From the moment you enter any Disney park, you are transported from the harsh realities of the world into a magical world of fantasy. Cast members strive to solve every one of your problems and do so with smiles on their faces. Disney aims to please and, for the most part, they do so spectacularly well. Their attention to detail is meticulous; every last trashcan is on theme. The bathrooms are cleaned thoroughly on the hour. Other than the lengthy lines and extravagant prices, there doesn’t seem to be much to complain about.

Disney's Tragic Oversight

The first day my family was in the Magic Kingdom, one of Walt Disney World’s 6 different parks, our experience was seemingly perfect. We steadily worked through the rides and attractions we meant to see, but as the hours stretched on, our pace slowed and our stomachs began to grumble. Quickly, our attention turned to the park’s seven full-service restaurants. We scoured every menu, not looking at prices or even cuisine, but simply searching for the best vegetarian options.

The only meal we were able to find was on the other side of the park at the Pinocchio Village Haus. Other restaurants offered minimal vegetarian options like side salads and French fries, neither of which are sustainable to fuel a long day at an amusement park. We scarfed down pasta with marinara sauce and cheese pizza as the early fireworks lit up the sky. It was food, but it wasn’t ideal. Due to various health issues, my parents generally try to maintain a low-carb diet, but this dietary restriction was ignored as the lesser of two evils in a place with such scant vegetarian options.

The Plight of Vegetarians

Being a vegetarian has always been inconvenient. I grew up feeling like a nuisance who needed the “special meal” on field trips. Going out to restaurants was limited to the few places that my parents could reliably get vegetarian options with both flavor and substance. We would typically pack snacks and pre-prepped meals when we traveled so that at the very least, we would have food in the hotel room once we got home from a long day out.

One could argue that this isn’t just a problem in Disney World; maybe it’s simply a consequence of a meat-oriented society. That is true, however, there are many signs of change. The world has become more aware and understanding of dietary restrictions as social trends have caused a shift towards plant-based lifestyles for the sake of the environment. Efforts toward incorporating plant-based options on menus, however, have been significantly less successful.

vegetarian, Herbs, cauliflower, Roasted cauliflower
Matthew Wenger

Why I Expect More

I don’t feel like a cultural inadequacy regarding the inclusion of dietary restrictions excuses Disney's negligence. My frustration with the company stems from knowing that this lack of attention towards dietary restrictions goes against the company’s values outlined in their diversity and inclusion statement. They claim that their “focus and intent encourages people from every nation, race/ethnicity, belief, gender, sexual identity, disability and culture to feel respected and valued for their unique contributions to our businesses.” My family is vegetarian due to religious reasons. A quick Google search shows that Halal meals can only be guaranteed with a reservation and 24-hour notice. Their website claims that every restaurant in the park can make gluten-free modifications, but restaurant staff refused to validate the statement due to cross-contamination in the kitchens.

I was further disheartened when, a few days into the trip, we went on a ride called "Living with the Land'' and I learned that 20-30 tons of produce served at Disney restaurants every year are grown in a greenhouse located at Epcot, Disney World’s second-largest park. Disney has 2.5 million square feet that they use to develop novel farming techniques such as aquaponics, where plants are grown on top of a fish tank, resulting in a robust yield with minimal resources wasted. While a part of me was thrilled about these innovative methods, it seemed absurd that just an hour earlier, in a building adjacent to this abundance of produce, my family had sat down to our fourth meal of cheese pizza and fries because all vegetable options had been cooked with meat products.

The Walt Disney Company prides itself on being revolutionary and contemporary. From the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, CA in 1955, it has managed to surpass the expectations of visitors for years. I was excited this winter break to be dazzled and enchanted by everything the park had to offer and, while I was certainly entertained, I couldn’t help but dwell on how frustrating it was for my family to find a meal when we were hungry. Disney brings in 52 million people every year, of which at least 60% will have a dietary restriction. It’s time they step up their menus to provide substantial meals for every single person that walks through their park, regardless of cultural or religious specifications, allergies and intolerances, or simply individual preferences.