded her that it was the Chef from their previous meal there who had offered her so many choices. Denise shares that the fact that Winter even remembered this chef really shows just the impact he had.
Again, Denise shares that when they got back to the room, Winter just kept saying how she couldn’t believe there were so many choices available to her to eat (thanks to Chef Jeff) that were still similar to the ones Winter’s parents were eating there. Denise says that being able to have that sense of normalcy was hugely important. Winter could eat items that looked similar to everyone else’s — that meant that she didn’t stick out at the table. She could feel like every other guest at the restaurant.
Winter and Denise both said there were so many other spots where they felt really well accommodated for their food needs in Disney World, even at the buffets. At one point, Denise said they were in Magic Kingdom and they were looking for a dessert. They sort-of expected that the parents would get a dessert, and Winter would maybe just get a glass of water. But, the restaurant was able to get Winter something as simple as a cup of whipped cream with a special drizzle on top. All of sudden it went from Winter expecting to get nothing, to her being able to eat a sweet treat, just like her parents. That still sticks out to them to this day.
The rest of the trip was filled with lots of other fun things and firsts — they got a haircut at the Harmony Barber Shop in Magic Kingdom, and got to go on lots of other adventures.
But, the real magic happened when they got home. Chef Jeff opened Winter’s eyes to the possibility of substitutions to fit her needs. After that first trip, Winter says they sat down on the computer and tried to find recipes and substitutions they could make to accommodate her allergies. She said there were all kinds of recipes she’d basically thought she’d have to wait or be unable to try. But, Chef Jeff’s action made her realize she COULD eat all of those “normal” things if she could find the right substitutions.
A few years later, Winter was connected to Make-A-Wish to have a wish granted. Winter said that at the time she thought of every potential wish in the book. But, then they started looking back at their original Disney trip in 2013 and looking at their photos (a TON of which were in the Polynesian). And that’s when it hit her — what Winter wanted for her wish was to go back and cook with the one and only Chef Jeff.
There’s just one problem — Jeff isn’t exactly the rarest name in the world. Disney apparently had a LOT of Jeffs and Denise said she was worried they really wouldn’t be able to find the “real” Chef Jeff. But, after some time searching, Disney told them they had in fact located THE Chef Jeff for Winter. By that point, Winter says she had grown out of some of her food restrictions and had educated herself on what she could make with substitutions. She was so excited to go back and show him what he had taught her and inspired her to do.
And that’s just what they did! In 2018, Winter and Chef Jeff reunited. Winter said she was VERY excited to see him in that professional setting versus just seeing him quickly at the table. She said seeing him again was like meeting a friend.
The two got to cook up a special recipe together and Chef Jeff truly got to see how his one small act of kindness significantly impacted someone in the best way possible.
So, what is Winter up to now? Well, she’s a high-school senior and is actually already taking college courses. She still cooks quite a bit and has even made the same recipe she cooked with Chef Jeff during her Wish trip once or twice at home.
Although Winter looked into pursuing the culinary route for a while, she has now changed gears a bit and is looking at studying speech therapy. Winter says that she was in a speech pathology program ever since she was little. That program taught her how to advocate for herself and tell others what restrictions she has to get the accommodations she needs. She realized that, by going into that field, she could help other kids voice their own restrictions.
Denise shared that Winter has overcome a LOT of obstacles despite all of the odds against her. She also said that people don’t even realize the substitutions and alternatives that are out there. You can enjoy many of the same foods as everyone else if you just do the work and find those substitutions. (Did you know you can even make meringue out of chickpea liquid!?) Winter was even able to eat out during a trip to New York because she knows how to advocate for herself, and with her future in speech therapy, she can teach others to do the same.
Aside from cooking, high school, and college courses — Winter also fosters bottle-fed baby kittens! Talk about little ones with a special diet — these kittens have to be fed around the clock. And the names of those kittens? Most of them end up being…food-related like Toast or Peanut! Food-related cat names? Yeah, you’re speaking our language here.
As for Chef Jeff, Winter still keeps in touch with him too and they even tag him on posts when they’ve got food-related questions.
We ended our chat with the fantastic Winter and Denise by asking them what advice they’d give to younger kids or families dealing with allergies or other restrictions. Winter said her advice is to remember that there are options out there. “The only limit is how creative you’re willing to get.”
Denise said that one thing she’d share with others, which she’s tried to instill in Winter, is that these things might be restrictions but they don’t define who you are and what you can do. Anything is possible, and Winter has learned that now with her cooking. Denise said that Winter is hoping to teach other kids to really speak up for what they want. She’s hoping to inspire kids to speak up and voice their needs. Get in line with your friends, don’t worry about holding up the line with your requests, ask for what you need, and get the substitutions that are best for you.
Denise said that she wants to let people know that there ARE options out there. You might be able to take a family vacation to a place like Disney World that you never thought was possible. Even little things like getting a cup of whipped cream that’s safe for your allergies can be possible at Disney.
So, is there a Disney trip you’ve always wanted to plan but you’re concerned about your allergies or restrictions? Or a food you’ve always wanted to try but figured you just can’t? Maybe Winter’s story will show you that anything is possible! And, if you do have an allergy or special need, maybe Winter’s story will also encourage you to speak up and ask for the substitutions you need — you might just have a life-changing magical moment like she did.
You can also now see allergy-friendly menus when you go to Mobile Order an item in Disney World, so don’t forget to check those options for your specific needs. And if you eat gluten-free at Disney World, we’ve got a page with more information about that too.
A huge thank you to Disney, Make-A-Wish, and Winter and Denise for sharing this fantastic story with us. And, as Winter says — remember that there are options out there — even at Disney World. The only limit is how creative you can get.
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How have you handled special diet concerns at Disney World? Let us know in the comments.